The wide world of zombie film

Posted by Cory Casciato On January - 21 - 2013

You can thank Italy for this classic moment

The modern zombie movie is a thoroughly American invention, forged in Pittsburgh by George A. Romero. But like rock and roll and nuclear weapons, it wasn’t long before foreigners had a look and decided they just had to make their own homegrown versions. Before the blood was even dry on his incredible undead innovation, zombie began popping up all over the world, a trend that continues to this day. Once you’ve finished picking the corpse of Romero’s canon clean, had your brains eaten by Return of the Living Dead and devoured Zombieland  and are ready to travel the world in search of new zombie thrills, this handy guide should get you started. It’s by no means comprehensive—that’s a book, not a blog post—but it should serve as an intro to what the world outside of the good old USA offers the zombie aficionado.

Apart from the United States, arguably no country has made as great a contribution to the zombie genre as Italy. That said, a huge percentage of the Italian zombie movies are terrible. There are some stone-cold classics, however. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2Zombie Flesh Eaters, and other titles) is the best place to start, and absolutely indispensable. It has its issues, but it features a zombie fighting a shark, and where else are you going to find that? His Gates Of Hell trilogy—The City Of The Living DeadThe Beyond, and The House By The Cemetery—also has its moments, especially The Beyond. The Italian-Spanish co-production Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is excellent and underrated, and Dellamorte Dellamore (a.k.a. Cemetery Man, another cooperative international venture that brings France and Germany into the fold) is an obscure gem that’s not quite like any other zombie movie you’ll find.

Spain’s undead MVP is the recent series [REC] (remade as Quarantine in the U.S.). The first movie inverted the classic Night Of The Living Dead paradigm, trapping a small group of people inside an apartment building with a small, but ever-growing, number of zombies. The result is a claustrophobic nightmare full of well-earned tension, terror-inducing moments, and ramping paranoia. The second film, [REC] 2, bears the same relation to the first as Aliens did to Alien, bringing in more firepower and more zombies with equally horrific results for all involved. The third, [REC] 3: Genesis, marks a tonal shift to horror comedy, but is no less enjoyable than its predecessors.

The good people of Norway managed what no other country ever has, despite repeated attempts: They made an entertaining movie about Nazi zombies in Dead Snow. These particular Nazi zombies are after revenge and a bunch of stolen gold, in that order (really, the gold is just an excuse for the revenge, obviously). The film suffers a bit in its over-earnest and over-done homage to The Evil Dead and Dead-Alive, but as long as you can forgive it those transgressions, it’s a fun, pleasantly gory, and engaging film.

Merry old England has the distinction of creating two of the best, and most influential, zombie movies of all time. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later  revived the dying genre in the early ’00s, bringing a new, faster, less-dead version of zombies to the screen and changing the genre forever. No less important is Shaun Of The Dead, a movie that managed to shoehorn a romantic comedy into a straight-up zombie apocalypse story and make both parts work equally well. No wonder it quickly became an all-time classic of the genre, then.

New Zealand
Before Peter Jackson brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth to life, he created the ludicrous gorefest that is Dead-Alive (Braindead in its native New Zealand). A bizarre, blood-drenched tale of young love, mother issues, and the perils of trying to handle a zombie outbreak on your own, Dead-Alive put New Zealand on the undead map in a major way, earning a reputation as possibly the bloodiest movie of all time. Sure, the country has yet to produce anything else anywhere near its caliber, but there’s still time. And somewhere, there’s got to be another Sumatran rat monkey waiting to cause trouble…

In recent years, Japan has made a strong bid to replace Italy as the international king of the zombie movie. Also like Italy, a lot of its zombie movies are atrocious. The exceptions are quite good, however. Start with JUNK, a Tarantino-esque tale of a group of amateur jewel thieves who run afoul of both the Yakuza and a group of zombies created as part of a military experiment gone awry. Also good is Versus, arguably the best martial-arts-and-magic meets zombie epic ever made. For sheer lunacy, Stacy—about a disease that turns adolescent girls into zombies called “Stacies”—is hard to top, although the more recent Tokyo Zombie—about a pair of jujitsu-obsessed idiots stumbling their way through a zombie apocalypse—gives it a run for its money.

China—Hong Kong, really—has made a few forays into the undead, with at least one solid film to show for it in BioZombie. Set in a mall—no doubt intentional shades of Dawn Of The DeadBioZombie follows a pair of hapless, low-level criminals that accidentally come into possession of, and subsequently unleash, an Iraqi bioweapon that returns the dead to a shambling, flesh-hungry mockery of life. A relatively light-hearted comedy with a surprisingly dark ending, the film manages to shoehorn in one of the few zombie-human love stories in cinematic history alongside the usual gory set pieces and comic antics.

This piece originally appeared, in a slightly different version, at the Denver/Boulder A.V. Club, when it still existed (RIP).

One Response to “The wide world of zombie film”

  1. I’d include France as an up-and-comer. I was very impressed with Mutants and The Horde. Some other foreign favorites of mine: Juan of the Dead from Cuba, The Plaga Zombie series from Argentina, Rammbock from Germany, and Pontypool from Canada.
    Also, I haven’t seen JUNK or Tokyo Zombie, or Stacy, but my current favorite Japanese zombie movie is Helldriver.

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