Book Review: The Zombie Film: From White Zombie to World War Z by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Once, years ago, the living dead were revered to by many as something almost legendary. George A. Romero’s original trilogy of walking corpse movies were regarded as holy. It almost seemed that very few people in the film world dared to enter into such a subgenre of horror for fear of either oversaturating the market or looking like complete fools in the process. And the very notion of a television series about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse was something that would – at best – conjure up streams of laughter from just about everyone around the world.

And now here we are in 2014 – wherein there have been more ineptly made, easy-to-overlook direct-to-video shitfests about zombies made; a television series about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse has somehow lasted several years on the air and become a cult hit in the process; and this entire subgenre of horror has become little more than a boring, overrated hipster fascination. So, although several memorable books on the subject have already come about (Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide and Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema are two noteworthy entries), why shouldn’t someone out there write yet another book on the subject? It’s not a bad question, Burt.

Enter The Zombie Film: From White Zombie to World War Z – the latest film reference book by Alain Silver and James Ursini, who previously tackled an undead of a different color with The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to True Blood.

Here, much like they did in their previous publication, Silver and Ursini begin with an introduction to the early spiritual and periodical origins of the zombi itself, preceded by a gentle preface. Marred by a poor, pixilated image from Jennifer’s Body that was no doubt shamelessly borrowed from a website, our writing duo – much like before – boldly state they mixed in several other film subgenres. This is apparently done in order to not only heavily illustrate the title so that the masses with short attention spans out there can space out on the pretty pictures, but also to pad out their big book stuffed to the brim with photos generously taken from the Internet (one of which I personally scanned from a poster and uploaded to Wrong Side of the Art).

At first, everything appears to be all fine and dandy here. Our authors dive into the early classic motion pictures – from the famous Halpern Brothers production, White Zombie to Jacques Tourneur’s immortal I Walked with a Zombie – touching briefly upon the various Z-Grade productions produced by Poverty Row studios in-between and afterward before heading into the Atomic Age of filmmaking, when malevolent alien forces possessed the dead in guilty pleasures such as Invisible Invaders and Plan 9 from Outer Space. The good Mr. Romero’s work is discussed in Chapter Four, followed by a grand look at the flood of domestic drive-in ditties and internationally-made bloodbaths that ensured after the original Night of the Living Dead follows in the next two chapters (including a look at the last good zombie movie ever made, Dellamorte Dellamore).

And then the whole book goes tits up. Not because our poor writers had to wade through that irreparable broken sewer main we know today as contemporary zombie films, but because the quality of the subgenre itself has turned into said metaphor. Half the book is devoted to the many dumb modern movies that have infested the scene over the years (somehow, they manage to squeeze in all seventy kajillion zombie movies made in Japan alone) and a TV show that has already ticked off most of its fans. If that weren’t enough to dissuade me, chapters are divided by and occasionally broken up by small articles that range from well-written material to insipid, seemingly scribbled out hipster blog trash. Fortunately, there’s a nice filmography at the end for anyone looking for a quick reference guide.

All in all, The Zombie Film: From White Zombie to World War Z can make for some good light reading, but it’s ultimately a lukewarm affair. The material contained within the last four chapters – while not the fault of the authors – simply isn’t worth writing about, in my opinion. Some of the mini-chapters included – which is the fault of the authors – not only tend to break up the flow, but cause you to cringe with terror moreso than any reanimated cadaver flick could ever do. But, until Phil Hardy conjures up The Encyclopedia of Zombie Films, this could suffice for many.

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Luigi Bastardo

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