The evolution of zombie design

From Neanderthal zombie to comedy zombie

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It's been forty years to this month that George A Romero released his low-budget black and white zombie chomper to the drive-ins and fleapits of the late sixties. Since then the undead's rise and rise have seen the cadaverous heroes taking the starring role in some 168 commercial movies. Here we chart four decades of zombie evolution...

The Neanderthal zombie from The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Thought George A. Romero was the original zombie auteur? Nah. Not really. He nicked it from this obscure Vincent Price vehicle. Just look at the premise: Pricey wakes up one morning and realises everyone has turned into flesh eating vampires. Next thing you know he's holed up in a house slaughtering swathes of blood suckers. Totally ineffectual unless they're en masse, the vamp's clumsy gait and slow movement is clearly the template for Romero's 'zombie 1.0' four years later.

WATCH the original The Last Man on Earth trailer

The Classic zombie from The Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Classic zombie established some crucial zombie rules: for some reason, never really explained properly, they need to eat humans to survive. They must walk like drunks and emit low pitched, almost inquisitive, moans. They are cannibals. They can only be killed with headshots. They should wear white face paint and have panda eyes. Clear, simple, specific rules. You always know where you stood. But they had to go and mess with the formula, didn't they?

WATCH The Night of the Living Dead in full, legally. (The original film was never copyrighted.)

The Italian zombie from City of the Living Dead (1980)

The most notorious Zombie film is Italian: Lucio Fulci's not-really-very-classic-at-all-actually Zombie Flesh Eaters. In fact, as far as we can tell, every other film produced in Rome between 1970 and 1985 was about zombies. These exploitative shockers advanced zombie design by turning up the gore. Two minutes in make-up was no longer enough - you needed pigs blood, maggots, green slime, exposed veins and all manner of pipes hanging out. Shame that the films were mostly shite, with the entire budget spent on one scene where a zombie gets slashed up by a rotor blade or eaten by a shark.

WATCH the original City of the Living Dead trailer

The Emotional zombie from Day of the Dead (1985)

Romero's next addition to zombie physiology was to suggest a zombie could be re-humanised. The stupid idiot. Zombies' unique charm is that they are disposable cannon fodder, invented for horror directors to test out their most violent and sicko murder fantasies on. This is why Day of the Dead's Bub 'the friendly, emotional zombie' sub-plot is a rubbish idea and should never have been allowed. We don't want to feel sorry for zombies, we want to see them clumsily feeding their intestines back into their stomach cavities.

WATCH the original Day of the Dead trailer

The Martial Arts zombie from Versus (2000)

So if zombie is capable of thought processes it seems (or certain Japanese directors took it to mean) that zombies can do martial arts. Never mind that learning how to roundhouse kick to the face takes years of practice and extraordinary control of limbs and balance. Somehow, zombies can do that now. We don't agree with this advancement. The only way zombie should be allowed to kick is if his leg comes off and it gets used as a club. At least martial arts zombie has pleasingly lo-fi make-up.

WATCH the original Versus trailer

The Fast zombie from 28 Days Later (2002)

We like fast zombie. Fast zombie makes sense. Still fundamentally stupid and disposable, the elements of guile and speed applied to flesh-eating monster make zombie badass scary. No longer are you safe walking at a steady trot in order to out-run a pack of undead doofuses. Now they pelt at you full speed like offal-crazed Linford Christies.

WATCH the original 28 Days Later trailer

The Comedy zombie from Shaun of the Dead (2005)

We don't need to explain here why seeing zombie Nick Frost chained up in a shed, trying to hold a PlayStation controller, is funny. We're just pleased that the people who ended up tackling zombie comedy (Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright) were genuine fans. This could have gone disastrously, unspeakably wrong in the hands of, say, Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. Don't write off Zombie Movie just yet. Which is, by their current naming logic, exactly what it will be called.

WATCH the original Shaun of the Dead trailer


    • Buried At Sea

      Oct 9th 2008, 14:41

      This is pretty awesome, my favourite type of zombie's are definately 28 days version as they were actual proper dangerous!

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    • Snuggly

      Oct 9th 2008, 16:31

      I'm surprised no one's made a film with smart zombies. Ones that still lust after human flesh but know how to do it properly. It could even be quite comical - one smart, rational, posh zombie in charge of legions of braindead morons.

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    • dannyboy

      Oct 21st 2008, 14:24

      There is so much discussion about what a Zombie is or how it should be in cinema to the point where it becomes a stand off. I am a Romero man myself but love the zombie evolvement of films such as 28 Days and the Dawn remake. However, Steve Miner and Taurus should not be allowed to make Zombie films...EVER! I wont watch the Day of the Dead remake out of principle! If GEorge A Romero were dead, he'd be turning in his grave! Pun certainly intended!

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    • Cabby

      Oct 31st 2008, 13:39

      I like Bub! Why wouldn't zombies be able to think and even have some emotions? There brain is the thing keeping them "alive". In 28 days later, although they eat flesh, I don't really consider them Zombies. They are infected. This is the ONLY reason that I think they should be able to to run. Romero zombies are reanimated corpses. A body that is dead and many of them embalmed, should hardly be able to run! The threat of the Romero zombies is not them individually, but that when they overrun you there is very little you can do to stop them. Even though I enjoyed the 2004 remake of Dawn, the running zombies really don't make much sense to me.

