It's been forty years to this month that George A Romero released his low-budget black and white zombie chomper to the drive-ins and fleapits of the late sixties. Since then the undead's rise and rise have seen the cadaverous heroes taking the starring role in some 168 commercial movies. Here we chart four decades of zombie evolution...
The Neanderthal zombie from The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Thought George A. Romero was the original zombie auteur? Nah. Not really. He nicked it from this obscure Vincent Price vehicle. Just look at the premise: Pricey wakes up one morning and realises everyone has turned into flesh eating vampires. Next thing you know he's holed up in a house slaughtering swathes of blood suckers. Totally ineffectual unless they're en masse, the vamp's clumsy gait and slow movement is clearly the template for Romero's 'zombie 1.0' four years later.
WATCH the original The Last Man on Earth trailer
The Classic zombie from The Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Classic zombie established some crucial zombie rules: for some reason, never really explained properly, they need to eat humans to survive. They must walk like drunks and emit low pitched, almost inquisitive, moans. They are cannibals. They can only be killed with headshots. They should wear white face paint and have panda eyes. Clear, simple, specific rules. You always know where you stood. But they had to go and mess with the formula, didn't they?
The most notorious Zombie film is Italian: Lucio Fulci's not-really-very-classic-at-all-actually Zombie Flesh Eaters. In fact, as far as we can tell, every other film produced in Rome between 1970 and 1985 was about zombies. These exploitative shockers advanced zombie design by turning up the gore. Two minutes in make-up was no longer enough - you needed pigs blood, maggots, green slime, exposed veins and all manner of pipes hanging out. Shame that the films were mostly shite, with the entire budget spent on one scene where a zombie gets slashed up by a rotor blade or eaten by a shark.
WATCH the original City of the Living Dead trailer
The Emotional zombie from Day of the Dead (1985)
Romero's next addition to zombie physiology was to suggest a zombie could be re-humanised. The stupid idiot. Zombies' unique charm is that they are disposable cannon fodder, invented for horror directors to test out their most violent and sicko murder fantasies on. This is why Day of the Dead's Bub 'the friendly, emotional zombie' sub-plot is a rubbish idea and should never have been allowed. We don't want to feel sorry for zombies, we want to see them clumsily feeding their intestines back into their stomach cavities.
WATCH the original Day of the Dead trailer
The Martial Arts zombie from Versus (2000)
So if zombie is capable of thought processes it seems (or certain Japanese directors took it to mean) that zombies can do martial arts. Never mind that learning how to roundhouse kick to the face takes years of practice and extraordinary control of limbs and balance. Somehow, zombies can do that now. We don't agree with this advancement. The only way zombie should be allowed to kick is if his leg comes off and it gets used as a club. At least martial arts zombie has pleasingly lo-fi make-up.
WATCH the original Versus trailer
The Fast zombie from 28 Days Later (2002)
We like fast zombie. Fast zombie makes sense. Still fundamentally stupid and disposable, the elements of guile and speed applied to flesh-eating monster make zombie badass scary. No longer are you safe walking at a steady trot in order to out-run a pack of undead doofuses. Now they pelt at you full speed like offal-crazed Linford Christies.
WATCH the original 28 Days Later trailer
The Comedy zombie from Shaun of the Dead (2005)
We don't need to explain here why seeing zombie Nick Frost chained up in a shed, trying to hold a PlayStation controller, is funny. We're just pleased that the people who ended up tackling zombie comedy (Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright) were genuine fans. This could have gone disastrously, unspeakably wrong in the hands of, say, Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. Don't write off Zombie Movie just yet. Which is, by their current naming logic, exactly what it will be called.