On July 16, 2017, as I was enjoying Exhumed Films’ 3-DEMENTIA Fest, the news broke that George A. Romero had died. We were all in disbelief, and for many of us Horror fans, it was the equivalent of receiving a punch to the gut. Lovingly known as the “father of the modern zombie film,” Romero’s passing was unexpected, as he was actively working on new addition to his ongoing LIVING DEAD series called ROAD OF THE DEAD.
Whether it actually ever goes into production has yet to be seen, but regardless, Romero has left behind a legacy that few can match. His 1968 opus, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started it all by becoming an important milestone in Horror (and cinematic) history. Romero’s film ushered the flesh-eating undead into pop culture, and nearly fifty years later, zombies are everywhere! They continue to appear in movies, TV shows (e.g. The Walking Dead, iZombie, and Z Nation), comic books, video games, and other media. But long before George A. Romero revolutionized zombie cinema, there were dozens of films featuring very different versions of these now beloved movie monsters!
The zombie sub-genre can trace it roots back to 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE, which is regarded by most as the first zombie film! Bela Lugosi stars as ‘Murder’ Legendre, an evil voodoo practitioner who is hired by Charles, a love-starved plantation owner. Charles has his heart set on an engaged woman named Madeleine, and hopes that Legendre can use his powers of persuasion to change her mind. Naturally things do not go as planned, leading to a climactic struggle between Madeleine’s fiancee and Legendre’s mob of zombie slaves.
Four years later, director Victor Halperin would return to helm a sequel, namely REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES. After World War I, an Allied expedition ventures to Cambodia to seek and destroy the “Secret of the Zombies.” Naturally one of the men, a jilted lover by the name of Armand Loque, steals the secret for himself and plans to utilize it to force a fickle woman to love him. The most notable feature of this film is that its creators were sued for using the term “zombie” in the movie’s title. Already dealt a blow by having to pay out monetary damages, Halperin was also not allowed to promote REVOLT as a followup to WHITE ZOMBIE.
After another three year break, zombies would return to cinema in a big way, evolving from mindless slaves created by voodoo or hypnosis, to reanimated corpses bent to the will of powerful magicians, mad scientists, and even beings from outer space! Heck, zombies even managed to crossover to other genres, including horror comedies (1941’s THE GHOST BREAKERS and KING OF THE ZOMBIES, 1945’s ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY), gangster films (1942’s BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT with Bela Lugsosi), science fiction features (CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN from 1955), and even peplum films (1964’s ROME AGAINST ROME)!
The undead origins these classic movie monsters seem to have begun with 1936’s THE WALKING DEAD, which features Boris Karloff as an ex-con that is executed after being framed for murder. After a scientist resurrects him, Karloff goes on a mindless quest for revenge, silently killing those responsible for destroying his life. VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES (1946) created another interesting spin, where the zombie in the film (Ormand Murks, played by Ian Keith) must receive constant blood “donations” to continue living. Besides featuring a character named Dr. Maynard (referenced decades later in Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBI), this film definitely sounds like it served as some inspiration for Bob Clark’s DEATHDREAM and perhaps even George A. Romero’s MARTIN!
In the 1950s, director Edward. L Cahn would helm four zombie-themed films, starting with CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN in ’55. A mixture of Sci-Fi and Horror, Cahn’s film features radioactive zombies that are being used by a deported gangster to get back at his enemies. Two years later, Cahn would direct ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, which features an undead crew protecting a sunken vessel’s treasure trove of cursed diamonds. Then in 1959, Cahn gave us two vastly different zombie films.
THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE features an undead voodoo shaman named Zutai seeking to avenge his tribe, which was slaughtered by the ancestors of Jonathan Drake. Teaming with the resurrected Dr. Emil Zurich, Zutai attempts to make good on a two-hundred year old curse that will only end once the remaining men in the Drake family tree have literally lost their heads! That very same year, Edward Cahn’s Sci-Fi thriller INVISIBLE INVADERS was also released.
