Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #4 — Zombie Movies

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So, I’ve lived on Planet Horror for quite some time now, and it’s safe to say I’ve been around the block a few times (you can take that however you like; chances are, you’re right).  Existing in this world can be a beautifully obscene thing, but you learn quickly that adoption into the fold comes with a few indisputable prerequisites.  The first is that you own many (many) black t-shirts.  The second (and this is a big one):  develop a staunch, militant approach to what is, and what is not, a zombie.

Early zombies, the zombies of the past, are long-lost to what has become the generally-accepted idea of the undead – this, of course, being the Romero Zombie.  All hail His Deadness, yes indeed.  Anyway, this is all to say that before settling on the shuffling, flesh-craving sons of bitches we know and love, the idea of the “zombie” has gone through quite a few changes.  White Zombie (1932) gave us an introduction to the term, and is still considered by purists to be the standard for what constitutes an actual zombie: a potion, a corpse, and a voodoo ritual are required; Wes Craven backed this up in 1988 with the thoroughly disturbing, nightmare-inducing The Serpent and the Rainbow.  Twenty years before Craven could get there, though, Night of the Living Dead sank its teeth into the horror genre, and the flesh-eater, as we know it, was born.

There’s so much going on in NOTLD that it really deserves an entire article on its subtext alone. I have a feeling, though, that I don’t need to add any more bulk to this piece by singing its praises; I’d be preaching to the unholy choir.  We all know it was a game-changer, the defining point of the zombie movement, the be-all-end-all genesis of the undead.  From there, we saw vast expansion on Romero’s zombie apocalypse with Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead, and regardless of your opinions on the later entries in the series (don’t act like you don’t have them, haters), these are the backbone of all things zombie, and read like a full, fleshed-out (for lack of a better word) history of that particular reckoning.

It’s a damned lucky thing, too, when you consider the ridiculous plenitude of movies that took the idea and ran with it.  We got flesh-eaters.  We got brain-eaters.  We got skin-eaters.  We got bio-sickness-rage-“zombies” that could run, and were therefore not really zombies (see? Staunch and militant).  Through all of these permutations, all of these variations on the original theme, recent years have brought us a few standouts, all of which I will gladly show you now.  Grab onto your gravestones!  It’s my Top Five Zombie Movies of the Past 25 Years.

5.  Fido (2006; d. Andrew Currie, w. R. Chomiak, A. Currie, D. Heaton)

Fido seemed to fly under the radar for a lot of horror fans; it got a limited theatrical release and came out on DVD with little fanfare.  Really, I don’t know why – personally, I thought it was an incredibly imaginative addition to the genre.  It didn’t depend on the typical guts and grue to get by – you know I love the red stuff, but I never felt like it was missing from this 50’s-alternate-universe zombie comedy (just go ahead and deal with my refusal to ever use words like “zombedy”).  Take heart, though, my groovy ghoulies, there are still plenty of zombie-perpetrated killings to go around.

Moving on.  On its face, it’s a typical setup:  outer-space radiation has turned the dead into zombies.  Humans win the ensuing zombie wars, but the radiation sticks around, so the newly-dead still mostly continue to “turn”.  The scary governing entity of the moment fences everything in, slaps remote-control collars on the remaining zombies, and repurposes them as butlers — who are then supposed to, you know, buttle, for the well-to-do families in the fictional town of Willard (nice little nod to NOTLD there).  Cue a lot of “Honey, the neighbors have a zombie, shouldn’t we get one, too?”

I just really dug the tone of this whole piece, even beyond the fact that I’ll groove on pretty much anything 50’s-throwback.  Think Shaun of the Dead meets Pleasantville.  It’s just so original and earnest and quirky, and we all need a good dose of quirk once in awhile; one that doesn’t come from the likes of Zooey Deschanel.  Plus, as kids, didn’t we all kind of wish we had a domesticated zombie for a pal?  Admit it – don’t a lot of us, as adults, still want that?  Live your fantasies vicariously, with a zombie Billy Connolly!  While you’re at it, support Canadian horror, god dammit.  Those Canucks really have their zombies down to a lovely little science.

 

4.  Wild Zero (2000; d. Tetsuro Takeuchi, w. Satoshi Takagi)

You knew it was coming – it’s time for my requisite Japanese-horror entry (so I’m predictable.  It’s comforting, no?)

If you’re looking for Romero-style social commentary and a deep, ponderous subtext, you’re missing the point entirely here.  Wild Zero is simple:  Japanese garage-punk band saves world from alien/zombie invasion.  It’s light on plot but heavy on the awesome, and that’s really all you need to know.

Said garage-punk band is Guitar Wolf, with a front-man of the same name.  They are gnarly, and spend most of the movie demonstrating  their gnarlitude.  You will want to own all their records and wear them the hell out.  Really, I could have put one sentence in this entire section, and it would have done the trick:  Guitar Wolf slices a UFO in half with his secret guitar-neck sword.  Yeah.  That happens.

I really think that Satoshi Takagi, in sitting down to write this masterpiece, literally made a list of all the raddest things he could possibly think of, then tossed the whole mess in and called it a movie.  You won’t see me complaining – rock ‘n’ roll rebels, combing their pompadours?  Check.  Naked chicks?  Check.  Whimsical transvestites and hermaphrodites?  Check.  Aliens?  Leather?  Japanese wackiness?  Check, check, and major fucking double-check.

Plus, if you somehow end up with the Synapse DVD release in your hot little hands, take a look at the extras – there’s a Wild Zero drinking game.  Get ready to get weird.

