The best zombie movies
The biggest budget zom-buster of them all features Brad Pitt strapping on his undead-ass-kicking boots and heading out on a globe-trotting trip to find the source of a zombie pandemic. It all goes a bit awry in the last third as Brad inexplicably ends up hanging out with a soon-to-be-former Doctor Who in a rural Welsh GP’s surgery, but up to that point this is a gripping grand-scale romp.
Real zombies! Okay, not exactly. But ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ director Wes Craven did base his movie – very, very loosely – on a book of the same name by anthropologist Wade Davis, which recounted his experiences investigating voodoo cults in Haiti. The film’s a fair bit sillier, as Bill Pullman’s anthropologist discovers the truth behind the zombie mythos. It’s a lot of fun, though.
This sing-along zombie apocalypse, one of a mind-boggling seven movies Japanese director Takashi Miike released in 2001, may not have the sticking power of ‘Audition’. But any film inspired equally by ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ deserves your attention. Yes, the zombies do sing.
The first outright zom-com, this is a glorious slice of splatter-punk in which a vat of military-grade toxic waste causes the residents of a small town to transform into flesh-hungry crazies; only the local teenage dropouts can stop them. Written and directed by ‘Alien’ co-creator Dan O’Bannon, it’s hardly high art, but it is bloody entertaining. More brains!
Zombie vs. shark! That’s just one of the myriad delights in this gruesome offering from gore icon Lucio Fulci. Sold in Europe as a sequel to ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (despite featuring none of the same cast, crew, or anything except the zombies), Fulci’s film returns the zombie movie to its spiritual home in the Caribbean, where the dead have mysteriously begun to rise. The eye-gouging scene is about as nasty as horror gets – and the bleak ending is a killer.
Danny Boyle’s gritty British zombie flick pulled audiences right in two. For some, its brave new world of running zombies revived an ailing genre, while the shots of an eerily empty London were unforgettable. Others pointed out that, sprinting flesh-eaters aside, it added little to ‘Night of the Living Dead’ director George A Romero’s decades-old template. Fifteen years later, though, it’s an established classic.
It was only made two years before ‘Night of the Living Dead’, but this likeable Hammer Studios effort could’ve come from a different century. In a cosy little nineteenth-century Cornish village, mysterious happenings are afoot. It soon transpires that the local laird has been creating undead slaves to work in his tin mine, which is a novel approach to labour laws if nothing else.
Korean zombies! On a train! This fierce, fast and frenetic splatter flick takes the template established by George A Romero in ‘Night of the Living Dead’, in which a group of survivors retreat into an enclosed space to repel zombie attacks, and sets the whole thing in motion. Original it ain’t. Stupendously entertaining it most definitely is.
Sure, zombie movies may be filled with guts and gore and people getting ripped, graphically, in two. But there’s something about those goofy, shuffling bastards that’s just inherently comical. This action comedy set in a post-apocalyptic America is hardly original, but it breezes by on charm, aided by arguably the starriest cast ever assembled for a zom-com – Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and a very dead Bill Murray.
This enigmatic British zombie movie starts brilliantly, with a group of apparently placid kids strapped into wheelchairs in a military facility. They are ‘hungries’, infected with the disease that has wiped out almost all of humanity – and at the first whiff of blood they go ravenously insane. ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ can't quite sustain its initial promise, but young star Sennia Nanua is ferociously brilliant.
Not just the inspiration for a metal band, this eerie oddity is generally considered to be the very first zombie film – and boy, did they do things differently in those days. Forget all that groaning, flesh-eating and actually being dead. This features a Haitian voodoo priest – played, naturally, by Béla Lugosi – who drugs his victims and turns them into zombie slaves.
This witty sci-fi romp is the movie equivalent of a Cyndi Lauper song, following two airhead California girls who manage to survive when a comet destroys most of humanity and turns the rest into crazed zombies. If it sounds dumb, it isn’t; the writers slipped in all kinds of barbed putdowns and wry gags about consumer culture.
This movie possibly stretches the definition just a little bit. Stuart Gordon’s witty and OTT splat-com, loosely based on an HP Lovecraft tale, stars the mighty Jeffrey Coombs as an oddball scientist who invents a serum that can bring the dead back to life. But this lot are not all chompy and brain-dead; they’re more like Frankenstein creations – so should we have put old bolt-neck himself in here too? It’s a genre quandary, but any excuse to celebrate ‘Re-Animator’ works for us.
