Our campus film critic (and one of our writing instructors) offers his review of the top 20 zombie films of all time! Our library owns most of these films (see “zombie films“)
The Best Zombie Films by Vittorio Carli
Zombies are shambling around everywhere in the cultural landscape. The Walking Dead is the bestselling and most highly regarded Indy comic series in a long time. Also, the TV series that was partially adapted from it is nearly as good (it actually takes the characters in some worthwhile alternate directions.)
Moraine Valley Community College is focusing on the zombie in its curriculum during the 2013-2014 semesters. Many literature and composition classes are studying the World War Z novel, and the film version which was the most expensive zombie flick ever came out this summer producing big box office receipts. See http://southtownstar.suntimes.com/photos/galleries/index.html?story=22115941.
Also, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a recent bestselling revisionist mash up text which resurrects the Jane Austin style (Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter was also part of the same genre), and cleverly adds horror elements. I actually thought it was a good summer read.
Aim for the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry was recently released, which was edited by the popular Oklahoma based performance poet, Rob “Ratpack Slim” Sturma. See http://www.amazon.com/Aim-For-Head-Anthology-Zombie/dp/1935904477.
Zombie films have also had a huge impact on pop music and music videos. Years ago, the punk pop group, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, put out a demented video called “Y Control” which combines elements of Night of the Living Dead and Village of the Damned in which evil children commit evil, destructive acts while looking like dazed zombies (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcjPFAV1foU) . Earlier on Michael Jackson had used zombies in “Thriller, “and the punk/metal band the Misfits, who had made a whole career out of doing horror themed songs recorded a song titled “Night of the Living Dead.”
Many college students have begun to go on zombie pub crawls, and there are at least three current plays in Chicago about zombies (one is a musical). Of corpse there are also zombie burlesque and strip shows (one of them was recently advertised on Mancow’s TV show).
The mock presidential candidate Vermin Supreme (I met him at Grant Park, a few years ago) even used zombies as part of his political platform. He said if he won he would allocate funds for training the army for the upcoming zombie holocaust, and he would use zombies as an energy source. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8x0uL9ufxnQ.
To ask an often uttered question, yes, there are probably too many zombie films, but there are also too many mad slasher flicks, Ocean 11 movies, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies, and Star Wars films as well (I could have done without the last three). But some of the zombie films have neglected sociological/political content (either intentional or accidental) which elevates them above the typical gore fests, so I think they are worth writing about.
My theory is that zombies are so popular in the new millennium because they are featured in apocalyptic scenarios that people can identify with after the recent financial collapse (perhaps the bankers were the real zombies devouring the rest of humanity). Also there has been a certain amount of geopolitical anxiety that was brought on by 9’11 which is mirrored in end of the world stories.
Also, the zombie scenarios are a perfect way to explore a certain kind of moral dilemma. Once the social structures have fallen, will humans feel obligated to follow any kind of moral or ethical code? If you’re talking about the bikers in the original Dawn of the Dead, then the answer is no. Speaking of Dawn of the Dead, at the top of my best zombie film list are three films directed by George Romero, who is the undisputed master of the genre (he is to zombie films what John Ford or Howard Hawks was to westerns.) Before him most zombies in films were strong, mindless slaves that were raised from the dead by voodoo priests.
While the story, “I am Legend” established some of the rules for zombies in literature; Romero established most of the rules for the modern zombie cinematic genre. He is the first film maker to feature human eating zombies in post-apocalyptic scenarios (Although the first film version of Last Man on Earth came close with blood drinking zombie like corpses.)
Believe it or not Hitchcock’s The Birds was also a big influence on many zombie films. When the birds attack in one scene, the humans try to fight back in a boarded up enclosed space. This scene has been endlessly copied in countless zombie films (there’s a similar scene in World War Z) and even on the Buffy the Vampire TV Series (The Buffy comic series introduced the idea of zompires, which is a cross between guess which two horror archetypes.) I have included a best zombie film list which ranks the most significant zombie films in order according to quality and importance.
I did not include any vampire films or movies about Frankenstein like man made creatures in list even though they technically deal with the walking dead. I also did not put in movies with corpses possessed by evil spirits (or else I would have included the first three Evil Dead films which were a big influence on Dead Alive) because I do not think they are not technically about zombies. I also left out the excellent Cabin in the Woods (I admit I’m a Joss Whedon junkie) because only a small part of it dealt with zombies.
Despite my inclusions of Land of the Dead and Zombieland, zombie films are rarely huge budget films with big name casts or expensive special effects. Almost all of them are disreputable little Indy features with unknown casts by little known or genre directors who accidently make one or two great films.
