As a fan of horror, and specifically the zombie sub-genre, it’s hard not to be a fan of George A. Romero. He not only breathed new life into an already-past-its-prime monster, but gave it the lore and rules that are still being followed to this day. His first three entries into the cycle work not only as gorefests, but as sophisticated satires of a society bent on self-destruction long before the dead started rising. Unfortunately, since the first three, Romero has made three other films bearing “of the Dead” that few could deem sophisticated. His latest, the totally nonsensically-titled “Survival of the Dead,” made me wish I didn’t watch it, so I thought I’d mention some of the entries into the genre that don’t bear Romero’s name or myth at all. These are the Top 6 Romero-Free Zombie Movies.
VI – THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (1974)
This Spanish/Italian film from the pre-Dawn era of undead flesh-eaters is an under-appreciated gem. It tells the story of long-haired hippie George (Italian heartthrob Ray Lovelock) accompanying pretty Londoner Edna (Spanish actress Cristina Galbo) through the countryside in her tiny little English car. Along the way they are attacked by people who just plain don’t look right. It’s probably because they’re reanimated corpses. Obviously. Unfortunately, when the youngsters go to the police, they are immediately suspected of the grisly murders themselves by the youth-hating Inspector (Arthur Kennedy). The Manson Family murders had just recently been committed so this movie definitely sought to point out the backlash the counterculture felt shortly thereafter, and to offer some kind of revenge against the squares. This movie is noteworthy also for having a number of completely unrelated titles. The original Italian title is “Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti” or “Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead,” which no one on screen really does, nor is that the reason they rise. Another title is “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie,” which, again, is not something anyone is disagreeing with. I think George and Edna would have happily left the dead fuckers alone the whole time. The most absurd one is “Don’t Open the Window,” despite there not being a single instance in the film where someone befalls any harm after opening a window. Nor does a scene exist where someone opens a window. Nor is there a scene where there’s a window. The best title is the “Manchester Morgue” one, even though that only explains something like 30 seconds of screen time.
V – CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1973)
This movie is, to put it mildly, one of the weirdest fucking movies I’ve ever seen. Long before he made “Porky’s,” and “Baby Geniuses,” director Bob Clark used to make interesting horror movies. The year after this, he made both the slasher archetype “Black Christmas” and another zombie movie “Dead of Night” (aka “Deathdream) about a boy killed in Vietnam who returns home as an decaying bloodsucker. Both are interesting in their own right, but it’s his first that is the most notable in my book. It follows an irritating theatre troupe as their leader tries to raise a dead body. They go to a cemetery and play pranks on each other and argue for most of the film as they dig up a body, named Orville, and say some phony magic words. A little over two-thirds of the way into the movie, something unprecedented happens: the other dead bodies in the graveyard begin to rise. It then becomes a genuinely scary and bleak zombies-attacking-a-house story where the annoying people get their comeuppance and Orville has a “coming out party.” A remake was in the works until Bob Clark’s untimely death from a car accident in 2007.
IV – THE GRAPES OF DEATH (1978)
Director Jean Rollin was known for pornographic vampire films in his native France when he was approached by producer Claude Geudj to make what became this film. It began as a desire to cash in on the American disaster movies like “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno,” but when finances proved prohibitive, they decided to modify the format of a group of people hindered in travelling from point A to point B by various problems (every four minutes) into the horror oeuvre Rollin was used to. The premise is what makes this movie interesting. A certain vineyard is using a hazardous pesticide on its crops which gets made into wine. But instead of just making people sick, drinkers of the vino made from the Grapes of Death start to rot from the inside out, making them mindless and bloodthirsty ghouls who stalk the French countryside. Displaying a good amount of a gore, and even R-rated versions of Rollin’s X-rated roots, “Les Raisins de le mort” is a worthy entry to the non-Romero group.
III – DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE aka CEMETERY MAN (1994)
It’s rare to find an understated horror-comedy in any capacity, least of all one of the zombie ilk, but this Italian outing manages to be just that. It’s a film full of romance and heartache as well as misunderstandings and silliness, but there’s also a fair amount of head-shooting and throat-tearing. It’s the story of Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) who is the proprietor of the local mortuary/cemetery. This particular cemetery seems to bring people back to life, so on top of all his normal duties, Francesco also has to put the residents back down once they get up. He falls in love with a young widow and in a particularly ill-conceived instance, has sex with her on her husband’s grave. Go figure, ol’ hubby gets up and is pretty pissed about this whole thing and bites his wife, forcing Francesco to shoot her before she becomes an undead creature herself. Of course, she didn’t die from the bite and he shot her when she was alive. Francesco is wracked with guilt and starts killing the townsfolk BEFORE they die to save him the trouble of dealing with them later. The film ends with probably the bleakest and most existential of finales, proving that there really is nothing beyond our own little worlds.
II – RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
Part “Frankenstein,” part “Braindead,” Stuart Gordon’s 80s monster classic “Re-Animator” is the perfect mix of grossness and hilarity. One of the themes of these movies I’ve chosen (with the exception of the previous one) is that the zombification is explained as opposed to the Romero model of having zombies appear due to God knows what. In “Re-Animator,” it’s all there in the name. This guy, Dr. Herbert West, is TRYING to raise the dead, and breaks all kinds of ethics laws to do it, even resorting to murder. That’s how you get the freshest specimens, after all. Full of black humor and memorable lines, “Re-Animator” also has one of the most shocking images in all of horror, where a dead body holding its own decapitated head attempts to perform oral sex on a kidnapped co-ed. It’s so insane that you wonder why no one thought of it sooner.
I – SHIVERS (1975)
David Cronenberg is often hailed as the king of body horror, which started early with this Canadian horror classic. In “Shivers,” also known as “They Came From Within,” a semi-mad scientist is experimenting with parasites in an attempt to aid in transplants (?) but really he thinks people have lost touch with their instincts and flesh, so the parasite is actually part aphrodisiac and part venereal disease. He infects his teenage mistress and sets her loose in an enormous ultra-modern apartment complex in Montreal. The effect of the parasite on the host is to create a sex-crazed maniac, hell-bent on spreading the disease to everyone in the vicinity. It’s up to a physician and his assistant to stop it before the city is lost to mindless lust. Some of the images from this film were copied by Romero in “Dawn of the Dead,” and even though the premise sounds like a porno, “Shivers” actually works as a pitch-perfect allegory to the AIDS epidemic, which was just in its infancy back in the 70s.
One of my goals with these lists is not only to entertain but to educate and I would definitely recommend all of these movies to anyone who hasn’t yet seen them. You might also notice I didn’t include “Return of the Living Dead.” The reason is simple: I fucking hate that movie. Happy viewing!
Images: Hallmark Releasing Corp, Anchor Bay, Synapse Films, October Films, Empire INternational Pictures, Cinepix Film Properties Inc.