On July 3, 1984, at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, foreman Frank Johnson tried to impress his new employee Freddy by showing him some ancient storage drums from the U.S. military filled with toxic gas called Trioxin. Unfortunately, he accidentally leaked some of the gas, and it founds it way to some nearby corpses (?), causing the spawning of a whole new generation of stupid, semi-fast zombies – the real zombies, not the ‘fake’ ones from George Romero’s movie – with a small but useful vocabulary and a taste for brains.
Yes, it’s true: July 3, 2023 is the 39th anniversary of the ‘historical event’ that led to a whole string of ‘funny zombie’ action thrillers, beginning with the surprisingly entertaining Return of the Living Dead (1985) and stumbling, inevitably, into a string of increasingly unsuccessful and inconsistent sequels.
Return was directed by Dan O’Bannon, who by that point had directed only one other film, but had been involved, one way or another, in everything from Dark Star to Alien to Star Wars to Blue Thunder. He went on to great work as a writer and/or director on projects ranging from Lifeforce to Invaders From Mars to Total Recall to Screamers, Bleeders, and Alien vs. Predator, until his death in 2009. But this was his big break. And the movie is crowded with classic character actors of the day as well, including James Karan and Clu Gulager – two middle-aged men whose faces you’ll recognize the instant you see them (and Gulager’s son went on to be a horror director of some merit himself.)
The plot here is thin as the skin on a walker: toxic gas is accidentally released, converting some nearby corpses into zombies who, in turn, can convert the living with a bite or scratch. Hilarity ensues, at least for a few hours, until Louisville is overrun. Then, on the Fourth of July 1984, the military ‘solves’ the problem by destroying the city with a nuclear bomb… which, in fact, just makes matters worse, as the end-credit “ending” implies. Damn that pesky radioactive toxic rain!
How did all this come to be? Well, after a lengthy and too-boring-to-bother-discussing legal battle, the co-creators of the original Night of the Living Dead – George A. Romero and John Russo – finally came to an agreement that Romero could go make his own zombie movies and use the term “Dead” in the titles (and, as it happened, times of day) without any legal hassles from Russo. Russo, on the other hand, could make zombie movies with the term “Living Dead” and not get hassled by Romero. They had entirely different ‘takes’ on the creatures, as you can see from the various “Dead” vs “Living Dead” movies that ensued, and after a small but persistent rash of “Living Dead” films, the Russo line faded away in 2005. The first sequel, Return of the Living Dead Part II, showed up in 1988, and changed the rules about killing this version of zombies (electrocution works? Cool!). Return of the Living Dead III (1993) was produced and directed by Brian Yuzna, who’d done great work on the Re-Animator series. It goes more serious and goth-metal-punky, but it bombed big-time at the box office.
There are a variety of other movies with “Living Dead” in the title during and after this set, as Russo gradually lost control (or interest?) in the brand – Flight, Day, Age, Virgin, Hell, City – but none are connected to this timeline and none are, frankly, worth the time. John Russo himself is still with us; he'll celebrate his 84th birthday in September.
There is, however, a pretty damn good documentary about the making of the first film, More Brains: Return to the Living Dead, with interviews from tons of people and some pretty amusing anecdotes.
Today, Return (the first one, only the first one!) is still pretty damned amusing and has a legit place in zom-culture history. For one thing, this is one of the first times that we get a “scientific” explanation for the walking dead. The original NotLD made a two-sentence pass at maybe saying it was radiation or a satellite or somethin’, then retreated in “Dead” sequels to the religious/supernatural raison d’etre:
“When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
But in Return and its sequels, it was clearly a toxic gas that caused it. Good ol’ Trioxin. Since then, toxic waste or industrial accidents in general has become a mainstay in ‘scientific zombie' movies, whether it’s gas or waste products or bad food, or even a downed satellite. The viral alternative, a la 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, would come even later. But here’s where “it’s bad science, and it’s the government’s fault” began.
Additionally, the now-often quoted (often to a ridiculous degree) desire of speaking zombies yearning for, “Brains! Brains!” started with Return. Apparently, the brain-parts make the unendurable pain of reanimation slightly less… unendurable? Whatever: the hunger endures, and so does the quote.
For these reasons alone, 1985’s Return of the Living Dead deserves a spot on the “essentials” shelf of any zombie aficionado. Not the best zombie movie you’ll ever see, and certainly not the best thing O’Bannon ever came up with, but.. a keeper.
Left 4 Dead, released in 2008 by Valve, the same company that created the popular ‘Half-Life’ series, defined the ‘zombie horror FPS’ genre and is still being played on dedicated servers by adoring players.
Ah, I think back to those summer nights of playing this game on my PC until dawn with my friends and competitively comparing headshot scores and accuracy at the end.
Left 4 Dead plays like you are the survivors in a more about the zombie outbreak. You have four different characters to choose from for co-op player vs. environment on or offline multiplayer. Characters do not have special stats, but they interact with eachother in an amusing way throughout the campaigns- each set in Philadelphia.
