5 Films That Explore Zombies Through The Centuries

By  · Published on February 1st, 2016

The first time I saw the trailer for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I hated it. I was sitting alone in my apartment, streaming the trailer through YouTube on my television, and just about everything rubbed me the wrong way. The fight scenes. The self-serious tone. The “resolve as a woman” line issued by Lena Headey that rounds out the whole thing. Whatever dull thud of curiosity I may have had for the movie itself was deadened by a trailer that mashed together the flattest parts of British literary fiction with the worst tropes that the zombie genre has to offer.

The second time I saw the trailer, though, I had a grand old time. You see, people don’t seem to know that this movie exists. Moreover, people don’t seem to know that this book exists, that the film is an adaptation of a piece of tongue-in-cheek literature that attempts to send up both an extremely popular film and television subgenre as well as the literary works of Jane Austen. Every time I sat in a theater and listened to the people around me laugh and proclaim the death of Hollywood once the title card flashed across the screen, I found myself smiling. How can anything that that makes people harrumph this much be altogether bad?

Of course, it did get me thinking. Setting Jane Austen’s work aside for the moment, is it really so ridiculous to have a zombie movie set in a classical time period? We’ve been riding this post-apocalyptic high for over a decade now, and zombie movies have existed since nearly the beginning of Hollywood itself. Can’t we find examples of zombie movies from a variety of historical settings that might actually be worth the film stock they were printed on? So with that in mind, here are five zombie movies from the BC to the AD that demonstrate that the undead don’t always belong to the world of tomorrow.

Ancient China: Kung Fu Zombie (1981)

Whenever people write about oral tradition in the past tense, part of me always wonders if they should have spent more time listening to conversations in video stores. The people I know who celebrate movies like Kung Fu Zombie rarely write about the films in great detail; instead, they adopt their own kind of exploitation oral tradition, sharing stories of late night movie marathons while browsing at their local video store or waiting in their seats for a movie to start. This is probably the reason you’ve never read anything about Billy Chong. If you dig through internet archives and genre books, you can only find passing references to the actor’s reputation as a Jackie Chan imitator and his short filmography of movies in Hong Kong and Thailand. And yet, when Chong’s films do get mentioned ‐ in niche video guides or as part of Tarantino film festivals, for example ‐ they are treated matter-of-factly as some of the more fun films to emerge from decades of Asian exploitation.

In Kung Fu Zombie, Chong plays a young man who trains with his father in order to one day defend his village from their collective enemies. When one enemy in particular decides that the best way to deal with Chong is to dabble in black magic, Chong and his servant suddenly find themselves fighting both the living and the dead, including the spirit of one of his father’s oldest enemies. For genre film fans, Kung Fu Zombie is the complete package: eighty minutes of sped-up martial arts, gloriously awful English dubbing, and just enough brightly colored gore to keep the horror movie fans satisfied. Be sure to listen closely for an oh-so-illegal use of the James Bond theme song when the undead kung fu master is onscreen.

Biblical Times: Fist of Jesus (2012)

If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that I am incapable of understanding a character without a thoroughly detailed origin story. That’s why I’m so surprised that Hollywood has yet to tackle the challenge of bringing an adolescent Jesus Christ to the screen. I mean, I read the book. One minute he’s a kid, the next, bam, he’s a thirty-something with complete control of his heavenly powers. Where’s the trial-and-error, the montages of Jesus turning water into progressively better vintages of wine? Are we supposed to believe that he started with the good stuff? Wouldn’t there have been a period where he was only capable of mass-producing bottles of Yellow Tail? This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

Maybe that’s why I love the Spanish short film Fist of Jesus so much. Most of the film is a Peter Jackson-inspired romp involving Jesus Christ and his loyal sidekick Judas fighting centurion zombies; by the time the shit really hits the fan, Jesus has already mastered the art of turning a single fish into an endless supply of pescatarian throwing stars. But it’s Jesus’s slow mastery of his biggest power that makes the short so much fun. The zombie invasion of Galilee can be traced back to his first attempt to raise Lazarus from the dead, where ‐ for all the prayer and piety the son of God has to offer ‐ Lazarus comes back a little on the Pet Cemetery side. It is only later, when Jesus is called upon to bring Judas back to life, that he finds it in himself to do things right. All in all, a real hero’s journey that would make Fist of Jesus the ideal pick for a religious education class if there were any justice in the world. You can view the short film in its entirety on Vimeo here.

