List of the Living Dead – Top 10 Zombie Films of All Time!
Posted by Bloody Disgusting on Tuesday, June 27, 2017
In the past decade, the living dead have reached peak saturation thanks to the likes of The Walking Dead, various video games, and the ability for no budget filmmakers to rally a group of friends, throw some white paint on their faces and yell, “Zombie!” From documentaries to home decor, the undead are everywhere. With such an assault on our pop culture senses, it’s easy to get burnt out on them dead bones. The truth is, filmmakers will always return to the well of brain eating masses because it’s a simple plot conceit that still manages to work. Look no further from a recent international smash (mentioned in the list below) to the surprisingly satisfying third season of Fear the Walking Dead (a show I assume most have given up on) to realize a well-told story about flesh eaters is still worth championing.
When tasked with concocting a top 10 list of the greatest zombie films ever to come lumbering, open-mouthed into my horror loving cranium, I thought, “Easy.” As a die hard fan of the shambling undead since I was a wee-teen, at least six films that were deserving popped into my head right away. Three of them happen to involve a certain George A. Romero (please, like that comes as a shock to ANYONE). Instead, it wasn’t long before I was struggling to pare the list down. I quickly realized there were far more standouts in the sub-genre than had initially come to mind.
Films such as Re-Animator, Night of the Creeps, Cemetery Man – these are undoubtedly classics to varying degrees with their own rabid fanbases. For me, though, the words “zombie film” drum up something much different than what’s contained within those pictures. Yes, they feature the dead being brought back to life in some form or another, but the groundwork laid by Romero in 1968 and dutifully copied, updated, and reworked by numerous filmmakers in the time since is where I’ll place the focus of this list.
The truth is, reanimated corpses have been a spooky staple since the inception of the horror genre itself. While the label “zombie” could easily be given to Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, we don’t consider him as such. I won’t be including the more historically accurate depictions of voodoo zombies such as the lyrically haunting Val Lewton production, I Walked With a Zombie or Wes Craven’s underrated The Serpent and the Rainbow. Also, no genre mashups where the living dead are only a small part of the overall threat (i.e. Night of the Comet, The Beyond, Zeder) will be allowed. That said, “undead” isn’t necessarily a prerequisite either. As you’ll see, there are a few films where the creatures are infected by some “zombie-like” virus but are NOT in fact dead or rising from the grave.
For this list, “zombie film” will be defined by a story revolving around a group of diverse characters thrown together in isolated locales fighting for their lives against a shambling horde of deathly contagious “former humans” whose sole purpose is to maim, eat, or simply murder and mutilate our heroes.
#10. Zombi 3 (1988)
AKA Zombie Flesh Eaters 2
The number ten spot was a tough one. It was a toss up between this, Zombi 3, or the equally bonkers Italian munchfest, Burial Ground. It would be quite the challenge to label either one a good film per se. They’re low budget films created with the sole purpose of capitalizing on the success Dawn of the Dead and Fulci’s unofficial follow-up. What makes them noteworthy is just how much damn fun they are. When it comes to the good times, Zombi 3 just managed to edge out the competition.
Originally to be directed by the Italian gore-meister himself, Lucio Fulci, he was replaced after shooting more than half of the film. Rumor has it he bowed out due to health concerns while Fulci claimed he quit over the poor script. Nonetheless, Bruno Mattei was brought in to complete the production by adding in several subplots to fill the running time to feature length. While this sure sounds like a recipe for disaster (and it is), it’s the schizophrenic story structure that gives this film life and earns its spot as one of the best zombie flicks of all time.
The plot concerns a military experiment gone wrong. GASP! Soon the dead are rising up on a small island and a group of randy kids and military grunts are holed up in an abandoned resort trying to figure out a way to survive the hungry hordes. Zombi 3 features a plethora of insane moments such a machete-wielding corpse who moves so fast as to almost lop off the lead actress’s head IRL…right there on camera. There are the “stunt” performers (low paid villagers of the island where they were filming) dropping in from all areas of the screen, and the infamous “flying head”. This is perfect movie night fodder for you and a group of like-minded friends. I avoided it for years due to the terrible word of mouth and sordid production history. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Seek it out!
#9. Train to Busan (2016)
This is the one film I had yet to see when building this list. I knew it was supposed to be the best zombie film in years and signify there was still life left in the undead. Because of this, I knew I had to check it out before putting a finger to keypad. Needless to say, I agree with the hype and only wish I had gotten to check it out in theaters last year during the film’s limited run.
Train to Busan does very little to try and reinvent the wheel aside from a neat gimmick revolving around the infected’s ability to see. Beyond that minor tweak, this is a straightforward survival tale of a father escorting his young daughter on a nightmare train ride to visit her mother. The emotions run high here and it’s easy for the audience to get swept up alongside the characters as they evade (or don’t) one white-knuckle set piece after the other. Busan works due to the stellar direction that keeps the suspense tight and because of the amazing actors who breathe life into what amounts to fairly stock characters. Ultimately, there is little here that you haven’t seen before, but a well-told story can always overcome convention.
