Friday, August 9, 2013

The 20 Best Zombie Films [1950-1990]


In theory, putting together a list of zombie films seems like an easy enough task, but when I actually sat down with the list of movies I've seen and started making my countdown, dozens of questions instantly arose. First off, what exactly defines a zombie? And better yet, what exactly disqualifies something from being a zombie? I'll start with my own generic definition and go from there: A zombie is a dead human who has somehow been revived. Simple enough.

Generally-speaking, traditional zombie films fall into two different camps.

1. Mindless / Slave Zombies. The classic, long-out-of-favor and much more 'docile' zombies most prevalent in the 30s, 40s and 50s were typically created using black magic or voodoo, but sometimes created by other means. These beings were akin to slaves, normally without free will and often used by the film's antagonist (typically a mad doctor or sorcerer / voodoo priest) to help them achieve some sort of evil scheme. The zombies in these films just did whatever the heavy wanted them to do for the most part. If they weren't needed, they generally just stood in place and didn't cause too many problems. White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi and the Val Lewton production I Walked with a Zombie (1943) are rightfully regarded as the two best examples of this type, but there were numerous others to crop up over the years, including a handful of Poverty Row flicks like King of the Zombies (1941) and Zombies on Broadway (1945), Hammer's The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988). In the 1950s and beyond, science became just as common a way to resurrect the dead, as Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Teenage Zombies (1959), I Eat Your Skin (1964) and dozens of others films can illustrate.

2. Killer / Flesh-Eating Zombies. These zombies are back from the dead and not necessarily controlled by anyone or any thing in particular. They often kill indiscriminately, but not always, and do so for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes there's a revenge motive behind it. Sometimes they're supernaturally brought to life to assist a bad guy. Sometimes, as in the mythology created by George Romero for his classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), there's a need for them to consume either the blood or flesh from victims. They can be fast or slow-moving, possess varying degrees of basic intelligence and are created in numerous different ways. Some are the result of science, some are created using black magic and some are created intentionally, while other are created by complete accident. Either way, these zombies are out to kill and, more often than not, eat humans.

In both of the above cases, the dead have been brought back to life with a desire to kill, consume or assist someone who wants to do evil, but one grey area that we immediately fall into are corpses that are brought back to life and used as host bodies. In films like Invisible Invaders (1959), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Horror Express (1972), human corpses are inhabited, reanimated and / or controlled by a bodiless alien presence / spirit. Along these same lines, the success of The Exorcist led to many off-shoots which are quite similar to the living dead films. Though Friedkin's movie dealt with a solitary case of possession by a singular malevolent spirit, later demon / ghost possession entries featured mass possession by either one or multiple spirits eager to return to life and just as eager to infect everyone around them. In many of these cases, spiritual takeover pretty much meant immediate death for the human host. In other words, once your body has been possessed, you've joined the ranks of the undead permanently. The Evil Dead (1981), Demons (1985) and Night of the Demons (1988) are just three of the many examples of this kind of film. They use spiritual possession as a means to get started, then go on to click many of the same boxes as the post-Romero zombie films: death, infection / inhabitation, resurrection as something driven with the desire to kill.

Another sub-category are "virus" / "infection" films, where victims become exposed to a chemical, virus, parasite, disease or entity and - though they're perhaps still technically living - carry on the traits we commonly associate with zombies. Sticklers to their own definition of what a zombie film is have been known to bite off heads if you describe something like 28 Days Later... (2002) as a zombie film, though it's clearly similar enough to understand the eagerness to lump them all together. Other early examples of this category include I Drink Your Blood (1970), where victims become deranged, blood-sucking killers due to contacting a nasty stain of rabies, The Crazies (1973), where a plane crash unleashes a chemical that turns small town citizens into homicidal maniacs, RABID (1977), where an experimental skin graft turns porn queen Marilyn Chambers into a blood fiend who infects all those she drinks from, The Grapes of Death (1978), where chemical pesticides taint a grape crop and cause some nasty side effects for wine-drinkers, and Blue Sunshine (1978), which involves a bad batch of LSD causing baldness, madness and murderous behavior for those who've taken in years earlier. As is often the case in these kind of films, it's difficult to tell whether the victims have technically died because of their infection or are still living and just altered. Either way, often who they once were is a thing of the past and there's no two ways around it.

