It has been 82 years since arguably the first zombie movie, White Zombie, was released (of course, discounting 1910's Frankenstein, and 1919's The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari). Since that time things haven't changed much. Back in those days, Voodoo played a big part in the zombie movie and zombies weren't the living dead that have become synonymous with today's movies. They were slaves to a voodoo practitioners whims, doing the bidding, be it good or bad, without question, neither dead nor alive. Revolt of the Zombies followed in 1936, but failed to live up to the precedent set by the genuinely creepy White Zombie.
A few more films featuring Voodoo and lumbering slaves were released to little or no acclaim, and it wasn't until 1968 that a man from Pittsburgh, George A Romero, would change the face of the zombie movie forever. Upon it's release, Night of the Living Dead was heavily criticized as it featured many violent scenes and cannibalism, something which had never been shown on screen before. The movie was surprisingly also ignored by the majority of critics, which given it's cult status today is incredibly surprising. Gone were the voodoo elements, the hypnotized slaves who did the bidding of their masters. In their place were flesh eating ghouls who would not stop unless their brain was destroyed, usually by a well placed bullet to the head.
In 1979, a movie entitled Tombs of the Blind dead, featuring satanic Knights Templar who have risen from the grave, was released. The movie was the first in the Blind Dead series, and although many consider them to be zombie movies, the director Amando De Ossorio objected to the claims insisting that his undead Knights Templar more resembled mummies and that the Templars were not mindless corpses, as zombies were. The movie was incredibly creepy and atmospheric, and as the Knights Templar are blind, many of the death scenes are filled with suspense with the victim trying to remain as quiet as possible so as not to be detected by the lumbering Templars.
George Romero revisited the zombie genre for Dawn of the Dead after being persuaded by Dario Argento to continue the plight of humanity against the undead. Romero decided to move the majority of the action this time to the Monroeville mall. This time, the violence, action and gore were all increased to great effect, but Romero also included comedy in the movie, which I feel really didn't fit. This is no more apparent when numerous zombies are squirted with water and have custard pies thrown in their faces. Dario Argento rectified this with having final say over the European cut of the movie, removing the comedy element therefore making it a much darker and pessimistic movie. Other things prevalent in Romero movies were the struggle the humans went through against their undead foes, and incredibly biting social commentary.
Lucio Fulci's 'Zombie'
The Italians took note of the zombie boom Romero's second film had created, and decided to get in on the act with a slew of carbon copies, something that the Italian film industry was incredibly adapt at. A few Italian movies did stand out from the crowd though, most noticeably Lucio Fulci's Zombie (AKA Zombie 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters). Again, the movie was frowned upon because of extreme violence, but what many don't remember is that Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sachetti (the writers of Zombie) took the zombie movie back to it's Voodoo roots, although this is only hinted at in film. Nevertheless, it goes some way as to letting the viewer know why the dead are rising from the grave. Zombie plays out like a nightmarish gore fest, with Fulci's trademark eye trauma missing from the UK cut. It also features probably one of the strangest scenes in zombie movie history, where a zombie attacks and fights a shark, tearing flesh from the animal. It made no sense whatsoever, but is certainly impressive nevertheless.
Burial Ground (Night of Terror, The Zombie Dead) is another Italian zombie movie worthy of a mention, featuring maggot and worm infested zombies attacking a mansion, some incredibly amazing deaths, and featuring zombies that are more intelligent than the usual shambling corpses. This is shown by the fact that the zombies use tools to kill, as opposed to their hands and jaws. The character of Michael is particularly memorable. He seems to want an incestuous relationship with his mother, and when he succumbs to the creatures invading the house, the scene where his mother stands transfixed while Michael takes a bite of his mothers breast is cringeworthy and uncomfortable viewing.
Fulci's The House by the Cemetery
Fulci returned to the zombie genre again and again, most noticeably with the giallo themed slasher movie The House by the Cemetery, the nightmarish Lovecraftian nightmare The City of the Living Dead (also known as The Gates of Hell) and probably his most celebrated zombie movie, The Beyond. The zombies in all three of these movies were incredibly different than what had come before. Dr. Freudstein from House by the Cemetery was a knife wielding surgeon who harvested his victims for body parts. The zombies in The City of the Living Dead had supernatural powers, being able to teleport. They also seemed incredibly keen to crush the skulls of their victims, never feeding on them. The zombies in the beyond also seem to only serve one purpose, and that is to chase the characters played by Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck into hell.
Then in 1984, Romero released what I consider to be the epitome of greatness in the zombie sub genre, Day of the Dead. The zombies in this movie were rotting corpses, foul rabid creatures that seemed to have the strength to tear men apart with their bare hands. The movie is incredibly pessimistic with some of the human characters surpassing the viciousness of the undead. It is an incredibly emotional movie, and also shows an evolution in zombie behavior with the captured zombie Bub, who seems to remember certain things from his past. The violence is also much more shocking and brutal, again containing some incredible effects from the always great Tom Savini.
