ZOMBIE FILMS: AN INTRODUCTION

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

As Stacey Abbott demonstrates in her highly useful study of twenty-first-century vampire and zombie films, the zombie film has proven to be a particularly versatile form of cultural production. Noting the “tendency for the zombie film to be a bricolage of influences, responding to shifts and changes within the nature of the horror genre,” Abbott shows how the zombie subgenre has been “repeatedly reinvented along new matrices from the voodoo-influenced zombie films of the 1930s and 1940s to the alien-invasion narratives of the 1950s to the flesh-eating revenants of the Romero/post-Romero era” (60). Zombie films have, at various times, belonged to the subgenre of supernatural horror, to the postapocalyptic genre, to the action genre, and so on. There have been slow, shambling zombies and fast, vicious zombies. There are even funny zombies, as the zombie comedy has become a prominent subset within the zombie film. And, in recent years, the zombie format has also found success in serial television, as in the case of the long-running series The Walking Dead, which has now been running for ten years on the AMC cable network, becoming one of the most prominent series of the twenty-first century.[1]Finally, the recent surge in the production of zombie films has also been accompanied by a wave of serious academic critical attention, as embodied in the anthologies edited by Lauro and by McIntosh and Leverette.

The American zombie film is almost as old as sound film itself. After the 1931 success of Dracula and Frankenstein, the first horror films of the sound era, American studios were scrambling to find new sources of material for horror films. In 1932, for example, The Mummy (directed by Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund) was inspired by ancient Egyptian mythology and burial practices, which had become a popular fascination in America ever since the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. 1932 also saw the appearance of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), which drew upon an increased American awareness of the culture of Haiti, which had been occupied by U.S. marines in 1915 and was still under American occupation until 1934. The notion of zombies—or corpses that have been reanimated by some means, usually involving black magic, often associated with Haitian Vodou (popularly known as “voodoo”—had been a part of Haitian folklore for some time. The American occultist and explorer William Buehler Seabrook visited Haiti during this time and detailed his encounters with Vodou culture in the 1929 book The Magic Island, which first made the notion of zombies known to a wide segment of the American public. Seabrook later acknowledged that all of the “magical” phenomena he had observed in Haiti could have rational explanations, but by this time Haiti had become firmly associated in the American mind with black magic, an association that is no doubt connected with the legacy of the 1798 Haitian slave revolt, which caused widespread fears in the American South that it might trigger a wave of similar revolts there, accompanied by considerable anti-Haitian propaganda.[2]

Just as The Mummy features Frankenstein star Boris Karloff, White Zombie features Dracula star Bela Lugosi, who plays Murder Legendre by essentially transferring his performance as Dracula onto Legendre (though now he does drink wine), an evil Vodou sorcerer who has enslaved an army of zombies (both black and white) to do his bidding, which largely seems to involve making them work on his sugar plantation and in his sugar mill, a motif that evokes (without any direct commentary) the baleful legacy of the Caribbean sugar industry, which was driven by slave labor imported from Africa and whose huge profits helped to fuel the rise of European capitalism in the sixteenth century. By extension, Legendre’s zombie workforce could also be seen as an allegorization of the urban proletariat, though that is not a central project of this film.

White Zombie is not a film that is particularly interested in political commentary on class inequality or in an enlightened critique of slavery or racism. Indeed, it constantly seems on the verge of presenting native Haitians as spooky savages, thus becoming racist in its own right. For example, the closest it comes to a commentary on race occurs when Neil Parker (John Harron), a positively-figured white character whose fiancée, Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy), has ostensibly died and then disappeared from her grave, is informed by the Protestant missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) that Madeleine might not actually be dead. In response, Parker’s mind goes straight to the most racist of conclusions: “Surely you don’t think she’s alive, in the hands of natives! Oh no! Better dead than that!”

At the same time, the villains of White Zombie are both white, including both Legendre and Charles Beaumont (Roberet W. Frazer), another rich plantation owner, who hires Legendre to zombify Madeleine so he can have her for himself, stealing her away from Parker. The characterization of both Legendre and Beaumont thus potentially comments on colonialism and on the exploitative practices of wealthy Europeans and Americans in the less developed parts of the world. Again, though, such commentary is not the focus of this film, which concentrates primarily on creating a dark, Gothic atmosphere, which it does quite effectively, despite the presence of some truly dreadful acting. In the end, both Legendre and Beaumont are killed, while Madeleine is saved and restored to normal, thanks to the efforts of Parker and (especially) Dr. Bruner, who serves as this film’s Van Helsing character. Thus, it appears that Madeleine had been alive all along, but was simply under the influence of a potion cooked up by Legendre. Whether the other zombies in the film are actually reanimated corpses is not entirely clear, though the implication seems to be that Legendre employs a combination of traditional black magic and modern chemistry in order to create and control his zombies.

The moderately successful White Zombie inspired a 1936 sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, though this one does not feature Lugosi—except that the eerily-lit closeups of Lugosi’s eyes, used in White Zombie to highlight scenes in which zombifying powers are at work, are re-used here for the same purpose. This generally undistinguished effort was not a critical or commercial success. However, a new kind of zombie also appeared in 1936, with the release of Michael Curtiz’s The Walking Dead (1936), in which Karloff plays John Ellman, a pianist who is framed and executed for a murder he didn’t commit. Then, a scientist brings him back to life (in a virtual duplication of the scene in which he was brought to life in Frankenstein). Now something of a zombie, Ellman begins to call upon those responsible for his demise (a group of stereotypical movie gangsters), bringing death upon them one by one (not so much killing them as simply delivering God’s justice to them, he and God apparently having gotten close while he was dead). Eventually, Ellman is finally killed (again). Part Warner Brothers gangster flick, part zombie movie, and part supernatural/religious parable, this film could easily have been awful. Karloff’s performance invests this film with genuine pathos in a spectacular performance that makes this film a genuine jewel, even though it is not widely known.

Zombies again returned to the big screen with King of the Zombies (1941), from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. This one is a combined zombie/World War II film that features virtuous Americans doing battle with unscrupulous Nazis, even though it was released more than six months before the U.S. entered the war against Germany. It thus joins other works of American culture in 1941 (the famous comic book cover of Captain America punching out Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1941 is perhaps the best-known case) in anticipating the war, undermining the now-popular notion that the U.S. was blindsided by Pearl Harbor and somehow previously had no idea what was going on in Germany. Here, a plane carrying an American agent crashes on a Caribbean island where a German mad scientist (played by Henry Victor, who had played the strongman Hercules in Freaks, though the role was originally meant for Bela Lugosi), is attempting to use voodoo and zombies to extract secrets from a captive American admiral. Silly as it sounds, it’s played fairly straight, except for the presence of the bug-eyed, ever-frightened Mantan Moreland as the agent’s black manservant, who provides the comic relief in a racist mode that, in retrospect, makes the Americans seem uncomfortably similar to the Nazis. Moreland, though, has a certain amount of on-screen charisma and actually makes his character more interesting and sympathetic than he was apparently intended to be. Surprisingly, this film garnered an Academy Award nomination (for best score), and it’s definitely watchable—if only to see what outrageous and offensive thing they’ll do next. A 1943 sequel/remake, Revenge of the Zombies, features John Carradine as a Nazi mad scientist who attempts to create an army of zombie warriors to serve the Third Reich. It’s even worse than the original.

