J'accuse! Dir. Abel Gance. 1918.

Runtime: 166 min

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A cinematic masterpiece, J'accuse! tells the story of two French solidiers—François Laurin and Jean Diaz—fighting in World War I who are in love with the same woman, Edith Laurin, who is married to François. First released as a silent film in 1918, J'accuse! is an indictment of war. Gance remade the film as a talkie in 1938 (the stills, above, are taken from the 1938 version).

In addition to masterful performances by the principal actors and a fully-realized and absorbing plot, the 1918 release of J'accuse! pioneers a number of cinematic techniques, especially in the areas of camera movement and montage editing.

These techniques are particularly evident in the film’s climactic third passage wherein a shattered veteran calls upon the fallen soldiers of World War I to rise in order to oppose the forces which are preparing for yet another great war. Featuring high-contrast lighting, double exposure, and rapid cuts, the twenty-seven minute sequence is not only a textbook example of how visual special effects can contribute to the supension of disbelief. It is also evidence of how the cinematic reanimation of the dead is an effect of the filmic medium. In other words, the reanimation of the dead (the emergence of zombies) is realized in J'accuse! as a media effect, one that alters the texture of the visual frame and generates events on the level of narrative.

In J'accuse!, the reanimated dead appear to have their mental faculties, something apparent in the way they assist each other after emerging from their graves. These reanimated soldiers are decidedly not the zombies of postmodern or even classic zombie cinema. Rather, they are the filmic prototype of the zombie. The appearance of the reanimated dead in J'accuse! distinguishes it as the first film in which zombies appear, thus rooting the genre of zombie film in social critique and achieving the emergence of zombies with media effects.