Are we ever going to get tired of zombies? I keep waiting for us to reach our zombie threshold but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. The Walking Dead’s ratings are higher than ever, there’s a spinoff show on the way, and it seems like there’s a new zombie video game on the shelves every other week. I guess we just love the undead. Why is that though? They don’t have much personality and there isn’t a whole lot you can do with them that hasn’t been done a million times already. Maybe it’s because we all just like to imagine how we’d behave in a zombie apocalypse. Maybe we just like seeing the good guys blow countless holes through their heads. I don’t know but seeing as it’s almost Halloween, I thought I’d take the time to list the ten best and five worst zombie movies. So, if you’re only exposure to the undead is through Rick Grimes and his merry band of zombie killers, maybe you’ll find something below you haven’t seen before.
Day of the Dead
The last entry in Zombie Master George Romero’s original trilogy, Day of the Dead is much maligned for being too talky, for its over the top performances, and for its ham-fisted social messages. Things is though, I see all three of those criticisms as points in its favor. Calling it too talky means you have no patience for listening to characters debate and philosophize. Saying the performances are over the top misses the point that they’re supposed to be over the top (for God’s sake, do you expect a mad scientist and a psychotic Colonel to be portraits of subtlety?). And as for the ham-fisted social messages? Yeah, Romero may lay them on a little thick but that doesn’t mean they don’t ring true. Day of the Dead is the least of his first three Dead films but it’s still a smart, provocative horror movie that doesn’t skimp out on action and gore. Romero always argued that humans are the real enemy and the villain here, Colonel Rhodes, is his best illustration of that. What’s most admirable about the film though is the character of Bub, the most sympathetic zombie to ever grace the screen. He’s the goddamn hero of the film. Whatever failings Day of the Dead may have, it got us to care about and root for a member of the undead. And that is no easy task.
Let’s face it, zombies are stupid creatures. They’re slow, they have one goal in mind, they don’t talk much, and they aren’t exactly charismatic. Which is why they’re so easily spoofed and satirized. Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive is a screwball comedy disguised as the goriest movie ever made. It asks questions about zombies that no one else has ever dared to: Can they reproduce? If you cut them to bits, would their intestines keep coming after you? Can they be domesticated? Is a lawnmower the most efficient way to take them out? Dead Alive provides the answers you were never looking for while moving from one gleefully deranged scenario to another. It’s a movie for which the term ‘bad taste’ doesn’t even begin to apply. Jackson isn’t content with just one gross out scene; he has to keep topping himself until you’re so bewildered by what’s infolding in front of your eyes that you can’t help but laugh yourself silly. There’s a great story about Mel Brooks that applies to this flick. After seeing The Producers, a woman told him the the movie was nothing but vulgar. “Madam”, he responded, “my film rises below vulgarity.” That’s Dead Alive in a nutshell.
People sometimes like to argue about silly things when it comes to zombies. Should they be fast or slow? Do they have to be dead to be considered a zombie? Does destroying their brain make any logical sense? As far as I’m concerned those questions are irrelevant. A zombie can be defined as any mindless being whose only goal is to kill others. By that definition, The Signal is a tremendously suspenseful and inventive zombie movie. Taking a page from Stephen King’s novel Cell, a signal goes out across the world’s TV screens and turns anyone who hears it into a raving, homicidal lunatic. The movie is told in three parts, with different characters experiencing the after effects in frightening and sometimes hilarious ways. Like Romero’s best work, it makes subtle points about how things like the media and materialism have turned us all into zombies already. But that message takes a back seat to strong, relatable characters, scenes of high tension, and an undercurrent of black humor. Do yourself a favor and check out this underrated gem.
I am generally not a fan of the found footage genre but have to admit that when it works, it works really well. The Spanish film REC (remade here as the shitty Quarantine) is an example of the genre at its most compelling. The story of a news reporter who encounters a disease that starts turning the residents of an apartment building into ravenous zombies uses the found footage angle to generate scenes of real terror. One of the creepiest tricks in a horror movie is to have something horrible going on in the background that the characters don’t notice until it’s too late. REC uses that trick several times and it adds greatly to the suspense level. It’s a relentless movie that never gives you time to breathe and the final shot is pure nightmare fuel.
28 Days Later
As intense as REC is, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is even more unrelenting. Idiots whine about how the creatures aren’t really zombies but instead ‘infected people’ and about how zombies shouldn’t be fast and they need to shut the fuck up. Fast zombies and slow zombies can both work depending on the story. In 28 Days Later, fast zombies work best because they add to the hyper intensity of the flick. I also love how 28 Days Later gives its characters less than 3o seconds to kill a friend after he or she has become infected. No room for long winded goodbyes in this doomed world. Then there’s the ever present theme of how it’s really the other humans and not the zombies you need to watch out for. Christopher Eccleston is absolutely chilling as the most maniacal military man since Day of the Dead’s Colonel Rhodes. And Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris make for a terrific pair of leads. There’s no better example of the zombie film as a balls to the wall action movie than 28 Days Later.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Wes Craven’s thriller is the odd duck of this list because it doesn’t feature any zombies as we have come to know them. Instead it explores the origins of where the actual word, ‘zombie’ comes from. In Haitian folklore, a ‘zombi’ was an undead creature brought back to life by magic to the bidding of whomever raised it. The Serpent and the Rainbow (based on a non-fiction book) concerns an anthropologist who wants to find out if that legend has any basis in fact. Of course, he’s not too pleased with the answers he finds. I’ve always been puzzled as to why more films don’t explore the voodoo origin of zombies seeing as it’s a creepy, fascinating subject, but am pleased that we at least have this film. It suggests that herbal drugs that made people seem undead are the basis for the zombie legend but also adds in a chilling supernatural explanation. It’s an atmospheric, under-seen movie that all fans of the zombie genre should take a look at, if only to see a completely different take on one of horror’s most overused monsters.
