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Tabula Rasa

Nights of the Celluloid Dead:
A History of the Zombie Film

Part Two: Descendants of the Dead

by Robert Hood

First published in Bloodsongs#5, 1995; ed. Steve Proposch.

Over the decades from its voodoo beginnings as a cadaverous automaton under the control of a sorcerer or mad scientist, to George Romero's spectacularly effective modern re-working of the concept, the zombie on film has moved more and more into the forefront of horror film imagery, never as glamorous as the vampire, as sympathetic as Frankenstein's monster, or as energetic as the werewolf, but perhaps more profoundly and disturbingly resonant. After 1968, with the release of Night of the Living Dead, there came a plethora of living dead movies from film-makers world-wide. Since then, the sub-genre has been characterised (in general, accurately) as gory and horrific -- in many ways an epitome of the modern horror film ethos. But while Romero, with his 'Living Dead' series, inspired the whole movement, it was the Europeans, to whom Romero had many affinities, who took the zombie film to its ghastliest extreme.

4. Flesh and the Single Ghoul

The immediate spawn of Romero's Night of the Living Dead include Bob Clark's Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1973), The Child (the final scene with its protagonists besieged in a shed by the titular character's dead friends being particularly reminiscent of Night), Ken Wiederhorn's enjoyable Shock Waves (1977), the quietly effective Dead of Night (1972), and the Knights Templar series by Spanish director Amando de Ossorio: Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), The Return of the Evil Dead (1973), Horror of the Zombies (1974) and Night of the Death Cult (1975). These latter, as a result of their strong atmosphere and imaginative extension of Romero's living dead imagery, became cult favourites. The first in the series, Tombs of the Blind Dead, set the tone. It seems that the sadistic and cruel Templars, a brotherhood of knights left over from the 13th Century Crusades, were executed at the hands of villagers outraged by the Templars' indulgence in blood sacrifice and satanic practices. The Templar corpses were left exposed in the fields and crows pecked out their eyes, so that when they arise, in the present, they are blind and can therefore be eluded if you are very quiet. Screams and frantic breathing, however, attract them like moths to flame. A number of young people, embroiled in a sexual tangle, become the target of the living dead Templars, which shamble in grim detail through fog and darkness, draining their victims of blood. Effective scenes -- such as the mouldering dead clawing out of their tombs, or groping around buildings in search of terrified victims -- make up for some clumsiness in the acting and the story itself. The film's sexual subtext has often been remarked upon; it is as though the dead Templars have been awakened as a punishment for sexual desire. In the end, they emerge from the train on which the sole remaining protagonist has taken refuge, "to spread the scourge of puritanism across the rest of the world", as Phil Hardy puts it.

Where the action of the first film is concentrated around the site of the Templar's demise -- an abandoned settlement -- and on the hapless souls who stumble into it, the sequel, Return of the Evil Dead, widens somewhat, as the Templar zombies attack a nearby village and systematically slaughter its inhabitants. There is more death and less lyricism, but the basic effects are the same, as the Templar's move about slowly, people scream and draw their attention, and the inevitable bloodshed takes place. Both are entertaining and often suspenseful. Two more sequels followed.

One the best known of the immediate post-Night zombie films is The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974), made by Jorge Grau and filmed on location in England. It features a scientifically induced zombie plague and ups the ante on gore and paranoia. The police become more threatening villains than the living dead, and the film places audience sympathy with the zombies in the person of the main protagonist, who becomes one of them after he is shot by a vengeful cop. This is a competent and effective thriller, which has become something of a cult favourite.

It was, however, Dawn of the Dead that brought on the most spectacular zombie craze, with an army of cannibalistic living dead coming out of Italy, trailing grue and violence at an unprecedented level. Though not for everyone, Lucio Fulci's films are the best of them; they were very popular, despite censorship regimes that often turned his gruesomely explicit scenes into incomprehensible non-sequiturs. Even in the face of such artistic interference, Fulci became known as the 'zombie king' and the films, already owing much to Romero, themselves inspired many imitations. Despite their obvious derivation, Fulci's films cannot simply be dismissed as rip-offs of Romero. They have a definite style and ambience of their own.

The first was Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979). Known as well as Zombie 2 (Dawn of the Dead being sometimes known as Zombies), Zombie Flesh Eaters begins with an atmospheric sequence in which an apparently deserted yacht enters New York Harbour. Police investigate and find themselves under attack by a bloodied, cannibalistic zombie. One thing leads to another and soon the daughter of the yacht's owner and a journalist after a story arrive on a south sea island in search of answers. There they and a helpful American couple meet a doctor engaged in studying a strange malady that causes the newly dead to rise from their graves and kill the living. Menaced by a growing number of the living dead, the group fights for survival, some of them in the end escaping back to New York. Unfortunately, when they get there, they find that the original zombie from the first scene has infected others and now the Big Apple is completely overrun. There is a final scene in which we see a large number of shambling dead heading along the Brooklyn Bridge toward, presumably, fresh meat.

