Where would the modern horror film be without the great George A. Romero? With the 1968 release of his masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead”, GAR gave horror a vital shot in the arm and kicked the genre into overdrive. His film introduced the cinematic world to one of the last great horror monsters – the flesh-eating zombie. By creating a new zombie mythology, he bought horror down to a more personal and visceral level than ever before. What could possibly be more terrifying for movie audiences to contemplate than his new agenda for the recently deceased? Now zombies didn’t want to just kill you; they now needed to tear into your body with the same ferocity and gusto that you possess when you dive into that plate of ribs over at the Golden Corral. What was worse was that the flesh-eating zombie was never alone. He always showed up with hordes of like-minded friends who had taken him up on his dinner invite.
This mere thought of being feasted upon was enough to make the zombie the most successful cinematic horror creature. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number, by my own unofficial estimate there have been over 500 films released with flesh-eating zombies as the main antagonist! And the trend shows no signs of letting up with more drooling, festering zombies just over the cinematic (and basic cable) horizon. Zombies have become so socially acceptable that they have even been incorporated into the prim and proper world of the Jane Austin novel. Why even the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a zombie apocalypse preparedness page (with tongue firmly planted in cheek I might add).
But zombies (and the movies they were in) weren’t always so nasty. For the most part the zombie used to be no more than an evil genius’s unwitting tool. They were usually brought back to life by a practitioner of voodoo or by an immoral scientist. There were no unpleasant social overtones to the monsters. They just existed in a nether world – hovering between life and death. “White Zombie” (1932) is generally acknowledged as the first zombie movie. In the film, horror great Bela Lugosi creates zombies so they can work on his sugar plantation. The undead do his evil bidding and just mindlessly shuffle along. But “White Zombie” was just the first. Throughout the decades there have been a lot of other zombie flicks where flesh-eating was simply not allowed. So this month we’ll take a quick survey through the cinematic time portal and look back at some endeavors that featured vegan zombies…
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1. Creature with the Atom Brain (Columbia, 1955) – Director: Eddie L. Cahn
Police doctor Chet Walker (1950s sci-fi genre vet Richard Denning) has been called in on a strange case. It seems witnesses who testified against deported mobster Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger) are being eliminated one-by-one. What’s worse is that the radioactive fingerprints left behind by the killers are from men who are already dead! Walker and partner Dave Harris (S. John Launer) investigate and establish that Buchanan has come back to America with a mad German scientist (Gregory Gaye) who has invented a technique to bring back the dead using brain surgery, advanced electronics, and atomic energy. Buchanan intends to kill all of those who betrayed him and then set himself up as a new criminal mastermind. When he feels that Walker is getting too close to him, he unleashes his atomic zombies on an unsuspecting city. Pandemonium and destruction (along with tremendous amounts of stock footage) grip the city and Walker has to figure a way to stop the megalomaniac Buchanan before he himself becomes a victim.
Of all of Eddie Cahn’s 1950s rapidly shot monster movies, “Creature with the Atom Brain” is his least enjoyable. Cahn is never able to create any energy (!) or develop the frenetic pace that a movie about atomic zombies should have. Even though it is only 69 minutes long, the film is dull, dreary and creeps along. The screenplay (by the late, great Curt Siodmak) spends too much time on Denning’s home life with his wife (Angela Stevens) and bratty daughter (Linda Bennett), and not enough time developing the horror aspect of the zombies. They’re treated like traditional Frankensteins, not like amazing new monster menaces. And Cahn’s rush to complete the film quickly (for famed low budget producer Sam Katzman) leaves no room for any of the actors to shine, with the exception of Denning who is capable as always. What’s worse is that there’s very little monster payoff in the film (with the exception of an early use of squib effects). “Creature with the Atom Brain” is strictly a routine sci-fi thriller from the 1950s. Its main claim to fame is that it’s the first atomic zombie movie. Unfortunately, it has very little spark.
QUOTABLE MOVIE LINE: “According to the evidence, Hennessey was murdered by a creature with atom rays of super human strength and a creature that cannot be killed by bullets.”
