From rat monkeys to reanimators: here are the strangest zombie films ever made

Zombie films can be weird, and zombie films can be WWWWEEEEIIIIRRRRDDDDD. To mark the release of the trippy French horror movie The Night Eats the World, Travis Johnson revisits some of the strangest films in the genre. 

Everyone thinks they know zombies, right? In fact, what they generally know is George A. Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead, whose monochrome horrors set the mould for zombie movies going forward for the next 50 years.

However, some zombie movies colour outside the lines, doing something different with the genre, the creatures themselves, or both. French horror offering The Night Eats the World, which arrives in Australian cinemas this month, is one such film.

And then there are these off-kilter tales of the undead, like…

Re-Animator (1985)

Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novel sees the great Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, medical student and nascent resurrectionist, who has jiggered up a glowing green “reagent” that can bring the dead back to life, to varying degrees of success. Complications arise almost immediately, chiefly in the form of jealous professor Dr. Hill (David Gale), who remains a thorn in Herbert’s side even after he’s been decapitated.

Brisk and witty, Re-Animator combines a sardonic sense of humour with a genuinely queasy take on the mechanics of life, death, and reanimation. It’s a cult classic for a reason, spawning two sequels, numerous spin-off comics, and evergreen rumours of some kind of remake or reboot. The original, however, remains the best.

Dead Heat (1988)

What we have here is basically an ‘80s buddy cop movie with zombies. The wrinkle is that the hero is also a zombie.

The whole thing is a horror/comedy riff on the old film noir D.O.A. (1949), in which Edmond O’Brien’s poisoned accountant must solve his own murder. In Dead Heat, cop Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) isn’t just poisoned, he’s been zombified, and needs to put a stop to a whole undead crime wave before the mojo animating him wears off and he heads for the hereafter.

Joe Piscopo shares top billing as Roger’s wisecracking partner. Genre veterans Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), Keye Luke (Gremlins), and Vincent Price (too many to mention) lend some class to the proceedings, and there’s a scene where the entire contents of a Chinese butcher get reanimated, which is worth the price of admission alone.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Anthropologist Bill Pullman heads down to Haiti to find out where zombies come from in Wes Craven’s very loose adaptation of Wade Davis’ non-fiction book of the same title.

One of the best and most unusual films of A Nightmare on Elm Street director Craven’s canon, The Serpent and the Rainbow is notable for eschewing George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead as inspiration and instead mining Caribbean superstition for its story material, looking at vodou traditions and weird ethnobotany against a backdrop of civil unrest and political oppression under Baby Doc Duvalier.

Surreal and hypnotic, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a real fever dream of a film, with Craven blithely abandoning the factual underpinnings of his film to introduce seemingly supernatural elements at whim, resulting in a truly single entry into the zombie genre.

Braindead (1992)

AKA Dead Alive. Back before all that nonsense in Middle Earth, the Greatest Living Kiwi Peter Jackson used to make schlocky, gleefully offensive horror movies. This gory effort was the schlockiest and most offensive.

After his mother (Elizabeth Moody) is bitten by a “Sumatran Rat-Monkey,” put-upon Lionel (Timothy Balme) tries to conceal her gradual zombification from all and sundry – especially his would-be girlfriend Paquita (Diana Peñalver). The wheels come off in spectacular fashion, of course, and Lionel soon finds himself combating a zombie uprising with a whirling lawnmower strapped to his chest. No, really.

Braindead really has to be seen to be believed. Jackson delights in soaking quaint, ‘50s Wellington in literally gallons of blood, parading before the viewer and endless string of grotesqueries, gross-outs, and gore-gags. It’s one for the books. Jackson has promised a 4K restoration in the not-too-distant future, so there’s something to look forward to.

Black Sheep (2006)

Another entry from the Land of the Long White Cloud, director Jonathan King’s zombie comedy pits good brother Henry (Nathan Meister) against bad brother Angus (Peter Freeney) over the fate of the family sheep farm. The problem is, Angus has been experimenting on the livestock, turning the docile wool-bearers into flesh-hungry monsters – a bit of a problem for Henry, who is scared of regular sheep, let alone wooly zombies. Carnage ensues.

Black Sheep plays its premise completely straight, which is a big part of its charm. Too much winking at the camera and the whole thing would fall apart. As it stands, its po-faced attitude to its inspired lunacy makes it all the more hilarious – even when the were-sheep show up.

Fido (2006)

Imagine a Lassie movie but with a zombie instead of a dog, and you’re on the right track.

This Canadian curio takes place well after the zombie apocalypse, in a walled community right out of the ‘50s (with shades of Fallout’s retro-futurism). The twist is that, with the addition of a control collar, the undead can be used as indentured servants, and when young Timmy Robinson’s (K’Sun Ray) parents (Carrie-Ann Moss and Dylan Baker) get a zombie (Billy Connolly) to help around the house, Timmy and the shambling corpse soon become fast friends. Of course, things get gruesome when Fido’s collar malfunctions…

Fido isn’t quite deft enough to know what it’s about – at a glance it feels like a comment on race relations and chattel slavery until your realise how awful the implications of that are – but neat worldbuilding, an ironically bright visual aesthetic and winning performances carry the day.