There have been several articles on the topic zombie flicks, the culture surrounding them, the influence of them and the reflection of their possible existence to our philosophy of society, asking the appropriate questions of revolving around psychology and theology. One always wonders about mortality, if anything happens to life after death, and for the spiritual minded does the soul carry-on through a resurrection or merely dispels without a trace the, all leading to further intrigue of it in the realm of a zombie film, what replaces that possible soul in the husk of the zombie, not many movies in the subgenre touch on this perhaps aside of Fist of Jesus [2012] and Zombie Resurrection [2014]. As for the society, one often theorizes which is the true monster the zombies or other survivors, (my humble opinion, it’s the survivors) at first survivors are willing to work together, but soon, the breakdown of morality and civility, leads to chaos and confusion. Nevertheless, zombies have no quota, no care of materialism or commercialism rather a need to feed and unified in their pursuit. These elements both plague filmmakers and authors of the genre and no other genre incorporate more other genres into a movie, than horror, it allows for drama, action, romance, comedy, and even sci-fi elements to penetrate deeper and conjure more fears and delights. The subgenre of the undead, endures since the early creation to the present day filter into television series and various other forms of entertainment, including preppers design and mud runs for events. As each film enters into the market, they all generally bookend themselves with moral dilemmas, filled with hate of the dead, the hate that transcend all boundaries, though a few exceptions due exists, namely One Cut of the Dead [2017]. While this article’s primarily focus centers on the difference between the zombie movies of yesteryear and today, it cannot avoid missing the elements that assist in shaping this entire subculture. The horror genre thrives on the monsters, whether it came from a deranged human who displays a monstrous attitude to civilization or mad doctor creating monstrosities, curses of ancient works for living Mummies, and bites from the Werewolves and Vampires; Zombies now likely more popular than all of them put together. The main differences between classics and today’s zombies, obviously special effects, however, it truly goes deeper, the plots evolved more, and the directing enhancing the storylines, and the society views reflecting anxieties, worries both real and imaginary, all projecting countless zombie scenarios.

The 6 Divisions of Zombies

I have personally watched over 200 zombie themed movies and realize there are approximately five distinct divisions in the subgenre. The early zombie films product of voodoo, such as White Zombie [1932]; reoccurred again with The Plague of the Zombies [1966] and then Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow [1988]. These creatures were more of mindless beings doing the work, or slaves to their master’s doings, often related to colonialism, but never the flesh-eating creation. Rather that would emerge in 1968, (second division) with the true birth of zombies, all in part to George A. Romero and John Russo, and their film Night of the Living Dead, which reign then and now, lasting in one form or another for 53-years (at the time of this article publishing date) and nothing to stop their onslaught. These monsters of “division two” attack societies with incredible scares and terrors for a lifespan of nightmares. This course is all in response to the loving horror fans, who crave the gut-munching flesh-eating cadavers, spreading the sickness across the screen, pages of comic books, visual descriptions in novels, and many other influences. One of the influencers pulls itself from the bible namely Zechariah 14:12 “And the LORD will send a plague… Their flesh will rot, while standing on their feet, eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths…” The third division branches off to form the political (Military), religious and experimentation zombies (viruses), often becomes known the super-soldiers able to engage in battle even after death which surfaces with the Naziploitation movies i.e., Nazi Zombies, though this extends to the splicing of genetics and biological hazards running amok. These films started in the mid-1970s and are still continuing to this day. Then the modern day 2000 and onward is the fourth division, which signals to most fans the fast-moving zombies; however slightly incorrect, it actually occurs much earlier than that. The fifth division is actually more of an isolated subgenre, as it can include all other divisions, which is zom-com, i.e., zombie comedies, for example, Shaun of the Dead [2004] and Warm Bodies [2013], though both incorporate zom-rom (zombie romance). Then finally the sixth division, and possibly the last, is none-other than the Space Zombies, slightly unusual, although its contributions don’t fall into any other category.

