Greetings once again, ghouls, and welcome to our month-long May of the Dead, showcasing 31 zombie (hear us out) films – one for every evening in the Zombie Awareness Month of May, 2021.
Due to our strong personal convictions, we wish to stress that this playlist in no way endorses a belief in the occult.
This is the voice of Matt, dragging his feet to you in blue. Please enjoy the hopefully self-explanatory bingo board above, which can be abused and used as a cheeky drinking game – simply bite your victim, I mean, sip your beverage of choice, whenever one of the scary squares is deemed filled by a qualified zombie adjudicator.
And clawing away the wet dirt of my cosy little grave to emerge groaning and shambling towards the blog, this is Devlin, in this fetching shade of coagulated crimson.
The original ’68 Night of the Living Dead was obviously a given, so aside from that, Devlin and I have cogitated, digested, and regurgitated fifteen additional films each, and laid them out chronologically, to present a year-by-year evolution of the subgenre. We tried to keep our intros relatively spoiler-free, but they may contain traces of spoiler, so readers on, beware.
Before we begin, a huge hat tip and recommendation for all you zombie lovers out there – Dr. Emily Zarka’s PBS series Monstrum was a big jump off point for me in organising and contextualising my zombie picks. Please do check out her 3 part miniseries on the history of the zombie; it’s incredibly well researched and assembled.
Have a listen to the episode below, and scroll on down, for our choices for 1st-16th May – taking us from 1932 all the way up to 1990! And join us later this month for part 2 as we tackle the modern zombie movie deluge.
Listen now above, or on your favourite podcast platform.
Saturday May 1st
White Zombie (1932)
Often cited as the first zombie movie, Victor Halperin’s feature retains a weirdness that still provides some fascination all these years later, including one of Bela Lugosi’s most charismatic turns and some bracingly daring scene transitions and matte painting effects. As you can see from the vast gulf in time between this pick and Romero’s opening salvo, there is a world of difference in how the z-word is treated here versus our common pop cultural perception of the zombie. White Zombie was ostensibly a cash-in on public fascination with Haitian Voodoo (itself rooted in a more disparate set of ancient West African-rooted religions of Vodoun – a distinction that merits more in-depth analysis) in the wake of William B. Seabrook’s 1929 book on Haiti, The Magic Island.
White America’s fascination with Voodoo of course didn’t extend to much in the way of in-depth research, so here we have a clearly European Lugosi starring as a man whose first name is literally Murder (Murder Legendre, to be precise). He runs a sugar mill staffed by zombie slaves who is enlisted in a scheme by a local Rich Man to zombify the pretty young bride-to-be that has, for some reason, decided to get married to her sap of a fiancee at the home of this near-total stranger. But, sullying the good name of Murders everywhere, he double crosses the Rich Man and makes off with the no-longer-blushing bride for his mountaintop stormy castle for a very slow standoff with the aforementioned sap.
As you may expect, it’s stagey (most of the cast were holdovers from the silent movie era who struggled to adapt to sync sound cinema) and extremely slow to dole out its meagre plot. It’s pretty ponderous albeit very short, so while your attention may wonder at times, it’s certainly worth an hour or so of your attention, if only to see the stark contrast between the roots of the word zombie and the modern deluge of material that followed our next pick. There were better films in the early 30s/40s zombie boom, most notably Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, but for brevity and as a cultural curio I figured this was the better kickoff to proceedings. It’s also probably one of the less egregiously racist (emphasis on the less – it’s still pretty racist).
Sunday May 2nd
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Here it is. The original. The film that created the modern zombie, spawned multiple sequels, and an entire subgenre of spin-offs, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Pittsburgh’s George A. Romero, and his production company, The Latent Image, were busy making commercials for Iron Beer and Calgon, and opted to invest in a 35mm Arriflex camera to up their game. What resulted is maybe the most important and influential independent movie ever made.
The positive effects of horror can often be found in its covert warning signs and cautionary tales. Romero felt the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, was about revolution. This was the angry ’60s – Vietnam, the civil rights movement, social justice riots, and overt racism still prevalent in America. In Night, Duane Jones stars as Ben – the African American conduit for Romero’s political discourse (although he was reluctant to admit such things). The finale is a lynching of sorts. It’s bleak, it’s hopeless, but it felt honest and of the time. It’s a self-reflexive movie, in the sense that its most quoted line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” is a comment on the predictability and staleness of the horror films that preceded it. In terms of why it all occurs, Romero once stated, “God changed the rules. That’s the only explanation I need. No more room in hell.” It’s an amazing quote, isn’t it?