There are many excellent scenes in this film. As well as the opening sequence, highlights include an underwater fracas between a zombie and a shark, that infamous moment when the doctor's wife has her eye impaled on a splinter of wood (censored out in most available copies), several wonderful images of the dead staggering through deserted village streets, whipped by wind and flying sand, and the protagonists' final bloody stand in the hospital. Sometimes acting and/or dubbing become clumsy and it is hard to tell whether illogical plot glitches are faults of the original script or products of the censor's careless scissors (the film was heavily cut and in general only this badly scarred version is available in Australia now). Seen in widescreen and in a less butchered version, the clumsiness and awkwardness largely disappears, however, and Zombie Flesh Eaters can be appreciated as a stylish and visually fascinating exploration of the living dead themes begun by Romero, exploiting its exotic locations and energetic SFX well and relishing in visceral horror. It remains a fascinating introduction to the blood-and-guts wonders of the Italian zombie film.

City of the Living Dead followed in 1980. Fulci's style is at its peak here, in a tale that begins with a priest whose suicide opens the gates of hell, releasing the dead upon the earth. Again, Fulci's almost lyrical Grand Guignol imagery lingers longest in the mind, its effect more important to the film than the logic of plot. A girl, mesmerised, vomits up her own guts; another victim has his skull drilled -- in one side out the other; in one remarkable scene a door is blown open and the protagonists are covered by a cloud of maggots. Such examples indicate the level of physical tolerance required to watch this film. But Fulci's creation of intense visual imagery and his use of a sort of modern gothic intensity make City of the Living Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters horror classics.

The final two films in Fulci's zombie sequence were released in 1981. The Beyond is set in Louisiana and centres around a woman who has inherited an old hotel, which she plans to renovate and re-open to the public. Unfortunately for her, the hotel happens to house one of the gates of hell and things get very nasty -- with masses of zombies running rampant through hospital corridors and dark cellars -- before the end places the main characters, and the viewer, in the landscape of hell itself. Again, The Beyond is a determinedly visual, illogical and frequently gruesome experience, and takes the viewer along paths where film-makers are usually loathe to tread.

The House By the Cemetery is different from Fulci's other zombie epics -- closer, more intimate, in many ways more traditional. There is only one zombie, and it inhabits a tomb beneath an old haunted house. The first half of the film is rather like a ghost story, full of a combined Italian-American gothic with overtones of Lovecraft. But the second half is pure Fulci -- gruesome murders, violent action and a superbly designed zombie who carves up his victims with almost anatomical precision. The scene where the zombie's stomach is slit open, to spew forth a viscous mixture of blood, guts and maggots, is certainly the genuine Fulci article.

After Fulci, the rest are pretty well anticlimactic, if strident. Zombi Holocaust was released in 1980 (it was a popular year for zombies) and is a mediocre effort at best. Some scenes work well and linger in the mind -- most of the film however is awkward and unimaginative, as it spins its tale of zombies in the jungles of wherever the hell it's supposed to be. With its mad doctor (an alternative title is Dr Butcher M.D.) and ritualistic trimmings, Holocaust plays the older voodoo-zombie themes, but it belongs nevertheless to the post-Night strain of living dead films, its zombies being bloody, cannibalistic and the heralds of an incipient apocalypse.

However, though Zombi Holocaust is not a great film, nor even a very good one, it is not the pits. That honour must be left for the likes of Night of the Zombies (1981), also known as Zombie Creeping Flesh. This film, directed by Bruno Mattei under the pseudonym Vincent Dawn, is a totally inept, loathsome and mindless effort, redeemed only by the fact that it is so unintentionally funny. It tells of an accident in a secret experimental laboratory in New Guinea. US scientists (we finally discover) are working on a gas which will make native peoples revert to cannibalism, thus providing an answer to problems of overpopulation. Unfortunately, an accidental leakage causes a plague of zombies to overrun the country, the first being, would you believe, a zombie rat. This provokes laughable speeches in an oddly constituted UN, umpteen disembowellings, endless scenes of zombies having their brains blown out ("Shoot for the head!"), incongruous nature-documentary footage, gratuitous nudity, military types (including one who dies at the hands of a zombie after dancing in the besieged supply room in a tutu!), lots of really bad acting, and a climactic scene in which a zombie rips out the heroine's tongue, inserts its fingers in her mouth and, in close-up, pokes out her eyes from the inside. A gross film, and badly done to boot. People who write articles on zombie movies are surely the only ones who should be required to watch this drivel, in expiation for their sins.

Mind you, the already-mentioned Curse of the Screaming Dead (also 1979) makes Night of the Zombies look like a masterpiece -- mainly because it's boring, as well as inept. If you don't believe me, watch it sometime, though not if you're feeling at all jaded. It might be the last straw. The big question it raises is: given that someone has been silly enough make such a film, why the hell would anyone bother to bring it out on video?

