Monsters are a dime a dozen and have been throughout history. There’s the Vampire; the Werewolf; the Centaur; the Fish Man; the Fly Man; the Ghost and the Goblin. And it doesn’t end there, the list goes on and on into the shadows but it only needs to be observed to realise that we love a good miscreation more than we possibly should.
But let’s examine the word itself – Monster. It’s derived from the Latin word monstrare which is ‘to show, point out or reveal’ (also intrinsic in the etymology of the word ‘demonstrate’). In order to truly terrify, a monster must reveal to us something in ourselves – something we may not necessarily want to acknowledge. This is why the Zombie endures even as other monsters are committed to history – our survival instinct forces us to fear our mortality and so most of us refuse to truly recognize it. That said there’s surely little more terrifying than a monster which represents our own inalienable fate made corporeal, with intent to claim us prematurely.
Inspired by the whispers of a myth on the American-occupied island of Haiti (between 1915 and 1934), the ghoul was reported back to the U.S via William Seabrook, in his renowned serial article entitled The Magic Island. In it he recounts the legend of the Zombie; the newly dead, reanimated through Voodoo magic and forced to work the plantations. Despite eventually being proved as fraudulent, the concept of the living dead had captured the imagination of the American people and it wasn’t long before it meandered its way onto the nation’s screens.
Historically cheap to produce, Zombie movies are notorious for their B-movie quality and truthfully, they’re often deficient in terms of artistic merit. But we all know by now that every so often one manages to make it through the mire that truly demonstrates something about us as a species; about our mortality, our basic nature or our capacity for evil.
So nut up and load your boom-stick; it’s time to split up and look for survivors among the ten best and ten worst Zombie movies of all time. And don’t forget to aim for the head.
White Zombie (1932) – Directed by Victor Halperin
The original undead invader of the American consciousness, White Zombie caused a feverish buzz in its heyday. Set firmly within the roots of Zombie mythology, it weaves the tale of Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron), a young couple due to be wed amidst the backdrop of a tumultuous American-occupied Haiti. A jealous plantation owner has designs on Madeline though and consorts with the evil sugar baron ‘Murder’ Legende (played with characteristic wickedness by Bela Lugosi), scheming to use voodoo magic to turn the beautiful doe-eyed western woman into a willing Zombie slave.
White Zombie isn’t about flesh eaters, it’s not about the crumble of society and it isn’t set in a dystopian present. Instead it comments on the erosion of free will, likening undead slavery to actual slavery and exploring how much of a person truly remains when denied their autonomy. With ghouls that’d sooner beat you up than eat your guts (providing that was the will of their ‘Voodoo master’), this movie is tame as a house-cat by today’s standards. It’s still essential viewing though, for any who wish to truly comprehend the rise of the dead in Cinema.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – Directed by George A. Romero
Up until now, the Zombie had been macabre sure, even bordering on creepy (if you were thirteen in 1940) but it had never been truly frightening, usually acting as slave to a higher antagonistic power – a voodoo master, or alien invader – whatever the case may be. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero gives the ghoul back its free will and instils in it the sole desire to consume the flesh of the living. Suddenly, the Zombie poses a whole new level of conflict. After all if there’s no overall antagonist to be defeated, how can they be stopped?
Night of the Living Dead weaves the now done-to-death Zombie siege plot, with its characters fortifying a large house against a horde of re-animated corpses. What makes Romero’s ghouls so much more terrifying than their predecessors is their unholy bite. Anyone perforated by a zombie in any way is doomed to die and re-animate themselves; every one of us that falls is one more undead assailant. With his masterful story, Romero made one of Cinema’s most graceful comments on society; more specifically he indicts mindless consumerism and the dark side of human nature. With his tweaks to the ghoul, he changed the face of the sub-genre forever. One of, if not the most important film to advocate Zombie awesomeness ever.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie a.k.a The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) – Directed by Jorge Grau
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a curious affair. It’s a Spanish/Italian co-production set exclusively in the UK; a tensely slow building mystery set amidst the sleepy British country side. It was originally intended as a spiritual successor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (almost the same outbreak overseas) but it quickly became its own beast. Instead of some punishment for the sins of humanity, the film prescribes a surprisingly non-supernatural cause for the outbreak: a machine that generates sonic radiation as a pesticide. Oh and it also causes the newly dead to rise and… well, you know the drill.
