When did zombies start eating brains?

I was thinking about this while reading the Walking Dead thread.

Zombies have not always been brain eaters. The Romero Zombies for example were not brain eaters. The earliest encounter with brain eating zombies I can remember is Return of the Living Dead.

Is this the earliest reference to brain eaters? Did this admittedly awesome comedy really dictate the most recognizable zombie trait? Zombies crave brains.

Return of the Living Dead it was. Dan O’Bannon (who acted in Dark Star, did some FX for Star Wars, and co-wrote Alien) wrote and directed Return (and gave himself a cameo in it), and forever changed our vision of zombies by adding the “:eating brains” part.

Of course, Romero himself had changed the nature of zombies pretty extremely himself in the original Night of the Living Dead by having them eating people. Prior to that, zombies pretty much just walked stiffly around and looked creepy, but didn’t actually threaten anyone physically. (except when they were “drafted” as soldiers)

The 1950s flick Invisible Invaders probably gave Romero a boost in that direction, featuring zombies who were corpses inhabited by aliens intent on taking over the earth. It was suggested that they were killing people, too, but that flick first gave us the dark-eyed stiffly-walking suit-wearing hostile zombies that catapulted them into a menace, well beyond what had gone before.
It’s interesting to see how completely zombies changed from the late 1950s to about 1990. Everything since then has been variations on the notion since then.

When I think of pre-NOTLD Romero zombies, I think of (sometimes dead, but not necessarily) people who’ve been turned into mostly brain-dead slaves robbed of any free will through voodoo magic/medicine. Usually taking place in Haiti. Wasn’t there a spate of zombie movies along that line in the 30s, “White Zombie” being the most famous?

There were zombie movies of that sort throughout the 30s and 40s, although zombies were never as popular a monster as things like vampires or werewolves. As you note, prior to Romero, there was always some voodoo connection to “explain” the zombies. Even Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies, set in Cornwall, had voodoo ceremonies summoning up the dead!

What I’ve always been kind of curious about is exactly when and how the word “zombie” got attached to the kind of creatures that we think of today–hordes of mindless reanimated corpses, not under anyone’s command, with no goal except to prey on the living. Either to eat human flesh, or more specifically to eat brains. As CalMeacham says, that’s actually a rather different type of monster than the “voodoo slave” zombies that had been known previously.

Night of the Living Dead, somewhat famously, never uses the word “zombie.” The characters in the film use terms like “those things,” and Romero himself tended to call them “ghouls.” So when did they first start getting called “zombies”? I know that Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead, was called Zombi when it was released in Italy. That, in turn, led Lucio Fulci to call his first reanimated corpse film Zombi 2, implying that it was a sequel to Romero’s film. Confusingly enough, Zombi 2 was then released in the U.S. under the title Zombie.

I wonder if this was the first time that these sort of walking dead monsters were called “zombies,” or whether the Italian films were using the word in a sense that it was already being used by the general public. Does anyone know?

The film “Last Man on Earth” had creatures that were pretty close to zombies. Although they were able to talk, they really didn’t have much to say, other than “Come out, Morgan.”

It’s based on Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend, which was also filmed as The Omega Man (with Charlton Heston) and I Am Legend (with Will Smith). It’s pretty clear that Matheson intended his plague-affected humans to be “scientific vampires”, not zombies. But the concept could have influenced later films.

I’m still claiming that Invisible Invaders was a bigger influence on Romero’s NotLD.

Side note: Aliens or outer space influence re-animating corpses has been seen in other films of the period, too – the wonderfully awful Plan Nine from Outer Space, the drive-in movie The Cape Canaveral Monsters. But even though these re-animated corpses could kill and threaten people, I can’t think of any pre-Romero films where they actually ate people.

Matheson’s Vampires were a new direction, that zombies only took later – people who had been infected by a disease that Made Them That Way. And even in their case, they only wanted blood, not to eat flesh. That was a characteristic “Ghoul” behavior.

I don’t know if it’s really the most recognizable zombie trait. I’d say it’s more of a joke meme than anything, especially when normal shows have a zombie episode and they can make a joke about the zombies not wanting to eat the stupid character because he has no brains.

I’ve watched a lot of zombie movies, played lots of games with zombie themes…the most iconic death scene is a dude on his back being swarmed and his abdomen is torn open and they all feast on his guts while he screams in agony. Not much brain eating.

And George Romero has always admitted that the original NOTLD was his attempt to make a movie version of*** I Am Legend ***without infringing on Matheson’s copyright.

Interesting – never heard that. Do you have a cite?

Romero zombies don’t expressly go after brains but I’m sure they wouldn’t turn them down!

Actually, in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, one of the characters did refer to the ghouls as “zombies.”

No, you get to see them eating what appear to be a variety of internal organs, intestines, and chomping down on muscle tissue in limbs, but not brains, although you’d have to assume they’d eat brains, too.
I’ve heard that, as NotLD was filmed in black and white, they used Hershey’s chocolate syrup for blood (as Hitchcock supposedly did in the shower scene in Psycho), so to me the most horrible aspect was the actors playing zombies who were forced to chomp down on ham (or whatever they were using) covered in chocolate.

“Zombie” used to mean only the voodoo version. If there were anything like the current monster, it was usually called the living dead. Plan 9 from Outer Space was about this sort of monster.

After Romero created his version, the name “zombie” attached itself to the living dead. There are similarities – both walked in a slow, aimless manner, but a voodoo zombie was under the control of someone, while the current zombie is a monster, pure and simple.

I have a fondness for the classic zombie after seeing I Walked with a Zombie, one of the Val Lewton horror films of the 40s.

And then there’s Clairvius Narcisse, a real life example of the older style zombies.

Heck, I’d almost rather watch The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies without Mike and the Bots than some of the zombie movies that have come out recently. That, if I remember correctly, is also a classic voodoo zombie.

Tom Savini being ripped from a blood pressure machine and deboweled alive was a cool scene especially if you know who Tom actually is I don’t think it’s the most remembered trait about zombies.

If you polled people about the traits zombies have I’m betting you’ll get tons more “they eat brains” than you’ll get “they tear the guts out of evil bikers.” Remember, we’re talking about the general public not genre fans and most of them don’t think brain eating is a joke meme about zombies. Not today anyway.

It also was the first with fast zombies, to my knowledge.

It’s one of my favorite movies.

Of course, the black comedy part was when the machine was done and the arm was stuck in the cuff and the BP read “000 over 000.”

To confuse matters more, the definition of “ghoul” is: an evil spirit or phantom, especially one supposed to rob graves and feed on dead bodies.

Is “Return of the Living Dead” the one where, after an unfortunate ambulance driver gets his braaiiiiins eaten by zombies, one zombie picks up the intercom and says “sennnnnd morrrrre ambulancessss”? :stuck_out_tongue:

Here you go.

Dennis Hopper’s character also uses the z-word in Land of the Dead. Both Romero and O’Bannon zombies will eat animals to, it just doesn’t happen onscreen a lot. That scene in in Return of the Living Dead II was one of the most disturbing things in either film series.

It’s also one of the few zombies movies with genre savvy characters who’ve seen zombie movies. Not that helped them when the move lied! :wink: