Zombie movies have had a fascinating path to the mainstream. For decades, the creatures didn’t have much of a presence or definition outside Voodoo lore, radioactive humanoids, and the unforgettable art of E.C. comics. Zombies were scarcely used, and when they were, they were a pretty far cry from the cannibalistic flesh-hungry creatures of the undead we know and love today. Then a gentleman and pioneering filmmaker named George A. Romero came along and changed the game forever.
Romero didn’t invent the zombie as he’s often credited, but he did redefine it into a universal concept and establish the mold from which nearly every other zombie movie has sprung in the near-fifty years since Night of the Living Dead arrived in theaters. Throughout his career, he would continue to evolve the idea of the zombie film, first with his satirical Dawn of the Dead — a colorful, playful diversion from the dire drama of NOTLD, then with the divisive and highlight political Day of the Dead, and ultimately for the rest of the career. Never satisfied to repeat his previous work, Romero was always ahead of the curve, reacting to the world and cinematic landscapes around him to set new trends.
At the same time, an entire genre sprung up around Romero’s works, spanning the globe. Italian horror legend Lucio Fulci picking up the concept and running in his own direction with it, first with Zombi 2 (aka Zombie), then with his much more bizarre and experimental “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Filmmakers like Dan O’Bannon, Fred Dekker, and Stuart Gordon came along and toyed with the genre constructs; fans of Romero’s work who built off his foundation to further explore and expand what a zombie movie could be. Then, as quick as it exploded, the zombie went out of fashion. The creature had become a core concept in the genre, but outside of ongoing horror sequels (Return of the Living Dead, Zombie) low-budget fright flicks, and the occasional genre oddity (My Boyfriend’s Back, Cemetery Manand Dead Alive), the undead walked the earth no more.
Until the new millennium hit and then, hot dog, zombie business wasn’t just booming again, it was bigger than ever. The dominoes fell fast. First Danny Boyle‘s genre-evolving 28 Days Later set the stage, then came the Resident Evil adaption and Zach Snyder‘s Dawn of the Dead remake; big-budget studio films with nationwide theatrical rollouts. At the same time, indie zombie movies started getting good, pushing the boundaries of the conventional zombie mythology and using the narrative format to tell strange original stories.
Then Shaun of the Dead happened, and the genre shifted once again. Edgar Wright’s meta zombie comedy was a love letter to the genre, a razor-sharp deconstruction of the zombie classics, and a zombie classic in its own right. The next year, Romero released Land of the Dead in theaters, his first return to the genre in three decades. It was officially official. If the godfather of zombies was back, Zombies were definitely back. By the end of the early aughts, there were literally dozens of zombie movies a year (and more of them than ever had the word “zombie” in the title), and what was amazing was how many of them were worth watching; there were post-modern deconstructions (Cabin in the Woods, Zombieland), clever mutations to the DNA of the creatures (Mulberry Street, Pontypool), foreign films (Rec, The Horde), remakes of foreign films (Quarantine), and animated films (ParaNorman), not to mention all the straight-up entertaining low-budget shlock that was hitting DVD shelves en masse.
In the years since, the production on zombie movies has drastically slowed, especially at the studio level. There are still the genre oddities (Maggie), occasional breakouts (World War Z) and ongoing franchises (Resident Evil), but in terms of volume and often quality, the zombie movie has taken a backseat in recent years. Is it genre burnout? Did audiences tire of the undead the way they tired of Westerns? It’s possible, but unlikely considering the success of one pop culture juggernaut; AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has triumphed in ratings since it debuted back in 2010. It’s likely the success of that series has a role to play in the way zombie movies have withered at the cinema, either because audiences are burnt out or zombie fans are getting their fix at home. Or maybe, it’s cultural. Romero created the modern zombie film during times of great social change in the world, they resurfaced at the height of the recession and war on terror in the early 2000s, and now that we’re in the midst of an era of international political turmoil, I’ve noticed some pretty good zombie movies popping up again.