Fulci himself staged his own anticlimax to Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1989 with Zombie 3 -- though perhaps we should blame Bruno Mattei, who is rumoured to have been the actual director, despite the credits. Zombie 3 has the usual elements: bacteriological disaster, the military, exploding heads, blood-and-guts and an apocalyptic undercurrent -- not to mention zombie sea gulls, a zombie head that attacks from within a fridge, and a living dead birth. Fulci has bemoaned the film in interviews.

Certainly there's no end of bad zombie movies to choose from -- but there are good ones too. One wouldn't want Night of the Zombies (or Curse of the Screaming Dead or Erotic Night of the Living Dead or Nightmare City or Toxic Zombies or any other of the amateurish atrocities that cost almost nothing, and no expenditure of talent, to make) to be the end product of the tradition instituted by Romero. However, though there are far too many to discuss them all, a few accepted classics need to be mentioned, as well as some personal favourites. An account of them will illustrate the type of variation on the theme that has crawled up out of the grave over the last decade or so.

5. The Vengeful Dead

Before venturing to examine the direct descendants of Romero's zombies, there is a tradition we have not yet looked at: the zombie as corporeal ghost. Visions of the walking dead as instruments of ghostly vengeance date from ancient times and have been fitfully present in the movies, most recently in the big-budget revenge film, The Crow. The influence of Romero's living dead lies mainly in the type of violence they commit. These days zombies mutilate their victims horribly and their vengeance is more likely to have a degree of randomness which was not common in early days. But the real influence on these films was not Romero, but Herschell Gordon Lewis.

The tradition began early. In 1933, Boris Karloff starred in The Ghoul, playing an eccentric Egyptologist who wants to be buried with a priceless ancient jewel because he believes that he will gain immortality thereby. When the jewel is stolen from his tomb, the Egyptologist returns from the grave to reclaim it (though maybe he was just cataleptic, the script suggests). As the dead Egyptologist, Karloff wears effectively subtle make-up, a staring malevolence and an air that suggests his more famous role as Frankenstein's monster. He finally regains the jewel, mutilates himself before a statue of Anubis (which comes alive to claim the offered jewel), and then dies again.

In The Walking Dead (1936), Karloff is required yet again to rise from the dead. This time he plays an ex-convict tried and executed for killing the judge who had originally sent him to prison. But he has been framed by mobsters. A scientist, Frankenstein-like, restores him to life, whereupon, white-faced and spectral, he causes the mobsters who framed him to die (though he doesn't actually kill them himself). Karloff played a similar role in the effective The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), though in this one the returned executee is more directly malicious.

Such living dead nurse an understandable resentment toward the living, but typically their vengeance is restricted to those who have violated their sleep or caused their unjust death. Similarly, in one of the stories contained in the anthology movie Tales from the Crypt (1972), Peter Cushing plays an eccentric old man who is cruelly driven to his death by a malicious neighbour. He returns in a state of decay, face gaunt and wrinkled, clothes covered in grave-dirt, to express his displeasure in a direct show of violence -- that is, ripping out his tormentor's heart. In Creepshow (1985) -- another homage to horror comics -- vengeance becomes even gorier as an angry father, dead, returns in an advanced state of decomposition and ironically creates a designer birthday cake out of his daughter's head.

The zombie of Dead of Night (1972) doesn't realise he's dead. His motivations are not vengeful, but he is very like a corporeal spirit, returning plaintively to the place where he once belonged, which now exists for him only as part of another life. An army vet (a Vietnam War victim, no doubt), presumed dead, returns to his family, but grimly changed. He doesn't understand the changes himself, but it soon becomes clear that his insatiable thirst for blood is the only thing that stops him from decaying. In the end, decay occurs and he becomes a ravaging monster. Also known as Deathdream, the film is an effective metaphor for the problems of re-adjustment suffered by returning soldiers, and the spiritual impoverishment brought about by war. Moreover, it paints a grim picture of family life, underlining the tensions and deep divisions that were always there.

In a similar vein, Jean Rollin's lyrical and potent film, The Living Dead Girl (1982), has a beautiful young woman return from death without knowing she is dead. Brought back by a toxic spill, she moves zombie-like through the catacombs and then her old home (which is being sold), killing bloodily whomever she comes across and slowly regaining her memory. She eventually remembers, and meets up with, a childhood friend, who tries to restore her to life. The friend's obsession, in fact, proves as deadly as the dead girl's need for blood. But in the end the girl remembers that she is dead, and unable to resist her own bloody impulses, is inevitably lead toward death once more. The overall tone is one of tragedy, and though the film was cheaply made, its dreamy poetry dominates over the lack of plot and produces an effective piece of cinema.