2. Plague of the Zombies (Hammer [UK] – 20th Century Fox [US], 1966) – Director: John Gilling
Renowned physician Sir James Forbes (the fabulous André Morell) receives a distressing letter from one of his best pupils, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams). It seems that there has been a rash of recent deaths in his village that he cannot explain. He begs Sir James for his help, so Sir James and his lovely daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) travel to Cornwall. There, they find the small village held in a grip of fear. Sir James first insists on performing an autopsy on a recent victim, but since the village Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) refuses to allow this, Sir James and Peter decide to exhume a corpse. To their great shock they find the grave empty. Evidence leads Sir James to suspect that Squire Hamilton has been practicing voodoo on the recently dead in order to provide slave labor for his tin mine (well, that would cut down on the workman’s compensation claims). And now it seems that the evil Hamilton has set his sights on turning the lovely Sylvia into one of his undead minions…
By the mid 1960s, the Hammer movie factory was running like a well-oiled machine. Studio heads James and Michael Carreras knew where their bread was buttered and cranked out one cool horror film after another during this time. “Plague of the Zombies” remains one of their most satisfying thrillers. The screenplay by Peter Byran treats the two protagonists as if they were a modern CSI team. Through the early part of the movie, Morell and Williams are shown gathering facts and performing tests. They enlist the aid of the local police constable (a wonderful Michael Ripper) in their endeavors and only conclude that Squire Hamilton is creating zombies when their evidence is insurmountable. André Morell is simply brilliant as Sir James. He plays the feisty physician as sort of a 19th Century Bernard Quatermass (which he played on British TV). He prods for information, moves decisively, and refuses to let anything stand in his way of the truth. The film also benefits from sumptuous production design by the great Bernard Robinson and Roy Ashton’s effective peeling skin makeup for the zombies. The film is so good, that it’s a great shame Hammer didn’t make more films with Morell as the spirited Sir James. He could have been a great addition to Hammer’s Hall of Horror Heroes.
Quotable Movie Line: “I don’t know why I put up with you at all. I should have drowned you at birth.”
3. Shock Waves (Zopix, 1976) – Director: Ken Weiderhorn
Off the coast of Florida, four friends – Rose (a young Brooke Adams), Chuck (Fred Buch), Norman (Jack Davidson) and Beverly (D. J. Sidney) charter a small rundown cruise ship (helmed by horror veteran John Carradine) for a tour of the local islands. Later that day, strange atmospheric conditions affect the boat’s motor and that night the small ship is run aground by a large freighter. The next morning the freighter is revealed to be a hulking wreck. Everyone scrambles ashore to a nearby island, but not before they find the body of their captain floating in the water. While exploring, the group comes across a dilapidated old hotel with only one occupant; a former Nazi officer (Peter Cushing) who is openly hostile to everyone. Later that day the ship’s cook is found murdered, his hand still clutching a German SS insignia. Confronted with this evidence, the commander reveals the island’s secret. During World War II a hideous Gestapo experiment resurrected a large group of dead soldiers into an indestructible fighting force. As the war neared its conclusion, Cushing took his group of death soldiers and sailed away in a freighter. The commander sunk the ship entombing his men while he fled to the island. Now his zombie soldiers have escaped their watery grave and are looking to kill everyone. The commander goes out to look for his men, but instead is murdered by one of them. The zombies now press their attack on the small group of survivors. Only Rose makes it back to civilization. But the horrible events leave her mentally unhinged.
Going to see horror films in the 1970s was a dicey situation. You never knew if the movie would be good, mediocre, or an unmitigated piece of crap. Imagine my delight then, on seeing “Shock Waves” for the first time at a local New Jersey theater. This low budget wonder creates an eerie, unsettling mood that gets under your skin and doesn’t let up until the final credits. It is a lively and surprisingly effective first time effort by director Ken Weiderhorn. He does a superb job building up the feeling of dread and drags the audience along for the claustrophobic ride. One of the best scenes in the movie is when the Nazi zombies rise out of the water. Seeing these death machines emerge with their waterlogged, expressionless faces and dark goggles is one of the great horror images I have from the 1970s. While the actors are uniformly good (Brooke Adams flashes early star power) special mention goes to horror veterans Peter Cushing and John Carradine. Both lend class to the film and really help sell the outrageous storyline. “Shock Waves” is one of the great low budget horror films from the 1970s. After more than 30 years and a bunch of imitators, it remains an effective Nazi zombie movie.
