Top 10 - our ten best listings of...
No More Room In Hell: a Top 10 Zombie Flicks
by Octavio Ramos Jr
It is difficult to chronicle the history of the zombie because there are so many kinds of such living-dead automations. However, the first zombies arguably were the ones many people believed they encountered in Haiti; these poor saps could be found working late at night in mills, factories, and bakeries. In truth, many of these labourers were merely overworked,
underpaid individuals (in many cases, they were nothing more than slaves) who toiled night after
countless night, but because of their often solemn and emaciated countenance, night owls found them
peculiar and a bit unnerving.
Ancient religions, such as Macumba, Kimbundu, and voodoo, consider a zombie (or 'zumbi') to be a dead corpse that a priest or priestess (other titles include houngan and bokor) has reanimated by either placing a supernatural spirit within the corpse (with the help of the Snake God), or casting a spell or brewing a potion that reanimates the cadaver. Hollywood took this source material and up until the 1960s created films in which zombies served a master of some kind (from plantation owners to Nazis interested in starting another world war). In Europe and Central and South America, the zombie experienced some diversity, with reanimated corpses representing everything from the Knights Templar to decaying mummies who took on professional wrestlers.
In the late 1960s, writer and director George A. Romero changed the world of the zombie. With Night Of The Living Dead, zombies became metaphors for societal decay. Other filmmakers ran with the 'living dead' concept, creating demon zombies (corpses possessed by devils, such as the 'deadites' in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy) and as slaves for an alien race (as seen in Phantasm).
In almost every zombie film ever made, some sort of societal decay - be it slavery, religious zealotry, atheism, self-importance, or consumerism - spawns creatures that appear human but are in reality mindless slaves that are bent on bringing down those who still cling to some semblance of what can best be termed as humanity. With this thesis in mind, here is my list of the best zombie films ever made.
White Zombie (1932)
In 1932, American cinema officially delved into the world of the zombie. Three years previously (in 1929), William B. Seabrook first wrote about zombies for American audiences, penning the book Magic Island, which in part addressed Haitian voodoo and the spells used to create zombie slaves.
Taking cues from the silent German expressionist film The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (aka: Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, 1919), traditional voodoo rituals and myths, and the gothic mood of Universal's Dracula (1931), White Zombie showcased Bela Lugosi's hypnotic charisma at its peak (this was his second horror film). Playing Murder Legendre, Lugosi, using searing eyes to great effect, exploits mesmerism to convert locals into zombies so that they can work round-the-clock in the local mills.
The 'white zombie' of the title is Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy), whom Legendre covets - and the only way he can have her is to make her one of the undead. Standing in his way are Madeleine's fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron) and Haitian plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), although Beaumont secretly wishes to have Madeleine for himself as well. Consequently, Beaumont works with Legendre to put a spell on Madeleine that will turn her into one of the living dead. In the end, however, it is a semi-zombified Beaumont who destroys Legendre by throwing him off a castle wall and down a cliff. This breaks the spell, and Madeleine returns to life and falls into the arms of Parker.
With a budget of approximately $50,0000 and a two-week shooting schedule, White Zombie set the stage for all zombie films that followed. Even though later films created the living dead without the need of a hypnotist or voodoo priest, the zombie cycle went full circle with films such as Phantasm (1979), The Believers (1987), and The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988) returning the zombie to its more traditional role. The Haitian zombie even received attention on television, with The Night Stalker episode The Zombie going as far as demonstrating one way to destroy a zombie (place salt in its mouth and sew the lips shut).
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Dawn Of The Dead (1979)
Day Of The Dead (1985)
In 1968, George Romero unleashed the black-and-white, precedent-setting Night Of The Living Dead (aka: Night Of Anubis; Night Of The Flesh Eaters). Although the zombies in this film were called misshapen monsters, ghouls, and flesh-eating creatures, they were technically zombies. Instead of a bokor using magic powders to reanimate a corpse, the dead in Night Of The Living Dead came to life as a result of radiation brought home from the planet Venus. This radiation spawned some sort of protista (virus or bacteria, none is ever specified) that in turn re-animated the dead. The virus has the host feed on the living, thus spreading to others and multiplying geometrically (hints of The Thing here, the source of which is the short story Who Goes There?). The slavery theme is maintained, but instead of a power-hungry priest or plantation owner, the 'master' role has been replaced with a simple organism. The protista activated the brain, which in turn moved the body. Therefore, to stop a zombie, it was necessary to destroy the brain.
