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Zombies at the Cinema (1930s-1970s)

Zombies are united by a key trait: the lack of free will, allowing it to symbolise exploitation and social decay. This article looks at the zombie movie fro- BRAINS! BRAINS!!

Over the years, the zombie has provided a valuable source of inspiration for film-makers; spanning across time and genre. In this article, I will be looking at the origins of the zombie film, how the zombie film has changed overtime, and what the future might hold for these classic cinema creatures.

Before looking at the role of zombies in film, it’s useful to look at context such as what a zombie is and where it came from. It’s widely accepted that the zombie creature originated from the Haitian Vodou (or Voodoo), a religion based on West African Vodun, which translates to “spirit” in the languages of the countries it is practised in. For Haitian Vodouists, the zombie is a person who was once dead, but has been revived and compelled to to do the reviver’s bidding, which might include all sorts of nefarious activity. Although this remains a belief on the island, many anthropologists and scientists suspect reported events of the zombie making process likely involved the use of powerful drugs such as burundanga, poisonous toads, and puffer fish.

In Haitian Vodou, the zombie creature is relatively unfeared, rather the real terror is found in the idea of being turned into a zombie. In Vodou, being turned into a zombie means a total lack of control a person might hold, and the risk you could be forced to carry out a manner of depraved pursuits at the hands of the reviver.

The modern brain-eating, arm flailing, staggering zombie is often accredited to originating in American film-maker George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), but the zombie film existed before the horror classic ever came on screen.

Both the voodoo zombie and the modern film zombie are united by one key trait: a complete lack of free will. Whether at the hands of magic, hunger, or desire, the zombie is driven to it’s depravity by an external force and it is for this reason that the zombie has come to symbolise exploitation and social decay. What is not so straightforward however is the way we might interpret what exploitation and social decay is exactly. I think this is probably one of the reasons we see so many on-screen theories expressing the creation of a zombie, i.e. scientific experiments gone awry, biological mutation, chemical warfare, viruses, pollution, and even magic. Maybe this is also why we see the zombie in such an array of film genres, such as in science fiction, comedy, and even romance.

So, now we’ve established what exactly a zombie is, let’s look at the zombie movie timeline.

1930s – 1940s

White Zombie (1932) [dir. Victor Halperin]

“Stranger things are happening than you ever dreamed of!”

White Zombie, produced by Edward Halperin and directed by Victor Halperin, is an American, pre-code horror film. It was produced independently and based on The Magic Island written by William Seabrook in 1929. The film starred Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre, a Haitian voodoo master, and Madge Bellamy as Madeleine Short, Legendre’s victim. There’s a general consensus that Halperin’s White Zombie is on of, if not the, first feature length zombie films. It is for this reason that the film is held in higher regard today than it was at the time of its release.

The Ghoul (1933) [dir. T. Hayes Hunter]

“Weird happenings in a house of mystery.”

The Ghoul is a British horror film starring Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, and Ernest Thesiger. It’s loosely based on the novel of the same name written by Frank King in 1928. The plot centres around Egyptologist Professor Morlant (Karloff) who seeks posthumous revenge after his precious jewel has been stolen. Betrayed, Morlant becomes undead to exact his revenge on the thieves. The Ghoul was considered a lost film up until it’s rediscovery in 1969, when collector William Everson found a copy in what was then Czechoslovakia. The film was badly damaged and wouldn’t be released in it’s entirety until 2003, seven decades after it’s initial release. Despite being a ghoul, Morlant is really a shambling zombie.

Revenge of the Zombies (1943) [dir. Steve Sekely]

“DEAD MEN CAN’T DIE… but live to follow a mad-man’s will!”

Revenge of the Zombies, later renamed The Corpse Vanished, is an American horror film starring John Carradine as Dr. Max Heinrich Von Altermann, a mad scientist who is working on creating a race of undead soldiers for the Third Reich. Although it’s not a very good film, Peter Dendle – author of The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia – mentions Revenge of the Zombies is the first film to expect audiences already know what a zombie is.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) [dir. Jacques Tourneur]

“The blackest magic of voodoso keeps this beautiful woman alive…yet DEAD!”

I Walked With a Zombie is an American horror film starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, and Tom Conway. The film follows the experiences of Betsy Connell [Dee], a nurse who travels to the Caribbean in order to care for the wife of a sugar plantation owner. Whilst there, Connell has encounters with voodoo and zombies. Upon its initial release, I Walked With a Zombie largely received negative reviews. Much later however, retrospective reviews have been very positive. Alan Jones, from Radio Times, referred to the film is a “classic of the genre.”

Zombies on Broadway (1945) [dir. Gordon Douglas]

“Two zanies on a zombie hunt!”

Zombies on Broadway is an American comedy film. It stars Alan Carney and Wally Brown as they hunt down a real zombie to be a part of gangster Ace Miller’s zombie-themed nightclub. Bela Lugosi also stars as mad scientist, Professor Renault, who creates the zombies. Zombies on Broadway has been poorly rated both contemporaneously and retrospectively.


Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) [dir. Edward L. Cahn]

“Zombies of the ocean deeps!”

