Zombie myths trace their roots back as far as ancient Greece, and they have a particular infamy in West African culture, but the first portrayal on the silver screen of the reanimated dead returning to wreak havoc may, in fact, have been in a French silent film about the horrors of World War I called “J’Accuse” (1919).
The honor of the first zombie movie is typically attributed to Victor Halperin’s 1932 film “White Zombie,” starring Bela Lugosi. And while it is the first explicitly stated “zombie” flick, 13 years prior, “J’Accuse” director Abel Gance set the stage for the genre by featuring soldiers of World War I rising from their graves.
“J’Accuse” has been called an anti-war film, given its goal of illustrating the horrors of war. Its protagonist, a poet-turned-soldier named Jean Diaz, begins his story as a Jody in love with a woman named Edith, who happens to be married to her abusive husband François Laurin.
Both men are subsequently drafted into World War I, with Laurin deploying first. Laurin later learns of Edith’s affair, and responds by sending her to Alsace-Lorraine.
Diaz, an officer, is later sent to the same unit, where he is in charge of Laurin. The dynamic proves dangerous for mission and morale alike, but eventually the pair develop mutual respect.
Years pass, and Edith — at the hands of German captors — now has a child. Diaz and Laurin set out for revenge against the Germans by returning to the war. Laurin is injured and ultimately dies, while a shell shocked Diaz returns to the village — and Edith.
One night, Diaz invites much of the village to his home, where he accuses many of the visitors of being complicit in the horrors of the war. He then shares a vision of the nation’s dead rising from their battlefield graves to return home and see whether their loved ones were deserving of their ultimate sacrifices.
These “zombie” soldiers aren’t the brain-eating variety, of course, but the grim visual of hundreds rising from shallow, cross-marked graves is nonetheless harrowing.
And while the Voodoo-based zombie genre truly burst onto the scene with “Night of the Living Dead,” the scores of roaming corpses in George Romero’s iconic 1968 film are strikingly reminiscent of scenes from this 1919 gem.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.