Suggested Audio Candy:
John Harrison “Day of the Dead”
What is a zombie? Is it little more than a plain-clothes mummy or is it, in fact, a vampire with advanced dementia? Actually it is neither and, instead, it represents one of horror cinema’s most enduring monsters. George A Romero is often credited as the magician who gave us our first screen zombie with Night of the Living Dead but the first recorded screen deadhead actually dates back to Victor Halperin’s 1932 film White Zombie starring none other than Bela Lugosi. Despite having a significant part to play in modern-day entertainment zombies were largely shunned, possibly due to the fact that they didn’t originate from established literary heritage like Frankenstein, Dracula or The Wolf Man. Our festering friends just couldn’t catch a break and were viewed as distractions rather than a real threat. It didn’t help that there wasn’t an aristocrat among them or one walker in particular who became famous on account of his realistic shuffle although Lugosi did have it down to pat.
What Romero did achieve was to spark a zombie revolution and he did so by using them largely as a metaphor. By the time he had birthed Dawn of the Dead from that glorious cranium of his they came bearing the gift of alarming insight. His long running Dead franchise has begged a number of questions of the human race and his refusal to reach a cut-and-dried conclusion is the reason his works became so revered in the first place. Every last one of them offered a bleak vista and suddenly they took on a far more ominous meaning. It is this which makes the case study of our zombie friends so fascinating. Power in numbers; alone they are nothing more than lousy pickpockets but throw twelve of them in an elevator with a man wearing a mutton duffle coat and we would see precisely that meat is murder. United they represent society’s conformance, hence Dawn using a shopping precinct as the platter for its splatter.
Things started to trundle towards Shitville with the treatment they received in the movies. Zombies have a shocking track record when it comes to prime grade-A meat and there have been some truly obnoxious offerings, particularly during the eighties when Romero’s proud legacy was being shat upon by low-budget film-makers who could not grasp the concept that they were far more than just decomposing stiffs. It wasn’t all bad news and films such as Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead and Lamberto Bava’s Demons gave their own glorious observations of life beyond death but things had become eerily muted by the nineties and it was left to Romero himself to get the cart back on the tracks. Land of the Dead may have fallen vaguely short of being the bona-fide classic we had hoped and dreamed but it gave us a subtle reminder that they’re still hungry, even after all these years.
More recently the floodgates have opened, nay gushed like a nun with a dildo. There have been two distinct paths; on one hand there are those who have milked their comedic potential for all that it’s worth and, on the other, there’s 28 Days Later. A dose of the rage is never likely to end well and suddenly these awkward lumbering persona non grata have become budding Zolas, dashing about like they’ve found their purpose. This initially provoked an embittered response from zombie purists and even Romero and pal Tom Savini were up in arms. You can see why they felt precious about it as the change betrayed all which zombies had stood for up until then but the fact remains that the wheels of industry trundle on regardless of sentiment and we’ve all got to get along if we have any hope of keeping this putrid meat fresh.
Everybody fears death, it is a primitive anxiety we all share at some point. Not wishing to depress the shit out of you but our bodies increasingly betray us as we move towards those twilight years. It’s a rotten fact of life that we will become encroached upon by limitations and frailty isn’t a bullet we can dodge unless we wish to die young, maybe that’s why some of us are destined to live so fast. The zombie represents a harbinger of the apocalypse and that, in itself is a scary concept. When done well, a zombie film will turn the whole game on its head. The dead come back to life and the living become little more than dead men walking, or sprinting, as the case may be. I don’t know about y’all but it’s a pretty cool concept don’t cha think? I say keep them rolling in as that’s what quality control is all about. I’ll avoid the bottom feeders like a fix of T-virus and wait for the crème de la crème to float topside.
Anyhoots this is Keeper’s own little cattle call of lesser known zombie cinema. I shall peruse the vaults and hopefully pluck out some minor gems from yesteryear which may have flown beneath your radars. What better place to begin than with Jorge Grau’s landmark video nasty from 1974, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Too often ignored, it has aged with beauty, and this little-known Spanish-Italian oddity is one of the finest pieces of zombie cinema in existence. It was pre-dated by another marvel three years prior. John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death wasn’t a zombie movie per se but it remains a monumental study of madness which had clear zombie undertones. Bob Clark’s light-hearted romp Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things was another diamond in the rough from the following year.
By the mid seventies, David Cronenberg was spewing forth infected cadavers from his mental womb and both Shivers and Rabid gave their own highly sexualized translations of that other side. Zombieism wasn’t viewed as a cross to bear but, instead, a downright privilege. By the close of Shivers, in particular, I already had my bikini line shaved and was ready to gain my water wings with the rest of the freaks. Meanwhile Ken Wiederhorn’s moody and effective chiller Shock Waves floated by like a soon-to-be-shipwrecked vessel and nobody batted an eyelid, despite the great Peter Cushing putting in a turn.
