A work perpetually in progress.
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!
-The Goddess Ishtar in ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’
Many people seem to think that George Romero essentially created the zombie film in 1968 with his Night of the Living Dead. To some extent, of course, this is true. To what extent that is I will leave vague, but suffice it to say that we would not have anything approaching the rich genre we have today were it not for GR. However, there is another important tradition of zombie films that began long before the flesh devourers we know today. A long history could be given of zombie literature and anthropology tracing zombie stories from their roots in West African Vodun and the progression of the mythology to Haiti, but frankly I don’t care to give it at the moment. Maybe I’ll amend this list later to include some more historical background, but for the moment, suffice it to say that historically, zombies were thought of significantly differently than those Romero envisioned. Likely the major shift from the zombies of Vodun/Vodou to contemporary zombies has to do with the process that turns an individual to a zombie. Post-Romero, the dominant scenario has some sort of virus or ambiguous physiological change reanimating the dead. Pre-Romero, the force was usually a magical incantation or ritualistic practice, often administered by a shaman-esque figure or, in some of the more modern interpretations, a scientist. Needless to say, given the inherent limitations of the latter process, the apocalyptic imagery that commonly goes along with zombie scenarios today (indeed, the term “zombie apocalypse” is a term that has entered the lexicon since the advent of Romero-style zombie films) was not present in earlier depictions of zombies.
Something to keep in mind: Though it may be tempting to challenge the categorization of some of these films as “zombie films,” doing so on the basis of the current conception of zombie films would be anachronistic. Certainly there can be legitimate questions raised about genre categorization, but it’s a subject that must be approached carefully.
Historical Note: There are stories of some early Hong Kong films that feature creatures from Asian folklore called jian shi, which are likely classifiable as both zombies and, under some definitions, vampires. Copies of these films are incredibly scarce, if not totally non-existent, so I haven’t seen any and can’t speak to any of them directly. If they are as some describe them, they would fit on this list as well. Some of Sammo Hung’s late 80s films utilize these jian shi creatures, as do other latter day Hong Kong films, so those may be a reference point.
A lot of these films are not on Mubi yet, so I’ll list them up here. Others will be listed normally.
Zombies on Broadway (Gordon Douglas, 1945)
Zombies of Mora Tau (Edward Cahn, 1957)
Santo Contra los Zombies (Benito Alazraki, 1962)
Ouanga (George Terwilliger, 1936)
Revolt of the Zombies (Victor Halperin, 1936)
Castle of the Living Dead (Luciano Ricci, 1964)
Creature With the Atom Brain (Cahn, 1955)