“Don’t you know what’s goin’ on out there? This is no Sunday School picnic!”Ben, Night of the Living Dead
George Romero was 27 years old, and served as writer, cinematographer, editor, and director. It’s a little clumsy and clunky in places, looking back, but don’t forget it’s an indie film, made very cheaply. A modest budget of $114,000, meant the cast and crew actually lived in the abandoned farmhouse they rented, and all bathed in a nearby stream for the duration of the shoot. A lot of Night’s actors were also investors (two of which even volunteered to be set on fire), producers, makeup artists, or co-writers, with even Marilyn Eastman doubling up as both Helen and the eye-catching, bug-eating zombie. Romero himself even built the rubbish clay hand that gets whacked when it reaches through the slats of the makeshift barricade. The community banded together, with news helicopters, real police and their dogs all uniting in the interest of making a movie. The sound mix only existed because the guy that played Barbara’s brother beat the bloke that ran the sound studio in a chess match. Some bold lighting decisions raise its game, with Night clearly lit for black-and-white, featuring plenty of shadows and jet black areas of the frame, adding uncertainty and tension throughout.
In Night, Romero’s marauding ghouls stumble around, bumping into cars, blinded by headlights, and although they can use weapons, they don’t really try their hardest (at times) to breach the house. Some don’t exude the urgency of the first, now legendary, “Cemetery Zombie.” One lumbering zombie outside even gets caught in a clothesline. The graveyard ghoul picks up a brick, and smashes the car window. He moves fairly quickly, jogging along – certainly shambling faster than walking pace. Later this month, we’ll encounter modern, fast-moving zombies – an evolutionary zombie lore Marmite, which no doubt enhanced the immediacy of the terror, because before you know it they’re onto you. On the other hand, it depends what kind of nightmares you relate to. The slow-moving zombie approach echoes those very specific dreams where it feels like you’re trying to run through a swimming pool, and you just can’t escape whatever is chasing you. Here, Barbara has time to consider her actions, but that time is filled with dread and suspense for an audience.
Fledgling zombie film directors out there, take note! Romero rarely “directed” his zombies specifically. According to George, if you state exactly what you want actors to do, everyone mimics it and does the same. They make the same sounds, they raise the same arm, etc. If you free the actors from direction, and ask them to bring their own undead interpretations, you get all original stuff.
Monday May 3rd
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie aka Don’t Open the Window, aka No profanar el sueño de los muertos (Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead), was perhaps the biggest oddity among my selections, and clocks in tidily at just over an hour and a half. Also, how about this as a candidate for best poster ever! In all honesty, you might have to struggle through. I did. Manchester Morgue boasts our first of several Robert Redford-looking protagonists – this time it’s Jeremiah Johnson era, with Ray Lovelock labelled as a (forgive me for quoting) police-hating long-hair in faggot-clothes, who’s into drugs, sex, and every kind of filth.
“The dead don’t walk around, except in very bad paperback novels!”George, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Although it may fool some (including me) into thinking we’re in a little petrol station, somewhere near Lake Windermere, the majority of Manchester Morgue was filmed on location in Rome and Madrid, and in spite of almost the entire cast and crew likely being Italian, you’ve got folks saying things like, “Wee lassie,” “Struth,” and “Well done, Clive.” Lines like, “I haven’t the foggiest,” “I’m mad about apples,” and “Have you ever come across any of these satanists in your investigations?” when said in a thick northern accent, are a bizarre highlight.
Of course, the “science is bad” trope rears its cliched head (not for the last time in our selections), as the Ministry of Agriculture is clearly to blame for all this chaos. Although their modern machinery’s radiation, used to alter the behaviour of insects on farms, making them turn on each other, seems to be the catalyst, for this primitive contraption (which, “Runs like a charm”) to cause such anarchy is unlikely, as it’s roughly the size of a combine harvester.
Emerging from a morgue with bandaged head injuries, all sewn up from their autopsies, Sleeping Corpses’ zombies will sometimes strangle you before ripping you apart. They have strength, can fight, and possess the uncanny ability to raise each other from the dead. The classic, lurching zombie gait is prevalent here – arms outstretched in front, clamouring to claim their victims. These ghouls will also use weapons. For example, one bludgeons a doctor in the head with an axe, and others can climb ladders and exhibit shows of strength beyond the zombie norm. At the Manchester Morgue, it’s even possible to be bitten by a homicidal baby.