Jesus Franco's Virgin Among the Living Dead (Une Vierge Chez Les Morts Vivants, 1971) is closer to being a ghost story than a zombie story. The living dead inhabiting Montserratt Castle are solid and fleshy enough (especially the women), 'ice-cold' and with peculiar habits, but they do not shamble about and only one, who is described as 'a little mad, that's all' does any killing. Meanwhile they play the piano, smoke, perform various ritualistic acts and 'play' with the main character's virginity. The virgin of the title arrives at her family home after the death of the father she had never met. Once there she is subjected to various oddities, including a visitation from her hanged father, who eventually makes it clear that 'the Queen of Darkness' is after her. In the end she is joined with her dead relatives -- the bloodline closed forever. The film has a strange, surrealist feel, as well as the unselfconscious nudity typical of the director but little bloodiness (though plenty of suggestive perversity).

In Mario Bava's Baron Blood (1972), the titular character is re-called from death by his last-remaining descendant, who foolishly chants magic words from a witch's parchment as part of the playful seduction of a blonde, mini-skirted architect's assistant (played by Bava favourite, Elke Sommer). The semi-decayed Baron, who had a weakness for torture (which was why he was killed in the first place), resumes his favourite occupation, especially targeting developers who are in the process of converting his castle-cum-torture emporium into a hotel for tourists. The film contains several excellent sequences, such as the Baron's relentless pursuit of Ms Sommer through fog-shrouded streets, though on the whole Baron Blood is more conventional, and less atmospherically coherent, than the Italian maestro's best work. Nevertheless, it is an effective thriller.

In the 1960s, exploitation film director Herschell Gordon Lewis laid the groundwork, with films like Blood Feast (1963) and 2,000 Maniacs (1964), for the sub-genre that was to become known as the 'slasher' film. Bloody murder, and lots of it, is the main ingredient of this sub-species. The slaughter is usually perpetrated by a maniac who remains fairly anonymous, but insists on doing very nasty things to anyone at all, but especially nubile young ladies. 1978 saw the release of the best of the 'slasher' classics -- Halloween, directed by John Carpenter, in which lunatic Michael Myers returns on Halloween night, face covered in a mask, to revenge himself on his relatives (and anyone else who gets in the way). Sequels followed.

In 1980, one of the most prominent (though hardly the best) of these slasher films made a killing at the box-office, proving very popular with the teen set in particular. Friday the 13th, directed by Sean S. Cunningham, tells the story of a number of young people in a holiday camp who are slaughtered in various inventively gruesome ways by a mysterious figure, later identified by a hockey mask. This killer turns out to be the mother of Jason Voorhees, who 'drowned' as a child while his teenage guardians made love on the shore. In subsequent movies, however, it is Jason himself who returns to avenge his ill-treatment on new generations of young campers. As the film's phenomenal box-office reception spawned Friday the 13th II, III, IV, V, VI, VII and VIII, Jason is depicted as a walking, slashing corpse, functioning purely as an engine of malice-driven violence. The need to 'resurrect' a popular villain for sequels seems to be the motivating force that energises Jason's dead flesh (and perhaps rivalry with the more supernatural doings of Freddy Krueger), and the phenomenon recurs in other slasher films that became series -- such as the Halloween series, in which the real status of Michael Myers, vis a vis being alive, became increasingly ambiguous as the movies proliferated. This 'zombifying' of the murderer happens even though in essence the slasher film is about human, 'naturalistic' maniacs.

Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives (1986) is an excellent example of the serial slasher as walking corpse, as well as being, in my opinion, the best of the series. It begins with an obsessed young man returning to Jason's grave, determined to lay his own restless inner ghosts by assuring himself that Jason is in fact dead. Unfortunately, when he digs up the body (which is rotten and crawling with maggots), a bolt of lightning from the heavens strikes Jason and the corpse rises to once again pursue its career of ripping out hearts, impaling hikers and mutilating young people. Jason stalks relentlessly through the film, unspeaking, violent and single-minded, making a beeline from his grave to the cabins which were the scene of his original distress. In this film, for the first time, he is unambiguously a supernatural being.

Jason remains a vengeful zombie for the next few films, though by the latest and, so they say, last -- Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday(1993) -- his 'living dead' status has developed into a ghostly ability to survive even the destruction of his flesh. In the first scene, an FBI hit-squad traps him and blows him to smithereens. But his heart, still pumping away, is compulsively eaten by the coroner, who then 'becomes' the dead maniac: strong, deadly and unkillable -- in short, a zombie. However, the bodies Jason possesses cannot hold him for long or they begin to disintegrate. Mimicking the insect-like alien of The Hidden (1987), Jason's heart passes from one mouth to another in a sort of pseudo-sexual act, each new victim becoming a Jason-zombie. Finally Jason himself (tattered clothes and all) is re-born through the corpse of his sister, only to be sent to hell by the one person able to do so -- another Voorhees, in this case his niece. It's all quite bizarre, with spectacular SFX barely hiding the sameness of it all. Much better than most of its predecessors, Jason Goes To Hell is a fair end to a very patchy series.

