One of the many reasons I love zombie movies is that they explore such a rich variety of topics, including racism, consumerism, the military industrial complex, linguistics, documentary making, and, of course, the apocalypse. But there’s a kinder, gentler side to zombie films as well, and sparkly vampires aren’t the only vehicle for exploring the depths and passions of true love. So, in honor of February 14th, here’s a list of some of the greatest zombie love stories ever told.
1. Freddy and Tina in Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Even though the smoking-hot, zombie version of Trash gets a lot of on-screen attention, all of my sympathy goes to Freddy. He’s a decent enough kid who’s simply trying to distance himself from his miscreant friends by holding down a respectable job and spending quality time with his best girl Tina. But Freddy is one of those lovable losers who just can’t ever seem to catch a break. He has what must be the world’s worst first day on the job at the Uneeda Medical Supply company when he’s infected with the zombie-inducing Trioxin. All through the terrible ordeal that follows, Tina stands by her man, up until the point that he tries to eat her. In a way, it’s a testament to Freddy’s undying loyalty to Tina that he only wants to eat her brain. Still, Tina has no choice but to lock him up in the chapel and abandon him. Even though it’s part of the funeral home, I can’t help but think of it as a symbolic wedding chapel and, sadly, a reminder of what could have been for this young couple.
Relationship Status: Nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
2. Curt and Julie in Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)
This movie gives its audience a new twist on the classic Romeo and Juliet story. Young Curt is madly in love with Julie, but his father’s job in the military is forcing them to move to a new town. So Curt, playing the part of the reckless teenager to perfection, runs away with his best girl, nothing between them but the shirts on their backs, a run-down motorcycle, a packet of Twizzlers and a hard-on. But their brief moment of teenage bliss is cut short when Curt crashes his motorcycle, killing Julie. But Curt wont’ give up just yet. He remembers seeing a strange chemical where his father works that seems to bring the dead back to life and, of course, tries it out on Julie. It’s the sort of rash, irresponsible thing that any good Romeo would do, and, like Shakespeare’s play, this film is a parody of teenage melodrama in a world that has failed to give them a safe place to act it all out. But this film asks questions that Shakespeare never dared. For instance, zombie-Julie loves Curt, but does she love him enough to stave off her hunger for human brains? And does Curt love Julie enough to stick with her, even though she’s now a self-mutilating, brain-eating ghoul? In the end, love does conquer all, as Curt and Julie would rather die together in an industrial furnace than live apart.
Relationship Status: In a burning ring of fire.
3. Michael and Luda in Dawn of the Dead (2004)
One of the many strengths of this movie is the way it turns into a profound character study that examines, among other things, just how loyal we are, or should be, to our families and fellow human beings. This is painfully evident in the relationship between Michael and Luda. Michael may be selfish and a petty criminal, but he loves his wife and protects her, even after she’s been infected, and even if it means risking the lives of everyone else trapped in the mall. I suppose the message here might be that love always trumps other ethical considerations, or that love can sometime blind us to the uglier truths around us. Andre refuses to see his newborn zombie-baby as anything other than his baby girl and will kill anyone who tries to hurt his zombie family. It’s a profoundly sad testament to the fact that the ties that bind can also destroy us, and that even our best human instincts and emotions can become dangerous and depraved. In a way, that’s what the best zombie movies are all about.
Relationship Status: Shot through the heart. And the head.
4. Gwen and Steven in Dance of the Dead (2008)
It’s now a truism, and something of a rallying cry, that “vampires don’t sparkle.” I would like to amend that by adding “but zombies sure can dance.” At least, that’s the case in this terrific parody of all the maudlin, saccharine teenage melodrama that Twilight takes all-too seriously. In the film, a high-school prom in Georgia in beset by hordes of zombies, which, when I think back to the awful awkwardness and boredom that was my own Junior prom, is probably a welcome reprieve. At any rate, it gives all the high school misfits and outcasts the chance to seize the day. The centerpiece of all this is the relationship that develops between Gwen and Stephen. Steven could never muster enough courage to ask her out, and Gwen would have never said yes, but all that changes during the zombie attack. Gwen has developed such strong feelings for Stephen that she confides in him that she’s been bitten and infected, and then pulls him into the high school bathroom for the mother of all frantic, teenage make-out sessions. In the middle of it, she turns into a zombie and bites him, turning him into a zombie as well. The two then proceed to passionately devour each other. The entire scene is punctuated by the swelling crescendos of the song “Wait” by the British power-pop band Junk. It’s a silly, grotesque scene that somehow manages to both parody and pay tribute to the emotional power of teenage romance.
Relationship Status: Consumed by love.
5. Denise and Danny in Zombie Honeymoon (2004)
Wedding vows specify “until death do we part,” but does that allow for zombie-ism? Part parody, part serious character study, this film uses zombies as a vehicle to explore the uncertainties, hopes, fears, and life-changing effects involved in a new marriage. All of these emotions are crystallized after Danny seems to die and then mysteriously recovers, and Denise realizes just how much her life now depends on this person she’s married. In one of the more moving scenes in the movie, Danny proves just how much he’s committed to making a new life with her by quitting his job and selling their apartment. But their commitment is really put to the test as Danny’s behavior becomes increasingly horrific, to the point that he begins feeding on their friends. In some ways, this is a parody of how much you change after marriage, as Danny was a devout vegetarian before all this. But this film is also a more serious exploration as to how much change one partner is willing to tolerate in the other. Denise’s mother warned her, “you hurt the people you love,” but what is the limit that she’ll endure? In the end, Denise stays with Danny for as long as she possibly can. And in doing so, this becomes a sentimental and sometimes poignant story about a relationship that love can’t salvage.
Relationship Status: Currently separated.
6. Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead (2004)
There are a lot of dysfunctional couples in this film – Shaun and Liz, David and Diane, Shaun’s mother and step-father – and much of the film is about sorting it all out. It’s also about how Shaun finally finds some momentum and direction in his life. But, more than all of that, it’s a love story that celebrates the power of the bro-mance. Sure, Shaun “gets the girl,” and settles down into adulthood, but the film’s greatest triumph is that not even a nagging girlfriend, or problems with paying the rent, or a zombie apocalypse, or even death itself can disrupt the powerful male bond between Shaun and Ed. This film is a tribute to that particular kind of loyalty that guys instinctively understand, even if their girlfriends never will.
Relationship Status: Happily ever-after.