Wait a minute...what? The History Channel, getting in on the zombie act? You betcha, as here we have a (largely) serious documentary about all things undead, blending grisly dramatised footage worthy of a horror film with the obligatory talking heads and a curious scatter-gun approach which covers all ground from ancient history to survivalist what-ifs.

We start, as no doubt we should, with the originator of the modern pop culture zombie, Mr. George A. Romero, and how he helped to create one of our most enduring monsters, making his zombies relevant for his own time; from here, though, it's back to the history books to take a look at some possible early precedents. Some of these are a little tangential, but nonetheless interesting, ranging from Chinese ghosts thought to terrify the living, Arabian ghouls – those bad livin' folk who came back – and the draugrs of Norse mythology. This all gives way to ruminations on where these beliefs came from, namely our fear of death and contagion, with some notable cases which highlight this fear – pulling in examples from true crime and epidemiology, to name but a few. We finish up with some worst-case scenarios, and even some effective strategies for getting through the zombie apocalypse.

If you wanted a jumping-off point for further reading, then this documentary offers a great deal; it races through a large number of topics and notable episodes from history, picking up intriguing ideas and moving onto something else almost as soon as it's done so. Best get your pens ready, just in case you simply have to know more about one of the subjects it introduces. Because it moves so fast throughout though, this documentary does have some questionable inclusions, good for scope if not for focus; it's a bit of a cliché to associate scenes from Nazi Germany with the History Channel, but sure enough, they manage to get them in there – as well as very improbably linking zombieism to terrorism, which, let's be honest, is a bit of a stretch, especially when scenes from the 9/11 attacks are closely followed by grisly walking dead footage. Well, whatever you think of this, you have to admit that the documentary is not dull. It provides too much rather than too little.

When the mood dips somewhat, as of course it does when we're being asked to ponder our own extinction, the tone is lightened by comic relief in the form of author Roger Ma showing us how he'd dispatch the dead with implements as varied as spears and... ice scrapers. He's just one of the talking heads who appear during the course of the documentary; we mainly have zombie pop culture authors like Max 'World War Z' Brooks, as well as an anthropologist, a Fangoria writer, and some possibly unhinged survival experts recommending the best firearms (not much use to us Brits, though! Ice scraper it is, then...)

What is impressive about this film is just how much thought has gone into how it looks. I spotted a lot of original footage on display here. Although there are some clips from (now public domain) movie Night of the Living Dead, other films of that ilk are mentioned, but scenes from them don't appear. I suspect getting the rights to show them would have ended up costing more than simply shooting some new ones, and to the credit of the team behind this film – that's what they've decided to do – with some good results. As the narrative ranges back through history and legend, we get to see a lot of what's being discussed – with little animations coming into play, as well as what may well be footage from other documentaries on periods in history, though it all looks none the worse for that. A lot of effort has been made to prevent this film from looking 'dry'.

So, spurious in places it may well be, but this could provide some interesting food for thought for the zombie enthusiasts out there. At one hour twenty six minutes, it's a substantial piece of work, and comes chaptered for easier navigation. It looks slick, with well-realised colour, and the sound quality is sharp. Zombies: a Living History offers something a little different in format to sit alongside the countless undead already shambling ominously through your movie collection.

Review by Keri O’Shea

Released by G2 Pictures
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review