24 Films and Franchises that Shaped the Evolution of Zombies
Zombies are one of the essential staples of the world of horror (right up there with vampires and werewolves), and they’ve been around forever. Different cultures around the world have their own flavors of undead mythology, too, from the Chinese jiangshi to the Scandinavian draugr, and many of these stories have their roots in ancient tales thousands of years old.
As much as zombie folklore has evolved over the centuries, so has zombie fiction. To take a look at how zombie costumes, zombie looks, and zombie lore have changed, there are four distinct movements of zombies to talk about.
- 1930s to 1950s – Early Zombie Movies
- 1960s to 1970s – The Romero Era and The Golden Age of Zombies
- 1980s to 1990s – Cult Classics and Video Games
- 2000s and Beyond – New Zombie Epidemics
1930s to 1950s – Early Zombie Movies
The key theme across the zombie stories of this era is that the zombies themselves are, typically, based heavily on the “zombi” — magically reanimated corpses from the Haitian folk tales and the voodoo religion. Cliches like shambling zombie hordes and zombie makeup didn’t really exist yet. Zombified bodies were shown to have begun the process of decay, but zombies of the day weren’t too gory or visually different from humans.
White Zombie (1932)
Directed by Victor Halperin and starring classic horror movie icon Bela Lugosi (who is perhaps best known for playing Dracula in Dracula), White Zombie is generally accepted as being the first ever feature-length zombie movie, and being the work most responsible for making the word “zombie” a common term. If you’re into metal, you also know it as Rob Cummings’ inspiration for the band name, “White Zombie.”
Based on themes from the novel The Magic Island, authored by William Seabrook in 1929, the story of White Zombie involves the voodoo master Murder Legendre, the creator and commander of a legion of zombie slaves. Legendre uses a magic potion to transform his victims into zombies, and controls them with the power of his mind. White Zombie was later followed by a direct sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, in 1936.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
The second film of eleven produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, I Walked with a Zombie tells the story, in flashback, of a private nurse, Betsy Connell, hired to care for a patient on a Caribbean island. What could possibly go wrong there, right? Believing that it will be able to cure her patient’s life-threatening condition, Betsy takes her patient to the local voodoo priest, ultimately (and unsurprisingly) resulting in affliction with a zombie curse.
At the time, I Walked with a Zombie wasn’t received well by audiences, but it’s since been looked upon as a timeless classic of the genre in more recent years. Many critics even consider it to be the best movie that Lewton produced for RKO (out of nowhere) and one of the greatest zombie movies of all time.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
If you’re a fan of bad movies, then you’re already familiar with the Ed Wood masterpiece known as Plan 9 from Outer Space, one of the most famously (or infamously) terrible films ever shot. When something makes it onto the Wikipedia article literally titled “List of films considered the worst,” you know you’re in for some serious stuff.
Ed Wood is known for his filmography of extremely low-budget and low-effort productions, and Plan 9 is perhaps his most shining example. With a plot involving aliens (from outer space) executing a plan (their ninth) to resurrect dead humans into zombies, the movie is a bastion of continuity errors, technical mistakes, and extremely shocking and terrifying zombie attack choreography.
Plan 9 was also the last film to feature footage of Bela Lugosi:
He knew what was up.
1960s to 1970s – The Romero Era and The Golden Age of Zombies
With big budget summer blockbusters starting to become more of a thing, this was the time for zombie movies to really break into the mainstream. When most people think of classic zombies, there’s a good chance they’re thinking of something out of this period.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Though the film makes use of the word “ghoul” as opposed to “zombie,” the first film of five in George A. Romero’s series reinvented zombies not as monsters created by voodoo, but as the flesh-and-guts-eating cannibals that we all know and love today. Not only is the Romero zombie gorier than the old-school voodoo zombie, but Romero also established a lot of the rules of zombie behavior: their fear of fire, their slow movement due to rigor mortis, their trademark groans, and their invulnerability sans headshots, among other things.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the Dead is the sequel to Night of the Living Dead, but it deserves a special mention for its special effects. It was the first of Romero’s films to have its zombie makeup done by special effects artist Tom Savini, also known as the “Godfather of Gore” and “Sultan of Splatter.” Savini had been known for his horror movie work before, but his blue-gray zombie skin, bright red blood, and mind-blowing effects in Dawn made a lasting impact on the zombie genre.