Is another cinematic age of the undead upon us? Only time will tell, but for now, check out our staff picks for the best 21 best zombie movies of all time below.
Night of the Comet (1984)
Writer: Thom Eberhardt
Cast: Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran, Sharon Farrell, Mary Woronov, Geoffrey Lewis
What would kids in the 1980s do if the apocalypse blew through the world without them noticing? Hang out at the mall, but of course. That’s the set-up for this very funny, quite dated horror-comedy, which begins when a quartet of adolescents lock themselves inside a projection booth at the mall’s multiplex. This somehow allows them to live through an extinction level event of some sort, which has also left roaming bands of murderous mutants. Catherine Mary Stewart of the equally inexplicable Weekend at Bernie’s leads the film, but it’s a movie of mood more than substance ultimately. Does the wealth-fueled naiveté of the average white teenager survive in a vacuum? Does it go away when they are being hunted for sustenance? It’s interesting to watch on these terms and when the zombies show up, director Thom Eberhardt adds menace and a tight feel for suspense to the action sequences. And if we’re being honest, it belongs on this list for its soundtrack alone. The rest of this is just whip cream and cherries. – Chris Cabin
Dead Snow (2009)
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Writers: Tommy Wirkola, Stig Frode Henriksen
Cast: Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Jeppe Beck Laursen, Charlotte Frogner, Jenny Skavlan, Ørjan Gamst
With so many zombie movies over the years, eventually, you’re going to run out of ways to freshen up the sub-genre. Enter Wirkola’s decidedly skewed take on zombies in this horror-comedy with plenty of guts. Sure, zombies are great movie monsters, but if you have Nazi zombies, well you’ve just doubled-down on the level of villainy (and pun-worthiness) in your picture!
This splatter-fest puts a Nordic spin on the traditional zombie by adding in elements of the Draugr, an undead creature from Scandinavian folklore that fiercely protects its treasure horde. In the case of Dead Snow, these draugr happen to be former SS soldiers who terrorized a Norwegian town and looted their belongings, only to be done in or chased into the freezing mountains by the villagers themselves. Dead Snow gets originality points for this, for sure. It’s also a very funny, gory, and satisfyingly violent movie with elements of Evil Dead and “teen sex/slasher” flicks scattered throughout. And if you like it, there’s more where that came from in the sequel, Dead Snow: Red vs Dead. – Dave Trumbore
Cemetery Man (1994)
Director: Michele Soavi
Writers: Gianni Romoli, Tiziano Sclavi
Cast: Rupert Everett, François Hadji-Lazaro, Anna Falchi, Fabiana Formica
Directed by Dario Argento protege Michele Soavi, Cemetery Man (or Dellamorte Dellamore) is a weird, wild head trip of a movie that treats the living dead as more of a nuisance than a deadly threat. Based on the comic series Dylan Dog, Cemetery Man stars Everett as Francesco Dellamorte, a misanthropic gravedigger who prefers the company of the dead to the living. And why wouldn’t he? The living are assholes and they keep spreading rumors he’s impotent. There’s just one catch — the dead won’t stay buried in his graveyard. When he meets a stunning widow (Falchi) at her husband’s funeral, Dellamorte falls head over heels, courts her in the morbid halls of his ossuary, and before you know it, they’re stripped naked and steaming it up on top of her dead husband’s grave. That’s just the start of things getting weird.
Dellamorte descends into madness, and the further he falls the more Cemetery Man threatens to go off the rails, leaving logic behind in favor of a slipstream psychosis. The result is a bit of a mess without a plot to speak of, but a gloriously weird mess it is. Saturated with philosophy and offbeat humor, Cemetary Man is all about sex and death, friendship and deception; a surrealist, satirical and stylish trip to the brink loaded with splendid visuals and a knockout performance from Everett that takes him from a strapping hero to spitting psychopath. — Haleigh Foutch
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Writers: Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Enrique López Lavigne, Jesús Olmo
Cast: Rose Byrne, Idris Elba, Jeremy Renner, Robert Carlyle, Imogen Poots, Harold Perrineau, Catherine McCormack
28 Weeks Later is one of those rare sequels that do the original proud, especially when the original is a film as acclaimed and influential as 28 Days Later. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo made his English-language directorial debut on the sequel, stepping in for Danny Boyle, and pulled off a fantastic trick in honoring the “franchise style” Boyle established in the original — the quick edits and snarling infected — while evolving it and adding his own visual flourish to the mix.
