Obviously, we are all aware that with Night of the Living Dead and it's follow ups, George Romero created zombies as we know them. Sure, they've been around much longer than Romero himself, but we hadn't yet quite settled on a prototype for what it is that makes them so scary. Romero, unknowingly, took what little we knew about zombies, and gave them a personality and a pack mentality that is more prevalent now than ever.
Today, I want to highlight ten great (or, at least worthy of your time) zombie flicks that Romero did NOT have a hand in (except for some obvious influence in several cases). Of course, being such a broad topic, and with a new zombie movie being made and released every 23.7 minutes, there are tons that I was unable to include, but these are just a few that I feel deserved a little more recognition or that I love enough that I feel that I had to bring them up. Leave your comments below if you disagree with any of these entries, or you want to recommend a few of your own.
1. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
A couple of young hippies thrown together by circumstance are relentlessly pursued by a cop who is convinced that they are responsible for a series of gruesome murders. What the cop doesn't realize and the youngsters cannot convince him of is that radiation designed to rid a small English countryside of insects has caused the dead to rise from their graves with their appetite for human flesh fully intact.
Of all the films on this list, this Spanish-Italian co-production (also known as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Don't Open The Window and Muriel's Wedding) probably follows the Romero blueprint the closest. It also happens to be one of the most rewarding zombie experiences you're likely to have this season. There are a lot of slow patches throughout, which allows for quite a bit of character development (it's refreshing that our two leads don't really have time to become romantic). But, once the action kicks in, it is some of the best in zombie cinema history. The tension and suspense can be relentless (trapped in a room in the cemetery), unbelievably gory (the hospital receptionist), and Arthur Kennedy as the cop who hates hippies has a lot of fun playing the film's real bad guy. Word of warning - the latest DVD/Blu-ray release by Blue Underground is excellent, but the cover gives away a HUGE spoiler for the movie (the ending, in fact). I don't know how you'd avoid looking at the front cover (last time you tried to put a DVD in your player with your eyes closed, you ended up with that kid you didn't plan for), but it's worth a try...
2. Sole Survivor (1983)
A little-seen, but genuinely creepy film from the director of Night of the Comet (another contender for this list), Sole Survivor is the story of a woman who is the only survivor of a plane crash (hence the title). As it turns out, she was supposed to die on that plane like everyone else and a greedy Death is sending his zombie minions to collect her.
This is certainly not a body count type of movie, but the atmosphere created is one that can be quite unsettling at times. Death's undead bitches lurk in the shadows for the majority of the time and we see no more of them than our lead actress does. But, what we do see is quite effective. Plus, the performance by Caren Larkey as a psychic actress is a hoot and adds a bit of levity. There's no doubt that this movie is a precursor to the Final Destination romps (but, without the over-the-top death scenes) and I highly recommend it. (but, be careful not to confuse it with 2001's Soul Survivors - I cannot be held responsible if you accidentally see more than five minutes of that film. As of yet, there are NO known survivors of that).
3. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Frank and Freddy, two bumbling employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a military grade chemical into the air, where it rains down on the cemetery next door. Soon, the dead are rising from their graves and our now infected duo, along with Freddy's punk rock friends, the company's owner, and the local embalmer must band together if they hope to have any chance of surviving the night.
I debated whether or not to include this one - not because it's not great (in fact, it may be my favorite zombie film of all time), but because a.) no zombie fan is going to discover this movie through my ramblings - you already know it and b.) it does have some loose ties to the Romero-verse. In the end, my love for the film wins out (as love usually does) and I, of course, had to include it. This has everything you want in a zombie film - blood, guts, comedy, great music, Linnea Quigley without modesty, genuine scares, and half-dogs. Plus, this is the movie that popularized the crying of "BRAINS!!!" (along with the consumption of the brain itself) that is now so closely associated with the zombie genre. And, did I mention - TAR MAN!
4. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)
Three couples and one child venture off to a mansion for a weekend of partying, sex, and relaxation. What they don't realize until it is too late, is that the scientist who invited them also happened to accidentally unleash an evil curse that has all manner of zombies rising from the ground, ready to devour the houseguests and some of those little sausage things wrapped in biscuit if you don't mind whipping up a batch. It's the polite thing to do...
Those of you who have seen this Italian zombie flick know that the zombies themselves are NOT the main talking point of this movie. That would belong strictly to Peter Bark, an adult dwarf actor who plays the incredibly bizarre preteen son who just so happens to be sexually attracted to his own mother (who only puts up the smallest of resistance). Sure, the zombie effects are pretty good, the baddies themselves display a bit more intelligence than the usual fare, the gore is plentiful, and there are some surprisingly effective scares, but I promise that you'll only be talking about one thing after watching this - Peter Bark.
5. Sugar Hill (1974)
After a group of white gangsters (the scariest of ALL gangsters) kills her boyfriend, voodoo queen Sugar Hill calls upon Baron Samedi, the Voodoo Lord of the Dead. Together, they will raise the dead to do their bidding and exact revenge. Things might get a bit funky along the way...
This one is notable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's a zombie flick by way of the blaxploitation genre. That makes it doubly fun. Secondly, rather than the typical flesh and brain chomping zombies, Sugar Hill is one of the few post-Romero flicks to actually go back to the voodoo-style zombie, forced to do their master's bidding. The makeup effects were limited, but effective and Marki Bey and Don Colley make a formidable team as Sugar and the Baron respectively, and stay on just the right side of hamming it up. This is not to be confused with the Wesley Snipes film of the same name from the mid 90s.
