Eat Me Alive: The Top Five Zombie Movies

Fast or slow…infected or reanimated, everybody loves a zombie. Zombie culture is loose and gathering numbers and heading to your own poorly protected farmhouse. ‘Zombie walks’ and tested zombie escape plans, parodies and long serious tomes abut the ‘Zombie War’, Zombies are ‘sexy’. And there’s even sexy Zombies, though more ‘camp’ than ‘chomp’.

What’s delightful (and scary, genuinely, and maybe a touch sad) is how completely the group driven, viscera eatin’, shambling Greek chorus has over taken the real Lugosi driven, erotic tinged vampires as Americas ‘Creature Du Jour’. To me, it clearly says that as a culture, we just don’t value sex enough.

The metaphor can be extended. It’s the fantasy ‘Dream Lover’: ancient, wise and having a few tricks up their sleeve. Compared to the ‘more is more’ mentality of the real life swingers set, where the quality drops where the numbers climb (as is the way of numbers…I guess. I’m bad at math). We are uncomfortable with the ratio’s of success sensuality affords, the less than 100% chance we will be turned into something hungry ourselves. We want a lot of variety and clothes falling (rotting) off. We want to be overwhelmed and have a ready excuse for why we let ourselves get bitten. There’s no guilt the world of zombies, it’s kill or be killed.

How can fidelity exist in a world of monsters?

The tradition for vampires is you need to invite them in. In some small or obvious drunken sloppy way, you have to open that door. That’s a matter of choice. Zombies don’t ask, they smash down your door and crawl all over you. In great numbers. Like you always dreamed. Except…with the numbers up, the quality drops. Its natural selection (I guess…I’m bad at science too).

5) Pontypool
This unusual, intellectual, confusing flick is the most interesting treatment of zombies since the hyper kinetic ’28 Days Later’. It’s a movie I have watched a few times now and see some new strain in the story, in the ballsy logic, every single viewing. It’s a zombie film without gore, with real black humor, and a concept of what an ‘infection’ can be that is wholly unique.

‘Pontypool’ takes place at a radio station in the wilds of Ontario. American ‘Shock Jock’ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) having burned his bridges in his home country, takes a radio gig up North. His cold ride into the station, the ugly night and the spitting snow create a claustrophobia, matched with a palpable dread of bad decision making that lead Mazzy to this clear dead end.

The idea of what is a true ‘dead end’ changes when he and his two woman crew get the first report, a riot in the peaceful desolate town of Pontypool, chanting mobs and extreme violence. And as reports flood into the radio station, very much on the edge of the media wilderness, a list of murders is compiled: families destroy families, neighbors burn down each others houses, all chanting nonsense sounds and sentences and phrases. And the infection keeps changing and spreading…..and the ‘how’ is the thing. Not through blood or bone. Not through black magic or errant space station radiations.

There’s no gore and no guns, which are the staples of the genre. And yet….the most original take on zombies on this list. See it.

4) Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things

From its title….from its cast…this shouldn’t be a good movie. From its poster, which looks clearly like the ‘Meatballs’ poster, this is a hippie disaster of a film. It sounds like ‘The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies’ (and for those looking for a review of that one, see Lester Bangs). It should be horrible, as most of the early 70’s zombie movies were.

But what C.S.P.W.D.T. has is pure and uncut creepiness, and a real building terror. Zombie movies are usually over the top, the most subtle being the original ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, which ain’t so subtle.
C.S.P.W.D.T is about a crew of dislikable hippies, the darker and sleazier post ’69 variety that Altamont hearkened too (and when you have a movie where lot of people likely wont survive the night, that’s a benefit).

They make they’re way out to an abandoned island to make a vampire film, and make 2 major mistakes:
1) They use the bodies from the abandoned graveyard as props.
2) They THEN use a black magic ritual to raise the dead as part of the film.

Can you guess what happens? You can.

This was the first zombie movie I ever saw, on some ‘Creature Feature’ on some Saturday night, when I was still way too young to see such movies. There’s images in this movie I have never forgot (like the use of slow motion in death scenes, the ritual scene, the immensely skin crawly ‘Orville’, the prop turned executioner). Soon afterwards, I begged my Mom to let me stay up and watch ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.
For every original creative thought, a 1000 rip offs pop up like weeds. Cleary, C.S.P.W.D.T. is a rip off of ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. And yet…..’Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things’ is on my list, and ‘Night’ is not.
Call it nostalgia. Or maybe some weeds are tasty good.

3)REC (or Quarantine – US Version)
REC was first, remade for English speaking as Quarantine. And it causes me to kick up a confession in my horror tastes: I am an absolute sucker for the ‘Blair Witch’ first person, shaky cam style of horror. The faux documentary style feeds into my voyeuristic nature. What always, at the basement levels of my thought processes, fascinates me about horror movies isn’t the monsters so much, it’s the decision making. It’s in introducing a scenario where you are completely and utterly screwed, zombies to the left, more zombies to the right, the general give and take of the practical world a memory.

Did you get gas this morning? The weight of that question changes significantly when zombies are introduced into the equation. Upset at your boyfriend? Is he trying to eat you, along with 4 score of his undead pals? No? Then chill. Real life money problems are forgotten, the question of whether you will ever achieve your dreams a luxury you can not afford. Cuz…zombies!!!! It does sound a bit peaceful, aside from the eventual ‘becoming food’ bit.

