Saturday, June 21, 2014

On the Origin of Zombies: 7 Must-See Zombie Films

Zombies have never been more popular than now, as evidenced by the smashing success of AMC’s ongoing television adaptation of the comic book The Walking Dead. Add to that the film adaptations of Max Brooks’ World War Z and Isaac Marrion’s Warm Bodies along with the original film Zombieland and a slew of zombie video games, and you have a veritable pop sensation. Sadly, most casual zombie fans have no idea where the genre got its start.

Unlike most monster genres (werewolves, vampires, mummies, witches, etc.), zombies as we know them are actually a product of cinema rather than literature, although literature certainly served as inspiration. Here are seven must see movies that chronicle the rise and evolution of the modern zombie.


1. White Zombie (1932). This is the first zombie movie ever made, and it more or less stays true to the Haitian Voodoo origins of the zombie, or nzumbe. In Haitian myth, a nzumbe is the name given to a corpse that has been reanimated by a boko (basically a voodoo sorcerer). In White Zombie, it’s non other than Bela Lugosi who plays the evil boko out to steal a beautiful American woman from her fiancĂ©.

2. King of the Zombies (1941). White Zombie actually started a mini-trend of zombie movies set in the Caribbean, all of them sticking to the premise of zombies being slaves of voodoo sorcerers. King of the Zombies stands out among the others for its pure entertainment value. Black American actor Mantan Moreland’s humor and acting power steels the show from the top billed white actors, and looking back now, that’s exactly the way it should be—the movie’s pro-American propaganda theme relies solely on the premise that, “Well, at least we’re not as racist as the Germans are!”

3. Night of the Living Dead (1968). This movie changed everything. Gone was the Caribbean backdrop and Voodoo Boko, and in its place the volatile landscape of the US in the 1960s. Creator George Romero didn’t even think of his monsters as zombies. “I called them ghouls, flesh eaters,” Romero remarks in an interview at “To me back then, zombies were just those boys in the Caribbean doing the wet-work for Bela Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend.” Fans and critics started calling Romero’s ghouls zombies, though, and the name stuck. The movie is dark and rife with social criticism, giving the zombie genre its first real bite.

4. Dawn of the Dead (1978). This was Romero’s follow-up to Night of the Living Dead, and in my opinion, the best zombie movie ever. In addition to tons of action and gory special effects, it has an underlying conflict that’s even more sinister: human nature, and our covetous, materialistic ways. And it also picks up where Romero left off by featuring under-represented characters. While Night of the Living Dead had a strong leading black male, the women were all hysterical weaklings. Romero made amends in this sequel with a strong black male lead paired with a strong female lead. This movie was remade in 2004, and while the remake is more polished, it has none of the poignant social criticism of the original.

5. Zombie (1979). From Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci, this movie was billed as the “unofficial sequel” to Dawn of the Dead and was meant to be a blockbuster hit. It takes Romero-esque zombies and puts them back into the Caribbean in a half-hearted attempt to reconcile zombies with the original Haitian myth, but really it’s all about the crazy gore fest. It was banned in the UK for being obscene, includes one of the top-ten cinema death scenes of all time, and—oh yeah—has a scene with a zombie fighting a shark. What more could you ask for?

6. The Return of the Living Dead (1984). This movie is utter shite, a fine example of what happens when a cult genre gets the full-on Hollywood treatment. It is entertaining, though, in that campy 80’s movie sort of way, chalk full of gratuitous gore and nudity. It is also the movie that birthed the trope of zombies clamoring for brains (Bwains... bwains... bwains!!!). Not the best zombie movie out there, but an important one that brought zombies to the mainstream.

7. Day of the Dead (1985). The third of Romero’s original zombie movies, rounding out his unofficial zombie trilogy. Romero has made many more zombie movies subsequently, and really you could add them all to this list, but Day of the Dead is the last one you have to put on any “must watch” list. It is by far the goriest of the Romero trilogy and features the most lovable zombie ever, Bub. This time, Romero focuses the social criticism lens on the struggle between the military industrial complex and the rationality of science. In addition, the movie embodies the most important aspect of the zombie genre: while zombies might be slow and inept individually, en masse they are an unstoppable force, and, even scarier, they bring out the worst in the living.

Garrett Calcaterra is an author of dark speculative fiction. His newest book, Dreamwielder, is an epic fantasy novel from Diversion Books. He is currently working on the sequel to Dreamwielder and an unrelated sci-fi novel. Learn more at


Dr. Suzana E. Flores said...

Great post. I like The Serpent and the Rainbow, I am Legend, and Plan 9 from Outer Space (wink).

Unknown said...

Thanks, Suzana. It's been a while, but I remember loving the campy awesomeness of Plan 9.

huin said...

I did not have any idea of Zombie movies, so these are very new to me. It seems that these movies are of mysterious kind. Well I am planning to watch “Day of the Dead” movie. Tell me is it really must see movies of all time?