Walking Dead Week: Ranked: The 10 Most Essential Zombie Films In Cinema History
Oct 09, 2014
This week is Walking Dead Week on Under the Radar's website. Season five of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic zombie drama starts this Sunday, October 12, at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on AMC. In anticipation of the show's return, for this special theme week of coverage we have interviewed around 10 members of the show's current cast and will be posting one to two Walking Dead interviews every day this week. Also, here's a zombie-themed list.
Horror films are as old as the medium itself, but as audiences change, the monsters on the screen change along with them. It's fitting, then, that The Walking Dead is among the best horror available these days, when television is considered more artistic and engaging than a typical feature length film. But it is built on a long history of zombies on film, and each representation has played a key role in reflecting the fears and the unspoken realities of the people screaming in the safety of the theater. The Walking Dead has decades of inspiration to draw on, from the ridiculous and comical, to the gory and terrifying.
In honor of the return of The Walking Dead, here is our list of the most essential zombie films. By Cody Ray Shafer
Dawn of the Dead
Ten years ago, Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel) released this remake of George A. Romero's 1978 classic. Some of the liberties Snyder took were a little controversial, but there's no doubt he helped bring the zombie film back from the dead-pun intended-during an era when the genre was more likely to be parodied than taken seriously.
Snyder's zombies are notorious for behaving more like the living zombies of 28 Days Later, running toward their victims and screaming and spitting blood. The threat is more aggressive, but undermines the intentions of Romero's original. Zombies with that kind of energy don't really appear very dead, and gone is the social commentary about an unstoppable braindead culture. Nevertheless, it's a pretty good film, and deserves a spot on the list for a few reasons. Not only did the success of Dawn of the Dead help revitalize an interest in movies about the undead, it helped launch a new trend of horror films that has been a little less applauded; the remake.
Considered the first full-length zombie film, White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi as an evil voodoo master who brings the dead back to life to serve him. A wealthy man convinces Lugosi to use his magic to enslave his unrequited love. The film was critically panned on its initial release, with the melodramatic performances receiving most of the complaints. But for modern audiences it is the creepy displays of sexual repression and cultural appropriation that are more unsettling than the walking dead. In this lens, it's a cruel statement of how the powerful enslave the less fortunate, but also how greedy men view the women they long for. It's not quite the same stuff as Lugosi's Dracula or Boris Karloff's iconic Frankenstein or The Mummy, but for cinema's first foray into zombies, it's haunting enough. Plus, Lugosi's character is actually named "Murder."
Return of the Living Dead
Just like White Zombie is a staple of classic horror cinema, Return of the Living Dead is a film born out of the early '80s punk rock ethos. The films is bold, ugly, and cynical. It plays on Romero's early zombie concepts, but introduces its own. It's actually the first instance of zombies seeking to chow down on human brains more than just generic cannibalism or flesh. Writer Dan O'Bannon-best known for creating Ridley Scott's Alien-wanted to explore the inner-thoughts of the undead. The result is a gruesome display of melting corpses and zombies longing to sedate the pain of decomposition.
Loosely based on a lesser-known short story from horror pioneer H.P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator set out to shock audiences as much as frighten them. It's also as much a modern retelling of Frankenstein as it is a zombie film. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is a brilliant but bizarre scientist who unlocks the secret of preserving the brain after the body dies, essentially eliminating "brain death." Re-Animator has endured as a favorite among cult film fans, perhaps best known for a disturbing rape scene between a woman and a severed head. Yeah.
Braindead (aka: Dead Alive)
Continuing in Re-Animator's outlandish portrayal of the undead, Braindead-better known in the U.S. as Dead Alive-is one of Peter Jackson's early films and is rumored to hold the record for largest amount of fake blood used in a single film. It might seems at first like a stretch to think the man behind Lord of the Rings could be responsible for such an assault on classical senses, but nearly every moment of this ridiculous film reflects the same ambition that would lead someone to adapt Tolkien's behemoth. Some notable moments include a zombie baby running around a playground, the best use of a lawnmower in film history, and kung-fu priest who "kicks ass for the Lord."
Another entry in the ongoing trend of horror-comedy films, Zombieland isn't a parody of zombie films so much as a decent post-apocalyptic story that just happens to be a lot of fun. Like The Walking Dead, it came out while the zombie craze was in full swing and, also like The Walking Dead, proved zombie films can be well-made, hilarious, and exciting. Plus, it features Bill Murray's best cameo.
Night of the Living Dead
Even though it's not the first film to use zombies as a plot device, George A. Romero's classic '60s black and white film Night of the Living Dead is really where we can trace back most of what we know about zombies. These zombies, unlike Bela Lugosi's undead servants, were flesh-hungry and rotting corpses that terrorized by claiming more victims and adding bodies to their horde.
Night of the Living Dead pushed boundaries not just for horror but social issues as well. Duane Jones was the first African-American to play a lead role in a horror film as the story's main protagonist Ben. The movie was made by hippies who wanted to highlight the angst of society's failure to enact real social change, and by ignoring racial boundaries made a film that oddly yet perfectly embodies the spirit of the 1960s. Night of the Living Dead was social commentary disguised as horror, and has influenced every zombie film since.
Shaun of the Dead
Shaun of the Dead was released the same year as the Dawn of the Dead remake, and is one of the best-known and well-loved zombie films. It also helped launch the careers of its stars, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as director Edgar Wright as the first film in his "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy," followed by Hot Fuzz and The World's End. While the movie was a parody of Romero's films, it actually was integral in bringing zombie tropes back into the pop culture mainstream, once again by proving they can be as much fun as socially conscious.
The filmmakers' insist the movie isn't a typical zombie movie at all, but rather a romantic comedy with the zombies merely representing external factors that can raise conflicts in a relationship. Either way, after Shaun and his crew beat down a horde of the undead while jamming to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now," there's no denying that this is a real zombie movie, as well as being a hilarious one.
28 Days Later
Before Shaun of the Dead and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead brought the living dead to the forefront of horror films once again, writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) experimented with the replacing walking corpses with zombies infected with a mysterious "rage virus" that gave them super strength and an insatiable appetite for flesh. Boyle utilized trendy prosumer cameras to give the film an amateur but effectively realistic feel.
The film also portrayed a uniquely 21st century fear, as society collapses within mere weeks of the outbreak. 28 Days Later is postp-9/11, pre-Iraq War horror, with a technologically failed infrastructure serving as the setting, and an unchecked military presence as the villains. Despite the purists who argue that the infected aren't zombies, 28 Days Later challenged preconceived notions of the genre while brutally reflecting a panicked society.
Dawn of the Dead
A lot of these films could easily fit in the number one spot, but that would defeat the point of lists in the first place, right? Dawn of the Dead, however, is so often cited as an influential and essential zombie film that it deserves its position at the top of this list.
Dawn of the Dead is the proper sequel to Night of the Living Dead, and is the first of Romero's films to showcase a crumbling society on the horizon, while using the setting of an abandoned shopping mall as a perfect metaphor for American consumerism gone awry. The film is bleak and gruesome as well, and special effects and makeup artist Tom Savini drew on his experiences as a photographer in Vietnam for inspiration on the look of the undead. How's that for grim?