28 Days Later subverted the conventions of the zombie genre in such clever, convincing ways, it became the modern day zombie template that countless films tried to mimic. 28 Weeks Later was smart enough not to follow the blueprint and flipped the script, depicting the British government’s attempt to rebuild society in the aftermath of the rage virus and the subsequent outbreak that brings it all crashing down. Through the contained military facility we get to witness a small-scale version of the viral apocalypse that we missed in the first film and the desperate, hopeless attempts to stop it. That makes 28 Weeks Later is a bit more of a conventional zombie film, depicting the downfall of society and the breakdown of boundaries in times terror, but it’s a very good conventional zombie movie. Fresnadillo hits all the right notes, lacing the broad arc with intimate family drama and depending on his superb cast to sell every moment of heartbreak amidst the bloodshed. — Haleigh Foutch
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Director: Fred Dekker
Writer: Fred Dekker
Cast: Jason Lively, Tom Atkins, Steve Marshall, Jill Whithlow
The delightfully delirious directorial debut from Monster Squad helmer Fred Dekker, Night of the Creeps is a loving tribute to the zombie genre that’s as packed to the brim with self-reference as it is with cheeky, cheesy fun. The film follows two college boys trying to land a spot in a fraternity in the name of scoring chicks. To earn their initiation, the boys have to sneak into the college medical center, where they discover the long-frozen corpse of a 1950s coed with alien slugs coursing through his brain. Hijinks follow, the body thaws, and space parasites are unleashed on campus, transforming their hosts into mindless zombies.
A blunt-force display of Dekker’s sensibilities, Night of the Creeps is an exuberant blend of zombie genre trappings and the sci-fi B-movies of yore; like Mars Attacks by way of Night of the Living Dead. Dekker lines his film with loving references to the genre, most obviously with his characters, who he names after the horror greats: Romero, Raimi, Carpenter, Cronenberg, Cameron, Landis, and Hooper. Night of the Creeps feels like Dekker took all his favorite movies and stirred them together in a silly, slimy stew. It can be clunky and goofy, but Night of the Creeps wears its idol worship like a badge of honor and Dekker’s creative flourish is a firewall that keeps his homage from becoming derivative. — Haleigh Foutch
Directors: Chris Butler, Sam Fell
Writer: Chris Butler
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Tucker Albrizzi, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman
Rarely do zombies get the animated treatment (rarer still, stop-motion animation), and even if they do, they’re traditionally made the villains. LAIKA is anything but traditional, which makes their films so endearing, unique, and memorable. ParaNorman, one of the stop-motion studio’s handful of original films, manages to not only (re)animate some truly gruesome and decaying corpses but to give them a voice and agency within the story. Most live-action movies can’t even achieve that much.
But what truly makes ParaNorman a great zombie tale is that the zombies themselves are more than just part of the spooky story (along with witches, ghosts, and dark magic), they’re a similar stand-in for societal problems first addressed by Romero’s original undead flick. Without giving away too many spoilers, the zombies themselves are reanimated townsfolk from colonial times who have realized the error of their ways but are prevented from setting things right thanks to a witch’s curse. Because they can’t communicate, they’re set upon by an angry mob. While you’d expect that turn of events in a traditional monster movie, the twist in ParaNorman is what leads some substance to its overall message. As a bonus, it’s a zombie movie you can watch with the kids! – Dave Trumbore
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Cast: Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin
One of the greatest enjoyments of horror cinema in the last few decades has been watching filmmakers who grew up knowing the rules of the genre find new and exciting ways to subvert them. Shaun of the Dead is the gold star of self-referential cinematic love letters, but Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland is a rollicking comedy horror in its own right.
