From Jim Jarmusch to George Romero: The ultimate guide to the greatest zombie films of all time
Horror fans are familiar with the longstanding use of the zombie tale as a vehicle for social or political messages, a convention apparently started by George Romero with his 1968 feature, Night of the Living Dead, and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead. Prior to this, zombie films were straightforward horror stories, the one identifiable message, if any, being an aversion to the occult, and often to the despised cultures perceived as practising black magic. Post-Romero, zombie films have taken up the strange convention of allowing zombies to serve as indirect metaphors, ranging from the parallel with the Irish troubles in David Freyne’s 2017 drama The Cured, to a comic use of the undead as a metaphor for relationship issues in the peculiar 2014 comedy Life After Beth, to a climate change parable in Jim Jarmusch’s horror-comedy The Dead Don’t Die, among others.
The concept of zombies began as early as the 17th century, according to some historians, with a strong connection to slavery in the stories circulated among the miserably oppressed slaves of Haiti. After slavery ended, the zombie myth evolved into something mythological involving black magic, and from there into the familiar monster tale; but its use as a pointed metaphor had an early start.
The 1932 feature White Zombie is generally considered to be the first zombie film, featuring Bela Lugosi, of Dracula fame, as a chillingly ruthless and amoral villain who studies and uses voodoo to his own worldly advantage. White Zombie is typical of early zombie horror films, involving dread of ‘primitive’ societies and their magical practices, with hapless white visitors the usual victims. In this film, a young couple arrives in Haiti, where the man has been offered work, and soon encounter disturbing examples of voodoo among the black residents, who are depicted as both foolishly superstitious, and dangerously effective in their use of magic. The central plot revolves around the fate of the young bride (silent film darling Madge Bellamy), who is turned into a zombie—not the rampaging, flesh-eating variety of later horror tales, but simply a being with no will of her own—and enslaved by an infatuated local man. While the script provides a rather overblown melodrama, and is reliant on negative racial stereotypes, it has some evocative scenes involving the zombies, who are presented as living people turned to mindless drones and used as personal slaves—misidentified by the locals as reanimated corpses; as well as some surprising touches, such as a resident vulture who screams like a woman. Although the explanation for the existence of zombies evolved along with its fictional content, this film sets the tone for future film versions of the walking dead over the next thirty years.
With Night of the Living Dead (1968), director George Romero provided a significant change in direction, using the zombie story as an indirect metaphor for American race relations and other political issues. Race and racial animosity are spun through the entire plot, culminating in the film’s hero being killed by a white policeman. The theme is reinforced in the images shown over the final credits, still photos of a white Southern mob gleefully mutilating the hero’s dead body. As author Roger Luckhurst writes in Zombies: A Cultural History, the film “was a direct response to cultural events,” and was initially shown in cinemas in primarily black communities, sometimes screened along with Slaves, a 1969 melodrama about a 19th-century slave rebellion; or shown at universities to progressive student groups. It was even exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as an example of political filmmaking.
Romero continues the trend in his 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, which buries metaphors for consumerism in the zombie incursion storyline. It is something of a satire of modern capitalism disguised as a gruesome horror tale, featuring well-remembered scenes of zombies roaming a high-end shopping mall.
Some noteworthy efforts in this category, old and new…
Rabid (1977) took the genre to a new level. In the right hands, zombies can also be used as a metaphor for unwholesome sex, and few are better qualified for such a project than David Cronenberg. An early effort by the director, this low-budget horror tale features adult film star Marilyn Chambers (reportedly not Cronenberg’s first choice, but fitting for the role) as Rose, a woman badly injured in a motorcycle accident. A team of ethically suspect physicians use experimental techniques to heal her extensive injuries, and at this point, the storyline moves into the realm of horror fantasy. The mysteriously “modified” tissue used to repair her injuries develops into an unmistakably phallic appendage in her ribcage area, one with an insatiable thirst for blood, obtained by piercing the bodies of Rose’s victims. There is no doubt that the bodily penetration is meant as a direct metaphor: the attack scenes are done in a purposely erotic fashion, including one in which Rose and her bloodthirsty addendum violently turn the tables on a would-be rapist. The victims, in turn, develop a craving for human flesh and run amok, biting hapless townsfolk, thereby introducing the zombie plague, at last, serving as an unpleasant analogy for the vagaries and risks of human sexuality.
The film stands out for the more blatant and obvious than usual zombie allegory, as well as for the distinctive Cronenberg creepiness which comes across even in this flawed early effort. The zombies and their attacks are original and effectively horrifying. Rabid is not a particularly good movie—certainly not at the level of Cronenberg’s later work; the action is choppy, much of the dialogue silly, the acting wooden, and the camerawork and editing often awkward. Even the accomplished Ms Chambers’ nude scenes lack real pizzazz. However, it has gained something of a cult following for its gleefully innovative gruesomeness, over-the-top quasi-sexual imagery, and Cronenberg’s unique flair for body horror.