First Division of Zombies

The early zombie films usually did not contain shuffling feet slow moving creatures of the dead, rather more based from the Haitian folklore, and interlace with African cultural ideas surrounding witchcraft and later voodoo, raising of the dead reference in dramatic costumes, and heavy blackened makeup around the eyes, as it contain a silent cinema in the 1920s, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and then later expressed exquisitely well in The Serpent and the Rainbow [1988]. Now these films still hold a special place, as they use the extremely subtle approaches to discover the manner to make the audience reaction compared to today’s practical special effects and excessive CGI. Although, before one can move onto Romero’s concept which turned the design of zombie to a creepy ghoul, there was The Plague of the Zombies [1966] which conjure the dead to work in dangerous mine conditions, all for the betterment of increasing the wealth of a powerful family; a nod to the commercialism; which later layered in Romero movies namely Dawn of the Dead [1978] and even further touched on in Shaun of the Dead [2004]. Director Bob Clark, responsible for Black Christmas [1974] started his career with an impressive 1972 zombie film called Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, harkened back to the usage of spells (this time in the form of reciting a Satanic book of incantations). This formula, used in both Vengeance of the Zombies [1973] and The Evil Dead [1981]), and later in many horror flicks of the rising up the dead.

Plague of the Zombies [1966]

Second Division of Zombies

Prior to the 1960s, the conceptual design of the species of Zombies presented as muted creatures, shells of the human selves now controlled by another master, which literally lives off other people typically not dead merely possessed. Some scholars implied that horror films conveyed this notion highlighted the society’s regard to slavery, while others pointed to the plight of people under the regime of communism. One film shows this ideally well, White Zombie [1932], harvesters work tireless, and in I Walked with a Zombie [1943] a victim of brainwashing to give into others desires. Once more, shows a clean cut between the earlier creations of zombies and today’s vicious creations, either way the audience, as all mortals find themselves both curious and fearful of death. The only aspect of death more frightening than one’s demise, is the death of a child, or parent, now the thoughts of them returning as a zombie, without pain, deadly to the touch, lifeless existence, having to destroying their brain to stop their advancements onto the living.

As the late 1960s roll their way into the horror genre, one needs to understand about society’s influence as it played as much as part then as they do now. For example, radiation and contamination primary causes for the dead to rise and now today’s zombie genre, the usage of plagues, virus both natural and man-made find themselves as the basis of unleashing the apocalypse. However, it goes a tad further, in the Romero films later become a reflection of the turmoil in society, as does other horror films of today questioning the primary question of religion. Reflecting on the fact that the issue date April 8, 1966 of the Time Magazine cover asked, “Is God Dead,” controversial beyond belief, but potent in the wretched hands of a zombie horde and filmmakers in general. In fact, Romero zombie films consist of hunger of flesh, which many compare the rampant starvation of an overpopulated world, and ripping humans apart in violence, a reference to senseless brutality of war itself, either way the cinematography and essence of the storytelling always bring stark comparisons for each new generation.

Night of the Living Dead [1968]

In the year of 1968, the horror genre changed forever, with the reinvention of the zombie creature and a movie entitled Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD), from legendary filmmaker George A. Romero, a film and sequels filled with enormous amounts of terror and social critiques. Although, before exploring this movie, one must note that the late 1950s to early 60s the exploration of zombie started to emerge from the grave, The Zombies of Mora Tau [1957], Blood of the Zombie [1961] and in 1964 the films I Eat Your Skin and the Vincent Price flick, The Last Man on Earth. NOTLD, never clearly identifies the dead as zombies, but that is what fans of all cinema choose to call them; nevertheless, Romero struck a lasting chord with the appeal of zombie storytelling with his ordinary looking dead folks hunting the living into terrible decisions and racial divides. After all, no one can forget the common freakish line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” and the gory effects, which have baseline effectively running through the genre with delicious creativity. His initial creation of the dead gave them some quicken pace briefly used and brief spark of remaining problem-solving intelligence, far from complete, as their bodies decay the mind does too, hence making them to have the common sluggish walk, unlike those of today. As all fans know, it was produced on an extremely limited budget and in black and white all created to shock then audiences and critics with the brutality of the dead. A scene for itself, of a panicked group of rural people, and yet possess of personal hatred between the races, barricade in a home, while the horde outside unified regardless of the race all with one goal to feed on the living. The film included a group of distinguished characters Duane Jones (Ben) in a prominent role, Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper) a little zombie girl, and Judith O’Dea (Barbara) in a helpless catatonic state, while the younger audience sees it more as a comedy, the film reflects the deeper breaking and exposing social norms. The movie’s appearance in the spectrum of cinema enters at the right moment, as society prepares for an unorthodox change, with Vietnam occurring, Woodstock coming soon, assassinations of social leaders, rising women’s independence, all of it at the forefront and welcoming independent filmmakers. Even though the copyright lapsed, Romero’s creation continues to rise from the dead, creating an entire subgenre and subculture, and at least ten films as sequels, versions of, or remakes, but doesn’t touch on the numerous other zombie-influenced flicks; he wouldn’t return to the true undead for another 10 years.

