List: 5 almost (or barely) zombie movies

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 17 - 2010

Is this a zombie movie?

I saw The Crazies this weekend. I liked it pretty well. It wasn’t a zombie movie. It did contain some very zombie-movie like themes and ideas, and the infected were somewhat zombie-like, but it wasn’t a zombie movie. Director Breck Eisner does a good job of explaining why in this interview. Here’s the key point, for my money:

They don’t lose their personalities and persona completely. It just lets loose this monster within and it does it differently with each person. That’s what makes it different from a zombie movie.

Now, arguably the same could be said about certain Romero works, especially Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, but even in those movies, the creatures were zombie first (eat the flesh of the living above all else), remaining persona second. The Crazies had some of its infected do nothing more than just mill about aimlessly, while others actively sought revenge on those they perceived to have wronged them. Some worked as a team, some drove cars — does that sound very zombie-like to you? Compare that to other “infected” movies that, to me at least, are zombie movies, such as 28 Days Later. The infected in 28DL act like zombies — they seek out and attack the uninfected. They have lost all vestige of their previous personality, mind or soul. They can’t open a door, much less drive a car or operate a firearm. That’s a zombie.

Time will tell whether Eisner’s The Crazies is considered a zombie movie or not, despite his explanations and intentions. Ultimately, it’s the film’s audience and history that decides how a film is classified (never forget, Romero never considered his creatures zombies until audiences classified them as such and he went with it!). And that definition can be fairly arbitrary. For reference, here’s a look at five movies that utilize zombie-like ideas and creatures, yet alter the zombie mythos in fundamental ways. Some are considered zombie films, some are not.

The Crazies (original) – In case you weren’t aware, Eisner’s The Crazies is a remake. And a fairly faithful one, at that. The characters, setting and plot are different on the surface, but all follow the broad outline closely. In both cases, you have a water-borne virus that makes people murderous and unstable and a corrupt military more concerned with containing the incident and covering it up than in “saving” anyone. Eisner uses more make-up effects on his crazies — Romero’s are completely impossible to tell from normals except by their behavior.  That behavior includes using guns and other weapons — they don’t seem terribly impaired except for the utter lack of rationality and tendency to get all murdery. Interestingly this film feels like a bridge between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead in many ways – some of the characters, the pacing and the look of it, for example.

History’s Verdict: It was never considered a zombie movie, probably because it came from the zombie master himself and yet was so obviously not part of his “zombie” vision.

My Take: Definitely not a zombie movie, but a movie that runs on a parallel track to the archetypal zombie film.

The Grapes of Death – This French film (review here) concerns some tainted wine that turns people into sore-covered, angry shells of their former selves. Except one woman, who looks great but is still murderous. They use weapons, open doors, they work together to kill the unaffected, attempt to hide their afflictions and can still talk. They are definitely not post-dead. They are very similar to the crazies in both Romero’s and Eisner’s films.

History’s Verdict: This is considered a zombie film. And there’s not even really any controversy surrounding that designation! Two of the three zombie-movie reference guides I use (Glenn Kay’s Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide and Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead) list it, albeit with a brief mention that the “zombies” aren’t really dead.

My Take: I have a hard time seeing this as a zombie movie. It’s a lot closer to The Crazies model. They aren’t dead (minor point) and still retain a number of critical faculties (larger point). But who am I to argue with history?

Nightmare City – The “zombies” here are radiation victims that have a burnt look and an insatiable appetite for blood. Oh, and they can only be killed by destroying the brain. Sounds kind of zombie-like, yeah? Well, they also fly planes, use guns and melee weapons, coordinate attacks and cut phone lines. Less zombie-like, that. They basically take over a city to drink the blood of its inhabitants. It’s ridiculous, but entertaining (read my initial reaction piece here). Director Umberto Lenzi insist they are not zombies. He also insists that this is a serious film about he dangers of nuclear technology, so…

History’s Verdict: All three of my reference books mention it as a zombie film (the third is Peter Dendle’s excellent Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, which calls it a “lamentable reel stain,” a judgment I feel is unduly harsh for such a hilarious farce of a film). It’s considered as part of the cycle of ’80s zombie films and the fact that these zombies are still living (just uglified) and as smart as anyone else in the film is never mentioned.

My Take: Oddly, I always think of this as a zombie film. It is so obviously indebted to the Italian zombie cycle it’s hard not to. Yet taken objectively, it is hard to see it as much different, again, than The Crazies.

Warning Sign – This mid-80s obscurity starring Sam Waterston (Law & Order) is set in a research facility where they are testing bacterial bioweapons. Bioweapons that turn people into murderous, scab-covered freaks. Is this sounding familiar? The facility gets locked down, Waterston tries to rescue his wife from the murderous, scabby bad guys, etc. Again, these infected retain everything human except the part about not killing anyone who doesn’t have the same bacterial infection you do. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Is it any wonder this movie is so obscure?

History’s Verdict: Not considered a zombie movie. Maybe it’s the marketing, or the fact that no one saw it. Whatever the reason, no one ever called this a zombie movie as far as I can tell.

