In this installment of Overlooked And Underrated we're going to raise the dead. Zombie fans get quite passionate about their films of the walking deceased, celebrating classics like Romero's original living dead trilogy, the punk-rock-fueled 80s horror classic Return Of The Living Dead (1985), and more recent films like the Dawn Of The Dead remake (2004), Shaun Of The Dead (2004), Dead Snow (2009), and Zombieland (2009) - and of course there's a huge following for the television series The Walking Dead (Season 2 premieres in just a few days) - but let's look back across the last century at some standouts of zombie cinema that tend to fly below the radar.
Join us as we open these graves and bring some less-talked-about zombie flicks out of the shadows with our picks for the top 5 Overlooked And Underrated zombie movies.
WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)
Before George Romero redefined the zombie film with Night Of The Living Dead (1968), brothers Victor and Edward Halperin filmed White Zombie, an atmospheric tale of zombies on a Haitian plantation and the fiendish plan of the plantation owner to steal another man's woman by turning her into a zombie as well. Considered to be cinema history's first feature-length zombie movie, this low-budget independent film utilized leftover sets from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Dracula (1931), and Frankenstein (1931). The movie suffered first distribution problems and then mediocre to terrible reviews. It eventually vanished, becoming a "lost film" until prints resurfaced in the 1960s.
Starring Béla Lugosi, White Zombie sets a spooky mood right from the start and maintains it right up to the climactic closing frames. The film's mix of melodrama and daring visuals may have contributed to its awkward release and poor initial reception, but these same elements would also make it a trendsetter and an enjoyable watch to this day.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)
From director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) and renowned producer Val Lewton (Bedlam, The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man), this film is about a young nurse immersing herself in the world of voodoo to cure the wife of a West Indies plantation manager.
The movie features well-crafted sequences of suspense, and its imagery and environment maintain an unsettling tone throughout. This is another great Lewton horror film creation wherein the menace is presented as being maybe supernatural, or maybe not. The lurid and rather goofy title was forced upon the producer, who opted to transcend it by delivering a film that is atmospheric, poetic, and intelligent.
LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE (1974)
The dead rise thanks to an experimental pesticide alternative in this gory, nicely shot zombie flick, directed by Jorge Grau in the wake of Romero hitting the zombie reset switch in '68.
This film often gets lumped in with the post Dawn Of The Dead (1978) Romero-wanna-be flicks that poured forth after his Monroeville Mall undead fest, but Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was not only released before that film, it is a standout in the large pack of Romero-influenced zombie movies. Grau incorporated great visuals, engaging characters, and some genuine tension into this movie, which was released under more than fifteen different titles around the world, including The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue in the U.K. and Don't Open The Window in the U.S.
CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)
A priest hangs himself in a cemetery, opening the gates of Hell in this atmospheric, ultra-gory, and otherworldly Lucio Fulci film.
Often overshadowed by Fulci's Zombie (1979) and The Beyond (1981), City Of The Living Dead contains more supernatural weirdness than is usually on display in a zombie movie, and it's this aspect of the film that gives it such a unique charm. Not strong in the story department, City Of The Living Dead instead delivers a smorgasbord of inventive, alarming, and haunting visual treats, and in a couple of scenes, actually achieves some impressive suspense. Come for the gross-out gore; stay for Sergio Salvati's eerie cinematography and the expertly-crafted scene in which Catriona MacColl revives in her half-buried coffin.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (REMAKE, 1990)
A visit to a family gravesite gives way to a battle against the undead in this well-done remake of Romero's 1968 version. To date, this is the only feature film directed by special effects legend Tom Savini (though he does direct one segment of this year's The Theatre Bizarre, an anthology).
It's pretty tough to beat a much celebrated classic, so audiences and critics were lukewarm to scathingly negative upon initial release of Savini's Night Of The Living Dead. However, this was a time before remaking classic horror films was the norm (ah, I remember those days fondly), so it took a few years for the shock to wear off. Then, slowly, many horror fans came to realize that Savini had not only pulled off a great zombie film, but had created a smart cinematic companion to the original film, celebrating it while simultaneously twisting and turning the narrative into something new and very cool.