'Night of the Living Dead' to 'World War Z': The Evolution of Zombie Films
4:31 PM PDT 6/20/2013 by Jeremy Bergman, Mia Galuppo
Since the early days of Hollywood, the undead have lived vibrantly on the silver screen, horrifying audiences with the possibility of a zombie apocalypse where no brain is left uneaten. In anticipation of Brad Pitt's zombie epic, "World War Z," THR looks back at the greatest ghoulish films of all time.
Famed horror film actor Bela Lugosi starred as the evil Haitian voodoo master, Murder Legnedre, who turns the film’s heroine into a zombie using magic potion. Unlike the undead we know today, the zombies of White Zombie were not actually dead but entranced, and were able to be freed from their catatonic states.
Revenge of the Zombies (1943)
Revenge of the Zombies has the recently deceased being reanimated through scientific intervention. The film follows the exploits of an evil scientist, Dr. Max Heinrich von Altermann (John Carradine), works to create an army of living dead warriors for the Third Reich.
Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)
An American gangster recruits an ex-Nazi scientist to use radiation to resurrect corpses and create zombie militia that will enact revenge on his enemies. In the 1950s, zombies became thematic fodder for B-movie horrors. Creature with the Atom Brain played on the national fear of nuclear weaponry and the ongoing Cold War.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Filmed on a shockingly low independent budget, George A. Romero's zombie masterpiece forced the MPAA to reconfigure its rating system after numerous pre-teens left the theaters weeping in horror, and changed the way the undead were portrayed and viewed subtextually. The hero of the film Ben (Duane Jones), a black man, is gunned down by fellow humans who mistake him for a zombie, a reflection on contemporary race relations. Night of the Living Dead was also the first example of zombies (or ghouls, as they’re called in the film) being reanimated, flesh-eating cannibals instead of entranced loonies.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Romero returned ten years later with the second installment of his Living Dead series which surprisingly gained rave reviews for its depiction of the zombie apocalypse. Famous for its gruesome violence, smeared in fluorescent red blood, the film pleased audiences around the world, grossing $55 million from a $500K budget.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Not yet beating a dead zombie, Romero directed the third film in the Living Dead series to great critical reception once again. Unlike in previous flicks, Bub, the main zombie of the film, is domesticated and even remembers aspects of his past human life. Day of the Dead, for all its guts and gore, focused more on understanding the undead than any film before.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
The Dan O'Brannon project introduced for the first time on film the concept of zombies fiending for brains instead of mere flesh. The soundtrack was very modern, featuring popular deathrock and punk rock bands of the mid-80s. Return was a critical and box-office success that utilized "splatstick" humor and significant nudity to its advantage.
Known at its release as the goriest film of all time, the New Zealand zombie flick was extremely graphic to the extent that it was banned in numerous countries. Released as Dead Alive in North America, the film jump-started Peter Jackson's career and horrified audiences with its extensive display of animated intestines, hollow eyes, and a grotesque "rebirth" scene.
28 Days Later (2002)
Awakened from a coma, Jim (Cillian Murphy) finds himself amidst a deserted zombie-infested London. Director Danny Boyle directed the zombies, infected by the "Rage" virus, as fast, dynamic bodies, a concept unheard of in the ghoul industry. Imbuing the undead with speed and skills allowed for an action-packed blockbuster that re-invigorated the zombie sub-genre.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Though comedy had been used as relief in previous zombie flicks, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead was fueled by satiric humor and slapstick hilarity. Starring Simon Pegg as a foolish everyman in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, the film gained rave reviews for its light-hearted take on undead monsters, one that had gone unnoticed in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, released that same year.
I am Legend (2007)
Will Smith plays a doctor left alone in a dystopian New York after the release of a man-made virus intended to cure cancer turns users into mutants instead. Solidifying the notion that zombies can be marketable and profitable, Legend provided audiences with the most successful adaptation of the legendary Richard Matheson novel of the same name that had spawned films like The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man.
A quirky, adventurous, and raucous interpretation of the zombie apocalypse, Zombieland mixed dark carnage with honest wit, winning over audiences from all spectra. The film launched the comedic careers of Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone and reimagined the zombie genre in a raunchy, but realistic and sympathetic world.
Warm Bodies (2013)
If Shakespeare grew a liking for big brains and fresh flesh, then he may have produced a work like Warm Bodies. A zombie love story set in the modern day, the film played on the Romeo-and-Juliet house-divided romantic drama, humanizing the undead. "R", the zombie protagonist, seeks brains, not out of impulsive necessity, but to feel alive through the memories of its previous owner.
World War Z (2013)
The most recent zombie epic to hit the screens is this Brad Pitt blockbuster based on a like-named 2006 novel. World War Z, despite its problems in production, is certainly significant departure from the original zombie movie; focused on CGI action and unbelievable destruction, the film has shed the stereotypes of the zombie genre's B-movie origins and may cement zombies as a very living and vibrant, but still undead, force in the film industry.
World War Z will be released in theaters nationwide on June 21.