‘World War Z’: A look back at the early years of zombie flicks

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With “World World Z” off to a strong start at the box office -- both globally and at its Thursday night domestic opening, where it took in $3.6 million -- it seemed time to track the shambling forebears of the celluloid walking dead.

Long before George Romero turned the genre on its head with his 1968 classic “The Night of the Living Dead,” Hollywood had been making zombie flicks. In fact, everyone from Bela Lugosi to Bob Hope to the infamous Ed Wood jumped on the zombie bandwagon.

So here’s a look back at same great and not so great zombie films of years past:

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“White Zombie” (1932) -- A year after he starred in Tod Browning’s seminal 1931 “Dracula,” Bela Lugosi headlined what is believed to be the first zombie film. Directed by Victor Halperin, the film’s poster tag line proclaimed: “With these Zombie eyes, he rendered her powerless; with this Zombie Grip, he made her perform his every desire.”

Lugosi, who would appear in several zombie-esque thrillers, plays Murder Legendre, a voodoo master living in Haiti who has transformed many of his rivals into zombies and has set his sights on making the beautiful Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) his latest victim.

Four years later, Halperin directed a very loose sequel, “Revolt of the Zombies,” starring Dean Jagger and Dorothy Stone, about an expedition that travels to Cambodia to destroy a secret formula that turns men into zombies.

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“Ghost Breakers” (1940) -- This very funny Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard comedy deftly directed by George Marshall finds Hope playing a nervous New York radio broadcaster on the lam from the mob. Goddard is the young woman he helps who has inherited a supposedly haunted family mansion on a small island in Cuba. Faster than you can say voodoo, they encounter a particularly menacing zombie on the island.

Thirteen years later, Marshall directed the remake “Scared Stiff” with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.


“Revenge of the Zombies” (1943) -- In this low-budget horror film, John Carradine plays a mad scientist who wants to raise an army of zombies to fight for Hitler during World War II. You have to love such florid dialog as “Against an army of zombies, no armies could stand. Why, even blown half to bits -- undaunted by fire and gas -- zombies would fight on so long as the brain cells which receive and execute commands still remain intact.”

“I Walked with a Zombie” (1943) -- During the 1940s, Val Lewton produced a series of subtle, brilliantly effective low-budget horror films such as 1942’s “Cat People.” One of his best was this poetic horror film that is a loose variation of “Jane Eyre.” Frances Dee as a Canadian nurse hired to take care of the wife of a sugar plantation owner on a Caribbean island and ends up resorting to voodoo to try to cure her.

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“Zombies on Broadway” (1945) -- Lugosi, Alan Carney, Wally Brown and Anne Jeffreys star in this low-budget comedy. Carney and Brown play Broadway press agents who want to hire a real zombie for the opening of a new nightclub, so they travel to a Caribbean island in search of the undead. They get more than they bargained for when they encounter Lugosi’s evil Professor Renault, who has a secret formula to turn the living into zombies. The show was a hit.

“Zombies of Mora Tau” (1957) -- Edward L. Chan directed this horror flick about a group of deep sea divers intent on salvaging diamonds from a ship that sunk decades earlier off the coast of Africa and discover that the ship is being protected by an army of the undead.

“Teenage Zombies” (1959) -- Auteur of the awful Jerry Warren (“The Wild World of Batwomen”) wrote, directed and produced this turkey about a group of teenagers who, while on a boating excursion, discover an island where yet another mad scientist funded by foreign agents is attempting to turn everyone in the U.S. into zombies.


“Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959) -- Once named the worst movie ever made, Ed Wood’s cult classic -- best known as Lugosi’s final film -- finds aliens resurrecting the dead. The original title was “Grave Robbers from Outer Space.” You have to love a movie that features Vampira as one of the zombies.


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