The zombie film also received a more notable resurrection in 1943, with the release of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, the second in the important series of horror films produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Studios in the 1940s. I Walked with a Zombie is an atmospheric masterpiece that has exercised considerable influence on horror films ever since. It centers on Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), who is hired to come to the small Caribbean island of St. Sebastian in order to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), the ailing wife of sugar planter Paul Holland (Tom Conway), whose slave-holding ancestors originally founded the island’s sugar industry.

As in White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie thus potentially comments on the baleful colonial legacy of the Caribbean sugar industry, meanwhile employing a plot strongly influenced by Jane Eyre, a novel that itself has connections to Caribbean colonialism. In this case, though, it does so much more directly and overtly. As Betsy is driven by a black coach driver to the Holland plantation, he informs her that the Holland family originally brought black people to the island from Africa in “an enormous boat” that “brought the long-ago fathers and the long-ago mothers of us all, chained to the bottom of the boat.” Betsy then naively and cluelessly responds, “They brought them to a beautiful place, didn’t they?” “If you say, miss,” says the coachman, with barely disguised sarcasm. Meanwhile, the film goes out of its way to depict St. Sebastian as a land of misery and hardship, thanks to the legacy of slavery on the island.

Betsy soon has her eyes opened as she observes the strange events to come, including the fact that Jessica tends to wander about mindlessly and is possibly a zombie, though it is also the case that she might simply be traumatized by events in the Holland family, which involve an aborted affair between Jessica and Wesley Rand (James Ellison), Paul’s younger half-brother. The shenanigans within the Holland family have clearly been the subject of much gossip on the island and even have become the inspiration for a calypso song, demonstrating the ways in which this form of music has often served as a form of resistance to oppression. The film does use the local practice of voodoo to enhance the creepy atmosphere of the film. Meanwhile, Jessica is ultimately killed by Wesley, who then walk into the waters of the Caribbean carrying her body, thus killing himself as well. There are hints that voodoo might be influencing Wesley’s behavior, but the film nevertheless clearly locates the source of evil on St. Sebastian in the current practices of the decadent Holland family and in the historical practice of slavery on the island under the auspices of that family’s ancestors.

As David McNally puts it, “I Walked with a Zombie depicts the decline of colonial capitalism in the form of a dysfunctional white family, descended from slave-owners, as it sinks slowly into decay and self-destruction on a small Caribbean island” (261). For McNally, the zombified Jessica stands in for colonialism itself and for the way in which it continues long beyond what should have been its natural historical death. Then again, it might also be noted that Paul remains the dominant economic force on the island as the film ends and that he and Betsy (who has already fallen in love with Paul) end the film in an embrace, possibly pointing toward her future as the mistress of the island.

Thus, the political terms of the film might not be quite as clear as McNally suggests. Meanwhile, J. P. Telotte focuses on the status of I Walked with a Zombie as an example of what the structuralist theorist Tzvetan Todorov calls the “fantastic,” in which it is ultimately impossible to determine whether seeming supernatural (or “marvelous”) events in a narrative ultimately have a rational explanation (which would move them into the realm of what Todorov calls the “uncanny”). In particular, Telottte notes how it is impossible to reach a final interpretation of the events of I Walked with a Zombie because of the complex narrative and rhetorical structure of the film, including a shifting narrative voice and effective use of lighting and shadows (typical of Lewton’s films, which contributed significantly to the development of the style of lighting that later came to be associated with “film noir”) to create an air of mystery. For Telotte, “All that we can be certain of at the end of Zombie is how very fragile our normal environment is and how inadequate to experience our rationalizations remain” (58).

I Walked with a Zombie indicates the potential of the voodoo zombie motif to create an atmosphere of mystery and danger. But it is such a deftly structured work of art that it is not a film whose effects would be easy to duplicate, which might help to explain the fact that it did not inspire a spate of imitators, though additional zombie films did occasionally appear, as in the 1957 Karloff vehicle Voodoo Island. Still, it was not until George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968 that the genre would re-emerge as a prominent element of American horror film—and this time with an entirely new kind of zombie with little or no connection to voodoo or other sources in Third-World folklore. That film, discussed in detail here, became the foundational work of the modern zombie genre, though it did not itself immediately inspire a spate of direct imitators.

One could argue that the next significant zombie film was Romero’s own The Crazies (1973), though this film again pointed toward an entirely new sort of zombie. In this new kind of zombie film, the zombies are not brought back from the dead, but are instead simply infected with some sort of contagion that makes them act like a vicious, mindless mob. Here, secret military bio-weapons research goes awry when a contagion (the film can’t seem to decide whether it’s viral or bacteriological) is accidentally released, infecting a small Pennsylvania town. Those infected sometimes just die; other times they become crazed killers, with all inhibitions removed. We don’t really see very much of this kind of “crazy,” though. Most of the film focuses on the military’s heavy-handed attempts to contain the outbreak in the town and of a central group of characters to escape both the contagion and the military forces that occupy the town. The military considers nuking the town, but that ultimately seems unnecessary as the town’s population is eventually all contained and accounted for. Unfortunately, frantic attempts to find an effective cure fail, partly because a scientist who makes an important breakthrough is killed in the confusion and partly because a main character, who seems immune, is herded away with the rest of the survivors, giving scientists no opportunity to study him. Meanwhile, the film ends ominously as reports come in that the infection might have escaped the town after all, with reports of a second outbreak as far away as Louisville. There are almost no crazy zombies on display in this one, but of course the real “crazies” here are the shadowy military forces that would develop such a contagion in the first place and that would then react so callously (and incompetently) once it is released. Pretty much typical of its era, when a combination of Vietnam and Watergate had rendered American popular culture highly suspicious of and cynical about all sources of authority, especially the military. This film makes for a very interesting comparison with the culture of today, which is possibly even more cynical, but less outraged—and less focused on the military, which seems to have become virtually sacred in many circles.[3]

The Crazies was Romero’s only effort at creating this new kind of “diseased” zombie, but it was picked up on almost immediately by young Canadian director David Cronenberg, who took it in disturbing new directions with Shivers (1975), a film that already contains many of the characteristics that would come to be associated with the director’s unique style. In a rather classic horror-film mode, Shivers involves the inhabitants of a luxury high-rise apartment building (Starliner Towers, located on an island outside of Montreal), who find their building invaded by weird parasites produced as a result of the experiments of Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), a mad scientist who lives in their midst. Here the similarities to the relatively demure traditional horror films up to that time end. For one thing, the parasites turn those they infest into ravening sex maniacs, and the film features numerous graphic scenes of rape and nudity as those who are infected sexually assault the uninfected, in the process transferring the parasite to their victims. To this extent, the film is a fairly transparent allegory about venereal disease, and indeed another scientist in the film, Dr. Rollo Linski (Joe Silver), at one point describes the parasites as a “combination aphrodisiac and venereal disease.”

However, Shivers goes well beyond this simple allegorical interpretation. For one thing, the parasites are produced out of Hobbes’s neo-Freudian belief that civilization had made human beings unhappy and unhealthy by distancing them from their natural animalistic inclinations and that a truly better world could be achieved by stripping away inhibitions and allowing individuals to act on their natural erotic impulses. In this way, the film interrogates many of the assumptions of the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s, while also engaging an intellectual tradition that goes back not only to Freud but to nineteenth-century degeneration theory.

