Patient Zero: White Zombie and Where the Dead Walk on Screen

If one were to examine pop-culture today and determine where exactly zombies and the undead stand, it would sort of feel as though they really do walk among us. In recent years, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, with now three seasons under its belt, has left zombies with an undeniable stamp on the medium of the screen.

Already in 2013, two films, Warm Bodies and World War Z, have graced audiences with two very different perspectives on, but nevertheless feature, beings that are neither dead nor alive. Countless upon countless horror films centering on zombies have been released over the decades that they, in fact, have spawned their own genre. The ‘Zombie Horror Film’ is now an immortalized subgenre of the horror flick but it goes even deeper than that as the folklore of zombies in North American culture is always being spun into more complex and varying webs of subgenre upon sub-subgenre.

Before one delves into the legend that continually grows, it is important to discover where the dead first began to walk the earth on screen. When we think of the origins of the ‘zombie,’ George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, is certainly a movie that comes to mind and although this is partly true, it being the origin for zombies as we know today, the source goes back a bit farther than that, in fact, over 30 years back whilst in the midst of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The term ‘zombie’ has roots reaching back into Haitian and African religion, where a zombie is someone who is an animated corpse or hypnotized into doing one’s bidding. Through voodoo and witchcraft it was believed to be possible to turn someone into a zombie. The living dead as we know them today, who rise from graves, is a little more of a recent concept. Rarely nowadays do movies that contain zombie subject matter actually depict them as traditional victims of witchcraft or voodoo; however, this was not always the case. Known to be the first ever full-length feature zombie-horror film, White Zombie is the motion picture which sparked the rise of what was to be a zombie take-over in North American horror.

White Zombie was directed by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin in 1932. The film stars the infamous horror virtuoso Bela Lugosi as well as Madge Bellamy, John Harron, and Robert Frazer. The setting of the plot actually takes place in Haiti and pits Lugosi’s character, Murder Legendre, as the voodoo master with a sugar mill full of his very own zombie slaves. Lugosi puts on a fantastically creepy  performance as the antagonist. His signature stare that garnered him so much respect in 1931’s Dracula curdles your blood and is ever present in this film. The atmosphere that the film evokes is undeniably scary and the blank expressions given off by Lugosi’s zombies are eccentrically eerie and truly void of any signs of human existence. Although at times the film is a little goofy (but are not all horror films from that time a little bit so?) and the acting also sometimes cringe worthy, there is a certain amount of charm that this independent horror gem carries along with itself.

Filmed in only 11 days, White Zombie was first released to the public in 1932 in New York City, where it faced less than positive reviews. Critically, the film was seen as a joke and as a laughable parody of what ‘true horror’ could accomplish. In retrospect, though, the film is seen as a pivotal piece in the growth of horror and is seen as the first film to introduce the term ‘zombie’ into mainstream media. For that alone it is certainly worth a watch, if not for Lugosi’s stellar performance.

After White Zombie, not many other zombie films saw zombies from the Haitian perspective and after the huge success of Night of the Living Dead, it would seem that for now, that perspective of zombie has all but been lost and forgotten. The hypnotism and voodoo magic is gone and in its place now stands bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, usually repulsively gory undead. However, after White Zombie there were still several zombie films that came out before George Romero ever got his start, and these included: The Ghost Breakers (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). None of them were hugely successful but each had their own little role in expanding and building upon zombie mythology in film.

With zombie-horror as an entire subgenre, it now appears as though sub-subgenres are expanding out of that as well. When you first want to create some sort of zombie-related flick, you have to ask yourself, what sort of zombies are we dealing with? Will the zombies simply rise from the dead or is there a virus involved? Do you need to be bit or is being scratched good enough to turn? Do the zombies specifically need to be shot in the head to be killed? Are they fast, jumping, and sprinting or are they slow, cumbersome, and lumbering? These questions and many, many more have to be answered and determined before one creates anything zombie related nowadays. When talking about zombies and zombie films, I will find myself asking questions like, “Are we dealing with 28 Days Later zombies or Dawn of the Dead zombies?” The list of characteristics that go into creating your own version of the undead is just so expansive, almost overwhelming now, that depending on which sort of zombie you wish to take on, chances are it will be very similar to some films while also very different to others, thus, the creation of a zombie sub-subgenre is created.

Infesting more than just the big screen, zombies are everywhere. Books, videogames (especially videogames), and television all host very successful zombie-related material and although some see the zombie genre as redundant and repetitive, it has been going on for roughly 80 years now and I am sure that zombies are here to stay. You can now have zombies attacking your garden on your iPhone in Plants vs. Zombies, watch Brad Pitt fend for his life against hordes of zombies in World War Z, and even read up and prepare yourself for the impending zombie apocalypse in Max Brooks’ best-selling book The Zombie Survival Guide, but just remember where it all came from; from a little Haitian plantation at the hands of a devious voodoo master practicing witchcraft and a spellbinding Bela Lugosi back in 1932.

