Still not the biggest fan of zombie movies…

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.

(Again, the whole movie is up on YouTube; there’s even a colorized version.)

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.

C’mon, this party animal ain’t scary…

Also cool because Mama Maitresse is played by Zara Cully – that’s right, Mother Jefferson herself.

Four stars.

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.

9 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    Nothing wrong with this list.

    Nothing at all, but I’d include 28 Days Later – which was not only a Danny Boyle film, filled with a star-studded cast, but was also awesome too.

    Tell me I’m wrong.
    Go ahead, I triple-dare you. 😉

    1. Terrible-D

      Since you like the Haitian voodoo zombies, you should check out The Serpent and The Rainbow. A Wes Craven movie from 88 starring former U.S. president Bill Pullman.
      There is a non-graphic torture scene that’s making me shutter just thinking about it.

      1. Le Messor

        Is that what that movie is about?
        I kept seeing it mentioned and advertised, but it kept getting called ‘The thinking man’s Nightmare On Elm Street‘, and the thinking man has awful taste in movies. Soooo boring!

  2. I second 28 Days Later. It’s fantastic.

    A la Shaun if the Dead, I prefer my zombies with a sprinkling of laughter so I’d like to offer up these, should you ever find yourself facing these watching choices: Flight of the Living Dead, Fido (a Canadian movie starring Billy Connolly as the titular zombie on a leash), Boy Eats Girl (Irish film) and best of all – Black Sheep, a NZ film with zombie sheep!! (From the country where people are reportedly outnumbered by sheep 30:1. Horrifying.) Oh, and Undead, an Aussie film that is probably funnier to Australians, but is nevertheless a great example of going a long way on a small budget and ties the zombies in to a greater extraterrestrial narrative.

    1. Le Messor

      I saw Flight Of The Living Dead advertised in some comics a few years ago, and never saw or heard anything about it since. I didn’t even know it was a comedy. (Though I think I’ve figured out the ‘twist’ ending already.)

      Is Undead the one that opens with a meteor shower at a family BBQ? I haven’t seen past that opening.

      I did see Black Sheep, and it was funny, but has a few of those scenes (disembowelling, etc) that put Edo off.

  3. Simon

    What you should try is Jim Jarmusch’s THE DEAD DON’T DIE, which is kinda the Monty Python’s HOLY GRAIL or ROMANCING THE STONE of zombie apocalypses (with a touch of Carpenter creepiness).

    – “I really want to see Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die”

    Ahead of the curve, eh? Okay, s’more tangential zombies:

    * DEAD HEAT (1988, by Mark Goldblatt) — A zombie cop investigates his own death. Fun enough action/comedy (ala Bud Spencer & Terence Hill) with an over-the-top scene: a Chinese deli’s animals are reanimated in a way that’d make Harryhausen and Svankmajer proud. (Its defunct 310AM review)

    * DONNIE DARKO (2001, by Richard Kelly) — Cult classic with sci-fi zombies. The “manipulated living” enact helpful coincidences while the “manipulated dead” guide a reluctant savior. (Fittingly features LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and EVIL DEAD on a marquee.)

    * ZOMBI CHILD (2019, by Bertrand Bonello) — Historical fiction about zombie slavery. A girl from Haiti trying to fit in an elite school tells too much about Baron Samedi (shades of Dario Argento). Her voodoo arc is interspersed with realistic flashbacks about the drug-enslaving of her father and how he escaped to sire her.

  4. Alaric

    Not a fan of the zombie genre, either- I mean, yes, the zombie apocalypse idea is terrifying, but it’s a dreary sort of terror, rather than an exciting sort of terror. I love Shaun of the Dead, though- to me, it’s an example of how it’s possible to do something great with any genre. The whole idea that it would be hard to notice a zombie apocalypse because in the modern world people tend to shamble around like that anyway is brilliant.

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