6. City of the Living Dead (1980)
After a priest hangs himself in a church cemetery (typical Sunday), which results in the Gates of Hell being swung wide open for the undead to do what it is that a zombie must do - attack the living. It's up to a reporter, a psychic (always handy), a psychiatrist, and a psychiatrist's patient I'll let you decide whose skills are the least necessary in this quartet) to close those gates before the entire world is taken over.
It would be very difficult to make a list of zombie films and NOT include one by Lucio Fulci (I already had the audacity to exclude Romero). The problem came in choosing WHICH one to include. Sure, Zombi is his most well-known and accessible (plus a zombie fights a shark!) and The Beyond is arguably his best (but, is the hardest to argue that it qualifies as a zombie movie), so we land on City. As gory as most of his movies (turn your head during the coughing scene), and with a rather unsettling opening sequence, City also gives us zombies who can levitate, zombies with super strength, and even zombies who can teleport. Any film that gives its zombies super powers to rival The Avengers is always worth a watch. Added bonus - anything with Christopher George in it from around this time period is gonna be gold...
7. Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
A group of evil "Knights from the East" in the 13th century were executed for sacrificing fellow humans and drinking their blood (obviously, modern laws have let up quite a bit as evil Knights are even allowed to get married now). In modern times, a couple and their friends accidentally stumble upon the old monastery and incur the wrath of the newly resurrected and heavily rotting revenants of the knights, who now hunt by sound (due to having their eyes pecked out by crows).
Another Spanish production (those zombies are taking OUR zombies' jobs!) and another movie that relies on creepy atmosphere over a massive body count, Tombs of the Blind Dead is a great movie that spawned three follow-up sequels that are each worthy of your time (Return of the Blind Dead, The Ghost Galleon, and Night of the Seagulls) and has originality to spare. Sure, you've seen similar entries elsewhere, but this one takes its own spin on the genre and avoids most of the usual clichés inherent within. You may find it slow and the dialogue weak (with actors that are unable to rise above it) and you would be correct, but if you give it a chance, I think you'll find that you can get past all that and enjoy the hypnotic mood present throughout.
8. Cemetery Man (1994)
Francesco Dellamorte and his mentally handicapped assistant Gnaghi are guardians at the Buffalora Cemetery, where each night, the dead inexplicably rise from the grave and Francesco must destroy them and send them right back. When he falls in love with a young woman he sees at a funeral (and her various incarnations), he begins to realize that there is more to life out there than just shooting zombies. As reality begins to get away from him, he begins a descent into possible madness (and murder) and even does some searching for the meaning of his (and possibly all) life.
If there is any movie on this list that deserves more recognition, it is this one. I'm not saying it's better than Let Sleeping Corpses Lie or Return of the Living Dead, but if you're a zombie fan, you've seen those. Cemetery Man (or Dellamorte Dellamore) is another Italian production (mixed with a little French and German) and is equal parts hilarious, thrilling, gory, heartbreaking, philosophical, and frightening. There is quite a bit of plot packed into this seemingly small story, and every bit of it pays off immensely. Rupert Everett has never been better as Francesco, Francois Hadji-Lazaro will have you wrapped around his finger as Gnaghi, and you'll fall in love with Anna Falchi as quickly as our title character did. Criminally overlooked upon release, this one is definitely an ambitious zombie flick that I think you'll love.
9. Shock Waves (1977)
The fact that a woman and her fellow yachters find themselves shipwrecked on an island without a volleyball should be problem enough, but it turns out that this particular island happens to be inhabited by an aging SS Commander. Rather than building straw huts or a coconut-based governing body, this Nazi general has been putting together a zombie crew to do his evil bidding (why, for once, can someone not have some GOOD bidding in mind?).
There are a lot of filmic examples out there of zombie lore meeting the Nazi party. For some reason the two just seem to go together oh so well (like peanut butter and chocolate, peanut butter and jelly, and peanut butter and racism). This one, however, towers above the others. It can't match most of them in gore or outrageous death scenes (the zombies here create more scares in the background), but it has great story progression, some rather genuine scares, and Peter Cushing hamming it up as the SS Commander. The island also creates a sense of isolated doom and works great for a zombie setting (despite the fact that it takes place in the Caribbean, yet this movie is NOT about voodoo-based zombies).
10. The Dark Power (1985)
A group of sorority girls moves into the home of an old Indian medicine man who has recently died. What they do not realize is that this home was built over the graves of four Indian sorcerers. Soon, the sorcerers are awoken and return in zombie form to crash the party and enact revenge. Who should the girls call to help rid them of this zombie threat? Why, an elderly park ranger with a whip, of course!
Okay, look - I had to include a movie on this list that I love (it's NOT a guilty pleasure, because if you don't also love it, then you've either never seen it or you're just wrong) despite knowing that there are virtually no legitimate filmic redeeming values (it was between this and The Video Dead, which I also love). Illegitimately, however, you'll find that this movie can be a total hoot when watched with a group of friends. The zombies themselves actually don't look too bad, but the acting is atrocious, the editing is sloppy (although, you do have to love the obvious clutching of an arrow under the arm of a victim when shot by bow and arrow), and there is a character who may go down in history as the most unnecessarily racist that you'll ever see (I mean, she is truly horrible). But, in case you missed it in my synopsis above, the zombies are defeated by AN ELDERLY PARK RANGER WITH A GOD DAMN WHIP. Actor Lash LaRue (whip-cracking star of countless westerns in the 40s and 50s) plays a park ranger in his 70s who comes to the girls aid armed with only a bullwhip (which, admittedly, he handles quite well). Plus, each time the whip is cracked, we get the exact same Casio keyboard-provided sound effect to accompany it. The final battle between Lash and the leader of the Indian zombies who obtains HIS OWN whip is worth the price of admission alone (which, I'm assuming is no more than a dollar or two). Seriously, this one is bad, but it's a lot of fun!