Also known as The Dead That Walk, Zombies of Mora Tau is an American horror film. The premise of the film is that a team of deep sea divers travel from America to Africa in order to salvage a box of diamonds on a sunken ship. Upon arrival, the team discover the ship is occupied by undead crewmen, who have been cursed to protect the diamonds from salvagers.

Teenage Zombies (1959) [dir. Jerry Warren]

“A fiendish experiment performed with sadistic horror!”

Teenage Zombies is an American, sci-fi horror film that follows a group of teens who find themselves standed on an island with mad scientist Dr. Myra [Katherine Victor], her gorilla [Mitch Evans], and her zombie Ivan [Chuck Niles]. The plot of the film sees Dr. Myra attempt to capture and use the teens in her zombie experiments. Unfortunately, the film was not well executed, leading film historian Bill Warren to label it “dreadful, leaden, and depressingly cheap.”

The Dead One (1961) [dir. Barry Mahon]

“See the excitement of a night in New Orleans. Then see the horrors of a voodoo curse!”

The Dead One, also known as Blood of the Zombie, is an independent, American horror film starring John McKay and Monica Davis. In the film, Monica [Davis] a voodoo priestess, and her cousin John [McKay], a businessman, try to attain their family’s plantation in Louisiana. Monica’s main scheme involves dispatching zombies to bring her live victims to use in her rituals. The film remains memorable today due to its very wooden acting.

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964) [dir. Ray Dennis Steckler]

“Monsters come real! Crash out of screen! Invade audience! Abduct girls from their seats! Not 3-D.”

Aside from boasting a very catch title, the American monster movie The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? has also been accredited the worst film ever made. Despite such hostile regard, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies would become a cult classic, and a favourite of kitsch film fans everywhere. Although it has an outspoken sense of style, the film’s plot is weak. Steckler’s character Jerry falls in love with a stripper named Carmelita [Erina Enyo] who happens to be the sister of a gypsy named Estrella [Brett O’Hara]. After scoffing at her magical powers, Estrella turns Jerry into a zombie who then goes on a killing spree.

The Last Man on Earth (1964) [dir. Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo B. Ragona]

“Alive among the lifeless… alone among the crawling creatures of evil that make the night hideous with their inhuman craving!”

The Last Man on Earth is an American-Italian sci-fi, horror film based on the post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson. Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan, the last man on Earth, who must hunt the victims of a plague who have turned into undead creatures. The creatures in this film are a fusion of zombies and vampires. Like vampires, they are repelled by garlic, unable to withstand sunlight, and hate garlic, but they are also weak and unintelligent – like zombies. The film has positive retrospective reviews, with critic Phil Hall claiming The Last Man on Earth as Price’s best film.

The Plague of the Zombies (1966) [dir. John Gilling]

“Only the lord of the dead could unleash them!”

The Plague of the Zombies is a British film from Hammer Film Productions. The plot of the film features a small village in Cornwall, Victorian England. Townspeople have been dying from a mysterious plague, and the local Dr. Tompson [Brook Williams] is unable to treat it. James Forbes [Andre Morell] and his daughter Sylvia [Diane Clare] help the doctor investigate, only to discover the plague’s victims are undead. The film was generally well received upon its initial release, and remains popular today, prominence garnered due to its oft cited title as the influencer of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead (1968) [dir. George A. Romero]

“They keep coming back in a bloodthirsty lust for human flesh!”

Which brings us nicely on to the next film, the incredibly popular American independent horror film Night of the Living Dead. The film starred Duane Jones as Ben, the film’s hero, as he helps his fellow Pennsylvanians protect themselves within the walls of an old farmhouse whilst a hoard of bloodthirsty zombies lurk outside.


Tales from the Crypt (1972) [dir. Freddie Francis]

“Death lives in the Vault of Horror!”

Tales from the Crypt is a British horror anthology film based on EC Comics. In the film, five strangers find themselves lost in a catacomb after becoming separated from their tour groups. They come across a Crypt Keeper [Ralph Richardson], who shows each of them how they will die. The film received mostly very positive reviews and Tales from the Crypt remains a classic of the horror genre today.

Sugar Hill (1974) [dir. Paul Maslansky]

“She’s sweet as sugar… with a voodoo army of the undead!”

Sugar Hill is an American blaxploitation horror film, starring Marki Bey as the titular character. In order to avenge the death of her boyfriend, Langston [Larry D. Johnson], Hill enlists the help of voodoo queen Mama Maitresse [Zara Cully] which leads to the unleashing of a zombie army.

Rabid (1977) [dir. David Cronenberg]

“Pray it doesn’t happen to you.”

Rabid is a Canadian-American body horror film, starring Marilyn Chambers as Rose, the lead character. Rose undergoes an experimental surgery after an accident but develops blood-thirst as a side effect. Her victims turn into zombies leading to an undead epidemic.

I hope you have enjoyed reading through this timeline, and I plan on writing a part two very soon, featuring zombie films from the 1980s onward. I think it’s really interesting to see the trajectory of these movies, and how much the genre has evolved overtime.

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