Overall, like Ossorio's Knights Templar films, the message of the Friday the 13th and its offspring seems to be that sex is bad and will kill you. Certainly a high proportion of the victims of Jason Voorhees are engaging in some sort of sexual interaction when they meet their nasty ends. Probably there's also an underlying message from the resentful adult world that being young might be fun, but we're going to make you too nervous to enjoy it!

The Maniac Cop films, directed by William Lustig, are also influenced by 'slasher' movies, though the victims are not young people in particular. Like Jason, however, Officer Matt Cordell's desire for revenge goes beyond those individuals responsible for his death, to point up a wider-ranging social responsibility. Cordell is a honest cop whose honesty makes him the target of dishonest cops. He is framed by them and sent to prison. This is virtually a death sentence, of course, as the prisoners turn on him and stab him in the showers. But is he really dead? Suddenly there's a rogue cop on the loose, murdering those the police are sworn to protect; hence, Cordell's vengeance extends to the very concept of law-and-order itself. New York is gripped by panic. Cops die, as well the public, as Cordell's sights are set on the upper echelons of the force. In the first movie, we are merely uncertain whether or not Cordell is alive -- maybe he was not really dead when declared such by the prison mortician. By Maniac Cop 2, however, the ambiguity is gone. Cordell is seen as a dead man, out for revenge. Bullets do not stop him and his face becomes more and more death-like. There is much effective satire in the series, as well as some excellent action sequences. The films' offbeat qualities may perhaps be traced to the influence of Larry Cohen (writer/producer), whose own horror films are so effectively bizarre.

Vengeance is also the theme of films such as Armand Mastrioianni's The Supernaturals (1986) in which the corpses of Confederate soldiers rise up against a modern US army troop out on manoeuvres. Scenes of besieging zombies, this time on the site of an old battlefield, are reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. The zombies lumbering about in the dark in the execrable Curse of the Screaming Dead were also dead Confederate soldiers, out for revenge against those who 'stole' their memorabilia -- though Mastroianni's film is a great improvement, of course, even if no masterpiece.

Shock Waves (1977) concerns the members of an elite Nazi Death Corps, "not dead, not alive, but somewhere in between" -- who rise from their watery grave to kill the SS commander responsible for sending them to the bottom of the sea, as well as a group of tourists who have wandered by at the wrong moment. There are several effective scenes, especially those depicting the first awakening of the zombie corps -- the scuttled battleship appearing through fog and darkness, the dead rising from various bodies of water, faces wrinkled and grey, adorned in dark glasses and SS uniforms. There are some silly plot elements too and for a time the film seems to wander indecisively (like its zombies), but over all it is an enjoyable movie, quirky and atmospheric in a B-grade manner.

Shock Waves is one of several Nazi zombie movies which form a small, independent thread within the sub-genre; others include The Frozen Dead (1967), Lake of the Living Dead (1980) and The Treasure of the Living Dead (1982). Such Nazi zombies carry a similar message to other zombie films where an evil group or individual from the past returns to create havoc in the present, such as those that feature Ossorio's living dead Knights Templar. The zombies are an effective metaphor for Shakespeare's "evil that men do" continuing to torment the living. Even more so, they are a reminder of the consequences of evil, which can afflict generations to follow -- a symbol, then, for psychological trauma.

Not to be left out, Australia has produced its own zombie revenge movie -- Zombie Brigade (1987). Aboriginal motifs, Romeroesque bloodlust and European guilt combine in a typical outback township setting, as the war-dead rise in response to developmental violation of the land. Here the zombies are restless Vietnam dead (ghoulish, pale-faced, lumbering) and salvation comes when the protagonists evoke the aid of a much less unpleasant class of war-dead, that is, diggers from the Second World War. Good dead (from a good war?) versus bad dead (from a bad war?). Interesting political agenda there, eh?

Toxic Zombies (1980) too has a revenge motif of sorts -- these zombies are created when a secretive government agency uses an experimental herbicide on a marijuana plantation, and those trying to harvest the illegal crop. The resulting zombie-like creatures take a general revenge -- fairly badly handled -- on anyone in the vicinity. In William Wesley's excellent Scarecrows (1988), however, the dead take on the appearance of scarecrows, keeping a modern band of scavengers away from their resting place. The film is dark and vicious, generating considerable suspense despite the unappealing nature of many of the characters. A memorable moment occurs when one of the thieves shambles back into the house in which the whole group has taken refuge, attacks his 'friends' and is disembowelled. We then learn that he is not only dead but has been stuffed with straw.

Dawn of the Mummy (1981) has the distinction of being the only 'gorefest' Mummy movie ever produced. It also manages to combine the classic Mummy plot (a mummy, whose tomb is violated, takes revenge on those responsible) with the zombie tradition (as suggested by the title's similarity to that of Romero's second Living Dead film). Murderous (and very statuesque) pharaoh, Safiraman, rises from his tomb, along with the corpses of his retinue, who emerge zombie-like from the sands and proceed to stumble about killing archaeologists, a film crew involved in filming a fashion layout, and the locals. The Mummy rarely participates in the bloodletting, decapitation and flesheating, but simply orchestrates the slaughter. Though not a classic, Dawn of the Mummy is fun, with some telling images of the Mummy appearing in the streets of a nearby village and of his zombie followers going about their bloody business, not to mention some fairly excessive gore.

