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Dawn of the Dead
Photograph: United Film Distribution Company

The best zombie movies of all time

No guts no glory as we count down our favourite flesh-eating horror films.

Edited by
Andy Kryza
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Ever since a doomed Buddy Holly look-alike uttered the very-mortal words ‘They’re coming to get you Barbara,’ zombies have been a mainstay of pop culture. But the success of George A Romero’s low-budget 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead proved a double-edged machete: In proving you can produce pure nightmare fuel on a shoestring, the ensuing decades have inspired thousands of festering throwaway genre films more interested in feasting upon brains than engaging them.

This is a genre that refuses to go away. Yet for every breakout classic like Train to Busan, [Rec] or Shaun of the Dead, there are endless hordes of horrifyingly dull, brain-dead films vying for your attention. It’s not just low-budget, direct-to-video fare that gives zombie cinema a bad name: Even indie darlings like Jim Jarmusch and blockbuster sadist Zack Snyder have struggled with undead cannibals of late. Their flesh may be soft, but zombies are hard to get right.   

The films on this list are all headshots. Among their ranks, you’ll find schlocky b-movies done right, gore-splattered comedies and white-knuckle action yarns, plus some of the very best horror films of all time. They’re not all fine cinema, but they are all films that take a fresh approach to the rotten monsters, whether by inventively flaying their flesh or digging deep into the subtext. Fire up the popcorn and stay the hell out of the basement: These are the best zombie movies of all time.

RECOMMENDED: The best monster movies

The best zombie movies

World War Z (2013)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

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, even if it does skimp on the gore that all but defines the genre in favor of PG-13 spectacle.

Dead Snow (2009)
  • Film

A Norwegian black comedy that takes distinct pleasure in splattering snowy landscapes with viscera, Dead Snow never fully realises its potential as either a comedy or a horror film. But in pitting a group of hikers against a risen platoon of Third Reich ghouls, it does make a solid argument that the only thing better than punching Nazis is hacking their reanimated corpses to pieces or – in one particular worth-the-price-of-admission set piece – rappelling down a fjord using their intestines. 

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  • Film

This cheeky Canadian comedy posits a question nobody previously thought to ask: What if the ‘50s Lassie series ditched the collie and replaced him with a flesh-munching pet zombie played by Billy Connolly. Dylan Baker and Carrie-Anne Moss go full Ward and June Cleaver in the pastel romp, which pairs its gee-whiz whimsy with some serious satirical bite.

28 Weeks Later (2007)
  • Film
  • Fantasy

Like James Cameron before him, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo smartly pivoted from the isolationist terror that preceded his 28 Days Later… sequel and plowed full-throttle into the zombie apocalypse, reimagining zombified England as an action-packed warzone. The opening sequence in which Robert Carlyle abandons his family to the hordes is a clinic in panic, and while what comes after doesn’t match it in pure dread, the sequel’s Black Hawk Down meets Romero action is white knuckle enough that you’ll forget its shortcomings. 

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  • Film
  • Comedy

If you like a bit of splatter and some dark, edgy humour then this Australian zombie-outbreak comedy – set primarily in a children’s petting zoo and starring Lupita Nyong’o as a ukulele-playing nursery teacher – will suit your tastes. We meet Dave (Alexander English), a broken man who falls for his five-year-old nephew’s teacher (Nyong’o). In pursuit of his crush, he volunteers to help out at a class outing to a petting zoo that, thanks to a mishap at a neighbouring American military base, becomes a fight for survival against hordes of the undead. Amid all the blood and guts, writer-director Abe Forsythe squeezes something surprisingly heartwarming out of the film’s plot, proving that there’s still life in this genre filled with undead lumberers. 

  • Film

Japan’s answer to the The Blair Witch Project and [REC] (only with a lot more LOLs), this micro-budget horror-comedy did colossal numbers at the box office, despite its cast of unknowns and helter-skelter approach to the genre. Then again, zombie flicks often work best with minimal budgets and just directorial vim to go on, and One Cut of the Dead has that in spades. Director Shinichirou Ueda presides over a gory, hilarious scenario when a film crew making a zombie movie bump into one of the real undead. What’s Japanese for ‘braaaains’?

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The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

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.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

23. Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Due to a copyright snafu, George A Romero’s NOTLD entered the public domain immediately upon release. The result has been a rancid pile of unauthorised remakes across the decades. But one stands out as worthy of its name – the Romero-approved 1990 reimagining directed by Tom Savini, the deranged gore-lord who designed Romero’s nastiest kills in Dawn and Day. The beats are basically the same, save for a meatier feminist bent that provides #JusticeForBarbara. More crucially, though, the blood and guts are top tier thanks to Savini’s frighteningly intimate knowledge of human anatomy. 

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  • Film
  • Horror

Hot take: Were it called anything but Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s George A Romero riff would be beloved based on the corker of an opening scene alone. With the name in place, though, it seems like sacrilege: a commercial director tackling the most sacred of horror satires with only the barest thread of anti-consumerism commentary present. Yet somehow, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead works as a kinetic zombie-action flick soaked with gore and sporting wholly likeable survivors, courtesy of screenwriter James Gunn. Snyder would whiff on his return to the genre with the godawful Army of the Dead, proving that perhaps the director is better off with a big studio calling the shots. 

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
  • Film
  • Drama

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.

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The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

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.

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
  • Film
  • Horror

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.

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Zombieland (2009)
  • Film
  • Comedy

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.

White Zombie (1932)
  • Film
  • Horror

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.

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Night of the Comet (1984)
  • Film
  • Horror

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. Romero should have been flattered.

Re-Animator (1985)
  • Film
  • Horror

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.

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ParaNorman (2012)
  • Film
  • Animation

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.

  • Film
  • Horror

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. Twenty years later, though, it’s an established classic.

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Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
  • Film

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.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)
  • Film
  • Horror

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.

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I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • Film
  • Horror

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.

Day of the Dead (1985)
  • Film
  • Horror

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.

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[•Rec] (2007)
  • Film
  • Horror

After watching this Spanish found-footage horror (and its delightfully unhinged sequels), you might think twice about your next holiday to Barcelona. Following a group of firemen and a film crew stuck in an apartment building, things quickly descend into bloody chaos. The claustrophobic nature of its single location, as well as the terrifying night-vision sequences and unexpected supernatural elements, will leave you chilled to the core. This is zombie-horror at its most inventive, gripping and scary.

Braindead (1992)
  • Film
  • Comedy

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 (AKA Dead Alive) takes vicious delight in tearing any semblance of normality to pieces. The ear-in-the-custard scene is borderline unwatchable, and the lawnmower-powered finale remains one of the wildest, bloodiest, freakiest sequences ever committed to celluloid.

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The Beyond (1981)
  • Film
  • Horror

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.

Train to Busan (2016)
  • Film
  • Horror

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. The sequel, Peninsula, couldn't live up to the mayhem of the original. Fingers crosses that the inevitable American remake – helmed, in an inspired choice, by The Night Comes for Us madman Timo Tjahjanto – can deliver the gory goods.

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The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
  • Film
  • Horror

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. It's also one of the most influential post-Romero zombie flicks: This is the first film to specify that the undead prefer braaaaains, with one particularly gloopy ghoul explaining (yes, these zombies areloquacious) that they are the only cure for the pain of being dead. 

Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  • Film
  • Comedy

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.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  • Film
  • Horror

One of the most essential and influential horror films of all time, 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.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Film
  • Horror

Night of the Living Dead changed cinema forever – but Romero’s first sequel Dawn of the Dead is the better film, by a severed nose. 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. .

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