 

3.  Cemetery Man, a.k.a. Dellamorte Dellamore (1994; d. Michele Soavi, w. Giovanni Romoli)

I haven’t touched on Italian horror much thus far in this series, but let’s go ahead and say I was saving it for the day I would talk about zombies.  It’s only right.

After all, where would we be in this world without Lucio Fulci?  His zombies, such gorgeously maggot-ridden, decaying things, were some of the truest representations of the undead ever committed to film.  Fulci was far-out.  Dude knew the score.  His zombies fought sharks.  That’s a straight-up hardcore visionary if I’ve ever seen one.  Fulci lives, and that’s the double truth.

So.  Cemetery Man.  Here’s a zombie film with no concrete explanation as to why the dead are walking, and it really doesn’t need one.  The dead just won’t stay dead.  This is not another dissertation on how society deals with the undead as an epidemic; instead, we’re catching these babies at ground zero, fresh out of the grave, with a world-weary Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) dispatching them before they can shamble out through his cemetery gates.  This is a zombie movie, and zombies do drive the plot; that said, though, there are so many other forces at work that it would be cruel and reductive to call Cemetery Man a mere “zombie movie”, “love story”, or “horror comedy”.  It’s really a pretty thoughtful film – you know, with all the “Dellamorte Dellamore” business, roughly translated as “of death, of love”.  There’s all that subtext you were looking for.

Poor Rupert Everett.  He’s just a lonely gravedigger trying to find love.  Really, if you think about it, his approach is pretty practical.  He goes with what he knows – the cemetery – and, being that places like that are a pretty untapped resource for picking up chicks, he doesn’t fare too badly, and meets the love of his life (Anna Falchi), referred to in the film only as “She”.  “She” is a woman he falls in love with quickly, then quickly loses in all the zombaic confusion; still, he continues to find her in other women again and again.  As an added bonus to all the flowery love-stuff and heavy existential pondering, you’ll come away with one of the most useful pieces of advice ever dedicated to celluloid:  never hump a stranger on your dead husband’s grave.

 

2.  Shaun of the Dead (2004; d. Edgar Wright, w. E. Wright, S. Pegg)

Of course Shaun of the Dead was going to make it onto this list.  It’s got to be one of the best-loved, most dear-to-our-hearts bits of zombie cinema to ever rise from the grave.  It has a little bit of everything – survival horror, romance (which is actually grounded, relatable, and not sickening), awesome zombies, creative kills, and that dry British sense of humor we’ve all come to adore.  Not to mention the fact that many of us seriously would hole up in our favorite pub in the face of the oncoming apocalypse.  That’s some cinematic truth for you.

Shaun of the Dead is endlessly watchable, and at this point in the game, I’m more or less convinced that everything Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg touch is gold.  They could have chosen to go all-out Brit-silly with this, but in keeping the action and the characters rooted firmly in the zombie-apocalypse version of real life (and a frustrated, unsatisfied, too-close-to-home real life at that), they created something smart and fully-realized.

Make no mistake – Shaun and Ed find themselves smack in the middle of Romero’s world, and there are subtle-yet-reverent nods to this throughout the film.  Some are not so subtle; either way, part of the reason this movie really works is the fact that it knows exactly where it comes from and exactly where it’s going, and it manages to reference without ripping off – that in itself goes a long way in terms of credibility.  Here again, we don’t get much of an explanation for the influx of the undead, but again, we don’t really need it; as with life in general, it’s more about surviving the thing than trying to make any real sense of it.

 

1.  Pontypool (2009; d. Bruce McDonald, w. Tony Burgess)

Guys, I’m a word nerd.  It’s in my bones.  It’s pretty rare that a film comes along perfectly tailored to a grammar-nympho horror-geek like me.  So when Pontypool found its way into my DVD player, it was an extra-gleeful experience.  If you’ve seen this movie, you surely know what I mean, and I’m going to try my best here to do it justice without completely ruining it for the uninitiated.

What I can say is that it’s one of the most unique and inventive horror movies I’ve seen in recent memory.  It’s a heretofore-unexplored take on the zombie genre.  It’s a claustrophobic psychological-thriller-siege-survival-story.  It’s War of the Worlds through a Night of the Living Dead filter; twisted perfectly to fit itself into the context of a radio station in small-town Canada (see what I mean about Canadians?  They rule.).

Sometimes, less is more.  It’s a cliché, but there are untold numbers of films and filmmakers that would do well to learn it.  Pontypool, though, went off like gangbusters in this respect.  There’s little blood to speak of, and great pains are taken to ensure that the zombie threat is more felt than actually seen – a refreshing and absolutely essential choice, considering the confined, character-driven nature of the narrative and the structure of the story as a whole.  It’s important that we are stuck, with the characters as our proxies, in that dark church basement, cut off from the action and relying on reports from outside — the words of others — for information and security.  It’s all about words.

So much of the film reads like a stage play, and this is to its huge advantage.  The small cast and mostly-static set only heighten the anxiety laid thickly over the entire piece, and this leaves few chances for bullshit; there’s very little filler to be found, the mind is not given a chance to wander.

If you’re one who decries the lack of new material in horror – if you’re sick of so many “…of the Dead” remakes, I’m telling you, check out Pontypool as soon as humanly possible.

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About Kara_E

Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

Other posts in this series:

  1. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #4 -- Zombie Movies (May 7, 2012)
  2. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #3 – Gorefests (March 27, 2012)
  3. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #2 - Female Killers (March 8, 2012)
  4. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #1 - Films about Serial Killers (March 1, 2012)
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