It’s the relatable shocks that remain the scariest and most palpable – like when someone gets a ’70s syringe jammed into their arm (likely for real). A British bobby gets a gravestone lobbed at him, a reanimated female corpse takes a gunshot directly to the head and peculiarly ploughs on, and there’s a number of putty clay-deaths with victims’ bodies appearing to be made out of Plasticine. There’s also a single note on the soundtrack that’s eerily reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead, and may have been either a nod or a steal. Again, much like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, our protagonist meets an unjust end.
Tuesday May 4th
Shock Waves (1977)
Brooke Adams is Rose, our female lead – a sort of Karen Allen lookalike, who just about fulfills the movie’s obligatory bikini/cleavage quota. She is discovered floating in a dinghy, somewhere in the Caribbean, by a father and son fishing vessel. The tale is then frustratingly narrated in bookends by her, foolishly robbing the movie of much of its uncertainty and suspense. Why on earth this particular narrative structure ever took off is beyond me. It’s generally slow-paced, and takes about 40 minutes to really get going, but at a mere 85 minutes, you’ll be grateful that Shock Waves doesn’t waste a great deal of time.
Flashing back *sigh*, we meet bitter old sea captain on borrowed time, Ben (John Carradine), and the good-looking, incredible-haired Robert Redford-esque (again) navigator, Keith (Luke Halpin). Dreadful acting ensues, by used car salesman and uppity husband, Norm (who we pray gets butchered early), his wife, Beverly, Ronald Shusett double and drunkard cook with a necktie geezer, Dobbs, and Chuck – a wisecracking Billy Crystal mated with John McEnroe meets James Caan impersonator, medallion and tighty whities wearer, and coconut tree climber extraordinaire. A sinisterly scarred, luger-toting, SS Commander, Peter Cushing, is the elderly island occupant who warns of, “Danger in the water.”
“We created the perfect soldier from cheap hoodlums and thugs. And a good number of pathological murderers and sadists as well. We called them Der Todeskorps, the Death Corps. Creatures more horrible than any you can imagine.”SS Commander, Shock Waves
Although the slow-moving, or should I say marching, Todeskorps – relentless, Nazi sea-zombies, somehow still functioning after all these years, are fairly mighty foes and can kick and smash their way through rickety old fences, their Achilles heel lies when their SS-issue goggles are removed, leaving them totally blind and stumbling into shrubbery, before collapsing and suddenly rotting in the blink of an eye.
Shock Waves certainly has a notable Jaws influence, with its deep underwater POV shots observing potential victims from the depths. It’s a handy, if derivative, technique and elicits immediate suspense. The tense, pulsing synth score, and downright freaky imagery of the underwater undead, lurking, as our characters are trekking through the jungle occasionally hits the desired mark. Although the watery tension is somewhat effective, there’s no real gore to speak of as the Todeskorps simply drown you. The film eventually descends into a simplistic stalk and kill exercise, as the thinly-drawn pawns are predictably picked off one by one as Death Corps fodder.
Wednesday May 5th
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Night of the Living Dead launched the modern zombie movie era. Dawn of the Dead arguably created the tone and the framework that defines a huge amount of what came after. A decade removed from his small-scale, pared-back survival thriller, George Romero returned with a colourful, freewheeling riot that nonetheless retained his acid edge of socially conscious shocks. First, manifesting in a brutal Police raid on a tower block of minorities that doesn’t stint on the squibs and racial bigotry when one officer starts murdering civilians, before being killed by a fellow SWAT member played by Ken Foree (Kenan’s dad from Kenan & Kel). We also see the experts collapsing as a news studio debate breaks down in limb-flailing fashion. The authority of the medium is cut down as the producers intentionally direct viewers to rescue centres that have already fallen to the rapidly spreading plague of the walking dead just to retain viewing figures. The eye in the sky traffic guy decides to high tail it out with his pregnant girlfriend in the station’s helicopter, eventually teaming up with Foree and another SWAT deserter to hole up in a shopping mall.
So launched the most enduring of Romero’s zombie-as-allegory images – the undead hordes descending on the stores just as vacantly and unthinkingly as they did in life. While it’s obviously pretty sledgehammer, and has been wheeled out on a yearly basis to illustrate the distasteful consumer insanity of Black Friday, it’s persisted for so long precisely because it is so phenomenally calibrated. Films with bikers custard pie-ing zombies and featuring helicopter blade scalpings probably shouldn’t really dabble in the art of too much subtlety. Not to say that the film is lunkheaded, or idiotic – the interplay between our four on-edge survivors, the shifting affections and alliances and suspicions, is what sustains the viewer through the run time as much as the chaos and giddy dispatching of the shambling unfortunates. When our Roger slowly succumbs to a zombie bite, it resonates in such a way that it was directly referenced all the way in 2004 in Shaun of the Dead.