Romero used Night Of The Living Dead to focus on human decay, both literally (the undead walking the Earth) and figuratively. The humans trying to survive have the skills to do so, but their mistrust of each other and its after-effects - particularly the constant bickering over how the house should be defended - lead to their deaths. Unlike Zulu, where discipline and courage save the day despite overwhelming odds, Night Of The Living Dead shows what happens when societal decay takes over.
Romero is no pessimist, although his outlook on this film migrates toward the grim. His technique for this film is to give the audience hope only to quickly wrench it away. For example, he has the characters work together at one point, and as the characters join forces, we in the audience join forces with them. Unfortunately, things do not work out and fear once again takes centre stage, with Mr Cooper (Karl Hardman) refusing to let Ben (Duane Jones) back into the house after poor Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) have become barbecue for the living dead. In another example, when Ben emerges alive after a night being tormented by the zombies, he is quickly mistaken for a zombie and murdered.
Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night Of The Living Dead has been labelled a gore or splatter film. But there is little blood or gore in the film. Romero's restraint in fact produces even more revulsion. For example, Romero carefully creates tension by having the zombies attack the house. He then releases us from that tension by switching between the assault and the basement, a key point of contention in the film. Romero then unleashes the tension from within when the Coopers' daughter Karen dispatches her mom (Kyra Schon) with a gardening trowel. If this sequence does not get your heart pumping, then you're already dead.
Romero wrote the original script with John A. Russo, who also played a zombie and the military commander with the funky moustache. Romero and Russo had a falling out after Night Of The Living Dead. Russo went on to write several horror films (including The Return Of The Living Dead, which cites the former film as a true story), culminating in a reworking of Night Of The Living Dead, which was titled Night Of The Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition (1998). All living dead fans are encouraged to avoid this version of the film.
Close to ten years later, Romero returned to the world of the living dead when he released Dawn Of The Dead (1979). Collaborating loosely with Italian director Dario Argento (who also cut his own version of Dawn Of The Dead for the European market), Romero turned up the blood and gore, but he also became more outspoken regarding the themes of societal decay, relationships, and, naturally, death.
Through the years there have been many versions of this film, some of them edited, it seems, in butcher shops; in some cases, the soundtrack consists of canned music (just like the film's predecessor), whereas in others some of the surviving Goblin (the ambient/heavy metal group that Argento has used to score several of his films, most notably Suspiria) compositions are intermixed with canned music. There is speculation that in 2003 a definitive version of Dawn Of The Dead will be released, but at this point the project remains rumour.
Although Dawn Of The Dead features countless zombies and Romero increases the blood and gore dramatically, the film is really about life. As we follow the protagonists, we learn about the many facets of life: first, there is Roger DeMarco (Scott H. Reiniger), whose cautious approach to situations is countered by the character of Whooley, who during the film's opening goes 'ape shit' while the police raid apartments reputed to be filled with the living dead. Later in the film, Roger's zest for life gets the better of him, and like Whooley, he pays the ultimate price. Second, there is Peter Washington (Ken Foree), whose streetwise approach to life and death makes him a true survivalist. At the film's climax, Peter is weary of all the death that surrounds him, but he cannot take his own life. Third, there is Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross), who, like the last item in Pandora's Box, is the hope for mankind's future. Fran will fight insurmountable odds to keep her baby alive; it is this determination that makes it difficult for her to remain confined in the mall ("What have we done to ourselves?"). And fourth, there is Stephen Andrews (David Emge), who is at heart a survivor but lacks the skills or mindset to do so.
Early in the film, 'Flyboy' is focused on survival, telling his girlfriend and fellow reporter Fran (they both work for WGON, get it?) that "We've got to survive! Somebody's got to survive!" Later in the film, Stephen succumbs to greed, and because of this, he pays the price, although his survival instinct kicks in and he puts up one hell of a fight. Adding to this mix are radio and television reports that comment upon societal mores that seem ridiculous, given the film's logic. For example, at one point an announcer is happy to hear that people still have a sense of humour when hell literally has been unleashed upon the Earth. In another sequence, a scientist pleads for logic when chaos has everyone by the throat.