REC, shot from the POV of a news crew doing a fluff piece on their local Fire Department, takes the shaky cam style indoors, into the run down urban surrounding of a city tenement. It feels like a real haunted house story, with the camera skimming the long dark hallways and gray walls, the jittery feel of running that goes right to your feet, even when sitting. It’s positively gothic. And stays so throughout, getting ever more dreadful as the places to run too run out.

And claustrophobia runs to paranoia. The most effective scene in both versions is when they recognize that they are locked in, with the Army and snipers on the other side of those doors. There comes a moment when the army drops a quarantine tent over the exits and that image of that plastic tent with Army stencils falling with such finality is genuinely disturbing.

It speaks toward what real terrors are. What zombie films do. It’s the ordinary details that heighten the effect. The Universal Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc) thrill, but don’t chill in these post-millennial days. Too long ago, too far away from where we live, and live everyday.

That scene, with shaking camera and recognizable elements of our culture is what makes the shaky cam style work: it confuses our intellect, it speaks to a different part of us and leaves us open to the possibilities of what if?

I should say that after ‘REC’, Zombie kingpin George Romero released his own statement on the first person zombie story with ‘Diary Of The Dead’. Which failed. Appallingly.

2) Day Of The Dead
Romero is my hero. Pot smoking, laid back, socially relevant, genius of carnage. Romero was ‘indie’ decades before we had a name for it. Borrowed money from Pittsburgh blue collar communities and used friends and investors as cast. What George had was an idea, a vision, and that little concept became ‘Night Of The Living Dead’…which started the zombie culture.

Romero wasn’t a simple man with a simple message. Each movie in the ‘Living Dead’ series, released in a different decade, had an underlying social message. Romero’s attempt to answer what had become of us as a society in these past 10 or so years. The. zombies were a metaphor, the zombies were random circumstance and WE we’re always the real monsters of the piece. Romero is a pessimist with a huge… and now global… palette to paint on.

Not all the movies were great. ‘Land Of The Dead’, ‘Survivial Of The Dead’…not good. But he is a genuine ‘maverick’, and the fact his movies may be misunderstood doesn’t trouble him. My guess is by the time the reviews come out, he’s already scaring up financing for his next opus. And that one may just be great.

In my estimation, the best of the series is 1985’s ‘Day Of The Dead’. It again plays off of claustrophobia, and plays with it, as its opening shots are on a helicopter overlooking an abandoned Miami, only blue sky and alligators and living dead left in town.

Soon we are taken to the real setting of the movie: an underground military compound and a collection of brilliantly rendered scientists and soldiers, all unraveling at the edges. The pace of the movie, the monotony of their assignments, the clearly cruel soldiers, the Mad Doctor all scratch at you like nothing else in the ‘Living Dead’ series.

The scientists want to find a cure. The soldiers want to get out. And the wails of the undead, above ground and below are clearly getting to them. One of things I appreciate about ‘Day Of The Dead’ is you get dropped into the middle of this world. You can feel tensions, you could see who dislikes likes who within this small (and getting smaller) group, but have missed all the conflagrations that brought them to this state. You go underground with the helicopter and feel that you are now with them…of them. And it’s a boiling pot.

The acting (specifically ‘Rhodes’) is first rate. ‘Day Of The Dead’ is the most gory of all of the series, with disgusting effects that are hard to forget. Honestly, its not a fun film to watch. Its too dark, to grim, too much blood and grisly bits. Its too intense.

But consider the theme. How could it not be?

1) ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ (remake – 2004)
Blasphemy? Sure. Love the original ‘Dawn of The Dead’, loved it since my brother saw it and shared all the gory details, loved it when we finally caught the midnight showing together (pre video…can you imagine?) and love it despite all its obvious flaws: the blue zombie make up only done to the sleeves, the fake hand to hand combat, the plastic guns. I know it line for line, scene by scene.

That said…have you seen the first 15 minutes of the remake? Have you? Its terrifying.

The dead rise and a group of survivors finds their way to a mall. Which is everyone’s dream, right? Like without the zombies? Am I that shallow? It has been mentioned….

It’s a big budget zombie movie, and while I would like to make a point that Romero’s grass roots appeal and anti Hollywood stance informs his art, the ‘Dawn’ remake get’s it right on every level. The acting. The effects. The humor. The action. The characters. Owning the DVD, even the supplemental footage works better and feels more complete than other full horror films (the DVD piece on ‘Andy’, the gun store owner, particularly effective).

Also, the best opening credit sequence of the genre. It combines footage of real revolutions, zombie invasions, every possibility of media violence, all played out under the message of The Man, Johnny Cash singing about ‘’When The Man Comes Around’. Chillingly effective. A message about the apocalypse, sung old biblical style while the modern day devolves into Sodom.

Scary as hell. Just like the box says.

Note: I know I missed a lot here. Apologies to fans of ‘Return of The Living Dead’ series, the ’28 Days Later’ series and Fulci’s ‘Zombi’.

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Eat Me Alive: The Top Five Zombie Movies

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