Romero returned triumphantly in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead presenting a commercial success showcasing Tom Savini’s insane talents; he truly puts his guts into the film and gathers together incredible hordes of the undead. Presenting a storyline easy for the audience to relate to and understand, nothing complex, and yet still lingers with social impacts still felt today, especially with regards to police entering an inner-city apartment building and residences distrusting the authorities. The primary location for the flick takes place inside the legendary Monroeville Mall, held as a fortress for the living, and strangely attracting the undead (a tinge of consumerism of then) as the mall from mid-70s to mid-90s served as an escapism, for any normal family member. The unbridled wanton lusts to collect things and stuff attributed to the survivors and later the marauders. The mall serves as an endless smorgasbord, for the zombies, with many given interesting designs, including the humorous Hare Krishna and a hard to spot Santa zombie. This film signified again, zombies, never discriminating they are the utopia of society, as noted by zombie children in Airport Chart House. Now, this film does include a moment of religious reflection, noting a line that references back to Macumba (a form of the voodoo religion), uttered by Peter (Ken Foree) “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” It also notes the rituals in modern religion, of proper burials and prayers; even though the soul departs, the corpse remains only rising up to feed and kill; it subtly questions the reasoning for funeral pomp and circumstances. Insisting the dead, must undergo killing them in the head and then cremation; a call from the scientists, which goes unheard. This reflects back to the concept (unlikely false) that medical institutions teach the religion and spiritualism out of their students, before becoming doctors. Noting that Dawn of the Dead, enters into a new morality status, the conceptual of more women’s assertions and touchy subject of abortion (only 5-years after the Roe vs. Wade case), especially in world of more emptiness, ruthlessness, and self-loathing. The film became a success and later spawned an exclusive 4-dvd box set, containing multiple versions of the film, which many horror fans continued to purchase. Romero’s would wait another 20-years before directing the dead to rise again with Land of the Dead [2005], Diary of the Dead [2007], and lastly Survival of the Dead [2009], and in fairness film classic 1968 flick was remade four times.

Dawn of the Dead, promptly served as the main course for the foreign horror markets, namely the Italian, as the cannibal movies of theirs were in the early stages of waning in popularity or at least curiosity, though sparked a new cycle of Italian cinema – zombie films, with their variation on a subgenre cemented multiple possibilities. As the filmmakers truly had few barriers and only needed to borrow blueprints from their counterparts in United States, their films rose in violence and lewd topics, with some of the craziest plots and storylines. In 1972 Spain entered into the void of the dead, with director Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead [1972], however, more of vampire zombies, though still it spawned three more sequels and crudely designed zombie horses. Nevertheless, the granddaddy of all the foreign zombie films of which closed out the 70s, was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie [1979], a movie without any regard for a true plot delivered a gore, gutty, and gruesome flick which accumulated a massive cult following. Now, the film piggybacks itself on the success of Dawn of the Dead, by using the Italian title for Romero’s film, known as Zombi, and hence it became Zombi 2, implying a sequel but stands independently. These maneuvers, executed by the studio, and without the express authorization of Fulci, and reinstated with the proper title of Zombie on the American release. The film known for the cheesy dialog excels in the legendary splinter into the eye scene (repeated in both Burial Ground [1981] and Lost after Dark [2014]). In addition, it’s the only horror film to contain the very dangerous battle scene of a shark sparring with a zombie (Ramón Bravo), this at the time, completed in a wonderful cinematography class, remember that CGI did not exist. Shortly, after this movie (which had 4 other sequels stretching throughout the decade of the 80s, came director Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground, which too had its own share of bizarre scenes, such as between Evelyn (Maria Angela Giordano) and her son Michael (Peter Bark). In either case, elements in the films rarely repeated themselves in the cinematic world again and made sure to distinguish their zombies by generating a truly rotting dead look, skulls with little facial hair, covered with worms and maggots. An extra treat for those who seek the trashy subculture, the highly motivated and able-bodied zombies, one must not forget Nightmare City [1980] from director Umberto Lenzi. That influence continues today with films on the undead arising from many countries in so many forms, The Dead [2010] a British movie filmed and set in Africa or Train to Busan [2016] in South Korea and The Night Eats World [2018] in Paris, France

