Ever wonder how the most popular zombie film of all time, Night of the Living Dead ended up in U.S. public domain? Well, it happened after the original theatrical distributor, Walter Reade Organization, failed to replace a necessary copyight notice on the title card of the print of the film, after changing the movie’s title from Night of the Flesh Eaters to Night of the Living Dead.(1)
As a result of the distribution company’s error, George A. Romero immediately lost the rights to his film, and subsequently, millions of dollars in lost revenue, advertising and merchandising. In fact, up until Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies were about mind-controlled humans through manipulation, sorcery or voodoo. Romero was actually the first to create an undead flesh-eating creature that preys on the living. So, we can pretty much speculate that if Romero had retained the rights to Night of the Living Dead, every zombie book, film, TV and video game would have been controlled by George A. Romero.
Romero often expressed that losing the rights to his first feature film was one of his biggest regrets. The famed horror director passed away in 2017, after watching his creation grow into a monsterous sub-genre of horror. Strangely enough, Night of the Living Dead falling into public domain helped make zombies more popular, inspired creativity across the globe, helped spawn several horror franchises, and even launched the careers of some of today’s best horror directors. The entire zombie industry owes a debt of gratitude for its existence to this man. Maybe the universe knew the power to control zombies was too big a task for one human being.
It all worked out for George A. Romero too. As zombie popularity grew, Romero earned more opportunities to make movies, created projects, wrote books and comics, and even capitalized on his own notoriety as the “king of the zombie films.” In 1999, Night of the Living Dead was added to the U.S. National Film Registry for its historical and cultural significance.
Summer is always a rough season. Summer combined with the Corona virus lockdown is almost unbearable, but being stuck inside doesn’t have to be torture. I found these five low budget gems, definitely better than expected, that should satisfy your horror movie cravings.
We Summon the Darkness (2019) Service: Netflix
“There’s a lotta evil out there.”
For anyone’s who has ever worn a leather vest over a jean jacket, sported big feathered hair, or been bullied for listening to Ozzy or Slayer, all over the misguided belief that heavy metal is Satan’s music for devil worshippers, this one’s for you. Set in the 80s, this low-key thriller about three victims falling prey to a murderous cult with diabolical intentions isn’t particularly scary or gory, but it definitely harkens back to those old glossy B slashers that the studios used to churn out. The movie stars a gaggle of Hollywood’s brightest teen stars, led by Alexandra Daddario, and Johnny Knoxville, surprisingly right at home, playing a smarmy televangelist. The energy is high and acting is decent, honestly though, absolutely nothing else stands out here. Both the plot and the twists are totally predictable, it’s a little hard to tell if that’s by design or not. If I was one of the filmmakers, I’d get all meta and say, ‘oh yeah, it was supposed to be that way.’ People really enjoy homages, and stickin two giant middle fingers up to the real evil in the world, those big greedy corporate churches, for lying to the world about great music, using the lord’s name in vain, and besmirching religion. That, plus a bitchin’ soundtrack, and heavy metal couture, so 80s, you can almost smell the AquaNet, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night.
Spring (2014) Service: Shudder
“I gotta make sure you’re the kinda crazy I can deal with.”
There aren’t too many well-made horror romances out there in the world, but this movie is in top ten. Spring, the story of grieving young man who finds love with a mysterious woman, while on a vacation in Italy, is just as refreshing as its name sounds. It’s simply a beautiful movie, everything from the strange Lovecraftian story to the incredible cinematography, and the dark, creepy suspense to the blossoming love between two strangers. What makes the film work, besides getting lost in charming scenery of Southern Italy, is the chemistry between the leads Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker, it’s sweet, like saccharine, yet, definitely filled with a touch of danger and mystique. Their romance moves a little fast and even seems unrealistic, but if you factor in love at first sight (hey, it can happen), and remember the vulnerability of a lonely, grieving, inexperienced young man, it becomes real easy to understand why he would be attracted to an alluring, beautiful, mystical 2000 year old creature. It’s almost sad to watch her toy with him so effortlessly, then again, the boy is as impulsive as he is lost. A violent episode in the film’s beginning shows he’s far from a perfect hero and they might just be morally matched. As for the girl and her “condition”, well, you’ll just have to go watch the movie to see if her intentions are pure or not.
Ghost Stories (2017) Service: Hulu
“Things are not always as they seem.”
