It’s hard to tell where World Zombie Day is at these day — it may have happened on October 13, though trying to find news about it makes me feel like a post-apocalyptic grandpa in his basement on a HAM radio trying to contact anyone, anyone at all…in this case, ironically, zombies. “Hello! Are there any zombies out there? For God’s sake, someone answer!” Just as ironically, it’s been a minor plague that has kept the zombies off the streets the last three Halloween seasons.
FYI, World Zombie Day is a festive occasion when a bunch of horror fans get together in cities around the world, don horror make-up and costumes and do a zombie walk, Santa-Con style. It’s quite separate from Halloween, and is usually done for charity. It started in Pittsburgh, famous hometown of George Romero, who reinvented the zombie mythos for the modern age, no small feat. Romero drew his inspiration from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend for his zombie cycle Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). There was also a 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead directed by Zack Snyder. Another source with similarities, believe it or not is Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Deny it if you will, but the similarities are there.
Initially, the resurrected corpses in Romero’s saga were not referred to as zombies, but as ghouls, though there are obvious similarities. As I’ve posted before, I’m much more partial to the original zombiverse, the African witch doctor, Haiti/Cuba/New Orleans voodoo nightscape, and my favorite zombie horror movie remains White Zombie (1932) with Bela Lugosi. The word zombie seems to have its roots in the Kongo language, traceable to such words as nzambi (god), zumbi or nzumbi (fetish), vumbi or mvumbi (ghost or corpse that still retains the soul), nvumbi (body without a soul) or nzumbi (soul).
I find the Romero films almost unbearably bleak. Though not without a certain amount of satirical humor, ultimately the real hurdle to survival in his films is less the proliferation of brain-eaters than the inability of human beings to cooperate in battling them. That cuts too close to the bone, never more so than nowadays, when a good 1/3 to 1/2 of the country would clearly be happy to let the planet burn down as long as they have toys to play with in the meantime. It does indeed some hopeless over the long term.
But there are some products of the genre I have enjoyed and I thought it would be to talk a look at them, especially since a keystone of the genre, the original Walking Dead series is shambling towards its less episode, set to air on November 20. This is far from a comprehensive list, and among the things I have left out are foreign films, musicals (there are more zombie musicals than you know), and adaptations of video games. Got a problem with that? Bite me! Wait — maybe not.
28 Days Later (2002)
Midway between Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire none other than Danny Boyle directed this innovative and popular film about an epidemic raging through Britain which turns the infected into zombie-like maniacs. One of its welcome innovations is that in this setting, the monsters run quickly, amping up the anxiety substantially! It was followed by the 2007 sequel 28 Weeks Later. I always thought it would be a funny joke to swap this movie with 28 Days, to give Sandra Bullock fans the cruel surprise they didn’t know they wanted,
Sean of the Dead (2004)
A welcome dose of humor comes to the genre, in the first of the Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg trilogy that also includes Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013). Somehow the film manages to work satire, slapstick and recognizable real life into a genre that had traditionally had little of any of those things. As in all the Wright-Pegg films, lots of business in pubs, and what ought to be a disaster coming as something of a welcome diversion in the life of a middle-aged sad sack.
This one is also a hoot — a sort of road movie of strange bedfellows who’ve banded together to get across the U.S. during the zombie apocalypse, with an all-star cast consisting of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. Two cast members would return in not dissimilar vehicles: Amber Heard in the 2020 remake of Stephen King’s The Stand (2020), and Bill Murray in The Dead Don’t Die (see below). Murray is particularly hilarious here, playing himself hiding away in his Hollywood mansion, because of course there would also be celebrities in the zombie apocalypse. This movie made quadruple its budget at the box office and became the top grossing zombie movie for its day.
The Walking Dead (2010-2022)
Based on a popular graphic novel, The Walking Dead surprised everyone twice over: for surviving at all, and then for surviving for so long. There had been very few horror series on television up until this point, let alone any about zombies. AMC took a chance on it, and much like Mad Men, which had premiered three years earlier, it became a major surprise hit for the network. That said? The quality of the show has been wildly uneven. I liked the premiere episode, but what came after that usually got on my nerves — hated the writing, acting and direction. Strictly on-the-nose stuff about characters TRYING to have a terrible time. It broke all the rules in the wrong way. Still, I hung on for for the first couple of seasons, because, you know, zombies. Finally I got fed up and dropped it. Then, I kept hearing from people that it was getting better, somewhere around the 4th or 5th season, so I picked it up again and did enjoy it. There were innovations, clever set pieces I’d never seen before, interesting new situations and scenarios. Then I dropped it again like a hot potato again after a notorious episode involving the staving in of a beloved character’s head with a baseball bat. Haven’t watched it since, though I will probably look in as it draws to its final episode next month. That said, I did enjoy the spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead, which launched in 2015. There have been two other spinoff series The Walking Dead: The World Beyond (2020-21) and Tales of The Walking Dead (2022) and others are planned for the future. Surely you know a show about the undead will not die?
