With Zack Ryder’s long-awaited Army of the Dead set to make its Netflix premiere, now seems like a good time to re-visit some of the best zombie movies. When Bela Lugosi followed up his Dracula role playing voodoo master Murder Legendre in White Zombie, the zombie movie was born. From undead voodoo slaves to shuffling reanimated corpses to rabid viral predators, the zombie has evolved over nearly 90 years of horror history. Of all the movie monsters, zombies have proven to be quite the blank slate for whatever commentary was on the mind of its director. Below are 10 of the ‘Best of the Dead’ – some of the best, most relevant zombie movies.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Before Roger Corman, producer Val Lewton released a series of low-budget horror movies over the 1940s. And like Corman, Lewton’s influence on the genre was considerable. Among his frequent collaborators, director Jacques Tournier would make Cat People, The Leopard Man, and I Walked With A Zombie with Lewton. Still considered among the more influential classic horror movies, I Walked With a Zombie defines low-budget atmosphere. Even if you’re not a fan of black and white horror movies, there’s no denying that Tournier knew how to use lighting and shadows to create chills. Though I Walked With a Zombie still links the walking dead with voodoo, you can see some of its DNA in the next movie on our list.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This needs little explanation. When George A Romero released his DIY zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, he didn’t just change the zombie as a movie monster. Most of what we now recognize in the subgenre comes from Night of the Living Dead. But Romero’s flesh-eating zombies pushed boundaries at a time when the horror genre was in transition. That is, Night of the Living Dead bridged a gap between hokey 50s atomic monsters and Gothic Hammer horror and the more graphic, realistic horror of the 1970s. To date, the classic has been remade at least twice, with Tom Savini’s remake actually impressing.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is the rare case of a sequel exceeding its predecessor. Bigger in every respect, Romero expands his zombie world beyond Living Dead’s rural farmhouse to cityscapes and suburban shopping malls. In terms of sheer horror spectacle, Tom Savini’s zombie gore has lots none of its shocking impact. Of course, Romero slips in some clever subtext on mindless consumerism. This genre-defining commentary alongside its grand zombie vision made Dawn of the Dead one of the greatest horror movies ever. In fact, Romero’s sequel was so good that there was enough quality left over for a good remake by some guy named, Snyder.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Sort of, but not really, a sequel. And definitely not a rip off. Despite its outrageous blend of horror and comedy, Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead is a surprisingly influential zombie movie. This is the movie that introduced zombies eating brains, not just human flesh. Contrary to popular belief, Return of the Living Dead, not 28 Days Later, first gave us running zombies. Besides its bending of subgenre rules, Return of the Living Dead aptly blends dark humour with genuine horror. And if you’re a fan of hardcore 80s punk, this was one of the first movies to give us real punk rock horror.
Dead Alive (1992)
Today, Peter Jackson is known for the massive blockbuster Lord of the Rings movies. Once upon a time, however, Jackson was a splatter schlockmeister behind bizarre horror-comedy flicks like Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles. Though it wasn’t successful, another early Jackson horror-comedy, Braindead (or Dead-Alive) has since earned a huge cult following and critical acceptance. Jackson’s story of a dutiful son, his new girlfriend, and domineering mother turned into a zombie by a monkey-rat hybrid is pure sick horror-comedy gold. The movie showcases an onslaught of practical gore effects. Anyone with a darker sense of humour will likely love Braindead.
28 Days Later (2003)
‘Rage. They’re infected with rage’. With 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle resuscitated the decaying zombie genre. Horror fans may remember it best as the movie that gave us ‘fast-moving’ zombies – after Return of the Living Dead did it first. But it’s also one of the first movies to re-imagine the zombie as a viral outbreak. In the time since its release, 28 Days Later stands as one of the best horror movies of this century. It’s also a riveting story of what it means to survive. Though the movie’s narrative abruptly shifts at the midway point, Boyle effortlessly threads a consistent thematic narrative. And 28 Days Later’s scene of Jim wandering the empty streets of London was haunting in 2003 – it’s taken on an entirely new meaning today.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Horror and comedy are tough to mix. If you’re doing to do it, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead should be the template. Wright’s tale of two slacker buddies who seek refuge from the zombie apocalypse in their local pub is part horror, part buddy film, part romance, and part comedy. And somehow it seamlessly ties all these elements together. As expected, the comedy is spot on, but Shaun of the Dead also surprises with how well it emotionally resonates. On more than one occasion, Wright moves you to tears with earned character moments. Like the movie it lovingly homages, Shaun of the Dead isn’t just a great zombie movie – it’s one of the best horror movies of all time.
Don’t like found-footage movies? Forget it, because Spanish-made REC is one of the best horror movies released this century. A news crew on a fluff-piece assignment with firefighters become trapped in a quarantined building where a virus turns infected into blood-frenzied animals. This is one of the cases where the found-footage format works, adding a sense of realism and urgency to the story. Moreover, REC mixes in an interesting religious mythology without giving away too much detail. There’s still plenty of mystery to mull over and leave you wanting more. And watch out for the ending – it’s one of the best final scares you’ll find in any horror movie. If subtitles aren’t your thing, American-remake Quarantine, is nearly just as good.
Of all the movies on his list, Zombieland is probably the least consequential in terms of its impact on the subgenre. Ruben Fleischer’s zombie comedy is pretty straightforward stuff. But it’s also damn good at what it puts up on the screen. In addition to a healthy dose of zombie gore and ‘laugh-out loud’ humour, Zombieland’s excellent cast gives the action the same emotional impact as what you get in Shaun of the Dead. Plus you get the best Bill Murray cameo. Ten years later, a belated sequel, while good, failed to re-capture the magic.
Train to Busan (2016)
Arguably, the latter half of the 2010’s saw zombies run their course. It was a horror sub-genre that didn’t seem to have much room left for new ideas. Consider Train to Busan to be an exception. No, this Korean zombie thriller doesn’t bring much new to the table. There’s bits of 28 Days Later, World War Z, and Snowpiercer in this movie’s DNA. But rabid, fast-moving zombies attacking compelling characters on a moving train makes for a damn good zombie movie. Director Yeong Sang-ho finds news ways to make zombies scary again. One of the movie’s best scenes – the sheer weight of a zombie horde on a tipped carriage’s window falling through the glass.