World War Z, directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, Quantum Of Solace) may be the most talked-about non-comedy zombie flick to come along in over a decade. When it hits theaters on June 21st, horror fans will decide whether or not World War Z is an inventive game-changer in the trajectory of the zombie sub-genre. While we count down the days, let's spotlight the zombie movies that are already infamous as game-changers... the most influential zombie films in cinema history. Presented here in order of release, these were the movies that re-set the rules, re-defined the motion picture zombie, and re-routed the evolution of the living dead on film.
White Zombie (1932)
Director: Victor Halperin
The Thomas Edison / J. Searle Dawley short film Frankenstein put the undead on film in 1910. Robert Wiene's The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari was groundbreaking and influential on multiple levels in 1920. This masterpiece of German expressionist cinema featured a zombie-like character. However, the film that officially brought to life the zombie sub-genre was White Zombie - considered to be the world's first feature length zombie film. For three-and-a-half decades following White Zombie, Halperin's film provided the blueprint - zombie movies centered on voodoo and controlling the minds of the undead. While George Romero would forever change cinema of the living dead in 1968, elements of early trendsetter White Zombie can still be unearthed in contemporary films.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
This film redefined the zombie as a reanimated flesh-eating ghoul, and it ushered in the grand tradition of featuring intense gore in zombie films. Romero's movie also cemented the zombie film as a highly profitable product, spawning countless imitations by producers eager to cash in on the craze. Night Of The Living Dead's impact on horror cinema reverberated beyond the zombie sub-genre. Romero greatly influenced the replacement of rubber monster getups in mysterious locations with a menace one might find right next door. Slasher films that followed in Night Of The Living Dead's wake took place in suburbia or summer camps - an attractive cost-cutting attribute that pleased frugal fright-film producers. Furthermore, Night Of The Living Dead was the top-grossing film in Europe in 1969, opening the zombie floodgates there, and sparking the European zombie / gore films of the 70s and early 80s.
Director: Lucio Fulci
Aside from the US, Italy has made the greatest contribution to zombie film history, and Fulci's ultra-gory Zombie provided much of the momentum. George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead sequel Dawn Of The Dead (1978) was a major hit in Europe, where it was released as Zombi. Fulci's unrelated film was released in Europe as Zombi 2 to cash in on the success of Romero's film... so you could easily remove Fulci's Zombie from this spot on the list, and replace it with Dawn Of The Dead, which actually paved the way... but we won't, because all of this motion picture cannibalism spawned from Night Of The Living Dead anyway. Zombie must be counted as influential because it kicked the European zombie / gore market into high gear. Also, for better or for worse, Fulci's movie bolstered the trend of focusing on gross-out gore effects - while neglecting plot, character development, and acting. These were principal, well-executed aspects of Romero's films, but in post-Zombie Europe, the creative carnage tended to take top billing.
The Return Of The Living Dead (1985)
Director: Dan O'Bannon
At a time when the traditionally dark and somber zombie movie was perhaps wearing out its welcome a bit, this over-the-top punk-rock zombie comedy burst forth as some enthusiastic competition. The film proved that the laughs and lunacy could be mixed with the gore and violence to create a popular concoction. Return Of The Living Dead established the foundation upon which future zombie comedies would be built - for example, Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009). Return Of The Living Dead is also notable for popularizing the concept of zombies wanting to eat, specifically, the brains of the living.
28 Days Later (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle
For many horror fans - the ones who consider 28 Days Later a zombie film - this movie represents the birth of the controversial running zombies trend. Hard-core zombie fanatics tend to credit Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City (1980) as the first to feature running zombies. Return Of The Living Dead featured zombie swiftness as well. Technically, and ironically, George Romero - who is anti-fast-moving-zombies - beat 'em all to it. The "cemetery zombie" ran in 1968's Night Of The Living Dead. However, fans will debate this... the cemetery zombie may have been briskly staggering instead of actually running. Additionally, in Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, the zombie children at the airport ran... but none of these instances popularized speedy zombies. Following 28 Days Later, running zombies outnumbered the ol' fashioned, slowly shuffling undead. (For those of you who don't consider 28 Days Later a zombie movie, you can easily lift it out of this spot and bestow the running-zombies-popularization honor to Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead.)