10 films that trace the evolution of the cinematic zombie first published by BFI in October 2022
Zombies are often unhurried in pace, and typically mindless – but what makes them such effective killers is their sheer number. The zombie condition spreads fast, and they move en masse, overwhelming and, in one way or another, absorbing into their ranks any human they encounter. Something similar might be said of zombie films, which have enjoyed a seemingly unstoppable revival in the new millennium, overcrowding both our big and small screens with their relentless march of blind consumerism and collective nihilism.
Put simply, there are a lot of bad zombie movies, and even more undistinguished ones, lumbering along without leaving much individual trace in the culture. Enough about those. Here are ten zombie films from across the decades that have made their mark, whether through pioneering innovations, or significant deviations from the more crowded paths. There can be arguments about what constitutes zombies (are they slow or fast? undead or infected? braindead or articulate?), and whether all of the titles listed here are ‘really’ zombie films or perhaps something else – but the point is that zombies have evolved over the years, and this list traces the significant variations and missing links in their generic transition.
At the heart of cinema’s zombies is George A. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its first two sequels would inform a whole subgenre – but this will also take in two earlier zombie films drawing on Haitian vodou, and many later variants, including my personal favourite for its slippery sophistication, Pontypool (2008).
White Zombie (1932)
“That’s a cheerful introduction for you to our West Indies”, Neil (John Harron) tells his fiancée Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) after they pass locals burying a copse in a public road to avoid it being snatched and resurrected as a slave. Victor Halperin’s melodramatic feature introduces the zombie to cinema, with Bela Lugosi hamming it up as sinister mesmerist and vodou practitioner ‘Murder’ Legendre who supplies a local plantation owner with a staff of zombified workers, while also using a magic powder to dominate and enslave others around him.
Drawing from William Seabrook’s 1929 travelogue The Magic Island, the film roots zombies in Haitian tradition and ritual, its soulless servants created by the poisonous administrations of a bokor. This type of vodou zombie was relatively rare in subsequent cinema, although it was found in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child (2019), and of course in…
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
Where White Zombie was hokey and corny, with a villain of the moustache-twirling variety, Jacques Tourneur’s gothic romance (produced by Val Lewton) is shadowy and poetic, haunted by the abstract evil of historic slavery. As the nurse Betsy (Frances Dee) comes to look after the catatonic wife (Christine Gordon) of melancholic Caribbean sugar plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway), she starts to believe that the wife’s condition may be zombification, and ventures towards ‘the dark’ that she feared as a child in search of a ritualistic cure for the woman whose husband she now loves herself.
In the Hollands’ garden is a figurehead of an arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian that once decorated a slave ship and is now a totem of misery, while the local zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones) shuffles about embodying the traumatic servitude of the imported African population. This is where the cinematic zombie becomes an allegorical figure.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
With his debut feature, George A. Romero invented the modern zombie, even if he only refers to them as ‘ghouls’ here, reserving the z-word for the five sequels. For this took the living dead of vodou folklore and recombined them with elements from Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend (1954), creating the template of the zombie – prevalent to this day – as compulsive flesh eater whose condition is passed on to anyone bitten.
Romero’s film also cemented the zombie as metaphorical vehicle for sociopolitical preoccupations, as it dressed its overnight unraveling of American values in imagery from Vietnam, the Civil Rights struggle, and national divisions along racial and generational lines. With its shift from the traditional gothic castle to the everyday farmhouse, its unusual centring of an African-American hero (Duane Jones) and sidelining of the white patriarch, its realistic gore and its shockingly bleak ending, this changed horror forever.
Nightmare City (1980)
Umberto Lenzi’s film came out at a time when Romero’s bigger-budgeted sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) was spawning Italian ripoffs like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (1981) – but Lenzi insisted that his irradiated creatures were merely ‘infected people’. Indeed, inspired as much by Romero’s The Crazies (1973) as by his slow-shuffling zombies, these have evolved to be fast on their feet and use weapons, even if they still, like Romero’s zombies, feed on their victims, transmit their condition via bites and are only stopped by destruction of the brain.
They also appear in dreams and in one character’s sculptures, as though a monstrous expression of broader nuclear anxieties in the collective unconscious. Decades later, the fast infected would return to kickstart the whole Noughties zombie revival in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002) and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (2004).
