Zombie films have a tendency to follow the same beaten path, perhaps more so than any other horror sub-genre. Zombies are typically not considered as diverse, in terms of potential applications as vampires. The majority of these movies follow the template put in place by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead and its sequels. Yet zombies actually do offer the possibility of very different stories that may change one’s perception of what constitutes a zombie film. Zombies can embody a surprisingly wide range of characteristics and carry many unexpected traits. This is a sub-genre with some surprisingly strange stuff in it. Here are five great examples of zombie films that broke the mold.
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Shivers (AKA They Came From Within)
David Cronenberg’s film debut, Shivers, could easily have been titled “Sex Zombies” because that’s essentially what it is. But this is Cronenberg, who deals with human–and inhuman–sexuality in as much detail as he can and explores the concept fully. The film focuses on the fear of sexual liberation and portrays its own epidemic as a sort of sexual revolution. The people in this film are upstanding individuals…who are suddenly acting very differently. They’re forceful, primal, and exhibiting a kind of desire that can be very dangerous even if the end suggests that such desire might actually deserve to win. Given most zombie movies center on a cannibalistic hunger, one about sexual appetite definitely separates itself from the pack.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
The Serpent and the Rainbow made the smart choice to take the zombie movie back to its roots. The film is based on the true story of anthropologist Wade Davis, who went to Haiti to discover the secrets of a zombie drug that was allegedly capable of resurrecting the recently dead. This is a film grounded in realism that can make you think, while at the same time showcasing the very real hardship of life in one of the world’s harshest countries. The interesting thing about The Serpent and the Rainbow is that it broke the mold merely by returning the genre to its roots. Most zombie features follow the Romero model and ignore the voodoo origins.
The most disturbing film on this list, Deadgirl is also one of the most inventive. Two teens, one a sort-of pervert and the other a complete pervert, sneak into an abandoned compound and find…a dead girl. A living dead girl. This young woman is a zombie. But their male, teenage minds only see one thing: a girl who can’t say “no.” She’s nearly-rotting, every scar she takes shows and nothing heals because she is already dead. But these kids are able to open up an entire business, their own little sex trade, where guys can come and do whatever they want. Few zombie movies have shown the absolute worst of humanity like this one does. It’s rare for a zombie story–which normally encapsulates societal and political themes–to center on socially conscious ideas, but that’s what Deadgirl does. This is a zombie movie about misogyny and teenage sexuality, themes that the sub-genre normally doesn’t touch on and that’s part of why it works as well as it does.
Francisco Dellamorte is the doomed caretaker of a cemetery where every corpse buried within comes back to life and has to be put back down. He loses a love interest to the cemetery’s zombies and projects her face upon every woman he takes an interest in thereafter. Then, Dellamorte is visited by Death who demands that he stop killing the dead. Death says, “If you want to kill, why not kill the living?” Dellamorte eventually takes this to be sage advice. Cemetery Man works so well as a non-traditional zombie film because it’s a non-traditional film in general. It’s simply a different experience. This is almost a stream-of-consciousness-horror-comedy-drama that moves between genres at the drop of a hat. It’s a film that feels upbeat, despite its utter hopelessness and the zombies only add to its weirdness.
Rounding out this list, we have Return of the Living Dead. This movie was actually meant as a deconstruction of the zombie genre and its expectations, as well as a deconstruction of the 1980s in general. These zombies could talk, they could run, and they fed primarily on brains (a characteristic not associated with zombies at the time (but has been ever since). Most importantly—and frighteningly—these zombies could not be killed. Once they were brought back, there was no way to put them down again. While the movie was mostly a black comedy, many of the core concepts were truly terrifying. But it is a film that takes utter delight in its own anarchy and nihilism, and that is why it has become such a cult classic. The mission statement of Return of the Living Dead seemed to be that it should be as different from Romero’s movies as possible. In this, it worked very well. While it has the same kind of downbeat ending, it brings an over-the-top sense of absurdity to not only that scene but virtually every other scene in the feature.