Third Division of Zombies

The zombie invasion switched slightly and likely in a predictable path and direction, thanks again to Romero’s tale entitled The Crazies [1973]; a story in which a military man-made virus unleashed on Americans makes them attack each other and contaminate them, hence not quite zombie, but this theme plays often in modern zombie flicks (will speak of them later in this article). The movie contains multiple social dynamics, and the characters often find themselves arguing more against one’s own survival versus the hidden intentions of the militarization of scientific warfare. In addition, Clark, would present another zombie influence the following year in 1974, called Dead of Night, of a soldier returning as a zombie, though appears as human suffering from what is referred to as PTSD. It is often believed that the subgenre of Nazi exploitation films of which included having dead soldiers resurrected and continue fighting for their masters’ cause as the undead that sometimes referred to a new Reich started in the 70s, however that is incorrect it was actually 1941 with a horror comedy entitled King of the Zombies from director Jean Yarbrough, noting the word zombies leans more to occultism than that of today’s understanding. Two years prior to Romero’s landmark film, director Herbert J. Leder released a cross sci-fi and horror movie called The Frozen Dead [1966], which followed that trend, but never made the solid connection to horror fan base. Shock Waves [1977], which starred Peter Cushing, and the rise of super soldier, but no control over them, leading to German army sinking their vessel hoping to end the reign however, there already – oops. This stayed buried for three years before launching a new brigade of onto the masses in the early 1980s, with Zombie Lake [1981] and Oasis of the Zombies [1982]; dotting the landscape, with The Supernaturals [1986] entering into the mix, with soldiers versus Zombie Civil War troops, okay it’s strange but why not, as recalling for a moment that Day of the Dead [1985] it was a similar aspect aside from small garrison of troops and hordes of the undead; before the onslaught in the 2000s. This attack started with Horrors of War [2006] an independent flick with some inflammatory artwork to some but in actuality nothing different from either a documentary or an action film, from there it was game on for filmmakers with the theme of Nazi Undead featured in  Outpost [2006], Dead Snow [2009], Bunker of the Dead [2015], a dreadful Dead Walkers [2013]; a strange ultra-low budgeted grindhouse throwback Zombie Isle [2014] and mixed with a few films outside that named theme was a pitiful Platoon of the Dead [2009] and solid flick called Redcon-1 [2018].

As both United States and the world societies started venturing in new directions, so did cinema, and hence new elements into the undead world, from experimental drugs and medicine and then pesticides, emerge expanding on environmental horrors (aka: Nature Attacks subgenre). Hence, one must not overlook Let Sleeping Corpses Lie [1974] as it brought science combating environmental situations with ultrasonic penetrating the ground and having the dead rising to munch on the human race, that the scientists were originally working to assist, but leading to their destruction and downfall. Toxic Zombies [1980] (aka: Bloodeaters) created by Charles Austin McCrann about a chemical aimed to destroy drug crops creates zombies; while his movie lends no further input into the subject, I felt it was important to include as him as he owned the rights to that film, he was murdered in the September 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center aside from being a financial executive, he was a film buff and a horror fan.