Further, in its depiction of the assault of the parasites on the human body, Shivers goes beyond anything seen in commercial cinema to that time. The mob of infected maniacs is in many ways reminiscent of the cannibalistic zombies of Night of the Living Dead, but Cronenberg’s film is far bloodier and more graphic. Particularly shocking is a bloody scene (clearly anticipating the notorious “chest-burster” scene of 1979’s Alien)in which one host, Nicholas Tudor (Allan Kolman), has several of the parasites burst through his abdomen. One of these then leaps onto the face of Linski, who has come to the high-rise to try to fight the infestation. As it lands on Linksi, it apparently secretes a sort of acid that begins to burn its way through the skin. When Linski attempts to fight off the parasite, he is attacked and beaten to a bloody pulp by Tudor. Ultimately, the parasites win out, and the inhabitants of the high-rise issue forth into the countryside to spread the contagion as the film comes to an ominous end.

Cronenberg continued in zombie-contagion mode with Rabid (1977), which opens as Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) the head of Keloid Clinic, discusses with his wife, Dr. Roxanne Keloid (Patricia Gage), and their business partner, Murray Cypher (Joe Silver), the possibility of turning their clinic into the flagship of a chain of franchised plastic surgery clinics. Roxanne and Cypher are enthusiastic about the idea, but Dan is reticent, noting that he has no desire to become the “Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery.” Then, a motorcycle crash near the clinic sends Rose (played by former porn star Marilyn Chambers) into emergency surgery, where Dan, lacking the facilities he needs for a conventional operation, decides to gamble on an experimental procedure to repair her injuries. As a result of this procedure, Rose’s tissue begins to evolve in weird directions. In particular, she develops a strange, vulva-like wound under her arm from which a tentacle-like appendage emerges and injects those who come near her (Keloid himself will eventually be one of the victims) with a contagion (essentially a form of super rabies) that turns them into crazed, drooling zombies, attacking anyone who comes near them. Meanwhile, their saliva contains the contagion, and anyone bitten by them in turn becomes a zombie.

The authorities react quickly, dispatching expert teams to kill the zombies and destroy their bodies. Nevertheless, the contagion seems to be spreading. Rose is essentially a carrier only; she remains unaffected by the contagion. However, she is eventually killed by one of the zombies, and the film ends as her body is picked up by one of the government disposal teams, though it is unclear whether they will be able to hold the contagion in check.

Rabid is in many ways a fairly conventional zombie-contagion film, though its zombies also have a number of characteristics that would normally be associated with vampires—which is appropriate given that Romero’s zombies had been inspired by Richard Matheson’s vampires in his 1954 novel I Am Legend. Meanwhile,the wound and tentacle under Rose’s arm, composed of tissue that has evolved from her own but that is now alien to her, prefigures the sort of striking (and often horrifying) images of the mutability and permeability of the human body that would mark Cronenberg’s work for years to come. Meanwhile, the fact that Rose’s problems begin with a traffic accident also anticipates one of Cronenberg’s major fascinations: the way our technology often causes violent damage to the physical body. Vehicle crashes are, after all, the quintessential example of technology gone wrong, with often dire consequences for humanity.

Rabid, incidentally, was remade with the same title by Jen and Sylvia Soska in 2019. Much of the plot is very similar to the original, with much more advanced visual effects. In addition, the remake focuses much more on the experience of Rose (now played by Laura Vandervoort), rather than on the vampire/zombies. For one thing, Rose becomes the unwitting victim of a series of men, giving the film a feminist slant. The Soskas also add extra layers of complexity with a satire of the fashion industry and with the fact that Rose’s experimental treatment is performed not by Dr. Keloid, but by a second doctor to whom he refers her, Dr. William Burroughs (played by Ted Atherton). Burroughs (whose name is a reference to the novelist William S. Burroughs, whose 1959 novel Naked Lunch was adapted to film by Cronenberg in 1991) turns out, meanwhile, to be an all-out mad scientist whose research initiated in his attempts to find a way to cure his wife’s cancer but has now turned to something much more sinister and monstrous. (This film also contains a suggestion that humans were already monstrous to begin with, given their penchant for consuming the flesh of dead animals—though the unfortunate Rose had been a vegetarian all along.)

Still, it was not until Romero’s own 1978 followup, Dawn of the Dead,that the zombie genre really began to pick up steam in the direction that had been pointed to in Night of the Living Dead. Dawn of the Dead is set largely in a shopping mall that has been invaded by zombies, who have apparently come there because of an unconscious drive related to their pre-zombie conditioning as consumers programmed to congregate automatically in the mall. Meanwhile, the still-human characters who take refuge in the mall, taking perhaps a bit too much pleasure in slaughtering the zombies they find there, seem almost mesmerized by the abundance of commodities they find around them in the mall, seeming sometimes so enthralled that they forget the apocalyptic conditions in which they find themselves. One of the principal points made by the film is that, in many ways, the zombies don’t behave all that differently than they did in their former lives as humans. They are still mindless consumers, still going through programmed motions, rather than thinking for themselves.

Dawn of the Dead was co-written by Italian horror master Dario Argento, who worked extensively with Romero in the making of the film. Argento also produced a slightly modified version of the film for European distribution, entitled Zombi in its Italian release, which actually slightly preceded the American release of Dawn of the Dead. That film was such a success that it inspired an immediate sequel in Zombi 2 (1979, aka Zombie), directed by Lucio Fulci, another famed Italian horror director. Zombi 2 drops most of the political emphasis of Romero’s films in favor of spectacular bloody visuals and striking scenes such as an underwater fight between a zombie and a shark. Fulci’s zombies also clearly owe a lot to Romero’s, though they are now uglier and stronger, if still slow and clumsy. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Zombi 2 is its attempt to unite the tradition of Caribbean voodoo zombies with that of Romero’s more secular zombies, including a vague suggestion that Romero’s zombies might have actually been imported from the Caribbean. Zombi 2 was ultimately succeeded by the Italian films Zombi 3 (1988) and Zombi 4 (1989, aka After Death), which again emphasize gruesome visuals more than political commentary.

The Italian zombie film tradition did produce one of the most unusual zombie films of all time in the form of Cemetery Man (1994), though this film is officially an Italian-French-German co-production and stars English actor Rupert Everett as the suggestively named Francesco Dellamorte. The film is based on a 1991 novel by Tiziano Sclavi, who is also the writer of the comic Dylan Dog, to which it bears several similarities. Cemetery Man is a truly unusual “zombie” film, with liberal dashes of comedy and lots of strangeness thrown in for good measure. Dellamorte, aided by his (apparently) mute and mentally challenged sidekick Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), is the caretaker at a cemetery where the dead have a tendency to arise soon after burial, leaving him with the responsibility of putting them back to death. This experience, along with another in which he inadvertently kills his lover (played by Anna Falchi), thinking she is a zombie, seemingly unhinges Dellamorte to the point where he has trouble distinguishing between life and death, or reality and fantasy, which in turn sends him on a murder spree through the Italian mountain town where the cemetery is located. On the other hand, it’s a little unclear whether Dellamorte was insane all along, whether there actually are any zombies at all, and so on. In the end Dellamorte and Gnaghi decide to leave town to see what the rest of the world looks like, only to discover that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to exist. It’s never entirely clear what is real and what is illusion in this film, with the possible implication that the same applies to life in general.