Zombieland arrived in theaters in 2009, towards the end of a new zombie boom, and it’s a film made for audiences who already know the rules and want to have some fun playing the game. The script comes from Deadpool screenwriters Reese and Wernick, and both properties share the duo’s knack for genre deconstruction and razor-sharp, smart-mouthed humor. The ensemble comedic performers have a blast doling out verbal beatdowns in between actually beating down the undead. And let’s be honest — even if Zombieland wasn’t an all-around fun and entertaining action horror, it deserves a spot on the list for giving Bill Murray the most Bill Murray cameo of all time. — Haleigh Foutch
Planet Terror (2007)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Willis
In the tradition of Romero, modern Zombie films have become known as the home of sharp social commentary and forward-thinking humanism. You won’t find any of that in Planet Terror. Initially released as one half of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse, Planet Terror was initially dismissed by critics as the lesser of the two entries, but time has proven it to be a raucous, endlessly rewatchable, and consummately reprobate entry to the zombie genre.Written and directed by Rodriguez (though cast interviews revealed that the directors collaborated freely on both pictures), Planet Terror is cheeky, free-wheeling, and delighted with its own depravity as it employs the shield of grindhouse tropes to hack through horror taboos from child death to testicular violence.
Borrowing heavily from the exploitation aesthetic with the kind of budget its forebears could only dream of, the film stars Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling, a brassy go-go dancer who finds herself in the midst of the apocalypse with a rag-tag band of survivors — played by an A+ ensemble of underrated actors who finally get to play the leading roles they’ve always deserved. Flesh-hungry humanoid mutants tear through the Texas countryside, leaving a gooey trail of body parts in their wake. In short order, Cherry winds up with a machine gun for a leg, as you do, and the film boils over into a chaotic free-for-all of bloodshed and grotesqueries. It’s a blast and it triumphs because it leans in so hard. Just look at the “missing reel” in the second act, which skips everybody’s least favorite part of a zombie movie and jumps right into the climactic third act. And that’s Planet Terror in a nutshell; audacious, goofy and always going right for the guts. — Haleigh Foutch
Train to Busan (2016)
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writers: Joo-Suk Park, Sang-ho Yeon
Cast: Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma, Su-an Kim, Eui-sung Kim, Woo-sik Choi, Sohee
After the zombie genre got a big boost in the early aughts, the living dead thrived on serialized television but they died off in cinemas for a while. Train to Busan is a proper return to form for the genre, an old-fashioned zombie drama with heart and soul, a simple but clever set-up and some scary af zombies. The film follows a father and his young daughter on a terrifying train ride that sends them speeding through a zombie outbreak in South Korea, trapped inside increasingly infected compartments of the passenger train. Filled with characters you root for — and some you love to root against — Train to Busan is packed with zombie action that uses the tight quarters to thrilling effect, traveling through the cars of the train with a series of imaginative set-pieces that put the physicality of these contorted, fast-moving zombies to great effect. After watching the living survive among the dead for years on the silver screen, it’s damn well time for someone to give the undead their bite back and Train to Busan is just the ticket. — Haleigh Foutch
The Beyond (1981)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Dardano Sacchetti, Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo
Cast: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale
After making his answer to the Romero school of zombie cinema with Zombi 2, Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci took the idea of the undead and got weird with it in his unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy; City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetary. The Beyond has proven the most enduring of the lot, and for good reason, it’s a hypnotic oddity, as unsettling as it is incoherent.