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Though coming out in the same year as Romero’s second official sequel Day of the Dead (1985), this directorial debut from Dan O’Bannon – who scripted Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – is a postmodern spin-off, set in a universe where the film Night of the Living Dead was based on the “true case” of a Pittsburgh chemical spill, but with all its facts altered to avoid a lawsuit from the military. The stored chemicals are accidentally released from the basement of a medical supplies warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, unleashing another zombie outbreak.
Except these zombies can talk, run and reason, are not killed by brain damage, and eat only human brains – and as they take on a gang of punks, and a pair of old ‘friends’ named Burt and Ernie, all to a raucous soundtrack including The Cramps, 45 Grave and The Damned, the end of the world is knowingly mirthful.
Braindead (aka Dead Alive, 1992)
The genre-blurring term ‘romzomcom’ emerged from the marketing for Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), and would be used of subsequent films like Stephen Bradley’s Boy Eats Girl (2005), Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies (2013), Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth (2014) and Lee Min-jae’s The Odd Family: Zombies On Sale (2019) – yet the concept of a romantic comedy with zombies had already been explored in Bob Balaban’s My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) and Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore (1994).
The first of the romzomcoms, however, was this irreverent subversion of Fifties New Zealand conformity, as Lionel (Timothy Balme), in love with Spanish Romani Paquita (Diana Peñalver), tries to break free from his monstrously overbearing and disapproving mother Vera, while a ‘Sumatran rat-monkey’ bite makes mum patient zero in a zombie outbreak. Peter Jackson’s hilarious Oedipal apocalypse vies as one of the goriest films of all time.
If Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) posited, in the character of ‘Bub’, the possibility of domesticating zombies, then Andrew Currie build his entire feature from that concept, while adding a mannered retrofuturist setting straight from B-movie sci-fi. For in an alternative, post-apocalyptic Fifties, gated neighbourhoods use zombies as domestic servants, kept in check by remote-controlled neck braces. New slave/pet ‘Fido’ (Billy Connolly) proves more appealing than the family’s distant patriarch Bill (Dylan Baker) to housewife Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) and her young son Timmy (K’Sun Ray), even as fear of a Great Replacement remains.
This is a colourful Sirkian pastiche, influenced as much by Fred M. Wilcox’s Lassie Come Home (1943) as by Romero’s oeuvre, and letting its zombies stand in for a long history of black Americans mistreated, objectified and subjugated by white hegemony, even as home security is subverted by inter-species taboo.
Part of the appeal of the zombie film, at least from a filmmaker’s perspective, is the relative cheapness of production. All that is needed is a bunch of friends willing to wear makeup, and – the hard part – a killer idea that will distinguish your film from the overwhelming hordes of other zombie films. Marc Price’s feature debut supposedly had a budget of £45(!), shot on a 10-year-old SD camcorder, edited on a PC and cast with volunteers via social media – and yet it ended up with theatrical releases in the UK and Japan.
Price’s innovation is to show an unfolding zombie apocalypse in London from the perspective of someone (played by Alastair Kirton) already zombified, so that his stumbling urban odyssey is not the usual quest for survival or for loved ones, but rather for flesh and for something more intangibly human that has already been lost forever.
Loosely adapted by Tony Burgess from his own ‘unfilmable’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything (1995), Bruce McDonald’s cerebral siege picture shows disgraced radio shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) working an ordinary morning shift, when reports come in of apocalypse emerging across Ontario. Now their snowbound rural studio gives them a ringside seat on the End, even as they start to wonder if they themselves may be the vector, even the origin, of this strange infection.
While driven to hunt and bite like regular zombies, these echolalic infected communicate their disease not through blood and bodily fluids, but through words and phrases on which they fixate, so that the cause of the carnage is uniquely Saussurean: a violent rupturing of the link between signifier and signified, leading to a breakdown of reality’s very structure. Accordingly the film too is elusive and ambiguous.
One Cut of the Dead (2017)
It starts off as a cheapo, single-take zombie production, with nothing to make its lurid makeup or substandard acting stand out from the competition – when suddenly the director yells cut, and as the small cast and crew take a break, the building where they are shooting is overtaken by an incursion of ‘real’ zombies. All this, caught on the still rolling camera, seems if anything even more amateurish than what preceded.
Yet the rest of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s film-within-a-TV-show(-within-a-film) will show the pre-production and on-set behind-the-scenes mayhem, comically deconstructing and recontextualising everything that has been seen, and revealing the strange, improvisatory miracle of its ultimate, imperfect realisation. And so the more slipshod this metacinematic love letter to moviemaking seems, the more sophisticated it becomes – because sometimes the worst zombie movie ever made can also be one of the best.