Everybody knows what a zombie is, and everybody is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. The man-eating revenants invented by Russo and Romero in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ were a new invention, not the zombies of history! These movie undead are really just vampires, when you think about it: they’re walking corpses who feed on the living, and if you’re bitten by one, you turn into one. The Romero movie was, in fact, based on a vampire story, ‘I Am Legend’ – yes, regardless of whatever those things were in the Will Smith movie, in the book it was vampires.
So we’re not going to talk about those “zombies”. Instead, we’re going to take a look at some films over the years that dealt with real zombies: mindless dead people reanimated by voodoo to do the bidding of a magician – usually an evil magician! And menial labor. It seems like a lot if trouble to go through to get cheap workers, but what do I know?
Although in some cases, whether or not the zombies are actually dead is open to debate, which is, in fact, the case in real life.
For instance, there was a character called Cesare in the silent classic ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ who is LIKE a zombie. He’s referred to as a ‘somnambulist’ and is supposedly a man under hypnosis. But he sure LOOKS like he’s dead! And when he’s not being sent out to do Caligari’s dirty work, he’s kept in a cabinet which looks like nothing so much as an upright coffin. So zombie or not? No idea. It depends on your definition. Considering some others on this list are just as vague, I’d argue Cesare is possibly the first movie zombie.
The first DEFINITE zombie movie was 1932′s ‘White Zombie’. Yes, like the rock band. This little flick has the advantage of Bela Lugosi as the evil Murder Legendre – which is the kind of name that just screams ‘evil’. Seriously, folks, don’t name your kid ‘Murder’ if you know what’s good for you!
‘White Zombie’ is actually set in Haiti, which is rare even in movies about ‘real’ zombies.
It’s your standard boy meets girl, girl is engaged so boy enlists the local sorcerer who makes girl into a zombie type of story. You know, the usual.
The weird thing is that apparently you can be cured of zombieism – one wonders how! These zombies are supposedly walking dead; it seems like even if they were cured of being zombies, they’d just be, well, dead. Weird. So it’s anyone’s guess whether Legendre’s victims really died or just appear to have died.
The follow-up, ‘Revolt of the Zombies’ (1936) is set in Cambodia, mostly, and involves yet another love triangle, because there has to be SOMETHING to keep the story going in between zombie scenes! In this case, an expedition is sent to destroy the formula for making zombies – but not everyone on the trip has good motives! It’s not as good as the first film and, although neither Lugosi nor his character had anything to do with making thus film, close-up shots of Lugosi’s eyes from ‘White Zombie’ are used in this.
The 1940 Bob Hope comedy ‘The Ghost Breakers’ also has Haiti and voodoo zombies in the storyline. This film was remade in 1953 as a Martin & Lewis flick, ‘Scared Stiff.’ The Hope film is considered a classic horror-comedy.
‘I Walked With a Zombie’ (1943) is also iffy on the whole undead thing. The character Jessica isn’t dead, probably. She’s definitely not well, but probably not technically dead. Nice little flick, though.
Now, in 1964′s ‘The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies’, regardless of what the very long title says, does not feature undead zombies. They’re hypnotized and disfigured by acid. This was billed as the first horror musical. So, yeah, that happened.
Then there’s ‘Plague of the Zombies’ (1966). This movie is AWESOME. Seriously, it is SO good! And this time, the zombies are DEFINITELY dead people who have been resurrected! They are creepy looking buggers, too! It’s set in the 1800′s in a Cornish village, but the voodoo element is there. I highly recommend thus movie to anyone who enjoys classic horror. It’s a good story with all the blood and bosoms Hammer was known for.
Going in a rather different direction is 1974′s ‘Sugar Hill’. This is an AIP movie, a blaxploitation picture with a twist. It’s got a standard blaxploitation concept: Sugar Hill, a foxy chick, wants revenge on mobsters for killing her man. But THIS foxy chick is a Voodoo Queen with an army of zombies to do her bidding! This movie has the advantage of, well, black people. I mean, the zombie movies on the list so far have been flicks with white characters, which is odd considering we’re talking about voodoo. So it’s about time.
‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1988) is a Wes Craven movie loosely – in fact VERY loosely -based on a true story. This film deals with zombies in the real world – believed to be the living dead, but actually victims of a toxin that makes them seem dead, buried alive and then dug up by the poisoner. An American plated by Bill Pullman is sent to learn about the zombie drug so that perhaps it can be developed for medical use. Turns out Haiti is not exactly a fun place to be, especially when you start nosing around the kind of folks who would make people into mindless slaves! This is a great movie up to a point, then it gets weird. I’m still not entirely sure if the magic is supposed to be real or not. But it is nice to see the actual roots of the zombie legend explored in detail.
So there you have it: cinematic zombies! There are other films, of course. In fact, many of the Italian zombie movies have Romero zombies with voodoo origins, a nice blend of both. I’ve just covered a very few of the traditional zombie flicks. But this version of the zombie is sadly lacking in modern cinema. Our pop culture has replaced them with the Romero monsters, which are interesting, but I like this concept better – I think becoming a brain-dead slave to an evil magician is a fate worse than death!