Shaun‘s fidelity to zombie rules, its mixture of comedy and pathos, and its embrace of the screen zombie as medium through which to explore society in a metaphorical way draws a line right back to Dawn. And as we’ll see in a few picks below, that line travels through the 1980s and left an indelible mark on the genre throughout.
Thursday May 6th
Zombie Flesh Eaters aka Zombi 2 (1979)
Lucio Fulci’s first mad foray in to the realm of the undead, some 25 years deep in to a prolific directorial career that spanned gialli, comedy, Spaghetti Western, adventure films and more, benefitted from a bizarre loophole in Italian copyright law which allows for unrelated production companies to market their films as sequels to successful films. Resultant from the rights tangle that accompanied Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, enterprising producer Fabrizio De Angelis quickly retrofitted an already-in-production film to sell in Europe as Zombi 2, a sequel to the Dario Argento-edited European cut of Dawn.
That production, or at the very least post-production, overlapped, may help suggest why the presentation of zombies in this film is quite different than that in Romero’s film. Elisa Livia Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti (an equally prolific screenwriter who wrote not only gialli for Argento and Mario Bava, but an ungodly number of well-regarded Poliziotteschi) situated the bulk of their story on the fictional Caribbean island of Matul, and reintroduced the idea of a Voodoo curse as the cause for the dead rising from their graves with a taste for flesh. The film begins, after a creepy cold open of a burlap-besacked corpse rising to receive a bullet in the head, as an abandoned sailboat drifts down the Hudson River. When patrolmen board to investigate, they are set upon by a loose zombie who dispatches one before succumbing to a headshot. The story attracts the attention of a suspiciously Fulci-looking “New York” newspaper editor, who dispatches a hotshot journalist (Scottish actor Ian McCulloch, who stayed on in Italy to star in 1980’s Zombie Holocaust and the enjoyable Alien ripoff Contamination) to investigate. He teams up with the daughter of a missing doctor to whom the boat belonged, hitching a ride to Matul with a couple of local guides to investigate the mystery of the doctor’s disappearance.
Upon arrival, of course, all hell breaks loose, but the film is in no great rush to get us there, despite its slim 90 minute runtime. Ample screentime is afforded the iconic shark vs. zombie underwater brawl before our central quartet even reach shore, which remains an extremely unique selling point to what could otherwise be a fairly forgettable affair were it not also for the famously disgusting eyeball-to-wooden-splinter scene that was apparently the straw that broke the BBFC’s back and saw this one banished to the notorious Video Nasty list. Some fantastic, disgustingly wormy zombie make up effects help enliven a somewhat sluggish but admirably pyromanic third act before a genre-appropriate sucker punch of an ending. Fulci would go on to revive the recently deceased in 1980 in the atmospheric, narratively bewildering, Lovecraft-inspired City of the Living Dead, and a year later in the more successfully unsettling, dread-infused The Beyond (which I recommended as part of our HalloRe’ewind marathon), before returning for Zombi 3 later in the decade, albeit leaving production before it wrapped due to either a dispute with the producers, ill health, or some combination of the two. But a list of my definitive zombie movies couldn’t exclude this film, as a representative of the insanely industrious Italian exploitation industry, and of how quickly Romero’s first sequel kickstarted a whole new outbreak of zombie fever that would infect the next decade of cinema.
Friday May 7th
The Evil Dead (1981)
This was a last-minute addition, as my criteria shifted from a stricter, true Romero-style, slow zombie/reanimated ghoul definition, to a wider net, encapsulating the more questionable “zombie” movies such as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.
“We can’t bury Shelly. She’s a friend of ours.”Ash, The Evil Dead
My immediate justification was the reanimation of Linda’s corpse, and the manner in which the film descends into bloody, dismembering chaos in the same way Braindead aka Dead Alive did a decade or so later in ’92. Bruce Campbell getting whacked with a poker will forever be hilarious, and Tom Sullivan’s quirky stop-motion animation is always welcome and charming. The ol’ thumbs-through-the-eyes kill is also something we’d see repeated in both 28 Days, and Weeks Later.
