Months ago, I decided I’d had my fill of zombies. Around this time last year, I did a whole NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD retrospective, and then in February I challenged myself to review every remaining film from George Romero’s catalogue that I hadn’t yet covered. I was watching scores of movies with the undead creeping out of graves, and reading short story collections and novels about them munching away on the living. I got to the point where I was so burnt out, if I’d watched another shambling corpse I think I’d have ended up in a mindless eating machine myself. So I put zombies down for a long time. If mass media wouldn’t put them to rest, I rationalized I could.
But much like Michael Corleone and the Mafia, as much I try to walk away those clammy hands keep pulling me back into the coffin. So I took a little inspiration from last October, and put my favorite monsters to good use. Taking my 12 Underrated Flicks for Halloween Viewing as inspiration, I’ve crafted my 8 Living Dead Films to Celebrate this October. If you choose to watch these eight flicks this Halloween, you’ll do yourself well.
Just a few things before we get to it. First off, this is not a list; I’m not a list guy, so if you’re looking for one, check out 1,057 other horror sites. I have them in the order in which I’d watch them, because that order suits me. If you choose to reorder them, you’re not going to Horror Website Jail. Secondly, not all of these movies are good. It’s hard to find a truly high quality zombie flick, and in fact a few of these are awful. But they’re fun awful, and I’ve explained why each film is here. And last, I’ve limited myself to one Romero flick. Because until he makes another film or agrees to let me interview him, I’ve said all I have to say on him. And there are seven other voices and visions worth checking out. So let’s get to it.
- NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD- This is where it all begins. In a small farmhouse in rural Evans City, PA during Daylight Savings Time, Romero sets the template for what the living dead have become ever since. The dead rising from the grave to eat the living; bites infecting and turning those living into zombies themselves; a headshot the only way to end the chaos—all start off with NOTLD. Brilliantly. If you were only to see one zombie flick your entire life, this should be the one.
- FLESH EATER- Oh Bill Hinzman. Bill opportunistic Hinzman cashed in on his NOTLD fame with FLESH EATER, which brought back his Cemetery Ghoul and many of the trappings of the first film, from a siege on a farmhouse to Vince Survinski’s surly attitude and crack shooting. Not a great film, but good old exploitation fun, with plenty of gory feasting scenes and tits. And watched through a certain, insane prism—mine—a backstory for what happened in NOTLD.
- CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS- Oh Uncle Alan. With his latent homosexual mannerisms highlighted by his fey voice, vibrant ascot and desire to wed a male corpse, I couldn’t stop Alan and this film from making this compilation if I wanted to. And I don’t. This is one of the driest zombie efforts ever put to cinema, with about 90% of it comprised of people discussing things, mostly while standing still in a graveyard. But Alan is a unique joy among zombie flicks. Essayed by co-writer Alan Ormsby, he brings a flair no one living, dead or undead could ever duplicate. And Satan bless him for that.
- RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD- In the summer of 1985, this and the movie that follows it comprise two of three zombie flicks that hit theatres. Audiences found Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD too dark and veered away from it. Many of them headed to see Dan O’Bannon’s black comedy instead. O’Bannon wisely turns every rule Romero established on its ear, and creates a punk aesthetic in a wave of zombies that are funny and altogether scary because they’re unstoppable. And laugh all you want, but the ending suggests some horrifying things about the military that still hold true today.
- RE-ANIMATOR- That same summer, Stuart Gordon stepped far afield of Romero country and re-introduced the world to H.P. Lovecraft’s med student, Herbert West. Dipping back some 40 years before Romero’s first film into the pulp magazines, Gordon churns out a brilliant black comedy that would likely have given Lovecraft a heart attack… and then revived him with some green serum. RE-ANIMATOR provides disgusting levels of gore and full belly laughs, both perfectly captured cinema’s great severed head cunnilingus scene. It also introduced Jeffrey Combs to the world of horror films, a great gift to us all.
- WHITE ZOMBIE- Released back in the Lovecraft era, this is the granddaddy of the zombie film. Taking the wild tales of William Seabrook’s exploits in Haiti, writer Garnett Weston and director Victor Halpern defined the living dead up through the emergence of Romero’s film. The film itself is creaky and silly, and highly overrated. But it does suggest some creepy things about objectifying women as sexual objects; racism; and American imperialism. And fiendish Murder Legendre’s six zombie henchmen, as well as the famous superimposed shot of actor Bela Lugosi’s eyes, lend the film some joy to go along with Lugosi doing what Lugosi does best. Worth watching at least once just for its historical aspect in the zombie subgenre.
- KING OF THE ZOMBIES- This may be the most racist horror film in the history of the genre. Backwards thinking in portraying islanders as simpletons and American blacks as buffoons through white man’s valet Jefferson Jackson, you’d be right to take offense. Without the racist elements—a sign of the times, to be fair to it—you’d be left with a plodding, boring film that sports lackluster performances from its white cast; and it certainly wouldn’t have made this compilation based on that. But Mantland Moreland’s performance as Jefferson makes this film not only infinitely watchable, but enjoyable. Not only does he take the best lines in the film and speak them out in truly memorable fashion, but he’s actually the smartest person in the movie, and its true hero. As a blaxploitation fan with a self-styled obsession with sticking it to The Man, I cheer Moreland and his brilliant characterization of Jeff, which rises above the film itself.
- ZOMBIE- I curtailed myself to one Romero flick, and DAWN OF THE DEAD wasn’t it. But I’ll end things with probably the best DAWN ripoff, which also brings the living dead back to their Caribbean roots and their genesis with WHITE ZOMBIE. I’m not a big fan of Lucio Fulci, and ZOMBIE has its flaws. But it’s got some creepy stuff going on under its gaudy exterior, and it’s ballsy enough to showcase a top naked female diver watching a fight between a zombie and a real live shark. And visually it’s got some gorgeous shots, my favorite of which is a crab scuttling across a beach with a faded village in the background. I’ve always praised Fulci as a visual stylist who shunned plot, and that holds true in ZOMBIE. One more thing: In the decision between American zombie fans and those who favor Italian zombies, I fall squarely under the stars and stripes. But this film is a worthy way to end a zombie marathon, to show just how far things have come from WHITE ZOMBIE and through NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with some nice Italian flair.
So there you have it, folks. When those little kids come to your door dressed as pirates, Disney princesses, Avengers and all sort of monster, tilt back your best chair, grab a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup out of the candy bowl, and enjoy watching some zombies have a flesh treat of their own. And remember to shoot ‘em in the head.