Zombies. They never particularly scared me. I mean, how terrifying can it be to face off against a monster when you only have to walk a little faster to escape? But it turns out that I’m wrong. Horror writer, Luke Walker, has convinced me. I’ve started working my way through his top ten zombie movies. Agree or disagree with his picks? Feel free to leave a comment.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A disparate group of strangers end up in an isolated farmhouse when the dead come back to ‘life’. Groundbreaking in its time, it still has a power and relentlessness that can’t be beaten and there’s a good reason I’m listing this film first. This is the greatest film ever made. Without it, we not only wouldn’t have zombie films as we know them now, we wouldn’t have everything from Aliens to Dog Soldiers. The influence of Night can’t be underestimated. Even without that and despite its age, it remains a frightening film that shows us at our worst – a staple of Romero’s Dead series. The real threat here isn’t from the walking dead; it’s from our lack of willingness to work together. And that’s what’s going to get us in the end.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Usually seen as the best of Romero’s series, it’s definitely the biggest although not the best in my humble opinion. Beginning three weeks after Night, we join two members of a SWAT team, a reporter and a member of a TV news crew as they try to stay alive in the apocalypse. This means barricading themselves in a shopping mall while the dead wander around outside. Romero’s social commentary might have dated a bit now, but in terms of a character study, it’s still impressive. And interesting note – if you pause the film at the right moment, you get a really cool shot of lots of brains splattered all over a wall.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Originally planned as a zombie epic, Day suffered at the hands of Romero’s studio who wanted a ‘safe’ horror film which would bring in the money. Romero didn’t want to do it that way, so they halved his budget and he had to rewrite the third part in his Dead series. At the time, the resulting film was seen as a letdown after Dawn, but it’s my second favourite of his films.
An unspecified time after Dawn, the world is overrun by the dead. A group who may be the last survivors have taken shelter in an underground bunker. The mixture of military and scientists aren’t getting on particularly well. When the head of the military finds out what one of the scientists is up to with his zombie experiments, all hell breaks loose. At the same time, the dead are beginning to show signs of rational thought.
Day is still one of Romero’s most ambitious works and definitely one of the bleakest. And Bub rocks.
The Crazies (1973)
I wasn’t sure whether to include The Crazies in this list as it’s not a zombie film in the same way 28DL isn’t a zombie film. In the end, I had to stick it in just because the film has a lot of zombie trademarks and because it’s horrifying. A small town is driven insane after a military accident and the military have no idea how to fix things. The inspiration for a not very good remake and the 1995 film Outbreak, The Crazies is a great example of doing what a real horror film should do: horrify.
Rec 1 and 2 (2008 and 2010)
Possibly a bit of a cheat having two films together but I see the two Rec films as one story especially as part two starts fifteen minutes the end of the first film. These Spanish films play with the conventions of zombie lore to the point of being a mix of supernatural mystery and balls to the wall blood splatter. And the first has a genius moment that the cast apparently didn’t know was going to happen. Always a fun idea in a horror film.
King of the Zombies (1941)
The oldest film on my list and easily the most racist. You could argue it’s a product of its time or you could argue it’s painfully bigoted. If you can incorporate the racism into your viewing, this is a strangely fun film in which a couple of square jawed hunky dudes and their black…uh…servant/helper/butler crash land their plan in the middle of an island. It turns out a slightly bonkers doctor is involved in Voodoo (or what passed for Hollywood Voodoo in the 40s) which means lots of people coming into rooms at just the right moment to miss the zombies while everyone shouts whaddaya mean he’s a zombie every few seconds.
Zombie Dead (1980)
Ah, Italy. Land of culture and history and romance and utterly crap zombie films that I still love. The Zombie Dead (also known as Burial Ground) is complete rubbish. It’s also ridiculously entertaining. Basically, a bunch of swingers (I think) head to a mansion in the middle of the countryside for a weekend of fun. One brings along her teenage son (ably played by a mid-thirties guy in the world’s worst wig) which means that not only are we in for zombie mayhem, we’re in for one of the most disturbing relationships I’ve ever seen.
