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The undead are everywhere. Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. Frankensteins Monster. (Edit- OK. According to Dr. Frankenstein "It's Alive!") What kind of creature was the first movie monster to be described as "Undead", and what was the name of the film it appeared in?

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    I don't think Werewolves are actually undead... – PearsonArtPhoto Jul 14 '12 at 18:48
  • @Pearsonartphoto Some are, some aren't, that depends on the mythos. – user56 Jul 14 '12 at 21:00
  • @Gilles pic (or reference as the case may be) or it didn't happen. I am not too familiary with werewolves but all I saw were actual living. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 14 '12 at 22:01
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    @DVK Most traditional werewolves are part man part wolf part monster, not undead. But some werewolves are not killable by ordinary means, making them not exactly alive; in particular the traditions where vampires and werewolves are similar (a connection which has become more common in the 20th century). – user56 Jul 14 '12 at 22:22
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    "Not killable by ordinary means" would make Achilles and the Hulk undead too. – John O Jul 15 '12 at 3:08
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TL;DR:

  • Earliest All-around possible:

    (1909) The Mummy of King Ramses (France)

    It's not clear if the Mummy was actually undead! So I'm skeptical.

  • Earliest All-around definite undead:

    (1910) Frankenstein

  • Earliest Vampire (possible)

    (1916) A Night of Horror/Nächte des Grauens)

  • Earliest Appearance of Dracula

    (1921) Drakula halála/The Death of Dracula]

  • Earliest Full-length vampire movie to survive:

    (1922) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

  • Earliest Someone pretending to be a vampire:

    (1927) London After Midnight

  • Earliest undead (non-somnabula) Zombie:

    (1932) Victor Halperin's White Zombie






DETAILS AND SOURCES:

Here are some of the earliest ones, scavenged together from 3 sources:



  • Most of the early, and by now obscure, silent films about vampires are mostly about "vamps" — female flirts who entice or captivate men.
  • The earliest full-length vampire movie to survive is F. W. Murnau's classic silent film Nosferatu (1922), which was based on Stoker's novel Dracula (1897). (src: McNally)

To give slightly more details on Nosferatu, due to its prominence:

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror; or simply Nosferatu) is a classic 1922 German Expressionist horror film, directed by F. W. Murnau, starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok. The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (src: Wiki)



Please note that Nosferatu is not the first Vampire in film, BUT most of the earlier ones (like "The Vampire") were NOT about the undead - some were about criminals, and most - like the titular 1910 one - were about female Vamp who stole someone's husband, as noted in the McNally quote above.



However, there seemingly WERE earlier undead movies.

From http://monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.com/topic/34371/The-Vampire-of-the-Coast-1909#.UAE025hoKsc:

  • One of the earliest may be Nächte des Grauens (1916) (aka Night of Horror), a German film. Unfortunately not much is to be found online about it, but it is listed in The Vampire Book (Encyclopedia of the Undead).
  • Another is Drakula halála [aka The Death of Dracula] from 1921 (directed by Károly Lajthay)-Hungarian". The film is about a woman who experiences frightening visions after visiting an insane asylum where one of the inmates claims to be Count Dracula, and she has trouble determining if the visions were real or merely nightmares".
    [ NOTE: Wiki adds: "Unlicensed Hungarian adaptation. First known film appearance of Dracula. This film has been lost since its release ].
  • One of the earliest fake vampires was in London After Midnight (1927) by Todd Browning (yes, him), starring Lon Chaney. The vampire in it is actually a detective trying to scare a confession out of some criminals, but the makeup is legendary. That one was lost to a fire. This is a short documentary about it.
  • The famous Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens of 1922, is probably the oldest you can still see.

If you take zombies, Wiki sez:

Victor Halperin's White Zombie was released in 1932 and is often cited to be the first zombie film.

If you count Frankenstein:

Frankenstein is a 1910 film made by Edison Studios that was written and directed by J. Searle Dawley. It was the first motion picture adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. (src: Wiki)

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    Frankenstein wasn't undead by any stretch of the word. In the novel, definitely a typical homunculus (not even really created from mad science, so much as it leaves the impression of alchemy). In the movie it's little different. He doesn't feed off the living. Doesn't exist to harass the living or promote his blasphemous existence. Wasn't raised by a necromancer. In this particular movie, it harkens back to the homunculus origins of the novel, and not to the reanimated mad science corpse of later movies. You might as well call Godzilla undead, if this counts. And yet my comment gets deleted. – John O Jul 14 '12 at 17:17
  • @JohnO - Frankensteins Monster (as far as I recall, Frankenstein was the creator) is considered undead because the OP included him in the undead list in the question. Otherwise I might have hesitated to. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 14 '12 at 17:23
  • The OP is wrong. If he had included Ironman in the list, would Tony Stark be undead too? – John O Jul 14 '12 at 17:34
  • It does seem that Ramses's mummy was animated in the 1909 movie. But Cleopatra predated him by 8 years. – user56 Jul 14 '12 at 21:00
  • @JohnO OK. Said its physician to his assistant: "It's Alive!", so you are correct. Frankensteins Monster shouldn't be called undead. Tony Stark can't play because he would be considered as "not dead yet." – Major Stackings Jul 15 '12 at 1:05
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What kind of creature was the first movie monster to be described as “Undead”?

