Brain seeking, flesh munching, shambling zombies have been a staple in horror cinema for decades. They may fall in and out of popularity, but Hollywood and independent filmmakers seem determined to ensure that we’re never more than a few years away from a classic, noteworthy or novel take on the genre. To celebrate the Halloween season, let’s take a look at the state of the zombie genre in each significant decade and pick out a few highlights for your Halloween night-in list.
Pre and Early 1960s
Voodoo is the word of the day here folks. Zombies of early 20th century cinema were very different creatures to the ones you and I would be familiar with. Typically the product of evil scientists, chemists or witch doctors; not the viruses, government plots or corporate acts of nastiness we’re used to. In these films, the zombies themselves were secondary villains to the evil mastermind, and that’s if they weren’t outright victims themselves! If you’d like the contrast between our zombies and these old-fashioned zombies spelled out for you, I need only highlight this one fact: they didn’t eat flesh OR brains. That’s right, the defining feature of zombies as we know them doesn’t at all conform to what zombies used to be. Not to worry though, we needn’t wait long for the undead to acquire a taste for human flesh.
Late 1960s (Night of the Living Dead)
Forgive my inconsistency in these categories, for this section isn’t going to be dedicated to a decade or span of time, but a single film. If any zombie film deserved its own section however, it’s this one. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the prototypical zombie film and one of the most influential horror films of all time. The only zombie flick that competes is its follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (more on that later). With this turning point in horror’s development, director George Romero brought us the relentless, shambling horde that —yes, finally— craves human flesh.
Where earlier zombie films focused on the whys and hows of the creatures’ origins, Romero saw no need to justify the existence of the undead. This scrapping of the voodoo origins combined with the reimagining of how zombies behaved meant that when the film achieved resounding success, the concept of a traditional zombie was quickly forgotten and Romero’s vision of the undead reigned supreme. In 1999, Night of the Living Dead was approved for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. Not half bad for Romero’s first feature film, but his finest work was yet to come.
After Night of the Living Dead revolutionised what zombies films could be, I’d like to tell you that horror filmmakers were filled with undead inspiration. It would thrill me to write about all the Romero inspired, gut-wrenching pieces of cinema that flooded the industry in the years following the 1968 classic. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in Hollywood. The quantity of zombified pornography in the 70s should give you some idea of the level the genre was operating on. That is to say, a rather sleazy one.
There were examples of high quality American zombie films, including another Romero classic that will get its dues shortly, but Italy and Spain were in fact the nations that gave audiences the most consistently entertaining zombie flicks in the 70s, including The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (1974) and Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979). The seeds of horror greatness had merely been sowed by Romero, and it seems the industry would need him once more to teach them how to reap the rotten, decayed glory of a classic zombie film.
Late 70s (Dawn Of The Dead)
Once more we come to the end of this decade, and once more it becomes necessary to etch out an entire section for a single George Romero film: Dawn Of The Dead (1978). Ten years earlier, Romero laid out the blueprint for how modern zombies should function and how the ghouls ought to interact with humans. As the 80s drew closer, he saw fit to develop the kind of stories that could be told within the framework he established.
Dawn of the Dead placed hordes of zombies inside a shopping mall and in doing so, highlighted the absurdity and futility of embracing consumerism. Watching the undead, with their endless hunger for flesh (or material goods, if you will) shamble in their hundreds around mankind’s monument to consumerism holds up a mirror to society in a way no zombie film had even attempted to do before. It’s not exactly a subtle social commentary, especially now that the message has been aped in more zombie media than a single person could hope to get through. Nonetheless, Romero had made it clear that zombie fiction needn’t ask its audience to turn their own brains off to enjoy tales of the brainless undead.
The 80s brought us some superb zombie flicks, the decade can undoubtedly be praised as one of several peaks in the genre’s history. It refined some important tropes established in previous decades while introducing some doozies of its own. Without Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985), for example, the concept of zombies eating “braaaains” wouldn’t exist at all in pop culture, now they’re synonymous with the undead. HIV and AIDS paranoia defined large parts of the 80s, it’s no coincidence that this decade also gave rise to the zombie “virus”. Films like Day of the Dead (1985) toy with the idea of a contagious agent leading to the zombie apocalypse. The film is also noteworthy for giving viewers a glimpse of a destroyed civilisation some time after the zombie outbreak.
