The gory, glorious history of the Australian zombie movie


With Wyrmwood: Apocalypse hooning into cinemas in all its cadaver-powered glory, our minds turn to zombies in general, zombie movies in particular, and the history of Australian zombie movies in the very, very particular.

Wyrmwood: Apocalypse

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Australia has a strong heritage of horror and other genre movies, largely due to the old 10BA tax dodge of the 70s and 80s that saw crafty investors throwing money at all kinds of old tosh, occasionally reaping creative dividends. That’s the reason we have Mad Max. It’s also the reason we have Houseboat Horror. Swings and roundabouts.

But for some reason we never got much in the way of zombie movies. We do well with nature-run-amok movies (Razorback), folk horror (The Last Wave), and serial killers (Wolf Creek), and we even have the odd vampire (Outback Vampires) or werewolf (Howling III: The Marsupials) show up. But while the rest of the world was taking their cues from George A. Romero’s hugely influential Night of the Living Dead, we were otherwise occupied.

The only zombie flick of any note before the turn of the century is the low budget Western Australian effort Zombie Brigade, aka Zombie Commando, aka Night Crawl, released anywhere from 1986 to 1989 depending on which source you’re reading. Co-written and co-directed by Carmelo Musca and Barrie Pattison, it sees Australian soldiers killed in the Vietnam War returning from the grave after their memorial is desecrated to make way for a theme park, forcing local guy Jimmy (John Moore) and Chinese personal assistant Yoshie (Khym Lam) to battle the undead.

It’s strictly an amateur effort, and even those predisposed to give low budget genre movies the benefit of the doubt will struggle.

Perhaps that’s why we have to jump to 2003 to take in the next Aussie zombie film, but this one is actually good. The debut effort from horror specialists Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers, Winchester), Undead sees the small country town Berkeley overrun with zombies following a mysterious meteor shower, forcing local beauty queen Rene (Felicity Mason) to team up with gun nut and reclusive alien abductee Marion (Mungo McKay) and his three-barrelled shotgun to take on the horde. Brisk, fun, and endlessly inventive, this was a great calling card for the Spierigs.

And then in 2014 came Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, by another sibling creative team, Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner. This one—and its freshly minted sequel—are a kind of Mad-Max-meets-Dawn-of-the-Dead deal, with outback mechanic Barry (Jay Gallagher) trying to rescue his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) from a military scientist and his cohort of soldiers, all in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Wyrmwood’s big twist is that in addition to the dead walking, all flammable liquids are no longer combustible—but zombie blood and breath still burns, and can be used for fuel. If you’ve ever wanted to see a gang of tough nuts hoon around in a zombie-powered truck, look no further.

At the very least, look further than 2015’s Me and My Mates Versus the Zombie Apocalypse, which sees comedians Jim Jeffries and Alex Williamson slumming it in a laddish comedy that tries and fails to siphon off some Shaun of the Dead energy. Jeffries can deliver a deadpan zinger and there’s some interest in seeing familiar faces like Greg Fleet crop up, but this tale of working-class blokes vs the undead doesn’t work as a horror or a comedy.

Cargo, released in 2017, works wonderfully as a horror film, and as a meditation on family, community, and decency. Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke and based on their 2013 short of the same name, it sees Martin Freeman as a father who must transport his infant daughter to safety while zombies ravage the land: the problem is he’s been bitten, and so needs to get her somewhere safe before he turns ghoul. Things get more complicated when he encounters an Indigenous girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers), and must care for her as well. Possibly the most heart-warming zombie film of all time—not that there’s too much competition.

And the most recent offering is 2019’s energetic Little Monsters from Down Under director Abe Forsythe. Alexander England is Dave, a deadbeat uncle who accompanies his young nephew on a school trip so he can work his dubious charms on Lupita Nyong’o’s teacher. When the zombies start lurching, Dave must contend with both the flesh-eaters and Teddy McGiggles, a cowardly children’s entertainer played to perfection by Josh Gad. The combination of small children and extreme gore is always a laugh, and Little Monsters only suffers because Dave isn’t so much a loveable loser as actively unlikable.

Wyrmwood: Apocalypse

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