If you walk into The Beyond assuming the plot matters (it really doesn’t), the film follows a young woman (MacColl), who inherits a Louisianna hotel that, bad news, happens to be built on one of the gates to hell. In between the eye-gouging, acid face-melting, and all manner of blood and guts Fulci conjures up for his ghastly visions (The Beyond isn’t quite as gory as Zombi 2, but it’s close)., there’s also a brewing metaphysical dread, a sense of doom that bubbles up to a screaming boil in the film’s final reveal. — Haleigh Foutch
Day of the Dead (1985)
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: George A. Romero
Cast: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Sherman Howard
The concluding chapter in Romero’s original “Dead” trilogy, Day of the Dead has never found the frenzied fans of its two predecessors. In fact, it’s often been met with some harsh criticisms, which is unfortunate because it’s a staggering zombie film in its own right. Perhaps its the idea of sentient zombies, a tenet of Romero’s later “Dead” films introduced in Day of the Dead via Bub, the loveable flesh-hungry fiend who begins to show signs of cognizance during military testing. Or maybe it’s the script, which turns up the volume on Romero’s trademark cultural critique until the skewering tips over into preachy territory.
But here’s the thing, while other filmmakers may have been happy to recreate the formula that worked for them in the past, Romero consistently evolved his living dead films, and Day of the Dead was the boldest of them all. Set on a military base, Romero gets downright political, asking hard questions about power and how much anyone organization should or can ever have. It’s a pensive film, not quite as primal as Night of the Living Dead and nowhere near as funny as Dawn of the Dead, which makes it a slow watch. But hoo boy, if you came for zombie gore, is the payoff rewarding. Day of the Dead has some of the most stomach-churning, sticky practical effects in the history of horror, practically painting the sterile military base red in the final act. — Haleigh Foutch
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Wade Davis, Richard Maxwell, Adam Rodman
Cast: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings
Wes Craven heads to Haiti for this haunting tale of voodoo possession, with Bill Pullman out front as the superstitious American studying a case of possession that turns people into zombies. Away from the suburbs of A Nightmare on Elm Street or (wince) Deadly Friend, Craven evinces a new visual and auditory flavor of terror, such as in the deeply unsettling burial scenes. Craven is more spare and direct with his fantastical touches here, and rather than use foreign lands as solely a place of dangerous mystical forces, he engenders a fascination with the setting, the people, and the history in a genre not always known for caring for much more than a big body count. It’s ultimately a classic tale of a cynic being faced with the horrors and glories of faith, though, let’s be honest, Craven seems far more interested in the horrors. – Chris Cabin
Director: Stuart Gordon
Writers: H.P. Lovecraft, Dennis Paoli, William Norris, Stuart Gordon
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Campton
There just are not enough quality movie adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s works out there today. One of the best happens to be this tale, taken from Lovecraft’s early-1920s horror short, “Herbert West–Reanimator.” This tale was one of the first instances of zombies as scientifically reanimated corpses driven by primal needs. Re-Animator certainly takes that premise to the extreme in the film that launched a trilogy and became a cult classic.
Centering on Herbert West, a medical student of questionable morals who’s developed a re-animating serum, Re-Animator is a tongue-in-cheek zombie film that is not afraid to push the envelope. Zombie cats and a reanimated severed head, violation of corpses in the morgue, gruesome deaths by decapitation and bone-saw, sexual assault by zombie, and a rather gory final battle. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart of easily offended, but for the completionists among you, it’s a must-watch. (There is an R-rated cut, though Gordon himself prefers the unrated version if that helps you decide one way or the other.) – Dave Trumbore
Zombi 2 (1971)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Elisa Briganti
Cast: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Auretta Gay, Al Civer
Zombie vs. Shark. That’s really all I should have to say. Zombi 2 (Titled Zombie in America) isn’t really a sequel. In a marketing gimmick, it was billed as a semi-sequel to George Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead (titled Zombi in Italy), but beyond spectacular zombie effects, the two actually have very little in common, narratively or tonally. Zombi 2 follows Anne Bowles (Farrow), a young woman who heads off to a remote island to help her ailing father, unaware that the land is under a voodoo curse that brings the dead back to life.