When a slew of gruesome murders plague the town of Windermere, a bigoted Inspector (Arthur Kennedy) suspects two outsiders (Ray Lovelock and Christine Galbo) of the deeds. And therein lies the beauty of this movie; it’s not centring on a Romero style outbreak, but instead a dramatic cat and mouse plot set to the backdrop of the stirring Zombie apocalypse. In fact, for its first two acts you’d be forgiven for thinking Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was tame, but give it time and by the end I guarantee you’ll hit your gore quota. It’s a subtly unique picture that values story above all else, thoroughly earning its place this side of the list.
Dawn of the Dead (1978) – Directed by George A. Romero
Romero’s follow up to Night of the Living Dead was arguably even more amazing. Night of the Living Dead was a hugely important statement undoubtedly, a fresh take on the Zombie that set a whole new stage for Romero (and other pioneers) to play on, but Dawn of the Dead takes that apocalyptic vision and lends it the sort of scale and realism that makes the Zombie holocaust seem like an inevitable future.
Weaving a similar Zombie siege plot to Night, Dawn of the Dead pits its characters against an ever growing sea of undead marauders except this time the story takes place within one of America’s churches to consumerism: the shopping mall. Romero’s growing discontent with American development gathers new speed, with Dawn’s characters becoming just as hungry to consume from the luxuries the mall has to offer as the undead flocking toward it are for their flesh. Romero certainly stepped it up a notch with Dawn of the Dead in terms of scale and story and it exists today as his second shining pinnacle of the sub-genre.
Zombie Flesh Eaters a.k.a Zombie (1979) – Directed by Lucio Fulci
Zombie Flesh Eaters (also known as Zombi 2 – an attempt to fool audiences into thinking it was some follow up to Romero’s work) toys with the history of the undead with style and authority. It places the flesh eating ghoul right back where it began, on a relatively unknown tropical island where the locals are convinced that Voodoo is behind the rising of the dead. They’re far from slaves to be controlled though and rip through the islands inhabitants as viciously as any American counterpart.
Fulci’s ghouls are no less bitey than Romero’s despite their Haitian connection, and Zombie Flesh Eaters manages to deliver some of the most repulsive gore I’ve ever seen (how does getting dragged through a wooden door, and having a huge splinter break off in your eyeball sound?). It’s not making as profound a statement as previously mentioned movies on the list but then very few Zombie flicks do. What it does do is deliver a haunting, dream-like trip back through time to re-examine the Haitian Voodoo Zombie through Romero-tinted glasses.
Day of the Dead (1985) – Directed by George A. Romero
Sadly this is the last of Romero’s ‘…of the Dead’ saga that still retains some morsel of its predecessors’ brilliance. Doubling the urgency of the Zombie siege plot again, Day of the Dead follows one of the last bastions of the American government, a team of scientists and soldiers living in a military bunker. The story not only details their attempts to manufacture some sort of tangible solution for the outbreak, but also their vein attempts to retain their own humanity in the face of a world without accountability.
Where Night of the Living Dead looked at consumerism on a domestic level and Dawn of the Dead on a commercial level, Day of the Dead examines the consumption of knowledge and the dark implications that scientific avarice could have on the human race. This is Romero’s dystopian vision come to full fruition, with civilised society reduced to meagre pockets of human resistance against a literally endless sea of undead. With these three films forming the main canon saga for many years to come, Romero succeeds here in depicting a world in which our own greed as a species has turned to literally bite us in the ass.
Braindead a.k.a Dead Alive (1992) – Directed by Peter Jackson
Before he was Lording the Rings, Peter Jackson was scratching out a name for himself as one of New Zealand’s primo purveyors of low budget, high-pedigree schlock-horror. Braindead is as corny as it gets, but it’s such a labour of love that it’s impossible not to get behind its horror/comedy sensibilities.
After a diseased Sumatran rat-monkey bites his mother, Lionel (Timothy Cosgrove) is mortified to witness her die and then return from the dead, hungering for flesh. Despite keeping her locked away, it’s not long before the whole neighbourhood is also feeling ‘under the weather’, to which hilarious devastation ensues. Braindead is to my mind one of the goriest and most uncomfortably squeamish movies ever made; favouring a Raimi-style squishiness that never fails to draw shudders. And if you can sit through the infamous lawnmower assault at the third act climax without being left desensitized and numb, then I salute you.
28 Days Later (2002) – Directed by Danny Boyle
Cue the usual: “Hey man, these guys aren’t Zombies, they’re Rage victims”. Let me just deconstruct this stance a little: if we hold Zombie purism as the reason these running undead aren’t Zombies, then Romero’s slow-walkers can’t be either. The ghoul has developed, leaving its roots behind in Haiti, passing through multiple incarnations before ever settling on human flesh as a motivator. And it’s now evolving past even Romero’s revolutionary vision. In place is the new fast Zombie prescribed in 28 Days Later: a more aggressive, destructive consumer that better analogises modern society.
