A zombie is, by definition, a reanimated corpse - there are none in these films
A Zombie by any other name
We all know and love zombies and there have been many, many excellent entries into the genre (and some not so good ones). All have a standard set of rules to apply, be it worldwide chaos, or a small group trapped against insurmountable odds; both of which were established over forty years ago. They work, so why change them? However, in an attempt to do just that, re-invent the wheel, so to speak, a number of films have adopted the ‘rules’ except for one fundamental – the zombies themselves. A zombie is, by definition, a reanimated corpse. Oh, there have been numerous ideas on how zombies themselves behave (i.e. run fast or lumber along, eat just brains or any old body part etc.) but they have to be undead in order to be classified as a zombie.
That hasn’t, however, stopped screenwriters from writing ‘zombie’ films but not including any zombies – indeed the godfather of the genre George Romero himself was one of the very first to do such a thing in 1973 with The Crazies. But we all know what is going on – it’s nothing but a zombie flick just not including the word; thus the antagonists are viral infected, radiation poisoned or demon possessed, but one thing they are not is dead; thus not zombies. So, let us take a look at the top twelve entries in the small genre: A zombie film that has no zombies.
In this 2009 French film, written, directed and edited by David Morlet, our monsters have a viral infection that turns them into bloodthirsty mutants hungry for human flesh. The plot revolves around the ‘small group trapped’ idea, but is intensified by being just two, and one of them is infected! Despite its low budget - surprising how many are on this list - the film manages a reasonable atmosphere, but not a zombie in sight.
Jake West directs Danny Dyer in this low budget 2009 British horror-comedy – and that sentence should be enough to instil fear! The premise is very familiar; a small group have to face off against a horde of flesh-eating monstrosities, but the twist is that the small group are a bunch of lads celebrating a divorce of one of their crew battling against infected women who want nothing but to chow down on man-meat. There is little directorial flair, but the gore is plentiful and the whole thing is played tongue in cheek – don’t expect sinister horror, it’s meant as a laugh and that is probably why it doesn’t quite work, unlike Shuan of the Dead which understood the genre and how to make light of it, Doghouse either tries too hard, moves into coarseness or is just plain daft. No zombies though, so it has a place on this list.
This 2007 film is written and directed by three talented independent film makers, David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, who not only play up the ‘not zombie’ idea but tease you with techno-fear/dependence and how easily society can breakdown. Told in non-linear fashion and in three separate, though interconnected, chapters (called transmissions!) the main premise is a strange signal that emanates from all electronic devises and causes anyone exposed to exaggerate their rooted personalities to the extreme, whereupon many become homicidal maniacs. The way the story unfolds as well as the defining chapters (each has its own mini genre - splatter, black comedy and post-apocalyptic respectively) helps push this horror into something slightly more imaginative. Its only limitation is the budget which fails to quite live up to the lofty ideas it puts forward; though the enigmatic ending does stir up some debate, and that can only be a good thing.
This 2006 horror follows a very predictable path: an infection breaks out that causes anyone exposed to devolve into bloodthirsty monstrosities and a small group of housing tenants band together and barricade themselves in their apartment building trying to survive the relentless attacks as the local news informs of quarantine, military intervention and thus the possibility for rescue. Once again this is a very low budget affair but what with it being lensed very well and holding a good pace with strong tension, director Jim Mickle manages to show just how a good clichéd idea can hold water when treated with respect and dedication from all those involved.
Tom Shankland directs this 2008 British horror with some decent flair, hiding the budget by implying a lot of the more grisly details, so the audience believes they are seeing more than they are. Once again this is an infection of sorts, but with this difference, it only affects the children and thus the adults and parents have to battle the little monsters as well as their protective instincts when facing off against their own offspring. This is quite a delicious little idea and does work for the most part. The British aspect also works in its favour as everyone likes to see a Brit lose it. Love the downbeat ending as well. Although in trying to be different, The Children ends up being the same, and that, in this case, is no bad thing.
David Cronenberg’s 1977 horror is just as well known for its subject matter as it is for its lead actress, the porn star Marilyn Chambers. Still in his early career and thus still working with very low budgets, the ideas postulate Cronenberg’s obsession with ‘body horror’, in this case a phallic growth under the lead character’s armpit that feeds on human blood turning its victims into blood-hungry mutants whose own bite is infectious (sounds like zombies, but it’s not!) Once the infection begins to spread citywide destruction and civilisation starts to crumble, ideas that he would revisit many times over in subsequent years. This one is pure horror though and with Cronenberg young, hungry and full of ideas Rabid has become something of a cult.