Romero also sets the record straight with respect to the zombies. In Dawn Of The Dead, the living dead are called zombies (Peter calls them that). In addition, Romero pays homage to voodoo, when Peter recalls that his grandfather was a voodoo priest in Trinidad. It was this man who gave birth to the film's tagline: "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."
Ironically, it is a one-legged Catholic priest who presents the best solution to the zombie infestation: "When the dead walk the earth, senores, we must stop the killing or lose the war." For the remainder of the film to its jolting climax, there is killing, and only when Peter and Fran elect to flee (and thus attempt to stop the 'war' Peter had declared earlier) is there a resolution. The war would continue, however, when Romero produced the third film in the series, Day Of The Dead.
Having established an outstanding track record with two living dead films, Romero easily made a deal with big-budget studio Laurel Entertainment to produce the highly anticipated third instalment. For a budget of $7 million, Romero would deliver the most elaborate living dead film ever. Unfortunately, the studio also mandated an 'R' rating in an attempt to expand the audience base. When Romero refused, the studio cut the budget to less than $3.5 million, thereby forcing Romero to alter his original screenplay.
The original script had Sarah (Lori Cardille, whose father Bill 'Chilly Billy' Cardille appeared as a reporter in Night Of The Living Dead) fighting her way through the Florida Keys. The only survivor after several encounters with the living dead and raiders, Sarah makes it onto an island ruled by the once-governor of Florida who has gone mad. The governor has military men and scientists working on a way to train the zombies so that he can use them to take over the world. Anyone who opposes the governor's will is used as zombie meat. Sarah infiltrates the concentration camp and she attempts to lead a revolt so that they all can escape the island. However, within the camp there is another faction, this one led by the insane Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) that wishes to exact revenge upon the governor and his goons.
Although Day Of The Dead retains some of the original screenplay's elements, Romero designed it to take place earlier, when Logan is a leading pioneer in zombie domestication and only the beginnings of anarchy are brewing. The idea that a virus or bacteria is reanimating the dead is explored further, with Logan postulating that the 'disease' degenerates most of the human brain yet activates the 'R cortex', which is the most primitive part of the brain. Logan believes that if he can stop the degeneration and subsequently domesticate the zombies that he can stop their primitive instincts, such as wanting to eat despite the loss of a digestive system.
To the military men in the claustrophobic underground complex, Logan's work is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, and with the recent death of the facility's commanding officer, Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato, who had a short role as a police officer in Dawn Of The Dead) has assumed command with a more tyrannical hold upon the civilians. Unfortunately, Logan has gone insane and is feeding leftover dead soldiers to his favourite zombie, Bub (Sherman Howard) - who he named after his father. Rhodes loses it and begins a killing spree. In the meantime, Sarah's stressed out one-time boyfriend, Miguel (Antone DiLeo), after having been bit by a zombie and loosing an arm as a result, brings the zombies into the underground complex. Sarah, helicopter pilot John (Terence Alexander), and electronics specialist McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) manage to escape to safety, but Pilato and his men are overrun and taken out by the zombies.
Once again, Romero's theme centres on life. For example, Rhodes and Steel (Gary Howard Klar) take life so easily that they are nothing more than zombies themselves (perhaps that is why Steel hates the 'bags of puss' so much: he is a prime example of one). Then there's John, who wants to make some babies and teach them never to look back on the past. Sarah is more pragmatic: she wants to start over, but at the same time she would like to eradicate the zombie menace.
Day Of The Dead is a strong entry in the living dead trilogy, but it would have been an incredible film had Romero been allowed to film his original screenplay. Fans are hoping that Romero will, one day, film 'Twilight Of The Dead', the next instalment in the living dead series.