#8. [REC] (2007)
I rarely consider zombie films to be scary. Usually, they are either gory, tense, or occasionally, funny. I know for some folks suspense and scares may be one in the same. For me, they differ. Suspense is the mental unease of knowing the worst possible outcome and being forced to wait and see if it will transpire. Fear is an irrational feeling that anything can happen, being powerless against the unknown. Again, these are merely my distinctions between the two, but I bring this up because [REC] manages to illicit fear in what is a typically grounded subgenre.
By taking elements of possession (a more fear-based genre), cramming that into a locked down tenant full of demonic creatures and shooting it all through the “Holy shit! This is really happening!” lens of a found footage movie, [REC] became an integral part of the recent living dead resurgence. The monsters presented here are fast and ferocious, delivering a number of bloody shocks. If the creeping dread doesn’t get you throughout, the film’s final moments will. [REC] goes out on a genuinely terrifying note that has quickly become one of the most horrific images in genre history. If you’ve never seen this flick, I highly recommend it and its sequels. Although, you could be forgiven for missing out on [REC] 4.
#7. Zombie (1979)
AKA Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombi 2
Lucio Fulci is a legend. Granted, for a long time it seemed he was always considered the lesser of his contemporary, Dario Argento. Thankfully, in this day and age of Blu-ray bringing a new audience to his films with high-def transfers likely outshining his movies’ original presentations, Fulci can rest knowing his special brand of sleaze is appreciated. After George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy (under the title, Zombi) to boffo box office, producers were quick to get a “sequel” into production. The film was released as Zombi 2 in Italy, though future releases have simply dropped the 2 to tamp down some of the confusion.
Sans bookending scenes shot in New York as part of a last-ditch effort to try and tie this film to Romero’s, Zombie takes place entirely on a secluded island where voodoo has caused a massive onslaught of gut munching corpses. I know, I said no voodoo, but the voodoo plot here is nothing more than an excuse to get the dead up and moving. They’re still taken down by a bullet to the brain, and no one is about to confuse these rotting, maggot encrusted slobs for a poor sap on a bad trip. While the film’s production might not have been artistically motivated, Zombie is hauntingly scored and beautifully shot, featuring some truly awe-inspiring underwater photography of a zombie battling a shark. A FRIGGIN’ ZOMBIE/SHARK THROWDOWN! That scene alone is enough to land Zombie on a best of list. Thankfully the rest of the film is equally as gruesome and once it starts, the tension never lets up.
#6. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun is a complete shlub who can’t seem to get his life together, his love life in particular, but he can always count on his best friend, Ed. It’s this highly relatable premise that launches us into one of the best undead movies from the early aughts. While there’s plenty of intestine ripping, head shots, and the stakes never feel low, Shaun of the Dead also manages to nab the distinction of being hilarious.
Shaun of the Dead was a fairly large success despite receiving a somewhat limited release. It has gained a giant cult following. Unfortunately, that success also went on to inspire a barrage of low-budget imitators. The reverb of which can still be heard today. Even if they didn’t invent the zombie-comedy, they sure defined what it would look like for years to come. Director Edgar Wright, in only his second feature, creates a star turn for Simon Pegg and a film that manages to perfectly capture the transition in our culture from Gen-X to the age of Millennials.
#5. Dead Alive (1992)
Peter Jackson is no stranger to genre fans. Spearheading the epic Lord of the Rings franchise has endeared his name to the hearts of geeks worldwide. However, before launching a bazillion dollar franchise, Jackson was busy turning in raunchy splat-stick flicks out of New Zealand. Dead Alive is possibly the most fondly remembered of his early output. Why? It just so happens to be the goriest film ever made.
Feeling a lot like the Kiwi cousin to Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive is filled to the brim with bucket after bucket of blood and guts. It’s a lot to take in, and quite frankly – I wasn’t sure how to take it all as a kid. I’ll never forget renting a tower of random scary flicks on VHS for my 12th birthday. Dead Alive was the last film we watched as the sun was coming up the following morning. It was a delirious, sleep deprived, and confusing experience. The film is obviously a comedy, but somehow my brain just couldn’t compute what I was seeing at the time. Now all these years later, I still go to that headspace when watching this flick. Jackson has crafted a timeless, gory orgy of absurdity that feels like it was beamed down to us from another world.
#4. 28 Days Later (2002)
In the beginning of the new millennium, horror was slowly on the rise thanks to inventive, ballsy genre fare that was pushing limits of what was expected from big screen fright flicks. It’s safe to say that sub-genre had gone from undead to for real dead by this point. Thankfully, Danny Boyle decided to direct his first full on horror flick, 28 Days Later. That film reignited an entire sub-genre and proved that a huge infection film could be delivered on a small dime. Shot on DV tape, there’s a unique feel to the cinematography that will likely never be duplicated in this type of genre picture. After all, the technology used to create it has long been dead by this point.
