A gorgeous shot from The Plague of the Zombies (1966).
Even setting aside its dubious social politics, I think it’s thoughtless and ugly and boring. It has a routine as codified and rigid as Scooby Doo, but instead of that show’s good-natured-if-dull hippyism, it’s got nothing but contempt for its characters and audience. It’s a death march to samesy gore scenes in which the human body pulls apart as easily as tissue paper full of spaghetti sauce. I’m not impressed, and I resent it.
Zombie media gets like that a lot. It’s incredibly easy to make, very marketable, and somewhat infectious—who doesn’t kinda-sorta think they have a fresh take? But right now it’s as bad as its ever been out there. The medium is glutted with the laziest and ugliest films imaginable. Even Saint Romero’s made his share of terrible zombie flicks lately. I love zombies as a bad guy, so I’ve been discouraged and disappointed lately with the undead sameness stretching to the celluloid horizons.
There’s nothing constructive about wallowing though, so I figured instead of despairing, I’d highlight a few of the most audacious and unusual zombie films I’m aware of. These are the ones that feel no obligation to simply retell the story Romero or Fulci told so well already. These are the ones that blaze their own path.
Dead & Buried (1981) | Dir. Gary Sherman | 94 min.
Scripted by the Alien team of Ron Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, this moody thriller never found its audience, though its blend of Lovecraft atmosphere and the undead seems right on point for a revival. O’Bannon also directed the masterpiece Return of the Living Dead, and his fascination with the gruesomeness of embalming is explored in much greater, darker depth here. An unsettling and unique piece of horror.
Deathdream (1972) | Dir. Bob Clark | 88 min.
The best of the Masters of Horror series, Joe Dante’s Homecoming, was a tribute to/remake of this grim anti-war film. It’s one of the first of many elegiac criticisms of the Vietnam War that would color the 1970s, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that director Bob Clark was ahead of the curve, since he’s the man who more or less invented the modern slasher with Black Christmas. Part classic horror (it’s The Monkey’s Paw, after all) and part The Deer Hunter, this is an powerful and unforgettable classic of the genre.
I Was a Teenage Zombie (1987) | Dir. John Elias Michalakis | 91 min.
Just watch the companion music video to get a sense of the retro-cool horrorpunk fun you’re getting into. Shot on location in the unattractive recesses of Fort Lee, this occasionally hilarious, occasionally gross bit of in-the-shadow-of-the-City pride is the most Troma film Troma never made. This is part of the Criterion Collection on Hulu, which really pisses off the squares. Good on them.
I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain (1998) | Dir. Andrew Parkinson | 85 min.
The zombie genre on the whole is a chronicle of pain, I suppose, and though this film’s conceit of following a man as he slowly turns into the undead isn’t quite as fresh as it was in ’98, its somber, epistolary atmosphere has aged well. It’s shot on low-quality video which I know turns people off, but in this case gives it an extra jolt of grungy Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer-esque rawness.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) | Dir. Jorge Grau | 93 min.
This one is somehow STILL underrated, even though just about everyone who’s seen it swears by it. It masters the dreamy, misty vibe of the Blind Dead series and Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death, but unlike those films, which are engrossing but ultimately disappointing, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie goes all-out and is one of the most propulsive, personal, and intense films of the genre. It’s a great slice of that post-Night, pre-Dawn era when everyone was trying to make the most intense film they could with no consideration of “zombie rules.” And none other than genre master Lucio Fulci bit the ending for his greatest work, The Beyond.
Messiah of Evil (1973) | Dir. Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz | 90 min.
I’m just gonna say it right now—this is the best film on this list. And this is one of the best horror films ever made. It’s as nightmarish Carnival of Souls, as garish as Godard’s Made in U.S.A., and as darkly comic as the best of Flannery O’Connor. Pure, aggressive, unforgettable filmmaking. In a just world, this would be one of the most famous films ever made. I saw it for the first time when I was about 14, and it changed my whole way of thinking about horror movies. It demands and rewards attention.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966) | Dir. John Gilling | 91 min.
Pre-dates Night of the Living Dead by two years, so by most definitions it’s not a “true” zombie film, but I don’t like the idea of there being “true” zombie films anyway. This is one of Hammer Horror’s more overtly political films, a bitter criticism of the treatment of the working class, and one of their more effectively frightening ones—the centerpiece graveyard sequence is still tense and dripping with that tasty classical-meets-modern atmosphere that propelled Hammer to greatness. The only problem with it is that the nightmarish zombie attack sequences, which anticipate Fulci’s flowerpot make-up style, are all too short.
Return of the Living Dead III (1993) | Dir. Brian Yuzna | 97 min.
The original Return of the Living Dead came out the same year as Romero’s Day of the Dead, making 1985 probably the pound-for-pound best year for zombies, so it’s appropriate that this, the third in the series, treads much the same thematic ground as Day. Brian Yuzna (who also did Bride of Re-Animator, which just missed making this list) approaches the subject with less style and studiousness as Romero’s striking underground sets—at least until the reveal of the lead monster, who’s iconic and jarring in the same way Pinhead is. It makes up for its prosaic style with one of the most fully actualized looks at the body-horror aspect of zombiedom, particularly a cruelly hilarious running gag with an exo-skeleton. Disgusting and moving, it’s not particularly well-constructed, but it’s great horror because it refuses to flinch, shooting violence like love scenes.
Rise of the Zombies (2012) | Nick Lyon | 89 min.
I wrote about this one in my wrap-up of the films of 2012, and I stand by what I said then: “This SyFy Channel Original has, at best, middling writing, but it’s elevated by some excellent and unexpected performances from Mariel Hemingway, Levar Burton, and Danny Trejo. There’s a commitment to the unironic sadness of the post-Night, pre-Dawn era of the genre. It pulls off the tone The Walking Dead consistently bungles. This kind of unexpected treat is what low-budget horror is all about.”
Shatter Dead (1994) | Scooter McCrae | 84 min.
Real no-budget filmmaking is an acquired taste, but once you get over the bug bites, you’ll likely find something ineffable and addictive about them. There’s a beauty to the form. Scooter McCrae’s Shatter Dead is as good as example of that as any film. It’s terribly acted, weakly shot, and features unimpressive make-up and gore effects even for the standards of no-budget film, but despite all that it feels fresh and hypnotic through the sheer audacity of its premise (re-used in Robin Campillo’s well-done Les Revenants) and commitment to mood. Dirty and inarticulate poetry. This kind of punky DIY aesthetic compliments the zombie genre very well, since ideally the monsters are as banal and recognizably middle-class as possible