Words: Greg Douglass

Vampires may be the predominant horror subject these days but there was a time not too long ago when zombies were the cinema’s go-to monster. In these dark days of emo vampires, tween horror and torture porn I find myself missing those times, comforted by the thought that if there’s one thing we can safely assume about zombies it’s that they have a tendency to come back from the dead. The popularity of zombie movies may fluctuate, but one interesting feature of this enduring subject is its uncanny ability to transcend, or maybe just embrace, generic conventions that would cripple most other horror subgenres. Fans (and filmmakers) of zombie movies are sticklers for purity and will doggedly resist change to a such degree that you can still hear people raging against zombies that have the ability to run. So how can a genre/subgenre that is past its golden age innovate and provide fresh new content when its core fanbase resists change? Do zombie fans really want to see the same thing over and over again? In a word: yes. Zombies are the (raw) meat and potatoes of the horror world and change, if it must exist, must be true to the spirit of the genre. It is this constant balancing act of tradition and innovation that makes the genre so problematic yet at the same time so utterly fascinating. What the genre lacks in variety it makes up for in the hardcore loyalty of its fans who are as Legion as zombies themselves. There’s something comforting in that, just as there’s something oddly comforting about our love for a genre that necessitates the wish-fulfilling destruction of civilization. You’d be hard-pressed to find a vampire that can end humanity with this much pizazz.

Below are 10-1 of my all time favorite zombie movies. Unlike so many lists that fans of a particular genre tend to obsess over it’s not a matter of what’s on this list of zombie movies but, rather, how the list is ordered.

10. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Crazy Zombie $@#% Factor: 10

Return came out the same year as Day of the Dead. It is here that a great chasm in the zombie genre began. That of the funny zombie movie vs. the serious one. Romero may get the lion’s share of respect from horrorphiles, but the first (and only decent) film in the Living Dead series imparted just as many invaluable contributions to the genre. One word: Braaaaainnnnnsssss. That’s one of many valuable life lessons the skeletal zombie known as Tarman has to offer. Another is “moooore brains.” Gotta love Tarman. The lighter, but no less bloody, approach is revolutionary and, in its own way, just as influential to films like Shaun of the Dead and Dead Alive as anything by Romero. This is also the first time the genre featured running zombies. Even Romero references Return in his not-quite zombie thriller The Crazies. Despite having written the screenplays to Alien, Total Recall, Dark Star (John Carpenter’s first movie) and the underrated Screamers, Dan O’Bannon is often neglected in the world of horror and sci-fi. His parodic approach on Return may be nothing like the seminal titles he’s known for writing, but watching  the movie you can just tell the director would go on to do many great things. Except he didn’t! Prior to his death his only other movie is an unreleased Lovecraft horror film called Shatterbrain.

9. Dead Alive (1992)
Director: Peter Jackson
Crazy Zombie $@#% Factor: 9

What ever happened to the Peter Jackson who made Dead Alive? I miss him.

 

 

 

 

 

8. Zombie (1979)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Crazy Zombie $@#% Factor: 10

Zombie, also known as Zombi 2 has fascinating origins. Directed by Lucio Fulci, one of the most prolific (and best) horror filmmakers of all time, Zombie was released in Italy as a “sequel” to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Except nobody bothered to tell Romero that it was a sequel. They also failed to tell him that it was better than Dawn in almost every way. Ironically, the zombies-on-an-island premise that this film pioneered was adopted with disastrous results by Romero himself when he made the worst zombie film of his career, Survival of the Dead, in 2010. Zombie may have many titles, but most people just refer it as “that movie where a zombie fights a shark.”

Fair enough. That moment, shot pre CGI, is very much a part of popular culture at this point (it’s even in TV commercials). And for good reason, because it’s the single most inspired sequence in the genre’s history. It must be noted, however, that the film is full of scenes just as memorable. It’s that good.

7. Cemetery Man (1994)
Director: Michele Soavi
Crazy Zombie $@#% Factor: 7

Inspired by Dylan Dog (the comic, not the horrible 2011 movie), Cemetery Man follows a guardian who works at the Buffalora Cemetery and must defend himself against the dead, who, like clockwork, rise from the very graves he puts them in. It’s hard not to love the poetry in that. It would have been obvious for Soavi to make this play out like a goofy or more zombie-proofed version of Evil Dead 2. While much of Rupert Everett’s after-hour Dylan Dog-ish antics are played for laughs, there’s a wonderful sense of beauty, romance, and tragedy to the film’s colorful approach to the genre. The last shot is literally magical and makes a good case for Cemetery Man being the dreamiest arthouse zombie movie ever.

 

6. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Director: Zack Snyder
Crazy Zombie $@#% Factor: 9

This may be the only remake in the history of cinema that benefits from being dumbed down. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is better than Romero’s original. There, I said it.

 

 

 

 


5. Land of the Dead (2005)
Director: George A. Romero
Crazy Zombie $@#% Factor: 6

One of the best zombie stories of all time came out in 2005, and nobody noticed. Or cared. Sadly, that’s typical for a Romero movie. Horror fans didn’t like it because it wasn’t 28 Weeks Later, and Romero fans didn’t love it because there was CGI and, worst of all, John Leguizamo. Both are dead wrong, well, except for the John Leguizamo part. I get the impression that Land of the Dead is the kind of epic zombie action movie Romero always dreamed of making but never had the budget for. It’s his “Intolerance” minus the self aggrandizement and zombie Jesus. A spiritual successor to Day of the Dead, this is Romero at his most antiestablishment (which is saying something). The story follows that dude from TV’s The Mentalist (he lost the right to be called his real name after doing that show) and horror movie royalty Asia Argento as renegade survivors who team up when they discover a beacon of hope amidst a den of evil. Of course, this being Romero, the beacon is far from hopeful and the den is far from evil. The allegory of an elite class (lead by Dennis Hopper in his last great role) living in a literal ivory tower as the tainted masses toil away until the very moment they suddenly achieve a twitch of revolutionary self-awareness is blunt but effectively handled by a director who seems to be having the time of his life. He’s not the only one.

4. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Director: Edgar Wright
Crazy Zombie $@#% Factor: 9

I liked but didn’t  love Shaun when I first saw it in the theater. I found it to be cocky, over-directed, and lacking focus. Countless viewings later, and those are the exact reasons I love it. In fact, I can’t imagine the zombie genre without Shaun. It’s one of those rare parodies that transcends the very thing it’s paying homage to–the Spaceballs of zombie movies! Even Romero tipped his hat (something he rarely does) by casting Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright as, what else, zombies in Land of the Dead. I am of the opinion that after just three movies, Edgar Wright is one of the best new directors of the 21st century, and he certainly cut his teeth (no pun intended) on his first trip to the cinematic playground.

 

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