Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, made in 1932, is typically given the designation of the first zombie movie. It wins the title on a technicality… while it may be the first movie centered around the creatures, it’s not the first movie to showcase them.
That designation is likely (there’s always a chance, however slim, of older footage being discovered) due to the 1919 French film J’Accuse, directed by Abel Gance. Not a traditional horror movie at all, the silent feature was designed to be an anti-war piece written and produced starting in 1918 and continuing through the end of World War I. The nations of Europe were tired of death and continued conflict, and many of the young men who had survived the grind of the trenches had returned home traumatized. Gance wanted to capture that sensation.
In one extended scene of the movie, a shell-shocked soldier is plagued by visions of the dead rising from their graves and attacking their countrymen, demanding vengeance if their deaths served no purpose.
While this is not the brainless zombie typically seen in subsequent films and did not display the drive for eating brains or flesh which became a zombie standard following Night of the Living Dead, it’s fairly definitive as far as zombies go… dead people rising mostly-whole from their graves and shambling forward en masse to attack the living.
One reason many pop culture historians ignore the movie is likely its French origin; correctly or not, for a great many movie buffs cinema, particularly early cinema, is viewed through a tunnel vision which focuses nearly exclusively on the United States and Germany. Another is the movie’s fame with “serious” film historians; it is highly regarded for its storytelling, cinematography and lighting work, to such a degree that consideration of the prototype zombie horde is unusual. It’s a thought-provoking piece of meaningful art, atypical of the genre it preceded.
The movie stands out in one other way, also related to the zombie horde.
Gance was one of many early filmmakers who wished to make his movies as realistic as possible. To that end, the actors he chose to play the zombies weren’t traditional actors at all… they were soldiers who had recently returned from the front at Verdun. The soldiers, many of whom were demonstrating the same type of shell-shock as the protagonist in the film, volunteered to be the dead who rose from their graves to admonish the living.
The movie was to be a bit prophetic… something of which the impromptu actors were fully aware. While the actors had returned from Verdun, it was only a temporary rest; they were all due to be cycled back to the front eight days later. All of the scenes were filmed within the week that Gance had available, and by the time the movie was screened in 1919 few of those actors were alive to see it; more than 80% of them were killed within a month of their scenes being recorded.
Question of the night: What’s the last scary movie you enjoyed?