This movie about a skeptical professor and paranormal debunker is a cleverly disguised anthology from IFC Midnight, turns out to be one of the scariest movies that I’ve seen in a long time. Triple threat writer-director Andy Nyman stars as the wry skeptic investigating the disappearance of his hero mentor. Once he finds him, he is then tasked with looking into the old man’s three most disturbing cases, which brings the professor on a terrifying journey of self-discovery. Nyman, along with co-creator Jeremy Dyson based their script off their hit theater show of the same name. The writing, cinematography and performances here are all phenomenal, in particular, Martin Freeman as a haunted banker, and in a mystery role, that I won’t give away. Ghost Stories makes good work of jump scares and sports some deep Hammer vibes, paying homage to numerous horror films, so it’s not inventing the wheel or anything, just making really good use of the tools from the tool box. Sometimes, that’s all a proper horror film needs.
One Cut of the Dead (2017) Service: Shudder (Japanese subtitles)
“One take, no cuts. With one camera from start to finish.”
Shin’ichiro Ueda’s brilliant feature debut is a bit of movie inception. The movie starts off as a seriously cheesy low-budget zombie movie about an indie film crew filming a zombie movie in an abandoned warehouse, when suddenly, they’re attacked by real zombies, much to the director’s delight. If you’re still watching by the time the credits roll about 37 minutes in, yes, you read that right, boy, are you in for a treat! As you’re sitting there wondering ‘what the hell was that?’ a new movie starts. Well, sort of, it’s a flashback, and all good things to those who wait. One Cut of the Dead isn’t really a cheesy low-budget zombie film, it’s a hilarious meta-satirical comedy about filmmaking, including the backstage antics of producing live television. There are a ton of references to zombie movies and lots of gore and screaming, of course, but, the real prize here is the storytelling. One Cut features a strong message about the collaborative filmmaking process, and the resourcefulness, courage and heart it takes to be in the entertainment business. I guarantee, by the third act, you’ll forget all about those 37 minutes wasted in the beginning and cheer on the film crew’s spirited efforts to make their zombie movie.
Blood Quantum (2019) Service: Shudder
“Every one of those motherf****** is a time bomb.”
Blood Quantum is essentially zombies on a modern-day reservation. You get all the blood-thirsty ravaging undead and pensive natives struggling to survive day-to-day, while reconciling their anger, resentment, and fears. Writer-director Jeff Barnaby channels his inner Romero and delivers biting social commentary on real life native troubles by drawing parallels to surviving in the zombie apocalypse, thus, immediately making it a better than average zombie story. Life on the reservation hasn’t improved, but it hasn’t necessarily deteriorated either. The white man is still trying to kill us. Same shit, different millennia. A little closer to the heart, there’s nice family drama subplot involving a wayward son named Lysol, wonderfully played by Kiowa Gordon. Lysol is one complex dude. He’s angry and alluring, righteous, and terrifying, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he represents a lot of young native men across the North America. Sadly, in a film filled with quirky interesting characters, Lysol is one of the few fleshed out characters. Dropped plot points involving back stories is just one of tiny problems that all add up over time, keeping the film from being truly great. I read director Barnaby wore several post production hats to ensure he told the story he wanted to tell, but I can’t help but wonder what the film could have been, if only it had a bigger budget and better editing. Despite its obvious flaws, this is a solid horror movie with nice cinematography, comical one-liners, ranging from cheesy to endearing, and plenty of zombie action and bloody carnage.
Pandemics and zombies go together like mac and cheese. Maybe, we’re looking for survival tips. I mean, zombie movies and apocalyptic horror have a special way of reminding us that humanity is worth fighting for, right? Well, we’re not dead, or undead, yet, so, if you’re not yet ready to build a bunker, start a collection of assault rifles, or learn to love cold chili from a can, here’s a list of my favorite zombie movies to better prepare us for doomsday.
10. Cargo (2017)
“I don’t think normal is on the horizon.”
Based on the brilliant 2013 short of the same name, Cargo is the story of a father wandering across the apocalyptic Australian wasteland with his infant daughter, searching for help, after he’s been bitten. Sometimes doing right by humanity means not getting caught up in other people’s misery.
9. Re-Animator (1985) “You’ll never get credit for my discovery. Who’s going to believe a talking head?”
Stuart Gordon directs this blood-drenched, nudity-filled horror-comedy, based on the H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, about a group of ethically questionable doctors fighting for control of a glowing green serum that brings the dead back to life. This is quintessential 80’s horror for anyone who believes doomsday starts in a lab.
