Zombies have come a long way since they first lurched onto the screen in the Silent Era.
One of the first true horror films, the German expressionistic, silent masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from 1920, used themes of zombie-like control and animation that would be familiar to movie-goers decades later.
But the first true zombies of film were likely to be Caribbean visitors or residents, dead or dead-ish and controlled by a voodoo-wielding priest or priestess. There was a lot of fear about black people controlling white people, especially, of course, white women. Cinematic representations of zombies go back to the pre-war, pre-Hayes code, and as so many sub-genres of horror and science fiction movies have done, have more or less mirrored the preoccupations and fears of their audiences.
White Zombie, in 1932, starred Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian emigre, but the implication that a white (woman) was turned into a zombie was not lost on the pre-code audiences of the time, who understood that zombies were created by black voodoo masters in Haiti. So, extra-scary threat to America's vulnerable white ladies, who could be forced to do anything -- ANYTHING -- given the right motivation!
That film launched Lugosi's industrial domination of zombie movies, which would last two decades. It also firmly established the idea that zombies were created and controlled by some evil priest, or, especially during World War II and in the post-war era, an evil doctor or deranged scientist.
King of the Zombies, produced in 1941, before the United States entered World War II, portrayed a Nazi-like "Austrian" scientist in the Caribbean as the zombie-controller. The Monogram Studios' 1943 follow-up, Revenge of the Zombies, again has European zombie-creating-scientists as the bad guys.
This trope, the dead or dead-ish controlled by a bad guy, would extend in various manifestation into the 1970s. Hammer Films' The Plague of the Zombies, in 1966, had the same idea -- evil mastermind unleashes zombies to fulfill unpleasant personal needs, etc. Sugar Hill, in 1974, was produced by the same team that brought us the seminal Blacula "blaxploitation" franchise, and stars a voodoo queen using an army of zombies to chastise white gangsters.
Supernaturally/superscientifically manipulated zombies were controlled by invading aliens in Plan 9 From Outer Space in 1959, considered by some to be the worst film ever made.
Then, of course, George A. Romero changed everything. It's hard to describe the impact that The Night of the Living Dead had on me to younger generations used to over-the-top depictions of blood and gore. I first saw the movie around 1977 or so, 11 years after its release, at a science-fiction convention. A junior high school friend and I were the only people in the audience, and we were speechless.
I had never seen anything as shocking as that movie. First, it was in black and white. Even the cheap exploitation movies at the time were in color. Second, it had no stars. In fact, the nominal star of the movie was an unknown black man; the rest of the cast were white; and the movie wasn't about race relations. No, the movie was very straightforward. It was about dead people coming back to life and graphically eating up the squishy bits of the living.
And all the "stars" die in Night. In these Game of Thrones days, stories without happy endings are becoming common, but back then, it was revolutionary.
Romero's franchise of at least a dozen zombie movies and spinoffs is now the stuff of cinematic history. He helped instill what is now a basic concept in zombiedom: the idea that a virus, or external event, such as cosmic radiation or a comet, creates the zombies, and that they have no master except their own eccentric appetites.
But Romero's zombies, until recently, still had a real problem: They could barely walk. They were so slow that it took a hell of a lot of zombies, ganging up, to take out a few healthy people. Zombies, it seemed, had to be slow because they were otherwise SO DAMNED DANGEROUS that the living humans wouldn't have a chance. But wouldn't it be scarier if the humans didn't have a chance?
In 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle took Romero a step further, actually combining the older filmmaker's tropes of zombies and designer plague (The Crazies, 1973) and making the "zombies," in this case, rapid victims of an extremely communicable virus, highly mobile. Faster than you and I can probably run. Really fast.
This has, of course, become the norm.
So today you have the worst of all zombie worlds, at least for the living. You have zombies that don't just lurch towards you, or get distracted by a buffet of recently deceased human, but instead are quick, relatively smart, and they want to infect you.
Taking out a voodoo priestess or maniacal Nazi scientist won't help you. You're up against billions of zombies with a singular goal: the eradication of everything you are.
That's the premise of World War Z, the zombie war. It could -- could -- be the pinnacle of zombie creation. It has all the parts. Plus, you know, Brad Pitt.