Boyle kicks Romero’s original message up a gear, imbuing it with an updated connotation. One that draws inspiration from the societal causes of our current economic crisis: aggressive, destructive greed. Danny Boyle’s terrifying account of the Zombie/Rage holocaust achieves more from the sub-genre than most of its modern counterparts. With fantastic performances and some truly dizzying imagery depicting a post-apocalyptic Britain, 28 Days later was a breath of fresh undead air at a time when the Zombie genre had really started to fester.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Directed by Edgar Wright
From the wonderfully oddball minds that brought you Spaced, Shaun of the Dead is an absolute master-class in pastiche cinema that even raised Romero’s eyebrows in reverence. It’s a beautiful homage to the ghoul king’s ‘…of the Dead’ series, that comments not on consumerism itself, but on the inevitable zombification of today’s white collar workers as a result. If you haven’t seen this film, then I presume you’ve heard of it – it’s one Britain’s best known modern cult offerings thanks to its unprecedented, but wholly deserved success across the pond.
Following Shaun, a burnt out Electronics salesman living in the suburbs of London, Shaun of the Dead emulates the ever-present siege plot, but places it in many a Brit’s own church of consumption: the pub. It’s a perfectly observed adaptation of Romero’s own commentary, one that translates the master’s original indictment of American consumerism for a different audience in another time and place. Shaun of the Dead brings it all to screen seemingly without effort: the message; the gore; the comedy and of course the pure, unadulterated entertainment.
Zombieland (2009) – Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Boasting one of the genre’s largest budgets ($23.6 Million – whopping by supposed B-movie standards), Zombieland arguably owes its existence to the legwork of recent others. Those who were young, bright-eyed observers while Romero was doing his thing had come to fruition in the late nineties and early noughties, paving the way for a rejuvenation of the sub-genre that relaxed the suits enough to finally finance a Zombie movie of this scale.
Zombieland abandons the traditional siege plot and opts instead for a Walking Dead style road story. It follows a group of survivors as they travel across a post Z-Day U.S, their only real aim to survive. Like most others of its creed, Zombieland never tries to deliver an insidious commentary on anything in particular (at least not one that hasn’t been made time and time again) but it does manage to glean some geekishly zealous, sardonic fun from its subject matter. With a riotous performance from the great Woody Harrelson and a Bill Murray cameo that’s so Meta that it almost disrupts time/space, Zombieland is as worthy of your time as any other on this list.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) – Directed by Ed Wood
Directed by one of Hollywood’s early hacks, Plan 9 from Outer Space has a questionable premise at its very core: an extra-terrestrial assault that uses the Zombie as its primary weapon. But it doesn’t improve from there; it only gets worse, much worse. It’s all wrong, from the incoherent plot, to the bogus production design all the way down to the mirth-inducing performances, which are as wooden as the sets. There are schools of thought that state that Plan 9 from Outer Space is the greatest bad movie ever made, but always pay close attention to the emphasis on the word ‘bad’.
Redneck Zombies (1989) – Directed by Pericles Lewnes
Straight out of Tromaville, Redneck Zombies delivers little of the low budget charm that drove the Toxic Avenger. Sure it makes a few nice references, and earns a smile or two but overall it’s a ridiculously nonsensical, shot-on-video farce that sees the root of the Zombie outbreak as a hillbilly family who distil hooch from obviously radioactive material. With its dire performances, cheap visual effects and generally laborious story, Redneck Zombies would have been a better movie if they all just got cancer instead.
Night of the Living Dead (1990) – Directed by Tom Savini
A direct remake of Romero’s original, Savini’s Night of the Living Dead manages to take as much of the original brilliance away as possible without it being a conscious effort. The effects seem infinitely cheesier, the roles are overacted and it’s just difficult to see any real artistic merit whatsoever in this needless rehash. It’s all pretty much old hat here, but with added carnage that serves only to detract from the source’s impact. The final insult is the realisation that the ending was changed, made more palatable for a 90’s audience at the expense of one of Romero’s most affecting statements.
House of the Dead (2003) – Directed by Uwe Boll
House of the Dead is completely undeserving of its existence. It’s made with such a limited understanding of film as an expressive medium that I’m certain a child could make a movie with more heart, given the budget. Following a group of infuriating teen douche bags to an island rave, we’re victim to a plot so inane and predictable that we may as well be watching last week’s news. It’s a poorly acted, terribly edited insult to Cinema that even goes so far as to drop footage from its video game namesake in sporadically, in a desperate attempt to remind us why we’re watching in the first place.