John Carpenter's The Fog (1979) has the crew of a scuttled ship return shrouded in fog to seek vengeance on the town that was responsible for their death, 100 years before. The film is atmospheric and often chilling, displaying the superb craftsmanship that is characteristic of the best of Carpenter's work. Its melding of ghost story, sea-dog tale and zombie movie make it particularly appealing. A combination of genres also occurs in two less-successful films from 1988, both of which use Western imagery to variable effect. Ghost Town depicts a contemporary sheriff caught up in conflict with a 19th century gunslinger. In Ghostriders, a gang of outlaws returns to avenge themselves of the descendants of those who hanged them. They might be ghosts, but they have an extremely physical presence.

Also dating from 1988, Mark Goldblatt's Dead Heat is about living dead-style revenge, in a rather unusual sense. A cop is killed but brought back to life by a re-vitalisation machine developed for nefarious purposes by his killers. Now he wants to get the ones who killed him. The film is a zombie remake of the old D.O.A. (1949), in which Edmond O'Brien plays a man who has been poisoned and is slowly, incurably dying. In Dead Heat, a time limit is imposed by the dead cop's bodily deterioration -- he must find his killers before he goes completely to pieces. Often played for laughs (which only sometimes work), the film has some remarkable zombie sequences -- such as the scene where the contents of a Chinese butcher shop are brought back to life ... plucked chooks, sides of beef, you name it.

(Here's a thought. Perhaps, in the end, everything dead wants its revenge against the living -- presenting us with corpses out for revenge against those who still have what they themselves have lost. Ultimate responsibility is not simply moral, but existential. This seems to be a common undercurrent of zombie films.)

In a reversion to the older form of targeted revenge, however, Alex Proyas' otherwise very '90s approach to the return of the dead, The Crow (1994), gives us a zombie consumed by an utterly righteous indignation against specific individuals -- specifically, that is, those individuals who killed him and his fiancée. Brandon Lee, who died tragically during the filming of The Crow, plays the supernatural protagonist, rock musician Eric Draven. (In a grim irony, Lee, whose character is shot umpteen times during the film, was killed by a real bullet fired from a prop gun, and the movie completed using computer images, thus giving the usual 'return from the dead' scenario a particular poignancy.) Based on a cult horror comic by James O'Barr, the film was scripted by splatterpunk writers David J. Schow and John Shirley, and this ancestry shows in its grimness, its morality and its unrelenting violence.

The Crow is a visually stunning movie, darkly gothic and moody, beautifully photographed, expensive and well acted. This is just as well, as the plotline is fairly basic, straight-down-the-line, vigilante-from-the-netherworld stuff -- wronged young corpse rises from the grave and kills off the bad guys one by one, working his way toward final confrontation with the leader of the pack. There is little suspense. Except for a moment of vulnerability at the end, when the villain disables the crow that is Draven's link with life, you are never in doubt that the already dead hero is invincible nor that he will get his victim, violently and without the interference of ethical considerations. Nor can we care for the villains, because they are purely, almost inhumanly nasty and/or evil. So the film's pleasures are simply cinematographic, though there is a primitive pleasure to be gained from the revenge motif itself, as countless westerns have proven in the past (Clint Eastwood's classic High Plains Drifter is a good example, as the vengeful hero in that is arguable dead too).

6. Nearly Dead

When is a zombie not a zombie?

There are a number of films and major film cycles in which characters indulge in zombie-like behaviour -- particularly of the Night of the Living Dead sort -- but are not really zombies as such. Except in films like the terrible Zombie Island Massacre (1984), where the zombies aren't zombies at all, but drug smugglers pretending to be zombies in order to scare off unwanted investigation, most generally these nearly-dead are possessed or diseased; their rationality and usually their wills have been suppressed, and, since they are inevitably going to die, they can be taken as dead. They are zombie-like on a metaphorical level, if not on a literal one.

Romero himself, in the aftermath of Night and perhaps in preparation for Dawn, made a film in 1976 under the title The Crazies. It has a scientific underpinning -- the problem is a virulent disease created by government researchers and accidentally let loose upon a small community -- but the effect is very similar to the zombie plague of Night. Victims go crazy, lose their minds and find themselves consumed by an irresistible bloodlust. Moreover, the disease is spread by their attacks and as the film progresses, attempts to contain the infection are put under greater and greater strain. In the end, once again, America is in for trouble on an apocalyptic scale.

