I guess the post’s title kind of gives away my general conclusion, but bear with me anyway.
As I indicated in our roundtable on “Stuff We Don’t Get,” I’ve never really very keen on zombie or zombie apocalypse movies (although I don’t hate them as much as another staple of the horror genre, slasher flicks like the various Fridays the 13th and Nightmares on Elm St.). That’s why I’ve never watched, say, a single episode of Walking Dead (or read the comic) and I’ve steered clear of the recent spate of other zombie flicks that have been released over the past decade or so.
Over the past few weeks, though, I decided to re-evaluate my dislike of the sub-genre and also watch some of the classic zombie movies that I’d never watched before. I was, by the way, partly inspired to do so by the recent episode of the Planet 8 podcast on this topic (you can find it here, it’s worth a listen).
So here they are, just in time for Halloween, in both chronological order of release and my order of preference, from least to most liked.
White Zombie (1932)
A young couple, who are engaged to be married, meet on Haiti, where they plan to get married. However, their host, a wealthy (white) plantation owner, wants the young woman for himself, and when she spurns him, he enlists the aid of the appropriately named Murder Legendre, a local voodoo mage and lord of zombies (seriously, the labor force in his sugar cane mill are all zombies). Legendre devises a plot to poison the woman and then bring her back as a zombie who will be under the plantation owner’s control. Much unpleasantness ensues, but ultimately love conquers all…
This is arguably the first feature-length zombie movie, so it’s got a bit of historical significance. And that’s about it – I mean, I found it interesting in the way I find almost every old, black & white early films interesting, more as a historical artifact than anything else. But as entertainment, I found it a bit slow-moving despite the best efforts of Bela Lugosi, who played the villainous Legendre. Also, I wonder if even back then this movie was considered scary, because it’s really not. At all.
(By the way, the whole movie is up on YouTube.)
Two stars on my just-made-up-for-the-occasion five-star scale.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This one is so well-known I don’t think I need to provide a synopsis.
What can I say? This is the first time I sat down and watched this classic. And it’s pretty good – although I have to say that the scariest, or at least creepiest, part to me was that opening sequence at the cemetery: when you see that guy in the distance slowly moving toward the unsuspecting young man and woman visiting their father’s grave. Of course, the real horror is the behavior of the handful of people holed up in that house as they try to keep out the zombies (or rather, ghouls, as they’re called throughout the film) and argue about how to best deal with the problem. That and the ending really drive home the point that perhaps ordinary humans are as scary as any ghouls.
This is really one of the more important horror movies of the past 50 or so years in terms of its influence. It also set the foundation and/or popularized many of the fixtures of later zombie lore, such as zombies as eaters of human flesh, or zombies being able to turn normal humans into zombies with their bite. There’s also the ‘scientific,’ rather than supernatural, explanation for why recently deceased corpses become animated: here it’s suggested that the cause is some kind of radiation from a space probe that returned from Venus.
Three-and-half stars (knocked off a half-star because of that scene showing the ghouls munching on human remains – one of the primary reasons I’m not too fond of this genre).
Sugar Hill (1974)
This one, like White Zombie, brings zombies back to their supernatural, voodoo roots. A successful nightclub owner named Langston refuses to sell out to a local mob boss, who then has him killed. His girlfriend, professional photographer Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill, vows to get revenge on everyone involved, and to do so, she seeks out the aid an elderly voodoo priestess named Mama Maitresse, who in turn summons the lord of the dead himself, Baron Samedi. Sugar offers her soul for his aid, which Samedi provides in the form of an army of zombies, the corpses of former slaves.
All right, I have to say, I really enjoyed this one a lot, mainly because this is less a horror movie and more a blaxploitation revenge movie – and man, I love blaxploitation movies. The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, and the outcome is never in question, but it’s a very entertaining movie. There’s not much that’s very scary here – the zombies certainly look creepy, but they don’t try to eat anyone. And Baron Samedi, ostensibly a stand-in for Satan, is such a jovial character here that most of the time you smile whenever he appears.
Also cool because Mama Maitresse is played by Zara Cully – that’s right, Mother Jefferson herself.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Again, so well known it probably doesn’t need a synopsis, but just in case: the zombie apocalypse begins in London, which initially goes unnoticed by listless, down and depressed electronics store clerk Shaun (whose girlfriend just broke up with him) and his loser best friend and housemate Ed. Once they realize what’s going on, they set off on a mission to round up Shaun’s ex and his mother and get them to safety in a local pub. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned.
I know, this isn’t necessarily a horror movie, but it is certainly a zombie movie, and it is a pretty hilarious spoof of the zombie apocalypse films. Simon Pegg, as Shaun, and Nick Frost, as Ed, are excellent here, and it’s cool that Lucy Davis, the future Etta Candy, also appears.
Four-and-a-half stars (knocked off a half-star for the same reason as noted above: the scene of the disemboweling of that guy outside of the pub – much as we all probably thought that character had it coming, it was still unpleasant).
And so, as you can see, I mostly liked these flicks, but none of them have really changed my mind about zombie, and especially zombie apocalypse, movies: Mainly, I’d be open to seeing Romero’s two follow-ups to Night, i.e., Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, but that’s about it. And I really want to see Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die – just because a) it’s a comedy and b) it’s by Jarmusch.
P.S. Although it’s not a movie, also worth checking out is the second episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, “The Zombie” (originally aired in September 1974). It’s one of the better episodes, and a pretty good zombie story. In a manner similar to Sugar Hill, the zombie here takes out members of the local mob and zombies are portrayed as a magical phenomenon, tied to Haitian/wider Caribbean voodoo practices – which I prefer (that’s maybe why I like, say, the Tales of the Zombie comics). The whole episode is up on YouTube as well, although it’s now blocked for my country (it wasn’t a few years ago) so I couldn’t post a link. It’s easy enough to find though, so enjoy!
And Happy Halloween, everybody.