Some of his effects even led to nameless zombies being recognized as full-fledged characters in zombie fandom — Machete Zombie and Sweater Zombie, to name a couple.
Zombi 2 (1979)
Directed by Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2 is an unofficial, Italian-made sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which had been released in Italy under the title Zombi. Much like Dawn’s actual sequel, Zombi 2 turned up the zombie gore dial up to eleven. (Coincidentally, the “Godfather of Gore” is a nickname sometimes applied to Fulci as well as Savini, which may even be more fitting considering his nationality.) Zombi 2 also represents a huge step in bringing American “zombie culture” to overseas audiences.
1980s to 1990s – Cult Classics and Video Games
More than ever before, zombies were a part of mainstream horror culture. Of course, as is the case with many things, an increase in quantity often tends to result in a decrease in quality. A lot of zombie movies in the 80s and 90s went so over-the -top insane with their special effects, or were so haphazardly produced, or a little bit of both, that many of them fall into the “so bad it’s good” category of cult classics. Video games were also a new form of media for zombies to conquer around this time, especially with the survival horror genre in the 90s, so we’ll be addressing those, too.
The Evil Dead (1981)
The series that kicked off the careers of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell is a champion of campiness and zombie gore. To quote Campbell himself, “‘The gorier the merrier.” Starting out as zombies, the main monsters in later installments of the series are known as Deadites – the result of demonic possession caused by the Necronomicon. Deadites go far beyond the decaying looks of “regular zombies,” with extremely grotesque and distorted facial features.
The needle on The Evil Dead’s B-movie meter really started to break off during Evil Dead II (1987), in which protagonist Ash grafts a chainsaw prosthetic to his arm-stump, and the series finally turned into pure horror-comedy with its third installment, Army of Darkness, in 1992.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
John Russo’s five Living Dead films are somewhat of an offshoot from his and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Romero continued the “…of the Dead” series on his own, while Russo began a different “…of the Living Dead” series. Russo’s Living Dead zombies don’t have a particularly unique appearance, but they were the first zombies to have a taste for brains as opposed to flesh.
The original film in the series was a financial success, making $14 million on a $4 million budget, but the second movie in 1988 only just broke even, and the third installment in 1993 made only about three percent of its budget.
Zombi 3/Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 and After Death/Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 (1988)
Zombi 2 was released in the U.K. as Zombie Flesh Eaters and in the U.S. as Zombie, so Zombi 3 is the same as Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 and Zombie 2. After Death is another Italian zombie movie released as Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 and Zombie 4 (there is no Zombie 3). It’s an unofficial sequel to Zombi 3, which as you’ll recall was the sequel of an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead, but it was actually released a month before Zombi 3.
Corpse Killer (1994)
Corpse Killer is a game with a cult following. Really, as one of the hallmarks for better or worse of Sega’s less-than-successful foray into full-motion video games, it’s almost a cult classic by default (and with an antagonist named “Dr. Hellman,” there’s not much else to expect). Instead of traditional sprite-based or 3D-modeled graphics, most FMV games made heavy usage of highly compressed video to create the gameplay. Once hailed as “the future of gaming,” technical and budgetary limitations made a lot of these games into nothing more than curiosities and oddities. As such, Corpse Killer’s digitized actors in zombie makeup and costume leave the title as a campy bit of 1990s zombie culture.
Largely forgotten or ignored in the United States since its 1997 North American release, OverBlood has been rediscovered as a “so bad it’s good” game of legendary proportions, after being featured in the Game Informer series Super Replay in 2010. The actual zombies in the game aren’t really much to speak of, so why are we mentioning them here? Because: between bad visuals and downright hilarious melodrama, OverBlood is, unintentionally, a microcosm of everything that went wrong (or right, depending on your sense of humor) with the zombie genre in the 80s and 90s.
