Zombie Movies

By Glenn Kay

“Unreal city,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.” – T. S. Eliot

Yes, The Waste Land really was the first zombie poem. When Eliot looked at the crowds of unhappy office workers heading in to the City district of London to go to work and saw in them the spirits of the unhappy dead in Dante’s antechamber to Hell he was making a connection that, in our time, has become almost de rigueur. So much of modern urban life – gray, mechanical, soul-destroying – lends itself to such reflections. The zombie mall walkers in 1979’s Dawn of the Dead, undead consumers drawn to the stores by some still operational “instinct,” are (at least at a distance) hard to distinguish from their quick cousins. The humour of the situation was further developed in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead as the hero, on his way to get a morning coffee, walks obliviously through a zombie apocalypse, even shrugging off one of the undead as a panhandler. The popularity of the zombie fantasy reflects our sense that it is, on some deeper level, not fantastic. The living dead are all around us.

Though still technically dead, zombies have socially evolved. In the beginning they were imagined as a form of slave labour on Caribbean plantations. The dead were a true underclass. So much so that when the first true zombie movie took as its title White Zombie the breakdown of the colour line was supposed to register as meaningful. The notion of sub-proletarian zombie masses (the crowds Eliot sees crossing London Bridge) is still with us (it is put to good effect in Michael Swanwick’s short story “The Dead,” and is parodied in the film Fido), but at least since Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) there has been a revolution from below. We can’t take the masses for granted any more. They don’t just work and shop. They have become threatening. They are hungry. This is the real democracy of death.

And so we have the world transformed, the so-called “zombie apocalypse.” It’s an appropriate label, playing on the root meaning of apocalypse as revelation. This is still our world, but one with the veil of civilization and social conventions torn to pieces. We see life as it really is: A social Darwinist nightmare where one kills or is killed. These aren’t monsters from outer space but simply other people. And they want to eat us alive. So there is no horror in our going postal, no guilt in decapitating our co-workers and jerky boyfriends, or finally putting them to rest with skull-shattering headshots. In fact, it feels good.

So much for theory – an approach not generally adopted by author Glenn Kay (whose own credits include a role as an extra in Romero’s disappointing Land of the Dead) in this “ultimate guide” through eight decades of movie zombies. He is content to let his interviewees speculate on possible deeper meanings. Sadly, Tom Savini takes a pass on the “essay question” of what it is about zombies that captures the public interest (“Two words: they’re cool“), leaving Antonella Fulci (daughter of director Lucio) to provide the book’s only zombie-Zen moment: “Being undead sometimes means being eternal, like the injustices of our world. Nothing kills you, but your flesh is vulnerable. What better metaphor for people of all ages?”

There is something to this. But then Fulci also ascribes a taste for zombie films to their being the perfect fare for video night “with a couple of friends, a couple of beers, and a joint.”

Kay’s approach suggests a full sympathy with this latter position, being a practitioner of the school of wisecracking movie synopsis/commentary popularized by Joe Bob Briggs and the Medved brothers. Something of the spirit is expressed in his pocket critique of Zombie Death House, recommended as “great viewing for a B movie night with smart-ass friends who can crack jokes at the ludicrous events occurring on-screen.” But, that lightness noted, there’s no denying Kay is both a fun writer and an extremely knowledgeable guide. Indeed how he managed to locate some of the titles discussed in this volume is a mystery. The DVD revolution has led to far better informed film critics, especially when it comes to foreign and cult titles, but even here there are limits. Not everything is available yet on DVD, at least in a proper, uncut version (a subject Kay helpfully addresses); so even granting, as we must, that Kay has far too much free time on his hands, how did he manage to track down all of this trash?

In addition to the interviews and plot synopses, production stills (with the obligatory jokey captions) and poster art, Kay also has a judicious list of the 25 greatest zombie films, another list of almost-but-not-quite zombie movies, and a few other irreverent “tidbits about zombie films” to share along the way. It is, of course, a coffee-table book, but enthusiasm and expertise count a lot in such productions and Kay provides both. Some nit-picking is irresistible. The decade-by-decade chronological approach allows Kay to isolate themes in the development of the genre (like the recent outbreak of zombie “viruses”), but more editorializing could have been done in this regard. The amount of attention lavished on international zombie cinema is commendable, but why are so many of the posters and publicity materials, even for North American productions, in a foreign language? And why is the box office of every Italian feature given (in lira, then converted into dollars)? As for inclusiveness, one hesitates to register any caveats in the face of such an exhaustive survey. Still, I would have found a place for Tobe Hooper’s 1985 epic Lifeforce, at least as a “zombieless zombie movie” (even though the ending of that film seemed like a pretty conventional zombie apocalypse to me).

Lightweight? A bit. But whether any fan would really want to read a more serious exposition than this (and such scholarly studies do exist) is debatable. Judged on its own terms, as an attempt to provide a lively, opinionated, and comprehensive guide to underground entertainment not primarily known for its artistic pretensions, it earns its own brain-eating zombie symbol for Highly Recommended.

Review first published online November 10, 2008. With regard to the point made about the living dead being all around us now, I found a 2011 interview with the Cuban director Alejandro Brugués where he talks about the inspiration for his film Juan of the Dead on point: “I was walking through Havana one day and looked at the expressions on people’s faces. Zombies. They didn’t even need make-up.”

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