Desert Island Films: Zombie Movies



        Despite the widespread popularity and success of the sub-genre today, the zombie film remained on the outskirts of Hollywood horror until the 1960s, perhaps due to the fact that they were unsympathetic creatures that merely “shambled around at the will of other people” (Halliwell 246, 248). These first cinematic zombies were initially only reanimated with the control of an evil scientist, as was the case with White Zombie (1932), which is often sited as the first American zombie film.


Through the 1950s the zombie was created by a mad scientist, such as The Creature with the Atom Brain (1956),[1] which used a mad scientist combined with atomic radiation to return the dead to life. In this film the mad scientist is also an ex-Nazi. Many thought Dead Snow (2009) was the first Nazi zombie film, but even in classic horror films they were often symbolically connected to this particular monster, using the zombies as soldiers in their mindless army, as in Revenge of the Zombies (1943).


The other variation of zombies is those driven up from the ground with the help of the occult, whether voodoo as in The Plague of the Zombies (1966), or some sort of satanic ritual, as in The Evil Dead (1981). These tend to be more demonic in nature, and usually have intentions beyond the desire for flesh paired with aggressiveness more akin to The Exorcist than Night of the Living Dead. These films have been left off of this list, instead remaining partial to the less intelligent and more flesh-desiring living dead.


        The zombie did not become individual monsters with a thirst for flesh until 1968 with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Romero removes the human villain seen as the catalyst in previous zombie films, simultaneously removing the explanation behind the dead rising again. The victims are a group of strangers, forced to barricade themselves in an old farmhouse in hopes of rescue or refrain. Among many significant alterations Romero made to the creatures themselves is the infectious manner in which they duplicate, passing whatever monstrous disease they have by their bite.


        With the national debate over the Vietnam War causing a similar separation of community, Night of the Living Dead also associates a political reading of the zombies, “filmed guerilla-style in black-and-white, with the unflinching authority of a wartime newsreel” (Maddrey 51). Night of the Living Dead shows a community literally tearing itself apart while in the confinement of the farmhouse, mostly due to the victim’s inability to agree on anything. In previous horror films the monster was most often destroyed with science, engineering and the good effort from men often associated with government or law enforcement, but Night of the Living Dead ended with the cynical appearance of government and authority after most have perished, destroying the only survivor. Horror audiences were faced with the reality that we could no longer rely on the authorities who demand our co-operation in exchange for their protection. Before Night of the Living Dead, “monsters were enemies who helped man gain confidence in their ability to control and understand the world,” but as Psycho had altered the appearance of the monster, Night of the Living Dead radically changed the significance (Crane 11).


        Dawn of the Dead (1978) also encourages a social reading of zombies, this time setting the location of attack in a shopping mall, a clear remark on the consumerism of the time. The shopping mall proves to be a much more stable shelter than the farmhouse, even containing a gun shop to stock up on weapons for defense. The group of survivors build a home in the mall, securely ensuring a safe area hidden from zombies and looters, though they begin to realize that “their existence has no more purpose than that of the zombies,” especially as all connections with the outside world cease (Maddrey 71). After a biker gang enters the mall, proving as destructive a force as the zombies themselves, two remaining survivors escape the safe haven with the realization that “it is better to die as a family than living in a society that recognizes the family only as the locus of the eternal reproduction of the ideologies of the division of labour” (Humphries 116).


        In 1985 Romero made his third zombie film as yet another “indictment of modern American life,” this time as an allegory condemning “a generation of hippies-turned-yuppies,” though audiences “in the carefree, consumer-friendly 1980s apparently did not feel the need for such a serious examination of personal and societal values” and the film was a box-office failure (Maddrey 128-9). Day of the Dead was enough of a failure to ensure zombies disappeared from mainstream horror for nearly two decades.


The return of zombies in mainstream horror began with British horror film 28 Days Later, which made $45 million in America out of the $82 million it made worldwide, followed by Zack Snyder’s remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (2004). Among other changes, the zombies now ran after their prey with a heightened characteristic of rage. Zombies have since seen a decade of success rivaling Romero’s initial international impact.