1.) Night of the Living Dead (1968)-This is the film that defined the modern zombie genre. Since it came out in ’68 in cinema verite style (with hand held cameras), and the heroes can’t always tell their friends from their enemies, this film is often seen as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Despite the weak female lead (the remake has a better, stronger lead female character) this film also has sociological significance because the central character and noblest hero (played by Duane Jones) is African American. That was rare in the ’60s, and in many of the horror and war films of the period, the African Americans died first. The line, “They’re coming to get you Barbara!” has been endlessly quoted.
2.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)-Some horror aficionados actually prefer this worthy sequel to the original “Night of the Living Dead.” After the zombie apocalypse occurs, a small band of individuals hold up in a shopping mall, and the zombies represent ravenous, mindless consumers. I may actually prefer these zombies to Black Friday shoppers (meaning people who shop on the day after Thanksgiving.) In one of the best sequences, a gang of bikers (including the makeup guy Tom Savini) battle the living dead. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself rooting for the zombies. One of the female survivors is pregnant, and this plot thread is taken in a different direction in the remake (which has better acting even though it is less satisfying overall.) Featuring a creepy, ominous soundtrack by the classic Italian horror rockers, Goblin. This is where the line, “When there is no room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,’ came from.
3.) Land of the Dead (2005) – The elite live in a walled off community guarded by the army while the poor have to stay outside with the zombies. Of course eventually there is a breach with Marxist/class struggle implications (the climax is sort of like the French Revolution). It was great to see the giallo icon, Asia Argento in an American film. Dennis Hopper plus John Leguizano (the great performance poet/actor) round out an unusually superb cast. I liked this film so much that when it originally came out I put it on my top ten films of the year list. When I told the late Roger Ebert, he exclaimed “But it’s only a zombie film!” see http://www.artinterviews.com/2005_The_Year_in_Film.html for the complete list, and more comments on the film.
4.) Cemetery Man (1994)-Rupert Everett, in one of the most memorable roles, stars as a cemetery employee who must dispose of the corpses that keep rising up. Like many giallo films, this movie has twisted humor, gross out violence, fantastic lighting and attractive shot composition. This Italian horror/comedy classic was based on a comic series by the author of Dylan Dog. Not for the squeamish or easily offended, but that’s also true of many of the films on this list. This comes in both Italian and dubbed in English versions.
5.)Re-Animator (1985)- This is loosely based on some of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories, and the film features a demented mad doctor/surgeon, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs who makes a great maniac) who uses a chemicals to raise the dead. When I saw this over the top gore fest in a theatre almost every couple left in disgust, but I had a ball. The sequels Bride of Re-animator and Beyond Re-Animator have their inspired moments, but they didn’t quite make the cut. Director Stuart Gordon, used Combs and Barbara Crampton in other horror films, and they formed a kind of cinematic repertory. This most only did ok in movie theaters, but it found a huge following on VHS. The effective music score apes Bernard Hermann’s work. To see my interview with director/former Chicago native, Stuart Gordon go to http://www.artinterviews.com/stuart_gordon.html.
6.) Dead Alive (1992)-Believe it or not Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) made his cinematic bones directing this smart, gory, special effects filled splatter comedy. There are some weird implied incestuous overtones between the hero and his mom who becomes a gigantic misshapen zombie (the ultimate devouring mother.) This time the virus is spread by a repulsive Sumatran rat-monkey hybrid. One of the best scenes involves divine intervention in the form of a kung Fu priest. This is the perfect film to clear the room of unwanted guests at Thanksgiving. This is certainly the most gruesomely inventive film on the list, and it shows the value of having a dependable lawn mower. This film is sometimes called Braindead, which would be a better name for the Resident Evil films.
7.) Return of the Living Dead (1985) – This adds only a little to the zombie mythos (the zombies run and they prefer to eat brains), but the direction has great style, and the music is used very well. This is one of the first big profile movies that used bits of punk and new wave culture well, and the cast is a riot. There are many scenes of cool, deadpan humor. This was scripted and directed by John Russo (writer of Night of the Living Dead), but it’s not technically part of Romero’s living dead series. It’s the start of a whole new zombie franchise. This film also has the best soundtrack of any film on the list (it includes the cramps’ “Surf’in Dead,” and a selection by the mad psychedelic genius, Roky Erickson.) All of the sequels except for the surprising moving third one are worthless. This is also the film that made cult favorite Linea Quigley a star, and I also got a big bang out of the ending. This film and many other zombie flicks were parodied in the South Park episode, “Night of the Living Homeless” in which the poor yell out “more food!” instead of “more brains.”
8.) Shaun of the Dead (2004)-Hilarious zombie comedy features a lower class/everyman protagonist who must deal with his mom, stepdad, girlfriend (she wants him to be more mature and take her out more) while zombies are taking over the world. This British import is one of the most successful blends of horror and slapstick ever. The writers, Simon Pegg and Nick Wright, also produced Hot Fuzz (which was almost as good) and World’s End (which I have not seen).
