Strollers are those zombies that are just slightly better than the slow, stupid Shamblersand not quite the limber, agile killers that fall under the Sprinters category. You can picture Strollers as the zombies from movies like Zombieland.
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.
Evil Dead 2: Reinvigorating the Genre with a Crazy-Mad Variation
Movie / Fast Zombies / Essential
Evil Dead 2 can be found on almost any list of the Top Ten Zombie Movies of All Time. And though a case can be made that Evil Dead and its sequels and spin-offs aren’t really, technically, “zombie movies” at all, one thing is certain: the entire franchise is a major milestone in the genre, a rare instance where the sequel is actually stronger than the original film, and where we can find the premiere of one of horror’s most memorable characters and most durable actors, the launching of a director who’s still making movie history forty years later, and the source of horror’s most powerful and classic tropes. Not bad for one crappy little horror flick.
Let’s start, logically enough, at the beginning:Evil Dead. Conceived and filmed in the late 1970’s and released in 1981, Evil Dead came from modest – very modest – beginnings, but displayed all the building blocks of greatness from Act 1, Scene 1. DirectorSam Raimi, along with aspiring actor Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert, came up with the idea of a bunch of hapless college-age kids going to a run-down cabin in the woods for a fun-filled weekend, only to discover an unholy book – the legendary Necronomicon. They’re dumb enough (of course) to read from it, and resurrect (or create) zombies, ot at least zombie-like, creatures they come to call “deadites” -- reanimated dead folk with violently evil new personae that take endless pleasure in tormenting, torturing, and ultimately killing any human in sight. They’re not straight-up Romero zombies, no,; they speak (or spit-speak), move fast, and think way too clearly about all the wrong things… but they’re not exactly demons from hell or simply living people who’ve become possessed, either. They’re deadites, damn it, unexplained and perhaps inexplicable hybrids that make perfect sense by making no sense at all from the very beginning.
Evil Dead cost something around $375,000 to make and returned a handsome 500% profit to its original investors. But things really took off, cine-cult-wise, with Evil Dead 2, released in 1983. 2 started in the same place, with more ‘cabin in the woods’ nonsense, but now Campbell’s increasingly deranged character Ash Williams would take center stage, and many of the artifacts that are best loved and remembered about the franchise come from this second movie in the series, including Ash’s hand becoming possessed and then detached, only to be replaced by a chain saw. And face it: any movie that shows your deceased girlfriend dancing naked in the moonlight until her head falls off, or a whole race of crazed warriors tearing the cabin to splinters all around you – well, that’s pretty much your basic “horror classic” right there.
(It’s worth noting here that Evil Dead basically invented the “cabin in the woods” trope. It’s hard to find anything before that first film that begins with the basic premise of ‘kids go to a cabin and get killed a lot;” it’s equally difficult to get an accurate count of just how many horror movies using this same premise came after Evil Dead, though it’s rarely credited as the First and Best.)
Evil Dead 2 became the real classic, and holds up remarkably well today. And even that was only the beginning. Army of Darkness (1993), a dizzying tour de force of action, horror, violence, and funny jokes took Ash and his boom stick to an absurd version of the Middle Ages to fight yet another invasion of deadites, only to return him rather unceremoniously to his job as a middle manager at S-Mart (“Be Smart! Shop S-Mart!” in the final reel. And though the franchise took a long pause at that point, the real damage to American pop culture was still to come.
Fully thirty years after the first films premiered, an entirely new version of Evil Dead (2013) appeared, a remake (of sorts), produced by Raimi and Campbell and Tapert (among others) but co-written and directed by relative newcomer Fede Alvarez, recruited from his native Uruguay after his pretty remarkable short on Giant Robots destroying Montevideo (you can see it on YouTubehere. )This version featured Mia, a whole new central character with problems of her own, played powerfully by Jane Levy. It did well, as it deserved to, but people missed the madness and humor of Ash and his version of the deadites. And that led, not long after, to three seasons of Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015-1018). Original appearing on Starz, the series starred a happily aging Campbell as a not-so-happily-aging Ash and a wild crew of friends and enemies, including the impossibly still aliveLee Majors, now in his 80s, as his father, an early appearance of Samara Weavingas a recurring character in Season One, and the legendaryLucy Lawless, Xena Warrior Princessherself, as a formidable frenemy (and also, not so coincidenally, the wife of long-time producer Robert Tapert.)
And still Evil Dead will not die. In 2023, a new film, more of a deadite spin-off than a sequel, has arrived: Evil Dead Rise, which introduces a new set of characters in a brand-new urban setting. Raimi didn’t direct and Campbell didn’t appear, but both were highly involved and served as producers, and Rise has done so well that there’s already talk of a sequel in the near future.
And even more: Campbell made an announcement as Rise was rising that he was getting a little too old and tired to continue playing Ash, but (maybe because of the success of the new film) he’s recently re-opened the door to Ash-centric sequels. There is also talk of possible sequel to the 1983 version centering on the Mia character, as well as more films following characters and storylines from Rise. At last report, the Raimi/Campbell/Tapert team say they are thinking of a new Evil Dead movie from one or more of the storylines every two or three years rather than every two or three decades.
And as if that wasn’t enough… there’s the multimedia. Army of Darkness generated a wild-ass monthly comic for a while, both adaptations and new stories, written by none other than Walking Dead creator RobertKirkman. They’re all still widely available in comics shops, bookstores, and online. And the truly legendary artist John Bolton and comics veteran Mark Verheiden crafted an extraordinarily beautiful and disturbing graphic novel of Evil Dead 2, available in a 40th Anniversary Edition both digitally and in a fancy-pants hardcover edition.
And Good God, the merch. T-shirts, posters, action figures, throw pillows, blankets – the list is long and growing daily, like the deadite horde itself. Some of the coolest can be found at The Creepy Company, but an even wider array is only one or two Google clicks away.
When people think of Evil Dead, they often think more about the sequel, or the original movie, or maybe Army of Darkness, than they think about the rather massive franchise it’s generated for almost fifty years – fifty years. With so much good Dead stuff already available, and so much more to come, the weird and wild work of Raimi, Campbell and Co. deserve to stand right up there with the equally influential work of Danny Boyle, Robert Kirkman, and even Romero himself. And still, still, it rises ...
All Cheerleaders Die: A Darkly Comic, Bloody Revenge Flick with Smart Zombies
Not everybody loves this movie – you can look at the Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic numbers and see that – and part of its appeal is definitely just the name and notion. Come on: zombie cheerleaders? You have to love it. But we tend to agree with the WeGotThisCovered review, who called All Cheerleaders Die“mindless and contrived”, but also admitted it was a “witching, bitching good time.”
One interesting production point: The semi-legendary grim-and-bloody horror auteur Lucky McKee first made this movie in 2001 when he was fresh out of film school, and liked the idea so much he remade it in 2013. The first version was a pretty straightforward (and not terribly interesting) bloodfest; in the newer edition, there’s a whole team of cheerleaders killed by heartless football players who are brought back to life with Wiccan magic, and who work together to avenge their deaths by knocking off the jocks and their minions one by one. And yes, there’s a wide-open “The End??” ending that begs for a sequel that unfortunately has never shown up.
Wedecided to include it here, and give it a solid “Adequate” rating, partly for its sheer Australian exuberance, but mostly just for the idea itself… and if you happen to have a cheerleader-type in the fam, this could be a great little gift.