Ghoul School: The ABZs of Zombie Movies

Warning! Zombie attack! (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

Tim Van Schmidt


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They don’t make zombies like they used to.

At one time, I thought they were pretty frightening. Think 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead”, a black and white horror movie classic.

Night of the Living Dead 1968

Nowadays, zombies are a joke. Think 2009’s “Zombieland”, a comedy featuring Woody Harrelson being wild and crazy and Jesse Eisenberg being nerdy.

But to get some perspective on the zombie issue, let’s go all the way back to the 1932 horror classic, “White Zombie”, starring Bela Lugosi. There, zombies were connected to voodoo practices, turned to diabolical ends — including murder.

Such voodoo mind control also inspired its share of joking. Witness the dullard comedy “King of the Zombies” from 1944.

In the 1964 horror/sci-fi classic “The Last Man on Earth”, a plague turns everybody into undead “vampires” except one guy. He survives by boarding himself up in his house at night and spends his days cleaning up bodies.

This movie is pivotal because it takes away the voodoo part and just leaves the undead, focused on killing.

“Night of the Living Dead”, by George A. Romero, went one step further. Radiation from a space event turns the newly dead into flesh-eating ghouls with a frightening relentlessness. They were slow, but they were particularly powerful as a mob.

Dawn of the Dead 1978

The movie is skillfully made. The camera angles are creative. It is in black and white and that adds starkness to the production. Much of the direction feels like homage to earlier works like Hitchcock suspense thrillers, but goes out to the edge with, for the time, unspeakable gore.

It’s interesting to note that the word “zombie” is not used in “Night of the Living Dead” — just the term “ghoul”. But this is where the modern fascination with “zombies” started. 

While that unnerving and unnatural “Night of the Living Dead” suspense has been carried on in later movies, making fun of it has also become its own cottage industry. The zombie apocalypse keeps bouncing back and forth between serious and silly.

Here’s a zombie movie timeline to school you on how the whole ghoul thing has gone over the years:

1932 — White Zombie: An evil Haitian landowner uses voodoo practices to build a workforce, takes a shine to a young bride on vacation, and decides to add her to his zombie collection.

White Zombie 1932

1968 — Night of the Living Dead: Strangers hole up in a farmhouse, terrified by the strange events that have turned newly deceased people into monsters.

1978 — Dawn of the Dead: This time, strangers hole up in a shopping mall. The film introduces humor to the mix with numerous comedic sequences. In the end, though, what is more frightening than the zombies — is other people. 

1983 — Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”: This big-time music video put zombies center stage and in the spotlight as Jackson made it look cool to be dancing with the undead.

2002 — 28 Days Later: In this British thriller, the undead are infected with a virus and they are fast, vicious, and maniacal.

2004 — Dawn of the Dead: This remake of the 1978 movie is so much better production-wise, incorporates the “fast-moving” zombie trend, and has a wider group of characters to pick off gruesomely.

2004 — Shaun of the Dead: A comedy in which a bumbler and his lowlife friend come into their own when London is beset by an infestation of zombies.

2009 — Zombieland: Want a serious zombie story? You won’t get it here. But big action and laughs are plentiful.

Zombieland 2009

2009 — La horde (The Horde): There’s plenty of brutal violence in this French yarn, and that’s before the zombies show up.

2010 — The Walking Dead: The winning formula of mixing the personal stories of a wide-ranging set of characters with the physical and mental rigors of always being on guard from attacks has taken the zombie apocalypse into mainstream TV. Currently, the show is in its 11th season.

The Walking Dead 2010

2012 — Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies: Lincoln is cast as an experienced zombie killer and he takes time out from writing the Gettysburg Address to put down an outbreak of the undead. His chosen weapon is a scythe and he wields it with presidential authority.

2013 — World War Z: Action-adventure yarn starring Brad Pitt.

2013 — Warm Bodies: A zombie romance? Well, why not, if love really can be the cure.

Warm Bodies 2013

2014 — Z Nation: Gruesome and silly, the Z Nation series hardly tries to make it scary but leans heavily on the camaraderie of the characters and the creativity of the gore.

2015 — iZombie: Still another improbable attempt to take advantage of the zombie trend — a zombie medical examiner eats victims’ brains to solve crimes. 

2017 — Ravenous: The setting of a remote area of Quebec underscores that even in the thick of the woods, survivors learn they still have to run for their lives. 

2019 — Kingdom: Thanks to the primitive setting — ancient Korea — survivors depend on a whole different kind of ingenuity to stay alive. With no automatic weapons, no vehicles, no concrete buildings to hide in, they must depend on quick thinking, desperate preparation, and nerves of steel.

Warning! Zombie attack! (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

And that’s how I would sum up all things zombie. It’s not about the zombies so much as how people survive. But it does go back and forth between hair-raising and laughable — even both.

Most recently, I was catching up on “The Walking Dead” and I had to laugh — the characters were trying to lead a zombie horde away from their camp by blasting music. What did they play? The Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”. Somebody had a sense of humor there.

How long can Hollywood keep this up? As long as we keep being fascinated by a world where zombies walk the earth — scaring us and daring us to survive.

Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. See his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt”.