We may have just seen the back of Halloween, but it’s somehow fitting that the zombies would be shambling out a trifle late. Join us as we hit some interesting and/or noteworthy reanimated corpse based entertainment with White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Zombi 3, Versus, 28 Days Later, Pontypool, and Train to Busan. Braaaaaaaaaaiinnns.
Madge Bellamy’s Madeline and John Harron’s Neil make their way to Haiti to get married, on the trip befriending a plantation owner Robert Frazer’s Charles Beaumont who insists that they hold the event at his mansion. However, he has a sinister motive, having taken a fancy to Madeline and, after having his advances rejected, turns to the dark arts to posses her. He enlists Bela Lugosi’s Legendre, using arcane powers to poison her, then raise her from the dead as a mind controlled slave, that being the style at the time. It’s left to Neil and local missionary Joseph Cawthorn’s Dr. Bruner to thwart this menace, and return Madeline to her rightful self, or die trying.
It is, of course, very much of its era, which does mean I suppose I’ll just have to look past the blackface, and the less than subtle performances on display – Bela Lugosi perhaps being the most restrained, which is saying something. The optical effects and makeup aren’t going to be impressing modern audiences, so while I mostly enjoyed this curiosity, it’s hard to take it as much more than a historical record. But at a little over an hour, it’s certainly worth that much of your time for anyone with an interest in the genre.
It seems hard to believe that in 1942 RKO Pictures was in a poor financial state due to the failure of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and, crazily, Citizen Kane, but their parlous finances led them to tighten the belt and take measures like hiring Russian producer Val Lewton to run their horror unit, with provisos that each film have a budget of no greater than $150,000 and run no longer than 75 minutes.
Perhaps it was such strictures that unexpectedly produced such a great film as Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie, which tells the tale of a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee), hired to look after the wife of a sugar baron (Tom Conway) on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. The wife is the zombie of the title, a pitiable woman who exists but does not live.
This is certainly not what most modern audiences would expect from a zombie film, and, Voodoo guardian Casino (or Super-U or Intermarché, some French supermarket anyway) aside, there’s little to this film that I would categorise as horror, at least by any modern standard. What there is, though, is plenty of atmosphere and mystery, and a lingering ambiguity about whether the causes of Jessica’s zombification are purely medical, or of supernatural origin.
A unusually complex and well-acted take than you may expect from the genre, as much a character piece as anything, and well worth watching.
George A. Romero is surely the name most synonymous with zombies, and for decades the version he puts forward in Night of the Living Dead defined what zombies were. Out goes the voodoo magic, in comes the nuclear boogeyman as ill-defined radiation is theorised, at least, to bring the dead back to a form of life, where they chow down on any hapless humans around.
Judith O’Dea’s Barbra runs for her life to shelter, having had the misfortune to be in a cemetery when this kicks off, meeting Duane Jones’ Ben at the shack they and a few other survivors must defend from deadites, while waiting for news to come over the wire on what, exactly, is going on, and what they should do – a point of tension and conflict for the humans, as it always is.
Essentially a siege movie, it’s a bloody effective one. It’s not got the same levels of bloodlust that we’ll see going forward, as effects and budget evolved, but for me it’s the most tense, certainly of Romero’s films, possibly of all the films spoken of here, with a powerhouse performance from Duane Jones tying things together, and a few real gut-punches saved for one of the best final reels in horror cinema. Excellent.
A decade after Night of the Living Dead, Romero returned with Dawn of the Dead, working this time with Dario Argento, alongside a budget ten times that of the original, colour film and a job lot of grey paint. Dawn is often considered a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, but, as it shares neither location nor character, nor even timeline, it’s perhaps more akin to a reboot.
Again it is the early days of a mysterious outbreak of ”thedeadcomingbacktolifeitis”, with the action beginning in a TV station where the causes of the epidemic are debated on-screen, and accuracy of information is sacrificed in order to maintain viewing figures (not that George A. Romero is political at all. No no no. Absolutely no social commentary here.)
