Essential Zombie Films: Undead Movies to Live By Review
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The undead are on the march again (this month the remake of a definitive horror classic, Dawn of the Dead is scheduled for release) and it is only a matter of time before they overrun our cities and start eating our friends!

As N&W's resident zombie fighter, it's my responsibility to provide the information that will help you survive the living dead apocalypse and keep you from becoming zombie chow. These films may not make you a zombie master, but should the undead ever rise from their graves and feast on the flesh of they living, they may just save your life.

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie, the founding father of the old school zombie sub-genre, stars Bela Lugosi as the diabolically bug-eyed "Murder" Legendre, who runs a sugar mill and supplements his income working as a zombie master. He uses a mind-controlling potion rendering his victims into soulless, culture-less, labor automatons.

An equal opportunity exploiter, Legendre diversifies into the mystical pimp racket, turning a young, beautiful bride-to-be, Madeline Parker (Madge Bellamy) into a subservient-Stepfordian-undead-belle for the benefit of wealthy plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). When Beaumont gets bored with his less-than-lively love life, Legendre turns him into one of his worker drones. The film sets off a creepy vibe (especially for the '30s era of horror) with some innovative camera work that smacks of surrealistic German expressionism.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

NOTLD has been dubbed the Citizen Kane of the zombie genre, redefining the living dead from mystical muppets of Voodoo marionettes, to grotesquely flesh crazed fiends, devouring every warm body in their path. Not only does it capture a psychological portrait of claustrophobia, trapping its small group of survivors in a farmhouse while madness ravishes the world outside, but it's most haunting quality is the bleak reality it represents. Ben (Duane Jones), the courageously resourceful African-American lead, is put in a power struggle against Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), who is motivated by implicit racism and fear.

The rest of the characters, however, zombies included, are almost secondary to the struggle within the house. This emphasizes the film's most prominent theme, related as much to the Vietnam War as it does to Civil Rights: rather than in engaging in the struggles going on in the world, we are at each other's throats, destroying ourselves.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Romero's sequel to Night is simultaneously a horror film, an action movie, and a sweeping allegorical satire regarding capitalism at its worst. Two SWAT officers: Peter (Ken Foree) & Roger (Scott Reiniger), a news reporter, Francine (Gaylen Ross), and her "fly boy" beau helicopter pilot (and all around cool-guy wanna-be) Stephen (David Emge) barricade themselves in a mall to fight off zombies. After death, the Mecca of consumerism still lures customers to amble around and shop after they drop; even the characters become seduced by unnecessary goods and high fashion, literally trapped in the mall while symbolically trapped by consumerism, eventually defending "their" wares against a marauding motorcycle gang.

Evil Dead (1981)

Stop me if you heard this one: five college kids rent a cabin in the woods that unbeknownst to them harbors an ancient evil; one by one it turns them into demonic zombie fiends! Sam Rami's seriously terrifying student film is something of a meditation on what would happen if horror novelist HP Lovecraft had penned an '80s slasher film. It produced not one, but three cult classics and introduced the ultimate zombie fighting superhero; the trash talking, chainsaw fisted, Ash (Bruce Campbell). This first installment of the series is the scariest of the trio and paves the way for the zany self-reflective sequel, Evil Dead 2, (where he acquires the chainsaw) & Army of Darkness (which has him kicking demonite ass back to the dark ages.)

Day of the Dead (1985)

The follow-up sequel to Dawn, Day takes place in a military bunker after the world has been overrun with zombies. An outcropping of survivors-scientists and soldiers, take their last stand, far outnumbered by the undead ("400,000 to 1"; I didn't count, you just have to rely on the character's tally).

Again, all the characters are representative of different facets of the issues Romero is tackling. The film centers more on the conflict between humanity and bureaucracy. The scientists want to reverse the zombification process but lack the resources. The soldiers just want to shoot 'em all but lack the manpower, and because neither can achieve their objective, they squabble back and forth and fight with each other. Again, the zombies are in the background clamoring to eat up the pieces left behind.

Due to cuts in the production budget, Romero had to remove several ideas from the original script, including a sub-plot involving military engineered super-soldier-robo zombies, created to fight run-of-the-mill (pun intended) flesh eating zombies. (How cool is that?) The idea didn't go completely unused, however; its concept inspired the third installment of NOTLD co-creator John Russo's Return of the Living Dead franchise, a bizarre tale of undying love, S&M and high tech zombie warfare.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

John Russo, NOTLD co-creator, scripted his own spoof sequel of the classic zombie film. While Romero's zombies went shopping and enlisted in the military, Russo's undead rose from their graves to party. ROTLD boasts an ultra - '80s - punk vibe: "What do you think this is? A costume. This is a way of life," complete with music by The Cramps & The Damned, and unstoppable zombies slogging out of the pages of old EC comics (think: Tales From the Crypt). The script is influenced not only by its pseudo-prequel, but also Stanley Kubrick's satirical cold war comedy, Dr. Strangelove.

The film takes the premise that Night of the Living Dead was an exaggeration of a real event, caused by a military experiment with the corpse re-animating biological weapon (trioxin 245). In an effort to cover up the incident, the military concealed the zombies in containers, which were accidentally shipped to a medical facility. One of the containers inadvertently bursts, releasing not only the zombie inside, but also enough gas to resurrect all the corpses in the area. Originally, Romero had planned on producing the film, but Laurel Entertainment (afraid his involvement would confuse zombie fans) asked him not to - their efforts didn't do any good though. Mention "zombie" at a party and someone is bound to moan "brains" in response.

The Serpent & the Rainbow (1988)

A Harvard educated zombie fighter, Dennis Allen (Bill Pullman), is an Ethno-botanist who journeys to Haiti, amidst social and political turmoil, to track down the legendary zombie potion on behalf of a pharmaceutical company that believes it could be an effective anesthetic. Directed by Wes "Freddy Kruger creator" Craven, The Serpent & the Rainbow is based on a book by the same name inspired by the real life adventures of Wade Davis. Think: Indiana Jones meets I walked with a zombie, with Craven's patented surrealistic dream quality; it's also the only horror film centered on a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

Cemetery Man / Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)

Cemetery Man is a surrealistically strange, bizarrely twisted, extremely confusing philosophical exploration of love, life, death and the existential relationship between them - with zombies. Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is a cemetery groundskeeper for a sleepy Northern Italian village, but this "dead end" job turns out to be quite the "undertaking" given that the dead rise seven days after they are buried. He falls in love with a woman known only as She (Anna Falchi) who is bitten by a zombie, killed, and then in dream-like fashion returns to him as other characters. (You know those dreams where somebody is themselves and then someone else, who’s not really them? Well it's like that.) As he tries to solve the mysterious connections between love and death, he fights a re-animated Boy Scout troop, talks to the grim reaper, and goes on a killing spree. It's all very romantic.

28 Days Later (2002) (read the review)

There are few things scarier than re-animated rotting corpses hungry for human flesh - and re-animated rotting corpses hungry for human flesh that move really fast is one of them. An epidemic sweeps through London turning most of the population into slobbering, disjointed, hyper-exaggerated, arm-flaying, body-spazzing zombies (in short, ghoulish renditions of Joe Cocker). Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and Hannah (Megan Burns) compose a makeshift family of survivors struggling in the apocalyptic aftermath of zombiedom.

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