Resident Evil (1996)
Of course, if we’re going to talk about the bad, we have to talk about the good – and zombie games really don’t get much better than Capcom’s Resident Evil. The list of main series sequels, side-series spinoffs, and remakes of Resi includes 24 titles, but we’re just focusing on the original installment for now. The original Resident Evil zombies, created by the Umbrella Corporation’s T-Virus, are your classic, grey-skinned, rotting flesh zombies, and their reveal is one of the most iconic scenes in any horror game, period.
Even if you’re not into video games, you’ve probably heard of the Resident Evil franchise thanks to the film series that started in 2002. Not to mention, with another game that came out in 2015, Resident Evil is a franchise responsible for giving zombies new life in the nineties, and a franchise that’s still carrying the flag of the genre today.
2000s and Beyond – New Zombie Epidemics
After arguably running a bit stale over the past two decades, the zombie genre starting seeing huge resurgences in popularity and in the “you can actually take it seriously” factor. Thanks to directors doing old ideas right, as well as coming with original, interesting takes on the genre, zombies have made a big return to legitimacy.
28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later, as well as its 2007 sequel 28 Weeks Later, revitalized the zombie genre into something new and more terrifying than before. The key accomplishment of the series was finding a more believable and realistic explanation for the outbreak – instead of actual “zombies,” victims are “infected.” The Rage Virus creates fast, super strong, and uncontrollably aggressive humans, in a departure from the slow, rigor mortis’ed zombies of the Romero Era. The more frenetic pace to the horror that this created has been emulated countless times since.
The Walking Dead (2003)
Most people are most familiar with the Walking Dead TV adaptation on AMC, but the franchise and its brand of zombie horror got its start in 2003 with the comic book/graphic novel series written by Robert Kirkman. The TV drama that’s become one of the highest-rated and most-watched shows ever premiered in 2010, and the episodic adventure video game based on the show released its first installment in 2012. The Walking Dead zombies (or “Walkers”) in the comics typically adhere to the traditional zombie rules, but they’ve been shown to act more intelligently in the show. Characters who can think make for better TV, apparently.
The Zombie Survival Guide (2003)
Written by Max Brooks, author of the 2006 novel World War Z (the film adaptation of which is similar in name only, according to Brooks himself), The Zombie Survival Guide is essentially a codification of zombie lore. As a “nonfiction” survival manual outlining what would happen in and what one should do during a zombie apocalypse, The Zombie Survival Guide’s (fictional) scientific explanations and historical accounts of zombies are a great contribution to the resurgence of legitimacy in the zombie genre.
If you’re familiar with the movie Quarantine from 2008, REC is the original Spanish film upon which the remake Quarantine was based. In other words, REC is the good version.
Much as in 28 Days, the monsters in REC are not necessarily zombies, but humans infected with a rabies-like virus that causes loss of will and hyper-aggressive behavior. What makes the movie unique, though, is its style of cinematography. It’s a found footage film, but it relies heavily on its atmosphere rather than on overly disorienting shaky cameras or jump scares.
Left 4 Dead (2008)
Published by Valve, it can be argued that Left 4 Dead did for zombie games what 28 Days did for zombie movies. Not only was it a fresh take on cooperative multiplayer in first-person shooters, but it provided a new spin on the idea of infected humans. Different classes of zombies in the game each sport drastically different visual mutations, abilities, and levels of horror, requiring different strategies from the player.
The Last of Us (2013)
Described by many critics as a pinnacle of storytelling in gaming, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us can be seen as a complete reversal of the “B-movie” trends from decades past. The concept is as unique as the visuals are gorgeous: a mutated strain of the real-life fungus Cordyceps, which can grow inside an insect host and control its behavior, begins to infect humans. There’s no way to describe the resulting monstrosities as anything other than horrifying, so check out this clip compilation prepared by Generic Gaming and judge for yourself.