The Return Of The Blind Dead (El Ataque de los Muertos sin Ojos, trans: 'Attack of the Eyeless Dead', 1972)
Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio, these films bring a unique perspective to zombie and vampire legends, and as a result warrant inclusion in this list, although they are the weakest entries as far as script and direction goes. Unfortunately, the dubbing and subtitles on these films is so bad that the English versions are much weaker than the original source material.
Of the four, my favourite is the debut movie, Tombs Of The Blind Dead. Subtitled in English, with the Spanish dialogue thankfully retained, it is a bizarre but creepy debut for the Knights Templar, who in the film bring back the secret of immortality from Egypt. The knights adopt the Egyptian Aunkh as their symbol. The Aunkh stands for the male and female genitalia, fused for an eternity, forever creating life. Unfortunately, the ritual requires the blood of women, and as a result the knights become hated and feared. Subsequently, local peasants destroy them, but because they are immortal, they linger in their stronghold, waiting for the blood of a woman to reconstitute them.
The blood donor happens to be Virginia, who literally jumps off a train because she is jealous of a relationship that is developing between her good friend and possible love interest Roger, and her former roommate and lover, Betty (ok, Betty is much older than Virginia, but maybe Betty started college 15 years late). While wandering the ruins, Virginia attracts the attention of the knights, who crawl of out their graves and chase Virginia to a clearing (on horseback, no less), where they feast on her flesh. The remainder of the film has Roger, Betty, a dude named Pedro (a local smuggler out to clear his name because the police believe he killed Virginia), and Pedro's shrew girlfriend returning to the ruins, where the knights devour all but Betty.
This film has so many bizarre elements that it soon becomes a masterpiece of the grotesque, so much so that I was thankful that the special effects were so weak. Ossorio throws in a number of nude and sex scenes, such as a lesbian tryst, a rape, and a sequence in which the knights strap a girl to a wooden plank, attack her with swords while on horseback, and once blood is drawn, devour her like flesh-eating vampires. This last sequence is pure dementia, but the obvious plastic skin during the close-up views of the bloodsucking scenes make is less terrible than it could have been.
The most breathtaking parts of the film, however, consist of the knights themselves. As they rise from the grave, these vampiric zombies are a far cry from traditional zombies. Wearing tattered robes and tarnished armour, these creatures are little more than bone and leathery pieces of flesh, clots of facial hair, and long, skeletal hands. Although their blades are rusted, they make up for it by wielding great strength. When mounted, the blind dead move in slow motion, the horses creating a spectral clop-clop echo achieved through synthesised distortion.
Return Of The Blind Dead (the sequel to Tombs Of The Blind Dead), reflects the international influence of Romero's Night Of The Living Dead. The film opens with the peasants of Berzano raiding the Templar stronghold and capturing the knights. Before burning them at the stake, the villagers burn out their eyes so that if the magicians ever rise they will not be able to find their back to Berzano. Unfortunately, the peasants forget about the knights' equally adept auricular abilities.
Five hundred years later, Berzano's current residents are holding an anniversary party, complete with burning Templar puppets and fireworks. Helping put on the pyrotechnics is Jack Marlowe (Tony Kendall of When The Screaming Stops). Melodrama ensues when Jack falls for Vivian, who is the object of affection for the local mayor and one of his main cronies by the name of Howard.
While the locals celebrate what they call 'Lakima', the Templar Knights emerge from their graves, mount undead horses, and make their way to town. Once there, the knights use their blades to slay everything within earshot. Fortunately, a number of people hold up in an old church, but internal bickering and stupidity soon have the knights establishing a solid body count.
As with all of Ossorio's output, there are returning actors (Lone Fleming who played Betty in the first film tackles the role of Amelia in this one), poor special effects (when a blind dead knight goes up, you can see the wooden frame), a syrup-like pace (the knights move so slowly that victims stand still for several uncomfortable minutes before the knights get close enough to attack), and an anticlimactic ending (dawn comes and the knights freeze). Despite all these flaws, the film remains entertaining, and as always the blind knights are incredible to watch.
The third and fourth instalments in Ossorio's tetralogy - Horror Of The Zombies (aka: El Buque Maldito, trans: 'The Damned Ship', 1974) and The Night Of The Seagulls (aka: La Noche de las Gaviotas, 1975) - have the Knights Templar taking to the sea. I have not seen these films, so I will not comment on them.