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5 Kick-Ass Scenes in Horror Movies: 2000s Edition

Hey, let’s look at five cool horror movie scenes! (Beware of spoilers.) Let’s goooooooo!

5. Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead is awesome. That’s not my opinion. It’s a fact. It starts as a parody and slowly transforms into an honest-to-God kick-ass zombie movie in its own right. The most kick-ass scene? Shaun being forced to kill his own mom. The way this scene plays out is so hardcore and emotional that you forget you were laughing your guts out only minutes before. This was one of the most surprising sucker punches in recent horror memory, and earns a spot on this list.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: YOUR MOM

4. The Mist

The Mist is my dad’s favorite movie ever, and he says it’s all because of the ending. He calls it “wish fulfillment,” which I guess means he REALLY wants to see some giant monsters while out on a drive with me on a foggy day. For once, I agree with my old man, as the ending of this movie is KICK-ASS! But what happens at the end of the drive is what makes it so nuts. Out of gas and hope, our hero decides to play Russian roulette with his son and fellow survivors. Except he’s the only one who gets to pull the trigger. And he forgot to take any of the bullets out of the gun. And pretty much everyone else was sleeping. Then, immediately after he kills everyone, he’s saved! Yay! Life finds a way!

KICK-ASS LEVEL: DAD’S WISH FULFILLMENT

3. 28 Days Later

28 Days Later is probably one of the best “zombies that aren’t really zombies” movies ever, and it’s hard to pick just one scene that stands out. After days of solitary meditation (when that didn’t work I just asked my mom) I realized it was the empty London segment that sticks in my head. The pure loneliness of the sequence instills the entire movie with a sense of terrible hopelessness and illustrates a world where Jim has already missed the conflict…all he has to do is survive the apocalypse that already happened while he was out cold. I couldn’t find a clip of this scene anywhere, so enjoy this song about Thanksgiving. The number 28 features prominently at the eight-second mark.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: 28 (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

2. Troll Hunter

Troll Hunter is a “found footage” movie. I get why so many people hate them. Once my mom “found” some “footage” of mine when she put in what she thought was Police Academy II on VHS player. She would later refer to that Mother’s Day as “unfortunate.” You know what isn’t unfortunate? Troll Hunter, that’s what. This movie is paced ridiculously well, with a constantly escalating sense of danger and epicocity. The climax comes when our heroes confront a troll literally the size of a mountain, and the scale is truly frightening. I haven’t seen anything so big since the last time I had to pee. Wait. I apologize for that metaphor, but since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids didn’t make this list, I had to improvise.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: MOUNTAIN

1. Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin In the Woods. Lots of people loved this movie. Then lots of people decided it’s way cooler to not love stuff, and they began calling it overrated. I fall in the first camp, because it KICKS ASS. Even detractors will admit the last twenty minutes are awesome in the purest sense of the word. I mean, come on. Pretty much ALL the monsters EVER appear and proceed to throw the murder party of the millennium. Unicorn murder? It’s there. Clown fetish? You’re covered. KICK. ASS.

KICK-ASS LEVEL: KITCHEN SINK

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Sunday Digs: On Last Words, Coven Trailers, and Halloween Horror Nights

Here are a handful of goodies from around the Internet that we found interesting this past week.

The State of Texas has been apparently saving the last words of every death row inmate since 1982. Most claimed innocence, apologized to their victim’s families or thanked their loved ones for years of happiness and good memories. Others were not so poignant—such as a 1999 inmate that said, “Adios amigos,” before asking to be taken away.

I love the American Horror Story trailers. They’re almost creepier than the actual show.

Nick Carter is making a horror movie. Before you go Google who this new director is, I will confirm that it is boy band Nick Carter, from Backstreet Boys. I would love to see some reactions on this.

If you’re in the Orlando, Florida or Los Angeles, California area, pop into Universal Studios for the Halloween Horror Nights from September 20th–November 2nd. The park will feature haunted houses, mazes, street attractions, and shows from films like American Werewolf in London, Cabin in the Woods, and Evil Dead.

There is a movie adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the works. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Then I found out today that Universal is courting Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to screenwrite. I geeked out so hard I nearly passed out.

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Sunday Digs: Dracula’s House for Sale, Tattoos, and Cthulhu for Children

A country home in the UK, used as a film set for the 1958 Dracula starring Christopher Lee, is now on sale. The 118 bedroom mansion was also used as Frank N Furter’s castle in Rocky Horror Picture Show and several Hammer Films due to its close proximity to the studio.

Looking to get in shape this summer? Use the Zombies, Run! app for the extra motivation. Convince yourself that hundreds of lives are at risk from an undead horde and the energy to run an extra mile is just there. It’s better than caffeine.

This time of year seems to get people antsy for new ink. Here’s a lovely gallery of scifi/fantasy/horror themed tattoos. My favorite has to be the zombie Princess Leia.

Artist R.J. Ivankovich, also known as “DrFaustusAU” on DeviantArt, has combined an H.P. Lovecraft classic and illustrations eerily similar to favorite Dr. Seuss picture books to create The Call of Cthulhu—for Beginning Readers.

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