In recent decades there have been some fine zombie films, but these mainstream offerings tend to suffer from one fatal flaw: respectability. The zombie films from the golden age (which I’ve taken as being from the late 60s to the early 90s) are different. They are gloriously disreputable, so much so that many were banned in Britain or were only available in editions butchered by the censors.
There are no athletic sprinting zombies in the choices below. Real zombies are slow and lumbering and with a brisk walking pace you could stay one step ahead of them. But they are relentless, and it’s this slow relentlessness that makes these cheapo horror monsters scary, as far as I’m concerned. The dead don’t run.
And my zombies and the mayhem they cause are all real. Or at least were created with practical effects, make up, stunt men and animatronics. No wafer thin CGI effects here.
But first, the zombie elephant in the room: why no Dawn of the Dead? Although widely considered the best zombie movie ever made, Romero’s 1978 classic – awesome though it is – didn’t make it to my top five for two reasons. Firstly, it’s too long and I’m sick of overlong films. Secondly, the zombies are a weird shade of blue that just doesn’t look right to me.
So let’s get to the meat…
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
There had been other zombie flicks before this one, but director George Romero’s moody black and white masterpiece paved the way for all that followed and created the modern cannibal zombie we know and love today. Before Romero, movie zombies were usually reanimated by supernatural means – voodoo – and shuffled around as undead slaves. Even Hammer’s zombie entry, 1966’s The Plague of the Zombies, has the walking dead working in a Cornish tin mine. Romero brought grainy black and white gore and explicit gut-munching to the zombie genre.
One of the most notorious scenes is when the zombies disembowel and devour a young couple killed in a car crash. The crew referred to this scene as ‘the last supper’, and for extra realism, Romero shipped in real animal entrails and pig hearts for the extras in zombie make up to get their teeth into.[i]
Many of the genre conventions for zombies began here: boarding up the doors and windows as the zombies try and get in, destroying the brain as the only way to stop the undead, political undertones, dark unsettling twist ending and of course graphic zombie cannibalism.
Cause of zombie outbreak: Not really clear, though some of the TV news broadcasts shown in the movie refer to a space probe that had returned from Venus.
Classic Line: They’re coming to get you, Barbara!
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)
Despite the title, the living dead in this underrated Spanish and Italian co-production directed by Jorge Grau spend most of their time devouring the good people of the Lake District. It follows in George Romero’s footsteps with bleak social commentary, but now the gore is in full colour and was plentiful enough to earn it a place on Britain’s notorious list of ‘video nasties’.
The story concerns an antiques dealer who heads to the Lake District for a break from the polluted, congested and streaker infested Manchester of the 1970s, only to find himself in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. Incidentally, some of the shots of an unattractive looking Manchester were actually filmed in Sheffield.[ii] There’s a memorable disembowelment of a policeman and plenty more ghastly downbeat delights to recommend this lost classic.
Cause of zombie outbreak: A pest control machine that blasts insects with ultrasonic waves making them attack each other… What could possibly go wrong?
Classic Line: I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, because then I could kill you again.
Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
This is confusingly known as Zombi 2 in many territories as it purported to be a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which was released under the title Zombi in some countries, and was, of course a sequel to Romero’s own Night of the Living Dead….). Just as the Italians churned out spaghetti westerns in the 60s, 70s and 80s, they also had a reputation for extreme zombie flicks, and what’s worse, the zombie movie’s even more disreputable cousin, the cannibal movie. However, Lucio Fulci’s gore drenched zombie masterpiece is the best of the bunch when it comes to spaghetti splatter.
Most of the film takes place on a Caribbean island where a scientist is investigating why the dead are coming back to life. The scientist’s daughter and a journalist head to the island to investigate.
In one jaw dropping scene a topless lady is having a swim in the ocean only to be attacked by a shark, which is in turn attacked by a zombie. No CGI here, it’s a real shark and a real nutter in zombie make up wrestling with the maneater – which was apparently stuffed with horse meat and tranquilisers for the scene.[iii]
Perhaps Zombie Flesh Eater’s most notorious moment is the eye pop, something that was a bit of a feature in many of Fulci’s horror films. In this movie, a zombie drags the unfortunate victim by the hair closer and closer to a large jagged wooden splinter until it pierces her eyeball in a scene that was censored in the UK for many years. Scenes like this, and several others, earned Zombie Flesh Eaters its coveted place on Britain’s list of banned video nasties.
Zombie Flesh Eaters ditches the social commentary, and in true exploitative style, goes straight for the jugular.
Cause of zombie outbreak: Voodoo
Classic Line: Radio announcer: I’ve just been informed that zombies have entered the building…. They’re at the door…. They’re coming in….Aaaaarrrrggggggghhhhhhh!
Day of the Dead (1985)
George Romero, being the godfather of zombie cinema, is allowed two entries in my top five. Day of the Dead is the third in the series of ‘Dead’ films and is set in a world totally over run by zombies in which the remnants of humanity – mostly trigger happy military types and scientists studying the zombie – are confined to a claustrophobic underground bunker. In this world, the living (represented by a mad scientist and psychopathic soldiers) are more dangerous than the dead, which are humanised especially in the form of Bub, a zombie that shows signs of memory and intelligence – a first in zombie cinema.
Gore supremo Tom Savini provides the ultra-nasty special effects which are the real star of the show and beat the hell out of sterile modern CGI gore.
Cause of zombie outbreak: Presumably the same as the Night of the Living Dead, though there are some vague murmurings about God’s vengeance.
Classic Line: As zombies pull out his intestines: Choke on ‘em!
Brain Dead (1992)
Director Peter Jackson went on to direct the Lord of the Rings movies and the Beatles Get Back series, but this unhinged but lovingly crafted Kiwi zombie film is his greatest contribution to western civilisation.
Set in the conservative New Zealand of the 1950s, the film is an outrageously gory comedy that goes way beyond anything in the relatively staid and respectable world of Shaun of the Dead. The hero’s mum is bitten by a rat monkey carrying a zombie virus, and the mayhem – set against a romantic love story – begins as the hero attempts to hide his zombified mum in the cellar, along with a motley gang of other walking dead that she has infected.
Zombie sex, a zombie baby and other experiments in extreme tastelessness follow, and the final party scene bloodbath is surely the ultimate in stylish zombie carnage. One thing I learned from this film is that if you’re caught up in the zombie apocalypse and there is no chainsaw to hand, the ultimate weapon of choice for dispatching the undead is the lawnmower.
Cause of zombie outbreak: A bite from an animatronic Sumatran rat monkey.
Classic Line: Your mother ate my dog!
So there we have it – my top 5 cannibal zombie movies from the golden age of gut-munching. I could have chosen more – Reanimator, Return of the Living Dead 3 and The Beyond were bubbling under and almost made my top 5 and all have their gory charms.
But zombie flicks in recent decades have become mainstream, almost respectable. But vanilla is not a satisfying flavour for a lumbering gut muncher, so dig up these classics for some video nasty Halloween viewing…
[i] Jamie Russell, Book of the Dead, (Godalming: FAB, 2005) p.68
[ii] Jay Slater (ed), Eaten Alive: Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies, (London: Plexus, 2002) p.58
[iii] Slater p.94