If that’s not enough, the zombies work as a team to get into the house. Yes, you heard me. As a team.
A bit of an oddity on this list given it’s not a usual zombie film at all. Almost the entire film takes place in a local radio station and almost all of the zombie business occurs off-camera. We experience it through reports, phone calls and supposition. Also, the zombies in Pontypool are not the reanimated dead. They’re people infected with a virus which travels in a unique way. I won’t say how. I will say watch this film. It’s first rate with a great performance from Stephen Machattie as the DJ.
28 Days Later (2002)
Another non-zombie film. OK, the infected act like zombies on speed but they’re still not zombies in the strictest sense. So what, though? This is still one of the best British horror films of the last ten years. I know some viewers prefer the first half to the second, but the whole film works for me. Jim, a bike courier, wakes up in hospital about a month after the spread of a disease which affects its sufferers within seconds of exposure. Basically, people turn into killing machines. One drop of blood is enough to infect a person which means the country has been destroyed. Jim has no idea what’s going on until he meets a few other survivors, and the group’s plan doesn’t guarantee any safety.
As thrilling as it is atmospheric, 28DL takes the rules of zombie films and does something new with them.
Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
OK, pay attention. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy as Zombi. About a year later, Zombi 2 was released. It had nothing to do with Zombi or Dawn. Outside of Italy, Zombi 2 became Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Still with me?
Director Lucio Fulci takes someone else’s idea and comes up with his own film. On the other hand, Fulci was never too fussed about characters or logic so he ignores all that to give us a film of slightly pervy nudity, loads of close ups of wounds, a particularly unpleasant eye stabbing…and a zombie fighting a shark.
You think I’m making this up, don’t you?
City of the Living Dead (1980)
Another one from Fulci and another ‘not really a zombie film’ film. City…isn’t really anything other than a load of plotlines loosely connected via some extreme violence. My personal favourite is the drill in the head bit. But that’s just me.
City…also has one of the oddest endings I’ve seen in a film. Not that it would make much difference if Fulci had a logical ending. The rest of the film is still mad.
Late twenties loser Shaun isn’t making a good job of his life at the moment. He spends his nights in the local pub with his loser mate Ed; his girlfriend is about four seconds away from dumping him and fifteen years after his mum remarried, he still can’t get on with his step-dad. Oh, and there’s a zombie apocalypse kicking off.
Shaun came from an episode of the mighty sitcom Spaced (side note, if you haven’t seen Spaced, then stop reading my rantings and go watch it now) and it’s a classic. Funny, moving, frightening – it does everything you’d expect from a romzomcom.
La Horde (2009)
French films are all arty-farty, aren’t they? Lots of long shots of sinks and ashtrays. Not quite the case with this one.
The set up is pretty simple. A small group of cops plan on storming a manky block of flats to take out a few local criminals who killed another copper before the start of the film. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong – including a zombie outbreak. The zombies in La Horde owe a fair debt to the ones in 28DL in that they’re fast and aggressive. And if the surviving criminals and gangsters want to make to the ground, they need to work together.
A particularly nice touch in La Horde was the lack of explanation for what caused the outbreak and I loved the shots of the city from a balcony ten floors up. Superb.
La Horde is fast, frightening and very bloody. And there’s something about subtitled swearing that makes me laugh.
Luke Walker has been writing horror and fantasy fiction for most of his life. Much of his work focuses on fantastical horror novels although he has always had a love of a short, sharp shock of horror – a love which started at age nine when he read Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. A number of his short stories have been published online at Dark Fire Fiction. He is thirty-three and lives in Cambridgeshire, England, with his wife, two cats and not enough zombie films.
He still won’t go into a wine cellar.
Here are a couple of links to a couple of Luke’s published zombie stories. Enjoy!