George A. Romero forever changed the way cinema handled zombies with Night of the Living Dead, and the zombie sub-genre spent the subsequent decades emulating the rules and formula he’d created. To the point where most zombie releases tend to be met with groans, having long since become a bit stale and repetitive. But, like most sub-genres of horror that have waned in popularity, all it takes is one innovative twist to breathe new life into the undead. Take 2016’s Train to Busan, a zombie outbreak film set mostly on a train and with a ton of heart. Or Irish horror film The Cured, out on VOD now, that posits what happens after a cure for the infected has been found and implemented. While most zombie films tend to be a dime a dozen, there are a great number of worthwhile horror films breaking the mold. Here are 10 zombie films that defy convention and worth seeking out:
This prequel to surprise hit Train to Busan takes a drastic unconventional aesthetic choice; it’s animated. From there, it leans heavily into genre tropes to make a social critique on how the homeless population is perceived and treated. So, looking past the unique look of the film, that doesn’t exactly scream unconventional. Until you realize that writer/director Yeon Sang-ho has been playing you the entire time, knowing you’ll play into every single expectation the zombie sub-genre has taught us before pivoting and pulling the rug out from under us. In that sense, Seoul Station weaponizes zombie convention, giving viewers an equally emotional viewing experience as Train to Busan; just in a completely different way.
This indie darling written and directed by Jeremy Gardner on a micro-budget follows two former baseball players slash best friends trying to survive long after a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the world, or at least the New England area in which the film takes place. Even though the rules of the zombie apocalypse fall right in line with every zombie apocalypse before it, it still manages to reinvigorate the sub-genre by not really being a zombie movie at all. It’s more of a unique road trip movie among buds, Ben and Mickey, trying to survive. Sure, there are occasional zombie encounters, some humorous and some harrowing, but in its own unique way, The Battery is a sort of anti-zombie zombie movie. It works.
Dead & Buried
Gary Sherman’s underrated ‘80s horror film is unconventional for both its unique undead rules and for its mysterious atmosphere. Set in a small coastal town, Sheriff Gillis must investigate a series of grisly murders of visitors, only to discover that the town’s dead are re-animating. The walking undead in this town aren’t your cookie cutter zombies, but to explain further would be stepping into massive spoiler territory. The narrative also pays homage to the original zombies, in which the dead were reanimated by way of voodoo (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler). Though this was a story that favored chills and atmosphere over gore, Stan Winston’s makeup effects made the few gore scenes really stick their landing.
28 Days Later
Before Alex Garland toyed with sci-fi and horror conventions in Ex Machina and Annihilation, he forever altered the way we perceived zombies by penning 28 Days Later. Stemming from a simple concept of wanting to do a movie featuring running zombies, Garland and director Danny Boyle gave us one of the most terrifying collapses of society on screen. Stemming from a rage-inducing virus that spread like wildfire, the infected aren’t exactly undead. They might as well be, though, as any semblance of humanity is long gone once the virus takes root; just an inherent instinct for swift brutality.
Shaun of the Dead
Edgar Wright’s breakout hit wasn’t the first zombie comedy, or even the first zombie rom-com, but it was the first to give zombies a massive mainstream appeal. It affectionately played with deconstructed zombie tropes, giving audiences outside of our genre a zombie education they didn’t know they were getting by using sharp-witted humor. By paying homage to the films that came before it but with a mass market approach based in laughs, Shaun of the Dead paved the way for many genre comedies, and even zombie films, that would follow.
Based on a novel by Tony Burgess, also adapted for screen by Burgess, director Bruce McDonald takes an Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds type approach to this unique micro-budget horror film. Shock Jock radio announcer Grant Mazzy, stuck inside his radio station during a blizzard, finds himself and his co-workers isolated from the outbreak happening outside in the town of Pontypool, relying on field reporters and callers to fill in the blanks on a mysterious virus spreading by uttering words. Yes, words. It’s clever and witty, and Stephen McHattie sells both his character and the intensity of a viral zombie outbreak often heard but not seen.
Writer Trent Haaga (Cheap Thrills, 68 Kill) penned one of the most polarizing takes on the zombie genre perhaps of all time with bold social commentary and uncomfortable subject matter. Why? The plot follows two teen boys as they find a naked female zombie in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, chained to a table. How they decide to handle this discovery makes for one of the bleakest horror films I’ve ever witnessed, and epitomizes the concept of humanity being the real monsters. Unlike most zombie films, there’s only the one zombie here, and the eponymous Deadgirl earns unwavering viewer sympathy for enduring what toxic teens J.T. and Rickie dole out. Love it or hate it, it’s unlike any zombie film you’ve ever seen.
Stuart Gordon’s classic horror comedy, loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s novella Herbert West-Reanimator, is an unconventional zombie film in that it was born from Gordon’s desire to see a Frankenstein film in a genre inundated by Dracula films. Though the reanimated dead in this film are far more closely aligned with what we’re used to seeing in zombies, there’s no question that the manic Dr. Herbert West (played by the amiable Jeffrey Combs) shares a lot in common with mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein.
Otherwise known as Dellamorte Dellamore, this quirky horror-comedy follows Rupert Everett as cemetery caretaker Francesco Dellamorte. He and his mute sidekick Gnaghi spend their days ensuring the new revived dead are put back in their graves. All is going well, if a bit mundane, until Francesco falls hard for a young widow (Anna Falchi) and Gnaghi falls for the mayor’s daughter. Things get crazy and very surreal, not least of which is Death incarnate visiting Francesco to demand he stop killing the dead. There’s a wry tongue-in-cheek, dream logic approach in director Michele Soavi’s work. Between the unique plot, characters, and style, there’s nothing like Cemetery Man.
Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero unleashed one of the most terrifying zombie films with 2007’s [Rec]. Even more shocking is that they managed to do it with found footage. But most of all, is that their viral outbreak that turns its infected into violent, biting killers introduces a brand-new mythology to the zombie sub-genre. We’ve seen toxic waste, space debris, voodoo rituals, and viral outbreaks as the cause for zombie apocalypses. [Rec] falls right in line with the latter for most of the running time, until a late game reveal changes everything. There’s nothing typical at all about this surprise zombie franchise.