Night of the Creeps
Ah, eighties nostalgia for a B-movie homage to 70’s horror. And no zombies either, just alien slug infested automatons with a thirst for blood. Fred Dekker’s audacious debut simply does not know where to stop, throwing everything at the screen in the hopes something will stick; and luckily most of it does. Notoriously low on budget, and proud of it, what it lacks in money it more than makes up for with pure inventiveness. Played for laughs but with a strong and hard edge the film has become something of a cult classic having bombed on its initial release, a prerequisite of a cult, and rightly so, there is slasher madness, sci fi, horror, (not)zombies, teen angst and a whole load-a-fun!
Released as part of the ‘Grindhouse experience’ along with Tarantino’s Death Proof in 2007, Robert Rodriguez’s opus is an exercise on how to mash up genres and get it right. He directs with wild abandonment as a biochemical agent turns anyone who comes within contact into bloodthirsty psychopaths leaving the survivors to battle it out not only with the monsters but against themselves. Filled with stars having a ball, a strong, inventive story line, blood, guts, gore and an overriding sense of fun Planet Terror has it all. Surprising then that it failed to ignite the box office and has failed to really find its feet in the home, although if seen is generally regarded is a good film – just not a great one.Some may be fast, some might be slow, but there are no zombies here
This 2008 Canadian horror from Bruce McDonald has a wonderful idea for the transmission of its infection (one I’m not going to spoil here) even if the rest of the plot follows the same ‘small group trapped’ motif that so many of the genre adhere to. Filmed with relentless pace and containing both true suspense and genuine hilarity, McDonald seemingly breaks the mould for the ‘trapped and surrounded’ idea as it feels fresh and invigorated. Played perfectly straight by both actors and crew, Pontypool is a welcome break from the norm, even if it’s exactly the same, and is a genuinely terrific watch – not a zombie in sight though!
Not Romero’s original, the 2010 remake by Breck Eisner, which while following the very same basic structure and beats, manages to top in terms of suspense and all out visceral carnage. A virus has infected the water supply of a small town and anyone drinking it turns into a sick and twisted murderer, killing without fear or conscience. As more and more people succumb, those left unscathed have to fight for their very survival not only against the crazies, but against the authorities trying to hush it all up. As end of the wold scenarios go, Eisner creates a terrifying one, relentlessly piling on the tension to near unbearable levels. The posed questions of What would you do? or How would you survive? seem inconsequential compared to the sheer horror of the situation.
28 Days Later
Perhaps the most well-known on our list and certainly takes the credit for the ‘fast zombies’ that have since proliferated, Danny Boyles 2002 post-apocalyptic British horror has remained a milestone of the genre. Shot digitally and with verve, the idea of waking up in a hospital and finding everywhere deserted is the stuff of nightmares, add to that homicidal unstoppable monsters and you descend into madness. The infection is a virus called Rage, that can be transmitted by a single drop of blood or saliva and reproduces with alarming speed allowing no time for any recovery: one drop, you will turn and kill. The sadistic military add yet another layer of horror in what is an unrelenting exercise in terror.Chew on this - What would be your top choice?
And the best till last – for pure unadulterated terror you have to look no further than this Spanish production from 2007 directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. If you can get over the POV camera filming (beware shaky-cam) then you will be rewarded with a film that is utterly absorbing, totally horrific and unquestioningly and genuinely frightening. It follows the path of a group trapped in a building, but this time the monsters are inside, demonically possessed horrors brutally and viciously attack anyone and everyone, who then continue to infect and attack – not zombies, but insatiable gorging monstrosities. No one is safe, even those who horror conventions predict will be, and this makes it terrifying to watch as one by one everyone is picked off, made all the worse as it’s the authorities that have trapped them inside in a case of ‘health and safety gone (genuinely) mad’. Ignore the American re-make Quarantine it isn’t a patch on the original which is fresh, exciting, visceral and one film that actually lives up to its hype.
So there you are, twelve films and not a zombie in sight even though they fall fairly and squarely under the zombie genre. And even within themselves there lies diversity (horror, horror-comedy, etc.) and yet all try to do something slightly different even if, by sticking to conventional rules, they inevitably turn out very similar in nature. Some are great, others not so much, but in all there is a thirst for human flesh!
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