When is a zombie film not a zombie film?

After posting a link earlier to our Forgotten Gems article on Lenzi’s Nightmare City, a film in which even the film maker did not see as a zombie film nor want it to be a zombie film I received a reply to my question of is this the first case of a zombie/infected movie featuring running assailants?

I received a reply from @BlackHoleMovies stating that in fact he considers the 1971 movie The Omega Man as the first. Starring Charlton Heston and based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel, which was also a clear and direct influence on Romero’s seminal film Night of the Living Dead. Although if discussing film adaptations of I am Legend then of course, surely the first would be The Last Man on Earth (1964), starring the late great Vincent Price but further research and watching shows subtle differences in the interpretation of the undead.

I foolishly, instantly, dismissed this suggestion as the infected are in fact vampires but that got me thinking, what really makes the murderous toxic mutants in Nightmare City any more zombie like? And what characteristics do the undead have that are similar to the zombies we all love.

Throw in the more modern 28 Days later (and obviously 28 Weeks later) which receives a lot of scorn when someone refers to them as zombie films from fanboys and the lines become even more blurred. A similar case to 28 Days later, all be it a loose case could be made for the reimagining of George Romero’s The Crazies as well but that is moving us off course.

So I think before we start lets clarify what we mean by infected, it must be through a bodily substance such as blood or saliva (28 Days Later) or through a nuclear occurrence, the only reason this occurrence is accepted is because it is purported to be the catalyst for events in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and as a result it means that Nightmare City is also allowed. But these stipulations also remove The Crazies from the list. But what of I Am Legend, technically it doesn’t fit my criteria as it was a pandemic spread through dust and the air but it is a bacteria and affects blood, besides it’s only included here due to the earlier Twitter conversation.  One interesting thing here though is that the films do not require the afflicted to actually be dead (in  I Am Legend, there are the half breeds so to speak) thus potentially removing all from the title of a zombie film.

So from here we have our three movies:

Nightmare City (1980) vs. 28 Days Later (2002) vs. The Omega Man (1971)

Nightmare City:
These radiated mutants are car-driving, gun toting super strength Toxic Avenger look-a-likes with a penchant for drinking blood, so far not very zombie but they can only be stopped by a bullet to the head and are able to spread their “condition” to others that they injure but do not kill. Also have the uncanny ability of knowing who is mutated and who isn’t, but considering anyone without a lumpy face isn’t infected it probably isn’t so hard.
Analysis: Not zombies just pissed off mutants with super strength that meet the criteria of how they spread the infection. Oh and regarding the initial outbreak we don’t know if Professor Hagen-Dazs or whatever he is called and his fellow passengers were dead or alive and just pissed off when they exited that plane.

28 Days Later:
Known as the infected, even Danny Boyle knew they weren’t zombies but that didn’t stop the media spreading the word and the mainstream film fan (or more likely casual watcher) clinging on to this term and claiming “they luv the undead”. These infected are living people infected with an unknown virus leading them into an almost permanent state of frenzy and rage but unlike the Hulk these angry people want to tear and kill people. So far so not a zombie, however the virus is spread through blood and saliva meeting some of the criteria and, like Nightmare City they are able to sense non-infected.
Analysis: Very similar to the infected zombies in the Left4Dead games these infected exhibit some symptoms of zombieism such as how the infection is transferred but the simple fact that they are alive instantly excludes them.

The Omega Man:
The creatures (well rather zombies) in this version are a lot more zombie-ish than in the earlier The Last Man On Earth (1964) or the weird CGI creatures of the Will Smith lead monstrosity I Am Legend (2007). Why I hear you ask, surely they are all basically the same after all they are all based on the same source material? Well this version is slightly more weighted in the direction of the vampires being zombies, looking like they belong on a council estate with their pasty,  spotty skin and white eyes you could be forgiven for thinking that these creatures are in the start of the zombie transformation and when combined with their following of a leader (Matthias) you can start to see some connection with the traditional zombies of the Caribbean. However, these “zombies” don’t want to eat Neville but simply want to kill him and eliminate the human race
Analysis: These creatures are capable of pre-mediated thought (as shown by their determination to kill Neville for being the last human) and some decision making unlike the instinct driven zombies of Romero or many other films and as a result its close but again no cigar.

Result: Well let’s be honest none of these films contain zombies in any sense of the word but all feature elements of the zombie mythos and no doubt for ease of classification (and marketing spiel) Nightmare City and 28 Days Later are classed into the zombie genre and therefore no doubt are seen as a zombie movie without technically any zombies.

So why is it accepted that Nightmare City is classed as zombie film by the majority but not 28 Days Later? Is it simply because 28 Days Later is a lot more known, a lot more mainstream and therefore more disliked by those interested (or perhaps with only a superficial interest) in the more niche end of horror and zombie cinema? Will all this change once Nightmare City is next re-released on blu-ray soon and if it takes off what reception will it take and how will it be marketed?

Whatever the reason, this miscommunication is infuriating certain zombie fans across the globe and led me to re-evaluate what the first zombie movie to feature non-zombies (capable of running) really is but there are so many variants and so many interpretations of the modern zombie it’s hard to know what is what these days as film makers, writers and so on put their own spin on things.

Right where’s my Evil Dead disks…


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