Like a pencil to the Achilles tendon, The Evil Dead still sticks in. The Deadite makeups are makeshift but effective, and the sheer joy of Raimi’s comic violence is still shocking and suitably squelchy, with his inventive moving camera helping to fuel mine, and many other film students’ aspirations and lofty ideas of kinetic, cinematic expression. And how about that final Sam-o-Cam (Raimi allegedly mounted the camera on a motorcycle, or alternatively ran with the camera attached to his hand) tracking shot for one of the best in any film? Not just horror, not just zombie cinema, any film. From beginning to end, it’s textbook stuff in terms of how to captivate an audience, right up to the final frame. Then the jovial credit tune tells us it’s ok to relax – it was all just a bit of ’armless fun.
Saturday May 8th
Night of the Comet (1984)
As we enter the mid-80s, the zombie movie has matured enough to start to graft itself on to other genres. Atlantic Releasing had previously scored a hit with Valley Girl, and saw the potential in niche, cult teen fare after positive feedback for the punky underground sci-fi Repo Man. They lucked out in hiring Thom Eberhardt, a documentarian who specialised in ‘youth culture’ shorts for PBS, to write and direct their intended mashup; his affection for characters who could easily have been mocked shines through and adds a layer of unexpected sweetness to the tale of two teen sisters who survive a comet-based E.L.E. through dumb luck. With the vast majority of the population of Los Angeles now reduced to dust piles, movie theatre usher Reggie and her high school cheerleader sister Samantha must decide how to while away the apocalypse – first, they head for the local radio station in search of the seemingly-still-living presenter, but find only a DJ 3000 and a leather-jacketed trucker named Hector.
When that ploy falls flat, there’s nothing else for it but to head for the mall. Loading up on submachine guns and swanky outfits, they bop to synth pop and montage like there’s no tomorrow, which as far as they know, there isn’t. But their revelry is interrupted by a gang of sunglasses-clad, sadistic stockboys – the second ‘zombie’ interaction for Reggie following a narrow escape from an alley in the early going with a slobbering, rage-fuelled fella. We learn from a subterranean research facility full of boffins that the walking dead in this one are those who have been exposed to the comet, but not enough to be disintegrated. They start out confused, aggressive, weird, but eventually dehydrate to mad full-blown zombie types (albeit without bite transmission). When the scientists come for our plucky sisters after hearing Samantha’s takeover of the local radio station, we learn that their methods are far from ethical and their mission not exactly humanitarian in nature. Distrust of science runs through a bunch of these films, probably used here more as a writerly ploy than anything more profound as a comment on society, but the general anti-authority vibes and presentation of the disaffected youth of the 1980s certainly feels sincere in this film.
Probably the cutest zombie film of the decade, it doesn’t abandon horror entirely, especially as the research facility starts to succumb to the comet plague, but is more concerned with entertaining us than in grossing us out. And the self-actualisation of Reggie plays as a knowing send-up of suburban nuclear family normality, the last family on Earth play-acting picture perfect roles in the ghostly ruins of civilisation.
Sunday May 9th
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
A film whose beat up old car I already waxed at HalloRe’ewind, but couldn’t fathom leaving off the list this time out as well. What began as a cash-in by the co-writer of the original Night of the Living Dead, John Russo, whose career hadn’t reached the same heights as his erstwhile collaborator, was handed to Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon for his directorial debut a year after his phenomenal attack helicopter-based mad action script Blue Thunder had been released to very decent box office & some acclaim. The film takes place in a world where Night of the Living Dead as a film exists, so represents a literally self-referential spin on the tropes that had been established over the decade and a half since Romero laid the foundations. Medical supply factory worker Frank, showing off to his new young colleague Freddy, recounts that the film was a ‘changed around’ version of a true story about a military experiment gone wrong – a chemical intended for use in the fight against marijuana instead had been released in to the morgue of a hospital and revived the corpses. How does he know? Well, it just so happens that a stack of barrels of this 2-4-5 Trioxin, one even containing the grotesque remains of an unfortunate zombie, were accidentally shipped to their warehouse and are stashed in the basement.
The inevitable release of the gas also unleashes the deservedly iconic Tarman, a slimy feat of practical effect magic and fantastic physical performance by Henson Company alumnus Allan Trautman. Frank and Freddy, faced with the reanimation of their clinical samples including bisected dogs, boards of butterflies, and a very wild, yellow human corpse who really wants to get out of the fridge, reluctantly call in their boss Burt. Following Romero rules, Burt decides to destroy the brain by driving a pick-axe through his head, but these zombies play by their own rules – much to the disadvantage of the rest of the cast. Freddy’s burnout punk friends, killing time in a cemetery waiting for him to join them at some yet-to-be-located party, give the film its distinctive look and soundtrack.