Army of Darkness

Middle Ages: Army of Darkness (1992)

While I was never as big a fan of Army of Darkness as the other films in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, I have to admire the way that each film self-selects its own audience. Take Darkness, for example. While the film has plenty of memorable bits of physical comedy ‐ and enough brash dialogue to send the writers of Duke Nukem scrambling to their legal department ‐ it does lack the tight balance between comedy and horror that made Raimi’s earlier films staples for countless horror fans and filmmakers. Each film occupies a unique position on the spectrum between horror and comedy. If you prefer your movies a little on the scarier side, you have Evil Dead; if you like to blend comedy and horror without giving in too much to either, you go for Evil Dead 2; and if you think that the main appeal of the series is watching Bruce Campbell do his Bruce Campbell thing, then it’s Army of Darkness, baby.

And really, who would be worse suited to battle a medieval zombie apocalypse than Bruce Campbell’s Ash? While he may be an idiot ‐ a very lovable idiot ‐ he also demonstrates the kind of everyman ignorance that makes it hard to see how any of us would ever survive a real apocalypse. In fact, one could easily imagine a Saturday morning cartoon series featuring Ash and Big Trouble in Little China’s Jack Burton, both traveling back in time together to fight the undead and generally make a mess of European and American history. If Sam Raimi or John Carpenter happen to be reading this, I promise that I’ll let the idea go for either a nominal finder’s fee or ten uninterrupted minutes of cigar smoking with Kurt Russell. It’s a small price to pay for the signature cartoon of a generation.

Civil War Era: Exit Humanity (2011)

Likely the movie on this list that most directly compares to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Exit Humanity is set after the conclusion of the Civil War and offers a glimpse of a country overrun by zombies. Edward Young, a union soldier returning from the war, finds that his wife and daughter have both been turned into mindless creatures who kill and eat. After doing what is necessary, Young decides to travel the country and kill as many zombies as he possibly can, giving a whole new spin to the phrase revenge Western. Much like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the film creates an alternate timeline that plays with societal norms, and gives audiences a chance to see an entirely different take on the frontier myth than we typically see in the classical or modern Western.

After a year that featured Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant, my appreciation for the horror-Western ‐ or at least films that attempt to bring out bits and pieces of both genres ‐ is growing fairly fast. And while I may not have seen Exit Humanity yet, the film does come with the blessing of our own Rob Hunter, who described it as a “somewhat interesting hybrid of horror and history.” If that sounds like damning with faint praise, then friend, you don’t spend enough time scraping the bottom of the horror movie barrel. And anyways, I’ve put more effort into seeing movies with less talented casts; Bill Moseley and Stephen McHattie should alone be enough to cause curious genre fans to dip their big toes into the water.

World War II: King of the Zombies (1941)

While countless movies have been made featuring mad Nazi scientists reanimating the dead, you’ll forgive me if I forego the later titles and highlight the one that was actually shot during World War II. King of the Zombies represents one of the earliest zombie movies in existence, a cheap production made by Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. In the film, three men are forced to land on a deserted island when their plane begins to malfunction during a storm. Once there, they discover that the island is quite well inhabited by the “Austrian” Doctor Sangre, who ‐ along with his wife, niece, and various servants ‐ claim to be holding out as best they can in the harsh conditions of the surrounding jungle. When it is revealed that the doctor is, in fact, a Nazi soldier who is using Haitian voodoo to create an army of zombies, our heroes must find a way to fight off the Nazi threat before Sangre uses voodoo to strip the men of their military secrets.

Next: A Brief History of the Slow Lurch of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to the Big Screen

With its crude look at Haitian culture and the presence of vaudevillian actor Mantan Moreland as the comic relief, King of the Zombies is, to put it kindly, steeped in the racial politics of its day. Still, there are plenty of reasons to keep it tucked into the zombie canon. According to horror movie historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck, several elements of the film ‐ including a release that predates America’s involvement in World War II and its depiction of a black man as being integral to the disruption of a Nazi plot ‐ suggest a film that was ahead of the curve, even more so when compared to the popularity of Nazi zombie films in the 1970s and beyond. King of the Zombies was even nominated for an Academy Award for composer Edward J. Kay’s score, giving it a bit of award season prestige solely lacking from the other titles on this list. As the film has since fallen into the public domain, you can view King of the Zombies in its entirety at Archive.org.

Army Of Darkness [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]

Price: $25.39

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)