(Hopefully, this feature will come back and stay back this time – it has the admirable merit of not requiring me to see movies in the free time I’m suddenly lacking).
Having, basically, dared myself with the phrase “any conversation about the best zombie movies ever” yesterday, I am pleased to present what is, in retrospect, probably a completely inevitable and obvious subject for a list:
The Ten Best Zombie Movies of All Time
(NB: if I’m being honest, Day of the Dead belongs on this list, but three Romero films out of ten overall seemed, to me, inelegant).
10. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
Prior to Romero’s genre-redefining efforts, zombie films were pretty exclusively stories of white people in the Caribbean, stumbling across a local voodoo priest trying to take over the island with his army of the undead, who didn’t really do much besides stand there and look sullen. The formula has been almost completely abandoned in the last 40 years (if you’re a horror filmmaker, and you can make a movie about a dull-eyed animate corpse, or a blood-soaked monster ripping a man’s stomach out through his throat, which do you choose?), and a lot of them are frankly a bit dull. But at their best – and in the hands of one of horror cinema’s all-time great visual poets, I Walked with a Zombie is easily the best – these voodoo zombie movies can attain an otherworldly power all their own. It’s almost certainly Tourneur’s second-best horror effort after Cat People: a lyrical, uncanny story drenched in dream logic, in which the horror is muted and implied, and arguably all the more creepy because of it. It’s undoubtedly the most beautiful film on this list.
9. Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti AKA Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Jorge Grau, 1974)
Beating the main body of Italian zombie movies to the punch by five years (it was a Spanish co-production), this remains one of the most oddly unique movies in the genre’s history. Superficially, it has a bit in common with the ur-text, Night of the Living Dead, but once you spend time with this story of two drifters who are accused by a conservative cop of murder in Manchester, only to find that an experimental pest control system is reviving the nervous systems of dead humans, you’ll start to realise that there’s a lot going on here which isn’t found in the run-of-the-mill gutmunchers made in the wake of Zombi 2. An atmospheric murder mystery that only gradually turns into a zombie siege, it’s filled with some of the most haunting images in any zombie film you can hope to see. Bonus points for the title, which in any language (the Italian translates to “Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead”) is one of the best in horror history.
8. Braindead AKA Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)
On the one hand, it’s nothing but an exercise in silliness – awfully good silliness, at that. On the other, it’s one of the bloodiest movies ever made. Those facts aren’t remotely as difficult to resolve as you might think, for in this, his greatest motion picture, Jackson revels in a truth that every horror fan already knows: gore can be a lot of fun There’s not another zombie movie out there that is so delightfully, innocently playful as this one; without a trace of mockery or ironic coolness to inflect its comedy, Braindead is horror cinema as a bauble, an extraordinary example of a filmmaker turning out exactly the kind of movie he wants to watch, and isn’t it totally cool? For all the gallons of stage blood pumped out, there’s not one frame of the film that feels even a little bit dangerous, or mean, or edgy. Made by an enthusiast with the talent to make everyone who watches the film just as enthusiastic as he is, this is about as enjoyable, in the purest sense, as any horror movie out there.
7. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
A film that deserves a much better title; the kind that doesn’t essentially demand we compare it to one of the stone-cold masterpieces of the genre. Synder’s film (his debut, and his only great work before descending into degraded hatchet jobs against comic books that deserve more) is pretty much a different animal than George A. Romero’s any way you want to look at it: jettisoning the original film’s satire for intense and unflagging action – Snyder makes excellent use of the “fast zombies” that Danny Boyle’s not-quite-a-zombie-film 28 Days Later popularised – it’s an action movie as much as a horror movie, meant to make us shout “awesome!” rather than scream in mortal terror. But the hell of it is, it actually is awesome: kinetic and tense and altogether one of the great movie thrill rides of the ’00s. By far the best movie in the dodgy “let’s remake ’70s horror!” movement.