To make matters even more confusing, there are numerous cross-breeds between zombie films and other sub-genres. Often times, ghosts are presented in a rather zombie-like fashion and there's little actual difference between zombies and mummies (aside from dress) which are often listed in their own separate sub-category. In many Asian horror films, the presentation of vampires have just as much in common with zombies as they do the traditional European presentation of vampires. The Last Man on Earth (1964), based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, is another example. It involves an apocalyptic take-over of this planet by undead vampire-like beings, who are intent on killing the titular character played by Vincent Price.

But one must draw the line somewhere. I'm automatically discounting most of the possession / third party bodily inhabitation films from my list, unless it's a clear-cut case of the already-dead being revived. I'm also discounting most infection films. If it's made clear that the infected can be killed just like any other regular human, then I'm assuming they are just any other regular human... who just so happens to be struck down by an unfortunate malady. Other than that, I'll be completely open about the origins of the zombies, the presentation of the zombies and the intentions of the zombies. They must be dead humans who've returned as undead beings (or at least have something ambiguous about their reason-for-being), and that is all.

So without further ado, let the countdown begin...

20. Beyond Terror (1980)
Directed by: Tomás Aznar

This seldom-watched Spanish supernatural morality tale is so trashy that the man behind the notorious Pieces (1981), Juan Piquer Simón (who co-wrote and backed the film), opted to hide behind a pseudonym as not to tarnish his image. Three violent, drug-addicted punks hold up a diner, shoot several people and kidnap a wealthy-looking, adulterous couple to ensure their getaway. After they burn down a house with a witch and a little boy still inside, some supernatural force takes control of their car and delivers them to a secluded, crumbling church. There are other abandoned old buildings surrounding them but no one seems to live around there... That's probably because they've all been delivered directly to hell to receive their just punishment. Characters have hallucinations and are haunted by ghosts of the old witch, the little boy and a vicious dog, not to mention a slew of mummified corpses (which are eventually brought to life) located underneath the abandoned village in catacombs rumored to contain a treasure. There's loads of profane, raunchy dialogue, constant insults being hurled around, a little sex, a lot of fighting, plenty of supernatural strangeness and bloodshed (including someone getting ripped apart and an exploding head) and a surprisingly twisted incestuous dynamic between brother-and-sister characters. Pretty nasty, this is also highly atmospheric, with excellent use made of some eerie shooting locations and a few fairly effective horror sequences toward the end. If this were a little better distributed (there's no DVD and it was never released in America), it would probably have more fans.

19. Zombie (1979)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci

This Italian effort was one of the first out of the gate hoping to cash in on George Romero's international hit Dawn of the Dead and went on to become one of the most famous of all the copycats, possibly because it was released overseas as an actual sequel to Romero's film; Dawn was titled Zombi, Zombie was titled Zombi 2. Though the films share the slow, shambling, flesh-eating resurrected dead and high levels of gore (plus snippets of the same Goblin score), the similarities pretty much end there. Absent are Romero's sharp satire and humor, his relatable and enjoyable characterizations, the sweeping, increasingly hopeless apocalyptic tone and the deftly-directed action and horror sequences. Fulci's film is a dirtier, grittier, more primitive affair, which drops anything substantive and gets right down to business. A number of viewers seem to actually prefer that approach. There's next to no plot here. In fact, it can be summed in just four words: Zombies on an island. While the film falters in many areas, it isn't without its own murky charms. For starters, some of the zombie designs are really good, including the maggot-faced chap who winded up on the poster. The film is also filled with gore, including a now-famous bit where an unfortunate woman gets her eyeball skewered in close-up by a jagged piece of wood. Flesh chewed out of necks, arms and legs spray blood all over the place, and there are heads being shot off, a dismemberment, guts and more. The island is a nice setting for one of these things, the low-budget look of the film is also something of a plus that contributes to the film's grimy atmosphere and there's an excellent score from Goblin. And one would certainly be amiss not mentioning the amusing underwater scene where one of the zombies crosses paths with a shark!