Romero’s original zombie trilogy was completed with the release of Day of the Dead in 1985. What this film loses from the focus on consumerism in Dawn, it replaces with an interesting meditation on authority and society, structuring itself essentially around an opposition between the military vs. science. Here, the zombie apocalypse seems to have driven the military into an extreme quest to restore authority, while the main scientist figure, Dr. Matthew Logan (Richard Liberty), is pretty much a mad scientist, continually referred to within the film as “Frankenstein.” Indeed, Logan turns out to be as much into authority as the military, spending all his research time trying to train the zombies to do his bidding. (On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to have any particularly evil agenda in mind in doing so, other than avoiding getting eaten.) So the only really functioning society in this film is the personal relationship (involving mutual trust and respect) that develops among a handful of individuals who remain sane and apart from the fracas (though, as civilians, they are somewhat more aligned with the scientists than the military). They also remain equals, with no one in charge. These individuals include the black man (now a Jamaican helicopter pilot) and white woman (a medical doctor, apparently) who tend to be at the center of Romero’s zombie films. They are also joined by a hard-drinking Irishman, so even the “white guy” is a bit ethnic. The three escape from the facility in Florida where they’ve been holed up with the scientists and soldiers, while everybody else gets eaten. They then fly to a tropical island, ostensibly to live out their lives as peacefully as possible, also ostensibly ending Romero’s zombie sequence.

The zombie film began to show more variety with Night of the Comet (1984), one of the signature sf/light cult horror films of the 1980s, patching together a number of common motifs and adding in a touch of youthful hipness to produce a fun variant on the zombie subgenre. Here, a comet passes close to earth and somehow zaps most of the population (at least in Southern California) to dust, while turning the rest into killer zombies. A few individuals who were in shielded environments when the comet passed remain unaffected, including a trio of young people comprising the wise-cracking eighteen-year-old Regina “Reggie” Belmont (Mary Catherine Stuart), her younger cheerleader sister Samantha “Sam” Belmont (Kelli Maroney), and Hector Gomez (Robert Beltran, later of Star Trek: Voyager fame). Meanwhile, the requisite government research team that tries to deal with the crisis turns out to be more of a threat than the zombies. The young folks survive, of course, and even pick up a couple of kids along the way—as well as a boyfriend for Sam, so that everyone can presumably start mating and rebooting the human race. This one is mostly tongue-in-cheek, intentionally hip, and aimed at younger audiences, which explains some of the cult appeal it has had over the years.

1985 saw the release of Return of the Living Dead, a spoofy zombie film that builds directly on Romero’s zombie films but takes the material into more overtly comic directions. Return is based on a novel by Romero’s former collaborator John Russo. Indeed, the premise of Return is that Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story involving military experiments to re-animate the dead and that some leftover corpses from that experiment are now in storage in the warehouse of a medical supply company in Louisville, Kentucky. However, the story was modified significantly by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who also directed. (O’Bannon, a former film-school pal of John Carpenter, was best known as the co-writer of Alien.)

The film gets going when incompetent employees of the medical supply firm (pretty much everybody in this film is incompetent) accidentally open up the storage drum containing one of the corpses; in the process they not only reanimate and release the corpse but somehow manage to spill the chemicals in which it was stored into a neighboring graveyard, reanimating all the corpses there as well. Considerable comic mayhem ensues, much of it involving a group of teen punks thrown in, presumably, to attract young audiences. Efforts to battle the zombies prove ineffectual, partly because these zombies are nearly unstoppable. Unlike Romero’s zombies, they are quite fast, well before the famed fast zombies of 28 Days Later; meanwhile, destroying their brains doesn’t even help. Meanwhile, speaking of brains, this film did make another important contribution to zombie mythology by having its zombies lust not for human flesh in general, but specifically for brains. In the end, the feds firebomb Louisville to incinerate the zombies, which is the only thing that stops them, but there are indications that the fix isn’t entirely effective. The film, however, was effective enough to spawn a comic zombie franchise all its own, eventually including five films and paving the way for a spate of zombie comedies (“zom-coms”) to come.

Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps (1986) is a semi-serious zombie movie in which alien slugs from outer space crawl into the bodies of humans (dead or alive doesn’t seem to matter), turning those humans into zombies—and breeding grounds for new alien slugs, thus quickly spreading the zombification. In the end, the slugs are all burned up in a house fire—except some escape and head straight for the local cemetery to make more zombies. The film then ends inconclusively, as an alien ship arrives, possibly to clean up the slug problem, which was unleashed on earth by accident to begin with. That sounds pretty serious, though it’s all just a bit over the top, and meanwhile, much of the action centers around Corman University, while all the major characters, such as Chris Romero, Cynthia Cronenberg, Ray Cameron, and James Carpenter Hooper, are named after well-known directors of horror films, giving the whole thing a rather tongue-in-cheek quality.

The serious zombie subgenre went into a bit of a lull after the completion of Romero’s original trilogy, but interesting films did continue to appear. Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), based on the novel by Stephen King and scripted by King himself, is a truly unusual zombie film that depends on the expedient of Native American magic to resurrect the dead. Here, young doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) moves with his family into a new house in a pastoral New England setting that is disrupted by the fact that oil tankers periodically come careening through on a two-lane highway that passes right in front of the house. Those trucks and that highway (which clearly serve as a vague commentary on the destructive impact of industrial modernity, perhaps especially of the oil industry) eventually take out both the family cat and Louis’s young son Gage, both of whom Louis buries in a former Native American graveyard that had been abandoned because the soil went “sour.” This souring makes it possible to resurrect the dead; unfortunately they come back evil and vicious, so Louis has to re-kill both his cagt and his son, but not before Gage also kills his own mother. Apparently not a quick learner, Louis immediately decides to bury his wife in the haunted burial ground as well. Not a good idea. As the film ends, she returns and kills Louis. The acting isn’t great in this one, though Fred Gwynne is a hoot as the crusty neighbor. This one also doesn’t have the highest production values, but there’s a lot going on. In addition to the potential critique of modernity, there’s a bit of a return of the repressed motif involving the Native Americans, echoing that in The Shining. The film also resembles The Shining (surely the greatest film adaptation of a King novel) in that it locates horror within the heart of the nuclear family, a key focus in much of King’s work.

Incidentally, a second adaptation of this novel was released in 2019, with the same title. This remake has improved production values and better actors, though the latter isn’t always a good thing—John Lithgow replaces Fred Gwynne, for example, but isn’t nearly as much fun. There are a few other gratuitous changes (such as having an oil tanker truck kill the Creeds’ daughter, rather than son), but mostly it’s the same story, though the switch in kids does provide for a rather scary ending. The political implications of the original are obscured, rather than clarified, though. All in all, this one seems a pointless attempt simply to squeeze more money out of the property, rather than an attempt to make it into a better film. The remake did gross over $112 million off a budget of $21 million, but it wasn’t really a huge hit.

