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?
I am Legend (2007)
Will Smith sells movies, which is lucky because he is pretty much the only person in the film. Adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel of the same title, I Am Legend is a visual treat, and a world away from the cheesy stop-frame animation of your typical zombie flick. With armies of CGI-rich night crawling zombies, it’s graphically gripping to see the empty streets of New York, as Smith’s Robert Neville goes about his lonesome existence, attempting to find a cure for the infection. Kudos to Smith for holding the audience’s attention with a stand-out performance which delves into the complexities of loneliness, loss, madness and the desire to fight on. As well as a heartfelt and moving storyline, I Am Legend’s zombie incarnations offer a fresh spin. They are fast, super-charged and represent some of the scariest CGI creatures I’ve seen in modern film.
Zombieland is a hilarious, slapstick romp with almost non-stop action and probably the most zombie kills ever seen on screen. With its comic book style, and gung-ho approach, it’s a perfect blend of the wacky, tacky, and fun. A great addition is the list of rules for zombie survival which runs right through the movie. Zombieland subtly pokes fun at the genre at large (but in a really good way). This film is proof that there’s still plenty of ‘undead’ life in the zombie genre. Using the cutting-edge special effects now on offer to film makers, Zombieland is an exposé of what can be achieved, even with a relatively low budget.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun is an ordinary guy living an ordinary life in an ordinary town. His girlfriend dumps him because he does not pay her any attention so Shaun decides to prove he is a real man and win her back. And what better way to prove it than fighting off an army of zombies in a world both apocalyptic and outrageously everyday? The film really does put a fresh and funny spin on things, and gave birth to the new rom-zom-com movie tag. Simon Pegg and Director Edgar Wright came up with a wonderfully humorous take on the zombie film when they sat down and penned the script for Shaun of the Dead. On a list of the ten funniest zombie films, Shaun of the Dead would be number 1.
Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)
Before he took on directorial duties for the money spinning Spiderman franchise, Sam Raimi marked his territory making and producing horror films. With a bigger budget than the original Evil Dead, a solid team of special effects guys behind him, and the legendry cult icon, Bruce Campbell on board, Raimi perfectly blends the hilarious with the grotesque in Evil Dead. The film takes a more mythical and metaphysical approach to the infection. The Book of The Dead has released dark forces into the world. The evil manifestations it unleashes then persist in trying to kick the crap out of Campbell and a band of unfortunate souls. The stop-motion animation, latex suits, cheesy props and gallons of multi-color blood only make the genius of the film more intense. This really is the ultimate experience in grueling horror.
Brain Dead [or Dead Alive] (1992)
Long before his attention turned to a famous trilogy about mythical jewelry and hairy-footed little people running about the Shire, Peter Jackson made the cult classic, Brain Dead. It’s a stunning blend of wacky, clichéd humor and repulsive, bloodthirsty special effects. The setup story follows a young couple falling in love, against the will of the young man’s interfering mother. The controlling mother gets bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey as she spies on the couple on a date at the local zoo. The bite soon turns her into a blood spluttering, pulsating, and flesh-hungry zombie. This outrageous plot and the tongue-in-cheek acting combine to create a playful, entertaining film. Wonderfully juvenile delights include a scene where, as the infection takes hold, her ear falls off into a bowl of soup and she eats it. That’s how sick Brain Dead gets. And it’s wonderful.
28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a low budget British zombie film with a heart. Animal rights activists unwittingly release the RAGE virus into the population, and 28 days later, bike courier Jim awakens from a coma to find a deserted city. Most of the population have been killed or transformed into killer zombies. The story follows Jim and others as they fight to survive and make sense of it all.
The blend of observatory drama and brutal action creates a unique tension. Boyle’s understanding of isolation and fear are perfectly captured using a juxtaposition of wide-set camera shots and fast-paced, jerking camera movements to accentuate the unpredictable scenes dominated by the infected. The set-up sequence in 28 Days Later is one of the best I’ve seen, incorporating a rich and moving soundtrack, the eerie silence of isolation and some stunning cinematography capturing post-apocalyptic London. Beyond its well-executed exterior, the film’s portrayal of humanity’s desperation to survive is both honest and haunting, hitting every nerve as Boyle delves into the harrowing idea that this could actually happen.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This is it. The unrivalled benchmark for all zombie films. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is still the greatest. It has established a paradigm for all zombie films: an unlikely mix of people in an isolated location, a growing army of zombies trapping them inside, a split in the group, a plot to escape, and lots and lots of irony.
Shot in black and white, the film exudes intense creepiness accentuated by constantly shifting patterns of light, dark and shadow. The eerie musical score and subtle camera work make it as scary as any modern CGI-rich fare. Romero’s zombies are visually deceptive, neither disfigured nor out-of-place, they look like humans in a trance. This subtle approach acts to present a more pure sense of fear. The film constantly refers to the zombies as “murderers” and no doubt Romero is passing comment on some of humankind’s own flaws. Night of the Living Dead explores our selfish natures and how we deal with loyalty and betrayal. For its subtlety and poise it’s timeless. This was the original. It’s been copied and adapted, but never bettered.