Everything about zombies is awesome. Zombie books are brilliant (hello Max Brooks and his World War Z
and The Zombie Survival Guide
). Zombie computer games are tremendous (hugs and kisses Resident Evil and Dead Island). Even songs about zombies rule (thank you The Cranberries, with your tanks and your bombs). Their home is the silver screen though, a super wide canvas on which these mouldy superstars can stagger and grope in all their gory glory. The zombie has been haunting cinema for decades now, its first appearance of note in White Zombie (1932
). But it was George Romero that gave them their big break with his landmark Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Dull eyed, slow shuffling, grey skinned, and brain dead, the template was sculpted out of decaying flesh and has been followed by filmmakers ever since. Romero produced his horror masterpiece for pennies and it was clear that effective zombies cost next to nothing to create. They became the darlings of low budget directors everywhere. All that was needed was some drab body paint, a little fake blood and some tatty rags and presto, trundling undead masses would be yours. Like the apocalyptic hordes of the recently deceased, great zombie films quickly grew in number. Their fans adored them, the critics and mainstream reviewers were less impressed. Nonetheless, with the likes of Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Braindead/Dead Alive (1992), Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Hollywood just couldn’t keep a good zombie down. Sure, other famous monsters of movie land had critical favourability but how many of them created a sub-category of cinema as deep and varied as the zombie genre? So here are ten of the best zombie movies to feast on. Just two points; firstly, a couple of classics that would have quite rightly made the list (Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009)
) have shambled off to other articles; we’ll be meeting them later on down the line. Secondly, someone really, really needs to remake Resident Evil (2002).
All Paul W.S. Anderson had to do was film the games already shit-scary storyline; how the hell could anyone screw that up?
- NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968/1990)
Just as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) was the start of modern horror and the birth of the slasher film, so George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) was ground zero for the zombie movie and the raising of the bar for on-screen gore. Its title may have been pure 1950's sensationalism, but there was nothing melodramatic about Romero and John Russo's story; Night was played straight and realism was the aim. Romero's choice to shoot on black and white film stock might have been a budgetary decision but it gave the film even more authenticity. The dead coming back to life to eat the living may have sounded fanciful on paper but once viewers first saw Johnny (Russell Streiner) attacked by a graveyard ghoul they weren't laughing anymore. It only got worse from there as his shell-shocked sister Barbara (Judith O'Dea) scrambled for the safety of a nearby farmhouse. From there its Duane Jones' picture. Sidney Poitier may have broken down significant racial barriers by winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963) but it was still a brave choice by any filmmaker to place a person of colour in a lead role in the late sixties. Romero didn't see colour though, he only saw talent, and Jones shouldered the movie with the steady hand of a veteran. His grounded performance draws attention away from the somewhat two-dimensional writing of the supporting characters, the unnecessarily belligerent Harry (Karl Hardman), the country bumpkin Tom (Keith Wayne), the comatose Barbara. The shocking sight of dead people eating human flesh wasn't wasted when the finale arrives, as downbeat and emotionally shocking as the bloodletting that precedes it. The film has such an impact it launched a franchise that followed Romero through his whole career. None of the sequels or spin-offs could match the brilliance of the Tom Savini directed remake Night of the Living Dead (1990) which tweaked some of the original characterisation and placed on screen the greatest looking zombies seen before or since.
Tasty Morsel - Two colourised versions of Romero's original film were released, in 1986 and 1997, while a 30th Anniversary edition was released in 1999 with new scenes added and a new soundtrack.
- SHOCK WAVES (1977)
So prolific is the zombie sub-genre it has its own sub-sub-genres. Being that zombies are an unusual breed in themselves, these additional groupings are stranger still, none more so than the Nazi zombie genre. When cannibalism is already on the menu what’s one more taboo to sprinkle on top? Oasis of the Zombies (1981), Zombie Lake (1981), Outpost (2008), Dead Snow (2009) this bizarre coming together between the Third Reich and the undead has been worryingly popular amongst some horror fans. But for exploitative thrills the combination of cinemas most terrifying villains with histories biggest monsters is a winning recipe. One of the best Nazi zombie movies crawled out of the hey-day of grindhouse cinema, Shock Waves (1977) a cheaply made but affective Ken Wiederhorn directed effort. In a Gilligan’s Island-esque storyline, we follow a boat of potential zombie fodder as they discover a mysterious island housing an abandoned hotel. The hotel’s occupier is Peter Cushing, who was once in charge of a Nazi experiment to create a troop of super soldiers, a so called "Death Corp”. Murderers, sadists and other unsavoury folk were utilised causing the platoon to become quite a handful. At the end of the war Cushing disposed of the troops by sinking them in a small warship. Now the zombified assassins have returned from beneath the waves to kill again. The trailer proclaimed that the film ventured into the "deep end of horror”. The reality was, surprisingly for a late seventies zombie picture, more restrained than that. The movie features next to no gore, but relies instead on the intensely creepy plod of the former Nazis. Their drive to achieve another perfect kill rather than grasp at their next meal, particularly when complemented by a sinister swampy setting and winning Richard Einhorn score, makes for an unexpected zombie delight.