Ossorio's Blind Dead series is either lauded or heavily criticised. I fall right in the middle, acknowledging that the films are not great cinema but that there is a certain style to the proceedings that makes them enjoyable. If you speak Castillian (or even Spanish), you will find that the original dialogue is much better than either the dubbing or subtitles. And finally, you will be mesmerised by the Knights Templar, perhaps the most original and perhaps creepiest zombies ever created.
Although at first glance Phantasm may not be considered a zombie flick, closer inspection warrants its inclusion in this list principally because writer and director Don Coscarelli brings back the zombie to its traditional role: slavery.
In Phantasm, an alien, having assumed human form (the Tall Man, played by the scenery-chewing Angus Scrimm), sets up shop as an undertaker at a funeral home known as Morningside. Rather than bury the dead, the Tall Man crushes down their bodies (because of the other dimension's extreme gravity), reanimates them, and sends them through a dimensional portal, where they are to serve as slaves.
Standing in the Tall Man's way are two brothers, Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), and ice cream vendor and acoustic guitarist Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Rather than make stupid moves, cower, and die gruesome deaths, the three heroes kick ass, take care of business with the help of a shotgun and a Colt Army Issue, and escape killer dwarves with the help of a black Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda. Although both brothers appear to be dead at the end, everyone has put up one hell of a fight.
Coscarelli's imagination knows no bounds in this, his best picture to date. Blending science fiction and horror, Coscarelli creates a surreal and eclectic array of images. He also manages to establish a slipstream pace; as the audience, we never know exactly where anyone stands, with characters killed one minute only to be encountered alive several scenes later.
Science fiction readers will notice that Coscarelli borrows many elements from the genre. For example, there is a sequence where Mike puts his hand in a box to test his resistance of fear - Herbert's Dune has young Paul undergo a similar test. Another example is the dismembered finger that turns into a giant winged insect; this idea seems to have been inspired by Campbell's story, Who Goes There?, but Coscarelli also creates some exciting new visuals, such as the silver spheres that drill holes into human heads and, of course, the Tall Man himself, who with only minimal dialogue imbues menace in every single scene. And when he does speak: "The funeral is about to begin, sir!" And of course, "Boy!"
Coscarelli's output since Phantasm has been sketchy at best, with none of the sequels ever coming close to the original, much less building upon its ideas (and his take on Andre Norton's Beastmaster was not good). With the film's release on DVD (with a pile of extras), zombie buffs can revisit the original and rediscover why it ranks as one of the best zombie flicks ever made.
As zombie fans already know, Dario Argento edited his own version of Dawn Of The Dead, and this in turn may have inspired director Lucio Fulci to create his own zombie film. Titled Zombie 2 in Italy (implying that the film was a sequel to Argento's version), Zombie owes more to White Zombie and traditional voodoo myth.
Zombie concerns Ann (Tisa Farrow), whose deceased father had been working on an isolated island and whose yacht has found its way to the New York harbour. On the boat is a very hungry zombie; while the creature spreads its plague in America, Ann and reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) head for the island, where they (along with two tourists, played by Al Cliver and Auretta Gay) discover the tiny landmass to be infested by zombies.
Zombie borrows much from Romero's Living Dead trilogy, such as barricading its characters in a shack (Night Of The Living Dead) and zombies moving through a big city (Dawn Of The Dead). However, Fulci adds his own personal touches, such as nudity and violently gory scenes with a special Italian touch (including a hideous eye gouging, throat ripping, stylised cannibalism, and a zombie squaring off against a shark).
There are two reasons given for the spawn of these living dead. The first is that a powerful voodoo priest is bringing back all the dead, even those individuals who have been dead a long time (such as Conquistadors). And the second, given by Dr Mernard (who acts almost like Dr Moreau), is that a virus is reanimating the dead, and thus a bite or scratch is enough to infect others.
If you like Romero's Living Dead trilogy, you will enjoy Fulci's rendition.
Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)
Before saturating television with the likes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, M.A.N.T.I.S, and Cleopatra 2525, director Sam Raimi created an 'entrepreneurial film' titled Within The Woods. Once Raimi, producer Robert G. Tapert, and star Bruce Campbell had secured finances from investors, the 30-minute short was expanded to a full-length feature during the fall of 1979.
