5 Genre-Changing Zombie Movies

nightlivingdeadgirlThere are dozens of zombie movies worth watching, and hundreds more that are probably worth the time to die-hard fans, but there are five zombie films that have changed the genre and even what the term zombie means.  In chronological order, I give you the most important zombie films ever made.

1. White Zombie (1932)

Considered the first feature length film about zombies, White Zombie is very different from what we now think of when talking zombie movies.  Set in Haiti, this film plays on the tropes of the voodoo zombie — being a zombie isn’t catching and there’s no biting involved.  Basically, a man uses voodoo to steal another man’s woman by turning her into a zombie, but at the end of the film the bad man is punished and she is returned to normal.  Bela Lugosi stars as the Haitian voodoo master.  For over thirty years, films about zombies followed in White Zombie‘s shambling footsteps until…

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Night of the Living Dead and George Romero’s contribution to the existence of the zombie genre.  Inspired in part by I am Legend by Richard Matheson, the Romero zombie is an entirely new creation.  Divorced totally from the Haitian voodoo from which the term arose, the Romero zombie is not a creature under a spell nor in the thrall of a man, but a supernatural corpse returned to destroy the living, more like the traditional idea of a ghoul.  Like vampires, zombies now have rules — they eat human flesh, a bite eventually turns you into a zombie yourself, they need to be shot in the head or set on fire to be destroyed.  It also introduced the tropes of strangers banding together in the face of the attack, thematically dealing with societal problems (racism), and setting horror films in banal, everyday locations.

3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Introduces the worldwide apocalyptic plague of zombies.  Set in a mall with large numbers of extras, this film introduces the world of survivors post society-wide infestation.  It’s also incredibly gory.  The remake is also worth watching.

4. Return of the Living Dead (1985)

It’s a little shocking to believe, but it wasn’t until this film that zombies earned their hallowed cry of ” BRAAINNS”.  Before this, zombies just ate flesh like any normal ghoul.  It was also the introduction of fast zombies.  The tone of this film is also much funnier — more in line with Evil Dead.  Films to follow in its footsteps would include Dead Alive from Peter Jackson.

5. 28 Days Later (2002)

This one always runs you the risk of getting into trouble with zombie aficionados because the monsters in the film aren’t technically zombies.  But then, neither were the zombies in Romero’s first, so I am going to categorically reject that idea.  This are modern zombies — fast, virus-ridden, violent.  The film is also credited with reinvigorating zombies for younger audiences.  The zombies of the last decade, including those in Shaun of the Dead and World War Z, owe a lot to the success of this movie.

5 Responses

  1. a bite eventually turns you into a zombie yourself

    Actually, in the Romeroverse zombism is atmospheric, not viral; in Night a probe returned from Jupiter and brought some kind of space radiation back with it, reanimating the “recently deceased,” i.e. corpses with intact brains. I mean, a bite will, inevitably, turn the victim, but that’s because a zombie’s mouth is so disease-ridden that broken skin means certain death (this is all according to Romero; he’s admitted that a virus is a far more elegant explanation, but in the 60s they were at the tail-end of the atomic monster boom). There’s a great scene in Land of the Dead (I think it got cut out of the theatrical release) where John Leguizamo has to save a woman from her undead husband after he commits suicide-by-hanging.

    The zombies of the last decade, including those in Shaun of the Dead and World War Z, owe a lot to the success of [28 Days Later]

    Right on the second count, SO VERY WRONG on the first: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/nov/04/television-simon-pegg-dead-set

    Respectfully yours,
    ~a guy who hasn’t had a checkup in over a decade but knows everything about a fictitious medical condition, because priorities

    1. The success of Shaun of the Dead had to do with resurgent interest in zombies, but the zombies themselves are much more Romero and traditional 60s-80s style, for sure. It’s those tropes he plays on, not the 28 Days Later ones.

      And, while the movie does refer to atmospheric radiation as the source of the zombies, the fact that it’s transmitted via bite in the film makes it functionally contagious. For better or worse, whatever Romero’s intent, the film reads as transmitted through bites and lead to others interpreting it as such. May not have been his goal, but it’s what happened thanks to that film. In the same way that I Am Legend didn’t write zombies, but changed the zombie landscape nonetheless.

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