6. The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985)
The crypto-sequel to the most important zombie film of all time not only managed to fully honor the memory of its illustrious predecessor, it got the contemporary horror-comedy trend off the ground with one of the very best examples of that often frustrating subgenre. Its historic importance doesn’t end there: it’s where we first encounter the idea of zombies hunting people to munch on their brains, and it also introduced the world to the great ’80s exploitation queen Linnea Quigley and her… talents. All while also being full of great, creepy imagery, a kick-ass death-punk soundtrack, and some of the smartest grace notes in any horror film of its decade. Ever had a problem with horror characters doing stupid things and dying? Check out RotLD, in which people actually ask the questions and take the steps that a real live person might do in the same situation. And then die.
5. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
“You’ve got red on you”. The genius of Wright’s breakthrough collaboration with co-writer and star Simon Pegg is that (much like their subsequent Hot Fuzz) it’s not really a parody of the material it’s making fun of: even at its goofiest, the film treats the idea of cannibalistic zombies with dead seriousness. When a character gets ripped apart near the end in a manner mimicking on of the most famous deaths in Day of the Dead, you can feel it every bit as much as in Romero’s mirthless apocalypse fantasy. It’s just that, instead of satiric commentary on consumerism or the military, Wright and Penn want to have fun with slapstick and farce. The poster accurately called it “a romantic comedy with zombies”, but “a zombie film with romance and comedy” would have been just as accurate, if much clumsier.
4. Zombi 2 AKA Zombie AKA Zombie Flesh Eaters (Lucio Fulci, 1979)
You could call it yet another in the long tradition of Italian knock-offs; and you’d be completely right (it was a distaff sequel to a heavily re-edited version of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead). And in blaming it for igniting the awe-inspiring run of terrible, terrible Italian zombie movies in the early 1980s, you could fairly say that its rancid legacy more than counters anything it does right. But please don’t: its one of the best films ever made by a director often wrongly judged by his lesser work, and one of the all-time great feasts of gore effects makeup (it has what remains, I think, the most nauseatingly effective “stake through the eye” effects of all time). Being an Italian horror film, the power of the individual moments is generally greater than the effect of the whole movie, but those moments include some of the most iconic sequences in zombiedom. If nothing else, the film earns its place on this list for pitting a zombie against a motherfucking shark.
3. La noche del terror ciego AKA Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971)
Steeped in history and invented mythology, the first movie to come out in the wake of George A. Romero’s epochal reinvention of the zombie film (see below) is argably the greatest Spanish horror film ever made. Like most European horror films from the 1970s – or ever, come to think of it – Tombs is more concerned about atmosphere than a coherent, cohesive plot: but what atmosphere! Not much in the long annals of cinematic horror can compete in terms of sheer uncanny creepiness with the sight of a foggy ancient graveyard in the middle of a ruined medieval town; nor are there too many films that can claim a scene as breathtakingly tense as the moment when a woman, who has been careful to keep from making all of the stupid mistakes that usually kill people in zombie movies, discovers that the one thing she can’t hide from the blind, ravenous and very smart undead Templars hunting her is the sound of her frantically beating heart. Easily the scariest film on this list.
2. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
One of the great seismic moments in cinema history came when an young indie filmmaker from Pennsylvania freely conflated zombies (shuffling reanimated corpses with no personality) and vampires (vicious reanimated corpses with a penchant for devouring living humans), with a splash of horrifying violence that would have been completely inconceivable a mere ten years earlier. The basic scenario of NotLD has been copied in a virtually uncountable number of movies, but it’s never been surpassed; and you can count on your fingers the number of subsequent horror films that have matched the raw terror of Romero’s doomsday scenario, or the nihilistic impact of its closing sucker punch. It’s the kind of all-around masterpiece that could only be surpassed by…
1. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
…Romero himself, re-purposing his plague-like revenants as the vehicles for social commentary, without sacrificing for one second the threat they represent. Though even more than in Night, this outstanding sequel makes excellent use of what has become (thanks to Romero’s films) a zombie movie commonplace: the lumbering corpses are always less of a danger than the conflicting egos of the still-living humans under siege. From the time capsule ’70s aesthetic to the magnificent gore effects that put the great Tom Savini on the map to the cruel dark humor veined through the whole movie, the original Dawn remains one of the most intelligent, artistic horror films ever made, not only one of the best films of its genre but also its decade.