Zombie movies have been around since the 30’s, but have only really reached huge popularity in the last ten years. Zombies have evolved over time, although most follow the same general principles – Dead brought to life, slow moving,feeding on human flesh, and can only be stopped by a good blow to the head.
1930’s – 30-odd years BR (Before Romero)
The first films based on zombie myth were released around this time. In the beginning, Zombies weren’t created by a virus, they were raised from the dead by magic. Most of the films in the thirties involved Zombie re-animate by way of Voodoo magic. Quite often, the witch doctor that brought them back from the dead could also control them.
One of the very first Zombie movies was Victor Halperin’s White Zombie. Set in Haiti, Bela Lugosi stars as mill owner Murder Legendre. He uses magic to resurrect the dead into Zombies to work as slaves at his mill, and act as bodyguards. A couple are to be married at a plantation, owned by a friend of the groom. But the plantation owner is secretly in love with the bride. He asks Murder to turn kill her, so that when the groom leaves the island, she can be resurrected as a zombie and he can try and win her love. None of today’s common Zombie lore is used, other than the Zombies being dead humans returned to life as mindless beings. Halperin‘s 1936 follow up, Revolt of the Zombies, is set during World War I. In Cambodia, a colonel steals the formula for re-animating corpses from an imprisoned priest. After the war, a team of Allied soldiers are sent to find the formula and destroy it. Again, one of these men tries to use the power to turn people into Zombies in an attempt to win woman he loves. Another movie with a war connection was 1941’s King of the Zombies, this time set during World War II. Three men crash-land on a Caribbean island. Taking refuge at the house of a doctor, they discover he is using powers of resurrection to try to gain military intelligence from an opposition officer. This was the first film where the person resurrecting the dead was a scientist, although he is still using voodoo magic.
Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, in 1943, was loosely based on the novel Jane Eyre. Again set on a Caribbean island, a nurse comes to a plantation to look after a woman in a catatonic sate, who it turns out is in fact a zombie. The nurse this time tries to have the woman cured through voodoo. It turns out the plantation owner’s mother had turned the woman into a zombie, when she found out she was planning to leave her husband. Once more, the act of creating the zombie is tied to relationship problems. The theme of voodoo being used to reanimate the dead continued, most notable in 1944’s Voodoo Man, again featuring Bela Lugosi, about a man and his zombie wife. 1945 saw possibly the first Zombie comedy, Zombies on Broadway. Two men are sent to the obligatory mysterious island to find a Zombie as promotion for a nightclub, The Zombie Hut. Chaos ensues, but unfortunately, the first Zombie comedy just wasn’t very funny.
Around this time, in line with the political climate, the idea of doctors doing the re-animating came to the fore, and some stories changed voodoo to science. This is a reflection of the beginning of the Cold War and the advent of atomic power. In 1955’s Creature with the Atom Brain, a gangster returns to America with a German scientist. The scientist uses atomic power to create zombies, for the gangster to use to gain revenge on his enemies. The zombies look like normal people, but move slower, an enduring part of their identity. The voodoo mythology, however, did continue into the fifties, in 1957’s Voodoo Woman. Directed by Edward L Cahn. It’s the story of a man, again a scientist, this time using voodoo, who tries to turn a woman into a zombie to do his bidding. The misogynistic idea of women being manipulated by this kind of power is one of the most common themes of the early Zombie movies.
In 1957, however, the Space Race began, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4th. The newfound public interest in space led to perhaps the first ‘famous’ Zombie movie in 1959, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Extra terrestrials come to earth, and turn humans into zombies as part of a plan to stop mankind creating a doomsday-type weapon that would destroy all life as we know it. The science theme is kept up, as the aliens resurrect the dead by stimulating their pituitary and pineal glands. Plan 9 has the dubious honour of being considered the worst movie ever made.
In the 1960’s, both the voodoo and scientific themes were still in use, particularly in Hammer horrors. 1961’s I Eat Your Skin, directed by Del Tenney, is about a writer visiting, once more, a mysterious island. He comes across a mad scientist experimenting on people, this time looking for a way to reverse the aging process. John Gilling’s 1966 horror Plague of the Zombies is this time set in a Cornish village, but once more features a man who has learned the secret of re-animation whilst in Haiti. He is using his new-found powers for slavery – he is re-animating corpses to work in his tin mine. These films popularised the idea of the Zombies living by consumption of human flesh.
Zombie films, as most films, tended to follow the political and topical themes of their time. Up to this point, however, they had followed different lines of convention, with different methods of raising the dead. In some instances the Zombies could be controlled, in others they wandered mindlessly trying to satiate their craving for human flesh. But in 1968, a man came along and changed this. George A Romero made the film that would set down a line of rules that, for the most part, would be followed in Zombie movies for years to come. Come back tomorrow, to take a look at the Zombie movie game-changer, The Night of the Living Dead. Then on Friday, we’ll conclude this brief history with part two.