When the zombie first appeared on film in the 1930s, audiences became hooked on what they saw. Often depicted with crazed, transfixed, and bloodshot eyes, an insatiable hunger for human flesh and above all, a reckless disregard for human life, these terrifying creatures were slow-moving pack travelers. Audiences loved witnessing the random chaos visited on everyone and everything by these soulless corpses. As popularly conceived, a zombie is an infected human who has died from a virus, only to rise up as the ‘walking dead’ with a severe attitude problem.
These eerie creatures first identify, then surround, their victims, spreading infection at high speed, rampaging as they go. No wonder they became an enticing subject for film makers who, over the last century, have created thought-provoking and horrifying films built around them.
When George A. Romero released The Night of the Living Dead in 1968 he began a new era in zombie film making. Romero raised the creature’s profile to definitive cult status and inspired both fans and film makers around the world with his unique take on the zombie genre: a mix of classic horror/gore overkill with humor that established a new standard. Sequels like Dawn of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead followed suit. His work has continued to spur exciting contemporary directors to make modern zom-com classics like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland which pay homage to Romero’s work. Other directors like Danny Boyle have taken a more serious and thoughtful stance, examining our drive to avoid irradiation as well as the impact of “total infection.”
Whatever the take, zombie films live on, and there’s no doubt that zombies will continue to dominate our screens for many years to come. With the firm belief that every zombie freak should have his day and draw up a list of the ten best, here’s mine.
Pet Cemetery (1989)
An ancient Indian burial ritual has the power to bring back the dead. However, when they come back, they are far from normal. Though it’s not the most exciting zombie film of all time, this adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is fine fare for fans of the genre. It’s a slow burner with a mythical slant as opposed to the usual infection-by-bite scenario. A young doctor and his family move to a small town in Maine. They soon discover a path that leads to a creepy pet cemetery. The late, great Fred ‘Herman Munster’ Gwynne really elevates this slightly cheesy and outright weird film. His creepy performance as Jud Crandall, the friendly neighbor with a dark secret, is captivating and has earned the film a well deserved cult following.
White Zombie (1932)
This classic, atmospheric feature, made by Victor and Edward Halperin, introduced the zombie to the big screen. Spookiness and fear pervade the film from beginning to end. Essentially a story of boy wants girl, girl is about to marry another boy, so boy turns girl into zombie; the over-the-top storyline is excusable thanks to Victor Halperin’s distinctive presentation of an enslaved zombie population, roaming the Haiti plantation where the film is set, in a surreal state. Questions about human morality drive White Zombie’s plot, as a wealthy bachelor lures a young couple to his estate under the pretense of taking the beautiful young Madeline Short as his bride. Making a trade with the plantation owner, Bella Lugosi’s Dracula-inspired witch doctor (he controls the zombies), the desperate bachelor attempts to take Short as his love slave. It’s the first film to refer to zombies as “the living dead” and played a major role in shaping the popular conceptions of zombie myth. A number of laughably wooden acting performances and Lugosi’s intense performance add a touch of light humor to the mix.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
It’s got plenty of zombie juice –– bloods, guts, gore. The mix of the unlikeable, slutty and courageous characters creates an amusing vibe which is what makes any zombie movie. The characters are stranded in a shopping mall and tensions multiply as they plot their escape. The highlights have to be the birth of a flesh-hungry zombie baby and the sleazy creep that saws himself in half with a chainsaw –– more jaw-dropping yet delicious innovations to add to the zombie film repertoire. Despite that, it does, of course, fall short of Romero’s original work, but what doesn’t?