Two employees of the TV station escape from the city in a helicopter, alongside two police SWAT officers, and they eventually hole up in an abandoned shopping mall, handily full of everything one would need to survive a zombie apocalypse. There is a loss in the group, but things pootle along relatively well for a while, until the Nazis turn up and ruin everything, which is what Nazis do.
This film also popularised Herbert Chappell’s instrumental piece The Gonk, for which I both love and hate the film, this being one of the most brain-sticky tunes I have ever come across. Overwhelmingly the most fondly remembered of Romero’s flicks, it’s perhaps not a film that hangs together as coherently as his others, but it does have the most moments of fun.
If Dawn was about surviving the zombocalypse, Day is at least nominally more concerned with efforts to combat and rebuild, with scientists and soldiers holed up in an underground bunker hoping to come up with some sort of strategy. The only problem being, perhaps due to the understandable stress of the situation, most of them are basket cases.
Lori Cardille’s Sarah is the most rational voice present, trying to hold together the “scientific” efforts of Richard Liberty’s Dr. Logan, and the newly promoted – through dead man’s boots – Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who seems more inclined to shut the whole thing down while stamping his fascistic authority just about at random.
This all comes apart at the seams rather quickly, and before long the few mostly sane scientists and civilians are on the run from the military who, bar one man, go full arsehole from a starting position of very nearly full arsehole. I didn’t like this much on first viewing a decade plus ago, but this rewatch has softened my opinion a little, but there’s been so much “humanity is the real monster” takes over the years that I’m not sure I’m in the market for it any more. I’d say this is a better film than Dawn, but perhaps not a more enjoyable one.
A sequel, in style and content, though not story, to his own Zombi 2, itself an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead, in 1988 Italian director Lucio Fulci brought us Zombi 3 (though it was finished by fellow Italian Bruno Mattei). Filmed and set in the Philippines (though possibly not set in the Phillipines, despite clearly being in the Phillipines and full of Filipinos, because the radio presenter talks at one point about there being an outbreak of violence in this country and then references San Antonio and San Diego, amongst others, because, like this sentence, Zombi 3 is one ill-conceived, rambling, poorly written mess), the story begins with a group of military scientists working on a virus called, and I kid you not, “Death One”, the purpose of which seems to be to revive the dead. However, when this virus escapes and begins to revive the dead, everyone seems shocked.
Subsequent to this a lot of spectacularly awful dialogue is perpetrated, albeit in a visually appealing location, while the military attempt to contain the outbreak that they caused. While I would argue that some of our selected films could stand on their own, perhaps more than any film we’re covering in this episode, Zombi 3 is just a genre flick, and doesn’t have much to offer, or to say, beyond what earlier, better, films have already done. It does bring a couple of novelties, though, namely the self-propelling decapitated zombie head and ambush zombies.
Our opinions differ on whether this is bad enough to be amazing, or bad enough to just be plain ol’ bad, but it’s worth at least tracking down a highlight (lowlight?) reel of this nuttiness on YouTube to get an idea of what a glorious mess it is.
Ryûhei Kitamura’s Versus came out in the wake of The Matrix stamping itself on action cinema, and, well, it’s rather wearing its influences on its sleeve, despite being a very different genre. being as it’s a low budget horror movie, it is, of course, set in a forest. The Forest of Resurrection, as it happens, a portal between worlds that the evil forces of the Man (Hideo Sakaki), wishes to use for world domination. Hence zombies.
Tak Sakaguchi’s Prisoner KSC2-303 has escaped from, well, prison, I assume, and meets up with a gang of Yakuza types who have also kidnapped a girl The Girl (Chieko Misaka) – this film ain’t big on names. He immediately performs a heel-face turn and rescues her, probably due to a destiny that crosses time itself, and they go on the lam across the forest, pursued by the Yakuza members, and their reanimated previous victims, while plans unfold around them.