Zombie Night (2003) – Directed by David J. Francis
It really doesn’t get much worse than this; Zombie Night is a ridiculously low-budget shot-on-video feature from the Canadian horror scene that was of course shat strait onto DVD. Returning from an isolated camping retreat, a couple and their child learn that a nuclear holocaust has caused the dead to return to life, and immediately decide to rebuild society without so much as a second thought. Despite its clear nods to Romero’s early work, Zombie Night is horrendous in the strictest sense of the word. It chooses to paint its lack of cause and effect with as much cheap carnage as possible; as opposed to troubling itself with idle notions such as story and substance. Avoid this one like the Zombie plague.
Return of the Living Dead 5: Rave to the Grave (2005) – Directed by Ellory Elkayem
Rave to the Grave is a poor excuse for horror by any definition of the word. It follows a group of teens gearing up for a rave – I know, shocker- by producing a new designer drug called ‘Zee’ using the contents of an unidentified military canister (a twist on ‘X’ as slang for Ecstasy, just so it’s down with the kids, you know?) Cue self-inflicted Zombie shenanigans that play out with a rigid conformity, never once daring a step outside the clear cut path. I’m a fan of the first two Return of the Living Dead movies, the third even to a degree (hey, it was one of the first Zombie films I ever watched), but by this point the franchise has rolled so far downhill it’s at the Earth’s core.
Gangs of the Dead a.k.a Last Rites (2006) – Directed by Duane Stinnett
Gangs of the Dead is completely devoid of filmic worth. It’s seriously tough to get through, due to the fact that it has no discernable story. Two rival gangs experience a Zombie outbreak during an illegal deal and then…that’s it. They gotta get out of a warehouse alive. There’s a distinct lack of any real emotional conflict; ok, so the gangs butt up against each other but it’s pretty much all just ‘What you say motherfucker!?’, and ‘You know who I am, pendejo!?” The main issue here is that this seems to be one hugely ill-conceived vanity project, the performers of which (the African American gang and the Latino gang) are quite happy to portray blatant racial caricatures of themselves who never actually develop into anything else.
Day of the Dead (2008) – Directed by Steve Miner
Without bearing any resemblance to its namesake, 2008’s Day of the Dead is a stinking brown cloud of a movie that deserves to be forgotten (but don’t worry, it will be). At least James Gunn’s 2004 adaptation of Dawn of the Dead attempted to re-explore the original’s core premise, despite straying wildly off course. Day of the Dead follows a questionably cast Mena Suvari as a soldier, intent on gathering survivors and escaping from a Z-infested city. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of poor writing, misdirection and ridiculous concepts that defy even Zombie logic – people die, re-animate and decompose into messy CGI rotters before our very eyes. Romero deserves a smacked wrist for letting this drivel get made.
Zombie Strippers (2008) – Directed by Jay Lee
If you can sit through this movie for any other purpose than critique, then yours is either a special brand of dedication or a special brand of stupidity – or you’re fifteen and you love bewbs! It’d be impossible to detail its flaws in the space I have; Zombie Strippers seems to have been made by a guy who’s only experience in film is jerking off to Jenna Jameson (who plays the films…I don’t what the hell she’s supposed to be) at least twice a day. There’s nothing cool or edgy about strippers becoming Zombies but retaining their urge to strip. It’s just childish, nonsensical and absolutely the wrong type of weird.
Survival of the Dead (2009) Directed by George A. Romero
Romero fell off the undead radar after Day of the Dead but came back with a groan with 2005’s Land of the Dead, the saga’s next instalment. It had its moments (within a siege plot again, but this time a whole city) but ultimately didn’t deliver the goods like its bigger brothers. Every movie since has gotten exponentially worse and Survival of the Dead is no exception. Set on a fortified island, where the inhabitants attempt to incorporate their reanimated loved ones into regular society, it’s thoroughly archetypal ‘Army Guy’ characters do little to offset the absurdity of the plot. Romero is just reaching now and it’s really starting to tire. He had his day that much is certain, but it certainly wasn’t a day in November 2009.
So those are our picks for ten best and ten worst Zombie movies. Any others that shuffled off the list? Please, do make it known.
WhatCulture’s 31 Days of Horror 2, a month dedicated to the horror genre in the run-up to Halloween has begun. Check out our articles so far here;
This article was first posted on October 5, 2011