18. The Hanging Woman (1972)
Directed by: José Luis Merino

After receiving a telegram informing him that he's been remembered in his late uncle's will, Serge (Stelvio Rosi) travels to a remote Russian village to see what he's inherited. There, he's immediately greeted by the corpse of his hanging female cousin and gets involved with numerous other characters, including his scheming aunt, a murderous butler, a mad doctor and degenerate grave-robber Igor (Paul Naschy), who has a rather odd sex life. How odd is it? Well, to keep him loyal to her cause, the aunt (who - with ample help - helped to murder her husband) is willing to indulge Igor in his necro fantasies by lying completely still as he paws at her. He also robs graves, takes the female corpses to an underground tunnel, professes his love to them, removes their clothes, touches them and takes pictures of them to enjoy later on. A séance seems to call forth the dead count's vengeful spirit, and he obviously has a bone to pick with whoever killed him and his daughter. If that isn't enough, a handful of zombies show up as a result of the mad doctor's experiments. That means we get elements of murder-mystery, ghost story, zombie flick and mad scientist opus all wrapped into one. A bit slow going at times (particularly in the middle) and saddled with an extremely busy plot, The Hanging Woman (also released as Beyond the Living Dead) is still surprisingly well-made and things are all neatly tied together during the finale. There's ample female nudity and plenty of gore, including a decapitation, maggoty corpses and a bloody autopsy. The zombie makeup designs vary in effectiveness, but a few of them are really creepy looking. I'm not sure where this was filmed, but it's a gorgeous old village at the base of some mountains and it's a great setting. Despite actually being much better, this is often overlooked in favor of the Naschy vehicle Vengeance of the Zombies.

17. Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973)
Directed by: "Benjamin" (Bob) Clark

High points for weirdness here in one of the first and most unique zombie flicks to follow on the heels of Romero's trend-setting 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. In this case, the style of unique will either delight and amuse or infuriate and annoy. It just depends on who you are. The characters in this one are pretty out-there, and they like to talk. A lot. A group of six self-proclaimed "jaded young deviants" (pretentious, smart-ass actors) travel to a secluded island cottage off of Miami, where extreme asshole theater director Alan (Alan Ormsby) plots to raise the dead using a "grimori" (ancient Satanic text). It starts as a joke, but the spells actually ends up working, the dead rise and attack in an excellent NOTLD-style ambush on the house. Children doesn't have much action in the first hour. It's all talk, talk, talk... Ormsby's character consistently makes such an ass of himself and is such a jerk, you can't wait to see him bite it. His wife Anya Ormsby plays a waif-like near mute and most of the side characters (the studly actor, the spunky young actress and the pudgy, balding easy target) are equally forgettable. The most likable of the bunch is Valerie Mamches (playing Val), the one who can go toe-to-toe with Alan's consistent stream of condescending insults. Thankfully, it picks up for a strong and genuinely creepy finale, and also offers the aforementioned excellent dead-rising-from-ground sequence, an effective, foggy graveyard setting and good, creepy make-up FX from star Ormsby (who also worked on the screenplay). Filmed in Florida; it was the feature debut of Bob (credited as "Benjamin") Clark, who'd go on to make Deathdream (1972), Black Christmas (1974) and Murder by Decree (1979).

16. Black Magic, Part II (1976)
Directed by: Meng Hua Ho

If you're in the mood for some crazy, gory, anything-goes nonsense, you really can't do a whole lot better than Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Productions. Things begin with a bunch of topless girls getting gobbled up by an alligator until a gray-haired wizard steps in, uses his powers to call the gator forward, catches it on a hook and then guts it! Soon after, patients show up in a big city hospital with all kinds of grotesque maladies, including pulsating, puss-oozing "human-face sores," skin ulcers and worms under the skin that our doctor hero attributes to black magic. The man responsible - Kang Cong (Lo Lieh) - is an evil, ageless and very powerful sorcerer who's being using a magical ring and his "Tame Head Sorcery" powers to get both money and sex. Kang kills, mutilates and possesses victims in a variety of ways, keeps up his virility and youth through a steady diet of breast milk (which he can get from non-pregnant women after making an elixir from their pubic hair!) and shares his huge mansion home with revived corpses he can control by hammering steel spikes into their heads. Hair falls out, fingernails fall off, faces melt, worms pour out of chests, women give birth to mutant blobs and are beaten with dead rabbits and someone plucks out their own eyeballs to be able to see through walls. Frequently stupid, jaggedly edited at times, stuffed to the seams with various plot complications and sometimes downright confusing, this immediate follow-up to the previous years Black Magic (which was made by the same director / writer / producer team and featured many of the same actors) is still great, brainless fun. It's colorfully - sometimes very stylishly - photographed, fast-paced, tasteless and often highly imaginative... and there is a ton of gore. Released theatrically in the U.S. as Revenge of the Zombies in 1981.