Return of the Living Dead
As stated earlier, zombies are one of the easiest movie creatures to spoof and Return of the Living Dead has a grand old time breaking all the rules. It kicks to the curb the idea that destroying the brain stops them. One character wails, “but it worked in the movie” after unsuccessfully trying to kill a zombie by driving a pick axe through its skull. It allows zombies to talk for the first time ever and has them use the word ‘brains’ as their mantra. That’s not all though. After several zombies storm an ambulance and eat the paramedics, dispatch calls in to ask if they need assistance. “Send more paramedics,” a zombie replies as he chows down on of the dead one’s hands. Return of the Living Dead also presents us with two doomed characters who gradually realize they are turning after a doctor takes their pulse and gravely tells them, “technically, you’re not alive.” It’s an utterly irreverent movie that spoofs the genre while having a great deal of fun with it. And with its knowing dialogue, frequent mentions of other zombie movies, and riffs on standard horror tropes, it paved the way for other satirical horror flicks like Scream and Cabin in the Woods.
Shaun of the Dead
Personally, I get more laughs out of Return of the Living Dead but Shaun of the Dead is the slightly better movie. It brought the zombie genre full circle by satirizing everything dumb about it and celebrating all the stuff we love. It’s a perfectly constructed movie with all of its clever uses of foreshadowing (“you’ve got red on you”) and inspired takes on classic zombie tropes (it’s not easy to shoot a zombie in the head). It also, oddly enough, completely revitalized the zombie film by making fun of it. If we want to look back and see where our current obsession with zombies began, we need look no further than Shaun of the Dead.
Night of the Living Dead
Without George Romero’s first film, we don’t have a zombie genre. This is the film that came up with all the rules we have come to accept as facts. And it’s not like vampires or werewolves where silver bullets and stakes were always the way to kill them. No, Romero didn’t take anything from folklore; he just made shit up and Night of the Living Dead was so influential that every single other zombie movie has either followed his model or commented on it. All that alone gives this movie a spot on this list. What elevates it to the number two spot is the fact that it’s still one of the scariest movies ever made. The black and white adds to the general feeling of unease, the confined setting makes us feel as trapped as the characters, and the way nothing is explained makes the whole thing feel like a terrifying parable or a nightmare that refuses to end. Romero also adds in themes about racism that hit just the right mark without slamming you over the head. If you’ve never actually seen it, punch yourself in the face and then watch it as soon as possible.
Dawn of the Dead
Everything Romero did well in Night of the Living Dead, he does better in Dawn of the Dead. The themes about the savagery of humans are explored to much deeper and smarter effect, the zombies are creepier, the characters are better written, the stakes are higher, and the satire is right on point. The movie begins in a frenzied rush as members of a news station scramble to get the right info onto the air and then jumps to a SWAT team tasked with taking out an apartment building where the residents are hiding zombies because they believe their dead loved ones will still remember them. We then move on to a bunch of hillbillies who LOVE being able to shoot as many zombies as they want and who turn the apocalypse into a party. Finally, our four heroes take refuge in an abandoned mall overrun with the undead and begin to clear them out so they can make it their home. The idea that zombies might go to a mall because of some vague memory they have of a former life is creepy and funny because it rings so true. Each section of the movie is told with perfect clarity and conviction. There’s no filler, no wasted scenes, and no cliches. It’s a completely original work that’s overflowing with ideas. And anyone looking for an explanation for the zombie apocalypse will find none better than this: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
Land of the Dead
Anyone who thinks Day of the Dead was ham-fisted with its social messages has never seen Romero’s misguided, disappointing Land of the Dead. It has all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. There are no characters to care about, the satire is way too broad and off the mark, and the zombies are completely uninteresting. His follow up to this, Diary of the Dead, was slightly better but neither film comes even remotely close to being half as good as Day, Dawn, or Night.
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Everything good about the original is tossed aside in Tom Savini’s piss poor remake. The acting is terrible, the colorization takes away from the nightmare aspect, and the whole thing is so rushed we never get the time to care about anybody. None of Romero’s interesting themes are used and the result is a dumb movie that has a lot of zombies but nothing to say about any of them.
Tombs of the Blind Dead
I’ve been accused by more than a few people of liking obscure horror movies simply because they’re obscure. I hope to prove those people wrong by pointing out that Tombs of the Blind Dead is an obscure horror movie that I had to work hard to find only to discover it is a complete and utter bore. The story of a bunch of dead blind knights who come back to wreak havoc because reasons is incomprehensible and slower than a tortoise with dementia. It’s also very sleazy. Anyone who calls this a ‘classic’ is a fucking moron.
I could have listed all the Resident Evil films for this portion of the list and called it a day. The fact that there are six of these movies is astounding. They’re all terrible but I’m singling out the first one cuz it jumpstarted this awful franchise. Zombies have never been more useless, unthreatening, or uninteresting. They’re just fodder for machine guns. YAWN.
House of the Dead
It’s almost unfair to pick such an incompetent movie as the worst zombie flick (it’s like beating up a handicapped person) but House of the Dead is so bad, so boring, so stupid, so poorly directed, poorly written, poorly acted, and so utterly inexplicable I couldn’t resist. I don’t think I’ve ever been so baffled by a movie. You’d think it would be able to do something right even if it was just the goddamn lighting but no, it even fails in that department. It’s an insult to call it a zombie movie. Actually wait, it’s an insult to even call it a movie.