Starring John Agar and John Carradine, this film features invisible creatures from the moon who commandeer dead bodies in their quest for Earthly domination. Seemingly indestructible, the radioactive aliens’ weakness is accidentally discovered, leading to a swift victory for humanity. However this would not be the first (or last) time that alien invaders would attempt to mobilize our own dead against us. Edward D. Wood Jr.’s infamous PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE has aliens visiting the Earth in order to dissuade us from creating a Solaronite bomb, because doing so would make us an intergalactic threat.
However, if humanity refuses to comply, the aliens will carry out “Plan 9,” and create an undead army to wipe us out. The threat is severely undercut by the fact that we only get three zombies in the film, played by Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Tom Mason, a chiropractor that had a passing resemblance to the late Bela Lugosi! Five years after Ed Wood’s quintessential “bad movie,” robotic invaders attack the Earth with a deadly gas in Terrence Fisher’s THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING. To help them mop up any survivors, the aliens create zombie underlings to aid in their genocidal attack!
During the nine years that followed Fisher’s sci-fi classic, there were a slew of bizarre zombie-themed movies. Jerry Warren’s TEENAGE ZOMBIES (1959) pitted Cold War era teens against a mad scientist that plans to zombify America on behalf of foreign interests, while the title character in 1961’s DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN made it his mission to yank the hearts out of thankless people to give those he deems “more deserving” a new lease on life. 1961 also saw Mexico’s heroic El Santo aiding authorities in ending a zombie crimewave in SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES!
1963 saw the release of MONSTROSITY, which is better known to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as THE ATOMIC BRAIN. This snoozer features a scientist that is working for a wealthy old crone who wants to trade bodies with a younger woman. But atomic brain-swapping is not an exact science, so Dr. Frank (Frank Gerstle) plays God while he fine tunes his process, creating a mindless zombie, and placing animal brains into human hosts along the way! (One poor girl ends up with the brain of a cat!)
Another zombie film that had the honor of appearing on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, was 1964’s THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED UP ZOMBIES! Though it boasts one of the longest film titles of all time, that’s really this film’s only bragging right. The movie features a bizarre story of a carnival fortune-teller named Estrella that tosses acid into the faces of her victims before she turns them into zombies. Eventually her evil plans go awry when the murderous zombies escape, seeking to kill her and her henchmen!
Hammer Studios tossed their hat into the increasingly popular zombie sub-genre in 1966 with heavily influential THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. Set in 1860, a mysterious epidemic is ravaging the villagers of Cornwall, and causing the dead to return to life! Local doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) is stumped, so he beseeches Professor James Forbes (André Morell) for aid. Working together, both men discover that someone is practicing black magic and race to stop the villain before the plague expands unchecked!
In May of 1968, one more zombie oddity was be released prior to Romero’s timeless classic: THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES! Directed by legendary schlockmeister Ted V. Mikels, ASTRO-ZOMBIES follows John Carradine’s Dr. DeMarco, a disgruntled scientist who attempts to create a race of superhumans cobbled together from the body parts of his victims. Unsurprisingly, the piecemeal constructs soon escape and go on a killing spree! But what is truly amazing about THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES is that it generated a trio of sequels between 2004 and 2012!
Then on October 4, 1968, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD came out and changed everything! It was controversial, extraordinarily profitable, and opened the floodgates. Beginning in the early 1970s there have been countless studio and indie zombie films from all over the world, with seemingly no end in sight. And each one owes its existence to Romero’s flagship film. (Which of course owes its own creation to WHITE ZOMBIE and various other predecessors.)
As NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD nears its fiftieth anniversary, a 4K restoration of the film has been completed, and is currently making its rounds at theaters across America. (CLICK HERE for locations and showtimes!) If you miss out on any of these special screenings, don’t be too upset, because a Blu-ray release is coming sometime in 2018! But until then, definitely take some time to explore the films that were released long before Romero doused his cast in chocolate syrup!
Thanks for reading Vault Dwellers! Be sure to check out all of the zombie films I mentioned above (many should be easily obtainable from Amazon.com), and have a happy and safe Halloween! And yes, I realize that I passed over numerous titles as I breezed through the early years of zombie cinema (e.g. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), so feel free to take me to task in the comments section below!