15. The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Directed by: John Gilling

A mysterious disease that's been claiming the lives of the young and seemingly healthy has stricken a small Cornish village and it's up to the town's doctor (Brook Williams) to get to the bottom of things. Needing help identifying and eradicating this epidemic, the doubting doc calls in a brilliant science professor (played by Andre Morell) - a former mentor  - to help. What transpires is a tale of voodoo, greed and, of course, the living dead. The culprit turns out to be a not-very-well-liked town squire who's been murdering villagers, using black magic to raise them from the dead and then putting them to work (cheap labor, right?) in his tin mine. Fine acting, an interesting plotline (with commentary on how blind superstition / religion cripple scientific discovery) and Hammer's typically pristine production values, which effectively capture the specific time and place (mid 19th Century) and imbue this tale with all the atmosphere it needs. Plague is also noteworthy as one of the first (if not the first) zombie film(s) to feature the titular ghouls as rotting corpses, and also features an impressive dead-rising-from-their-graves nightmare sequence that's proven influential in its own right. It was the studio's only zombie film in their expansive horror catalogue, was shown as a second feature to Dracula: Prince of Darkness and plot-wise recalls the older zombie tales of the 30s and 40s, aside from the more elaborate make-ups by , which remain effective to this day. Gilling also shot The Reptile back-to-back with this one, which was made on the same sets by the same crew and featured many of the same actors.

14. The 7 Doors of Death / The Beyond (1981)
Directed by: "Louis Fuller" (Lucio Fulci)

Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits the same cursed Louisiana mansion / hotel where an artist was slain years earlier and moves in with renovation crew in tow. A rash of unexplained, supernatural events and mysterious, gory murders soon follow, and anyone who investigates the strange goings-on at the home face an appropriately gruesome demise. The home turns out to be housing one of the seven ancient gateways to hell, which is located somewhere in the flooded basement. A scary-looking ghoul keeps popping up all over the place, a plumber gets his eyeball squashed out, tarantulas attack and, at a morgue, acid melts away a face and zombies show up. Anyone familiar with the films of Fulci pretty much know what to expect here. There's little plot, a decent amount of grimy atmosphere and mediocre, though grisly, gore fx showcased in lengthy, graphic murder set-pieces. The pacing never seems quite right and the film seems to drag in between the outbursts of gore (especially in the uncut version), but the story line holds interest, the movie is surprisingly surreal at times and the ending is enjoyably ambiguous, so it's easy to see why this is one of the director's most acclaimed works. Unlike some other viewers, I've always preferred the the original U.S. R-rated cut of the film (titled 7 Doors of Death) and I'll give you three reasons why. 1. The newly added otherworldly-sounding synthesizer score actually fits the themes much better than Fabio Frizzi's original score. 2. Though some gore is missing, so are many of the utterly redundant dialogue scenes that too often grind the film to a screening halt. 3. Since much was omitted, the editing is often jagged, but this actually accidentally (and almost amazingly) enhances the surrealistic feel of the film. Watch both and you be the judge.

13. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Directed by: Wes Craven

Often fascinating, sometimes creepy, something just plain frustrating, this treatment of Harvard botanist Wade Davis' acclaimed (supposed) nonfiction bestseller was meant to be a critical and commercial breakthrough for director Wes Craven. Overall, the film was too muddled to really catch fire with critics and too dreary to be a big box-office blockbuster, though it does easily maintain interest from beginning to end. In the novel, Davis claims to have come into contact with actual "zombies" created by chemicals used in Haitian voodoo ceremonies. Craven's movie attempts to mix elements of the book with strong new fantasy and horror ideas. The always-dependable Bill Pullman stars as an anthropologist who is sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical firm to acquire the zombie-making powder. Instead, he gets on the bad side of some truly nasty natives, undergoes some unbelievably grisly tortures (nail through the scrotum, anyone?), suffers from horrifying hallucinations and must fight for his life when voodoo heavies (including a memorably menacing Zakes Mokae) decide his meddling has gone too far. Eventually he's buried alive. Craven also touches on social and political issues (like dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier) - in a somewhat cursory fashion - along the way. The film's high production costs, excellent art direction and on-location filming in Haiti and in The Dominican Republic make the proceedings extremely atmospheric and this remains one of Craven's most polished films.