I'm answering this question from another angle and looking for contemporary descriptions.

Searching Subzin for films that actually use the word "undead", the earliest I found is Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi:

  • 00:31:47 "... we are dealing with the undead."

  • 00:31:57 "... the undead, the vampire."

  • 00:54:46 "... but an undead creature whose life has been unnaturally prolonged."

This film was also referred to Dracula as undead in its contemporary marketing materials, according to the Motion Picture Herald (1931):

The copy read "Dracula — Mighty Monarch of the Undead Creatures of Darkness — Leaves His Earth Home Between Noon and Midnight to Appear at the (theatre, playdate).

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    That's an angle on the question I didn't consider. +1 – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 15 '12 at 19:54
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There were many films featuring undead creatures in the silent era. As these films used few word, it is likely that it took a while until the word undead itself was used. The first undead in films predate title cards.

The word undead was introduced in its modern sense by Bram Stoker in Dracula, in the very early days of the movie era (1897). Before, the word simply meant not dead, i.e. alive.

Georges Méliès, arguably the first fiction filmmaker, made several films on science fiction, fantasy and horror themes. Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil's Manor, also known as The Haunted Castle), shot in 1896, is one of the earliest fiction films and probably the first horror and fantasy movie. It opens with a bat turning into a man — or perhaps a devil in the form of a man (not a vampire: before Dracula, the association between vampires and bats was not so common in popular fiction). The man conjures several fantastical creatures out of a cauldron, including figures in white robes who are indubitably ghosts. The film is in the public domain and available online.

Another early series of films that may feature ghosts is the early adaptation of Rip Van Winkle by W.K.L. Dickson with Joseph Jefferson. The films were produced in 1896, and I believe that Hudson and crew in Rip's Toast to Hudson and Crew are supposed to be ghosts.

Another first worth mentioning is the first adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol: Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost, directed by Walter R. Booth in 1901. This film (mostly lost) features Marley's ghost. Also in 1901, The Haunted Curiosity Shop by Robert W. Paul depicted a ghost and other supernatural events.

The first mummy brought to life that I could uncover is Cleopatra in Georges Méliès's Cléopâtre, filmed in 1899. The two-minute film shows Cleopatra rising from her grave. Although the film, long believed lost, was recently found, I could not find a copy online.

Ordinary reanimated corpses were not common in western fiction until much later, when Haitian voodoo myths became popular in the United States. The movie that started the genre (which was to be redefined by Georges Romero 40 years later) is White Zombie by Victor Halperin (1932).

Turning to vampires, Bram Stoker's novel did not lead to a movie adaptation for several decades. Early big screen “vampires” were in fact female sexual predators — vamps, not undead. The first unambiguous vampire movie (in the undead sense of the word) was Dracula's Death (Drakula halála), a 1921 Hungarian movie by Károly Lajthay, now lost. (There may have been a Russian movie called Dracula the year before, but the evidence of its existence is scarce.) The Hungarian movie predated Murnau's famous Nosferatu by a few months. You can read more in Robert Hood's article on early vampire cinema.

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  • +1 but please bold out Cleopatre - that seems to be the best contender for an actual answer. Ghosts aren't undead, I would think – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 14 '12 at 22:00
  • @DVK Some definitions require undead to be corporeal, some include any spirit living on after dead even if disembodied. For example, D&D classifies ghosts as undead. It's unclear to me whether the ghosts in Le Manoir du Diable are corporeal; the ones in Rip van Winkle are, since they hand the titular character a drink. – user56 Jul 14 '12 at 22:20
  • I don't think that D&D is a good authority here. That sort of game requires that the authors categorize everything, even for those things which defy categorization. However, ghosts do share at least some of the attributes of the undead: they're subject to the rules of religious artifacts and rituals (notably exorcism) that vampires and zombies are limited by. They do exist after the death of the person they resemble. They harass the living, make a mockery of life, etc. On the other hand, I think that any word association test would find them unlinked in the minds of the typical person. – John O Jul 15 '12 at 1:46
  • Ghosts are just dead, not undead. – Oldcat Jul 24 '14 at 19:16
  • @Oldcat I don't doubt that someone somewhere has created a fantasy world where ghosts are not undead. But under the usual meaning of the word, they are. Undead typically covers any sentient entity that was once alive and has become supernatural and no longer subject to dying. – user56 Jul 24 '14 at 19:19

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