The score, the soundtrack, the acting from all involved (including a role that pretty much put Cillian Murphy on the map), and Boyle’s inventive use of the diminutive cameras all came together to make 28 Days Later a breath of fresh air upon its release. It’s a jarring, adrenaline-fueled rush from start to finish…that might not feature legit zombies (the disease here are is a “Rage Virus”). The film also marked the first serious attempt we’d seen of depicting the infected as fast moving, agile hunters. Ultimately, though, the film is a zombie flick no matter how they label or dress them up. It’s basically a condensed retelling of Romero’s original Dead trilogy and classic all its own.
#3. Pontypool (2008)
The first and only film on the list to feature monsters that spread their sickness without the exchange of any bodily fluids. The creatures in this unique little indie are infected by language. That’s right, it may sound bizarre, but as the first in a proposed trilogy (still waiting on part 2…), Pontypool succeeds as a suspenseful chamber piece revolving around a shock jock and his producer, secluded in a radio station’s studio as they slowly come to terms with the insanity that’s taking place right outside. It’s a slow burn flick that takes a surprisingly well-worn trope (a DJ powerless to the horrors beyond the glass) and really makes use of the claustrophobic scenario.
By the climax of the film, my nerves are always in shambles no matter how many times I’ve seen it. The infected here are of the fast moving variety, and their intensity when setting their sights on prey is unnerving. I can’t help but yearn for a sequel that would open things up more. While the contained nature of this narrative is one of its biggest strengths, the concept is wide open for further interpretation. In this day and age of “fake news” and breakdowns in communication despite our ease of access to information, even close to ten years later, Pontypool still works as a perfect metaphor for our times.
#2. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
I first saw Return of the Living Dead on MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs one late Saturday evening many moons ago. There isn’t much to say about this one that hasn’t already been dissected and praised a hundred times before. After going their separate ways post-Night of the Living Dead, Romero continued making his “of the Dead” films while John Russo set about trying to make an official sequel to the original. Hence, while Return is far removed from Night in style and tone, it’s the only film in the fractured series to refer back to the events of the original.
Of course, we also learn Night of the Living Dead was nothing more than a fictionalized version of the true events. Trust me, it’s far less confusing than it might sound. At the end of the day, Return brought something fresh to the genre that hadn’t been successfully mined at the time. Return of the Living Dead stands head and shoulders above many a zombie film due to the inclusion of not only hot pink, punk rock style but an abundance of comedy. If it weren’t for this, we may have never gotten Shaun of the Dead. Return also excels by giving us characters worth rooting for and even a bit of pathos for the creatures themselves. “It hurts to be dead.”
#1. Romero’s Dead Trilogy (1968 – 1985)
Okay, I realize this might be considered a tad bit of a cheat, but if it’s angers you feel, you’re free to bump the two at the top off the list (sad face) and rank these three how you see fit. Ultimately, I’ve grown to love Romero’s original trilogy of Dead films all on pretty equal grounds. The man singlehandedly, well…with some help from John Russo, created an entire subgenre with one film, Night of the Living Dead (1968). It stands as an undisputed masterpiece of genre cinema that still holds up all these years later. If not for Night and the other two films here, we probably wouldn’t have as many awesome films to place on this list. For this reason, I feel comfortable placing all three in the top spot. They’re of equal importance to one another, and it’s easy to pinpoint each one as “best of” examples of the sub-genre.
When I first saw Night, I was far too young. My mom had rented a copy from the library thinking it was just some old black and white flick like the The Black Bat which she brought home the same day. Needless to say, Night was no Black Bat, and I was forever changed after watching it. Both Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) are exceptional as well. They stand as touchstones for the genre they created and examples of the evolution of horror. While I don’t think anyone could ever consider Night to be a “safe” film, Dawn drives the discomfort much further while placing us smack dab in the pinnacle of American living – the mall! Day, which was my least favorite as a kid has quickly climbed the ranks to join some of my all time favorite films. The effects work from Tom Savini is legendary. The story, revolving around a society descended into madness and paranoia after the outbreak truly opens up the world Romero created to deeper understanding. Even better, It manages to do so by staying true to the confined location setup from the previous two installments.
While Romero went on to direct three more Dead films (Land, Diary, and Survival), none of which reached the same heights as his first three. Luckily, I would say that all except Survival wouldn’t be terribly out of place on this list and certainly were there in the consideration phase. Rumor is Romero has at least one more shot to take at the sub-genre he created, and one can only hope he proves capable of recapturing the sociopolitical pulse of the time like he’s done for us so many times before.
There you have it. The greatest zombie flicks ever made. Did your fav not make the list? Sound off below, fiends!