The Zombie Film: From White Zombie To World War Z by Alain Silver and James Ursini (book review).

Zombies seem to be flavour of the month at the moment across many different media, including books, comics, TV and film. That hasn’t always been the case. ‘The Zombie Film: From White Zombie To World War Z’ tracks the waxing and waning fortunes of zombies on film and related media over the last century or so through a combination of detailed text and hundreds of photographs, movie posters and other illustrations. Authors Alain Silver and James Ursini are both industry insiders with a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. However, encyclopaedias can be pretty dull. Do they have something interesting to tell us?


The book is divided up into eight themed chapters, followed by an extensive filmography containing basic details for well over five hundred titles, which apparently makes this the most comprehensive zombie filmography ever assembled.

We start with an introductory chapter which summarises the historical origin of zombies in Haitian folklore and religion and the way that these creatures have subsequently been explored and exploited during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in fact and fiction. One of the things I like about this book is the fact that each chapter has at least one sidebar or case study, going into a little more detail about something that’s been mentioned. In this first chapter, the sidebar provides an extract from the first non-fiction book to mention zombies, Lafcadio Hearn’s 1903 study ‘Two years In The French West Indies’. This provides a useful point of origin for everything that comes afterwards.

Chapter Two looks at the early history of zombies on celluloid, looking at two landmark films in particular. ‘White Zombie’ is the 1932 movie generally acknowledged to be the first zombie flick. It features Bela Lugosi as the charismatic Haitian mill owner ‘Murder’ Legendre, whose entire workforce are zombies under his control. When a young American couple come to the island, Legendre turns the woman, Madeline, into a zombie in order to separate her from her husband, Neil. Despite its age, ‘White Zombie’ is well worth watching and this chapter provides a very useful summary of it in both words and pictures.

The other major pre-war film covered here is ‘I Walked With A Zombie’. Released in 1943, this is basically ‘Jane Eyre’ with zombies. Its main claim to fame from a historical perspective is that it treated the Haitian origin of the zombie mythos with a lot more respect than most of the other films of that era.

The next chapter provides an interesting and potentially controversial departure as it looks at the evolution of the zombie film after World War Two. Silver and Ursini’s contention here is that this sub-genre principally became a place to explore America’s cold war hang-ups. In support of this line of argument, the chapter opens with an extended discussion of Don Siegel’s classic 1956 film, ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’. Although this is an excellent movie, some might question whether it is a zombie film at all, given that the alien pod creatures that replicate the town’s inhabitants one by one may be emotionless but they show no cannibalistic appetite for brains or other body parts. Nonetheless, the basic point about zombies being used to illustrate cold war insecurities is clearly illustrated throughout the chapter.

There is also a fascinating sidebar about Richard Matheson’s award-winning 1954 novel, ‘I Am Legend’. Although this is generally seen as a vampire story, Silver and Ursini point out that it provides the proto-setting for many subsequent zombie movies, where the human hero is forced to defend their safe house from attack by numerous undead assailants.

Chapter Four explores the genre-defining work of George A. Romero, from ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ in 1968 through to his most recent zombie film, ‘Survival Of The Dead’ in 2009. The authors focus on the way Romero uses each of these films to portray American social concerns of their time while also discussing the evolution of his zombies from mindless automatons in 1968 to sentient and partially empathic creatures in ‘Day Of The Dead’ (1985) and ‘Land Of The Dead’ (2005), although this evolution is reversed in the last two films.

The following chapter looks at the zombie films of the 1970s and 1980s, many of which were either low budget affairs or exploitation movies. This is a good chapter to read if you want to find out about less well-known films. It includes a particularly interesting sidebar from co-author Alain Silver in which he describes the difficulties he and his crew had in making their 1981 low budget feature ‘Kiss Daddy Goodbye’ and the nightmares they have had since, as the film has repeatedly resurfaced in pirated foreign editions for which they have been paid no royalties.

Chapter Six covers similar ground but focused on European zombie films of the 1970s, most of which were defined either by their old world settings or by their erotic content.

This is followed by a chapter about the rise of female protagonists in zombie movies. The core of this chapter, almost inevitably, is a discussion of the five ‘Resident Evil’ movies released prior to the writing of the book. There is also interesting material on the role of leading women in Japanese horror films, particularly those, like ‘Resident Evil’ whose storyline originates from a computer game.

The final chapter in the book brings us right up to date, looking at how the zombie film has re-invented itself for the twenty first century. There are worthwhile discussions of such genre-changing films as ‘28 Days Later’ (2002) and ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ (2004) and the chapter concludes with two recent examples of comics and novels that have been turned into highly successful TV series or films, ‘The Walking Dead’ (2010) and ‘World War Z’ (213).

There are many reasons to recommend this book. First and foremost, it offers an interesting and very readable mix of well-written text and relevant pictures. In addition, though, I would praise its coverage of less well-known films alongside the genre classics. If you don’t already have another book about zombies on film, this is definitely an excellent introductory text.

I’ve really only got one complaint. I don’t understand why Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s 2012 satirical horror film ‘The Cabin In The Woods’ isn’t discussed in the text or even included in the Filmography, given that it features a number of reanimated corpses and very clearly predates ‘World War Z’. Nonetheless, that’s a nitpick rather than a real complaint.

‘The Zombie Film: From White Zombie To World War Z’ is a comprehensive tour through the history of one of the most popular subjects for modern horror movies. If you enjoy watching zombies and want to know what to see next, you could do a lot worse than invest in this cinematic guidebook.

Patrick Mahon

October 2014

(pub: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. 384 page large paperback. Price: $29.99 (USA). ISBN: 978-0-87910-887-8)

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