1985 saw the release of Return of the Living Dead, a zombie comedy that gave a reason why the dead were coming back to life. The movie has it's roots in a novel of the same name, written by Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo. Although it is nowhere near what John Russo wrote, the movie is a brilliant exercise in gore and humour. This movie is also the first to feature running zombies, something which was bought back for the movie Zombieland, and many more zombie movies of the 00's.
Batman & Zombies (just for fun)
When 1990 came, Tom Savini did the incredible and made a remake that actually built on the previous movie to make something all the more fascinating. Night of the Living Dead marked Tom Savini's directorial debut, and was an incredibly fresh take on the zombie tale. It also had differing plot points to the original Night of the Living dead, which made for interesting viewing.
Peter Jackson in 1992 created what is arguably the goriest zombie movie ever made. Braindead (Dead Alive) was an amazing splatstick movie, coupling humor with extreme gore. The modified lawnmower scene towards the end of the movie is an incredibly joyous scene where the floor and walls are flooded with blood and limbs are flying in all directions. Amazingly, the movie was a commercial failure upon it's release, but found it's home upon home video where horror fans loved every minute of the bloodletting. There is also a little nod to Braindead in Peter Jacksons King Kong. When the crew are on their way to skull island, they are below the decks, and you can see numerous cargo boxes stamped with "Beware, Rat Monkeys." An interesting touch to an otherwise derivative and overlong exercise in tedium.
It wasn't until the release of the remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004 that the zombie genre enjoyed another bump in popularity. It managed to take everything we loved about the original and increase the tension, horror and gore impressively. Admittedly, I was rather disappointed that the zombies could run, but in the end, it was something different, and made escape from the flesh hungry hordes even less possible. Other movies that stand out in the 00's are Dead Snow, and incredible throwback to 80's gore movies, and the french effort La Horde, which is incredibly brutal and well worth a viewing.
Dawn of the Dead
Which brings us to the present day. It doesn't seem like a week goes by without another onslaught of direct-to-dvd zombie movies hitting the shelves. I hate to be the one to say this, but it seems like the zombie film is being flogged to death. It doesn't seem like many original zombie films have come out for a long time. Zombieland decided to play on humor and the relationships between the characters rather than zombie horror. The Walking Dead seems to be more interested in showing 40 minutes of conversation rather than zombie threat and action. The over saturation is killing the sub genre. But when it is done right, it can still shock, surprise and blow the viewer away.
Take 2012 effort Before Dawn directed by one half of the team that run the Leeds Zombie Fest, and star of British soap opera Dominic Brunt. The story is incredibly simple, featuring a couple who are on the verge of divorce going away to a cottage in the hills of Yorkshire to try and repair things. While out on a run, Joanne, the wife is attacked by a rabid zombie (and yes, they do run) and slowly goes through a terrible change. The feeling of isolation and helplessness is incredible in this movie. It manages to be incredibly scary, whilst maintaining its heart and drawing you deep into the characters plight.
World War Z
With the imminent release of World War Z, I really don't know how to feel about the ongoing over saturation of the zombie genre. I am sure World War Z will go down well with the general public, but I myself will certainly be giving it a miss. The fact that the zombies are all CG creations, and the fact they seem to use each other to climb high structures, just seems to take things a little too far. I am sure I will end up seeing it, and I will not go as far as to say it is going to be a load of rubbish, but from the trailer, I can certainly see it is going to have to seriously impress me for me to take note.
As what happened in the late 70's/early 80's with the slasher movie, I am sure the zombie genre will keep on being milked for all it's worth, with even teen comedies such as Warm Bodies featuring the undead, but not as we know them, to little effect. It may be selfish of us genre fans to hold creatures such as Vampires, Zombies and Werewolves in such high regard, but what the general public do not seem to understand is that these creatures have been with us for a long time, and to see them displayed in ways that completely betray the roots of what these creatures are, is tantamount to blasphemy. Let's hope the over saturation does not switch the future generations of horror fans off the zombie genre, as it has been shown that amongst the trash, there are always diamonds. It just takes the viewer to dig a little to find these gems. And at least there are companies out there who continue to pick up the classic zombie movies for future generations to see. Just like a zombie, the zombie sub genre will return from the dead again and again, no matter how many times mainstream cinema inadvertently puts a bullet in it, or every time an indie filmmaker makes a carbon copy zombie film, the zombie sub genre will rise again, bringing fresh meat to the table to impress all of the undead fanatics out there. Until then, we will sit and wait, festering like the corpses in the movies we love, lumbering from one piece of trash to the next, until we find the next jewel in the crown.