8. Dawn of the Dead (2004) “In the back of my mind, I was always thinking, better them than me.”
Director Zack Snyder ups the survivor stakes by replacing slow shambling zombies with a little berserker action, in this retelling of George Romero’s 1979 film of the same name. While it falls short on Romero’s mastery of social commentary, it does have the most thrilling opening sequence of any zombie movie ever and does a good job showing what diversity looks like in apocalypse.
7. 28 Weeks Later (2007) “As we approach your new home, you will notice a dramatically increased military presence.”
The US military swoops in to save the day or does it? This action-packed sequel to Danny Boyle’s horror masterpiece, 28 Days Later, features an all-star cast and another bleak story of desperate, complicated survivors, including two resourceful teens, whose father recently went out for ice cream.
6. The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) “Pandora peered into the box and found one more thing in the bottom. It was hope.”
Zombie horror for the thinking man, based on the book by M.R. Carey, with a story set in rural England, where military scientists study an airborne fungal pathogen that turns people into zombies, by experimenting on special children who born with bloodlust but managed cognitive thinking and learning capability. Humans may be willing to do anything to survive, but remember, nature has a way of favoring the dominate of the species.
5. Train to Busan (2016) “Those of you who just got here, I don’t think you can stay with us.”
This Korean thriller about a group of survivors stuck on a bullet train, trying to make its way to country’s last stronghold before the zombie horde gets to them, is non-stop action from beginning to end. Korean directors sure like using trains to point out social inequalities and class warfare. Btw, Peninsula, Busan’s upcoming sequel set in the same universe with a new kinetic story is expected to be released sometime in 2020.
4. Shaun of the Dead (2004) “As Bertrand Russell said the only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation.”
Sometimes the only thing to do is go to your favorite bar, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this all to blow over. Oh, that’s right, we’re on lockdown. Well, I hope you stocked up on Cornettos. The world’s first zombie rom-com is loaded with laughs, but doesn’t skimp on the gore, nor the scares, plus, it can teach us a thing or two about sticking close to loved ones during the bad times.
3. 28 Days Later (2002) “It started as rioting. But right from the beginning, you knew this was different.”
The fact that this film shows up on my zombie list sheds light on my opinion on whether this is a true zombie film. Some people debate that 28 Days Later is not a true zombie film because they’re highly infectious cannibals, who are very much alive. But, much of what’s most terrifying of Danny’s Boyle’s brilliant thriller about a military science experiment gone bad is the explanation of the rabid virus is the most logically plausible. Dead, undead, who cares, humanity has collapsed due to hordes of uncontrollable flesh-eating rage-monsters ravaging the London countryside. Sounds like a zombie film to me!
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968) “Don’t you know what’s goin’ on out there? This is no Sunday School picnic!”
Inspired by political and racial strife of the early 60s, young filmmaker George A. Romero had no idea the impact his little low-budget movie would have on films, much less the horror genre, with a story of a group of complicated survivors holed up together in a farmhouse surrounded by undead corpses preying on the flesh of the living. The metaphorical snapshot of American society on edge is sadly, still relevant. Clerical errors sent the film into the Public Domain. As of March 2019, the film has been downloaded 3.1 million times. Looks like Romero’s biggest regret of not doublechecking the copyright form has been a true gift to humanity.
1. Dawn of the dead (1979) “Wake up, sucker! We’re thieves and we’re bad guys. That’s exactly what we are.”
George A. Romero’s magnum opus is number one on all the zombie lists for a reason. It’s the one that created the most popular subgenre in horror films, for which, all others pay homage to. The film was chock-full of both realism and symbolism. There are unforgettable characters, heroes with real flaws that audiences find identifiable or admirable in some way. Deep down inside, there’s a little fly boy or fly girl in all of us. Then, there’s Romero’s brilliant social commentary, a story that simultaneously mocks and celebrates American society and its insatiable consumerism. Our sanctuary, the American Mall. Our tool for survival, the almighty gun. Our privilege, unimaginable wealth, just behind glass doors. Golly gee, if we only had the guts to brave the hordes of flesh-eating monsters standing in our way. Pssst…all the living dead are capitalists!
We must stop the killing, or lose the war.