12. Messiah of Evil (1973)
Directed by: Willard Huyck and (uncredited) Gloria Katz

After the death of her mother, Arletty (gorgeous Marianna Hill) and her reclusive painter father (Royal Dano) have become estranged, keeping in contact only via letter. The letters have become increasingly more bizarre as time has gone by, so our heroine travels to the small coastal town of Point Dune to check in on him... and gets involved in more than she bargained for in the process. A tall, creepy albino in a pick-up truck always seems to be around, people gather on the beach by a bonfire, people's eyes bleed, they stop feeling pain, they begin hungering for raw, bloody meat and puke up beetles, maggots and lizards, and cops try to pass off the corpse of some other man for Arletty's father to get her to leave. And, of course, people die. Some of them seem to return all the same, yet they're not quite the same. It all has something to do with a curse and the ambiguous "Dark Stranger." This unique, unpredictable spin on both living dead and possession themes is muddled and clumsy at times, but it's rather fascinating all the same and presented in a very stylistic, colorful and artistic way. There are also some very well done (and creepy) set pieces that really deliver. The gas station scene, the supermarket scene, a scene with 'dead people' peering in through a skylight and one where Arletty is finally reunited with her father being just a few. The real stand out sequence - clearly inspired by the playground scene in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) - has a the theater slowly starting to fill up with flesh-hungry townspeople, who file into the theater one by one and start sitting right behind a potential victim.

11. Shock Waves (1977)
Directed by: Ken Wiederhorn

Some find Shock Waves boring but I find it rather relaxing. Relaxing? Yes indeed, relaxing. There's just  something about countless shots of the sun and sparkling ocean water splashing against boats and palm trees swaying in the salt air breeze that just puts me at ease. I doubt that would still be the case if I happened to spot one of the zombies featured in this film, but therein lies one of this film's major drawing cards: transplanting the living dead to an idealistic, desolate tropical location. Shock Waves' plotline is simple: Toward the end of WWII, German scientists had created undead soldiers whose only objective was to kill. They didn't quite manage to perfect (or even use) these soldiers and a boat carrying them sank somewhere in the ocean where they lied dormant for years. But that's all about to change... to the horror of some recently shipwrecked vacationers. The least gory film on this countdown, Shock Waves won't please all just for that fact, but it excels in other areas and is a great little low-budget flick for the right kind of viewer. And by the right kind of viewer I mean those into slow-moving flicks who are able to escape into a film's setting (there's only trees, sand, miles and miles of water, you and them) and thrill at solitary creepy images, like a scaly-skinned Nazi zombie quietly lying in wait under the water before slowly peaking its goggle-covered eyes above the surface. Horror heavyweights Peter Cushing (as a weary, waylaid SS Commandant) and John Carradine (as a drunkard boat captain) appear in supporting roles.

10. Cemetery of Terror (1985)
Directed by: Rubén Galindo Jr.

On Halloween, three college medical students and their girlfriends make the mistake of stealing the corpse of a recently deceased, web-fingered serial killer named Devlon and use a Satanic book they find in the his abandoned mansion home to resurrect him from the dead. The incantation works all right, as the supernatural psycho rises from the grave, slaughters all of the students in a variety of gory ways (axe to the head, guts ripped out, etc.) and then decides to use the book to resurrect a graveyard full of zombie followers. A nightmare-plagued head-shrinker (Mexican genre star Hugo Stiglitz), a cop whose children are in danger and a handful of young trick-or-treaters get in the middle of things. Released the same year as Romero's Day of the Dead and O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead to much less fanfare, this is definitely not for those who are sticklers for realism (or details). It swipes elements from numerous other films (most notably The Evil Dead) and establishes certain rules at the beginning (such as how to resurrect - and eventually dispatch of - Devlon) and then refuses to abide by them. Thankfully, this film is a complete blast, anyway. Though it takes itself somewhat seriously, it's inescapably silly nonetheless. The dead-rising-from-their-graves sequence, with zombies crawling out of the ground and busting through tombs, all accompanied by lots of fog and red light shining up from under the ground, has this wonderful funhouse feel to it. There's plenty of blood (particularly in the first half), the zombie designs are very good, it's fast-paced, full of action and, though the acting isn't spectacular, the whole cast really seem to be into it. Hell, I didn't even mind the kid characters in this one.

