By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 29, 2013 at 1:05PM
You probably wouldn't be wildly surprised to learn that this week sees the release of a new zombie movie. After all, the archetype of the dead rising in their thousands to devour human flesh is a consistently popular one, and it sometimes feels that barely a month goes by without the cry of "brains..." coming from your local multiplex, video store, or Netflix queue (though actually, we have had a few months of respite; depending on your definition, the last film to feature the living dead was either "Resident Evil: Retribution" or the cast of "Quartet.").
Indeed, even the small screen isn't safe these days, with "The Walking Dead" now the most popular drama series on TV. But to its credit, "Warm Bodies," which opens on Friday, does something a little fresher with the genre, depicting with a healthy amount of humor the post-apocalyptic romance between a human woman (Teresa Palmer) and a zombified guy (Nicholas Hoult). Early word on the film, directed by Jonathan Levine ("50/50") is fairly promising (we'll have our review for you in the next day or two), but in the meantime, we thought this seemed like a good time to round up some of the more interesting films that have taken a non-traditional approach to zombies.
We tried to stay away from direct parodies or homages, and from straight horror films altogether (things like David Cronenberg's "Rabid" or Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" gave new spins to zombies, but still share a good deal of DNA with "Night of the Living Dead") focusing instead on movies that looked at the undead through a slightly different lens, either by going back to the roots of the myth, or by taking it to new places. Not all of them are great films, but they're all interesting to one degree or another. Check out our picks below, and let us know your own favorite non-traditional zombie flicks in the comments section below.
The term "zombie" has, thanks to George Romero and his countless imitators, come to mean a certain kind of trope; hordes of rotting undead, massing together in search of brains, and usually tearing civilization down as they do so. But it's a slightly bastardized term of the source of the word, and few used the "original" definition of zombie better than "Cat People" director Jacques Tourneur in his Val Lewton-produced 1943 film "I Walked With A Zombie." Zombies come from an African tradition of voodoo, to revive the dead, which started to reach the public consciousness in the 1930s, thanks in part to the Bela Lugosi-starring "White Zombie." In the early 1940s, RKO optioned an article from American Weekly Magazine, and gave Lewton free rein so long as he used their title. The result is an atmospheric and eerie Gothic romance, freely adapted from "Jane Eyre," of all things, that stands as a bona fide classic of the genre. The plot follows a Canadian nurse, Betsy (Frances Dee), who goes to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian to look after Jessica (Christine Gordon), the near-catatonic wife of sugar-plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Jessica had purportedly planned to run away with Paul's now-drunken half-brother Wesley (James Ellison), but was struck down by a mysterious fever before she could. Betsy, rapidly falling for Paul, sets out to cure her mistress, but discovers that she may be the victim of a voodoo curse, the source of which may be closer to home than she ever imagined. It's as rich in atmosphere and quietly creeping fear as any of Tourneur and Lewton's collaborations, thanks to J. Roy Hunt's beautiful chiaroscuro lensing, and the director carefully walks the line between the grounded and the supernatural, making the film all the more chilling as a result. And even if it was made before the Second World War was over, it's also a canny early example of post-colonial filmmaking, the script hinting that the Hollands, who brought slaves to the island, have no one to blame but themselves for their plight.
Long after Romero-type zombies had been popularized (even if they weren't quite as omnipresent as they are now), Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis traveled to Haiti to get to the root of the voodoo origins of the archetype, as presented forty years earlier in "I Walked With A Zombie." The result was his controversial best-seller "The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey Into The Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies and Magic," which depicted the case study of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who had been a "zombie" for two years, something that Davis ascribed to a mix of the neurotoxin Tetrodotoxin and a hallucinogen, along with long-standing cultural beliefs in voodoo. Naturally, Hollywood came a-calling, and the decidedly middling result was the 1988 film "The Serpent & The Rainbow," from horror maestro Wes Craven. Bill Pullman plays Davis surrogate Dennis Alan, who's sent to Haiti to look into a voodoo drug that a pharmaceutical company hope to use as an anesthetic. But his investigations are stymied by the locals and the local militia, led by the fearsome and mysterious Captain Dargent Peytraud (South African stage actor Zakes Mokae). It's a curious film, blending horror with "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and though it plays fast and loose with the source material, there's an authenticity to the voodoo and zombification aspects of the plot that sets it apart from much of the genre. The production values are pretty impressive, and the film can be genuinely frightening in places, not least in a torture sequence where Pullman's character has a nail driven through his ballbag. Craven doesn't quite have the restraint that the material needs, descending into cartoonish silliness the longer the film goes on, robbing it of much of its power to terrify. But it still probably remains one of the better films of the director's career, and as authentic a take on zombies as currently exists.