There are three major types of zombie film; each one was once popular but in general gave way to more exciting and epic genres of zombie. In order:
Necromancer zombie films: A necromancer raises up some bodies for his own purposes, giving them a semblance of life, one by one. Only a few modern zombie films follow this "voodoo" stereotype, and include the Reanimator films. See: Necromancers and Zombiefication: Toxins and Voodoo.
Apocalyptic/epic zombie films: Since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) a new form of zombie film created a new genre of film. The recently deceased started re-animating and attacking the living. The zombies are slow and suffer from rigor mortis, and move awkwardly and slowly. Their strength is solely in numbers, plus an uncanny ability to tear apart the bodies of the living with their hands and teeth. The phenomenon tends to spread and become more serious over time, often causing the collapse of civilisation and threatening all of humanity to extinction.
Fast and aggressive zombie films: 28 Days Later (2002) saw a new breed of zombie arise which is fast, aggressive and strong. These films have proven more popular and more exciting than any of their introspective predecessors, World War Z (2013) being particularly successful.
Zombies!!! The Biology and Philosophy of the Living Dead! is my introduction to zombie films. This page is about classic slow zombie films - also see my page The Best Aggressive Fast Zombie Films.
Romero set the scene and created the apocalyptic zombie film genre. No longer were the undead the creations of wild necromancers and the objects of their control. A new form of zombie arose, combining the horrible lurgy of the plague with the devastating horror of the undead. Romeo didn't create zombies, but, he projected the threat of them onto a global scale. His films escalated until all of humankind was at risk; henceforth, all previous necromancer-based zombie films seemed suddenly rather mild and unimportant. The danger wasn't in their strength, as the zombies were always slow and simple: the danger was in numbers and in the fact that in any war of attrition, they were tireless and continually reinforced at a much greater rate at which they can be killed.
The first few Romero films excelled at providing additional information in the background often in the form of news reports, TV announcements and radio commentary. Although the cast of the film are frequently not listening to it, you as the viewer will often notice them if you watch the film a few times. This gives a great depth and scale to the films if you pay attention but otherwise can be ignored if you're just after the gore! Such are the antics of a producer who rightfully became labelled as the master of the zombie genre.
The best combination of scale, science, gore and plot is found in the original Dawn of the Dead.
Cause of Zombies:
Radiation from a space probe
This is the first zombie film as far as we are concerned. The dead, across the East coast of the USA, are coming back to life as monsters shortly after dying. The background story is that an exploded space probe flooded the Earth's atmosphere with radiation. The film centers on a farm house where half a dozen survivors hole-up. They barricade the doors and windows, using all the furniture. The hero of the story is a black man (which was astounding at the time), who is the only brave and strong character in the film. He ends up trapped in the attic alone, with no-one else left alive. The end of the films sees state police and volunteers make sweeping searches across the state, picking off the zombies and rescuing people. An excellent closure of the film prevents any sense of predictability.
Cause of Zombies:
Radiation from a space probe
Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) are the two all-time classic zombie films. They are similar films. In Dawn of the Dead, the zombie epidemic is world-wide, and stretched government forces are co-ordinating rescue operations. Many people are finding it hard to accept what is happening to their relatives and society. Survivors barricade a supermarket, where they begin to live some kind of life for themselves. This is where the plot gets very similar to Day of the Dead. Only large groups of organized survivors remain. In both films, Human internal conflicts cause breaches of security, and the result is a bloodbath as the zombies get inside the complex. In both films, the stars survive and escape into the bleak world.
Dawn of the Dead was remade in 2004 by Zack Snyder but with fast and aggressive zombies and the result was a thoroughly well-rounded film, again centered around a shopping mall.
Land of the Dead (2005) is the fifth of the Romero series. In all previous films, the numbers of survivors were dwindling and the landscape was becoming more and more barren. This film does not follow that trend, and we see thousands of survivors living in an island city connected to the world by bridges, which they have barricaded. Once again, internal strife and politics destroys their safety. This is the most Hollywood-style of the of the Dead films; the survivors have a tank/bus, rockets, many weapons, and all sorts else. The film lacks sadness or emotion, but it makes up for it in progression. In each film, the zombies have advanced a little in skill and talent, and in this film a zombie leader emerges who encourages the other zombies to innovate. He is the least zombie-like... more like a monster, than a zombie. He arms the others, directs them, and leads assaults on the survivors. Only a few people realize that the zombies are changing.
Romero's first zombie films 'documented' the rise of the zombies, from a small town, to the requirement for roaming bands of exterminators throughout a state, to the retreat of humans to bunkers and underground complexes. Land of the Dead revived humanity a bit, with an entire city being made a garrison.
Diary of the Dead restarts from the beginning: the initial news reports on the outbreak, a group of students meeting zombies for the first time and slowly learning how to deal with them, and the realisation that everything we know - culture, society, law and order - is disappearing fast. That sense of loss is one of the film's few strengths. The fact that it is all shot from hand-held devices is cheesy and a bit superfluous to the movie, although the pretence is maintained quite naturally throughout the film.
The student survivors meet some other groups of survivors/gangs; the gang of black youths "now we have the power!" are unfortunately even more interesting than the actual student survivors that the film is about, and it is a shame the two groups didn't stay together for longer.
