Whatever causes their unexpected awakening from the grave – meteor strikes, uncontrollable viruses, plague-like bacteria, radiation poisoning from passing satellites – zombies have kept coming back from the dead and shuffling onto our cinema screens for almost 90 years.
Much like a plague of revenants, they've come in waves. First they were a relation from the Frankenstein's monster and vampire features which stalked Hollywood's golden age, before being revived by George A Romero's social satires in the Sixties and Seventies. By the Eighties other horror genres had started pinching zombie films' moves, but the games Resident Evil and House of the Dead helped along the Japanese and Korean zombie revival in the mid-Nineties, and Call of Duty's Nazi zombies buttressed a whole subgenre on its own.
Since Romero, zombies have been a shortcut to snarky social commentary: consumer capitalism, governmental ineptitude, racism and monotonous dead-end jobs have been popular themes. Whatever cause filmmakers want to mobilise them for, there's something melancholy about zombies too.
Unlike vampires, they don't tend to work alone; unlike aliens, they don't tend to unite humanity in a moment of clarity and common cause; unlike your common-or-garden demonic possession, zombies are still fundamentally themselves underneath their flapping skin. They are the very end of everything, a premonition of the Biblical endtimes and the shuffling embodiment of our fear of death itself.
White Zombie (1932)
It's not especially good, but it is the start of zombie films. Made in the odd hinterland between the silent era and its full succession by talkies, White Zombie features a lot of very melodramatic arm-waving and a frantically over-egged plot, and its evocation of voodoo rites look deeply iffy these days too. But on the plus side Bela Lugosi, then the rising star of Dracula, is on imperious form as the controller of an undead army, and this is the source of so many of zombiedom's orthodoxies – shuffling ghouls being used for manual labour, for instance – that it's worth seeing.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
"I thought I Am Legend was about revolution," George A Romero said of the source material for his first zombie film. "I said if you're going to do something about revolution, you should start at the beginning."
The revolution that Romero started is still rumbling on. From Night of the Living Dead onward, sticking zombies in a film would be a filmmaker's shortcut to acerbic social commentary. In a year of youth revolt across America and Europe, the sight of a young child vacantly eating her dad's corpse was particularly shocking. Perhaps as shockingly to some, the then-unknown Duane Jones' assured, quietly cerebral performance as Ben put a heroic and capable Black man at the centre of things.
This is a film which jams its nails into every exposed nerve America had in 1968: the grainy black-and-white footage of graphic gore echoed Vietnam news footage, and, in the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot, it stared unflinchingly at racism and the civil rights struggle at its galling conclusion.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Romero returned to zombies a decade after Night of the Living Dead, and his follow-up couldn't be much more different. The gore of the first film looks positively demure by comparison with Dawn of the Dead: its blood is a lurid, comic book red, and it gives us one of the all-time great exploding head scenes, achieved by filling a fake rubber head with offal and firing a shotgun at it. This time we're in the overstuffed city of Philadelphia rather than the country, following TV studio staffers Francine and Stephen as they try to jump their station's helicopter to safety. The survivors find fleeting solace in a shopping mall, but as this is Romero's big critique of consumerism, their possessions don't solve their many thousands of shuffling, undead problems.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
During filming of his first feature, an extra wandered up to Edgar Wright. Not realising Wright was the director, they offered him their assessment of the film's chances – "Straight to video, this one" – and wandered off.
Given the state of British indie cinema at the time, it wasn't an unfair assumption. This was the era of Sex Lives of the Potato Men and The Calcium Kid. A film about a bored and mostly useless slacker and his idiot mate being the last to find out that a zombie apocalypse had come to Crouch End didn't sound like it could save British comedy.
But against expectations, Shaun managed to take the revved-up silliness, pop literacy and sitcom gag-reflex of Spaced and transform it into a transatlantic hit. It ended up being beloved by the filmmakers it paid tribute to and parodied too – as a thanks for kind words about their film, Wright and the crew sent loads of horror doyennes their own "Hi, I'm..." badges, just like Shaun's.
"And when Simon [Pegg] and I eventually met George Romero," Wright remembered later, "he had his on."
28 Days Later (2002)
The other big reset in zombie lore was Danny Boyle's sprinting undead. Zombies had run before, but this was the first time they ran in a film anyone really bothered with. They're infected with the rage virus, which takes over mainland Britain. (Depending on your persuasion, that's either thanks to scientists experimenting on monkeys or animal rights activists stopping scientists experimenting on monkeys. Both as bad as each other!!) Cillian Murphy's Jim wakes up in a deserted hospital a month after the outbreak, and finds central London eerily deserted. After the momentary thrill of realising his bike couriering job is now much easier, he realises that his bike couriering job is largely redundant, and that he'd best courier himself to the nearest living beings and tries to get to Manchester. It's great, obviously.
Little Monsters (2019)
Further exploring the unexpected intersection between splenetic violence and winsome romantic comedy, Lupita Nyong'o is kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline who takes her class on a field trip to a farm only to find that said farm is now the centre of a zombie outbreak. It's a little slight, and uses the zombies as a familiar backdrop on which to riff rather than adding anything new, by Nyong'o's performance is strong enough to pull everything forward very ably. Silly, and frequently in the worst possible taste, but very enjoyable.
One Cut of the Dead (2017)
This low-budget Japanese meta-zombie-comedy made it big on the back of word of mouth, though given how little it cares about the usual rules of mainstream cinema it's probably best to go into it without any preamble. That's not particularly helpful, I know. Alright, fine. It's basically three consecutive films, starting with a 37-minute single-take zombie film about the making of a zombie film which suddenly gets all too real. That section's fantastic, simultaneously celebrating and lampooning schlock horror with real verve. Then we see a flashback which fleshes out the background of that single take, before another run through that first timeline shows even more strangeness beneath the surface.
Train to Busan (2016)
The usual problem of a zombie apocalypse is that the creatures are absolutely everywhere, and the endless expanse outside of the characters' sanctuary is a terrifying unknown. Train to Busan flips that, trapping a group of strangers together in a carriage with a zombie as the epidemic begins to spread across the country outside. It's not just the train's passengers who end up eviscerated; this is as sharp a dissection of class which manages to be both claustrophobic and expansive.
Norman Babcock can talk to the dead, just like his grandma could. Unfortunately that means he's a bit of an outcast at his school, and the sudden arrival of his mad old uncle to tell him that he needs to stop a zombie apocalypse brought on by a witch's 300-year-old curse doesn't exactly help matters. Stopmotion studio Leika established its creepy credentials with Coraline, and there's a good amount of chill to ParaNorman's coming-of-age story, but these zombies are really just misunderstood.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
In this British post-apocalypse thriller, the 'hungries' are created by a fungal infection which passes via bodily fluids. Humanity's future rests on a new generation of hybrid kids who like a bit of living flesh – a little of what you fancy, and all that – but who have the higher cognitive functions you need to get on in this economy. When a group of hungries attacks their fortified school, they have to head into London to find allies, and the uneasy relationship between the kids and their fully human parent figures becomes strained. It's an original take on the genre with an extremely solid cast: Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and Glenn Close all star.
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