It might be easy to dismiss zombies as mindless, killing machines (and they are that, too), but over their long history, zombies have also figured out how to move, how to talk, and, in the case of Warm Bodies, how to love again. For a full history of the evolution of zombies in movies, we only ask that you have 8 hours to spare.
(1932, 67 minutes)
"Not dead? Are you mad? I saw her die!"
White Zombie is considered the first, feature-length zombie movie, though you won't finding any mangled, decaying corpses here. Instead, voodoo and potions were the means by which humans were brought back from the dead.
White Zombie followed a young engaged couple Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy), who reunite in Haiti only to have a plantation owner (Robert Frazer) fall in love with Madeleine and seek the help of a voodoo master named Murder Legrende (Bela Lugosi) in order to win her hand (first sign of trouble is seeking help from a man named "murder," but we digress). Murder creates a potion for Madeleine that kills her, and he is able to bring her back as a zombie with the help of his voodoo skills. Of course, Madeleine isn't "dead" dead, as Neil eventually finds a way to bring her out of Murder's spell so a happy ending could be had by all. Well, almost all.
Lugosi was only a year removed from his signature performance in Dracula and, with the addition of Bellamy, who was a silent film star in her own right, White Zombie proved to be a box office success, at least for an independent. Eventually, director Victor Halperin would go on to make a sequel to White Zombie called Revolt of the Zombies, though the story would have little to do with the previous movie and none of White Zombie's actors, including Lugosi, would return, though shots of Lugosi's eyes would be used during some of Revolt of the Zombies's voodoo sequences.
(1968, 96 minutes)
"They're coming for you, Barbara!"
George Romero started his career in the 1960s directing commercials, but soon became disenchanted and wanted to branch out with a horror movie. Forgoing the voodoo elements found in zombie movies of the 1930s and 40s, Romero forged ahead with a concept about the undead that drew inspiration from Richard Matheson's novella I Am Legend, which would be (loosely) adapted into several movies, including 1971's The Omega Man and 2007's I Am Legend (to name a few). Matheson's story revolved around vampires and the last remaining human on Earth, while Romero wanted to make an apocalyptic origin story, using the undead, which Romero initially called "ghouls" instead of zombies.
"When I did Night of the Living Dead I called them ghouls, flesh eaters," Romero told Cinema Blend in 2008. "To me back then, zombies were just those boys in Caribbean doing the wet-work for Bela Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I couldn’t use vampires because [Matheson] did so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead?"
Like Matheson's I Am Legend, Night of the Living Dead takes place primarily in a house, though Romero added more survivors to his story, giving different characters their own ideas on how best to survive the apocalypse. The result was a horror classic, filled with social commentary, which, upon its release, was often lambasted by critics for its gory and grisly scenes, despite the movie being shot in black-and-white. While the movie's influence can be seen in the genre to this day, sadly, so can a multitude of Night of the Living Dead remakes. The blame for this is because Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, an accident created by the movie's distributor. Originally, Romero had titled the movie Night of the Flesh Eaters, but, at the last minute, the distributor decided to change the title to Night of the Living Dead and eliminated the copyright.
"We were just a bunch of young guys who made the movie and stuck it in the trunk of our car and drove it to New York to see if anybody wanted to show it," Romero explained to About.com in 2005. "And we put the copyright right on the title card, so when the distributor changed the title to Night of the Living Dead, they just never thought about it. So when the copyright thing came off, it became a public film."
Romero would continue his Dead series with 1979's Dawn of the Dead, 1985's Day of the Dead, 2005's Land of the Dead, 2007's Diary of the Dead and 2009's Survival of the Dead. Romero has said that he would like to make two more Dead movies, but, so far, no announcements have been made.
(1985, 91 minutes)
One of the early drafts of Night of the Living Dead written by Romero and John Russo was planned as a comedy, which, years later, sort of happened in roundabout fashion. After Night of the Living Dead, Russo retained rights to using "Living Dead" in the title and eventually wrote the 1977 novel Return of the Living Dead, which would be developed into a movie. However, once Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon was given the director's chair after performing rewrites, the movie was completely overhauled into a more slapstick effort, with the zombies discussing and obsessing over brains.
Return of the Living Dead has a slightly complicated setup: a military drum filled with the remains of a military experiment — the one that is said to have inspired Night of the Living Dead in a early moment of meta-ness — is opened in a medical supply warehouse in Kentucky. The toxic gas from the barrel reanimates a corpse and when that corpse is burned, as toxic gas is created that brings a toxic rain, and then, yes, zombies arise.
An even sillier sequel, Return of the Living Dead Part II would arrive 3 years later, again exposing Trioxin yet to another cemetery. Three more sequels would follow, though the lasting legacy of Return of the Living Dead would ultimately be that zombies talked, walked, and, oh yeah, decided that human brains were the plat principal of the zombie diet.
(2003, 113 minutes)
"It started as rioting. But right from the beginning you knew this was different."
