Listen, I’m not going to act like you’re clueless about this. We both know you’ve seen your fair share of zombie flicks and have (at the very least) heard about their history. So, I’m just going to rush through this stuff. Ready? Here we go…
George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead, huge financial/critical success, Dawn of the Dead, even bigger success, solidified zombie sub-genre in film culture, surge in zombie cinema since the ‘80s, zombie flicks still being made long after the heat death of the universe. That’s the gist of it, though I may have taken some liberties with that last part…maybe.
Point is, zombies are a huge part of cinema nowadays (though their relevancy fluctuates every half-decade or so). It seems every third movie that comes out features the living dead in some form or fashion. From my experience, they all kind of blur together after a while, mostly because they follow the same basic plot with the same basic zombies (save for some exceptions).
For a zombie flick to stand out, I feel that they must have something that…well, stands out! Like, I don’t know, a character, maybe? A character that isn’t living? A character that is living dead, if you will?…subtlety is my strong suit if you can’t tell.
Iconic zombies of cinema! The ones that gnaw at our brains long after the credits roll! These undead fellows not only elevated the films they were in, but the entire sub-genre itself. Now, I’m only going to talk about a small list of my personal favorites this time. There’s plenty more out there, but these are the ones that impacted me the most during the nightly horror-flick escapades of my youth.
I will be spoiling elements of several films, so here’s your heads up. With that said, let’s take a bite out of zombie cinema and see some of the rotten flesheaters that shamble over the rest!
1. Bub (Day of the Dead; 1985; Directed by George A. Romero; Played by Sherman Howard)
““A small group of military officers and scientists dwell in an underground bunker as the world above is overrun by zombies.” – via IMDB.
Every single one of you saw this coming. I mean, it’s Bub…c’mon! How could he not be numero uno on the list! When we think of an iconic zombie, his lovable sunken-in face is the first thing to pop into our minds. He’s a well fleshed out character, and he’s arguably the most memorable part of the film (rivaled only by one Captain Rhodes).
In case you’re not familiar with Bub’s story, here’s a quick lowdown. He’s a zombie that was captured by the underground bunker’s crew so that the resident mad scientist, Dr. Logan, could run experiments on him. What kind of experiments? Well, the ones where the good doctor helps Bub relearn human activities. You know, like reading a book, answering the phone, shaving his face, and shooting a FUCKING GUN. Yeah, turns out, Bub used to be a solider in his past life, and he knows how to throw lead better than anyone else in the base (not a high bar to reach). Captain Rhodes learns this the hard way after killing Bub’s good friend, Mad Doc Logan…Bub didn’t really appreciate that all too much. Moral of the story, when everything goes to hell, communication and teamwork are the key to survival…also, we probably shouldn’t teach zombies to use guns.
Over the years, Bub has become not only one of the main faces of the Romero Dead Trilogy, but zombie cinema itself. With a unique look, a sympathetic story, and smarts that rival most other living dead, he’s cemented into the zombie tomb of fame for years to come.
Interesting note, he’s probably the only one on the list that can be considered a “hero”, depending on your perspective.
2. Tarman (The Return of the Living Dead; 1985; Directed by Dan O’Bannon; Played by Allan Trautman)
“When two bumbling employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a deadly gas into the air, the vapors cause the dead to rise again as zombies.” – via IMDB.
Arguably the most iconic ghoul to ever grace the screen!… I say that with extreme bias and favoritism. The Tarman just has the look, you know? The rotting skin, the exposed skull, the unblinking eyes, the lipless mouth; all the hallmarks of a perfect zombie. A design so good, they used it in 3 of the 5 movies in the series…not than you need to watch any other one besides Return of the Living Dead 3. Plus, he also has a way with words…well, word (“Brains!”).
Released from his imprisonment in a barrel of 2-4-5 Trioxin (the zombie gas), the Tarman plagues our heroes in the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse’s basement, ever on the hunt for those delicious sweetbreads that reside in their craniums. However, while he’s dead in many ways, braindead isn’t one of them! Tarman’s a clever boy, using a winch to rip out a door, attempting to get the delicious brain behind it.
Tarman would look right in place on an old EC comic cover (which is probably what the makers were going for). He’s the shambling, slimey, wide-eyed boogeyman that shambles out of your closet at night when you’re just about to fall asleep…or something like that. In any case, he’s definitely made a pretty big (bite)mark in zombie cinema.
3. The Conquistador (Zombi 2; 1979; Directed by Lucio Fulci; Played by Ottaviano Dell’Acqua)
“Strangers searching for a young woman’s missing father arrive at a tropical island where a doctor desperately seeks the cause and cure of a recent epidemic of the undead.” – via IMDB.
Despite only having a short amount of screen time, the Conquistador left such an impact that people that haven’t even seen the movie recognize him. Why is that? Well first, look at that handsome mug of his! Second, the distributors decided to use his face on the poster to promote the film…and they were right to do so. I mean, it got me to check it out, that’s for sure.
As far as his role in the film goes, there’s not much of one. He comes out of the ground, bites someone, then promptly gets his head smashed into bloody bits. Still, it’s one of the best parts in the flick. The protagonists take refuge in a graveyard, the music begins to amp up, our boy slowly rises from the grave…like, really slowly…he’s not in a rush, the heroes’ reaction time is just as slow, so he didn’t feel pressured. Then he attacks, blood pouring out of the woman’s neck as he pulls the flesh away with his rotted teeth! He gets knocked over by one of the guys, then bam! Wooden grave marker to the head! Good stuff!
As previously stated, most of his claim to fame comes from the movie’s poster. However, in this case, I feel that’s more than enough. He looks rad as hell, and sometimes that’s all you need to be one of the iconic undead.
4. Dr. Carl Hill (Re-Animator; 1985; Directed by Stuart Gordan; Played by David Gale)
“After an odd new medical student arrives on campus, a dedicated local and his girlfriend become involved in bizarre experiments centering around the re-animation of dead tissue.” – via IMDB.
Dr. Hill’s definitely the odd one out on this list. He’s not the traditional type of zombie that’s prevalent in these movies, which makes him stand out that much more. Unlike his fellow undead, he retains all the intellect he had when he was alive without any impediments (save for maybe a case of post-mortem insanity). As the antagonist of the H.P. Lovecraft “adaption” Re-Animator, I can confidently say that he’s the evilest out of this cache of cadavers.
After taking a crack at blackmailing Herbert West (the mad medical student with the zombie juice), Dr. Carl Hill meets the business end of a shovel and gets himself decapitated. That should be the end of his story, but that zany West just can’t bear to let a corpse go to waste. Two injections later (one in his head, the other in his body), Dr. Hill finds himself back among the living…sort of. He’s a headless corpse carrying his severed head around, that’s close enough. With his newfound “life”, he continues his dastardly deeds by stealing the zombie juice, making more zombies, and sexually assaulting scream queen Barbara Crampton…one of those is not like the others. Anyway, his plans are foiled and his reign of terror is put to an end. That is, until he shows up in the sequel sporting a pair of bat wings so he can fly around…as one does when presented with the opportunity.
Dr. Hill is one of my favorite horror villains, mostly because he’s so damn entertaining to watch. David Gale had so much fun in this role, he quit classical acting to do campy B-movies, which I’m all about! In my opinion, he more than deserves to be considered as one of the zombie greats.
Well, we made it, friends! Brains and flesh intact! There’s plenty of others I didn’t talk about, but I’ll get to them at some point. Until then, I’m going to start boarding up these windows…those ghastly moans sounded a little too close for comfort. Be safe out there! Ciao, friends!