Though ostensibly fictional characters, zombies have featured prominently in my very real life. In addition to the usual permeation that comes from being a lifelong horror film fan, zombie references, lore and culture have been gradually woven into my life's fabric such that I'm living what one might call a "Zombie-Plus" existence. I see zombie metaphors everywhere I look, and the allegorical ammo from 1,000 wasted "body shots" litters my floor. Often when we're getting ready to leave the house, in an effort to get my wife to move faster, I invoke the urgency of an imminent zombie attack (much to her chagrin.)
So how prepared are you for a real Zombie attack? Will you be ready, really ready, when your community members, neighbors, family and friends, recast as the rotting undead, come for you, driven by a single-minded hunger for your flesh and internal organs? In these days of protracted apocalyptic prophecy (i.e., the end times have been "approaching" or "here" for several centuries now), one had better be ready for anything.
In 2003, Random House published The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, written by Max Brooks (the son of Mel Brooks, and a sometime SNL writer.) Though I am very glad it's there, I haven't yet read the book, making me only slightly less knowledgeable of its contents than Tucker Carlson is of any topic he discusses on his MSNBC program. Whether or not you've read Brooks' book, you may find the following related survival test amusing and informative.
My wife and I, early on in our marriage, had the necessary family meeting on this topic, and found ourselves to be on basically the same page regarding a possible zombie attack: 1. Board up all points of entry to our home, but also know that this, much like The Club, is ultimately only a visual deterrent. 2. Do not allow entry to anyone who has been bitten, no matter how much we used to like them. 3. If either one of us gets bitten, they're toast for the greater good. 4. In all cases, aim for the head.
An essential zombie tome that I have read is The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, by Peter Dendle, which attempts, with a fair amount of success, to assemble into one reference, all zombie- and living dead-related motion pictures, with a brief description of each. TZE is so far only available in an expensive, hardcover edition, but it's quite worthwhile as a reference book, to say nothing of the shining beacon it becomes (with its colorful jacket and spine) on your bookshelf.
The book covers all the major touchstones of zombie filmdom plus a whole lot more, from early classics like Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with A Zombie (a haunting, beautiful mood piece, though not at all a "zombie film" in the modern, post-Romero sense; Lucio Fulci (see below) does however cite Tourneur as an influence.) to newer, notable low-budget creations like J.R. Bookwalter's The Dead Next Door.
More on zombie films:
An early milestone in zombie filmdom is 1964's The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, and based very closely on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (which also inspired Night of the Living Dead and 1971's The Omega Man, among others.) Price plays a solitary man, bound to his home by day, living on rations, the windows and doors boarded and hung with wreaths of garlic. His neighbors (and perhaps all humans within reach) have been afflicted by a plague that turns them into vampiric zombies; they lurk outside his home at night, banging on the windows and doors, shouting for him to come out and join them, while he drowns out their cries with music from his victrola. During the day, his tormentors hide, and he makes trips out in his car to search for fuel and dump the dead (they can be killed) in a massive smoldering landfill. What a life. Without the essential template of The Last Man On Earth, it is difficult to imagine that the zombie classics of the 60s and 70s would have existed—they certainly wouldn't have looked or felt the same.
Though his later films in the "Dead" series up the ante for both gore and heavy-handed satire, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) remains (no joke intended) the most enduring and imitated zombie film ever produced. The deceptively simple tale of a group of disparate strangers trapped in a country home beside a graveyard, besieged by the hungry living dead, remains the standard by which all subsequent zombie films are measured and judged. Romero's gifts for both escalating menace and subtle social criticism are at their finest here, never equaled since in such a combination by any film.
The next great plateau in zombie filmmaking came from a director sometimes referred to as "The Master"–Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci. Though Fulci's Zombi 2 (1979, aka Zombie Flesh-Eaters; known here as simply Zombie) was undoubtedly inspired by the success of the Romero films (Romero's Dawn of the Dead was released as Zombi in Europe, so Fulci's film had the "Zombi 2" tag forced upon it), it brings several impressive innovations to the table: a creepy island setting, full of filthy labs and murky lagoons; "elder" zombies, rising after being long dead, looking more like worm-infested skeletons compared to their freshly-dead counterparts in the film; an underwater battle between a zombie and a shark (just in case the Jaws box-office crowd was paying attention); a graphic eye-gouging scene; and a disturbingly casual intestine buffet, among others. The film's final scene of a zombie horde lumbering over the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan, the zombie expatriate infestation by this point way out of control, is chilling and unforgettable. The theme from Zombie [mp3, 5.5 MB], by Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci, haunts me, playing in my head constantly—the perfect score for a zombie processional. In fact, I hum it around the house so often that my son has picked it up, poor kid.
Fulci's 2 other great films that feature zombies, The Beyond (1981) and Paura Nella Città dei Morti Viventi (1980, aka The Gates of Hell), are personal favorites that combine living-dead attacks with surreal set pieces, black-magic hauntings, acid flesh melting and maggot rain. Fulci was definitely a hack: his films are loaded with jagged editing, incomprehensible plot twists and wooden, often ridiculous acting, but Fulci's better films are nonetheless highly enjoyable viewing, loaded with colorful, bizarre and resonant imagery.
Other must-see zombie titles from this era include:
-Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974, aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie), the basic zombie infection motif played out in the British countryside (though both environmental and magical origins are suggested), with great creepy atmosphere, some arresting kill scenes, a great prog rock soundtrack, and maybe a little too much blue body paint.
-Shock Waves (1977), the best film of the Nazi Underwater Zombie sub-sub-genre. These waterlogged, goggle-wearing Aryans kill bloodlessly, and rise from the depths slowly in a great visual display. Veteran horror actors Peter Cushing (as a glib ex-Nazi) and John Carradine (as a cantankerous boat captain) add a touch of professionalism to the proceedings. A great burbling synthesizer score completes the package.
-Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead series (1971-1975.) The Blind Dead are not technically zombies, but are instead the skeletal remains of the Knights Templar, reactivated by blood and Black Magic. These movies have tremendous visual appeal and plenty of menace. The Blind Dead move quite slowly and cannot see, but do have the added advantage of being able to ride horseback. The first and fourth Blind Dead films, Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) and Night of the Seagulls (1975) are my personal favorites.
Most of the above-named films are (or have recently been) available on DVD. Fulci's Zombi 2 goes continually in and out of print, but is readily available used. The Blind Dead series was recently re-released in a coffin-shaped box set (packaging perhaps left over from the Misifts' box?) There are also multiple DVD editions of Night of the Living Dead, and I'll tell you for free that the best by far is Elite Entertainment's Special Collector's Edition; it's the best overall package, and the film is so crisply remastered that it may be disorienting at first for those of us who grew up watching fuzzy prints of the film on VHS.
Next time – Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, and some great postmodern zombie films.