Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Beginner's Guide to Zombies

I made this as a Netflix top ten list, and thought I'd post it here along with a little bit of additional commentary. Maybe it's irrelevant now, since zombies are a sort of waning fad, but most lists I've seen online just cover random selections of "best" zombie films. I've tried to compile a list of films that encompass the whole breadth and history of the genre without taking my personal opinions into account too much. I do happen to like all of these films, but chose them for this list because each represents a significant milestone in zombie film history.

1. White Zombie (1932)

Zombies have their roots in Haitian voodoo which is the topic explored in this film. A zombie is a reanimated corpse brought to life and controlled by a "zombie master." This film was directed by the Halperin brothers, who got their start in silent films, and released this just a few years after "talkies" became mainstream. While it doesn't have the strongest plot, it does have Bela Lugosi, and it's important to know your roots.

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

This is the film that redefined the notion of zombies. When you think "zombies" you probably envision relentless hordes of the walking dead. George Romero was the first to subtract the controlling force of the zombie master from the equation and give his zombies an inexplicable hunger for human flesh. He doesn't offer any explanation for why the dead rise, but that's not what matters here. The horror of being attacked by a mindless violent mob is what characterizes zombies more than anything, and this is what Romero captures perfectly in this film.

3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

This is another Romero film, but it ups the ante as far as scope, gore, intensity, and social commentary. You can read it as a statement on consumerism or just a straight-up survival horror film. Either way it's considered by many to be THE classic zombie film.

4. Zombie (1979)

It wasn't long after the Romero films gained popularity that the Italian exploitation directors jumped on the bandwagon and began making knock-offs. Lucio Fulci was arguably one of the best Italian gorehound directors of the time, and several of his signature touches (including graphic eyeball trauma) are present in this film, which was banned in several countries for its gratuitous violence. The plot borders on nonexistent, but plot isn't really what this movie is about. This is probably the only film you'll ever see where a zombie fights an actual shark.

5. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The eighties brought with them a slew of terrible horror films infused with comedy, and this is one of the best. Concieved as an unauthorized sequel to Night of the Living Dead, this film follows a group of teenagers who unwittingly release the agent that caused the original outbreak of living dead from the original film. For some reason, these zombies can talk and hunger specifically for "brains..." (To my knowledge, this is where the moan of "braaains" originated.) It's lots of fun provided you don't take it too seriously.

6. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The voodoo roots of the zombie genre didn't die out completely with the advent of the Romero films. Wes Craven directed this film which is based on allegedly true events. While it's not a graphic gore-fest like some of its predecessors, it manages to maintain a high level of tension and a surprisingly strong plot throughout.

7. Braindead (Dead Alive) (1992)

This semi-obscure film is from director Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson) who got his start making low-budget B-horror films like this one. What it lacks in production value, it makes up for in gross-out comedic genius. With camera angles and characters that could have come straight from Terry Gilliam and some of the most disgusting slapstick ever recorded on film, this one slowly builds up to a climax so intense that you won't know whether to laugh or puke.

8. Resident Evil (2002)

The recent popularity of zombies owes significant debt to the presence of zombies in video games - notably the Resident Evil series. If you can't get your hands on the games, this movie can serve as an adequate stand-in. It captures the frenetic action of the games without forgetting that it's primarily a horror film.

9. 28 Days Later (2002)

One of the coolest things about zombies is that on a large enough scale they inevitably lead to the end of civilization. The post-apocalypse genre goes hand in hand with zombies, and the two have been blended since the early days of Romero. No other film does it quite as well as this one though. Its apocalyptic landscapes are eerily quiet and deceptively peaceful until you realize that they're just interludes between brutally violent scenes (not all of which are due to zombies).

10. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Peter Jackson's zombie-comedy was a little too extreme to make it into the mainstream, but this British film was a surprise hit on a scale that nobody anticipated. It's the perfect blend of comedy, horror, and romance (which I suppose makes it a zom-rom-com) that pokes fun at all the zombie tropes while simultaneously utilizing them to satirize the mundanity of modern life. On top of that, it maintains its humor long enough that you might not realize it's building up to some genuinely horrific scenes.

These films really just skim the surface of the zombie genre. There are loads more films out there, which unfortunately vary widely in quality. For me though, some of the fun of zombie movies comes through sifting through the really bad ones. Wikipedia provides this nearly inexhaustible list.

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