Last time, I explored the origins of the zombie mythos in cinema. "Modern" zombies are one of the few pure cinematic monsters, in as much as they really didn't exist in the culture as we know them now until George A. Romero's genius penny dreadful “Night of the Living Dead” tore across America in 1968.
Romero invented a monster and reinvented horror films with his pseudo-documentary of unflinching grimness. Yet it wasn't too long before other film makers began tweaking the concept ... as well as Romero himself.
Italian film makers were one of the first to really adopt the Romero concept of zombies – “Zombi 2,” “Hell of the Living Dead,” “City of the Living Dead,” “Zombi Holocaust” -- are just a sampling of Italian versions of zombies.
Spain and England too added to the genre, all more or less remaining true to this new version of undead horror through the 1970s, none really adding much to how zombies are actually made. In “Night of the Living Dead,” it is strongly suggested that it's radiation; although, Romero later firmly stated that was just an erroneous theory suggested by characters.
Romero himself, of course, released “Dawn of the Dead” in 1979, and other than some uneven make-up, it remained true to the original shambling zombies. “Dawn of the Dead” offers less of an explanation as to what's causing the dead to rise than Romero‘s original film does.
In 1981, France produced "Oasis of the Zombies," which had the zombies moving a bit faster and bit more intelligently, but still fairly close to the “Night of the Living Dead” version. While there were plenty of flicks with "zombie" in their title in the ’80s, most were actually some sort of ghoul or supernatural type of monster, or so bad as not to matter much (as was another French release “Zombie Lake”). Both “Oasis” and “Lake” featured World War II-era zombies coming back to life decades later, perhaps the first real hint of a twist to the concept.
But it wasn't until John Russo -- co-writer of “Night of the Living Dead” -- and director Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter of “Alien”) release of “Return of the Living Dead” in 1985 that the first whammy to the genre happened. Beyond being one of the most darkly humorous horror films ever made, “Return” had a great cast and an interesting concept -- zombies were created not by radiation or some sort of Nazi-era experiment, but rather by some sort of army produced toxin. When hapless victims become exposed, they rapidly become thinking, undead zombies seeking brains (“Return” really is the first movie to suggest that brains drive the zombies hunger more than any other "meat"). But this toxin not only kills then brings the dead back to life (much like “World War Z” would do years later), but also brings the already long dead back to life, digging their way out of their crumbling coffins.
And “Return’s” zombies move fast -- real fast -- the first time they're shown doing so. And unlike every zombie movie before it, shooting a zombie in the brain does nothing. “Return's” zombies all almost unkillable, spread like wild fire and are semi-intelligent to boot -- all of which made for perhaps the most potentially terrifying version of the undead ever created.
In that same year (1985), Romero released the third of his trilogy (did he invent that concept as well?) of zombie flicks with “Day of the Dead.” The film offers no real changes to the concept or explanation, but it remains the grimmest and goriest version of zombies ever shown. Only four season's worth of “The Walking Dead” can really compare to “Day.”
After “Return” and “DAY,” zombie movies sort of took a break. Slasher films -- easier to produce -- soon dominated horror films to such an extent that horror as whole died out for a while. Even the 1990 color remake of “Night of the Living Dead” could not resurrect either the genre or horror as a whole. Not that zombie movies weren't being made, but they were primarily foreign produced cheapies that were little seen. The best of the bunch was Peter Jackson's 1992 release of “Brain Dead” (“Dead Alive” in the states), which like “Return of the Living Dead” had oodles of gore and black humor. But other than a few gore hounds, few saw Jackson's work of budding genius.
It would be a full 17 years after “Day of the Dead” before zombies once again captured the hearts (then ate them) of movie lovers. While zombie purists -- and director Danny Boyle -- will tell you that “28 Days Later” isn't a true zombie movie (as the "zombies" more closely resemble William S. Burroughs’ fever freaks), it was this terrifying new take that began our current collective love of all things zombie. For the first time, a viable explanation was given as to why millions of people would suddenly try ripping the throats out from their neighbors. An ultra-contagious plague that almost instantaneously turns victims into mindless killers is somehow completely believable. And while the victims aren't truly animated dead, they certainly are dead-ish. And beyond the near instant turning time, like “Return of the Living Dead,” these victims/monsters are fast.
Like “Night of the Living Dead,” “28 Days Later” (shot on consumer video cameras) seemed real because of the documentary-like style of shooting. It -- like “Night of the Living Dead” -- was a surprise hit and influenced nearly all zombie films that followed, with dozens of zombie movies going into production soon after its release. That included Zack Synder's remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” which was released two years after “28 Days Later.”
Perhaps the best overall stand-alone zombie film of all time, “Dawn” incorporates the humor of “Return of the Living Dead,” the speed of victims of “28 Days Later,” and the world-is-damned grimness of Romero's original trilogy. A fine cast and score certainly helped too, but it really is the first film to bring all the elements together under one roof so to speak.
Since “28 Days Later,” there have been three major types of zombie flicks -- deconstructed zombies (zombies as boyfriends, zombies as politicians, etc), comedies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland,” and a continuation of the bio-weapon gone terribly wrong serious take, like “The Walking Dead.”
“The Waling Dead” added one great bit of new zombie lore -- that everyone on the planet has the disease, which only activates upon death, but then pulled back from that in Seasons 3 and 4.
So, which is best? Well, just as HBO's “Band of Brothers” is arguably the best single narrative about World War II because of the quality of story telling and number of episodes, “The Walking Dead” is arguably the best single movie or series about zombies. Obviously without “Night of the Living Dead,” none of these other movies would have happened -- and it remains a starkly grim, horrifying film. “Day of the Dead” is perhaps the goriest and grimmest zombie movie ever made, while “Return of the Living Dead” introduced a viable cause, fast zombies and humor to the genre. “28 Days Later” introduced the "fast turn" and bio-weapon as new concepts. And the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” tied all of the above into an action-packed scare-fest that is also a tribute to the original series that has served as the template for all other zombies movies or shows since.
Regardless of which version of zombiedom you like best, like vampires and other older movie monsters, they have proven themselves adaptable to our modern day hopes and darkest fears.