In many ways The Crazies sees Romero experimenting with themes and situations that will be developed further in his subsequent living dead movies -- particularly as much of it has to do with the response of the military. Yet the film should not be dismissed so lightly. The Crazies works in its own right -- being well directed, lucid and exciting for most of its length -- and the overriding ironies are ones that work effectively in this scenario. The major theme involves the concept of craziness itself. As the military, and indeed the non-infected public, respond to the plague, the line between sanity and madness becomes increasingly blurred. In the end, it is not at all clear who the real crazies are, or at least whether there is any real distinction to be made between the infected crazies and the rest of humanity. Again, as in Night, the chief protagonist dies at the hands of the 'sane' people, but this time his death represents a death sentence imposed on mankind as a whole.

Also the products of pseudo-science are the creatures of the New Zealand film Death Warmed Up (1984). Here the main protagonist is 'programmed' by a mad doctor to kill his parents, his father being a threat to the continued researches of the villain. Years later, released from psychiatric prison, he finds that the mad doctor has continued his work and now runs a hospital that specialises (covertly) in the production of vicious, unliving mutants. The hero goes to the doctor's island with a couple of friends and the result is vengeful, and often effective, mayhem. The film seems torn between comic exaggeration and real dramatic intent, so the result is not as satisfying as it might have been, though the action sequences are exciting and much of the visualisation nicely eccentric.

Another close cousin of the zombie sub-genre is the cannibal sub-sub-genre, a speciality of several Italian directors in particular. Entries such as Cannibal ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly, Umberto Lenzi, 1981), I Cannibali (aka Cannibals, Franco Prosperi, 1979) and Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) readily spring to mind. Cannibal Apocalypse (1982) probably brings the sub-genre closest to the zombie film, though all of them gained their impetus from the wave of living dead movies that followed on the heels of Dawn of the Dead. In Cannibal Apocalypse (also known as Invasion of the Flesh Hunters), US war vets returning from Vietnam carry a virulent disease that changes them, and anyone they bite, into cannibals. This film, like the others mentioned, is awash with gore and blood and predicated on an attitude to horror that defines it as physical revulsion.

C.H.U.D. (1984) chronicles what happens when unscrupulous officials illegally dump radioactive waste into the sewers of New York. The letters of the title stand for "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers" (among other things); the ravenous creatures that are spawned by the radioactivity are what has become of derelicts who normally haunt the streets and sleep in the spaces beneath them. Consciously underlying the film is a satire on middle-class attitudes to the problem of the homeless in our big cities, and as well as pursuing its political/ecological agenda, it creates an effectively paranoid image of the consequences of our neglect rising up against us.

Sometimes the zombie-simulating plague comes from outer space. In Night of the Comet (1984), a rare astral passing, Day of the Triffids fashion, completely reduces onlookers to orange dust, but converts those who were only partially exposed into violent zombies. Survivors -- two Valley Girls -- go shopping in a big way. This is an entertaining and quirky film that is full of a nicely ironic good humour. And do I detect a reference to Dawn of the Dead, when a radio announces in the background: "Good luck finding a parking space within hitchhiking distance of a mall -- you know how jammed they can get"?

Also originating from outer space is the menace of The Night of the Creeps (1986), directed by Fred Dekker, otherwise known for the humorous monster-movie homage The Monster Squad and the recent Robocop 3. The Night of the Creeps, like both these films, pays its respects to horror-fantasy traditions -- in this case in more than just plot: its characters bear the names of famous horror directors. Zombification takes place when victims are infested by alien slug-like creatures, die and then keep walking around, trying to infest others. My favourite line comes when Tom Atkins, as a cop investigating first the suspicious disappearance of a corpse, then a murder, says to girls gathered around in their dorm waiting to go off to the dance: "The good news is, your dates are here ... The bad news is, they're dead!"

Tobe Hooper's much maligned Lifeforce (1985) has some visiting, energy-draining aliens causing those they have killed to return to life filled with a desire to inflict similar injury on other humans. The somewhat eccentric film (which boasts, among other things, a naked space vampire in the person of Mathilda May) is pure B-grade mayhem, done stylishly and with considerable exuberance. The apocalyptic climax, depicting London overrun by zombies intent on sending the life-energy of the populace to the alien mother ship and its load of comatose aliens, is an effective piece of gaudy and oddball SF histrionics. Though it is hardly an accurate visualisation of its source (Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires), I can never understand while its critics haven't managed to enjoy it for what it is.

Though the English translation of Mario Bava's SF thriller, Terror nello Spazio (1965) -- which inspired several prominent images and plot elements of Ridley Scott's Alien -- is given as Planet of the Vampires, the film no more contains traditional vampires than does Lifeforce. The disembodied entities in Bava's film take over human visitors in an attempt to escape from the planet, and some of these visitors are distinctly dead at the time. A visually beautiful and stylised film, Planet of the Vampires creates some wonderful images, including a scene in which dead crew members, draped in polythene, rise from their futuristic tombs.

