These days, the Romero-inspired vision of flesh-eating zombies is so ingrained as the de facto blueprint for the living dead that it’s hard to remember that anything of substance came before. Yet before he came along and changed the game forever with the now-classic 1968 feature Night of the Living Dead, zombies already had a rich, 35+ year history at the movies. Admittedly, most of those films were, to put it mildly, forgettable. There are a few worthwhile films to be found in the first three and half decades of zombiedom, though. Here’s a guide to five of them that are worth the time to track down, in order from least worthwhile to most.
5. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959): I have to admit, this one made the list largely due to historical distinction and not a particularly positive one at that. See, for the longest time, director Ed Wood’s disasterpiece Plan 9 was nearly universally regarded as the worst movie ever made. As a connoisseur of terrible film, I can assure you it is not, in fact, the worst movie ever made. It is terribly inept and pretty dull, if occasionally entertaining in a dumb way. But as far as zombie films go, it’s one of the better known (and yet lesser seen) of all time. That’s got to be worth something, right?
4. White Zombie (1932): This film has a pretty serious claim to fame as the first official zombie movie. Depending on your definition of zombie, that’s arguable (films such as J’accuse or even Frankenstein that predate it could plausibly be put up as zombie films, for instance). What’s inarguable is that it is the first film to ever use the word zombie. It stars the legendary Bela Lugosi (who’s pretty hammy, but also the highlight of the film) and a turgid plot about a man who wants Lugosi’s character (Murder Legendre, truly one of the greatest names ever) to zombify his love interest and make her his love slave. Then changes his mind, because, apparently, zombies ain’t sexy (actually, he’s disappointed because he wanted love, not a willing slave). Interesting because it paints zombification as a state between living and dead, but a reversible one (when Legendre’s spell is broken, the woman returns to health), which was fairly common for early zombie films. While very much a film of its era — making it slow, stagy, melodramatic and kind of dull by modern standards — it’s watchable and, really, should be considered required viewing for any serious zombie fan. It’s fallen into public domain and can be found on YouTube, Google Video and the Internet Archive, among probably any number of other places.
3. The Walking Dead (1936): The word zombie is never mentioned here, but the movie is called The Walking Dead. And it concerns a man who is executed, brought back to life via medical science and proceeds to freak out the dudes who killed them while witnessing his death. It’s a weird blend of mad science cause and supernatural effect with a crunchy gangster-movie shell. And an entertaining movie that’s aged remarkably well, thanks to the performance by the legendary Boris Karloff.
2. I Walked with a Zombie (1943): I mentioned melodrama as something of a pejorative in regards to White Zombie, but the melodrama in I Walked with a Zombie actually works really well and drives the entire film. Essentially a retelling of Jane Eyre on a tropical island (with zombies!), it’s a really good-looking film that exceeded my expectations (I always found Jane Eyre to be painfully dull in school). It’s moody and atmospheric yet moves at a decent pace, especially considering the era it’s from. Plus, Roky Erickson wrote a song about it, which gives it some serious bonus points. You can watch it online and rumors of a remake have floated around for years.
1. Plague of the Zombies (1966): One of the last zombie films made before Romero indelibly stamped his mark on the genre is also one of the best. Famed British studio Hammer delved into the zombie mythos, setting a pretty standard (for the time) “zombie master makes zombie slaves, doctor investigates” plot in the British countryside (turns out the zombie-master guy studied abroad) for Plague of the Zombies. Lots of locals die, the graves get empty and the local powerful guy has lots of zombie slaves for his tin mine, until the enterprising young doctor and his older mentor look into the epidemic. The zombies in this look good — modern enough to work in many a current zombie flick! Plus they are aggressive and murderous and there’s a fantastic decapitation. Apart from the lack of flesh eating, it could almost be a modern zombie movie. Almost. Plus, I’ve always had a soft spot for Hammer horror.
Cory Casciato is an arts and entertainment writer based in Denver. He writes about zombies at The Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse and covers the undead and other geeky topics for alt-weeklies and entertainment blogs across the country.