By the late seventies it all started going off in style. Dawn of the Dead was rampant of course but there were lesser victories, none finer than Jean Rollin’s Gallic horror masterpiece The Grapes of Death from the same year. Lucio Fulci rolled up his sleeves and brought us Zombie Flesh-Eaters, signalling the intention of Italian film-makers to grasp this bloody baton. Dario Argento’s cut of Dawn, Zombi as it was known on native shores, sparked mass interest and the fruits of his loins culminated in his mercurial Gates of Hell Trilogy. This comprised of The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery and all three were mean-spirited and supremely schlock-filled. The censors had a field day and promptly branded this trio immoral but time, the great healer, now highlights just how marvelous these incoherent wonders actually were. From the same revolution came a brace of similarly visceral efforts which fell by the wayside. Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh aka Virus and Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust are two particularly fun low-rent zombie flicks and hold ample grue to make up for any glaring inconsistencies.
By the time the eighties were in full swing it all started to take a turn for the more ridiculous. I blame my own personal Jesus, John Landis, for shooting that admittedly awe-inspiring video for Thriller. Suddenly zombies were becoming a laughing-stock and it all began to go a little cabaret. Films such as Joseph Mangine’s Neon Maniacs and Robert Scott’s The Video Dead poked fun at the living dead and clown shoe sales escalated overnight. I actually recall these risible delights with fondness, despite their many failings but remind y’all that rose-tinted spectacles are compulsory as they suck on so many levels. If you wish for something a little more straight-faced then Tom McLoughlin’s One Dark Night is worth a punt, whilst unlikely to rock your world, and Hal Barwood’s Warning Sign is another rainy day view for those without grand expectations. While you’re at it take a gander at Richard Governor’s honorable stab at a zombie western, Ghost Town, and Mark Goldblatt’s underrated zombie buddy cop flick Dead Heat. You shouldn’t regret either.
Two more which I just have to shed the light on are Fred Dekker’s excellent Night of the Creeps and Thom Eberhardt’s similarly awesome sci-fi B-movie Night of the Comet. Neither are strictly what you would call out-and-out zombie movies but they are better than sex if that makes up for it. Creeps in particular has gone on to garner cult success and every bit of it is absolutely justified. It’s a perfect example of the kind of film they just don’t make anymore; as eighties as Ker-plunk, and a whole lot more satisfying to boot. Comet, on the other hand, was something of a 28 Days Later with added bubblegum and focused on a world where a handful of survivors were forced to cohabit with those partially exposed to a passing comet and turned into brain-dead zombies. This demonstrates my point on diversity, it never killed a man to think outside the box and, had he never bothered, then these two fine pieces of veal simply wouldn’t have made it from the freezer.
J.R. Bookwater’s The Dead Next Door reached us at the tail-end of the decade and here is a classic example of a coin in a cowpat. It is ridiculous in the extreme, woefully inept in many areas, but absolutely compulsive viewing nonetheless. If I haven’t mentioned Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Demons 2, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator or further elaborated on the brilliance of The Return of the Living Dead then it is purely because any horror aficionado in their right mind will have already procured such heavyweights. Less of you will be aware of Brian Yuzna’s second sequel to O’Bannon’s enigma and that is a statistic I aim to alter. It’s no classic, at least, not in an all-round sense but it is a truly poignant piece of romantic fiction which appeals to the Mills & Boone in all of us, whilst kissing it with some lustrous grue. While the nineties were less prominent for our undead buddies, there were a few other standouts. Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamorte, or Cemetery Man, was madder than a satchel of wind-up teeth but also one of the most grand pieces of Italian horror cinema and a true forgotten masterpiece.
As we moved into the new Millennium things started to change for the better, at least, in the sheer wealth of zombie flicks making their presence felt. I won’t go into as much depth here as we all know the forerunners and, as much as I’d love to fill my denims over Zombieland or the [REC] trilogy, I’m sure y’all don’t need enlightening. If I had to stump on a few lesser-documented high points I would be inclined to choose Howard & Jon Ford’s The Dead, Yannick Dahan & Benjamin Rocher’s The Horde, Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies, Kerry Prior’s The Revenant and Gregg Bishop’s Dance of the Dead as a more than able B-list and you can add Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow and Steve Barker’s Outpost to the mix if Nazi zombies are your bag as they are mine. Valiant efforts such as Jim Mickle’s Mulberry Street and Michael Bartlett & Kevin Gates’ The Zombie Diaries are also worthy of attention but Steve Miner’s misguided Day of the Dead rehash is one to handle with kit gloves or, at least, a skinful of liquor. Actually alcohol and zombies form a fairly potent mix possibly because a dead man is way past caring about his liver.
I hope zombies keep on shuffling and, if the success of The Walking Dead is any kind of yard-stick, then I would say that they’re in good health for the foreseeable. That reminds me, a little one for the road would be Yann Demange’s fantastic reality TV-themed Dead Set from 2008, a real gory treat which shows that zombies may be dead but they’re still kicking. I think that now maybe a few attitudes have begun changing where our no-pulse nomads are concerned. You see, my earlier point about zombies lacking great literary heritage isn’t really applicable any longer. If this was the case then what the hell have I been watching for the past thirty-plus years? They’ve finally come of age, despite the crowded marketplace and, more critically, because of it and there are plentiful cadavers just waiting to sink their incisors into y’all should you give them a run out. Listen to Uncle George as, when there is no more room in hell, the dead WILL walk the Earth and remember folks; a zombie is forever, not just for Christmas.