Speaking of remakes, Romero’s own zombie franchise began to stir back to life in 1990, with the release of a remake of Night of the Living Dead, directed by legendary makeup artistTom Savini, who had done the special effects/makeup for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead (1985). Among other things, this film is able to take advantage of the act that it can assume that the zombie mythology virtually invented by Romero in 1968 would now be well known to the audience. It also profits from the fact that it is based on Romero’s own revision of the original script and was made with his full cooperation. Perhaps the biggest difference from the original is that Barbara (now played by Patricia Tallman) is reconfigured to be such an effective zombie fighter that she even survives the film, much in the mode of the “Final Girl” characters that had become so popular in the slasher films of the 1980s.

On the other hand, the elevation of Barbara in this film perhaps comes at the expense of the Ben character, who is now played by African American actor Tony Todd, who would soon go on to horror film immortality as the title character in the 1992 film Candyman, in which the issue of race is overtly foregrounded. That a black actor would also be cast in this remake suggests that the decision to make Ben black was now a deliberate one, rather than an accident of the audition process. On the other hand, because of Barbara’s greater role in this film (she, for example, is the one who kills Cooper), Ben is less central as a character. His death is even made somewhat less poignant in the sense that he does indeed become a zombie before being cut down by zombie hunters.

In 2002, with the release of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the zombie film began to achieve unprecedented prominence in contemporary popular culture. You can read a full discussion of that film, known primarily for its effective use of ultra-violent “fast” zombies, here. 28 Days Later spurred a great deal of activity in the zombie subgenre, including its own 2007 sequel, 28 Weeks Later. Directed by Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, this one has a much higher budget than the original, which mostly means more special effects, though it also means the ability to hire fancier actors, though some of these are wasted. Idris Elba, for example, has very little to do except look stern and troubled over the difficult decisions he has to make as the commander of the U.S. military forces occupying post-apocalypse Britain. Robert Carlyle has a much better and more complex role as a survivor-turned-zombie, though the characters in general are not nearly as interesting as in the original. Here, half a year after the original film, the infected have presumably all died off, and the U.S. military is in charge of efforts to rebuild London and, ultimately, all of Britain. Those efforts fail, though, when the contagion is accidentally re-started, making the U.S. military look incompetent in their handling of the matter, then making them look even more dangerous and destructive than the “zombies” in their subsequent reaction to the new outbreak. Their heavy-handed response (“shoot everything”) still doesn’t work, though, and the plague eventually spreads to France and presumably will spread from there. Indeed, dark as it was, the first film had a “happy” ending of sorts; this one ends on an ominous note indeed. There is, here, some obvious commentary on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but the film seems only half-heartedly interested in such commentary. Mostly, it’s just spectacular action scenes (some of them a bit beyond believability), primarily having to do with the U.S. assault on London after the new outbreak, though there are some tense moments as zombies pursue two children (of Carlyle’s character) who attempt to make their way out of London with the help of a sympathetic U.S. army doctor (played by Rose Byrne) and a helpful American sniper (played by Jeremy Renner). In the end, the two children do survive (and make it out of Britain), which seems good, but then they are probably the ones who spread the contagion to France, which is not so good.

By the time of 28 Weeks Later, the success of 28 Days Later had already facilitated a 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and helped to lure Romero himself back to zombies. In particular, Romero was able to attract a far bigger budget than ever before for his fourth zombie film, Land of the Dead (2005). Here, Romero places class issues front and center in a post–zombie apocalypse Pittsburgh, where evil rich guy Paul Kauffman (Dennis Hopper), shielded from the surrounding world by fences and rivers, has established a sort of personal fiefdom, where he and his cronies live in high-rise luxury while the streets teem with the members of an oppressed underclass, struggling to organize against Kauffman’s domination—which results largely from his control of high-tech military technologies that allow him to send his minions out to scavenge for treasures in the surrounding zombie-dominated territories. Meanwhile, the zombies, like the Pittsburgh underclass with which they clearly have so much in common, are themselves, led by “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark), beginning to get organized, to resist Kauffman’s exploitation. In the end, Kauffman is killed when his oppressed minions revolt, then head for Canada in their high-tech armored vehicle, while the streets of Pittsburgh become contested terrain, with both the human underclass and the newly-intelligent zombies roaming the streets, possibly moving toward making common cause. Land of the Dead has its zany moments, but it’s ultimately a very serious and very political film[4].

After the relative fanciness of Land of the Dead, Romero returned to his low-budget roots with Diary of the Dead (2007), shot in a semi-documentary style by a group of University of Pittsburgh film students, who are also the main characters. This found-footage film is not quite as rough as The Blair Witch Project or even Cloverfield, but it definitely doesn’t look as slick as a conventional commercial Hollywood film. Basically, it’s a reboot (Romero called it a “rejigging”) of the entire franchise, set in the opening days of the zombie apocalypse, though that event now seems to be occurring in 2007, rather than 1968. This film also seems more serious and more clearly apocalyptic than in the original film, as it quickly becomes clear that the zombies are pretty much everywhere and that the surviving humans are very much overmatched. Meanwhile, this scenario also allows Romero to focus on our new media culture, as the students constantly get information from the internet and other sources, while uploading their own. All of the new media that are available aren’t very helpful, though: the characters have access to far more information than in the initial film, but the information isn’t very reliable, especially if it comes from large commercial media companies, which intentionally distort the truth of what is happening in order to further their own nefarious agendas. Meanwhile, if many of the humans in the first film seemed even more savage than the zombies (who at least don’t enjoy killing humans, while many humans—especially hunter types, it would seem—take great pleasure in spectacularly destroying zombies). Thus, the film ends as the remaining students view a video of humans gleefully blowing up zombies and the main character (a woman, of course) says, “Are we worth saving? You tell me.” Probably the bleakest of Romero’s zombie films, it’s still a very fine one, as Romero once again demonstrates a facility to do new things with the genre.

He continued this demonstration in Survival of the Dead (2009), which is literally an immediate sequel to Diary of the Dead. Survival follows a renegade band of national guardsmen, led by Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang), picking up just after they have robbed the film students in Diary. Their adventures eventually take them to an island off the coast of Delaware, where a long-running feud between two rival Irish ranchers has been complicated by the zombie apocalypse, as one rancher wants to kill all the zombies ASAP, while the other wants to preserve them in the hope of learning to live with them by teaching them to eat something other than human flesh. It’s all pretty silly, really, and this definitely seems to be the weakest of the Romero zombie films. Kim Newman calls it an “absurdist action movie” and declares the whole thing a bit “ridiculous,” though he does note its intricate plotting and its affinities with the late Westerns of Ford and Hawks (576). It has more comic elements than the films that immediately came before it, and in many ways it seems almost a parody of those films. The tough independent woman character, for example, is still there, but now she is a lesbian who taunts the male characters by openly masturbating in from of them. Meanwhile, the range war/feud on an island is the film’s most ridiculous aspect, but it does allow Romero to engage in some dialogue with the Western, while at the same time spoofing all that fantasizing in the earlier films about escaping the apocalypse by moving to an island. Such escapism, Survival seems to say, is not an effective way of dealing with this (or any) problem. Zombie apocalypses, like global climate change, have to be dealt with head-on. This one even ends on a hopeful suggestion that such head-on action can be effective: it shows a group of zombies downing and devouring a horse, suggesting that they can indeed be taught to eat something other than people.

