The zombie today ranks right up there with the vampire in terms of pop culture omnipresence, having easily surpassed the werewolf and Frankenstein's creature in popularity. Of course, today's zombie has little to do with the history of "real" zombies. The earliest zombie movies were not about those raised from the dead, but were related to the voodoo belief in being able to turn a living person into a mindless automaton under the control of witch doctor. George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" changed everything and led to the 21st century explosion of zombies that in most cases seem to have little to nothing to do with Haitian religious practices. The plethora of zombie movies in the last ten years guarantees that you haven't seen them all, but it's a sucker's bet to suggest that most of you have seen all of these zombie movies of the past, either.
I Walked with a Zombie
The greatest zombie movie ever made about the actual practice of turning a living soul into an undead creature. "I Walked with a Zombie" isn't about craving brains for nourishment and may not even seem like a zombie movie to those raised on the legacy of Romero. The greatest film analyst of them all, Robin Wood, describes "I Walked with a Zombie" as a movie that is really about "sexual repressiveness in the cause of preserving family unity." The fact that he's absolutely right shows just expansive the zombie conceit can be as a means of cinematic examination of society and culture.
King of the Zombies
"King of the Zombies" was made on an even lower budget than "I Walked with a Zombie." While in no way comparing to the artistry or creating the sense of dread and terror of that film, "King of the Zombies" is worth checking out as one of the first examples of what has come to be known as the zomedy. This zombie comedy does relate to the historical nature of the living soul turned into a zombie. The centerpiece of the comedy is found in the character portrayed by Mantan Moreland. Moreland was an African-American comedian unfortunate enough to be making movies when black characters were little more than racist stereotypes, but the fact that Moreland transcends those built-in limitations on a regular basis is on display nowhere any better than this zombie movie. In fact, I would argue that Moreland deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Although zombie movies prior to George Romero's intervention primarily focused on the Haitian voodoo component, it would be a mistake to suggest that Romero invented the concept of zombies being corpses risen from the grave wholesale. In fact, "Invisible Invaders" is a low budget precursor that strongly suggests the not-so-invisible guiding hand of influence on Romero. The entire look and movement of the zombies in "Invisible Invaders" is repeated in "Night of the Living Dead." The plots differ substantially, but if you want to watch what may be one of the most influential films ever made in the evolution of the portrait of zombies on film, then you should keep a sharp eye out for those "Invisible Invaders."
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