You probably wouldn’t be wildly surprised to learn that this week sees the release of a new zombie movie. After all, the archetype of the dead rising in their thousands to devour human flesh is a consistently popular one, and it sometimes feels that barely a month goes by without the cry of “brains…” coming from your local multiplex, video store, or Netflix queue (though actually, we have had a few months of respite; depending on your definition, the last film to feature the living dead was either “Resident Evil: Retribution” or the cast of “Quartet.”).
Indeed, even the small screen isn’t safe these days, with “The Walking Dead” now the most popular drama series on TV. But to its credit, “Warm Bodies,” which opens on Friday, does something a little fresher with the genre, depicting with a healthy amount of humor the post-apocalyptic romance between a human woman (Teresa Palmer) and a zombified guy (Nicholas Hoult). Early word on the film, directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50“) is fairly promising (we’ll have our review for you in the next day or two), but in the meantime, we thought this seemed like a good time to round up some of the more interesting films that have taken a non-traditional approach to zombies.
We tried to stay away from direct parodies or homages, and from straight horror films altogether (things like David Cronenberg‘s “Rabid” or Danny Boyle‘s “28 Days Later” gave new spins to zombies, but still share a good deal of DNA with “Night of the Living Dead“) focusing instead on movies that looked at the undead through a slightly different lens, either by going back to the roots of the myth, or by taking it to new places. Not all of them are great films, but they’re all interesting to one degree or another. Check out our picks below, and let us know your own favorite non-traditional zombie flicks in the comments section below.
“I Walked With A Zombie” (1943)
The term “zombie” has, thanks to George Romero and his countless imitators, come to mean a certain kind of trope; hordes of rotting undead, massing together in search of brains, and usually tearing civilization down as they do so. But it’s a slightly bastardized term of the source of the word, and few used the “original” definition of zombie better than “Cat People” director Jacques Tourneur in his Val Lewton-produced 1943 film “I Walked With A Zombie.” Zombies come from an African tradition of voodoo, to revive the dead, which started to reach the public consciousness in the 1930s, thanks in part to the Bela Lugosi-starring “White Zombie.” In the early 1940s, RKO optioned an article from American Weekly Magazine, and gave Lewton free rein so long as he used their title. The result is an atmospheric and eerie Gothic romance, freely adapted from “Jane Eyre,” of all things, that stands as a bona fide classic of the genre. The plot follows a Canadian nurse, Betsy (Frances Dee), who goes to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian to look after Jessica (Christine Gordon), the near-catatonic wife of sugar-plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Jessica had purportedly planned to run away with Paul’s now-drunken half-brother Wesley (James Ellison), but was struck down by a mysterious fever before she could. Betsy, rapidly falling for Paul, sets out to cure her mistress, but discovers that she may be the victim of a voodoo curse, the source of which may be closer to home than she ever imagined. It’s as rich in atmosphere and quietly creeping fear as any of Tourneur and Lewton’s collaborations, thanks to J. Roy Hunt‘s beautiful chiaroscuro lensing, and the director carefully walks the line between the grounded and the supernatural, making the film all the more chilling as a result. And even if it was made before the Second World War was over, it’s also a canny early example of post-colonial filmmaking, the script hinting that the Hollands, who brought slaves to the island, have no one to blame but themselves for their plight.
“The Serpent & The Rainbow” (1988)
Long after Romero-type zombies had been popularized (even if they weren’t quite as omnipresent as they are now), Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis traveled to Haiti to get to the root of the voodoo origins of the archetype, as presented forty years earlier in “I Walked With A Zombie.” The result was his controversial best-seller “The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey Into The Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies and Magic,” which depicted the case study of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who had been a “zombie” for two years, something that Davis ascribed to a mix of the neurotoxin Tetrodotoxin and a hallucinogen, along with long-standing cultural beliefs in voodoo. Naturally, Hollywood came a-calling, and the decidedly middling result was the 1988 film “The Serpent & The Rainbow,” from horror maestro Wes Craven. Bill Pullman plays Davis surrogate Dennis Alan, who’s sent to Haiti to look into a voodoo drug that a pharmaceutical company hope to use as an anesthetic. But his investigations are stymied by the locals and the local militia, led by the fearsome and mysterious Captain Dargent Peytraud (South African stage actor Zakes Mokae). It’s a curious film, blending horror with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and though it plays fast and loose with the source material, there’s an authenticity to the voodoo and zombification aspects of the plot that sets it apart from much of the genre. The production values are pretty impressive, and the film can be genuinely frightening in places, not least in a torture sequence where Pullman’s character has a nail driven through his ballbag. Craven doesn’t quite have the restraint that the material needs, descending into cartoonish silliness the longer the film goes on, robbing it of much of its power to terrify. But it still probably remains one of the better films of the director’s career, and as authentic a take on zombies as currently exists.
“My Boyfriend’s Back” (1993)
Think that “Warm Bodies” is the first film to tackle the teen/romance/comedy/zombie sweet spot? Think again, because two decades ago, “My Boyfriend’s Back” got there first. Though one can only hope that “Warm Bodies” does so more successfully. Produced by Disney subsidiary Touchstone and “Friday The 13th” creator Sean S. Cunningham, and directed in a half-heartedly Tim Burton-aping style by Christopher Guest regular Bob Balaban (who’d had more success with the horror-comedy genre four years earlier with “Parents“), the film centers on world’s-oldest-high-schooler Johnny Dingle (Andrew Lowery, barely heard of before or since), who’s been obsessed to a near psychotic degree (something that’s presumably intended as endearing by the filmmakers) with classmate Missy (Traci Lind, of “Fright Night II” “fame”). Johnny engineers a fake robbery at her convenience store in order to be a hero and win her heart, only to be killed in an actual heist conveniently taking place at the same time. But he’s swiftly resurrected as a zombie, only to discover that he has to eat human flesh in order to stop his body from falling apart. You can sort of see what Balaban’s going for — there’s quite a funny matter-of-fact tone to some of the scenes (thanks principally to stage veteran Austin Pendleton as the local doctor, and Edward Herrmann and Mary Beth Hurt as his parents, who kidnap a child to feed to their son), and comic-book interstitials point to a fun romance/EC comics hybrid tone. But the film can never quite live up to that, thanks to an ill-conceived, mostly unfunny script, a tenor that can’t decide if it’s absurd pitch-black humor or teen romance, and some disastrous miscasting with the leads — Lowery’s mostly charisma-free, and Lind never makes the case that her character’s worth returning from the grave for. These days, it’s worth watching only for early screen roles from Matthew Fox, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Matthew McConaughey (Renee Zellwegger also was cast, but her scenes were left on the cutting room floor). Fingers crossed, “Warm Bodies” will stand the test of time somewhat better.
Another attempt at giving a Burton-esque suburban comedy spin to the zombie genre, Andrew Currie‘s “Fido” wasn’t seen by many (it proved a hit on the festival circuit, but only got a tiny release the following year), overshadowed by the higher-profile likes of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Land Of the Dead,” but stands up a few years later as a witty, original and curiously touching spin on the genre. Set in a “Pleasantville“-style alternative 1950s where radiation from space has caused the dead to be resurrected, resulting in a long and brutal war, the film centers on an ordinary suburban family (Dylan Baker, Carrie-Anne Moss and K’Sun Ray), the Robinsons. Zombies can now be tamed and used as household servants thanks to electronic collars, and despite her husband, a zombie-loathing veteran of the wars, Mrs. Robinson (Moss) buys one, Fido (Billy Connolly), in order to keep up with the neighbors. But when his collar malfunctions, Fido, who’s become a sort of surrogate father to young Timmy Robinson, eats the neighbor, starting off a trail of cover ups and further brain-chewing. Debut director Currie over-eggs the style a little, occasionally veering towards wackiness when a more deadpan approach often feels more effective (one perhaps senses that his script might have flourished in other hands). But it’s still an original and detailed bit of world building, looking impressive for a relatively low-budget film, and the cast (bar the slightly bland Ray) put in terrific work, making sure to flesh out their characters well beyond caricature; Connolly adds a lovely sense of melancholy, Moss is both touching and a little demented, Baker is a curiously relatable repressed father, Henry Czerny plays an excellent company man villain, and Tim Blake Nelson walks away with the film as a neighbor with a zombie bride. The film’s never uproariously funny, and doesn’t come anywhere close to being scary, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and even a little moving by the end.
On the evidence of “Fido” and “Pontypool,” which followed two years later, maybe we should leave the zombie genre to the Canadians, who consistently seem to be finding new spins on the well-trodden archetype. From cult Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, and based on a novel by Tony Burgess called “Pontypool Changes Everything,” the film manages to find a couple of twists on the tired set-up, even appropriating and giving new life to the conceit of a virus causing zombification, as popularized by “28 Days Later” and “Resident Evil,” among others. The film’s set almost entirely in the radio studio in which DJ Grant Mazzy (character actor Stephen McHattie, of “A History Of Violence” and “Watchmen,” among others) is broadcasting his morning show. He’s already had a strange encounter with a woman on the way to work, but as the morning proceeds, he and colleagues Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) and Sydney (Lisa Houle) discover that people are turning into vicious zombie-like creatures, and it’s spreading fast. It’s down to a virus, but a China Mieville-ish linguistic one, which is infecting particular words in the English language. It’s a fascinating conceit, one handled with an original and tense sense of terror by McDonald, even if it feels a little stagey in places (it was written simultaneously as a “War of the Worlds“-style radio play, which would be fascinating to hear). And McHattie delivers a mighty and characterful performance that suggests he deserves to be front-and-center more often. There are moments of contrivance, and it dips into genre convention in places, but for the most part, it’s an atypically smart and intense take on the zombie genre that deserves a bigger audience.
Your favorite alternative zombie picks? Sound off below.