The Living Dead in War Films: It Began With J’Accuse

There are countless zombie movies and TV shows today, and AMC has practically turned The Walking Dead into a sample of its Sunday night lineup with multiple spinoffs, while SyFy has its own competing franchises. Even HBO’s final seasons of Game of Thrones felt essentially like a fantasy version of a zombie apocalypse.

Such a mix of genres as the one seen on HBO isn’t entirely unique, as actual zombies have been used in period settings such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies¸ ZvG: Zombies Vs. Gladiators and Knight of the Dead. The concept does bring up some interesting points, including how to battle the undead without modern firearms. Yet, at the same time some of these have certainly crossed the line in terms of good taste — does anyone really need the short film The Diary of Anne Frank of the Dead or the feature-length Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies?

Abe Lincoln vs Zombies
Honest Abe had a union to preserve so we don’t know when he had time to fight zombies?

Zombies, it seems, show no sign of slowing down — even if in most of these series the undead don’t always seem to move that fast. More importantly, since the first true zombie film was released nearly 90 years ago it has become one of the most popular segments of the horror genre.

“Since White Zombie, which essentially started the genre in 1932, the films have continued to evolve,” explained actor/screenwriter Steve Douglas-Craig, who is currently an adjunct professor of screenwriting at the American University.

“It was John Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968 that really brought the zombie film into the mainstream and we’ve seen a steady evolution of the genre since,” added Douglas-Craig. “To me, it was World War Z that took the genre into a more ‘panic setting’ environment. These were fast-moving and deadly zombies that couldn’t so easily be put down.”

Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead introduced many of the concepts of the modern zombie movies and TV series including the flesh-eating undead. (Publicity still)

Why War Movies and the Undead?

One of the more “unique” mash-ups of the living dead in recent years was how the zombies were mixed into the war film. It works in part because history is actually filled with stories of the dead returned — likely a misunderstanding that a wounded soldier was in fact dead!

“Even from Greek times we see that bodies were buried under a pile of heavy stones to keep the dead from rising,” said Douglas-Craig.

“Zombies in many respects are ideal for war stories,” explained W. Scott Poole, professor of American politics and popular culture and author of the book Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror.

“On the one hand, they do fit into age-old conceptions of ‘armies of the dead’ like the warrior of Norse Valhalla or the Draugr of Icelandic saga — who are rather well-known to the world’s many Skyrim players,” added Poole. “Having said that, that there are older antecedents, the zombie army is very much an imaginative extension of the horror of specifically modern war.”

The combination of war films also works because of the carnage of the battlefield and the fear that the dead could come back to take revenge on the living. It plays into fears of combat, the loss that soldiers suffer, and even the survivor’s remorse that is felt by some.

Such concepts in film and TV wouldn’t be as open to zombies.

“There are zombie crossovers that don’t work,” said Douglas-Craig. “I don’t want to see a zombie romance film with two zombies kissing, so unlike other monster films that feature vampires or Frankenstein’s monster, there are limitations to what you can do. Zombies are a little more cut and dry.”

J’Accuse — Not Exactly a Zombie Film

While Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus was among the first literary tales to feature a story involving the reanimating the dead, and likely began the “science-fiction” as well as “horror” genres, the 1919 film J’Accuse has the distinction of being the first film to depict the “undead” returning from their graves.

J'Accuse zombie soldiers
The French-made J’Accuse was the first time that the undead returned to the earth – yet, this wasn’t actually a zombie apocalypse film. (Publicity still)

However, J’Accuse is not a zombie film nor is it even a horror film, but it could be argued that as a melodrama it is a proto-zombie story in that the recently-dead return to walk the earth. It is notable for several reasons; including the fact that French director Abel Gance had begun work on the film in the final months of the First World War, yet it also wasn’t really a war film.

makeshift grave in the film J'Accuse
The scenes of the makeshift graves were likely filmed near actual graves of the recently killed in the anti-war film J’Accuse (Publicity still)

Rather, it was meant to depict the suffering of the soldiers in the trenches, as well as the anxieties of the families back home. But it was the film’s climactic moment that was notable. In a series of shots, the French dead rise from their graves and then march across the countryside. They don’t attack the town, but instead do something that audiences back home could fully relate to — they accuse the living of not recognizing their sacrifices.

In fact, seeing the dead — in various states of decay — lumber across the battlefields, many of which had been the scene of actual carnage only months before the film was made, was no doubt shocking to audiences. While some of the scenes were filmed even as the war was being waged, it employed some 2,000 actual French soldiers — many of whom were wounded and some even missing limbs. This was no movie magic, but real injuries that the soldiers had suffered.

French Army soldiers as extras in the film J'Accuse
Some 2,000 extras from the French Army were used in the production of J’Accuse. Tragically after filming many returned to the front lines, where many were killed. (Publicity still)

According to Poole, many of the soldiers who were used in the film had not only taken part in the fighting, but many of the 2,000 men even returned to the front. Upwards of 80 percent of those men were killed in the final months of the war!

The Proto-Zombie Movies

While the word “zombie” wasn’t in the modern lexicon and was likely completely unknown in France, there are reasons to support the argument that this French anti-war film is critical to the genre.