Quotable Movie Line: “The sea spits up what it can’t keep down.”
4. NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (Tri-Star, 1986) – Director: Fred Dekker
College newbies Chris (Jason Lively) and JC (Steve Marshall) are trying to fit in at Corman (!!) University. JC even agrees to pledge the campus Beta fraternity so Chris can make time with lovely co-ed Cynthia (Jill Whitlow). But scummy Brad (Alan Kayser), the leader of the fraternity, sends the pledges to the basement of the science building to recover a cadaver. Chris and JC reluctantly comply, but instead of a fresh corpse, they find a cryogenically frozen student and thaw him out. This turns out to be a really bad move, since the student’s brain is infested with slugs from outer space. Once thawed, the slugs multiply, erupt from his head and proceed to infect dozens of others on campus and turn them into walking zombies. Soon the zombies call on Cynthia and her sorority sisters. It’s up to Chris, Cynthia, and a suicidal detective (Tom Atkins) to save the campus and the local population from the multiplying slug creatures.
I often wonder how first-time director Fred Dekker pitched the idea for “Night of the Creeps” to the studio heads at Tri-Star. (“Well it’s kind of a sci-fi/alien horror/zombie/Animal House kind of movie.”) However he did it, I’m so glad he was successful and made this film. It’s a love letter to the golden age of sci-fi and horror, and it’s clear that Dekker fell in love with this stuff as a kid. From naming the characters after famous sci-fi/horror directors (Cameron, Cronenberg, Romero…) to including send ups of the classic lovers lane psycho stories we all told late at night, to the clever and sarcastic dialogue, this movie is one of the rare horror comedies that deftly balances the chuckles and the yucks. While Jason Lively and Jill Whitlow are only decent in their lead roles, Tom Atkins is impressive as the depressed police detective who has never forgotten the death of his first love and is determined to go out in a literal blaze of glory. The slimy slugs make great disgusting movie monsters and their desire to multiply provide a different kind of motivation for the human zombies. A certified box office bomb when released (thanks to crummy advertising and distribution by Tri-Star), “Night of the Creeps” has now been rightfully recognized as a 1980s zombie classic. It’s a great funhouse ride that delivers.
QUOTABLE MOVIE LINE: “Johnny, can we go back to the Point now? I’ll even let you fondle my breasts.”
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Of course “Vegan Zombies” is just my general term for non-flesh eating zombie movies (see below for additional entries). The zombie films mentioned above can be broken down into sub genres including voodoo-created zombies, Nazi zombies, scientifically-created zombies and alien-controlled zombies. And while I enjoy the flesh-eating films as much as the next horror junkie, there are times when I get nostalgic for this old type of zombie. They almost seem cute next to their more voracious cousins. I mean, at least they’re very well mannered.
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Additional “Vegan Zombie” Films
1. The Astro-Zombies (1968)**
2. The Blind Dead (1972)
3. Bride of the Re-Animator (1990)
4. Dead and Buried (1981)
5. Dead Heat (1988)
6. Deathdream (1972)
7. Doctor Blood’s Coffin (1961)
8. Horror Express (1972)
9. I Eat Your Skin (1964)
10. The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies (1965)**
11. Invisible Invaders (1959) (Eddie Cahn again!)
12. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)*
13. King of the Zombies (1941)
14. Lifeforce (1985)
15. Plan 9 From Outer Space**
16. Re-Animator (1985)*
17. Revenge of the Zombies (1943)
18. Revolt of the Zombies (1936) (sorry, not “Revolting Zombies”)
19. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
20. Sugar Hill (1974)
21. Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965) (featuring the gorgeous Barbara Steele)
22. Voodoo Man (1944)
23. White Zombie (1932)*
24. Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) (another Sam Katzman production)
* Generally acknowledged as a horror classic.
** Acknowledged as generally horrible.
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Del Vecchio, Deborah and Johnson, Tom. Peter Cushing – The Gentle Man of Horror and His 91 Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.
Meikle, Denis. A History of Horrors – The Rise and Fall of The House of Hammer. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2009.
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s (Volume 1). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2002.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2010.