Tasty Morsel – Pink Floyd and Roger Waters fans keep your ears open for a snippet of dialogue from the film used by the songwriter in the title track for his Amused To Death album.
- DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978/2004)
George Romero set himself a tough task following up his zombie institution Night of the Living Dead (1968). Fortunately the director had established a massive palette from which to draw untold tales of undead mayhem; the entire world was under zombie assault, possible sequels could head anywhere and follow anyone. Still, it took some moral support from fellow horror maestro Dario Argento before Romero kicked Dawn of the Dead (1978) into gear. The filmmaker did indeed increase the scope of Night, leaving the blood soaked farmstead behind for flesh chomping on a national scale. We follow Roger and Peter, two cops tasked with clearing out the undead from city apartment blocks. It’s a grim job and a battle they stand little chance of winning. The pair decide to flee before the inevitable downfall of man, and with helicopter pilot Stephen and his girlfriend Fran in tow they hole up in a sprawling shopping mall. Romero’s sequel is a movie made up of a specific beginning, middle and end. The first act colourfully paints the engulfing zombie chaos. The second act slams on the anchors for a prolonged quartet character study and some unsubtle commentary on American consumerism. The concluding act finally returns to the zombie action of the opening third when a biker gang smashes its way into the mall with scores of undead shuffling in their wake. Viewers with a short attention span might bemoan the film’s plump middle but on repeat viewings the central characters four-way dance and the abnormality of their living conditions grows ever more intriguing. Besides, the action hungry have the superb Zach Snyder 2004 remake to soothe their pain.
Tasty Morsel – Romero originally intended for his sequel to repeat Night’s bleak ending, with Peter shooting himself and Fran sticking her head in the helicopter blades. The ending was changed to a less pessimistic conclusion during production.
- THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)
There is some debate among horror fans as to what constitutes a zombie movie. Some aficionados insist that horror masterpiece Evil Dead (1982) should be classed as a zombie film, even though the film’s fiends are humans possessed by demons. It’s a sticky wicket and non-fans would do well not to engage an undead-head in zombie politics. The clichéd zombie guise is the rule most classifiers use, a reanimated corpse that is dull skinned, slow moving and out to eat living people. But that doesn’t mean filmmakers can’t mess around with the principles for entertainment value. Writer Dan O’Bannon made his directorial debut with The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and tweaked the zombie conventions to create a cult zombie hit. Made as an unofficial sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968) (the story is loosely based on the novel Return of the Living Dead by John Russo, George Romero’s writing partner on the film) the movie was originally intended to be a 3D spectacular directed by horror perennial Tobe Hooper. But when Hooper left for another project Bannon graduated from script polisher to director. The story is set around a medical warehouse and when one of the employees accidently spills toxic waste from an army experiment gone wrong the dead start returning to life (the warehouse is conveniently located next to a cemetery). Bannon took his zombie sequel in an entirely different direction, focusing more on humour and less on scares. Gory effects were also high on the agenda, as was some gratuitous nudity, and Bannon sprinkled much of both throughout. The messy slapstick is entertaining and the sight of Linnea Quigley dancing naked on a tombstone will warm the cockles of any heart. But it is Bannon’s handling of the undead that makes a viewing worthwhile. His zombies are not only clever, they talk as well, explaining at one point that they eat brain matter to ease the pain of being dead. It is slightly jolting to here a zombie talk for the first time but as a story device it works wonders. The film’s success prompted four sequels and a loyal following for the Romero competing series.
Tasty Morsel – The film’s German title Verdammt die Zombies Kommen amusingly translates to Oh Crap The Zombies Are Coming.
- RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
H.P. Lovecraft is a legend within his genre. The horror writer has even coined his own designation, Lovecraftian, used liberally today where horror of the unknown rears its head. And considering the man carried out most of his work at a time when the moving picture was taking it first baby steps it’s a marvel that a lot of the themes explored by his writing still resonate today. With the zombie genre in full bloom director Stuart Gordon thought it would be an excellent time to shoot an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West –Reanimator. If only the writer were still around to see the startling results. Updating the tale to modern day Chicago we follow Herbert West (a superb Jeffrey Combs) who enrols at Miskatonic University with the aim of furthering his research into reanimating a corpse. He moves into the house of a fellow medical student and his girlfriend, and converts the basement into a laboratory for his work. His experiments into reanimation start harmlessly enough as he brings the couples dead cat back to life, but when West turns his attentions to a human cadaver things start to get a lot messier. The scenes of gore and exploitation as West cajoles various corpses with his reagent serum are legendary, none more so than the scene of a live severed head performing oral sex on an appalled female. But it is the dark humour that turns this zombie stomach churner into a winning picture, with a sharp script providing plenty of sarcasm and wit to temper the flood of blood and body parts. As with the success of fellow ’85 zombie splatter comedy Return of the Living Dead (1985) cult appeal led to sequels with Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003) following and Combs once again delighting in the lead West role
Tasty Morsel – Recognise the reanimated corpse that kills Dean Halsey? It is actor and stuntman Peter Kent who spent fourteen years working as Arnold Schwarzengger’s stand-in and stunt double.
- THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1987)
Wes Craven’s monster hit A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) was crafted out of a large dollop of reality. Hard to believe considering the hokey nature of the many sequels and spinoffs, but Craven got the idea for Freddy Krueger from an LA Times news article about a village in Asia where children were dying of unexplained causes in their sleep. With Krueger fast becoming a pantomime character in the late eighties Craven once again pinned his directorial cause to the reality pole. The inspiration this time was ethnobotanist Wade Davis, his study of Haitian "Vodou” and the possible process of creating real zombies. Davis work was collated and published as the non-fiction book The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1985. Despite the study receiving some criticism it was deemed intriguing enough to make a credible screenplay. Craven was on board and the resulting movie stands as Hollywood’s one and only look at the real possibility of zombification. Bill Pullman plays Dennis Alan, an anthropologist sent to Haiti to investigate a drug alleged to be used in Voodoo and zombie creation for a pharmaceutical company. A well schooled sceptic Alan finds himself quickly embroiled in all manner of shady magical happenings, catching the eye of the local authorities in the process. The accurate portrayal of Voodoo customs and zombie mythology was a refreshing approach, and coupled with horror ready Haiti setting the film looked set to be a genre classic. Unfortunately the formalities of conventional story telling tripped the movie up just before the finish line, a clumsy showdown between Alan and the corrupt head of the local police arriving with a dull clunk. If only Craven had stuck to his realism ideal throughout. Still, a terrifying buried alive sequence a whole year before Spoorloos (1988) remains one of a number of highlights in the preceding movie.
Tasty Morsel – Due to the political upheaval in Haiti the government could not guarantee the film crews safety. As a result filming was moved to the Dominican Republic.
- DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE / CEMETERY MAN (1994)
There aren’t too many successful zombie films that try to do something different with the fiends other than the standard "heroes in jeopardy must escape the hungry hordes”. Fido (2007) turned comedian Billy Connelly into a domesticated zombie, Colin (2008) told things uniquely from the zombie point of view, Deadgirl (2009) saw two adolescents pondering over a foxy zombie they had tied up in their basement. Expect to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies adapted for the big screen once the studios finish squabbling over the story rights. Turning away from the sumptuous gory mayhem that most horror fans expect from an undead flick is a risky proposition. Horror fans are likely to be unfulfilled and regular cinema goers are unlikely to turn to zombie fiction for a hit of melodrama. The Italian made Dellamorte Dellamore (1995) (re-titled Cemetery Man for western audiences) took an alternative look at the zombie notion and the result was a quirky delight. Director Micele Soavi adapted Tiziano Sclavi’s 1991 novel, telling the tale of Francesco Dellamorte whose job as caretaker of the local cemetery entails a lot more than digging graves and mowing lawns. Francesco, with the help of his simple assistant Gnaghi, must also take care of "Returners”, deceased loved ones that have a habit of reanimating and making a mess of the cemetery grounds. When Francesco accidently kills his new beau after mistaking her for a zombie he drifts into a fit of depression that sees him stagger to an astonishing conclusion. Rupert Everett is a delight as the titular hero but it is Soavi’s astounding story that lights up the movie. Touching on all manner of topics from love, loss, death, friendship, we are transported on an unpredictable journey that prods some tender nerves, surprisingly so for a comedy horror.
Tasty Morsel – Quirky soundtrack maestros Tangerine Dream were lined up to compose and record the film’s soundtrack but alas had to pull out of the project at the last minute.