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    • FangsFirst

      Oct 31st 2008, 19:08

      This is one of the worst-researched, laziest zombie articles I've ever read...well done.

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    • Pittgirl

      Oct 31st 2008, 23:23

      OK. Let's go over this again. The Infected in 28 Days/Weeks Later are not zombies. Danny Boyle even showed this in the opening scenes. Did anyone in the lab die? No. They were bitten by the infected monkeys and exposed to the Rage Virus. He shows it later in the film when the father gets infected. Did he die? No! Stop calling them zombies! Zombies are dead, that have been reanimated. The Romero zombies will always be the standard. He has shown an amazing evolution of them on his own. Everyone else's take on them also heightens our interest. And kudos to Simon Pegg for Shaun of the Dead. Absolutely brilliant. Just please, in the future, do some freaking research first before you start calling anything and everything a zombie. Next thing you know, you will start calling Dracula a zombie. Technically he is not alive and he drinks blood. Is that close enough for you?

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      Nov 1st 2008, 12:55

      What about the 50 years of zombies that came pre-Romero? Why must Voodoo zombies be the red-headed undead stepchild of the horror monster canon? Anybody seen WHITE ZOMBIE? Wasn't it released on that old (and still great, Total Film boxset 5 or 6 years ago)? Since Snuggly brings up the smart zombie, my favorite of the sub-genre, there's plenty of titles out there, the best being SHATTER DEAD. Other titles include DEAD CREATURES from the U.K., and the recently released ZOMBIES ANONYMOUS. Then there's also the EVIL DEAD demonic Sumerian zombies, which also popped up in Brian Keene's excellent novel THE RISING.

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    • rude1

      Nov 1st 2008, 18:12

      Chris Hicks, you should find another job. How can you not mention the 1933 film The Ghoul with Boris Karloff?? George A. Romero has even said in interviews that it was The Ghoul that influenced Night of the Living Dead. How dare you start with The Last Man on Earth

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    • hardkoreth

      Nov 2nd 2008, 2:37

      The fast zombie did not arrived with Danny Boyle or Zack Snyder's remake. Lucio Fulci gave us the fast zombie in Zombie 3, in 1988! The fact that 28 days later is more popular doesn't make it more original. Why nobody gives Fulci the recognition he deserves?

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    • FangsFirst

      Nov 2nd 2008, 4:00

      hardkoreth--try again! 1985's Return of the Living Dead had running zombies. Might've even been an earlier one less readily visible, but RotLD has it easy as the earliest I've ever seen mentioned...

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    • XOlover

      Nov 2nd 2008, 21:45

      this is the worst zombie article i have EVER read. zombies were first publicized in 1889 in a newspaper article in which claimed creatures that came back to life had been found on a Caribbean island, (the word zombie was first put in the dictionary in 1819) there was then lots of books and such written, zombies then hit the stage in the early 1920s, then white zombie in 1932, then there was countless amount of more after this, which a lot of are far greater than Romero's. he did not come up with the ideas for zombies, and all i had to do to get those facts was open A BOOK or google search, why so little research was put into this article i have no idea, but it is rather offensive of how many brilliant classics have been missed out, and how many different sorts of zombies you missed out in this so called "evolution"

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    • pickles69

      Nov 3rd 2008, 4:34

      A few bones to pick. The Classic Zombie: I don't know who told you that zombies need to devour human flesh to survive, but they don't. Zombies will go on for quite a while without eating anybody. They simply are raised from the dead with an essential desire to feast on the flesh of the living. While this desire is a strong one, it is by no means a necessity for their survival. The Italian Zombie: While I agree with your analysis of the ultra-filthy sort of Italian zombie to come out of the 70s and 80s, my main issue is with your choice of City Of The Living Dead. It's really more of a paranormal movie than a zombie movie. Perhaps Zombi 2 would have been a better (albeit more obvious) choice. The Emotional Zombie: This is not a type of zombie so much as it is a state which zombies can achieve once they have been bound for long periods of time. Once the bound zombie has been freed, its natural instincts come back quickly (as can be seen in Day of the Dead). The Martial Arts Zombie: Fighting zombies have been a part of zombie lore for quite a while now (The Demon Possession Zombies of the Evil Dead series come to mind). While some movies have taken this to extremes, I would find fault with the filmmakers themselves, rather than the type of zombie. The Fast Zombie: I agree with your general opinion of them, but 28 Days Later, I'm sorry but that is a movie about sick people. Sick people are not zombies. They have never died, and they have never risen from the dead with an insatiable lust for human flesh. On top of that, why stay so modern? Why not go back to the classic Return Of The Living Dead as an example? That would be a far more appropriate sample of fast (and intelligent) zombies. The Comedy Zombie: From Brain Dead to Re-Animator zombie movies have frequently also been comedies. This is nothing new, and it isn't a type of zombie. It's a type of movie.

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