Once upon a time diehard zombie fans could only find the living dead on local television at 3:00AM or in dangerous inner city grind house theaters. But today there’s a virtual flood of zombie television shows like The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Z-Nation, I Zombie, plus dozens of big studio movies! But very few of these modern epics delve into zombies’ Voodoo origins.
So join me for a brief trip back in time to check out a few unique films that explored not only zombies but also the Voodoo legends that spawned them. So, to make this list, a film has to have Voodoo and zombies. These are the films that inspired my novel VOODOO CHILD.
1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE is considered the first feature length zombie film. It’s also memorable for it’s vaguely (okay, extremely) racist title. White Zombie is a historical artifact worth seeing for its brooding atmosphere and for being Bela Lugosi’s first post Dracula horror performance. It’s also a pre-code film, which allows it to wallow in more sexual innuendo and violence than you might expect. But despite that advantage it lumbers along as slowly as its onscreen zombies. A supporting cast still mired in the silent film style of acting doesn’t help at all. But every time Lugosi steps onto the screen the movie comes alive and makes it all worthwhile. 1936’s REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES is the official Lugosi-free sequel, and it’s a huge disappointment.
Voodoo and zombies came into their own with 1943’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, the second chilling collaboration between producer Val Lewton and French director Jacques Tourneur. A year earlier the team had created the classic film Cat People. Like their earlier film, I Walked With a Zombie works due to its nuanced script, nail biting suspense and, above all, its respect for the audience’s intelligence. The film was remade in 2002 as Tales From the Crypt: Ritual, but the remake ignored both the poetic tone that made the original so memorable and the Grand Guignol humor that made EC comics shine.
1966’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES is considered one of Hammer’s most underrated films, with buckets of creepy Cornish atmosphere and terrific makeup design that set the tone for every zombie film to follow. It’s also one of the few films to address the concept of zombies being used as slave labor- a fate common to many of Haiti’s “actual” zombies. Rights issues have made Plague difficult to find but it’s a treasure well worth digging for. And while you’re treasure hunting you should also check out the sadly overlooked 1970 British witchcraft film BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW. They make a perfect double bill, offering a vivid reminder of how intelligent and outré British horror films of that period were.
Another personal favorite is ZOMBIE (aka Zombi 2). In 1979, Italian director Lucio Fulci was hired to slap together a low budget knock off of George Romero’s hit film Dawn of the Dead, but he swam against the tide by creating something entirely unique and original. I can safely say that I never would have written Voodoo Child if this film hadn’t scarred my young psyche. The lush Caribbean backdrop is used to tremendous effect, complimenting the sense of dread and decay that permeates every frame. The ground-breaking zombie makeup still holds up today. Plus these zombies are so tough they can actually fight sharks and win! Fulci explored supernatural zombies again in City of the Living Dead, and in his demented masterpiece The Beyond.
Fun Fact: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released in Europe as Zombi. Hence Fulci’s follow up film was released there as Zombi 2. But for its American release it was re titled Zombie. A terrible sequel was churned out called Zombi 3, which became Zombie 2 in the USA. The title confusion continues to this day.
Fun Fact 2: I recently met Ian McCulloch, who played the lead in Zombie, and he was charming, intelligent and incredibly respectful to his fans. What a class act!
Italy struck gold again in 1994 with the deranged, yet strangely poetic CEMETARY MAN (aka Dellamorte Dellamore) based on the Italian Fumetti (comic book) Dylan Dog. Voodoo is never mentioned per se, but clearly some supernatural force haunts the cemetery where Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) works as caretaker. Seven days after being buried, bodies have a nasty habit of returning as zombies, forcing an overworked Francesco to re-kill them. The plot is really just a vehicle driving the film’s dark humor and stunning, dreamlike visuals. Everett is perfect as a man stuck in a literal dead end job. Highly recommended, in fact I may watch this film again tonight!
No list would be complete without THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. Wes Craven’s 1988 film starts off as a level headed adaptation of Wade Davis’ scholarly tome on Haitian Voodoo, and then goes completely bonkers in its final reels. You can almost picture a studio executive walking up to Craven and saying, “Wes, we have some thoughts on the ending … and we think you’ll love them!” Cut to the director reading their notes and openly weeping. There are still some great moments, and the authentic Haitian scenery alone is worth the price of admission.
Despite Voodoo being an African based religion, Voodoo/zombie movies often seem weirdly Caucasian. But the blaxploitation genre still managed to squeeze in a pair of solid Voodoo themed films before the cycle ran its course. 1974’s SUGAR HILL isn’t a classic but it’s still tons of fun. When white gangsters murder Sugar Hill’s boyfriend she calls on the powers of Voodoo for revenge. What makes this movie memorable? First off, the zombies are unique, cobwebbed creatures with reflective eyes. Secondly, actor Don Pedro Colley makes a great, over-the-top Baron Samedi. And finally Marki Bey is dramatically committed and absolutely stunning as our vengeful heroine; I mean she really brings it a hundred percent! The other memorable blaxploitation Voodoo film was SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM. Although it lacks zombies it does have Pam Grier as a Voodoo priestess, and William Marshall as the legendary vampire, so it’s worth checking out.
Does this list seem short to you? Well there’s also VOODOO MAN (1944), KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941), ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945), VOODOO ISLAND (1957), and many other films of equally dubious quality, but I hate writing about movies for the sole purpose of trashing other people’s work. So feel free to check out my suggestions and let me know what you think. And, above all, PLEASE share any gems I’ve missed. Happy watching.