The first zombie movie for kids goes easy on the gore, but heavy on the smart gags and genre riffs. Produced by animation house Laika, who made ‘Coraline’ and ‘The Boxtrolls’, this is an inventive, witty and, by the end, surprisingly moving grim fairytale. Its hero is a little boy who can communicate with the dead, but can’t stop them rising from the grave and munching the local townsfolk.
Also released as ‘Let Sleeping Corpses Lie’, this wonderfully odd movie was produced in Italy, directed by a Spaniard and is set largely in the Lake District (sorry Manchester, the title’s a bit of a con). Here the zombies are resurrected by state-of-the-art ultrasonic farming equipment and unleashed to wreak havoc in the Windermere area. It sounds silly, but the earnest performances, beautiful landscape photography and sudden, shocking gore mean the laughs tend to stick in the throat. The opening theme is a belter, too.
Another old-school zombie movie, set on the island of Haiti and featuring voodoo rituals and living death rather than hordes of entrail-munching shufflers. The director is Jacques Tourneur, the French master filmmaker behind ‘Out of the Past’ and ‘Cat People’, so this is an unusually atmospheric and bewitching horror movie – filled with pale-skinned maidens wandering through misty groves in the moonlight.
The last in George A Romero’s original zombie trilogy may suffer in comparison to ‘Night…’ and ‘Dawn…’, but it’s a close-run thing. What ‘Day of the Dead’ lacks in spiky political satire it more than makes up for in blunt emotional force, as the last survivors of the zombie plague hole up in an underground military compound and begin to tear each other apart. Romero would reboot the franchise with the solid ‘Land of the Dead’ in 2005, but would never recapture the raw power of his original three.
Edgar Wright’s ‘rom-zom-com’ made a star of Simon Pegg and a cult hero of its director. Playing the Romero trilogy for big, very British laughs, the film manages to balance outright silliness and surprisingly tough gore with just a hint of romance around the edges. All those zombie parades that keep taking over London? It’s Pegg and Wright’s fault.
Probably the flat-out scariest zombie flick of them all, this Spanish found-footage shocker follows a troupe of firemen and an embedded documentary film crew on an assignment to a Barcelona apartment building where all hell is about to break loose. Filmed almost exclusively in a single location, this is inventive, gripping and completely bloody terrifying – the night vision sequences will leave you whimpering.
A decade before he turned big-budget cinema on its head with his ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, Peter Jackson made this gushingly gory, hilariously idiosyncratic zombie comedy. Set in a New Zealand suburb where ‘The Archers’ is always on the radio and a portrait of the Queen hangs on every wall, ‘Braindead’ takes vicious delight in tearing any semblance of normality to pieces. The ear-in-the-custard scene is borderline unwatchable, and the finale remains one of the wildest, bloodiest, freakiest sequences ever committed to celluloid.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Romero’s gritty, blue-collar zombie trilogy is the loosely linked Gates of Hell sequence by Italian gore maestro Lucio Fulci: ‘City of the Living Dead’, ‘The House By the Cemetery’ and this unforgettable apocalyptic stomach-churner. Shot in the Louisiana bayou, ‘The Beyond’ feels as much like a fever dream as a film: tarantulas tear off people’s eyelids, women start to bleed for no reason and reanimated corpses drag the innocent down into the depths of the pit. Starkly beautiful but utterly horrifying, this is a singular work of the imagination.
Probably the most important horror movie released in the last 50 years, George A Romero’s hugely successful first statement on the zombie phenomenon set the template that endures to this day: the dead rise; a group of people take shelter in a remote location; everyone dies horribly. But this isn’t just a near-perfect fright flick. An independent production shot guerrilla-style on handheld cameras, ‘Night’ opened the door for every ambitious no-budget filmmaker since, and proved that mass audiences could stomach ‘unsatisfying’ endings. The casting of a black actor as the lead was a bold move, but the film is peppered with radical moments – in one scene, a child literally eats her parents. It’s hauntingly beautiful, too.
‘Night of the Living Dead’ changed cinema forever – but Romero’s first sequel ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is the better film, by a whisker. As the zombie apocalypse gathers pace, four mismatched middle-class survivors hole up in a giant out-of-town shopping mall to wait it out. But the undead adore this place, and they keep coming back. After one of the most grindingly intense opening acts in horror, the film abruptly switches course and becomes an upbeat adventure film, then a character comedy, then a topical satire, then it’s back to splat for the monumental finale. The pacing is perfect, the script crackles, the score (by Italian prog legends Goblin and horror maestro Dario Argento) hums and squeaks and pounds, the performances are bang-on and the satire cuts like a scalpel. Just be sure to avoid Zack Snyder’s redundant 2004 remake.
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