J’Accuse in 1918, and especially the remake from 1937, is in some sense a zombie film,” noted Poole. “Abel Gance built the story out of a sense of rage and later anti-war sentiment aroused by the industrial-scale murder of the Great War. So while he doesn’t call his soldiers back from the dead zombies — neither did Romero in Night of the Living Dead (1968) — they are precisely that.”

J'Accuse 1938 remake
J’Accuse was remade in 1938 and while the production values improved, the story doesn’t have the level of intensity as the original.

Yet, the first true zombie film was White Zombie, which was made in 1932 — in the “pre-Code era.” Large portions of the film, which was based on the novel The Magic Island, were shot on the Universal Studios lot and included props and scenery from other horror films of the era. White Zombie was hardly a hit, and it proved less popular than other horror films of the era but it still made enough as an independent feature that it spawned a sequel Revolt of the Zombies.

White Zombie movie cover - first of zombie movies
It was thanks to the 1932 film White Zombie that the concept of the zombie was first introduced.

Considered the first feature-length zombie film, White Zombie isn’t actually about the dead rising to attack the living — rather it involves Bela Lugosi starring as a white Haitian “voodoo master” who commands a crew of zombies that he turned with a potion.

White Zombie 1932 film
The zombies in White Zombie weren’t rotting flesh but were essentially regular humans turned into a form of slaves by a cruel zombie master. (Publicity still)

It wasn’t until the Night of the Living Dead that zombies became the rotting undead that is now so common in movies and on TV.

The Nazi Occult Film

In some ways, the modern war and zombie movie mash-up has come full circle as we’ve seen numerous stories of the recently dead soldiers returning.

In addition to those aforementioned period pieces, there is Exit Humanity (2011), which was set during the American Civil War; and Fallen Soldiers (2015), a Napoleonic War-era zombie film. However, the war film meets zombie movie is most commonly set during the Second World War, and most rely on elements of the occult.

Fallen Soldiers - zombie movies
Trained soldiers in the Napoleonic War could get fire at best three to four rounds per minute, so it does make Fallen Soldiers one of the more interesting period zombie films.

Since the Second World War, there have been countless “Nazi Zombies” in comics, video games, and most recently the movies.

Weird War Tales comic books featuring undead engaged in combat
Comic books such as Weird War Tales regularly featured covers (if not actual stories) that included the undead who continue to engage in combat.

“We can note a number of WWII era films that deal with this idea,” said Poole, who said that games certainly have had an impact.

Wolfenstein is part of the popularity but I’d actually point to the ‘zombie mode’ of Call of Duty,” added Poole. “This has been the most popular part of the hugely popular franchise for almost two decades now.”

Call of Duty living dead
Video games such as Call of Duty have helped create interest in “Nazi Zombies”. (Activision)

Those games and now the movies add the zombie element to what is arguably the most evil regime in the history of mankind. The question can be asked whether that extra dose of the “undead” is actually needed, however.

“I don’t know if it’s making Nazis ‘more evil’ or if it’s using the Nazi aesthetic,” suggested Poole. “Notably, a number of these films reference inhumane Nazi medical experiments — a real-world horror that these films use as a launching pad to introduce zombies. Frankenstein’s Army and Overlord are good examples. There are times that we use horror, understandably, to talk about real-world horror.”

Horrors of War from 2006 may have the distinction of being among the earliest of the Nazi films, but it is hardly the only one. The 2007 short film The Soldier (2007) focused on the “consequences of the Third Reich’s disease testing experiments,” while Experiment 18: Das Hexenhammer-Projekt from the same yet also involved the Nazi’s use of paranormal experiments in an effort to win the war.

The titles of some of these more recent zombie movies get straight to the point: War of the Dead (2011), Outpost: Black Sun (2012), Angry Nazi Zombies (2012), and Dead Walkers: Rise of the 4th Reich (2013); while at least Overlord (2018), about a small group of American soldiers who encounter zombies on the eve of the D-Day landings, offered a few surprises. In addition to the zombie themes that are all essentially low-budget horror films that fail to miss the point of what the original “undead” films were meant to convey.

Overlord Nazi Zombies - zombie movies
The 2018 film Overlord is as over the top as it gets, complete with comic book Nazi soldiers turned zombies with swastika armbands! (Publicity still)

“There is a strong tradition of zombies being used as anti-war and anti-militarist,” explained Poole. “We see this in Death Dream for example but more prominently in Romero’s Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead.”

Poole noted there was a pretty serious anti-war statement in the anthology series Masters of Horror in the episode “Homecoming” that uses the idea of J’Accuse.

“American soldiers return from the dead to vote for ‘anyone who will end this war.’ It sounds exploitative and yet it’s not,” said Poole. “The Village Voice called it, with all seriousness, one of the most important films made about the invasion of Iraq.”

While many of these war movies may be direct to the point of a battle between the living and the dead, the better of the films explore those questions posed by J’Accuse or “Homecoming,” and the undead can be also be seen symbolically as well.

“Today, we can see that zombies also serve to be a mirror to our fear of the international community, and this is certainly the case with the pandemic,” said Douglas-Craig.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.  

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