Pontypool (2008), an early feature from eccentric TV/film director Bruce McDonald (Dark Matter; This Movie Is Broken) is an unusual take on the zombie thriller, remarkable in part for its almost total absence of zombies. Only one zombie is ever clearly visible on camera, and a few heard or hinted at. Shot almost entirely in the secure but claustrophobic setting of a small-town radio station, the film allows the growing menace to be revealed gradually and indirectly, through sinister hints from the outside world. The plague is made more frightening by keeping it largely unseen and at a distance, allowing details to trickle in through outside contacts, via the radio control booth. McDonald finds endless ways to tell the story from the vantage point of a single enclosed space, such as an inventive use of innocuous photographs to illustrate the radio host’s carefully euphemistic report on the casualties so far.
What is most striking is the apparent cause of this particular zombie epidemic, which is not brought on by the usual causes — a virus, black magic, or science gone awry — but is spread through language. Loosely based on the Tony Burgess novel Pontypool Changes Everything, the film uses unexpected, creatively twisted zombie tropes to provide a chilling commentary on verbal garbage, insincerity, and the misuse of language, and its ultimate effect on society and on the human brain.
In The Returned (2013), horror film director Manuel Carballo uses a bare minimum of actual zombie mayhem, looking in other directions for dread, and producing a film that falls more into the category of a political thriller than horror. In this storyline, zombies are caused by a virus and act as a metaphor for infectious disease and the demonisation of the sick. The classic zombie threat is granted time in the opening scenes, shot in grainy, Ringu-style footage showing glimpses of a family enduring an attack. One child flees; the attack is shown to represent the memories of Kate (Emily Hampshire), the child who fled, now a doctor who works in a hospital ward set aside for victims of the zombie virus. She lives with Alex, a musician who carefully hides the fact that he was once infected.
Following the zombie outbreak, a drug has been developed which treats the infected. It is not a cure, but it prevents zombie ‘symptoms’ from developing — reminiscent of the treatment of HIV. Those who are sustained by these daily injections are known as ‘the returned’. The plot focuses on public reaction to the returned. Recovered victims of the zombie virus are mocked, feared; hospitals which treat them are picketed. Regular injections keep the patients stable and allow them to lead normal lives, but they are mistrusted and resented by a growing faction of the population.
The public reaction to having recovered zombies mixed into the population is all too plausible: protests, nasty jokes about the returned, politicisation of medical treatment, resentment at the cost, suggestions of secluding the returned in colonies, and occasional acts of violence against them, come across as very likely in the event of a genuine plague of this kind. The zombie virus is an underlying horror, but the film is written as a realistic thriller, in which the zombies are the potential victims of paranoia and political expedience. As supplies of the treatment dwindle, public panic and minor terrorist acts result in the establishment of military-run ‘surveillance centres,’ where the returned are to be sequestered. Regulations are gradually tightened, infected people are tracked down, and families and friends begin to turn against one another. In the final act, Alex and Kate go on the run with a limited supply of the precious medication, leading to a harsh and dramatic conclusion.
Zombies provide an unconventional means to address colonialism in director Jeff Barnaby’s grisly horror epic, Blood Quantum. The film premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where the director took third place in the People’s Choice competition; it is now available online. This film’s political overtones are clear from the title: ‘blood quantum’ refers to a facet of American law formerly used to determine a person’s racial status, one specifically used on, or against, indigenous North American people. To further reinforce the theme, the film begins with parallel quotes advising harsh treatment of an unnamed, despised people: one from Exodus, and another, similarly worded, a proverb used by American settlers.
The expression, ‘blood quantum’, takes on new implications in this peculiar take on the classic zombie apocalypse tale. Director Jeff Barnaby has addressed official mistreatment of Native people in the past, particularly in his 2013 feature Rhymes for Young Ghouls; with Blood Quantum he moves from literal to metaphorical statements.
Set in 1981, the film opens on the Red Crow Reserve, a community of Mi’gmaq, which is portrayed with harsh realism as close-knit but poor, shabby, and plagued by addiction and petty crime. The zombie plague, implied to be a virus, begins when first animals, then humans revive as the familiar, flesh-eating monsters, but with one exception: the Mi’gmaq themselves appear to be immune to the zombie virus. It might be seen as an ironic reversal of the deadly introduction of novel European diseases to New World, to which Europeans were mostly immune but Indians were not. The spread of the zombie virus leaves the exempt Mi’gmaq grudgingly obligated to both shelter the remaining white neighbours, and to subdue the zombie army, led by the reserve’s altruistic sheriff and moral compass, Traylor, played by Michael Greyeyes (Fear the Walking Dead, Woman Walks Ahead). Not all residents agree, however, that they owe protection to the outsiders.