My Take: I have to agree with history here. This feels like a cheap knockoff of the original version of The Crazies (itself incredibly obscure) and manages to avoid seeming like a zombie film at all. It’s also boring and slow.

Pontypool – One of these things is not like the others, can you tell which one? Okay, it’s Pontypool. This tale of a language-transmitted virus that causes people to seek out victims to infect while babbling insanely is its own, weird little corner of “kinda-sorta-barely-not-quite” zombiedom. I’ve got a full review coming Friday, but what you need to know is these zombies are technically alive, but they are all compelled to act in a largely mindless fashion, seeking only to infect others with their weird virus and to kill. That sounds pretty zombie-like, doesn’t it? No car driving or gun wielding here, just lots of dazed looking people wandering around and doing each other ill.

History’s Verdict: Too early to tell. Some reviews classified it as a zombie film, others said it wasn’t. Its small audience seems split. Magic zombie eight-ball says, “Ask Again Later.”

My Take: A brilliant deconstruction of the zombie film and, thus, the zombie. Director Bruce McDonald has retained everything necessary to make this look and feel like a zombie film and either tweaked or cut everything else to give it a truly bizarre and original twist. Works equally well either way. I’ll elaborate more in my review, but I’d call this a zombie film, barely. But in the best possible way.

So there you have it. Which of those films, if any, do you consider zombie films? Why? And does this mean that the definition of zombie is the same as the infamous Supreme Court definition of pornography (“I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it”)? Is it even possible to really, fully define the zombie? I admit, at least a couple of these films challenge my definition of zombies (set out here and here) and it seems like if some are included, all should be (or vice versa). I welcome any thoughts and opinions out there.

8 Responses to “List: 5 almost (or barely) zombie movies”

  1. zman says:

    neat post.. I’m a little torn on weather or not pontypool and the crazies are zombie movies. I’ve classified them zombie more times then not I guess they’re zombie enough, the other 3 on your list I haven’t seen.

  2. Joey Heck says:

    I can’t speak for the other 4, but I say The crazies is totally a zombie movie. You can’t deny Zombieland, and they are the same as 28 Days Later, and they are almost identical to The Crazies.

    I say we redefine the term Zombie
    http://www.shambleupon.com/2010/02/redefining-zombie.html

  3. MIkheil Elizbarashvili says:

    I liked Crazies 1973 more than the new one.

  4. Zombie Shakespeare says:

    Pontypool definitely feels like a zombie movie, a great one at that.
    If a werewolf got bitten by a zombie, would a silver bullet still kill it if it wasn’t a head shot?

  5. Br-ZFan says:

    Zombie-style or zombie-inspired movies? Undoubtedly. True zombie movies? With the possible exception of Pontypool (which I will be watching just as soon as I finish this post), I would have to respond with a resounding “no”. I’m not trying to split hairs here, but these “Crazies” inspired creatures have experienced neither physical nor intellectual death. For me at least, the categories of human and zombie are mutually exclusive. I would unquestionably consider the folks in “The Crazies”, “Grapes of Death” and “Warning Sign” human. They might be extremely sick and depraved humans, but are still recognizable as such. In contrast, I don’t know that I can consider the infected in the Danny Boyle films human; they are in a mental state of being outside of even the most stretched boundaries of humanity. They lack any and all instinct for survival and exist only to kill the living and further the infection. As for the baddies in “Nightmare City”, they seem much more reminiscent of vampires than of zombies. Vampires retain knowledge of their former lives as humans and kill (usually) without conscience anyway, zombies mindlessly gnaw on whatever living flesh they happen upon (traditionally). Vampires are intelligent, drink blood, and can coordinate attacks on the living; zombies…… mindlessly gnaw ect.ect. Just found this website tonight, love it :)

  6. […] and informed by the zombie apocalypse meme. Like most of the movies I chronicled in my list of almost/sort-of/barely zombie movies, it definitely works an at-times very zombie-like vibe yet manages to be different enough to […]

  7. Heard says:

    The crazies is the only movie on this list worth watching

  8. Patrick says:

    Hello Everybody,

    First, gratitude to Cory for the post. Great subject matter. It’s always fun to debate or discuss opinions on zombie vs. non-zombie flicks. Gives folks an opportunity to share zombie wisdom. In the long run, everybody benefits.

    I used to be a purist regarding zombie movies. They had to be undead, eat the flesh of the living, and be contagious in some way. Over the years, I’ve relaxed my position on it. Now, as long as I enjoy the film, I dig it. If a movie feels zombie-ish to me, it’s close enough for me to enjoy. It doesn’t bother me that other people have different opinions. I like reading and talking about how people feel about the subject. It’s all good.

    Crazies (Remake) was pretty fun. I enjoyed the style. Haven’t checked out the original but I’ve put it on my list of groovy. I’ll watch any Romero movie simply out of respect. Danny Boyle’s movies are awesome, especially 28 weeks. Primo flick. Haven’t seen Pontypool yet but I’m looking forward to it.
    The others on the list I haven’t seen.

    Thanks for the post and for the discussion, everybody.

    Have a good one,

    Patrick

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