Helmed by Giallo maestro Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2 brings none of the social commentary or nuanced character drama of its marketed predecessor, but what it lacks in pedigree, it makes up for in stylistic panache and first-rate zombie action. Fulci is no stranger to the zombie genre, but Zombi 2 was his most conventional approach to the living dead before he got veered in a paranormal and interdimensional with his unofficial trilogy City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by The Cemetery. Zombi 2 gives all its love to set pieces and practical effects and it never aspires to be much more than zombie trash. However, it’s the very best trash — top of the heap — and it boasts some of the most inventive and flawlessly rendered zombie set pieces of all time (zombie vs shark is the best, but it isn’t the only). Zombi 2 isn’t deep but swims along brilliantly in the shallows. — Haleigh Foutch
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: George A. Romero, James Gunn
Cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer, Jake Weber, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly, Lindy Booth, Matt Frewer
These days, Zack Snyder is known for being the architect of Warner Bros.’ DC Comics live-action movie universe, but it was not always that way. Before Man of Steel, Watchmen, or even his claim to fame 300, Snyder turned in a terrifying modernized account of Romero’s 1978 original by the same name. (Oddly enough, Marvel movie-maker James Gunn also contributed his screenwriting talent to this film.)
The most memorable aspect of Snyder’s version? Fast zombies. They’re terrifying. Sure, it wasn’t the first film to implement the twist on Romero’s modern zombie, but Snyder’s take on the fast zombies was quite the surprise since they appeared in the “Night of the Living Dead” universe. By the time that Dawn of the Dead had arrived in theaters, zombie movie fans thought they had seen enough to prepare themselves for “what they would do” should the zombie apocalypse come to pass. Once Snyder’s first fast zombie ran after its living meal, those plans went out the window. I also have a soft spot for the baby zombie and the fat woman in the wheelbarrow (played by Chris Farley’s Tommy Boy stunt double Ermes Blarasin), as well as the fantastic and surprisingly capable cast assembled for this film. If you’ve written this one off or have never seen it, definitely put it on your list. – Dave Trumbore
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Writers: Dan O’Bannon, Russell Streiner, John A. Russo, Rudy Ricci
Cast: Linnea Quigley, Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph
Blood, boobs, and braaaaaiiiiins; The Return of the Living Dead is the triple threat of zombie B-movies and it’s without a doubt the most fun you can have hanging with the undead. After a pair of fumbling medical warehouse employees accidentally unleash a toxic gas on a nearby cemetery, the dead return to life in ghoulish, grizzly fashion with an insatiable hunger for brains.
The directorial debut from Alien and Total Recall screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, Return of the Living Dead is a zombie film and a party rolled into one mud-smeared, punk rock romp. Long before the meta-horror trend, Return of the Living dead name-dropped its inspiration openly, casually referencing Night of the Living Dead without abandon. It’s an outrageous film from start to finish, including iconic moments like Linnea Quigley’s nude grave dancing, a morose talking zombie, and slimy, gory creature effects that make you want to take a shower. Return of the Living Dead is over-the-top and gleefully tongue-in-cheek, like an E.C. comic come to life, a hard-rocking response to Romero’s “Living Dead” films that has become a classic in its own right.– Haleigh Foutch
Dead Alive (1992)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh
Cast: Timothy Balme, Elizabeth Moody, Diana Peñalver
Peter Jackson could have only made this gory, gushy, and occasionally outright repulsive zombie film, and he would still be a kind of legend, if not at the level of the man who brought Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Dead Alive openly toys with one of horror’s most cherished concepts – repression – and when Lionel’s (Balme) love for a local girl is no longer held down by his controlling mother (Moody), out come the decaying zombie-like creatures to act as a horrifying expression of momma’s villainous control. Like Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon’s iconic 1980s output, Dead Alive (also known as Braindead) strives for what Hooper called “red humor,” a melding of slapstick and physical comedy with horror, and the result is the most idiosyncratic and zany effort that Jackson produced, complete with zombie-monster momma and rotted ears and noses garnishing a nice Sunday chowder. — Chris Cabin
28 Days Later (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns
28 Days Later redefined the zombie aesthetic for a generation of filmmakers. Directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle from a script by brilliant sci-fi scribe Alex Garland, 28 Days Later rubbed zombie purists the wrong way at first. For one thing, they weren’t technically zombies but humans infected with a feral rage virus, and as a result, they moved way too fast. Purists scoffed, but audiences around the world discovered a new approach to the beloved genre that has not only endured but become one of the most influential modern entries in the genre.