9. The Night of the Seagulls (1975)
Directed by: Amando De Ossorio

De Ossorio's highly uneven Blind Dead quadrilogy (which began with 1971's Tombs of the Blind Dead) concluded with this fourth and final chapter, which turned out to be the belated highlight of the entire series. Dr. Henry Stein (Victor Petit) and his wife Joan (María Kosty) arrive in a tiny, crumbling village just in time for a bunch evil undead Templar knights to come crawling out of their tombs in their ocean-front castle home, saddle up their ghost horses and then scour the beaches looking for whatever young maiden has been selected by the villagers as a human sacrifice to appease them. One problem De Ossorio never had with these films were great villains at his disposal. In the other three entries, the designs on these creaky, slow-moving skeleton knights were clearly the best thing about an otherwise mediocre film. Here, they are a great assets to an otherwise solidly-made one. The director is smart enough to keep them in the shadows until towards the end and has made some alterations to the mythology to make them seem more mysterious and creepy. Of course, all of this would be for naught if this film had the same weak writing, bad acting and terrible dialogue that plagued the other three movies. Thankfully, it does not. The music (often reminiscent of Goldsmith's later Oscar-winning Omen score), shooting locations and even the hazy, day-for-night photography are all great. The storyline is solid, surprisingly good performances (and English dubbing) usually keep this from lapsing into unintentional comedy and the atmosphere; crumbling stone buildings, ocean waters glimmering in the moonlight, rocky cliffs and mossy step hillsides dotted with pebbles, is superbly creepy. The director fumbles a few of the action sequences toward the end, but for the most part does a fine job with the pacing and horror scenes.

8. Night of the Creeps (1986)
Directed by: Fred Dekker

In a black-and-white prologue set in 1958, something falls from the sky near Lover's Lane and a slug-like alien organism enters a man's mouth, causing him to go crazy and chop up his date with an axe. He's captured, cryogenically frozen and forgotten. In 1986, some college kids at "Corman University" decide to break into a secluded lab and steal a corpse as part of frat initiation. Guess which corpse they steal? After the body and what is contained within thaws out, the slugs (which breed inside the human brain) are all over the place, flying into people's mouths and turning them into murderous zombies. An extremely dry cop (Tom Atkins, who's great in the role and makes the most of his one-liners) teams up with three students (an unpopular geek, his sarcastic, crippled roommate and a pretty / popular sorority girl) to stop them. Dekker's film debut is a smart, lively, scary and funny homage to old B horror films and sci-fi flicks made by someone who obviously knows and loves the genre. There are in-joke character names (most are named after famous directors [Cronenberg, Romero, etc]; a touch that has gotten old and overused in recent years), good special effects, lots of gore and some witty dialogue. Several members of the KNB Fx group (Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman) get to play frat jock zombies and legendary cult actor Dick Miller has a fun (though brief) cameo as a police armorer named Walter (Paisley?). Dekker returned with the kiddie-oriented The Monster Squad (1987), which also showed off his clear affection for classic genre films. Despite being a rather popular title throughout the late 80s, it took forever to get Creeps out on DVD.

7. Sugar Hill (1974)
Directed by: Paul Maslansky

Little-known Marki Bey stars as Diana Hill, a very attractive nightclub performer at the voodoo-themed "Club Haiti." Her fiancé Langston, whose pet name for his girl is Sugar cause she's sweet (... until push comes to shove, at least!), is being pressured by Mafioso Morgan (Count Yorga star Robert Quarry) to sell his club. Refusing to cave in to their attempts at blackmail, Langston ends up getting beat to death right outside the club by some of Morgan's thugs. What's a newly widowed foxy lady in a blaxploitation flick to do? Get revenge, of course! Diana / Sugar ventures deep into the swamp to meet up with an elderly, white-haired voodoo queen, who in turn calls up ghostly zombie master Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who in turn calls up a horde of zombie former slaves. Diana and the Baron then lure each of the gangsters to their doom, allowing the living dead to do the dirty work. Though formulaic, fairly predictable and possibly too tame for some viewers (there's no nudity / sex and little gore but lots of amusing crude language), I found this to be a very entertaining, fun and solidly-made entry in its subgenre. It's well-paced, well-written, nicely photographed, humorous and performed with gusto by the entire cast. Bey gives a strong, animated, authoritative performance in the lead role and gets a few bad-ass one-liners as she enacts her vengeance, and crazy-eyed Colley's wonderfully enthusiastic, over-the-top turn as the zombie master is a real standout. The dusty, cobweb-covered zombies are pretty interesting-looking, particularly their large silver eyes, which look pretty ominous when caught in the light, and there's even a memorable, catchy theme song; "Supernatural Voodoo Woman," by The Originals.