The retreat to the mansion is interesting, but, it would have been good to have some barricading going on (they don't seem to bother!), and the film just goes too quickly into "it's hopeless" territory without enough struggling! The drama and emotion works quite well when they finally move to seal themselves into the panic room, with no supplies or plan to ever come out again!
Like Diary of the Dead, this film appears to be early in the history of the zombie pandemic but some elements don't add up. Diary of the Dead is set right at the beginning of the outbreak, but in Survival of the Dead there are many battle-worn survivors who are fully equipped and experienced in fighting zombies. Surely, Survival is set at least weeks or months after the outbreak has crippled society. Some people have even started experimenting on the zombies and trying to control them. Yet Diary and Survival share a scene, where the students from the first encounter the military men from Survival. This screws with the time-line somewhat.
Survival of the Dead is about a feud on an island between two families. Like Day of the Dead an experimenter is trying to tame and control the zombies but the attempts and the results are much less interesting here. Also, like a few scenes from Dawn of the Dead, there are several times when friends and relatives of the deceased are refusing to dispose of their bodies safely, therefore increasing the zombies' numbers and raising the risk of outbreaks within protected areas. Like in Diary of the Dead some of the characters use gadgets to access the Internet, but, it seems that there is no explanation as to how the world's Internet servers are still up and running when most of the infrastructure is broken and unmanned. There are a few interesting moments in this film but generally it is lacklustre - nearly all the plot devices are re-used from previous of the Dead films and the island's inter-family feud simply isn't interesting enough to make the film. The zombie action is low-key with few genuine struggles and little sense of drama.
Cause of Zombies:
Exotic hybrid rat-monkey bite
This is fun-minded rather than doom-laden or apocalyptic. It is a very low-budget film, and is the story of a feeble, fumbling young man whose problems stem from his over-bearing mother. She soon gets bitten by a dangerous foreign creature, a one-off rat-monkey hybrid, that must carry some kind of disease. She becomes very ill and turns into a zombie, and soon he finds himself in a house full of zombies. The famous lawnmower scene sees the lead pick up said item, turn it on, and walk back and forth through a hallway full of zombies, turning the film into a gore-fest of limbs and body-parts. Only for true b-movie fans. By Peter Jackson, the director of (inferior) Bad Taste.
Cause of Zombies:
Shaun of the Dead is a funny parody. Shaun spends most the film not realizing that disaster has struck, and when he leads the survivors, his plans and the conflicts between the characters are hilarious. They hole-up in a pub, where the final scenes are fought out; one of them in sync to a Queen sound track. A memorable scene starts where they are arguing, and someone says "Moaning won't get you anywhere"... it inspires a plan and we see them pretending to be zombies (in order to get past a large crowd of the dead), moaning. A great all-round film. It ends with the government rescuing everyone.
As satire or comedy Osombie could have been brilliant but unfortunately this is dead-pan serious and it merely manages to be seriously lacking. The effects were fine; the zombies were perfectly zombie-like, they all went down nicely, although some of the CGI effects seem to get re-used quite frequently and far too often the zombies appeared to just disappear into a hazy mist of blood when they were shot. But the special effects do not let the film down in general. Neither does the settings - the mountains, deserts and greenery are all like Afghanistan. There are two main problems with the film:
The Osama zombie did not play a role in the film. Once dead, Osama was just an ordinary zombie and is only seen at the beginning (in one simple and short scene) and at the end. He was found chained up in a room by his fans, and once unchained, bimbled around a bit like any other zombie until he was shot. This film was about terrorists creating zombies in a camp in Afghanistan, it was not about Osama. If the film concentrated on the terrorist element it would have been more interesting, especially in the way the film was making out that the outside world did not yet know about the zombie outbreak - the threat of escalation into Pakistan, etc, would have been interesting. Instead, we got pointless and boring drivel when the cast talked about Osama the zombie, but, it didn't have any consequence.
The plot was far, far too simplistic. The special forces guys pick up a few civilians, and proceed to their objective, fighting through the occasional zombie attack. They lose a few men. They reach their objective, storm the enemy camp, shoot most the zombies, find Osama, and shoot him. There was no drama, no twists and turns, nothing to keep you engaged, just a straight "good guys fight towards objective... and achieve it!". Very unstimulating - the most impressive and interesting thing about *other* zombie films is the sense of escalating danger. This film had the opposite; as the zombies were repeatedly and thoroughly wiped out in every encounter and at the end, the film was slowly deflating.
Things that should have been left out of this film are (1) the Osama zombie, (2) the repetitive scenes where generic insurgents are seen recording videos with which to taunt the west, (3) the dialogue about 9/11 (which stirred up no emotions at all), (4) some of the personal stories revealed by the characters, most of which were boring, and (5) Derek.
Instead, there should have been more about the dangers of escalating infection spreading to Pakistan / India / China, more on the insurgent's camp (which was actually an interesting feature!) and what they were planning on doing with the zombies.
As I said at the beginning, this film could have been a wonderful satire or comedy. It was naturally supposed to be one! Its failings would have been ignorable if only it was funny rather than relying on its weak plot. The final piece of evidence that the film should have been funny is its subtitle:
Osombie: The Axis of Evil Dead