Boyle crafted a new image of the viral apocalypse, a savage, bloodthirsty virus that sweeps through the world leaving a broken, infested shell behind. That’s what Jim (Murphy) awakes to find, rising from a coma to discover England in ashes. Boyle captures the chaos and the terror of a world destroyed with his signature stylistic flourishes — quick edits and skewed color palettes that enhance the adrenaline-fuelled fear that engulfs the first act. From there, the film settles into an intimate character drama set against the backdrop of collapsed society and the fringe groups that try to hold on to their sense of normalcy. 28 Days Later is so successful because it is as tender as it is terrifying, matching moments of horror with humanity, and a healthy spattering of cultural commentary along the way. — Haleigh Foutch
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo, George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Riley
Night of the Living Dead is not the first zombie movie; far from it. But it’s the first to leave traditional voodoo roots behind, move beyond using atomic radiation (more or less) and do away with alien invasions to give us the modern version of zombies as reanimated corpses who hunger for flesh. For the last 50 years and counting, that’s the model that zombie stories in all media have been built from, including Romero’s own sequels to his seminal film.
And yet the original still holds up today, not because of dazzling special effects or incredible acting but because of the social themes Night of the Living Dead attempted to skewer. The undercurrents of racial prejudice, vigilantism, mob mentality, and cowardice in the face of difficulty continue to hit hard 50 years later since these themes are common human attributes throughout history that we’re still attempting to overcome today. In subverting everything that defines life as a human, Romero was able to explore humanity at its least humane. Often imitated, rarely duplicated, Night of the Living Dead remains a contemporary horror classic. – Dave Trumbore
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, D
ylan Moran, Peter Serafinowicz, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton
When it comes to advancing the zombie movie genre, this film stands out among the crowd. It’s both a warm-blooded love letter to the history of zombie films and a stone-cold laugher that takes shots at those very same films. It helped quite a bit that Wright and Pegg enjoyed a shorthand from working together on the TV series Is It, Bill Bailey? and Spaced before collaborating on what is arguably the best zombie comedy out there today.
Shaun of the Dead didn’t just take the zombie movie tropes and run with them, it allowed Wright’s meticulous attention to detail and brand of humor, complemented by Pegg’s delivery, to bubble to the surface. It’s one of the most re-watchable movies out there because you’ll always find something new that you may have missed dozens of times before. And once you’ve steeped yourself in the history of zombie films, you should also find that you have a new appreciation for just how lovingly Shaun of the Dead was put together. – Dave Trumbore
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
George Romero didn’t invent the zombie, but he did single-handed
ly create the template for the modern zombie movie as we know it with his exquisite Night of the Living Dead. For his sequel, Romero dodged the temptation to retread familiar territory (a quality he would maintain for each of his subsequent “dead” films), ditching the intimate confines of a home for the sprawling reaches of a shopping mall, and trading his black-and-white bleakness for a playful color-saturated palette.
Dawn of the Dead is a horror sequel in every sense, bigger and bloodier, but it maintain’s Romero’s commitment to piercing social commentary, this time tackling the insatiable lust of American consumerism. It’s also packed to the brim with Romero’s skilled eye for visceral violence rendered with first-rate old-school gore effects from Tom Savini, the legendary craftsman of carnage who transplanted his experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam to a career spent creating on-screen nightmares. As in all of Romero’s great work, that beautifully executed bloodshed is only a backdrop for a compelling character drama as the group of strangers seeking refuge in the abandoned shopping complex cope with increasing interpersonal conflict. Romero directs it all with wit and empathy, and an expert eye for when to drop the next big scare. — Haleigh Foutch