The Zombie Appeal, part 3: A brief history of zombies.

13 Nov

3. A brief history of zombies.

The notion of zombies has been in movies for a long time. The mummy is a zombie, empowered by some Egyptian magic. Frankenstein is a zombie, too—he’s dead limbs sewed together with thread—only imbued with more smarts and empathy.

The first on-screen zombies look more like sleepwalkers. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, an early silent film from the Weimar Republic, the zombie of the film is a somnabulist, hypnotized by the villainous Caligari into committing crimes.

The first on-screen zombie, a poor, hypnotized sod.

The first good zombie film stars an unusually subdued Vincent Price, playing the sole human survivor in an America that has been infected by a plague that has turned everyone into a type of nocturnal flesh-eater. It’s a very fine movie, lean and angry, adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, which was the inspiration for Romero’s initial idea.

Vincent Price as God’s lonely man, the last man on earth.

Plan Nine from Outer Space—the justifiably ridiculed movie often called the worst film ever made—has a handful of zombies in it, as the aliens are using corpses as the foot-soldiers in their invasion. These animated corpses are the best thing about the movie, somehow silly and scary at the same time.

The dominant horror trope in the 1950s was science gone awry, with undercurrents of alien invasions. (Think Them or The Thing or Godzilla, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.) Horror in the 1960s was a combination of the earth and the ephemeral. There are ghosts, maniacs, sadists. With a few exceptions—The Innocents, The Haunting—these sixties horror movies were campy affairs. They lacked elegance and vision. And few of them remain scary at all.

But then, in 1968, a group of independent actors and makers of commercials decided to make a drive-in movie. They filmed on weekends and on their own time, with a combination of professionals and amateurs. The film was stripped bare of pretentions, shot on location on an abandoned farmhouse, a lean and ragged black and white nightmare.

They’re coming for you, Barbara.

The movie was tentatively titled Flesh Eaters, and then Night of Anubis. But before filming was completed, the title was switched to Night of the Living Dead.

The modern age of the zombie had begun.


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