Now, this narrative is rotten, and if I were taking this film seriously it would be bad times indeed. However, it’s not taking itself very seriously, so I don’t see why I should. It’s pitched somewhere between a cartoon and a music video, and is basically a loosely connected series of decent action scenes, cool poses, and several masterclasses from the Nic Cage School of Restraint and Understatement.
It’s entirely stupid, but it’s a great deal of fun.
While they popped up from time to time (Versus, of course, was only two years prior to this), zombie films had largely fallen out of fashion since the mid-1980s, and it is 2002’s 28 Days Later and its non-Romero like fast zombies that is credited with bringing life back to the genre (not an intended pun, but I’ll take it).
Animal rights activists break into a Cambridge laboratory where research is being done on controlling violence by first infecting chimpanzees with a virulent and massively contagious “rage” virus. Released from its cage, an infected chimp attacks a human, and the infection is soon spreading out of control.
28 days later, Cillian Murphy’s Jim wakes up from a coma to find himself in an abandoned hospital in an abandoned London in an abandoned Great Britain, and nearly becomes zombie lunch, but for the intervention of Naomie Harris’s Zoe. The pair then meet up with Brendan Gleeson’s Frank and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Attracted by a radio call offering salvation, they head north to Manchester, where they discover that Christopher Eccleston’s army unit isn’t all that they had hoped for.
Perhaps the fast zombies are this film’s main legacy – and shout out to those willing to die on the world’s pettiest “but they’re not zombies” hill – but this shows the stellar results you can get but throwing vastly talented casts and crew at script that’s pretty much a rehash of Romero’s better ideas. It has a distinctive, early digital look that some may not like, but I think gives a unique atmosphere and kinetic impact. Great stuff.
Death has come to your little town, Sheriff. Wait, no, not sheriff. Shock DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) finds himself in for a traumatic day at the radio station when all hell breaks loose in the small Canadian backwater town, as reports of what sounds awfully like a zombie outbreak filter in.
How he, and his production staff of technical assistant, Laurel-Ann, and station manager, Sydney, (Georgina Reilly and Lisa Houle) deal with this is the heart of the most effective parts of the film, with a masterclass in reaction shots from McHattie and Houle making this a tense, gripping film even when there’s little to none of the action you’d normally expect from the genre.
It has some novel twist in terms of what’s causing the outbreak, although arguably something that stands up to even less scrutiny than the rationale behind zombie outbreaks typically do, but that’s a minor niggle, and in a genre that seemed to have played all of its cards by this point this was a very refreshing take that deserves to be seen, even if its very nature means that it’s not going to be a huge mass market film. If only it was more like the Resident Evil films.
Since being reinvigorated in 2002 by 28 Days Later…, the zombie genre has continued going strong, seeing plenty of examples in film, video games (both as full games and as modes in games like Call of Duty) and even in books, for example Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and shows no sign of slowing down. As such, we had plenty of very recent examples to choose from, but we’ve decided to go for an effort from South Korea to finish with, in the shape of 2016’s Train to Busan.
In most respects Train to Busan is similar to most zombie films, with its particular twist being that the action takes place over the course of one morning in the confines of a commuter train. Another thing that sets it apart somewhat is that, while it has the common feature of a disparate band of strangers forced to work together to survive, it adds in a father-daughter relationship and focuses much of the typical “other humans are the true threat” themes into one particular individual, whose Korean name surely translates into English as “Johnny the Spectacular Asshat Douchecanoe”.
While the larger scale, CG-enhanced sequences are fine, and much more enjoyable than Hollywood’s big budget efforts, it’s the tightly constrained sequences navigating the train carriages full of zomboids that’s the paydirt here, coupled with relatable characters who’s survival I actually cared about, for once. Nothing altogether new on display here, I suppose, location aside, but it’s a really well crafted and enjoyable film that’s a greatly enjoyable watch.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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