Dawn of the Zombie

Complete Guide to the Living Dead

Sep. 24, 2012
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  Movie zombies are usually lumbering, slow-moving creatures, but zombie movies keep arriving at such a fast clip that the 2008 Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide is already out of date. Coming in time for Halloween the second edition of Glenn Kay’s lightly written but informative chronicle of the living dead fills gathers the news from Zombieland from the past four years.


Kay is a fan and has written a fan’s book, complete with a rating system that roams from Highly Recommended to Avoid at All Costs and that geek favorite, So Bad It’s Good. He correctly connects the arrival of zombies in pop culture to the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), which prompted the widespread interest in vodou practices, including the alleged use of the dead as slave labor. Little wonder, Kay astutely observes, that zombie films have often cast a shadow of social criticism.


The chronicle begins with the first zombie movie, White Zombie (1932). It starred Bela Lugosi, fresh from Dracula, as a ruthless landowner whose plantation ran on the energy of slave zombies. Kay praises it for “visionary technical wizardry,” including sinister camera angles and startling use of sound. Zombies were rather marginal in the Hollywood horror menagerie for many years, but produced one masterpiece, Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with the Zombie (1943), and some interesting footnotes, including The Walking Dead with Boris Karloff as a good zombie and directed by Michael Curtiz, who would helm Casablanca (1942).


The post-World War II drive-in boom spurred low-budget moviemaking and the rising teenage tide swelled the audience. The most memorably bad zombie movie from this era was Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). “While the end result is laughable, “ Kay comments, “there’s something unique, strangely appealing and oddly sweet about Plan 9.” It also included Lugosi’s last moments on film.


Zombies finally became inescapable after George Romero’s culty Night of the Living Dead (1968), even though, as Kay points out, the word “zombie” was never uttered in the film. Romero was thinking of ghouls when he conceived his flesh-eating hordes; unlike previous movie zombies, they were not under control of a madman or tyrant but form a conformist mob whose one thought is to consume. The government is ineffective and paranoia stalks the survivors, hold up in a farmhouse like settlers hunkered down against the Indians in an old western. Romero broke all the rules against graphic gruesomeness, which perhaps accounted for the picture’s midnight audience, and performed remarkable feats within a tiny budget.


The zombie had arrived and before long exploitation movies were being made in Spain and Italy Japan and Hong Kong. “The market was saturated with repetitious, poor quality productions,” Kay frets. Many of his descriptions read like bad jokes (Kung Fu Zombies?), yet Kay seems to have watched them all and manages to draw attention to interesting details. He also casts his net widely, including John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), whose evil dead are closer to ghosts than zombies. Of course, the much-deserved success of the 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007) insured that another wave of junk zombies would flood the world. There may even be need for a third edition in a few years if the torrent continues.


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