The zombie film has been booming in the twenty-first century, even apart from the work of Romero. One aspect of this boom has been the increasingly global nature of zombie film production. For example, the Spanish film REC (2007) is an innovative zombie film that follows a cameraman and on-air reporter (Ángela Vidal, played by Manuela Velasco) as they accompany a local fire company to shoot footage for a late-night TV show. This assignment leads them into a building where there turns out to be a zombie outbreak, spread by bites as with normal zombies, but apparently caused initially by some sort of demonic possession. (Quarantine, the 2008 American remake, improves on this improbable scenario by dropping the possession and just making it a virus, but otherwise the Spanish film is much, much better.) REC is another found-footage film: what we see in the film is the footage shot by Vidal’s cameraman, which was found after the zombies had apparently overwhelmed Vidal and the cameraman and everybody else in the building. The footage seems improbably shaky for a professional cameraman, but you have to admit that he has an almost supernatural ability to get around quickly and catch everything on film. REC has received a great deal of positive critical attention, and the violent zombies (somewhat like those in 28 Days Later) are quite effective. REC was successful enough to become the founding work in a Spanish film franchise that so far includes four films.

The Canadian film Pontypool (2009) is a clever variant on the zombie film in which people are converted into murderous zombies via a “virus” that is apparently transmitted through language, rather than by biological viruses. It’s a low-budget effort that doesn’t really show us much of the zombies, though. In fact, it solves that problem by being set in a local radio station in the Canadian village of Pontypool, as word of the zombie infection come in and the station, primarily through its news anchor Grant Mazzie (Stephen McHattie), attempts to report on the phenomenon. This one requires considerable suspension of disbelief, but McHattie is terrific, as always, which helps to make this one highly entertaining. Another highlight is local physician John Mendez (Hrant Alianak), who is a particularly bizarre character. As a man of science, he seems absolutely fascinated by the outbreak, about which he discourses almost with glee, babbling almost endlessly, even though much of what he says is that it might be important to stop talking to avoid further transmission of the language-based contagion. Mazzie and the station’s producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) manage to develop an apparent fix by attempting to disrupt the functioning of language. However, news reports broadcast over the ending credits suggest that this fix ultimately failed and that the outbreak has now spread beyond Pontypool, though it also appears that media reports concerning the phenomenon are not highly reliable, having to do with the particular obsessions of the various media as much as with what is actually going on.

Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013) brought the zombie film into the realm of big-budget action films in a blockbuster starring Brad Pitt. In this film, which grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide (making it easily the top-grossing zombie film of all time), a global zombie outbreak occurs as a result of a viral infection, which puts medical research front-and-center in the fight to find a vaccine for the virus and thus to give humans an important weapon in their attempt to take back the earth. Such positive figurations of science in recent zombie films often given them a more science fictional feel; in the meantime, such figurations are often, as in World War Z, accompanied by suggestions that the virus arose from natural causes rather than from the efforts of scientists who were improperly tinkering with nature, making it much easier for the film to depict science as a tool of human salvation rather than as the source of the possible destruction of the human race. In the end, though, this film is more about action scenes than about science, which helps to account for its box-office success.

Particularly interesting among the postapocalyptic zombie films of the 2010s is the thoughtful British entry The Girl with All the Gifts (2014), which explores a number of issues relating to the demonization of the Other, treating zombies as a metaphor for racial and other forms of difference. The Girl with All the Gifts (directed by Colm McCarthy and scripted by M. R. Carey based on his 2014 novel of the same title), is a British postapocalypticfilm in which a future Great Britain is slowly being overrun by mindless zombies (here called “hungries”), who are insatiably driven to feed on any living flesh they encounter. The hungries are fast and violent zombies in the mode of 28 Days Later.They have been created by a fungal infection that is spread by zombie bites, though the infection is in the process of mutating into a new airborne form, which will spread much more carefully. Scientists, meanwhile, are rushing to develop a vaccine against the infection, which they hope they can derive from experiments on a group of “second-generation” zombie children, who share the insatiable need to feed on flesh but have retained their human cognitive abilities.

The girl of the title, who has been named “Melanie” (Sennia Nannua), is one of these zombie children. The early part of the film details the brutal way in which she and the other children are treated by their human captors, making a strong point about the human tendency to demonize those who are different. In the course of the film, however, Melanie joins a group of humans who are on the run from the spreading zombie horde, desperately trying to get to safety. Raised and educated by humans, Melanie sympathizes with their cause, even though she realizes they think of her as a dangerous animal. Ultimately, however, she realizes that she and the other zombie children can survive only if the humans who so despise them can be eradicated; she decides to take steps to aid in the spread of the infection and in the demise of conventional humanity, making the zombie children a new step in the evolution of the human species. Meanwhile, as the film ends, she gathers a group of the zombie children and organizes them into a class that is taught by her former human teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), readying them to inherit the earth.

Also unusually thoughtful, but a bit clunky as a film, is Maggie (2015), which turns away from action toward a sensitive depiction of the effect a zombie plague might have on individual people and families. The film features Arnold Schwarzenegger as Wade Vogel, the father of the title character (played by Abigail Breslin), a young girl who becomes infected with a zombie viral contagion. Vogel struggles (in a critically-praised performance by Schwarzenegger) to take care of and protect his daughter as best he can, unable to bring himself to turn her in to the authorities or to kill her himself, even as her infection becomes worse and worse.

Yeon Song-ho’s Train to Busan brings the zombie film to South Korea, which is virtually overrun by an army of fast zombies that quickly sweeps across the nation, driving the surviving humans to seek shelter in a fortified enclave near the city of Busan. As the title suggests, much of the action takes place on a train that is trying to reach this enclave, though the train itself is infested with zombies. This film features unusually good action sequences and a particularly tense ending, but it is perhaps most remarkable for the moments in which heroic individuals sacrifice themselves in order to save others, making it an oddly uplifting film despite the fact that the zombies seem to winning. But then, like all the best zombie films, Train to Busan is about zombies only on the most literal level. Its more important subject is the need, especially in times of crisis, for people to work together and to help each other in order to retain their humanity and to survive as a species. And it delivers that message quite effectively.

One of the most interesting recent zombie films is the French-Canadian film Ravenous (2017), directed by Robin Aubert. For one thing, this film adds an unusual element to its zombie mythology by suggesting that the zombies have developed a culture of sorts, thus demonstrating a bit more intelligence and ability to work together than is usually found in movie zombies. Perhaps more importantly, Ravenous is aesthetically reminiscent more of European art films than of other zombie films. It certainly has its moments of tense zombie action, but all in all it is a relatively quiet and elegant film, both thoughtful and funny at times, that pays a great deal of attention to its aesthetic aspects. It also contains some strong allegorical tied to the specific history and politics of Quebec.

Another interesting recent zombie film from Canada is Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019), a film from a director who is off to a promising start to a career as a First Nations filmmaker. Here, a viral zombie outbreak threatens the inhabitants of a Mi’gmaq reservation, leading to some rousing zombie action, including a couple of instances of spectacular gore. (Much of the most extreme violence is visited upon zombies, though the film also contains more than its share of scenes of zombies munching on the entrails of their human victims.) But the real strength of this film is its underlying political message. It turns out that the peaceful Mi’gmaq are immune to the virus, but they still serve as an appetizing food source for the infected. Thus, the survivors find themselves holed up in a fortified compound while ravenous white zombies attack from all sides, essentially replicating in allegorical form the assault on Canada’s First Nations peoples by rapacious invading Europeans. Thus, if Romero’s zombies are, first and foremost, consumers, the zombies of this film can be seen as settler colonists bent on taking the lands of First Nations peoples.

