Zombie Movies 101

Wanted: Dead and Alive

still from "ABCs of Death"

Magnet Releasing

A zombie is, in the simplest sense, a living corpse. In cinematic terms, it differs from a vampire in that it doesn't have the same powers (shapeshifting, fangs) or weaknesses (sunlight, holy water, garlic) and usually lacks advanced brain function. The term "zombie" was introduced into American public consciousness in 1929 as a Haitian Creole word for a corpse reanimated by voodoo. Soon thereafter, it was exploited by the motion picture industry in an array of horror films. The form and function of cinematic zombies have shifted throughout the years, but the presence of the zombie movie within the horror genre has remained a steady force since the early '30s and continues to appear in modern cinema.

Early Zombies

Early movie zombies remained relatively true to the Haitian tradition. The "living dead" tended to be animated by a voodoo spell, and they were usually used as servants to the "master" who raised them. Their appearance was similar to that of the living except that their skin was ashen and their eyes were darkened or occasionally bugged to an extreme size. Typically, they were mute and slow moving, mindlessly following their master's nefarious orders (although at the end of the film, the master often lost control).

1932's White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as a villainous voodoo master in charge of a stable of zombies in Haiti, is an archetype for this early style of film. It's generally considered to be the first movie to feature zombies by name, although in 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the title character controlled a sleepwalker, or "somnambulist," named Cesare in much the same way as early movie zombies.

Throughout the '30s and '40s, zombie and voodoo movies spread, with titles like King of the Zombies, Revolt of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies being released annually. Several, like Zombies on Broadway and The Ghost Breakers, treated the topic lightheartedly, while others, like I Walked With a Zombie, were highly dramatic.

By the '50s, filmmakers began to play around with established zombie film standards. They experimented with the method of turning people into zombies, for instance. Rather than voodoo, Teenage Zombies featured a mad scientist using nerve gas, while Plan 9 From Outer Space and Invisible Invaders had aliens raise the dead, and in The Last Man on Earth (based on the Richard Matheson book I Am Legend), a virus creates lumbering, zombie-like "vampires." Invisible Invaders and The Last Man on Earth also made zombies more dangerous, relieving them from menial tasks like kidnapping and heavy labor; instead, they became single-minded killing machines, a role that would feed into the next generation of living dead.

Romero Zombies

The apocalyptic scenario of a planet overrun by murderous zombies in movies like The Last Man on Earth and Invisible Invaders (and, to an extent, the Red Scare-inspired Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the dreamy Carnival of Souls) helped inspire a young filmmaker named George A. Romero. In 1968, Romero released his directorial debut, Night of the Living Dead, which would go on to revolutionize zombie movies as we know them.

While he borrowed some elements from earlier films, Romero created certain behaviors and rules that would render his living dead the model for zombie films for the next three decades. First, the zombies were driven by an insatiable hunger to eat the living. Second, the zombie attacks were shown in explicit detail, ushering in an era of heightened cinematic gore. Third, zombies could be killed only by damage to the brain. Fourth, zombiism was contagious and could be spread by a bite.

One major difference from early, classic zombie lore was the shift away from voodoo and the concept of a master controlling the living dead. Other elements that weren't necessarily originated by Romero but which became a part of the Romero-esque zombie tradition included: slow, unbalanced movement, an apocalyptic nihilism in which mere survival is a victory and the treatment of zombiism as a plague.

Romero would add to his legacy with several sequels, beginning with 1978's Dawn of the Dead—which upped the explicit gore ante even more—and 1985's Day of the Dead. Many increasingly violent and dark zombie movies followed in Romero's footsteps, including a 1990 remake and the offshoot Return of the Living Dead series of films from NOTLD co-writer John A. Russo, plus international entries from Italy (Zombie) and Spain (Tombs of the Blind Dead). Others—like I Drink Your Blood, David Cronenberg's Shivers and Rabid and Romero's own The Crazies—while not containing zombies, utilized the homicidal contagion structure of Romero's works.

Modern Zombies

In the 21st century, filmmakers have increasingly toyed with zombie movie conventions. Some, like Resident Evil and House of the Dead, have found inspiration in high-octane video game action. Others, like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, have used contagious diseases that create zombie-like states. Lighthearted films like Shaun of the Dead and, meanwhile, have coined the term "zombie comedy," or "zom com," while others, like, have taken it a step further with a romantic angle that pushes them into "rom zom com" territory. The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead even altered traditional zombie behavior, making them physically quick and agile rather than slow and lumbering. And movies like Diary of the Dead and The Zombie Diaries have merged zombies with the other ubiquitous 21st-century horror trend: the "found footage" format.

Today, zombies are more popular than ever, with t-shirts, toys, video games, and other merchandise flooding the marketplace and becoming one of the most watched shows on television. In 2013, even proved that zombies could support a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster—and a successful one at that, earning over $200 million in the US and more than $500 million worldwide.

If there's any doubt that the zombie phenomenon isn't global, foreign entries from Australia (Wyrmwood), Germany (Rammbock), France (The Horde), India (Rise of the Zombie), Great Britain (Cockneys vs. Zombies), Japan (Stacy), Greece (Evil), South Africa (Last Ones Out), Scandinavia (Dead Snow), Hong Kong (Bio Zombie), New Zealand (Black Sheep), South America (Plaga Zombie), Czechoslovakia (Choking Hazard) and even Cuba (Juan of the Dead) should lay those to rest (pun intended).

Despite the modern incarnations, however, Romero's zombies remain the standard, with the impact of his Dead series of films continuing into the new century and, inevitably, beyond the grave...

Notable Zombie Movies

  • White Zombie (1932)
  • Revolt of the Zombies (1936)
  • The Walking Dead (1936)
  • The Ghost Breakers (1941)
  • King of the Zombies (1941)
  • Bowery at Midnight (1942)
  • I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
  • Voodoo Man (1944)
  • Zombies on Broadway (1945)
  • Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)
  • The Brain Eaters (1958)
  • Invisible Invaders (1959)
  • Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
  • Teenage Zombies (1959)
  • Blood of the Zombie (1961)
  • I Eat Your Skin (1964)
  • The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)
  • The Last Man on Earth (1964)
  • Plague of the Zombies (1966)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  • Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)
  • Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972)
  • Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
  • Sugar Hill (1974)
  • Shock Waves (1977)
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Zombie (1979)
  • Burial Ground (1981)
  • Dead & Buried (1981)
  • Day of the Dead (1985)
  • Return of the Living Dead (1985)
  • Night of the Creeps (1986)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1990)
  • Dead Alive (2002)
  • Resident Evil (2002)
  • House of the Dead (2003)
  • Undead (2003)
  • Dawn of the Dead (2004)
  • Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  • Land of the Dead (2005)
  • Fido (2007)
  • Planet Terror (2007)
  • Day of the Dead (2008)
  • Diary of the Dead (2008)
  • Dead Snow (2009)
  • Zombieland (2009)
  • Warm Bodies (2013)
  • World War Z (2013)
  • Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)