Most likely inspired by the little-known film titled Equinox, Evil Dead showcased Raimi's considerable skills with camera acrobatics, his ability to create tension through mood and a minimum of effects, and his knack for over-the-top gore. Evil Dead is a straight-ahead horror film. Although some of the actors lack experience - and it shows - there is very little camp in the film. Despite the minimal budget ($300,000 or so), Raimi managed to create one of the most innovative and truly frightening horror films ever. Evil Dead was originally titled 'Book of the Dead'. However, distributor and producer Irvin Shapiro thought the title would turn off horror fans because it contained a literary reference, so the title was changed.
Here's an interesting bit of trivia: for those fans out there who are not familiar with 'fake shemps', they are stand-ins who have appeared in any of the Evil Dead films. On Evil Dead, Raimi ran out of money for his actors, so later in the film he used stand-ins, which he called fake shemps in the credits. The term was inspired by Shemp Howard, one of the original Three Stooges who left the trio in the early 1930s (and was replaced by Curly) only to return when Curly suffered a stroke in 1946 (Raimi is an avid Stooges buff).
Close to seven years later, Raimi and company had secured a bigger budget, and thus the 'knuckleheads' spawned Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn. More of a remake than a sequel, the film became more of a dark comedy than a horror film. The gore remains intact (with oceans of blood), as do the decapitations, demon possessions, and of course, the Book of the Dead (called here Neconomicon Exmortis).
Bruce Campbell outdoes himself as Ash, a bumbling hero who has zero tolerance for 'deadites', the undead demons that possess humans because they crave life. Campbell's knack for slapstick comedy, his considerable acting skills (the sequence in which his image in a mirror comes to life and when his hand becomes possessed are both marvels to behold), and his physical dexterity make Ash someone anybody can cheer for. The supporting cast is also effective, particularly Annie (Sarah Barry) and Bobbie Jo (Kassie Welsey, who is now a regular on the American soap opera One Life To Live).
Then there's Raimi, whose intensely stylised camerawork, over-the-top special effects, and relentless pacing create a sense of dread one moment and throat squeezing shocks the next. The Steadicam work alone, particularly from the forest spirit's POV, is inspired filmmaking.
The sound effects found on Evil Dead 2 are in totality an essential ingredient in the film's ability to work both as a horror movie and as a parody of horror movies. Foley effects abound, some of them straight out of cartoon-land, such as when Ash puts the shotgun in its 'holster' (smish!), the 'fussing' evoked by Ash's possessed hand, and the dissonance of mirth as objects inhabited by the undead chuckle, snicker, and laugh at Ash's predicament.
Other sounds are designed to evoke horror, such as Linda's (Ash's girlfriend, as played by Denise Bixler) voice when she becomes host to a demon ("Even now, we have your darling Linda's soul!"), the cacophony of sounds as the demons screech out "dead by dawn," and the sound of the forest spirit as it makes its way about the woods or through the cabin.
The third Evil Dead film, Army Of Darkness, is not included here because this film has more to do with Ray Harryhausen's classic Jason And The Argonauts and other fantasy films than it does with horror.
Written by terror icon H.P. Lovecraft from 1921 to mid-1922, the six-part series Herbert West: Reanimator was published in the magazine Home Brew (volume one, numbers one to six). Years before creating what some have labelled the 'Cthulhu Mythos', Lovecraft penned straightforward horror tales, and Herbert West: Reanimator, was his take on Frankenstein.
Although Lovecraft dismissed the tale as an exercise in excessiveness, the short story still has the distinction of being one of the author's unique narratives. Very few of Lovecraft's other stories come close to the carnage, virulence, and outright misanthropy of Herbert West's pursuit of bestowing life upon a corpse. Although ghastly, Herbert West: Reanimator also possesses an undercurrent of the absurd - it is as if Lovecraft wrote the piece with tongue firmly in cheek.
In 1985, director Stuart Gordon breathed cinematic life into Lovecraft's tale. In the processes, the man rekindled an interest in the author's work, which in turn spawned a number of new films, such as From Beyond, The Unnameable, The Resurrected, and In The Mouth Of Madness.