Unfortunately for them, the graveyard they’re hanging out in becomes ground zero for a mass zombie uprising, and a dwindling gang of survivors have to face off against talking, conscious, tactically aware undead who have a taste not for human flesh, but LIVE BRAINS for the first time. The punk rock aesthetic lent by the scuzzy youngsters (most memorably the extremely naked Trash and the towering, glowering Suicide who’s “got things to say!”) extends to the film’s flippant, mordant and nihilistic attitude to cops and the military, especially – the infamous radio call by one brain-hungry zombie to “send more cops” after the last batch have been torn apart in short order. The whole film has a broken-down, flipside of the go-go-80s feel, a slummy, wasted youth energy that manages to sidestep some of the more out-of-touch mockery of these punk kids that a lot of its contemporaries indulged, while still affectionately teasing them just enough. Quite appropriately, nothing is sacred.
Yet it’s not disposable – the scenes of a slowly deteriorating Frank and Freddy have moments of genuine pathos; the horde, while comical, still offers moments of gruesome thrill; the potentially groan-worthy scene where a desiccated animatronic half corpse explains the reason for their eating brains comes off unsettling, disgusting, and just a little haunting. In a banner year for zombie movies, this is a miracle of a film and holds its own against two of the very best. Iconic, fleet, irreverent and honestly kind of addictive, it is rightly and deservedly one of the standard bearers for the whole subgenre.
Monday May 10th
Day of the Dead (1985)
Romero’s Day of the Dead is my absolute favourite zombie film. As soon as we see a tropical zombie in a Hawaiian shirt, then the weed crop, it’s like, ok, George, I know what you’re doing. It’s theatrical, beautifully designed, and although it’s dark and ominous and somewhat hopeless, Day somehow manages to be fun – unlike later films in the list like 28 Weeks Later, which bring the dystopian misery but lack anything playful. Day has a certain levity, and nails precisely the right tone for me.
“I’m runnin’ this monkey farm now, Frankenstein, and I wanna know, WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE DOIN’ WITH MY TIME!”Captain Rhodes, Day of the Dead
It’s got everything (except a distinctly clever Romero allegory), but drags us underground, and exudes the claustrophobic tension of a zombie apocalypse, showing off Tom Savini’s, by this point, masterful special makeup EFX. In fact, I’d confidently proclaim this as his masterpiece, with KNB joining in as his crew before he passed the baton on Land of the Dead.
The opening hands-through-the-wall nightmare jump scare is always a knockout, John Harrison’s pulsing electro soundtrack, the super wide cinematic aspect ratio, the massive performances (especially, but not limited to, the OTT Captain Rhodes (a manic Joe Pilato) screaming “You puss fuck!” over and over, and a strong central female lead in Lori Cardille (trivia: daughter of Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, the newscaster who acted in Romero’s original Night).
Tuesday May 11th
When experimental theatre director and provocateur Stuart Gordon decided to turn his hand to filmmaking, he intended to create something in the vein of a Frankenstein adaptation. At the urging of friends, he picked up a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West–Reanimator” and set about adapting it for television. Hooking up with producer Brian Yuzna (more of whom later), they instead retrofitted the scripts written in to a feature film that was sold to burgeoning low budget legend Charles Band’s Empire Pictures – and created what is not just my favourite zombie film, but one of my favourite films of any era, in any genre.
Featuring an indelible turn by Jeffrey Combs as the titular reanimator, a taut and beady-eyed performance of haughty arrogance and hubris that is darkly humorous while still retaining dignity and an edge of menace. Taking a room in the apartment of fellow med student and our square protagonist Dan Cain, Dr. West sets about perfecting his ‘reagent’ by injecting the glowing goop in to Dan’s recently deceased cat. The ensuing sequence is a masterclass in blackly comic slapstick as the now maniacal feline wreaks havoc in their basement. West draws Dan in to his insane scheme, reanimating corpses to increasingly terrible effect and digging themselves deeper in to trouble, while creepy university professor Dr. Hill sniffs around West’s invention before being summarily dispatched. But not for long…
Running a tight 86 minutes, the film nails the balance between humour, horror, shocks, gore and gut-punches as the increasingly crazy antics never spin off in to cartoon logic. It retains an odd sort of classicism – as insane as that sounds – or at least craftsmanship, as it ramps up to its madcap conclusion. Gordon showed himself a sure and creative hand in his directorial debut, and as much as I also admire the following year’s subsequent Lovecraft adaptation From Beyond and eclectic later work all the way up to the tense man-in-a-windscreen horror-drama Stuck, he absolutely knocked it out of the park at his first at-bat with this one, so much so that it would have been extremely difficult to match up to it. Where many now-renowned horror staples suffered critical sniping upon release from some of the sniffier critics and only gained their lofty status after the fact, Re-Animator was extremely well-received from some of the big name writers of the day, including a positive bow at Cannes – its clear quality showing beneath all the gore.