- VERSUS (2000)
Admittedly the zombies in Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus (2000) only make a showing in the stories first half, but when they are Yakuza zombies engaging in gangster style gun play they deserve extra special treatment. At the end of the twentieth century there was a bravery of story telling in the Asian movie markets unmatched anywhere else in the world. Plots were borderline psychotic, revelling in their fantastical twists and leaving most western viewers puzzling over the chaotic two hours of cinema they’d just been assaulted with. Kitamura’s film kicks starts with two escaped prisoners meeting the Yakuza gang who helped spring them from prison. But the gang are only interested in one of the pair. As the remaining prisoner flees into the woods with a woman the gang have also kidnapped, it is revealed that the group are in the Forest of Resurrection. The woods are one of the six hundred and sixty six portals to "the other side”. This means that anyone one that dies in the forest can come back to life in zombie form. The gang discover that most of the rival gang members they previously buried in the undergrowth are now crawling out of the dirt. Kitamura then engineers some of the craziest zombie battle scenes ever seen. Acrobatic gun, kung-fu and sword fight scenes ensue and just when you think the film could not get any more mental it takes a large Highlander (1986) inspired left turn, revealing the real purpose for engineering the couple’s forest trapping. The films blend of off kilter comedy, high concept action and ponderings on the nature of immortality will leave your head spinning. And just when you think you have the whole affair figured out, an out of the blue coda throws an apocalyptic spin on the entire movie. If only all filmmaking was this intrepid.
Tasty Morsel – The film made such an impact on its release that Kitamura returned to it four years later with a bigger budget. New scenes were added, some scenes were re-filmed and three quarters of the film was spruced up with added special effects.
- UNDEAD (2003)
The zombie was not a welcome visitor in Hollywood at the start of the new century. It took the combined success of Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) remake and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) before the undead were welcome back into the fold. But other film markets were still discovering inventive ways to carry on the zombie shenanigans. In the land down under brothers Michael and Peter Spierig created one of the best horror comedy films seen for years. Set in the dusty wilderness of rural Australia we follow a rabble of locals as they are set upon by a meteorite shower induced zombie infestation. The residents of Berkley, those that aren’t turned into flesh eating savages, are played for fright and laughs in equal measure, with witty one liners often following a bout of zombie induced panic, "When I was a kid we respected our parents, we didn’t fucking eat ‘em”. The Spierig brothers also created astonishing special effects with their limited budget none more so than the spectacular sight that greets out heroes when they finally take to the air at the movie’s conclusion. The icing on the cake was the central character Marion (Mungo McKay), the local kook and gun nut who the band of survivors flee to when the undead masses gather. Marion is undoubtedly the coolest character to grace a horror movie since Max Schreck first wandered up a staircase. Custom triple barrelled shotgun in hand, a dude of few words, the man is a zombie hunter extraordinaire, the Dirty Harry of the zombie world and the best reason of many great reasons to give Berkley a visit.
Tasty Morsel – Undead was funded entirely by the Spierig brothers, their family and friends.
- 28 DAYS LATER / 28 WEEKS LATER (2002/2007)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) is a film of two halves; breathtakingly brilliant in its first half, disappointingly formulaic in its second half. The set up is recognisable to anyone that has had even a passing dalliance with the film. We follow Jim (Cillian Murphy) who has recovered from a coma to find the city of London deserted and ransacked. He discovers that a disease called "Rage” has turned most people into flesh-eating maniacs and as a result most of the cities population are dead or on the hunt for fresh meat. The incredible shots of an abandoned London (captured by Boyle during early morning hours on summer days) are cinematic legend. Upturned buses, litter echoing as it flutters down empty streets, the result is familiar locale transformed into an eerie, dread infused no mans land. When the stillness is broken by Jim’s first encounter with the "infected” it is pant-wetting stuff. But as soon as Jim escapes London with his fellow survivors and stumbles into the arms of Christopher Eccelston and his band of overly horny soldiers the story becomes far too predictable. Selena and Hannah are in for a good bumming, while Jimbo is marked for death. A surprisingly good follow-up was offered by director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo five years later, 28 Weeks Later (2007). Britain is being repopulated and we follow Robert Carlyle and his family who are among the first to take tentative steps back into Blighty. The sequel avoided the previous film’s split story letdown with much more even pacing. It also had a healthy inclination for disposing with its lead characters at swift intervals, usually in the middle of a frantic and shamelessly zombie themed set piece. A grim final scene hinted at a global infection, but signs of 28 Months Later appearing on the cinematic horizon are disappointingly scarce.
Tasty Morsel – In a strange marketing move, to promote the sequel on 13th April 2007, twenty eight days before the films release, a large biohazard warning sign was projected on to the White Cliffs of Dover, along with the words "Contaminated, keep out”.