Every zombie scholar needs reference books and Peter Dendle’s The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia is a solid work that deserves the consideration of any serious zombie researcher. Covering more than 200 movies, from the 1932 Bela Lugosi classic White Zombie through the 1998 body horror of I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain, Dendle does an admirable job of collecting nearly every significant zombie work in film (and a few from TV as well) into one convenient, easy to read volume. He strikes a nice balance in tone between scholarly and enthusiast, admittedly leaning more toward the scholarly.
He starts with an introduction that provides a succinct history of the zombie in film, broken up into eras such as “The Early Film Zombie (1932-1952),” “The Golden Age (1968-1983)” and “The Mid-’80s Spoof Cycle.” Following that, he spends a couple of pages delving into the significance and meaning of the zombie before wrapping it up with an explanation of his definition of zombies and criteria for movie selection. These elements, especially the definition and selection criteria, are crucial to understanding which films are present and which are omitted. He does a good job setting his boundaries and stays within them for the most part, with a few exceptions. Notably, he says that reanimated humans that retain their personality are not zombies, then goes on to include several movies that feature zombies that retain personality. There are a few other minor “rule bendings” but nothing egregious. The biggest absence some might note is his exclusion of demon-zombies: no Evil Dead here! Wisely, he limits himself to movies he has actually seen. Luckily, this man has seen an awesome amount of zombie movies.
Dendle organizes the movies alphabetically, so it’s easy to find any given entry. Since so many of these movies have numerous alternate titles, he puts in entries referring to the location of a given film’s actual entry under the alternates. The write ups for each movie are fairly concise, although some of the more important movies (and some pretty minor stuff he seemed especially taken with) get several pages of their own. Many of the films’ entries are illustrated with crisp, black-and-white production stills, which helps the overall visual appeal of the book. He comes off even handed and knowledgeable without seeming stuffy for the most part: scholarly yet accessible. At the same time, he does offer what are more or less reviews for these movies, so they are subjective. And like anything subjective, sometimes you’ll agree and sometimes you’ll have to ask, “WTF is he on about?” I don’t want to call him out on too much, but I have to say: Shock Waves? Seriously? That movie was trash and I will never understand why anyone gives it any credit at all.
The book closes with a solid, usable index, a thorough bibliography and a couple of very handy appendices: one lists the movies of the book by country, the other by year. These are all crucial to make this an actual reference work and they are well done here.
My only real problems with the book can’t be laid at Dendle’s feet. The first is that it cuts off before the 2000s, which turned out to be a crucial decade for zombie cinema (a second volume was released in 2012 that addresses this problem, but they are sold separately and I haven’t got the new one). Of course, I recognize that every book has this problem to some degree, unless they are covering a dead art form — it’s not a real complaint, just a disappointment. The real issue is the binding, which split on my copy after relatively minor and careful use. For a work I plan to return to frequently, it’s a real bummer. I wish it had been released in trade paperback instead of hardcover, frankly. It would be cheaper and possibly less fragile to boot. Despite that issue, I have no problem recommending this book to anyone who wants a hard-copy reference work on zombie film. It’s easily one of the best available.
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.