Not that it was all doom and gloom in the 80s, don’t get the wrong idea. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987) may not be the most typical example of a zombie film (It’s got reanimated corpses though, so I count it.) but it’s goofy, slapstick tone makes it a great example of the lighter side of the genre. Night of the Comet (1984) saw two teen sisters fighting through the apocalypse in another tongue-in-cheek take on the established tropes of the genre and Night of the Creeps (1986) spiced things up with an alien brain parasite idea. Needless to say, filmmakers weren’t afraid to show their sillier side in the 80s.
After swimming in the zombie fiction oasis of the 80s, audiences of the 90s were faced with a significant drought. Zombies existed in 90s cinema, but innovation in the genre did not; homage was the name of the game at the close of the century. A young Peter Jackson gave us Braindead/Dead Alive (1992), an outrageously funny film inspired by Evil Dead II and other zombie comedies of the 80s; Night of the Living Dead (1990) received the remake treatment, to mixed reviews; and who could forget the undead teen romance classic My Boyfriend’s Back? (1993).
There’s not much else to say about this decade’s contribution to the zombie genre, we’ll be moving on towards the 21st century soon. Before that however, I would like to mention an interesting, low-budget film that was released towards the end of the decade: I, Zombie (1998). The central premise involves a young man recording his transformation from human to zombie after being infected on a school trip. It’s an idea that I don’t recall seeing elsewhere, and so I feel it deserves a shout-out, even if it isn’t the most influential film brought up here today.
The Best New Zombie Films – 2000s and Beyond
So here we are, in what is lovingly referred to by horror fans as the “Zombie Renaissance”. Following the dry spell of the 90s, audiences were once again hungry to devour undead cinema, and with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2001) the genre hit the ground running… literally. Boyle’s new, sprinting zombies —to my mind— are among the scariest creatures ever put to film, and I assume others would agree, because they brought the zombie genre back from the dead and launched it into a whole new level of popularity.
Plenty of films took cues from the tone of 28 Days Later, if not concept of lightning-fast zombies as well. Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead is lauded as the director’s finest work and a great example of a remake done right. It doesn’t try to emulate the original, instead taking the core concept and doing something fresh and exciting with it. The Resident Evil film adaptation (2002) also helped in reviving the genre by drenching the zombie action in a sense of style and further cementing fast zombies as “cool”. I Am Legend (2007), while not technically a zombie flick, was made to resemble one to capitalise off the undead mania sweeping pop culture. As we get closer to modern day, World War Z (2013) can —if nothing else— be used to emphasise the kind of absurd Hollywood budgets that were being put behind zombie media, a far cry from the modest budgets afforded to zombie films at any other point in history. Put simply, zombies were becoming big business.
While this onslaught of serious, heart-pounding films were drawing in massive audiences, there was no shortage of love to spare for the quirkier, tongue-in-cheek approach to undead Armageddon at the turn of the century. Of course, Shaun of the Dead (2004) deserves a mention as what is simultaneously one of the most beloved zombie films, comedies and British films of all time. Edgar Wright’s modern classic pays homage to Romero’s legacy without being constrained by the shortcomings of earlier zombie stories; it’s a well told, relatable rom-com that happens to play out in the midst of zombies. Zombieland (2009) can be pointed out as a distinctly American, indulgently violent comedy that learns from Shaun of the Dead that likeable characters are the key to making a memorable, funny zombie film with heart. Warm Bodies (2013), another entry into the incredibly limited zom-rom-com genre plays with the idea of a zombie regaining sentience and morality in a film that may not appeal to typical fans of the genre, but is worth acknowledgement regardless.
In the past couple of decades, the zombie genre has diversified and grown at such an overwhelming pace that it’d be a full time job to just keep up with it. Yes, I realise I’m making the genre sound like a kind of virus, make no mistake though, I still love zombies and hope for their continued relevance in culture. There’s so many hundreds of fantastic zombie films out there just waiting to be discovered. This Halloween, see if you can hunt down some lesser-known zombie flicks from decades gone by, grab some friends, whip up a fresh batch of popcorn and give ‘em a watch. Who knows? You might just stumble across the next horror cult-classic. If not, then at least you can guarantee a fun, blood-soaked evening.