Left 4 Dead introduces some unique concepts to the game, such as interacting with the environment in a detrimental way or a beneficial way – being able to shoot barrels of gasoline to start fires or slinging missed shots at parked cars that set off alarms and attract the horde. All the while, you are moving through immersive maps toward your campaign objective and come across some ..interesting..mutations that you have to deal with in special ways, as these zombies are more deadly than the regular brain-dead horde.
For example, the Hunter stalks its prey on the roof tops, can cling to sidewalls like Spiderman and will pounce on you when they think you’re weak and isolated unless one of your team mates shoots it dead out of the air.
Or, the Smoker – with its hallmark cough and elongated tongue that can strangle you off the side of a building unless your team rushes over to help. Boomers that explode, covering you in bile and attracting the horde, and Witches that will shred you to pieces and attract billions of the undead if you get their attention.
Aspects of this game can be truly terrifying and the gore is realistic- it’s not surprise that it has been banned in some countries.
Unique and immersive campaigns based around the backwoods and inner city of Philadelphia in the midst of the zombie outbreak.
A variety of different weapons – from melee to guns – health packs and pills for temporary health and vitality boosts.
Easter eggs throughout the game paying homage to classic zombie movies and other zombie games, such as Dead Rising
Play online with your friends in CO-op, play alone with bots, or play with friends at your house if you have a couple extra controllers. Play as both zombies and survivors!
The Evil Dead "franchise" (God, how we hate that term!) has wandered all over the map in plot, tone, and mythology, from energetically terrifying (like Evil Dead 2) to wonderfully goofy (like Army of Darkness) to consistently enjoyable, if not exactly groundbreaking (like Ash vs. Evil Dead). And though Evil Dead Rise has little or no direct connection to the plot of characters of the core story or the 2013 remake, it has some of the same manic energy and gleeful gore of the core films -- a welcome return to form.
Now we've got at least three separate Evil Dead 'threads' that could continue: Ash's original and continuing adventures (Come on, Bruce! More!) ... whatever happens next to ** of the 2013 remake ... and now the 'mother and daughter team (we know, we know) of deadite-destroyers from Evil Dead Rise. And we want it all.
Aubrey Plaza’s deadpan, off-kilter, unpredictable manic energy seems perfectly suited for horror in general and the Zombie World in particular. And though Life After Beth had a whole bunch’a problems, Plaza – as usual – never fail to impress.
As one critic put it, “It's an age-old story. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl. Boy realizes girl is undead.” And that basically sums up the premise. Conceived by writer/director Jeff Baena (Horse Girl,I Heart Huckabees), who also by pure coincidence happens to be married to Aubrey Plaza, the story doesn’t follow any classic zombie rules. Beth herself – killed by a snake bite – remains coherent for a long time, though increasingly hot-tempered and violent, until things get truly out of control in the third act.
Not a big hit, not terribly well-received, it seems to have more in common with “bedroom community” zomromcoms like Fidoor Warm Bodies than it does with Night of the Living Dead. But Plaza carries it well and – for the most part – makes it work. She’s also aided and abetted by an astonishingly strong supporting cast, from Dane DeHaan to John C. Reilliy to Molly Shannon and Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser and Matthew Gray Gubler and Anna Kendrick – Anna Kendrick! -- as the ‘final girl,’ of a sort.
Some good laughs, some memorable moments (love that refrigerator!) and a ‘must-have’ for the Aubrey Plaza completist, this one’s worth a few drinks and a lounge on some quiet Saturday night.
Even big-time zombie movie fans may have mostly missed Fido. It came and went with barely a whisper back in 2006, maybe because of its Canadian origins and poor distribution; maybe because nobody knew what to make of it. Is it a comedy? A satire? A skewed love story? Tor is it, in fact, a skewed sequel to Romero’s classicNight of the Living Dead (1968)? That’s still a good question, but there’s no doubt this is one of the least expected and most watchable of the “dark comedies” to come out of the genre… and it might be brand new to the zomfan in your life (or unlife).
Comedian and satirist Billy Connolly is virtually unrecognizable as Fido, the domesticated zombie “contracted” to Carrie-Anne Moss‘s family. They’re part of a bizarre alternative America in which radiation brought about the rising of the dead in the early Fifties, it seems, and led to a long-ago, hard-won set of “zombie wars.” Now the world, or at least as much as we see of it, is a weirdly static Perfect 1950’s World, kept that way by the ubiquitous ZomCom Corporation (you have to love that name!) that created electronic collars that allow the calming and control of your classic Romero slow zombies with the touch of a button. And that’s what Fido is – just one of the shuffling, voiceless, undead slaves in this odd world – until the family he’s working for develops an equally odd affection for him. Then the collar malfunctions and Fido kills a neighbor (who deserved it, but still …
From the beginning, Fido is not what you expect, and the entire presentation – from the off-puttingly realistic Fifties Paradise to the performances of Moss, Connolly, Dylan Baker (currently in Hunters) and the rest, are flawless and devoid of any wink-wink nudge-nudge to the audience. It’s a shame Fido’s been nearly forgotten since its appearance fifteen years ago, but that can change with a click… and it should. We’re willing to bet you’ll like this hidden gem.