Wednesday May 12th
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Written in a week by future Monster Squad creator Fred Dekker in his directorial debut, his script intentionally packed with every B-movie cliche he could possibly get down on paper, this space-slug-college-comedy-cum-sci-fi represents a continuation of the mid-80s tendency to adapt the zombie horde and bolt it on to other genres in order to try to carve out a bit of a niche. In this case, a vaguely Revenge of the Nerds-ish tale of beta male, lovelorn college boy Chris Romero (all character surnames having been taken from horror directors) and his far more likeable best friend J.C. inadvertently restarting an intergalactic invasion after attempting to steal a cadaver for a frat initiation that contains, in its brain stem, the aforementioned brain slug that has been dormant for almost 30 years – that cadaver having been cryogenically frozen since an axe murder incident that reintroduces tortured gumshoe Tom Atkins to a case he would have preferred to stay buried at the bottom of a bottle.
A clear influence on Robert Rodriguez’s later The Faculty, albeit more keen to evoke the stodgy dread of late 50s/early 60s drive-in fare, the tone here leans more towards a sly indulgence of cliche and the Friday night fun side of horror, with gooey shocks and dialogue packed with purple prose (the bulk of which goes to the always-awesome Atkins). Perhaps a more minor addition to the zombie canon of the decade, but no less fun for that and a worthy submission to contrast with our next pick.
Thursday May 13th
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
An explicit attempt to reconnect the zombie to its historical roots in Haiti, and a loose adaptation of a non-fiction book of the same name by Wade Davis, Wes Craven’s film was initially intended as less a horror than a taut, suspenseful drama-thriller. But, when you’ve made your name with a surreal, literally nightmare-fuelled slasher movie, your future funding depends on you at least partially indulging your previous genre trappings. Thus, his story of another academic taking a tour of the island to investigate the mysteries of Vodou in an echo of those early 20th Century tomes that inspired the genre in its infancy is spiked with some incredibly evocative, surreal imagery and brutal shocks studded throughout (quite literally, in the case of poor Bill Pullman’s scrotum). Pullman plays the central anthropologist, tasked with travelling to Haiti by Big Pharma to investigate the science behind zombieism and whether the potions used could have clinical applicability.
Finding himself in a battle of wills with a member of Papa Doc Duvalier’s paramilitary force – who just so happens to be a Vodou-practicing bokor – Pullman’s Dennis Alan is subject to intimidation, torture, and eventually, zombification himself as the real-life nightmares of the totalitarian Duvalier regime collide with the supernatural effects of Vodou. An admirably visceral visual experience, while its take on Haiti has inevitably aged in an era that demands perhaps more nuance and, most vitally, lived cultural experience when tackling the sensitive subjects that surround Haiti and its uniquely perilous place in the post-slavery Western world, it does at least take its subject deathly seriously. An underseen entry in Craven’s filmography, this is for sure one that deserves attention during Zombie Awareness Month, representing the last mainstream attempt to tackle the historical and cultural roots at the source. While its veracity and accuracy can be called in to question, its distortions seem less egregious than those which flowed from The Magic Island and its cinematic progeny in the 30s and 40s. Craven’s film seems to come from a place of true curiosity rather than racist vilification, but your mileage may vary as to the finished product.
Friday May 14th
Dead Heat (1988)
From the curious and anthropological to the gloriously, sincerely ridiculous: Roger Corman’s New World Pictures brings us the buddy-cop-zombie-action-comedy mash up we never knew we needed. De rigeur wiseass detectives Doug Bigelow and Roger Mortis (incredible name) engage in the standard bro cop activities until a jewelry store heist ends in a shoot out with a strange body count – the baddies are seemingly impervious to the hail of bullets that pass through them. Finally taking them down, Doug and Rog are informed by their coroner friend that these thieves were undoubtedly former ‘patients’ of hers. A Re-Animator-esque reagent seems to be the cause, so the trio take their investigation to the HQ of some dodgy scientific corporation where poor Roger gets himself killed after a tussle with a zombified biker.