6. Day of the Dead (1985)
Directed by: George A. Romero

Romero's third living dead opus doesn't quite stack up to either of his previous zombie films, but is still a worthy conclusion to his initial "Dead Trilogy." The action takes place in an underground military bunker where a dozen or so people, who may well be our planet's last survivors, are hiding out. The claustrophobic setting, differing viewpoints and a mostly bleak outlook on their future have created a tense, hostile environment for everyone involved. The military faction of the group are getting sick and tired of risking their asses to provide zombies for the science unit's experiments, which aren't progressing fast enough by their standards. However, the doctors feel they need more time and a little cooperation if any of them are going to stand a chance of reclaiming the planet. Day has been much criticized over the years for being heavy on talk and light on action, though some of that talk and many of the ideas and themes being juggled around here are actually quite interesting. It's also been criticized for its overwrought acting and unlikable characters, and that's something I completely agree with. Still, this entry is a favorite of some viewers, who appreciate its grim atmosphere and favor the excellent, updated zombie designs as well as the explosion of gory disembowelments and decapitations at the finale (designed yet again by make-up maestro Tom Savini). It all depends on where one's priorities are at, though even lesser, flawed Romero is leaps and bounds above most other films in this sub-genre (and the same stands for his later, much-criticized offerings). Day certainly has its share of wonderful moments, many of which center around a zombie named "Bub" (Howard Sherman), who's been somewhat "tamed" by the bunker's resident Dr. Frankenstein.

5. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Directed by: Jorge Grau

This Spanish shocker turned out to be the best zombie film to be released in between a pair of famous Romero-directed genre-defining classics that we'll later be covering. In rural England (where this was filmed), hippie biker George (Ray Lovelock) bumps into Edna (Cristina Galbó), who’s having a family emergency, just as some agricultural scientists are experimenting with ultra-sonic radiation to decrease the insect and pest population in the area. Instead, the sonic rays have an adverse effect on the nervous systems of bugs, infants… and the recently deceased. The living dead are soon shambling their way through town, killing and consuming victims. But these aren’t your usual run-of-the-mill pale-faced, red-eyed animated corpses, but ones with super-strength and the ability to raise other stiffs with fresh blood. Can George and Edna convince the authorities what’s going on before the zombie population gets even more out of control? Can they convince name star Arthur Kennedy, playing a screaming police sergeant who hates long hair, “fag clothes,” sex and drugs and seems to have a bone to pick with everyone in the movie, of anything? A nicely done and often creepy horror flick with decent acting, an environmentally conscious story line, stylish photography, some suspense and - its true trump card - an excellent, bizarrely disquieting music score comprised of natural sounds (whispering, distorted voices, underwater sounds, etc.). There’s also an excellent cemetery sequence (with the zombies trying to bust down a door with tombstones they pluck from the ground) and a real bloodbath of a hospital climax (which includes a woman getting her breast ripped off - just one instance of gore removed from some prints of the film).

4. Re-Animator (1985)
Directed by: Stuart Gordon

Stuart Gordon's directorial debut (very loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's six-parter "Herbert West, Reanimator") is one of the highlights of 1980s horror; a witty, over-the-top, gore-drenched thriller with an amazingly odd and effective sense of black humor. Brilliant, but unstable and highly obsessive Miskatonic University medical student Herbert West (the great Jeffrey Combs, in the role that made him a genre icon) is on the verge of concocting a serum to bring the dead back to life, and faces cynicism from both peers and professors, most of whom end up regretting it later! West's serum ends up working all too well in reviving the dead, and the rest is an amazing barrage of zombies, blood, gore and outrageous comedy, all leading up to a memorably taste-free finale where co-star Barbara Crampton (playing the dean's daughter) is sexually ravaged by a sleazy doctor's (David Gale) disembodied head! After Re-Animator hit the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews, Gordon (then known on his home turf for his notorious "Warp" trilogy at Chicago's Organic Theater) had a big hit on his hands, and became one of the most respected and prolific American horror directors around. He followed up with another loose Lovecraft adaptation - 1986's From Beyond - which reunited him with stars Combs and Crampton for more of the same. Both films faced ratings problems upon release and had to be heavily trimmed in order to secure an R rating. Two sequels; 1989's Bride of Re-Animator (aka Re-Animator 2 overseas) and 2003's Beyond Re-Animator, were made by Brian Yuzna. Gordon also prepped a fourth film called House of Re-Animator but was unable to get the funding to realize it.

3. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Directed by: Dan O'Bannon

Originally intended as a spoof of Romero zombie films, things were later fashioned to turn this into a horror film with comedy elements instead of an all out comedy. Return (which garnered good reviews and topped the box office its first week of release) manages to do an impressive balancing act that makers of other horror-comedies need to study. It delivers plenty of laughs (more prevalent in the first half) that somehow never manage to compromise the horror content (which take an increasingly tighter hold as the film progresses). Return is inventive, clever, well-paced, extremely entertaining and benefits a lot from the casting of three veteran character actors (Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa), usually support players all, and giving them each a chance to shine in their respective roles. Karen is especially good in a bravura comic turn as a medical supply house manager who - with help from a top secret government "Trioxin" gas - unwittingly helps to raise the dead in a nearby cemetery. Linnea Quigley also scores in the role of a death-obsessed punk chick who treats viewers to a nude dance upon a crypt before joining the ranks of the undead herself (all the time sans clothing). Well done make-ups and special effects, and one of the genre's all-time best soundtracks (including a memorable tune from The Cramps) solidify the mood. As with all successful horror films, a handful of variable sequels followed, starting with the much more juvenile Part II in 1988. Part III (a quite serious film) doesn't fit the vibe of the first two films at all, but remains the best of the Return sequels. The much-hated, action-oriented Parts 4 and 5 - which were shot back-to-back somewhere in Europe - appear to have put the final nail in the coffin for the franchise.

2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Directed by: George A. Romero

Romero's follow-up to his trend-setting Night of the Living Dead (1968) is, quite simply, one of the finest horror films ever made. What started on a small scale in Night has exploded into a full-out epidemic of flesh-eating zombies. Deciding "someone's got to survive," a pregnant TV station producer, her pilot boyfriend and two infantrymen load up a helicopter, take off and end up stumbling upon a large shopping mall. Though it's full of zombies, they're able to block all of the doors and kill off all the zombies currently inside... until a randy motorcycle gang stumbles upon them. The multi-layered Dawn wonderfully balances horror, action, drama and humor; from the blackest of comedy to clever sight gags to even broad slapstick, and manages to capture a grim apocalyptic feel on a fraction of the budget of other end-of-the-world epics. Its clever use of metaphor has been duly noted over the years: You can see plenty of dead-eyed zombies mindlessly marching through the mall any time you choose. Same goes for its nihilistic worldview: If the end of life as we know it isn't even enough to make us all cooperate and get along, what is? Though undoubtedly bleak, it also surprises with glimpses of warmth and humanity. The central cast is fine playing characters who are well-intentioned yet flawed, courageous yet sometimes foolishly so, noble yet frustrating. Just like the rest of us. Until-then unseen levels of splatter earned this a reputation as a gore-fest right away, and also established make-up man Tom Savini as the king of such effects. Threatened with an X-rating due to violence, Romero opted to release Dawn unrated instead, which surprisingly didn't hurt this film's box office clout, nor did it hurt the mostly positive response from mainstream critics.

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by: George A. Romero

The timeless Night is in a select company of films so well-known, so frequently viewed, so clearly influential and so often discussed that the premise (seven people barricade themselves in a farmhouse as recently revived corpses scour the countryside looking for fresh human flesh) doesn't really even require much discussion. Starkly and cheaply shot in black-and-white on an extremely low-budget, this has a supremely creepy look and feel to it that we're not likely to ever see again. The events that unfold are bleak, dark, desperate, completely devoid of humor (though not irony) and scary, the classic power struggle between the leads is well-played and intelligently handled, and the amount of hopelessness and tension Romero is able to steadily ratchet up throughout keeps the suspense quotient high. Its willingness to break the rules and take chances in a safer, more sanitized age was a major reason for this film's success and something I think a lot of people now take for granted. Night pushed the envelope when it came to 'acceptable' depictions of on-screen violence, which quickly gave this the reputation as a true shocker. As a result, it became one of the most important independent productions of all time; proving one doesn't have to be a slave to Hollywood to craft a much-loved and financially successful film. There's a good reason this is one of the only horror titles deemed important enough to have been inducted into the National Film Registry. And despite 45 years of rip-offs, remakes and follow-ups (including five more from the man who created this entire subgenre), Night has managed to maintain its raw, frightening power over the years.


Questions? Comments? Criticisms? Leave em below and I'll get back with you as soon as I can. Thanks for taking the time to read!
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