The 1990s weren't a particularly great decade for zombie movies, though Lord of the Rings director would make a cult hit zombie flick called Dead Alive (aka Braindead), Tom Savini would make the one good Night of the Living Dead remake, and the Evil Dead trilogy would end with Army of Darkness. 28 Days Later was a game-changer for the genre, albeit one that did away with Romero's undead zombies in lieu of the faster, virus-ridden "infected." Amongst zombie fans, the movie started a debate over slow or fast zombies that may never end, but, in the end, 28 Days Later opened the door for either incarnation, salvaging the genre.
Shot on a shoestring budget by director Danny Boyle (years before winning an Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire), 28 Days Later was set in an apocalyptic London, nearly a month after a "rage virus" has turned almost every citizen into a bloodthirsty killing machine. Bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma in this new world, and soon teams up with other survivors to discover that even the military is existing under new rules in the devastated landscape. The movie was a huge blockbuster success, spawning a sequel, 2007's 28 Weeks Later, and loads of imitators, including the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.
Boyle has said that he would be up for directing a third installment in the franchise, but 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland has said that, if another sequel does occur, it won't be anytime soon. "I'm still so proud of 28 Days Later and how well it's been received over the years," Garland told Dread Central last September. "But in regards to another movie, no — there are no plans for a 28 Months Later or whatever they were calling it. This is a series I've always been heavily involved with between the original and the sequel so if there were plans for another movie, I would absolutely know about it."
(2004, 99 minutes)
"You've got red on you."
Just as the Dawn of the Dead remake was cementing the place for running zombies, writer-actor Simon Pegg and writer-director Edgar Wright released their homage to the Romero zombie era with Shaun of the Dead. Not only was the movie embraced by zombie fans, but the romantic comedy angle was so successful that non-zombie fans also came out for the movie, which became an instant classic in the genre.
Pegg plays the title character, a salesman whose love life is in trouble just as a zombie apocalypse hits London. Shaun's plan for survival? To collect his family, best friend (Nick Frost) and girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) and hole up in The Winchester, Shaun's favorite pub and safest destination they know. Of course, Shaun's plan is filled with problems and the results aren't exactly ideal, yet the movie somehow resolves itself in a way that is satisfactory to both zombie fans and romantic comedy fans alike.
"One of the inspirations for doing it was because we'd always been big fans of the genre, and when we first thought about the idea of doing a zombie film, we wanted to find the thing that hadn't really been done post-Braindead and even From Dusk to Dawn, doing a different spin on a comedy horror film," Wright explained to About.com in 2004. "The main thing we wanted to do with this is to get to know everybody, so that then the whole comedy and the drama just comes from not how much things change but how little things change. That's kind of the joke and the central conceit. And also that's the kind of thing, you know, in a crisis whether it's in war or whatever, people don't suddenly change what they're like. Just because the world's ending doesn't mean that people who are idiots stop being idiots."
While your 8 hours are now complete and you are now conversant in the way the zombie has evolved in movies, there are two other movies you could watch if those 8 hours only made you hungry for more. These movies would take the viewer outside of the United States and the United Kingdom to show how other countries have run (or not run) with the zombie genre.
(2007, 78 minutes)
"We have to tape everything, Pablo."
Hailing from Spain, [REC] steals from both ends of the zombie genre, using infected "zombies," like 28 Days Later, and placing the survivors (to be more accurate, literally trapping them) inside an apartment complex, not unlike Night of the Living Dead. At the center of the story is a news reporter (Manuela Velasco) who is covering a firemen crew and follows them into the apartment building only to be trapped inside. The conceit also allowed for [REC] to take advantage of the found footage craze that has taken over the genre ever since Paranormal Activity became a huge box office success (we should note that both [REC] and Paranormal Activity toured movie festivals in 2007, but [REC] debuted first).
As for the cause of the virus, we don't want to spoil anything, so let's just say that there's more to it than being just a virus, with the answer being revealed in the movie's frightening conclusion. Of course, if you hate subtitles, you can watch Quarantine, the American remake, instead, only, besides the more convenient use of English, there is a precipitous drop in quality. After all, once you watch [REC], you'll likely want to watch the sequel, [REC] 2, right away, as it starts only 5 minutes after the first movie ends and is arguably better than its predecessor.
(2009, 88 minutes)
"There is an evil here, an evil you don't want to wake up. "
What's more terrifying than being surrounded by zombies when you're being spending the weekend in a remote cabin? Being surrounded by Nazi zombies. That's the opinion of Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters), anyway.
"When we were about to sit down and write the actual script, we started thinking ‘What is more evil than a zombie’? A Nazi-zombie! We have a really strong war-history up in the north of Norway from World War Two, so it was fun to combine actual events with our own story," Wirkola told Eatmybrains in 2009. "And you know Nazis have always been the ultimate villains in movies. Combine that with zombies and you really get something that no one would sympathize with."
Wirkola has recently announced that he is finally ready to wade in Nazi zombie territory again with a sequel, Dead Snow: War of the Dead, saying: "Ever since we premiered Dead Snow at Sundance 2009, I’ve been getting questions on a sequel, and now, after Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has been released, the time is finally right."