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!
Fear the Walking Dead has been an up-and-down experience from the very beginning, way back in 2015. After a promising start (those first few episodes, covering the first few days of the outbreak, still hold up surprisingly well), the series follows a single, troubled Los Angeles family in its flight from the walkers, its separation and reunion, and the introduction of some alternately fascinating and damn boring characers along the way. Yes, it went down some fairly murky and unsatisfying paths and, at the same time, brought in some strong and intriguing characters that have gone the distance, especially Morgan (Lennie James), recruited from the ‘parent’ series, The Walking Dead, and Jenna Elfman in a surprisingly successful dramatic turn. And after seven broadcast years, and far more than in TWD years, after the infamous “time jump” between Seasons 3 and 4, only Season 1's supermom Madison (Kim Dickens) and mysterious, dangerous barber-assassin Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades) are here for the final days.
You can watch any or all of the first seven seasons here, on Hulu, and rent or buy all the released episodes of Season 8 here, on Amazon Prime.
Meanwhile, this is far from the end for the Walking Dead universe, with the series featuring the continuing adventures of Darrell and a visit to new walker-infested New York City for Negan and Maggie. And who knows what-all else?
A Wide, Wild, Well-Remembered TV Series That Still Holds Up
TV / After the Apocaypse / Shamblers
The big debate at ZGG International HQ is whether ZNation is a tragedy/thriller or a comedy/thriller or just a mishy-moshy combo that doesn’t know its own mind. And the generally agreed-upon answer: it don’t matter. There is some great zombie-action and some bizarre, “Did they really just do that?” laughs to be had in its five seasons and 68 episodes. And unlike its spin-off/prequel, Black Summer, it can still be purchased.
The “government experiment gone wrong” trope that’s at the center of ZNation gets a fun little twist here, in that the one escapee of the guv’s experimental zom-vax project slowly turns into an icky and fascinating hybrid of both human and dead-guy over the course of the series. And that’s only the beginning of things getting weird. It’s a shame that SyFy ended it when they did, but with a large and vocal fan base, the possibility that the series could return in some form or another is very real. Until then, enjoy its rich and wild legacy.
Ex-Heroes: A great series of Super-Heroes v. Zombies novels
Movie / Shambler / Years After the Apocalypse
What comics fan hasn’t asked themselves, Who would win a fight between Superman or the Hulk? By the same token, what comics or zombie fan hasn’t wondered how the cape types would fare against the walking dead if it ever came to that.
From 2013 to 2016, novelist Peter Clines had a hell of a good time answering that question while building a whole pantheon of convincing stretch-suiters along the way, in a series of novels from Broadway Books that are, quite basically, Superheroes vs. Zombies taken to the logical extreme. It's called the Ex-Heroes Series.
They’re fast, frequently funny, often bloody and both exciting and tragic, as we follow the superheroes who fight a losing battle against the hordes of the shambling dead and their extremely noisy teeth – your basic virus-based biters that have taken over whole cities, whole countries, and left the last few humans cowering behind a dwindling number of walled compounds. Many of the characters continue from book to book – books with totally cool names like Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communciation, and our personal favorite, Ex-Purgatory. And plenty more die heroic and occasionally pointless deaths. There’s no true ending to the timeline, and we can always hope for more, though Clines has gone on to best-seller status with his non-zombie-ish Threshold series. Still, you can spend plenty of happy hours following the dark adventures of Stealth, Zzzap, The Mighty Dragon, and the rest.
Pretty much anything by Peter Clines is worth the read. You can check out his full repertoire here. Exactly what you’d expect from the one-time prop master of Psycho Beach Party.