In the last ten years there have been more zombie films than I can possibly mention. This past year alone saw the first blockbuster zombie film, World War Z, not to mention the zombie romance, Warm Bodies. Romero has added three new additions to his franchise and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” has become one of televisions most successful shows. But what marked this return? To answer that question, we must look at what made the monster popular in decades past.


Whether it was a fear of the gentrification brought on by Nazis or a distrust of government during the Vietnam War, zombies have always been utilized in cinema during times of political and social unrest. It is no surprise that zombies returned onscreen following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent war in Iraq. The significance of their existence in pop culture is not without meaning, though none of this needs to be known in order to appreciate any of the films below.


5. Cemetery Man (1994)


This Italian film based on the novel by Tiziano Sclavi and starring British actor Rupert Everett followed the success of a few other cult-favorite horror films with extreme gore and a sense of humor. Sam Raimi made his way into the world of Hollywood with the Evil Dead franchise, similar in many ways despite using demons rather than the undead. This gem doesn’t have the same cult status, having come many years after similar films, but it packs a punch for any strong-stomached fan of the genre with a dark sense of humor. There is also quite of bit of skill in director Michele Soavi’s arthouse approach to the material.


Everett plays Francesco Dellamorte (in Italian, his last name means death), a man in charge of watching over a cemetery just north of Italy. This position is more complicated than a typical groundskeeper job, because the dead continue to rise. Much of Dellamorte’s time is spent putting these corpses back in their graves, often through violent measures. It is never explained or even treated as anything out of the ordinary; it is simply part of the job for Dellamarte to know that the dead will rise seven days after they have been buried. The task of putting them down again begins to wear on Dellamarte, however, and as the film wears on it is a lonely lifestyle which has him questioning life and death in a deeply philosophical manner. This never stops Soavi from keeping the film entertaining, with plenty of gore mixed in with the film’s deeper discussions.

4. Dead Alive (1992)


        The 1990s had a bit of a dry spell in American horror films, probably because things were relatively good and nobody was willing to pay good money to see disturbing films. The movies in the genre were safe and sanitary pastiches of the 1980s slasher films. The nudity was removed and violence downplayed, with young attractive WB stars inserted into the leading roles. There were no risks, but simply a calculated cashing in of a simple trend started by Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven with the Scream franchise. For the really good horror films of the 1990s, you have to look at foreign films like Cemetery Man and Dead Alive, also known as Braindead.


        Long before Peter Jackson was praised by fanboys for making the perfect Lord of the Rings adaptations, he made his name in New Zealand and elsewhere with his independent horror films. This started with Bad Taste in 1987, though he truly perfected this style with Dead Alive. It is another zombie film in the style and tradition of the Evil Dead franchise, with violence so over-the-top that it comes more comical than horrific. 


        Timothy Balme stars as Lionel Cosgrove, an unfortunate young man with an overbearing mother. When he meets and falls in love with a local girl named Paquita (Diana Peñalver), Lionel begins his separation from his mother, which is met by animosity and sabotage. When his mother attempts to ruin a date, she is accidentally bitten by a monkey taken from Skull Island (nod to King Kong, which Jackson would later remake with extensive detail). When his mother becomes ill, dies and returns as a zombie, he continues the pattern of caring for her every irrational need even as that includes the consumption of flesh. It is all a metaphor for Lionel’s inability to separate from his mother, and is only accomplished with one of the bloodiest conclusions ever filmed.

3. Shawn of the Dead (2004)


        If it isn’t clear already from the first two choices, comedy seems to lend itself to the zombie genre. This is not only the best example of a comedic zombie film, it belongs to a rare group of movies which are able to successful blend comedy with horror without losing either of the extreme reactions expected from both genres. Because of the preconceived notions that audiences had from previously viewed zombie films, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are able to turn expectations on their nose for humor’s sake.


This isn’t the first time that this group collaborated to recreate/spoof their favorite genres. The television series “Spaced” starred Pegg and was directed by Wright. This writing team is only becoming more ambitious by turning these episodes into feature-length ideas. They aren’t spoofs as much as they are loving revisions. Quentin Tarantino exclusively lives off of making these types of films.