Finally, any survey of recent zombie films has to take note of the Resident Evil sequence, beginning with the 2002 film of that title, based on a popular video game, and extending through Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016). In this sequence, which contains strong science fiction elements, research conducted by the sinister Umbrella Corporation leads to the release of a “T-virus” that causes a zombie apocalypse. There is some vague political commentary in this sequence, especially in the portrayal of the evil corporation. For example, we eventually learn that the “T-virus” was released intentionally as part of Umbrella’s plan to achieve global domination. Still, the sequence is notable primarily for its high-octane action scenes, especially those featuring Alice (Milla Jovovich), its formidable female protagonist.

Recent Zombie Comedies

The zombie films of the twenty-first century have been marked by a particularly strong dose of films that are essentially comedies, a phenomenon that was largely inspired by the success of Edgar Wright’s highly successful Shaun of the Dead (2004). You can read a full discussion of this film here. Shaun of the Dead was partly a comic response to the unremitting darkness of 28 Days Later, though it also responds to the fact that the zombie subgenre depends on excess and thus is always an excellent candidate for parody. It nevertheless uses the zombie format to make some telling satirical statements and is, in fact, a surprisingly effective zombie film in its own right.

Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007) is a special kind of zombie comedy that is not really a zombie movie, but a postmodern pastiche of a zombie movie that both pays homage to the grindhouse horror films of the 1970s and pulls out all the stops in trying to outdo those films in terms of every sort of over-the-top ridiculousness. It was released as part of a grindhouse throwback double feature along with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, and much of the visual texture of the film recalls the grindhouse films of the 1970s, with a clear influence from the Italian horror films of the period thrown in as well. The film combines preposterous dialogue, overly dramatic music, outrageous overacting, ludicrous levels of blood, gore, and bodily destruction (with a special award to the epic demolition of Tarantino’s character in his final scene), and impossible levels of graphic violence (with special nods to the zombie-chopping helicopter and to Rose McGowan’s machine-gun prosthetic leg—a direct descendent of Ash Williams’ chainsaw arm from Evil Dead II).

The humor of Planet Terror is so dark and so postmodern that it stands apart from the usual zombie comedy, though one could also say the same about something like Dead Snow (2009), a stylish Norwegian zombie film, featuring massive doses of blood and innards and strong comic elements. Here, a group of attractive young people go to a remote mountain cabin to hang out for a few days of fun—in a horror-film scenario so stereotypical that even they comment upon it within the film. To add a bit of variety, the zombie horde that subsequently attacks them is a zombified Nazi army unit left over from World War II, presumably serving as a reminder that Europe’s horrifying past can always return if we are not properly vigilant. Dead Snow, though, is clearly more interested in excessive gross-out fun than in serious political commentary. It was successful enough to enable a 2014 sequel, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, which features (among other things) a battle between Nazi zombies and resurrected Soviet zombies.

The Canadian film Fido (2006) stands out from most zombie comedies in the extent to which it effectively achieves social and political satire. It’s also funny, and thus combines some of the best characteristics of zombie comedy with those of Romero’s satirically-charged (but more serious) zombie films. Set in a version of 1950s America (the characterization of which is one of its funniest elements), the film posits a zombie outbreak caused by radiation from outer space, leading to an all-out war between humans and zombies. The humans win (sort of), but remain in a perpetual state of siege (because lingering radiation still tends to turn anyone who dies into a zombie, so that anyone who dies and doesn’t want to be a zombie has to be immediately beheaded). Meanwhile, the humans live in a paranoia-laced security state dominated by the corporate power of Zomcon, a huge corporation that leads the way in the management of the zombie problem. Human cities are enclosed by huge fence-like walls, while zombies roam free in the “wild zones” that constitute the majority of the world. Meanwhile, within the cities, zombies are domesticated and used as workers and servants (or sex slaves, or even pets) through the use of high-tech shock collars. Indeed, zombies seem to do most of the work and are clearly indispensible to the human economy, even though they are feared and despised, and much energy is devoted to trying to keep them out, much in the way that immigrants have often been treated in our own world. Anyway, the commentary on Cold War–era America is pretty much spot on, made all the more so by the strong subtextual suggestions that Patriot Act America is pretty much the same way, hating and fearing the outside world and attempting to enclose itself in a cocoon of privilege. And this phenomenon has only gained momentum in real-world America in the past few years. One thinks here of Richard Slotkin’s notion that the American national identity depends (and has long depended) upon a vision of ourselves as engaged in a “savage war” against unspeakable others.

The Mad (2007) combines the hillbillies from hell subgenre of horror with the zombie plague subgenre, as a carload of city folks heads into the country on vacation, only to be attacked by murderous locals infected by eating meat from cows with mad cow disease—or something. Actually, it is never clear exactly what is wrong (the infected meat actually attacks people on its own, so it goes well beyond mad cow), or even if the folks attacking our heroes are really zombies. As Dr. Jason Hunt (Billy Zane), the lead protagonist, complains when everyone else concludes that they are being attacked by zombies: “I think you’re all just misusing the term ‘zombie.’ I think they’re just mad cow people.” Of course, they’re all high on pot, so their judgment might not be as clear as it could be, but then that’s pretty much how this whole thing goes. It’s all pretty lame, but it’s lame on purpose, and it’s pretty funny. It also nicely points out how close to being lame zombie movies always are, which makes George Romero’s achievements seem all the more impressive (though this one is really closer to Romero’s The Crazies than to his Dead films). Anyway, Zane is terrific as the deadpan dad (a respectable medical professional who really would rather be a rock star) amidst all the chaos, and this one is worth watching for his performance alone, even though some reviewers complained that his performance was too understated as opposed to the spectacular overacting that he sometimes does.

The zombie contagion of Zombieland (2009) also derives from mad cow disease. Meanwhile, for a zombie comedy, this film has an unusual amount of violent zombie action, partly because one of the leading characters, “Tallahassee” (Woody Harrelson), bears such a strong hatred for zombies, mostly because they killed his young son. Other uninfected characters include the nerdy young “Columbus” (Jesse Eisenberg), the sexy “Wichita” (Emma Stone), and “Little Rock” (Abigail Breslin), Wichita’s younger sister. (In the wake of the zombie apocalypse, most people go by nicknames derived from their home cities, thus depersonalizing them and reducing the chance that they will become attached to one another, given that any of them could be killed and/or zombified at any moment.) A great deal of bonding does occur among these four characters, however, as they make their way across a postapocalyptic America to the Pacific Playland amusement park in Los Angeles. There are also a number of truly funny moments, especially one involving an unfortunate Bill Murray, who plays himself in the film. There’s even a zombie clown. There’s also a sequel—Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)—that features the same four central characters, plus a return appearance by Murray.

The Cuban film Juan of the Dead (2011) signals, in its very title, its debt to Shaun of the Dead. Here, a group of slackers become reluctant zombie hunters, somewhat in the mode of the core characters in Shaun. There are other moments that reference the zombie genre as well, including one puzzled discussion of why some zombies are fast and some are slow, and at least one direct allusion to Jackson’s Dead Alive, when one English-speaking religious fanatic promises to “kick ass for the Lord” in battling the zombies, only to be immediately, if accidentally, killed by one of the “heroes.” The core characters here are heroes for hire, by the way, attempting to profit from the zombie apocalypse by charging a fee for each zombie killed, though they never really collect very much, because pretty soon almost everyone else is already a zombie. In the end, the survivors flee the island, except for the heroic Juan, who decides to stay behind and try to make the best of things there, despite the impossible odds that are stacked against him. U.S. reviewers have emphasized the way in which this film lampoons the Cuban government and media for blaming the whole thing on the U.S. and for satirizing the basically dysfunctional nature of almost everything in Cuba. And there is that. However, what these reviewers seem to have missed is the fact that the anti-U.S. paranoia in this film is not all that ill-placed, considering how hard the U.S. has worked to wreck things in Cuba. Nor have most U.S. reviewers seem to have comprehended the film’s admiration for those who stay behind and try to make a go of it in Cuba despite it all, while at the same time understanding why many would leave. This is a complex and multi-pronged political satire whose genre probably makes it seem simpler than it is. Not as consistently funny as Shaun, but significantly more complex politically, Juan resides in a changed cultural context that adds a real freshness to the zombie comedy.

Another zom-com that looks back to Shaun of the Dead quite directly is Cockneys vs Zombies (2012), which is much better than one might expect from the title. It’s a very British zombie comedy, following in the footsteps of Shaun, but involving some different demographics. Its main group of zombie fighters is a bumbling gang of young cockney bank robbers, who are in the midst of an inept attempt at a bank heist when a zombie apocalypse suddenly erupts throughout London, the zombies apparently having been released from underground by a construction project. But they’re not bad bank robbers—they are robbing the bank to raise money to save their grandfather’s retirement home from being demolished by developers. Meanwhile, the denizens of the home become a second set of (superannuated) zombie fighters, leading to some of the film’s finest comic moments. There are also a couple of amusing comments on the contemporary prevalence of the zombie genre, as when one of the gang notes that the zombies have to be shot in the head and is asked how she knows that. “Everyone knows that,” she shrugs. There’s also a great moment when one of the robbers battles a baby zombie, eventually drop-kicking it to oblivion. Apparently, zombie babies are just funny, for some reason, as we learned from Dead Alive. Anyway, Cockneys has plenty of comic moments, though it’s less silly than most zombie comedies, partly because it’s also a more legitimate action film (vaguely in the Guy Ritchie vein) than most zom-coms. It also has a bit more heart than the typical zom-com, and there are some genuinely touching moments. In the end, the zombies learn not to mess with the East End. Michelle Ryan (best known to American viewers as TV’s most recent bionic woman) is terrific as the most competent of the robbers. Meanwhile, one of the oldsters is played by none other than Honor Blackman, one of the most famed of all Bond girls. There are a few vague comments here on class and on the treatment of the aged, but this one is mostly just for fun. And it is that.

With Warm Bodies (2013), the zom-com even moves into the realm of the rom-com. Perhaps in response to the recent romanticization of vampires in novels and films such as the Twilight series, this film features a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between a human girl (Julie) and a zombie (“R”), who still has a number of human characteristics. Meanwhile, R and his gang of semi-human zombies help the humans of the film defeat an army of fully inhuman zombies, thus averting an apocalypse. In the end, R reverts to a fully human state, presumably signaling the beginning of a long, happy relationship with Julie. Notable for its individuation of R as a distinct individual (whereas zombies seem interchangeable in most zombie films), Warm Bodies adds still another wrinkle to the zombie subgenre, even if it is not one that seems likely to become a trend.

One zombie comedy that veers into the real of sheer silliness is Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012), a mockbuster that riffs on the equally silly (but higher budget) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It makes the same mistake as its model in treating its premise with entire seriousness, and doesn’t seem to embrace its own silliness. On the other hand, this vision of Honest Abe leading a small group of Union operatives (ultimately joined by some Confederates as well) in a fight against zombies is not quite as bad as you might think. Veteran workhorse character actor Bill Oberst, Jr. (who appeared in 15 films in 2012 alone), is terrific as Lincoln, though you almost feel sorry for him because he strives so hard for an effective portrayal in a film that doesn’t really need it. There are also some interesting touches in the introduction of a number of other historical personages, such as a young Teddy Roosevelt, who for some reason shows up as a boy amid the action in Savannah. We also learn that Lincoln cribbed part of the Gettysburg Address from his Southern prostitute zombie girlfriend (it’s a long story).

The zombie film also looks back to the nineteenth-century in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel of the same title (which itself, of course, riffs on Jane Austen’s 1813 original). Most of the comedy here simply comes from the incongruity of having zombies intrude into the world of Austen’s classic original, which can be quite funny in places (though it obviously helps if one is familiar with the Austen). Indeed, except for this incongruity, it’s a fairly conventional zombie film, even if the action sequences cannot match the best in the subgenre. The film depends heavily upon its central gimmick, which isn’t always successful, but it’s worth a watch, especially for Austen fans who are also zombie film fans.

Finally, the zombie comedy has even entered the world of indie-film maestro Jim Jarmusch, with the 2019 release of The Dead Don’t Die. In this film (discussed fully here), Jarmusch brings his typical sensibilities to bear on a zombie outbreak, allowing him to employ the subgenre as political commentary, but with a wry, ironic distance that seems to be under no illusion that it will actually make a difference in our attitudes toward things such as racism and climate change. Nevertheless, Jarmusch seems to be saying, we’re better off making art than just sitting and waiting for the world to end.

WORKS CITED

Abbott, Stacey. Undead Apocalyse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Lauro, Sarah Juliet, ed. Zombie Theory: A Reader, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

McIntosh, Shawn, and Marc Leverette. “Hybridity and Post-Human Anxiety in 28 Days Later,” Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, Scarecrow Press, 2008.

McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Haymarket Books, 2012.

McSweeney, Terence. “The Land of the Dead and the Home of the Brave: Romero’s Vision of a Post-9/11 America.” Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror.” Eds. Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula and Karen Randall. Bloomsbury, 2010, pp. 107–116.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Telotte, J. P. Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton. University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structuralist Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Cornell University Press, 1975.

NOTES

[1] The Walking Dead has even triggered a spinoff series, Fear the Walking Dead, which is now in its sixth season. Zombies have also appeared in the shorter mini-series format, as in the British series Dead Set (2008), created by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker.

[2] The Haitian Revolution not only triggered racist anti-Haitian ideas in America but also inspired American Leftist writers in the 1930s, when it was sometimes figured as a forerunner of a possible coming proletarian revolution. Historical novels such as Guy Endore’s Babouk (1934) and Arna Bontemps’ Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939). In addition, the Haitian revolution was the subject of C. L. R. James’s influential The Black Jacobins (1938), which became one of the leading intellectual inspirations behind the growing tide of anticolonial resistance that eventually swept away the great European nineteenth-century empires after World War II.

[3] The Crazies was remade in 2010, under the direction of Breck Eisner. Here, we see much more of the zombies, who are much scarier, largely due to the availability of special effects. Here, though, things go even more wrong, as the military really does nuke the town, then immediately sets out to give a nearby town the same treatment. And who knows where they will go from there.

[4] See, for example, McSweeney for an argument that Land of the Dead includes a strong critique of the Bush administration and its culpability in the events of 9/11.