Like Lovecraft's story, the film Re-Animator is a combination of over-the-top wit, gore, and sarcasm. Produced by Brian Yuzna and directed by Stuart Gordon, Re-Animator tells the story of Herbert West, who comes to Miskatonic University in Massachusetts from Germany to continue his work on creating a slime-green-coloured 'reagent' that will bring the dead back to life. Unfortunately, the reagent is never truly synthesised, and as a result most of the reanimated dead are but drooling, insane zombies.
Complementing the buckets of blood and dead flesh is plenty of sick gallows humour, with throwaway lines galore. Here are but two samples:
"What if we get caught?" asks medical student Dan Cain (played by Bruce Abbott) as he and Herbert West break into a hospital morgue so that they can find a suitable corpse to reanimate. To which West (played by Jeffrey Combs) replies:
"What'll they do? Embalm us?" When West revives Dr Carl Hill's head (played by David Gale), Hill is contemptuous of West and threatens to reveal his secrets. West's response is hysterical: "Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow." But few words can replace imagery, and Re-Animator oozes with it. For example, how can one forget Dr Hill's decapitated body picking up his head and easing it between Barbara Crampton's luscious thighs, giving new meaning to - well, you know...
The Return Of The Living Dead (1985)
Originally to be directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and produced by George Romero, The Return Of The Living Dead subsequently fell into the capable hands of Dan O'Bannon (writer on Alien, Lifeforce, and Total Recall), who not only directed but also wrote the screenplay. It was O'Bannon who came up with the comedy-horror mixture. The original story had been a serious sequel to Romero's Night Of The Living Dead; scripted by Rudolph J. Ricci, John Russo, and Russ Streiner, who were all associated with Romero's first zombie picture. O'Bannon did not wish to tread on Romero's path, so he came up with a screenplay that both paid homage to the director's pioneering effort and built upon it in a direction that also has attained cult status and spawned a number of sequels.
When Return Of The Living Dead opens, we find Freddy (Thom Matthews) learning the ropes to his new job with the help of his Uncle Frank (James Karen). When Freddy asks his uncle, "What's the weirdest thing you ever saw?" Frank tells him that the film Night Of The Living Dead was inspired by true events. It seems the military developed a suite of chemicals known as trioxin 245 to spray on marijuana, but the concoction reanimated the dead instead. A military paperwork blunder had the still-reanimated corpses sent UNEEDA Medical Supply, where the owner, Burt Wilson (Clue Galager), has been secretly storing them. When Frank shows off these canisters to his nephew, he accidentally causes one of them to rupture, releasing the reanimation gas into the atmosphere.
As the two men begin to die (at one point even showing signs of rigor mortis, a classic example of how to create comedic horror) and come to realise that everything that was once dead, such as corpses, dissection dogs, and even insect collections is now very much alive, Frank calls his boss, Burt Wilson, whose solution is to try to kill the living dead by a blow to the head (after all, it worked in that movie). In the meantime, the reanimation vapours have spread to a nearby cemetery, where new waver Tina (Beverly Hartley) and her punk friends are waiting for Freddy to get off work. The cemetery comes alive and the punk rockers must fight their way to a nearby funeral home. The remainder of the film feels like Assault On Precinct 13, with punks versus some very clever, very animated zombies.
There is much to like in Return Of The Living Dead. The makeup effects, designed by William Stout, are inspired by E.C. Comic illustrators such as Jack Davis and Graham 'Ghastly' Ingells, and the end result is magnificent, with the zombies looking surreal and menacing, particularly the 'Tar Zombie', whose favourite utterance is, "Brains!" O'Bannon's ability to generate humour and horror is extremely effective, and unlike films such as Scream, the tribute paid to other films is not self-congratulatory or annoying. There are some classic lines in this film. For example, when several police officers are devoured, one of the zombies reaches into a police car and calls the dispatcher. His request: "Send more cops." On a creepier note, when mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa) captures a zombie female, he asks why the creatures eat brains. The creature tells him that death is painful, and that devouring living brains gives them temporary solace from the agony.