World War Z (2013)
I recall enjoying this cheeky action movie starring Brad Pitt though for the life of me I can’t seem to remember a damn thing about it, except maybe a very high wall and big writhing, piles of zombies outside it? Part of it takes place in Israel, and its fresh approach is that the main characters are government officials trying to solve the problem, the other end of things we usually hear in radio spurts in the other zombie movies. It has a thin skein of “geopolitics” as a raison d’etre, but it’s strictly a popcorn movie.
Z Nation (2014)
This highly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek series ran on SyFy from 2014 to 2018. I couldn’t get enough of it, due to funny writing and a pretty irresistible cast, hands down I think the most bearable cast in any zombie scenario prior to this (good lord, how I hated most of the people on The Walking Dead). The lodestone is Keith Allan as one “Murphy” a sort of Patient Zero in the effort for doctors to work up a cure to the zombie outbreak. Somehow he survived his infection, and lives in a kind of limbo state between human and zombie. The rest of the cast members have a mission to get him across the U.S. to some lab facility. The rub, and the fuel for the whole series, is that he’s a terrible person. He’s like Dr. Smith on Lost in Space, always treacherous and full of arch, funny insults, and meanwhile (because he’s half zombie) he even smells bad. This was a very enjoyable show.
Life After Beth (2014)
Apparently I liked this truly imaginative movie a whole lot more than lot of online critics. It may because I first watched it in 2022, after living through all kinds of worldwide, insane nightmares like watching TV reality clown Donald Trump become President, with a third to a half of the country supporting him, and a pandemic that unhorsed the nation for over two years, and things like that — with everyone trying to keep their lives on track and keep things nice and normal in their living rooms. So this movie about upper middle class suburban people attempting to that during a zombie apocalypse very real and true. It’s a comedy of course, and much humor is derived from underplaying by a very stellar cast. It’s directed by Jeff Baena and stars his main squeeze Aubrey Plaza, with Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick, and lots of other familiar character actors and insiders in cameos, not the least of which is Garry Marshall, in his final screen appearance.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
I’m truly sorry that anyone regards this thing as clever or innovative. As someone who came out of the indie theatre scene in the 1990s, I can’t tell you how many things like this I saw on stage. (In fact my friend Ian W. Hill set a production of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room amongst a zombie outbreak in a show at Nada sometime around 2001. A 19th century temperance melodrama gets us pretty close to Jane Austen I think.) It would be one thing if anyone associated with it had knocked it out of the park in terms of execution, but, no. It’s just a stupid, crude mash-up. I hated Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter just as much.
I thought this British series was pretty pleasant, with a winning cast of young people, and a concept that’s such a stretch it had to have been cooked up on a drunken bet. Basically it’s a handful of young adults who are trying to get away from the zombie apocalypse on one of those slow moving canal boats that they still have plenty of in England, and are often used as houseboats. I didn’t really know about this picturesque fact of British life until we started watching lots and lots of English mysteries on TV. We used those boats in the U.S. in the 19th century as well but only for a brief time, and then we switched to railroads, filled in all the canals and turned the boats into firewood, which is far less charming. This is America: where we kill things dead.
The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
This is Jim Jarmusch’s inevitable contribution to the genre, and I do believe ultimately my favorite post-Romero zombie movie. So deadpan, and calm and matter of fact. The characters are doomed just as in any zombie movie, but they have zero urgency about escaping. It’s just like…a hassle. Maybe the finest Jarmusch cast ever: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny all as local cops. Tilda Swinton is some kind of alien with a Scottish accent who runs the funeral home. Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Tom Waites. I forget where it’s shot, but it calls to mind both the New Jersey of Paterson and the Pittsburgh of Night of the Living Dead. It couldn’t be more different from Jarmusch’s vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive or his ghostly western Dead Man, but man they would make a great triple feature. BTW this movie was made for a tiny fraction of what most of these other recent projects cost, and earned a tiny fraction of what they earned, but it is way, way, way, way better.
Little Monsters (2019)
We watched this adorable little Australian production during the Covid lockdown and enjoyed it thoroughly. An adorable zombie movie, you ask? Yes! It concerns the efforts of a kindergarten teacher (Lupita Nyong’o) to protect the tots in her charge while they’re holed up in a gift shop during a field trip during a zombie outbreak. Somehow she and a couple of others keep the little chickabiddies together and whole, though it does get hairy at moments. Only the Aussies could make a sunny zombie movie!
Army of the Dead (2021)
I include this only in the interest of completionism. It only came out recently, but it was directed by Zack Snyder, who directed the remake of Dawn of the Dead. It’s about a heist in a zombie-infected Las Vegas, and does not sound like my cup of dice at all.
As you can tell, I like my modern zombie films with copious doses of comedy. If there was one corpse I wish I could resurrect it would be Buster Keaton, because I am convinced he could have made the comedy-horror zombie movie to end all comedy-horror zombie movies! Watch Cops or Seven Chances and you’ll know just what I mean!