Key moments in the evolution of the undead

Last updated 05:00 20/06/2013
White Zombie
ZOMBIE LEGEND: the 1932 movie White zombie is thought to be the first of the genre.

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Because the zombie is essentially an empty vessel into which meaning can readily be poured, the genre is surprisingly alive. Here are five key moments in the evolution of the undead. But be warned: the selection is personal, and far from exhaustive.

White Zombie (1932)
Generally regarded as the first zombie feature, this black-and-white film stars Bela Lugosi as a Haitian voodoo master called Murder Legendre, who runs a sugar plantation staffed entirely by Haitian slaves. With its West Indian setting and focus on a magical explanation for the trancelike state of the undead (and lack of flesh-eating), it serves as a kind of goreless origin story for the modern zombie tale. Can be read as an allegory for fear of race taint; that might explain why it was one of the few Hollywood films the Nazis approved of.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero's film cost $114,000 to make and has grossed an estimated $30 million, making it arguably the most profitable zombie film ever. More significantly, it is the film that kicked off the modern iteration of the zombie picture, with a small band of survivors under siege from a marauding pack of flesh-eating ghouls. Other key contributions: many of the main characters are killed off, the source of the plague remains unclear, and the leading man (Duane Jones) is black.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Horror-meister Wes Craven plays it almost straight in this return to the Haitian setting of White Zombie, albeit while making a detour through the scientific-fringe of Ken Russell's Altered States (1980). Bill Pullman is a doctor on the trail of a drug that may have the power to bring people back from the dead; the voodoo aspect of Haitian culture is treated with something close to the seriousness of ethnographic documentary.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)
This English buddy movie-cum-romantic comedy - does that make it a Pom-zom-rom-com? - breathed new life into a by-then-old format, with Simon Pegg starring as a man stuck in a suburban rut that looked an awful lot like a living death. The pub as refuge/prison is a wonderful metaphor for ... well, something.

The Walking Dead (2010-)
AMC's series, based on the comic books by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, has taken the zombie genre to the masses, scoring audiences on cable television to almost equal any drama on American free-to-air. English actor Andrew Lincoln (he was Egg in This Life; he's Rick in this after-life drama) stars as the good cop determined to cling to some form of morality in a world gone to a very Darwinian form of hell.

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- Sydney Morning Herald


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