        Our title character Shaun (Pegg) leads a life of routine, happy to lounge carelessly with his childhood friend, Ed (Nick Frost). He is satisfied with his mediocre job and dreary routine, stuck in a haze until he loses his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield). Even with the loss of a girlfriend, Shaun continues in his pattern until he wakes to find that the country has gone into ruins with the spread of zombies. The television tells him to stay inside, but Shaun and Ed decide to fight their way to pick up everyone important to Shaun. In their rescue efforts they end up in the same routine as each other night, only with the inclusion of zombies and mayhem.


        The opening credits do a wonderful job of showing most of the employed public as living zombies, and when the dead start to walk again they go about the same routines as they did in life. This is a simple yet profound statement about living, and we are led to believe that Shaun has woken up from his slumber by the end of the film. It is also yet another zombie film on this list with love at the center of the narrative, not to mention the memorable bromance between Pegg and Frost.

2. 28 Days Later (2002)


Although Zack Snyder revived the American zombie film with his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, many of the new stylistic choices made to the undead creatures were first featured in British filmmaker Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. By removing the label of zombies and instead using a contagious disease as the explanation for people’s erratic behavior, Boyle reinvented the genre with creatures that could run at full speed. Technically, I suppose this means that 28 Days Later is not a zombie film, but it belongs in this category if only for the influence it had in the zombie revival.


The blood-borne biohazard within the film causes extreme rage in the infected, giving them a single-minded mentality towards aggression. The outcome of mass attacks upon the uninfected is the same as it is in any other zombie film, and a group of survivors must band together in order to survive. The film follows a coma patient named Jim (Cillian Murphy) who wakes up 28 days after the virus has overrun London, discovering an abandoned hospital and desolate city.


        While the first three films in this list are humorous, 28 Days Later is deadly serious. Although it was in production in September of 2001, this film aligns with a shift that horror films took towards realism and bleak narratives in post 9/11 cinema. At the same time, this film still ends with a bit of hope for a ‘happily ever after,’ and a romance subplot that comes to a climactic sequence of near Shakespearean resolution.

1. Night of the Living Dead/ Dawn of the Dead (1968/1978)


The only American zombie films in the entire list are also the top choices. Influence on the genre alone solidifies Night of the Living Dead in nearly any zombie film list, and I can’t help but cheat at my own list by including the first of many follow-up films. George A. Romero didn’t invent the zombie film, but laid more groundwork in the genre than any other filmmaker had or has since. Although White Zombie with Boris Karloff was the first zombie film, it might as well have been Night of the Living Dead with the amount that he was able to forever change in the sub-genre. I used to watch Night of the Living Dead on television every Halloween at midnight and could never anticipate the film enough for the eerie scenes to lose any of their impact. Few films have the power to stand as many repeat viewings as I have given Night of the Living Dead.


The classic story begins when the dead mysteriously begin to rise. A woman visiting a grave at the cemetery is forced to run from the newly risen dead who have a hunger for live flesh, seeking refuge in a farmhouse. Slowly others gather until five strangers are holed up in the house. They have boarded the house up and locked themselves inside as prisoners, unable to leave with hoards of living dead wandering around waiting for a meal. It only takes one bite for a human to turn into one of the undead monsters, and this only makes matters more complicated when close relations within the surviving group are bitten.


        Shot in black-and-white and made to look similar to the newsreels being shown of the Vietnam War, Night of the Living Dead is rooted in the politics of the time while somehow managing to still become timeless. The simplicity of the storyline has been revisited countless times, and Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci would make an infamous unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead in 1979. This was only possible after Romero released his equally praised and socially relevant sequel in 1978, dealing with American consumerism rather than the Vietnam War when the survivors are trapped in a shopping mall.

Click HERE for more Desert Island Lists

Crane, Jonathan Lake. Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of   the Horror Film. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994.  Print.

Halliwell, Leslie. The Dead That Walk: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and Other

Favorite Movie Monsters. New York: Unger Publishing Company, 1988.  Print.

Humphries, Reynold. The American Horror Film: An Introduction. Edinburgh:

Edinburgh University Press, 2002.  Print.

Maddrey, Joseph. Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American

Horror Film. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004.  Print.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 



[1] Also see Teenage Zombies (1959) and Womaneater (1958) for examples of mad scientists in zombie films.

No comments: