Let’s Talk About Zombies!

Since the first zombie movie was released in 1932, the public has exploded with fanatics. What is it about reanimated cannibal corpses (forgive the accidental reference) that releases all those good ‘ole fashioned horror hormones?

Okay, so maybe there’s no such thing as “horror hormones,” but there should be. Am I right?

The first zombie film ever released was White Zombie (1932). This is excluding Frankenstein as the monster was not a cannibal and one of the most iconic attributes of zombies is their insatiable desire for (living) human flesh. The film was intriguing–not just because it starred one of my favorite actors of all time Bela Lugosi–but because it took place in Haiti where the zombie legend first originated. Voodoo priests would use blowfish powder to subdue victims. These victims would go into a deep sleep where their heartbeat and metabolism would slow enough to be pronounced dead (much like the affect atropine has). When the victim would eventually awaken, their memories would be so skewed that they’d believe they were still dead. Voodoo priests would use these “somnambulists” as their slaves.

Obviously, this definition has morphed over time as they often do. The word zombie now defines a reanimated corpse which shambles around, chewing on healthy people and spreading the disease like a mutated form of rabies. The only way to kill them is to either destroy their brain or burn them.

In modern day, the basic functions of a zombie haven’t changed much (aside from shambling). Many of the movies I’ve seen recently portray these masticating monsters as inhumanly fast and ridiculously strong. They can also leap extremely high. There must be a Superman reference in there somewhere.

Now what makes a zombie film exceptional? Well, this is obviously and opinion and varies from person to person. To me, a great zombie movie includes no explanation of what caused an outbreak. Speculation is fine. Movies have come up with a wide array of estimations. I’ve heard of a space virus from a meteorite, mutated flu virus, and a mutated rabies virus. A lot of times, films won’t explain it at all.

Actually, the game Last of Us was something I hadn’t heard before. A fungus. More precisely, the Cordyceps fungus which invades healthy tissue, eventually taking over the brain of its host. It’s an interesting take that impressed me. The zombies in the game who had been infected for the longest amount of time had fungus growing where the heads used to be. Last of Us was successful in its execution of everything zombie.

Video game rant aside, my favorite older zombie film would have to be Night of the Living Dead. Not only did the film include the typical zombie archetype, but everyone dies. The dawn emerges on the hero’s sanctuary. The night had been fraught with flesh-eating monsters and each of his companions had been one-by-one pecked off. As the lone survivor, he peers out the window to see a glimmer of hope–military men with guns. They’d come to save him! Alas, they believe he is “one of them,” and proceed to fire a shot into his head. The end. I get chills.

For me, the best modern-day zombie film would be Shaun of the Dead. Aside from the companionship of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost being my guilty pleasure, this film did everything right. There was no explanation for the zombie outbreak, the monsters were shamblers, and it was even humorous! Among those, there were subtle things that couldn’t be beat. Shaun (Pegg) has a routine–get up, play some video games, run to the corner store to buy some snacks, then bring them back to Ed (Frost) before heading off to work. The first day, the routine is shown as normal. But the second day (before either of the main characters realize the outbreak has happened), the routine for Shaun is normal, but the audience sees the previous days’ inhabitants have been replaced with zombies. And let’s not forget Frost becoming a zombie in the end and being kept as a pet.

Of course this is simply my humble opinion. I’d like to hear yours. What’s your favorite zombie movie? If you have more than one, please share!

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5 Comments

  1. I agree that Night of the Living Dead is probably the greatest of them all. Nothing I’ve seen since can match the last five minutes of that movie for both visceral and emotional power.

    Shaun of the Dead was good fun but didn’t really add anything to the genre. It was an affectionate homage.

    I would add two more. As a child, Plague of the Zombies scared me witless, even though the most disturbing scene is a dream sequence. But the sight of rotting corpses crawling from their graves is truly horrifying and I think that was the first film to do it. Fulci copied the scene for his tacky masterpiece Zombie flesh Eaters in the 80s.

    The modern zombie film I’ve enjoyed most, certainly the one that scared me, is REC. It was uncompromising and existed purely to soil the audience’s underwear.

    The villain of the tale, although I enjoyed it, is Zombieland. I think that was the tipping point – the moment when zombies ceased to be serious horror movie contenders. Even Shaun of the the Dead had some scary bits but Zombieland is just a teen fun date movie.

    And the zombies in White Zombie didn’t eat people. George Romero first put the flesh-eating dead on celluloid. The earliest mention in literature, I think, is in Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Reanimator from the 1930s, in which West’s undead victims break into his underground laboratory and eat him.

    • You are absolutely right about White Zombie. They do not consume flesh. However, the earliest mention in Literature would probably be Frankenstein (1818) and The Unknown Painter (1838), correct? I suppose depending on the usage of the word matters as well.

      P.S.I love Lovercraft stories as well. Had almost forgotten about Reanimator!

  2. Fun zombies: Return of the Living Dead
    Scary zombies: 28 Weeks Later (if it counts)
    Classic zombies: Dawn of the Dead/Night of…(tie)

    I know Re-Animator isn’t a classic zombie vehicle, but still…it fits, and I love it, so..honourable mention.

  3. I love all zombie apocalypse films. I however like it when they have an explanation as to why it happened. Some crazy movies are Zombie Strippers and Return of the living dead. Best one for me is the Dawn of the Dead remake.

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