9.) I Walked with a Zombie (1943)-Val Lewton’s classic relies on atmosphere instead of gore or violence, and it’s about twice as smart as anything else on the list. Believe it or not this plays like an occult mystery version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (the same basic plot line was also used for a whole Dark Shadows storyline). Roky Erickson’s song (he was the original psychedelic bad boy of rock) “I Walked with a Zombie” was of course inspired by this film.
10.) Juan of the Dead (2011) – A zombie epidemic hits Cuba, and the politicos tell people that it’s all the work of evil capitalists trying to stop the spread of the revolution. So naturally Juan who has been destitute loser his whole life decides to exploit the situation. He takes money from people for killing zombies in their family, and he advertises with the slogan “We kill your loved ones. How can we help you today?” The unique and entertaining film adds a political dimension and comedy to the zombie template, and it has a wonderful, unique ending. In Spanish with English sub-titles.
11.) Versus (2000)-This inventive Asian film combines zombies and gangsters, with samurai action sequences and some comedy. There is one scene which brilliantly alludes to Blade Runner, and this the only film I know of that is equally influenced by Kurosawa and The Evil Dead. In Japanese with English sub-tiles.
12.) Planet Terror (2007)-This hilarious segment in Grindhouse faithfully updates the feel of the lowest budget drive in movies. Although it defies logic, Rose McGowan’s transformation into a zombie killing machine (with a machine gun replacing a leg) is a real hoot. As always director, Roberto Rodriquez, directs with great style and includes many allusions to old films. The more ridiculous and unbelievable the film got the more I was hooked. Rodriquez’s Machete is has a similar scummy drive in flick mentality (but his greatest film is still the wonderful, magical low budget, El Mariachi.)
13.) 28 Days Later (2002) – This film technically does not feature the walking dead, but it concerns people infected with a virus that makes them act like zombies (The same basic idea had been used earlier in George Romero’s The Crazies and later in World War Z) It’s an interesting blend between a horror film and a disaster film, and the sequels are also worth checking out.
14.) Plague of the Zombies (1966) – A mystery begins to unveil involving the disappearance of some townspeople in a small English town and voodoo. Beautifully shot Hammer film is tame by today’s standards, but it is extremely eerie and artful. It also contains my all-time favorite resurrection scene. It may be the most obscure and underrated film on this list. Like most Hammer studio films the look of the film is more interesting than the actual script.
15.) Dead Snow (2009) – This interesting European take on the zombie mythos includes Nazi zombies that awaken and cause havoc decades after WWII. Part of the idea of the story came from the draugr, an Icelandic folk tale about the dead protecting a treasure. In Norwegian with English sub-titles.
16.) Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) – Melinda Clarke (she went on to a recurring role as a tragic dominatrix on CSI Crime Scene Investigation) stars as a different kind of zombie in this punk/ horror variation of Romeo and Juliet. A star struck young couple plan to run away from the boy’s brutal military father to elope. They stumble upon the room where the US army experiments on and tortures zombies, so they can learn to use them as weapons. The girl is bit and zombified, but she retains some of her human thought as well as her love for her boyfriend. When a gang of hoods threatens him, she takes body modification to its limit, and makes herself into a living weapon. This movie was famously panned by the former New York mayor, Ed Koch on the David Letterman. This politically incorrect film stands out because of the strong romantic elements which are rarely found in this type of movie. This is a guilty pleasure for me (I’ve never met anyone else who actually liked this film.)
17.) Zombieland (2009)-This video game inspired zombie flick features a distinguished cast including Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and a glorious, unexpected celebrity cameo. This time the zombie virus is a mutation of mad cow disease (which is a clever and logical idea). This is a much more entertaining attempt to combine big budget film conventions with the zombie film than the recent, World War Z film.
18.) Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – Wes Craven, director of (Nightmare on Elm Street) were inspired by some real-life discoveries in Haiti. Basically there is a real chemical concoction (which includes puffer fish venom) which knocks people out (they are not quite dead) and when they arise they are in a zombie like state in which they are susceptible to commands.
19.) Black Sheep (2006)-This New Zealand made splatstick (splatter slapstick) features a group of farmers that must do battle with (get this) zombie sheep. This film wool entertain you even though the special effects are sheep.
20) White Zombie (1932) – The most dated, earliest, and creepiest film on this list: this is also the first major zombie film. Bela Lugosi commands surprisingly sinister walking dead minions until he gets his comeuppance. The zombie master’s relationship to the zombies can be seen as representive of the negative sides of capitalization and colonization. Although the film’s atmosphere is effective, the acting is shockingly substandard. The rocker/director, Rob Zombie (of The Devi’s Rejects) named his nasty industrial band after this film.
Well I hope you got a rise out of this essay.