Few film-makers can be said to have defined a genre the way George A Romero, who died this week at age 77, did for zombie films. While he wasn’t the first director to make a movie featuring zombies (earlier films tended to cleave more closely to the Haitian voodoo zombie myth, beginning with 1932’s White Zombie), his Dead trilogy (Night, Dawn, and Day) popularised the now-standard image of zombies as flesh-eating corpses risen from the grave. They also established key genre rules, such as that a zombie bite is fatal, and that the only way to kill one is to destroy the brain. Virtually every zombie film, TV show, video game and book released since Night of the Living Dead owes an extraordinary debt to Romero. But after so many years, how do his movies stack up against the genre’s best? Here’s my list of the ten best zombie movies of all time.
28 Weeks Later (2007)
The sequel to one of the greatest horror films ever made, it was perhaps inevitable that 28 Weeks Later was never going to live up to the high expectations set by its predecessor. Nonetheless it was far from being a cash-in sequel, as evidenced by it’s heart-stopping first act, in which savage Infected attack a rural farmhouse. Shifting to London, the plot sees the survivors of the original film’s apocalyptic event attempt to rebuild society. Inevitably, things go horribly, gruesomely wrong. 28 Weeks Later is a less artistic, more straight-forward film than 28 Days Later, with characters that aren’t fleshed out enough to be truly interesting (the exception being a wonderful Robert Carlyle as a father trying to hide a terrible secret from his two children). That doesn’t stop it from being tightly staged, nail-bitingly tense and often genuinely terrifying, with an absolutely fantastic final shot.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Though purists will no doubt be horrified, Zack Snyder’s remake of George A. Romero’s classic is (whisper it) the better movie. Sure, it doesn’t have the original’s satirical bite, but what it lacks in social commentary, it makes up for with sheer, visceral tension. Like the original the plot centres around a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse besieged in a shopping mall by an undead horde, but Snyder replaced Romero’s shambling hordes with fast-moving ghouls that can leap and run. The result is a remake that’s much leaner, more streamlined, more action-packed and far more frightening. Snyder’s Dawn packs in nearly every zombie cliche in the book and Romero’s more thoughtful approach is occasionally missed, but this film’s stunning opening sequence alone would earn it a deserved place in this list.
Braindead, aka Dead Alive (1992)
Before directing a little series called The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson was better known for his earlier, splatter-heavy B-movies. The best of them is this Kiwi horror comedy gem, which sees a timid young man forced to come out of his shell after his overbearing mother is zombified by a bite from an infected ‘Sumatran rat monkey. It’s a hilariously gruesome splatstick classic, the tidal waves of gore leavened by gross-out laughs aplenty. If you ever wanted to see a showdown between a room full of zombies and a guy armed with a lawnmower, Braindead is the film for you.
If Edgar Wright’s low-key and deadpan Shaun of the Dead was a very British zombie comedy, Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland feels more typically American – Shaun‘s bigger, brasher and bolder cousin. For all that, it’s often no less hilarious. Jesse Eisenberg excels as a neurotic college student trying to make his way across a zombie-infested America, staying alive by ensuring he always follows a set of survival rules which neatly reference horror tropes (‘Always check the back seat’). It’s Woody Harrelson however who really steals the show as a gleefully violent fellow traveller whose passion for killing zombies is surpassed only by his love of twinkies. Well-acted and very funny, with a showstopper of a final act, Zombieland is a thoroughly enjoyable zom-com romp.
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
You could debate whether or not Evil Dead 2‘s demonically possessed reanimated corpses are really zombies – I’d say they’re close enough to qualify. What’s not in doubt is that since its release Evil Dead 2 – essentially Sam Raimi’s blackly comic remake of his own more straightforward horror flick Evil Dead – has become a cult classic. Bruce Campbell gives one of the great horror movie performances as Ash, a wise-cracking young man whose romantic getaway with his girlfriend to a rural cabin goes south when she’s possessed by demons and he’s forced to decapitate her. And that’s within the first ten minutes! From there it’s an utterly insane, madcap sprint to the finish line that takes in possessed deer heads, tree demons and disembodied hands. Evil Dead 2‘s charm lies in its utter refusal to take anything seriously, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the most influential horror movies around.
Train to Busan (2016)
The Korean-made Train to Busan is built around a killer high-concept: forget snakes on a plane, this is zombies on a train. Taking place almost entirely on a cross-country bullet train, Train to Busan is a simply merciless exercises in tension, ruthlessly ratcheting up the stress levels as each compartment falls to the bloodthirsty undead hordes. As with 28 Days Later, to which Train to Busan owes a significant debt, the zombies here are fast-moving and acrobatic, and in a nod to World War Z they attack through sheer force of numbers, crashing through the compartments like a ravenous wave. Director Yeon Sang-Ho throws in some Romero-esque social commentary, but it’s during the heart-pounding zombie attacks that Train to Busan really stands out from the crowd – it’s a startlingly energetic nerve-shredder.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
A smash commercial and critical success on release, Shaun of the Dead helped revitalise the zombie genre and made stars of its leads, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Pegg played Shaun, an aimless 20-something salesman whose life is going down the tubes; Frost played his boorish best mate. When the zombie apocalypse hits London, they’re initially both too hungover to notice. Shaun of the Dead is a knowing spoof of zombie movie cliches, directed by Edgar Wright with a stylish verve and eye for detail that belied its low budget. But Shaun is more than just a comedy – although it’s easily one of the funniest British movies since the millennium. It’s also punctuated by moments of surprising emotional resonance, not to mention flashes of genuinely shocking violence. In short, it’s a film that works on many different levels, one that’s become as much of a classic as the genre heavyweights it lovingly mocks.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Here it is – the film that reinvented a genre nearly a half century ago. In black and white and made on a shoe-string, the film’s low budget actually works to its advantage, the grainy footage lending it a crude sort of realism. The plot meanwhile – a band of survivors hole up in a rural house as an army of the living dead descends upon them – would become the template for generations of future zombie flicks. Released amidst seething domestic tensions around race and the Vietnam War, even 50 years on Night of the Living Dead remains an occasionally shocking film, not least thanks to its bleak, nihilistic but perfectly judged ending.
The Spanish-language [REC] isn’t the only found footage zombie film (Romero’s own underrated Diary of the Dead is another worthy example) but it is by far the scariest. Told through the eyes of a Spanish news crew who follow a fire crew to an incident at a Barcelona apartment building, [REC] starts slowly but quickly develops into a nightmarish ordeal. As the darkened, claustrophobic corridors and stairwells of the apartment building become a hunting ground for things that go bump in the night, [REC] begins cranking up the scares, culminating in a final act that is one of the most purely terrifying sequences in any film ever.
28 Days Later (2002)
If Night of the Living Dead helped create a genre, 28 Days Later helped redefine it for the modern age. By 2002 zombie films had hit a creative wall, the genre rendered moribund by waves of trashy straight-to-video B-movies and increasingly tired sequels. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later changed everything by rewriting the genre rules. Whereas by the millennium the shambling rotting corpses popularised by Romero had become more comical than scary, Boyle’s zombies – actually living humans infected with a rabies-like virus – were fast, savage and very, very scary. Boyle’s vision of a London emptied of life (which called to mind similar images from Romero’s Day of the Dead, along with John Wyndham’s 1951 novel Day of the Triffids) were eerie and unsettling, but also hauntingly beautiful, and the film bridges the gaps between its bursts of shocking violence with long stretches of reflective, almost meditative quiet. More than just another genre flick, 28 Days Later is as much a political allegory as a post-apocalyptic chiller, and nearly every zombie film that has followed it bears traces of its influence.