There is no shortage of straightforward, violent entertainment of the kind horror fans relish. The film does not skimp on the requisite gruesome zombie attacks, blood splatter, or stabbings and decapitations with a variety of makeshift weapons, as the reserve residents deal with both physical danger and the threat of literal extinction. The film unfortunately leaves the storyline and the characters’ motivations unclear, and often hard to follow. Brief animated scenes to mark breaks between acts, and ambivalence within the community over their role in the outbreak, add interest to an otherwise fairly typical zombie horror tale.
Les Affamés revisits the veiled commentary on consumerism found in Dawn of the Dead, although the resemblance ends there. ‘Contemplative’ and ‘pastoral’ are not words often associated with a zombie film, but they apply to Robin Aubert’s 2017 horror tale, Les Affamés (‘The Ravenous’). The familiar tale of a group of survivors searching for a refuge as humanity gives way to the zombie plague focuses far more on the people, their individual characters, and their struggle to form an alliance, than on the inevitable battles with the undead, which are arranged to leave most of the violence implied or partly off-camera. The secondary focus is on the peaceful landscape, meadows and forests whose beauty only enhances the horror that might emerge from them at any moment.
Aubert’s slightly unconventional zombies almost qualify as characters, rather than the usual indiscriminate mass. Director Aubert remarks in a recent interview, “My zombies are a reflection of what I think about humanity,” adding: “People are scarier than zombies. Humans give me the creeps.” Indeed, the contrast between normal humans and zombies feels like commentary in itself. The zombies themselves, although within the established parameters of mindless, flesh-eating monsters, are a bit uncommon in that they retain more humanity than usual: they run rather than shamble, seem to display some faint vestige of personality, and are capable of a limited degree of thought and planning. When not actively hunting humans, they often stand immobile, as if in stasis, ominous but not immediately dangerous. Most striking of all is their compulsion to collect random household objects and arrange them in towering structures, which they gather around as if venerating a shrine. The recent presence of zombies is indicated by the appearance of these mysterious piles. The towers of consumer goods, combined with characters frequently reminiscing about past access to shopping or Disneyland, provide the vague, ambiguous consumerism theme that underlies the more prominent story of comradeship among the survivors.
A very visual film with minimal dialogue, Les Affamés relies on creative, subtle camera work to tell much of the story. Important points are made wordlessly, as when a character’s history with the zombies is explained with a glimpse of a plaintively empty child’s car seat. The film begins and ends with an outdoor scene of heavy fog, which Aubert acknowledges are partly an homage to John Carpenter’s 1980 horror film The Fog, and which uses the concealed landscape to create both suspense and a feeling of unreality, one which is challenged by small, fleeting breaks in the fourth wall. The camera plays with film conventions to misdirect the viewer, choosing an unexpected focal point, or having the characters move on and off camera during tense scenes, to the extent that the camera work is a major part of the film’s interest. Les Affamés will be disappointing to fans of prolonged zombie mayhem scenes, but is a fascinating addition to the genre.
Bringing it all full circle is Zombi Child, the recently released fantasy/drama by Bertrand Bonello (Saint Laurent, Nocturama). The approach is hinted at in the title: the spelling of ‘zombi’ relates to the word’s early use among Haitian slaves, and the concept’s associations with slavery. The zombies in this film are not the familiar flesh-eating monsters, but the earlier form: the semi-mythical victims, drugged to simulate death, then partially revived and used as slave labour. The opening scenes, set in Haiti in 1962, show a Haitian man, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), fall victim to this mysterious poison in a horrifying episode which ends with him joining the ranks of other incoherent, barely conscious men set to work in the sugar cane fields. From here, the film cuts to a prestigious girls’ school in present-day Paris, and the friendship between two students, one of them, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), the orphaned daughter of two Haitian human rights advocates.
The film alternates between Melissa’s life at school, including the slow revelation of her family’s dark past and the significance of voodoo practices sustained by her culture over the years; and the history of Clairvius’ ordeal decades earlier. In the process, the film explores the ways culture and history can continue to impact on individuals, even over the distance of many years.
The dual plots slowly come together, eventually linking with the sub-plot of a depressed fellow student seeking help from the occult. As the film reaches its final act and delves into genuine horror, the plot becomes increasingly aimless, and walks a fine line between accessing cultural myths and parodying them; however, it makes up for the muddled storyline with excellent acting and some seriously scary moments. The action is further enhanced by a dreamy, slightly eerie musical score composed by the director, and letter-perfect cinematography, all combining to make for a sensory more than an intellectual experience. Most of all, the film takes the entire concept of the zombie back to its dark and not entirely imaginary roots.