Though in their original form, the innumerable Frankenstein films are not living dead movies -- the monster being a new creation, albeit made up of dead bodies -- there is some overlap at times. A good example is Wes Craven's Deadly Friend (1986). In this teen thriller, a young electronic genius restores his dead sweetheart to life through a process similar to that involved in his previous creation of a robotic playmate. The film makes its strongest reference to the Frankenstein story, but the revitalised girl (played by Kristy Swanson) acts like a zombie -- stumbling around stiffly and committing acts of violence. It is all fairly sanitised and only marginally successful, but reasonably entertaining nevertheless.

Less sanitised as a version of Frankenstein are the Frankenstein films of British horror production house, Hammer. The first, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), almost single-handedly ensured Hammer's future and signalled the beginning of the modern horror film. This is also the only one that comes close to Mary Shelley's original novel. What director Terence Fisher did, however, with the aid of the wonderful Peter Cushing, was transform Doctor Frankenstein from an essentially well-meaning, if misguided, scientist, into a self-serving, murderous and increasingly monstrous rationalist. Fisher's films form a sequence in their own right (only two of the Hammer Frankenstein films -- The Evil of Frankenstein, 1964, and The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970 -- were not directed by Fisher, and the latter was the only one that did not star Cushing). Although after the first one, they are no longer Shelley's Frankenstein, they represent a complex body of work inspired by the original novel: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Frankenstein Created Woman (1966), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973). In them, there is no one monster -- the films trace Frankenstein's ongoing experiments into re-animation and brain transplantation. Hence, at times, the 'monster' is less a created thing than a re-animated corpse -- and hence can represent a whole class of Frankenstein films in which re-animation of the dead, rather than the creation of life, lies at the heart of the theme. It is a theme which reaches its peak in Stuart Gordon's brilliant zombie opus Re-Animator (1985). Again, what we have here are scientifically created zombies.

In Lambert Bava's Demons (1986), on the other hand, the zombie plague has a supernatural origin. Patrons at a late-night horror film preview find that demonic images on the screen are being replicated in reality as victims are turned into slavering maniacs, who then infect others. The source of the infection is demonic possession, hence the scene where a horned demon rises bloodily from the torso of its host. But the appearance and the apocalyptic spread of the plague are clearly inspired by Romero, even though Demons has a quality and a look that is all its own. Bava attempted to reprise this look in Demons 2 (1990) -- it is more of the same, though less intensely focused. Demoni 3, directed by Umberto Lenzi in 1991, makes the demons explicitly zombie-like, more so even than the originals.

Sometimes it is the devil himself who creates the living dead. Fear No Evil (1981) is a visually effective and unusual 'Omen'-type film, in which Satan is born of a human woman and grows toward the inheritance of full power, only to be challenged by two archangels also manifest in human form. The climax, which takes place during a religious pageant, sees the dead rise and chase bystanders to their death. The film was directed by Frank LaLoggia, who subsequently made the excellent ghost thriller, The Lady in White (1988).

Pet Sematary (1989), based on the novel by Stephen King, also features demonic revivification of the dead. Like the novel, the movie explores grief, or more pointedly the inability of the main characters to cope with the death of loved ones. The cat Church, buried in the rocky soil beyond the more innocent 'Pet Sematary' used by local kids to inter their dead animals, returns home apparently alive again. Dr Louis Creed buries his son there too, after the boy is killed by a truck; neither Louis nor his wife Rachel, in their different ways, are effectively able to deal with grief. But the soil of the burial ground is 'sour', possessed of an ancient Indian spirit which is guiding Louis toward his own destruction. When the son, returned from the grave, kills Rachel, Louis is forced to destroy him, but once again visits the Indian burial ground, this time with his wife's body. She too returns, the spirit that has entered her stronger than ever. As wise old neighbour Jud says: "Sometimes dead is better".

Pet Sematary clearly articulates an aspect of death that is important in all zombie films -- the role of acceptance. Perhaps it is when death is not accepted (either through grief or the desire for vengeance) that the dead are most likely to walk again -- or, taken metaphorically, the events of the past will sour life in the present. Pet Sematary is not a film that was appreciated by all commentators; but it does present some painful truths effectively and in its seriousness and refusal to follow commercial lines it comes over as a work of some integrity. In my opinion it has been underrated.

Pet Semetary's director, Mary Lambert, recently explored the theme further (or maybe just again) in a sequel, Pet Semetary Two. The events of the first film have entered into Castle Rock's folklore, though few lessons have been learnt. Two reprises the dead-pet raising of its predecessor, this time using a dog; but very soon the local sheriff, who was slightly crazy when alive, is buried in the cursed ground and returns as a violent, sardonic zombie (zealously and amusingly played by Clancy Brown). Believing that it is merely the man's nature when alive that governs his less-than-desirable behaviour now that he is one of the living dead, the film's protagonist (Terminator 2's Edward Furlong) tries the same thing on his dead mother. The result is not nice.

The sequel is much bloodier and nastier than the first film, especially in its climax -- but it is not as serious either. The theme of acceptance, though present, has become less important than the surface action. Nevertheless, it is effective, in a limited fashion, and quite watchable, especially for zombie aficionados.

 

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