Revived by a zombie science machine, it’s determined that Roger has about 12 hours to solve his own murder before he melts in to a Tarman-ish puddle of goo. Multiple plot strands tie themselves around a surprisingly game Vincent Price as shady industrialist Arthur P. Laudermilk, as the duo’s investigation falls afoul of a far-reaching conspiracy, impervious zombie henchmen, and murderous, reanimated soon-to-be-Chinese-food meat carcasses.
A gloriously dumb, admirably balls-out 80 minutes of hot action nonsense, Dead Heat definitely marks a point where the horror threat has firmly taken a back seat to sillier thrills, and takes the audience’s familiarity with zombies as granted for a high concept, lowbrow slice of cop schlock.
Saturday May 15th
Pet Sematary (1989)
A shift in tone as my final choice from the 1980s is not a traditional zombie film at all – we see only one resurrected dead person (and one cat), no flesh eating (well, just a little bit), no apocalyptic plague that threatens to engulf the world, and no band of plucky survivors standing in for the failures of society. While it’s true that not all of these elements were present in the films that preceded it in this May of the Dead marathon, Pet Sematary stands out as the first time that I can recall of a zombie story focussing solely on the grief of one family, more specifically one man, and collapses the focus of the story so tightly around him. Replacing the Vodou mythology of zombies with the story of a Native American burial ground – a common trope of 1980s genre fiction as interest in First People imagery and its capacity for supernatural application took hold in the popular imagination after decades of media vilification in novels and Western cinema – the film concerns a recently-moved family who suffer an unimaginable tragedy that pushes the father of a recently killed young boy to bury him in the ‘sour Earth’ that resurrects him to even more tragic consequences.
Also in contrast to the majority of the films of the 1980s, it avoids the increasing tendency to revel in the mayhem and squelchy special effects that accompany the scenes of rotting corpses munching down on gooey human viscera – even in the more ‘thoughtful’ entries above, there was usually still plenty of gleeful bloodletting to sate the drive-in kids and video store gorehounds. Here, instead, the emphasis is on atmosphere and emotional resonance. The horror is that of a parent who feels that they failed their child, who failed to keep them safe, who has to confront the prospect of a life lived with a pain that will, at best, dull to an extent that they may be able to get up the next day and make it through to the night – the pain of having outlived your very young child and be left with the vacuum of the life they could, should have lived. And then, the film turns the screw even more, and revives that child in to a personification of that parent’s worst nightmares – violent, uncontrollable, sadistic, unknowable and, essentially, evil.
While there are some very memorable shocks, and some moments of squirm-inducing violence that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Fulci’s death disco visions, it’s the weight and sadness of the story that Stephen King created that hits us like a truck (sorry). The undead, after a decade of cinematic dominance, were about to lay dormant for a few years in mainstream terms, but Pet Sematary pointed a way towards a different way to present them on screen, one that gives gravitas to the part of the zombification process that oddly seems to get the least focus – the death that precedes the resurrection.
Sunday May 16th
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Romero’s ’68 Night boasted all the required beats and tropes of what would ultimately follow, and granted, the majority of this ’90 remake is ripped from his artful original that birthed the modern zombie. But director, Tom Savini, updates deftly with the care and respect it deserves. The violent gore (which if Savini had his way would’ve been even more head-explodingly graphic), the bad language, and zombie makeup effects, are obviously more modern and make for a palatable alternate. So much so, that I tend to return to this version more often than the original.
Returning to the famed Pennsylvania farmhouse, there’s a hick kid, resembling John Fogerty, who enacts perhaps the most idiotic move in any of our zombie picks when he takes a leaf out of Duane Jones’ book and decides shotguns and locked gas stations are a safe combination. Candyman star, Tony Todd is overacting, overreacting, and constantly dialled up to a thousand. As is Patricia Tallman as Barbara. Stylistically and performance-wise, it’s all a touch too heightened – the gestures and staging are somewhat exaggerated, and may play a little too theatrical for some viewers. There’s a smackhead zombie with a syringe protruding from his arm as he staggers. One ghoul even snacks on a rodent of some kind.
“Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”Sheriff McClelland, Night of the Living Dead
At a tidy 88 minutes, Night of the Living Dead ’90 doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s ideal for a quick and easy installment of the undead. A bit hammy, a tad cheesy, but a solid addition to any month-long zombie fest, with some important subgenre names and faces scattered throughout, both in front of, and behind the camera. With some disturbing, poignant imagery, particularly towards the end, Night ’90 goes places Romero’s original merely suggested. The lynched zombies used as redneck target practice, the mass burning of bodies on bonfires, and a clever subversion of Romero’s original ending, featuring a terrifying third act star-zombie, are sure to linger in the mind after the credits roll.