Undead Confusion: Zombie? Ghost? Both?

Posted by Cory Casciato On February - 10 - 2010

Ghost zombies? Zombie ghosts? It's all very confusing...

Zombie or ghost: It should be simple. If it has a body, it’s a zombie. If it doesn’t, it’s a ghost. Or to put it another way, a soulless, living dead body is a zombie, while a disembodied spirit is a ghost. But no, filmmakers have to go and make it all confusing and ambiguous — usually in terrible, terrible films.

I can’t say for sure that’s a result of mixing/confusing the two very different undead creatures, but I will say this: chances are good if you don’t know quite what kind of movie you are making, it is going to suck. And if you aren’t really sure what kind of creature your movie features, then almost by definition you aren’t real sure what kind of movie you’re making, right? Here’s a look at a few of the movies that blur the line, in an effort to sort out whether we’re looking at a ghost-like zombie, a zombie-like ghost or some genuine hybrid.

Movie: Route 666.

With a cast that included Lou Diamond Phillips, the guy who played X in X-Files (Steven Williams), Lori Petty and the dad from Pet Sematary (Dale Midkiff), it seemed promising. And the dead convicts that featured in the previews sure looked like zombies. They’re all rotted and corpsified, they take a bullet like a zombie (meaning, it hits them and there’s a hole, but they keep coming) and they crush a skull or two in a way that marks them as quite physical. Yet they appear and disappear, travel from place to place instantly and follow all sorts of ghost-like rules, like never being able to leave the cursed road they are forever attached to. And in the end, they get banished by some sort of goofy supernatural “justice,” when their murderer dies. All this could make for an interesting hybrid except for one thing: the movie sucks. It’s a brain-dead retelling of Midnight Run with extra added zombie/ghost action, with “snappy” dialog that snaps about as well as overcooked spaghetti and a story made by throwing darts at a map of horror movie cliches.

Verdict: Zombie-like ghost. And a terrible, awful, no-good movie. May I please have those ninety minutes of my life back?

Movie: The Crypt

A recent movie about six crooks who venture into a Depression-era crypt to loot the dead and run into a bunch of angry, dead … something. Again, they look like zombies, all decrepit and decayed. They exist physically. Except when they don’t. They grab people, then disappear. Sometimes they flicker, like a poorly tuned TV. They really, really don’t like it when people take their shit. But the kicker comes when they suddenly appear, miles away from the titular crypt, to recover some of their loot after the crooks escape in the first, false ending. Never mind that one of the characters had some of their loot to begin the movie and was miraculously unbothered by their ghostly zombie antics. Really, just never mind this movie. It’s crap.

Verdict: Zombie-like ghost. That flickering and appearing miles away were the kicker. Also, another ninety-plus minutes of my life that I will never get back.

Movie: The Fog

First off, let me state that everything John Carpenter has ever done is better than any of the other movies we’re discussing here. That said, The Fog isn’t one of his best. Not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t. It’s just okay. In it, a bunch of soggy dead lepers return from the dead to seek revenge on the descendants of the people that killed them. They’re plenty physical at times — banging on doors, stabbing people with a hook, breaking windows. Plus they’re real rotted and gross looking when we see them. And pretty much every zombie reference book mentions this as a zombie movie. But they only appear in the titular fog. And at least once, they pull some very poltergeist-type nonphysical stuff (making lights flicker, breaking stuff without being physically present, etc.). Also, the filmmakers refer to them as ghosts.

Verdict: I’m going to go out on a limb here to disagree with the experts and say these are zombie-like ghosts. Very zombie-like at times, but still ghosts. Also, The Fog is totally worth seeing, even if it isn’t as great as some of Carpenter’s other work and even if they aren’t really zombies.

oasisofthezombiesMovie: Oasis of the Zombies

I’ve reviewed this one already (review here) so let’s cut to the chase. The creature here is pretty much completely zombie — staggering, biting, post-Romero zombie from beginning to end. Except supposedly they only come out at night (although several scenes are clearly shot during the day, it’s clearly lazy filmmaking at work and nothing else) and are seen disappearing before our eyes at dawn. But the movie is called Oasis of the Zombies.

Verdict: Ghost-like zombies. And incredibly lazy filmmaking.

There are a few other confusing instances I’ve seen, including Outpost (review here) and Death Valley: The Revenge of Bloody Bill (review here) but I can’t stand to watch either of those again to catalog the specifics. Suffice it to say, they follow the rule of confusion = badness and neither does anything to clarify the issue.

Conclusion: Ghosts and zombies don’t hybridize too well, which isn’t that surprising. After all, one usually represents the essential spirit or personality lingering, perhaps in corrupted form, after death. The other represents the opposite, the post-mortem body, bereft of personality (usually), still walking around and maybe eating people. Where’s the middle ground in that? I’d implore future filmmakers to take that question to heart and, unless you have a  really, really good answer to it, figure out whether you’re giving us zombies or ghosts before you start filming, lest you end up a befuddled mess like most of these movies.

3 Responses to “Undead Confusion: Zombie? Ghost? Both?”

  1. rmlumley says:

    I actually really like The Fog. How can you go wrong with ghost zombie pirate lepers?

  2. @rmlumley – Don’t get me wrong, I liked it too. I just don’t think it’s in the same tier as Carpenter’s best work (such as Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, They Live, Escape from New York, etc.)

  3. rmlumley says:

    Yeah, I definitely think my top tier Carpenter is The Thing, Halloween & Big Trouble in Little China. Next for me is Escape from New York & The Fog.

    With that said, I agree that The Fog is more ghost than zombie.

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