Although the cast is solid throughout (look for the always hot and nasty Jewel Shepard as Casey), it is Linnea Quigley who throws herself into the role of Trash, a punk with a death obsession. Quigley spends most of the movie naked, her pixie-like frame gyrating on sepulchres or jumping onto the living to bite through their heads and eat brain. Her energy is contagious, and although she has a minor role, it pumps up the movie's pulse several notches whenever she is on the screen. The Return Of The Living Dead is finally out on DVD, so now fans can relive the zombie experience and new viewers can see for themselves what all the fuss is about.
The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)
Wes Craven is one of the genre's most interesting filmmakers: at times he has created some underground gems, such as The Last House On The Left (1972), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), but he is also responsible for trendy fare, such as the Elm Street movies, Vampire In Brooklyn (1995), and Scream (1996). The Serpent And The Rainbow falls in the former category; it is at times an engrossing film, one that carefully unravels its tale with plenty of style and more than enough shocks and chills.
Loosely based on the novel by Wade Davis, The Serpent And The Rainbow concerns Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) whose interests lie in substances that can alter human consciousness. After a South American shaman helps Alan find his inner beast (a jaguar), he travels - on the behest of a pharmaceutical company - to Haiti, where he makes contact with the locals in an attempt to secure a yellowish powder that can place people into a state of simulated death. Alan begins his investigation by visiting a hospital, where he meets a doctor (Cathy Tyson) who also happens to practice voodoo (she becomes possessed by one of the religion's many gods).
Unfortunately, Alan soon finds himself at odds with powerful but evil medicine man Dargent Peytraud (played by Zakes Mokae, who creates a truly disturbing character), who also happens to be a lieutenant in 'Baby Doc' Duvalier's secret police. Using traditional torture implements and voodoo spells, Peytraud attempts to dissuade Alan, and although he appears to triumph, Alan elects to make a final stand, in which he calls upon his inner beast to battle the powerful gris-gris of the baneful houngan.
The zombies in The Serpent And The Rainbow are perhaps the most traditionally rendered undead ever seen on the cinematic screen. Having come extremely close to death and possibly brain damaged (not to mention psychologically scarred), these zombies are truly frightening, a combination of walking spectres and human slaves. Thrown into the mix are Haitian gods, the spirits of dead priests and priestesses, and powerful spells, such as when Peytraud places a scorpion inside a good houngan (Paul Winfield) - the poor devil is stung to death from within.
Cemetery Man (1994)
Directed by Michele Soavi (Stage Fright, The Church, and The Devil's Daughter), Cemetery Man (aka: Dellamorte Dellamore, which I believe means "of death and love") stars Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte, a wannabe writer turned cemetery caretaker. This poor sap dwells in the world of the ridiculous and the bizarre, for it his responsibility to keep the dead in their graves.
Based on the Italian horror comic strip Dylan Dog (created by Tiziano Sclavi), Cemetery Man is not a traditional zombie film. For example, its characters are like nothing found previously or since. Misanthropic in the extreme, Dellamorte may or may not be insane, as he systematically splits recently reanimated skulls while philosophising about romance and, of course, death.
Helping Dellamorte subdue the reanimated dead is Ghnagi (played by European rocker Francois Hadji-Lazaro), a halfwit whose favourite phase is 'nah.' Then there's Anna Falchi, an Italian model who can actually act (and whose naked body is easy on the eyes, too). Her role is to show how love and death are close cousins, each feeding off the other in a bizarre sort of symbiosis, both yielding rapture and pain. Although she is attracted to flesh, it is not so much sex but hunger driving her seduction of Dellamorte. The film retains zombie elements (they are called 'returners' in the film), although these are pushed into the background. For example, the dead rise and to destroy them the cemetery man and his assistant must split their heads.
Then there's the dialogue. Here is but one example:
Valentina: "He threw up on me, Claudio!"
Claudio: "Oh, new fad. Like to go for a ride?"
Valentina: "I knew you'd understand."
And later, Valentina: "Oh yeah, now I remember. You threw up on me, how sweet."
Cemetery Man must be experienced. How else can readers hope to understand that the whole story really takes place inside a 'snow globe'?