A zombie (from that Haitian Creole word “zonbi”) is an animated corpse brought back to “life” by mystical means, including voodoo and witchcraft. Such zombies often worked the fields or in dangerous jobs during the night, where they would not disturb or even come into contact with the living. One notable position for zombies was as bakers in bakeries. There are stories often told about people encountering zombies on their way to the bakery at dawn.
In 1968, writer-director George A. Romero forever changed how the world defined zombies. In his film Night of the Living Dead, zombies were not mindless workers but rather slow-moving but voracious “living dead” whose sole purpose was to consume the living. Although early zombies caused fear more out of repulsion (from the fact that such creatures were mindless dead), Romero’s zombies were much more dangerous, for one bite of such a creature meant that the victim would die and in turn rise from the grave as a ravenous zombie.
Since Night of the Living Dead, writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers have all contributed to the modern zombie myth, expanding and twisting Romero’s original concept at will. The list here limits itself to the top five films that involve modern living dead. Those lucky to have little experience in the modern zombie genre should start with these five films, as they are considered by many to be the best of the best.
Originally called Zombie 2 to cash in on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (implying the movie was a sequel, which it is not), Zombie was directed by Italian director Lucio Fulci, who became known as the “Godfather of Gore.”
Zombie stars Tisa Farrow as Ann Bowles and Ian McCulloch as Peter West, both of whom venture into the island of Matoo to find Ann’s father whose yacht has inexplicably landed on a New York Harbor with one of the living dead aboard. On the island they encounter one Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), who has been studying the rising of the dead.
Fulci’s career was in a slump at the time he directed this movie. Zombie reinvigorated his career, and he spent much of it making more zombie and horror films. Zombie itself is a very graphic film, so much so that in Britain it was deemed as a video nasty. The story features reanimated zombies, as well as those that rise from the very grave as skeletal creatures. Key scenes involve a brutal eye-penetration sequence and a shark doing battle with a zombie. One of the film’s best scenes involves the zombies invading New York by slumbering their way across the Brooklyn Bridge.
28 Days Kater
Directed by Danny Boyle, 2002’s 28 Days Later took the modern zombie genre and made its own. The film does not center on the living dead but rather a particularly nasty virus known as “rage,” which turns regular people into insane and ravenous creatures who hunt humans. Unlike conventional zombies, people infected with rage can move about much quicker, making them much more dangerous and frightening.
The story centers on four survivors, the first of whom (Jim) must learn to cope with a world turned upside down when he suddenly wakens from a coma. The first part of the film focuses on the survivors’ attempts to get out of the city, with the second part of the film moving away from the “infected” and focusing more on the survivors encountering a group of military men who have secured a mansion. Although this part of the film is less satisfactory, the film as a whole reinvigorated the zombie genre, with filmmakers electing to make even the living dead move fast, such as in the remake of Dawn of the Dead.
28 Days Later led to a sequel, 28 Weeks Later, and various graphic novels and a comic-book series.
The Return of the Living Dead
Written and directed by Dan O’Bannon (whose writing credits include Alien, Total Recall, Lifeforce, and Blue Thunder), 1985’s Return of the Living Dead was one of the first dark comedies to take advantage of the living dead. The film directly cites Night of the Living Dead as the source of the zombie menace, but in this film the zombies are quite intelligent, even capable of speech.
The story centers on the Uneeda medical supply warehouse, where foreman Frank and his protégé Freddy have just received several military drums. Inside the drums are zombies, and when Freddy accidently opens up one of the drums, the zombie manages to escape.
Return of the Living Dead features a group of punk rockers, including Casey (Jewel Shepard), Spider (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.), and Scuz (Brian Peck). The standout character, however, is Trash, played by scream queen Linnea Quigley, who spends much of the film completely nude. Trash eventually becomes a zombie, joining the horde attacking the warehouse and associated buildings.
One of the most unforgettable elements of Return of the Living Dead is the zombies’ ability to speak. These zombies are very particular about what they eat, as they ask for this delicacy often during the movie: “Brains!”
Dawn of the Dead
Made in 1978 by zombie master George A. Romero, Dawn of the Dead is the full-color sequel to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. None other than Dario Argento helped bring the film to fruition, with Argento directing his own version of the footage under the European title Zombie. Dawn of the Dead is often considered Romero’s best zombie film, although the original is also cited as the number one.
The story centers on four survivors, two law-enforcement SWAT team members and two television reporters. All four escape in a news helicopter. The survivors eventually land on top of the Monroeville Mall, where they decide to set up camp. They all become “prisoners” of their own materialism, only to be brought back into survival mode when a band of motorcycle marauders decides to invade the mall.
With makeup effects by the great Tom Savini, Dawn of the Dead has become one of the most beloved films not only for Romero fans but also for fans of zombie/horror films in general. The film in many instances has served as a prototype for many other zombie films, including Zack Snyder’s remake in 2004.
Night of the Living Dead
Shot in black and white in 1968, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the very source of the modern zombie infection, as it is here that the zombie wenr from animated-dead worker to a voracious eating machine whose bite spelled disaster.
The film’s story centers on a group of bickering survivors holed up inside a small house. While some survivors believe it is better to stay in the house’s main floor, others argue that the basement is the safest place. This inability to communicate and cooperate leads to the group’s downfall, as an army of the walking dead have one distinct purpose: consume all the living inside the house.
Romero’s inspiration for Night of the Living Dead was Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, a novella in which a virus has turned most of the human population into vampires. Night of the Living Dead was remade by Tom Savini in 1990 (starring Tony Todd in the role of Ben). In this version, the character of Barbra is no longer catatonic but a warrior in her own right.