Zombie Films battled for supremacy in 1985 with Day of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead (ROTLD), both which had science and military aspects within their own storylines, in these two films separated by less than a month of each other’s release dates, though the latter falls slightly into the fifth division of zombie movies. First, Romero’s third entry, as it came out on July 19, centers on the plot of zombies inheriting the world, and a group of survivors featuring short-fused soldiers, scientists, a few others desperately search the living and a cure in underground bunker. This movie to many would mark the first time that zombies can learn basic for example, all horror fans remember Bub (Sherman Howard), who recalls how to handle of a pistol and mimics saluting a military officer. This feature in zombie movies, repeats later in ROTLD; Land of the Dead [2005] and Shaun of the Dead [2004]. As the movie progresses, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) attempts to teach Bub to speak and some ugly manners, while supplying him with human scraps, overall shows the dying civilized world running amok, against swarms of the dead. This all shows that when George returns to the Land of the Dead (20-years later after his Day of the Dead movie), he shows the Zombie Evolution, of the new species becoming more self-aware, showing an intelligence from actions to problem solving. However, if one properly remembers, NOTLD [1968] the first ghoul is trying to get to Barbara in the car, and picks up a rock to smash the window, which shows a skill set to solve his problem.

The Return of the Living Dead [1985] released in mid-August, presented a new wave of zombies, from them speaking to running, and even using CB radios and other devices all to trick, confuse and lure in the human race for their meals on wheels. The zombies for the most part scream for “Brains,” and never relent in their pursuit of their targets, all to forget the hatred of death and rotting suffering. Their creation comes from chemical spill of a government waste project involving corpses assisted by to bumbling warehouse workers, this premise later used in Zombeavers [2014]. Although, this movie almost did not, get made as Richard P. Rubinstein got an injunction to stop the filmmakers from using the phrase “Living Dead” however, MPAA arbitrators ruled against him. Now, this film falls into a different grouping, as it mixes horror and comedy, while zombies aren’t pure flesh eaters, yet it spawned five sequels, and early on the movies slip badly from classic first flick. Director Dan O’Bannon (of Alien [1979] fame), using John A. Russo’s story (who’s well known in the horror genre for his screenplays and tales involving the dead) conjuring this new tale of advancing the evolution of the species, even though it dead ends, it still generates new elements, especially the running aspect. His movie led to a cult following of its own, thanks partly to the cast that included Clu Gulager, James Karen and Linnea Quigley (her explicit scenes, which start with her foreshadowing her own death), lastly the stellar soundtrack. Sadly, both films poor performance at the box office moved the zombies off the main stage, and left to rot, temporarily as ROTLD had many midnight showings and grew in the popularity as the audience understood the punk influence soundtrack and the horror-comedy sadly while it did have resurrection, it was dreadful four sequels all direct-to-video. In addition, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator [1985] which provides more scientific research into the afterlife and paid homage to the horror genre of yesteryear including the score which has many similarities to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho [1960] and transcends through the spectrum into future. The zombie movie history provides great insight to the gems that thrust the evolution such as the gross-out and perhaps the bloodiest film ever, Braindead [1992] from now noted Oscar recipient Peter Jackson and Tom Savini’s very good remake of Night of the Living Dead [1990].

On a purely informative aspect, the 1980s had many interesting moments exploding at once within the horror genre, no different as in the zombie music video Thriller [1983] directed by John Landis and from Michael Jackson, which included Vincent Price as the narrator, along with Special Effect Guru Rick Baker; who had a zombie losing a rotted-away right arm (something that was rarely ever shown). Some fans might find the inclusion of the film Demons (1985), a bit confusing as to regarding as a zombie flick, but like the Deadites of Evil Dead fame, have zombie elements, as characters don’t necessary die, rather become consume and transform into a new entity. However, this formula repeats with the in the 2000s, with 28 Days Later [2002], as infected with a virus, and deliver rabid zombie attributes, attacking in a gut munching, hence the new term ‘zombie-viruses’.


Now as you can see I’ve only covered the first 3 divisions mainly due to the length of the article. Come back in April to see the conclusion about the zombie evolution’s gut munching smorgasbord assault on cinema!

Zombie [1979] – Gut Munching!