Let’s get one thing straight. There’s a reason zombie films are so popular; they allow us to experience a global catastrophe we’ve been secretly worrying about, without actually having to live it ourselves.
Horror lets us reflect on our daily fears and anxieties. Zombie films, in particular, represent the contemporary fear that society will collapse and we’ll all be overrun by hordes of the undead, hungry for our brains. Due to the sheer number of zombie films, I’m not messing around. This means I’m only listing the very best. So whatever your taste, here are the essentials (no spoilers)…
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Probably one of the most important horror films ever, George A. Romero’s A Night of the Living Dead more or less invented the modern zombie concept. Should I even need to explain the plot? To horror fans, it needs no introduction. I’ll just say that the dead rise from their graves, attack the living and chaos ensues. It’s the quintessential zombie flick and its influence can be felt all over the horror genre.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Ten years after A Night of the Living Dead, Romero released the sequel, Dawn of the Dead. However, it’s set only a few weeks after the events of the original, where we learn that the zombie situation is out of control. There are zombies all over the place and as things descend further into chaos, a group of mismatched survivors hole up in a shopping mall to wait it out. This is a brisk, crackling film with comedy and topical satire. It’s an upbeat, survival adventure that has great pacing and top performances.
In terms of special effects, it’s a big improvement on the original. It’s ruthless with a wild ‘backs-against-the-wall’ vibe. Should a zombie apocalypse actually happen, I don’t think hiding in a supermarket is the best idea. I mean, come on, there are too many entrances. Zombies are going to rush in through eventually!
28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later is one of the most clever zombie movies and is often credited with reviving the interest in the sub-genre. It’s about a highly contagious rage-inducing virus which has spread worldwide. Technically, the infected are not zombies because they are still “alive”, but they act like zombies, so that’s what I’ll call them. It takes place 28 days after the infection broke out, and we follow Jim (Cillian Murphy) as he journeys through a deserted London.
It’s superbly directed by Danny Boyle. The way he depicts the breakdown of society is terrifying plausible. If there was a global disaster in real-life, I imagine both the good and monstrous side of humanity would likely reveal itself, upon the struggle to survive. 28 Days Later is bang-on with its portrayal of this idea. Also, what’s great about it is how it balances humanist drama with pure, dark horror.
Dawn of the Dead (Remake, 2004)
Okay, I’ve cheated a little with my inclusion of the Dawn of the Dead remake, directed by Zack Snyder. Before he was known for his work on DC superhero films, Snyder re-imagined Romero’s classic. It’s an extremely entertaining zombie film, with breathless action and thrills in every corner. It only shares the shopping mall location with the original, so it’s quite a departure from Romero’s vision. This is not a smart movie by any means, but it’s a perfect weekend watch, which begins with a stunning opening sequence.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Now, if you haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead, I think there may be something wrong with you. I don’t know how anyone can go a significant portion of their life without watching this film, especially if you’re a Brit. It’s the perfect combination of horror and comedy, featuring Simon Pegg as slacker Shaun. It doesn’t mock zombies, but instead embraces the familiar tropes. With the help of his best mate Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun decides to save his loved ones when zombies start attacking the living. It’s a wake-up call that makes Shaun finally take responsibility for his life.
Zombieland is one of the most entertaining and comical interpretations of a zombie invasion. I loved watching it when I was in my teens. It’s an interesting take: zombies have taken over America and the survivors have dropped their real names and begun identifying themselves by the cities they came from. Columbus (Jessie Eisenberg) is searching for his family and soon groups together with three other survivors. Zombieland has everything you expect from a zombie film. It’s violent and bloody, with a modern style. It’s a fun ride all the way through.
Train to Busan (2016)
This South Korean movie features zombies on a moving train. Does it get any more frightening than that? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from these zombie stories is that confined spaces are a death sentence. That’s why the premise of Train to Busan is a scary one. It’s a fast-paced thriller that manages to include real emotional character development. That’s what separates it from other zombie films, making it one of the best in the last decade. You’ve got be switched on for it, though, because it’s super intense!
The Girl with all the Gifts (2016)
If you think the zombie genre is out of ideas, you need to see The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s a low budget British horror-thriller, set in a dystopian future in which a strange fungus has changed nearly everyone into crazed, flesh-eating monsters. It’s an imaginative take on the zombie-apocalypse theme.
Melaine (Sennia Nanua) is one of the infected, who lives in an underground facility with other children like her. However, she seems like an ordinary girl. Is she immune to the fungus? Can she control it? The film doesn’t spoon-feed you the answers. It’s a mystery that slowly unravels and the world of The Girl with All the Gifts feels genuine.
There are literally dozens of zombie films, but the above eight are my personal favourites. They’re all great in their own right and have high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. If I’m honest, I don’t know where the genre can go from here. Zombies in space, maybe? Who knows, but I’ll be damned if another major zombie film can beat what’s come before it.
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