If you’re a die-hard zombie movie nut, you’ve probably seen the following films, some of them more than once. This list, presented in the order in which the films were released, is for those fine normal folks who don’t know who Joe Pilato is or where the trampoline appears in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Aside from The Wolf Man, Universal Studios didn’t add many indelible titles to their horror roster in the 1940s. In a decade dominated by Mummy sequels and Monster Mashes (House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula), The Mad Ghoul was one of their final attempts at straight horror before the comedic Abbott and Costello crossovers carried their fading famous monsters into the mid-fifties.
The misguided Dr. Morris has developed a gas, derived somehow from Mayan secrets, that transforms those exposed to it into desiccated walking corpse in constant need of an occult mix of herbs and fresh human hearts. Morris, of course, tests his creation on Ted, his faithful assistant, and from there things go downhill. There’s way too much singing and far too little atmosphere. Like the titular ghoul, the film is slow and plodding, and the cinematography and performances are bland and forgettable. Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in King Kong) infuses the proceedings with a little cornball life, and his death scene is genuinely horrific, but there’s not much worth recommending here.
Little more than a moribund echo of the horror films of Universal’s glory days, The Mad Ghoul stumbles its way onto this list for one simple reason: it gives us, as far as I know, cinema’s first cannibalistic walking corpse. At times, one can’t help but be reminded of Romero’s ghouls, which would not shamble onto the screen for another quarter century. Not as obvious a precursor to Romero’s dead as the creatures in The Invisible Invaders or The Last Man on Earth, poor Ted is one of cinema’s earliest non-voodoo zombies.
Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming (1973)
AKA Dead People
Written and directed by Willard Huyuk and Gloria Katz, the screen-writing duo behind such Lucasfilm productions as American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the immortal Howard the Duck (which Huyuk directed), this effective and atmospheric gem slipped silently into obscurity and was for many years available only as a public domain bargain DVD featuring a lousy fullscreen VHS transfer.
Equally artful and horrific, Messiah of Evil is light on cohesion and plot and heavy on dread. A young woman travels to a sleepy coastal California town in search of her father, an artist whose increasingly strange letters to her have ceased. She instead discovers that the population of the town has been… changed. Visually striking if at times unfocused, Messiah of Evil, despite its flaws, contains several standout moments, chief of which is a harrowing sequence set in a grocery store—its one of the most terrifying and nightmarish moments in movie history, period.
Maybe the greatest horror movie you’ve never seen, Messiah of Evil is disorienting and surreal, a nightmare caught on film that echoes Carnival of Souls and prefigures Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and is arguably more frighteningly jarring than either of them. Skip the cheapo DVDs and go for the Code Red 35th Anniversary Edition, which contains a few extra goodies and a beautiful widescreen transfer.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
AKA The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Don’t Open the Window
The Euro-zombie explosion didn’t take place until after the release of Argento’s cut of Dawn of the Dead, but there are a few noteworthy pre-1978 releases. In addition to the Blind Dead series, the next two films on this list are noteworthy excursions into early Euro-zombie territory.
Many Euro-zombie movies (both pre- and post-Dawn) eschew Romero’s unknown and mysterious cause behind the revival of the dead and instead draw a direct line between industrial pollution and the rise of the living dead. In Nightmare City and Hell of the Living Dead, nuclear contamination is the culprit. In The Grapes of Death, it’s pesticides. In Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, it’s a little bit of both.
A rash of violence plagues the countryside. A relentless detective is convinced that a couple of long-hairs are responsible, but they know otherwise: an experimental radiation-emitting device designed to attack the nervous system of crop-destroying insects is raising the recently dead.
In addition to featuring a bloody and harrowing third act and a final scene worthy of EC Comics, Sleeping Corpses also delivers cinema’s first infant zombie, a pitiful, disturbing, ineffectual little thing—a far cry from the glowing-eyed CG thing in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. And that one zombie—the one with the autopsy incision on his chest? Creepy as hell.
Slow but substantive, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is one of the better movies on this list, if not the most fun.
Come back tomorrow. We’ll have some wine, hang out with Hugo Stiglitz, and then go straight to hell…
R.J. Sevin got into this zombie nonsense when he was ten years old. He’s pushing forty now and his mom keeps assuring him that she’d really hoped he would have “outgrown all of that by now.” His nonfiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Dark Discoveries, Fear Zone, and Famous Monsters Online. His short fiction has appeared in Bits of the Dead, Postcards from Hell, and The Living Dead 2, with an upcoming appearance in Cemetery Dance.
He and his wife run Creeping Hemlock Press, a New Orleans-based specialty press offering fine limited editions of tasty genre books. In addition to an upcoming release of Campus Tramp, a long out-of-print Lawrence Block smut novel, they will soon launch a new imprint, Print is Dead, a line of, wait for it… zombie novels.