The Zombie Film by Alain Silver and James Ursini

| March 24, 2014

It’s no surprise that given the popularity of the zombie film sub genre, the list of film books on zombie movies is becoming fairly crowded since the turn of the century. Peter Dendle’s The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia was published in 2001, followed in 2005 when FAB Press published Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema. True to FAB Press’s standard, Book of the Dead is a beautifully illustrated history of the zombie film that still stands as the gold standard of zombie film books. Glenn Kay’s Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide was released to much acclaim in 2008, and former Rue Morgue magazine editor Jovanka Vuckovic’s Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead was published in 2011. In 2012 Peter Dendle published The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Volume 2: 2000-2010. Tellingly, this second volume covers a fraction of the period of time of the first book, but is actually longer than that book. The sheer number of zombie films made since the year 2000 has made all of these books dated to various degrees, and any new book attempting the feat of presenting a comprehensive history and/or listing of zombie movies is in danger of becoming instantly obsolete. However, longtime film writers and film book editors Alain Silver and James Ursini have taken up the challenge of tackling a comprehensive overview of zombie movies with their new book, The Zombie Film: From White Zombie to World War Z.

Silver and Ursini have an impressive list of credits to their name, both together and individually. The two have edited The Film Noir Reader series, The Horror Film Reader, More Things Than Are Dreamt Of: Masterpieces of Supernatural Horror, and four editions of The Vampire Film (the most recent being 2011’s From Nosferatu to True Blood). Silver co-wrote with Elizabeth Ward Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, perhaps the seminal book on establishing the concept of the film noir style, as well as The Samurai Film and books on cinematographer James Wong Howe, director Robert Aldrich, and producer/director Roger Corman among others. Ursini has written books on Robert DeNiro, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, and Marlene Dietrich. Despite the crowded field of zombie books, if there were any authors whose names would make fans of horror films take note of a new zombie book, it would be these gentlemen. Indeed, they do bring a different sensibility to the material, although their criteria for including films will likely be controversial among film fans.

The book includes a huge filmography of 530 films that Silver and Ursini consider “zombie films,” which they define as “movies that feature reanimated corpses,” but they also include “variants” such as “alien body snatchers and a few of their sci-fi kin,” including Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its remakes and Larry Cohen’s The Stuff. These inclusions would be unusual in and of themselves, but also included are such borderline films as Jennifer’s Body (which, to be fair, does feature a reanimated corpse), The Crazies (which absolutely doesn’t), and the Outpost series (debatable). Despite a number of questionable inclusions, the authors have compiled a thorough list that includes not only the major films of the genre, but a large number of very obscure, super low-budget independent films. Still, it’s almost impossible to list all zombie films ever made, and even this filmography misses some: one of my personal favorites, Elza Kephart’s Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love (2003), is missing, which indicates there are certainly other omissions.

That said, Silver and Ursini present a thorough history of the zombie film by breaking down the eras in which zombies arose as a cultural entity, in mostly chronological order: the publication of popular narratives of Haiti and voodoo rites leading up to the production of White Zombie through to World War II, the post-war zombie leading up to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and zombie films of the 1970s and 1980s. At this point, the book takes a side track to cover European zombie films such as Armando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series, Jean Rollin and Jess Franco’s zombie films, Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, and a long look at Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man). The following chapter is focused entirely on what the authors call the “post-feminist zombie,” covering such female-centric entries into the genre as the Resident Evil franchise as well as curiosities such as Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies and the surprising preponderance of zombie films focusing on female characters both alive and undead, culminating in a look at Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento’s Deadgirl and the sub-sub-genre of zombies and strippers (including Zombie Strippers, Zombies vs. Strippers, and Stripperland). The final chapter covers “The Post-Modern Zombie,” starting with some unusual entries in the 80s such as the Re-Animator series and then moving to present day to cover World War Z and ending with a sidebar on the television series The Walking Dead and a brief note about the “white walkers” in Game of Thrones.

There are a number of sidebars throughout the book written by various other contributors that range from notes on zombies in literature to notes on the productions of independent zombie films. These sidebars wildly vary in quality and interest: the tales of the production troubles of Kiss Daddy Goodbye are train-wreck fascinating, while the list of “Top 10 Reasons Why I Hate Zombies (and the Movies About Them)” probably would have been better left on the cutting room floor. The entire book is copiously illustrated–nearly every page of the book, sidebars included, features a film still, promotional art, or poster from a film discussed in the text, including the filmography section. For the most part, this makes for a very nice-looking and fairly hefty large-format (10″ x 8″) book, weighing in at 384 pages, although anyone looking for a good coffee-table book might want to look elsewhere, unless the hundreds of images of undead creatures and bloody corpses are the kind of thing you want to strike up conversation about with casual browsers.

Overall, The Zombie Film is a valiant attempt at presenting a comprehensive look at the zombie film sub genre, although one wishes that Silver and Ursini would have spent a bit more time discussing the subtexts of the films and how they fit into the history of the zombie film and a bit less on straight descriptions of the films’ narratives. Hardcore zombie film fans will probably not find much here they have not read before in one or another of the previously published zombie film books, although anyone looking for a solid overview to start delving into the depths of zombie cinema will probably find this an accessible and thoroughly illustrated guide. If Silver and Ursini continue to update and evolve The Zombie Film as they have their book on The Vampire Film, it could become a serious contender for head of the class. As it stands, this first edition is a solid effort, and a worthy addition to (although not yet a replacement for) the other major books on zombie cinema.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:
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