Zombie movies might be the most enjoyable of all the horror movie subgenres, and for good reason. There’s something enthralling and thrilling about watching a group of desperate survivors cling to life and battle the undead. Full of campy fun and impressively gross scares, zombie films allow us to entertain secret fears (and fantasies) of surviving and kicking-ass in a post-apocalyptic world.
Zombies as a horror archetype go deeper than that. Unlike a vampire, which retains its capacity to reason, a zombie represents a human being deprive of all higher brain function. A zombie is a human being reduced to noting but a snarling drive to consume. They do not and cannot obey the social order. They don’t observe human decency.
In a zombie movie, anyone can be turned into a zombie; anyone can become lost to the zombie hoard. On the flip side, a zombie apocalypse is the perfect time find out what a person is made of and how far they’re willing to go to survive.
In a weird, perverse way, I suspect zombie movies are popular because its a vicarious way to test ourselves. Our lives are too safe, too comfortable. We sometimes wonder if we’ve gone soft. With a zombie movie, we can pretend we’re as strong and brave and daring as we wish. We pretend we would survive by the time the credits roll.
To further your vicarious viewing experience, I’ve compiled a list of my 8 favorite zombie movies. These range from classic zombie horror to lose interpretations of the living dead, but they’re all fun and scary films.
Please be advised, there are some spoilers.
Night of Living Dead (1968)
The undisputed king of zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead follows a random group of strangers that find themselves trapped in an abandoned house. The dead have risen from their graves and wander in search f fresh human meat to feed on. Led by level-headed and practical Ben, the survivors struggle to fortify the house and fend off the dead. But tensions within the group lead to distrust and explosive arguments which threaten to expose them all to certain death.
This classic horror film is credited with the first depiction of zombie’s as somewhat mindless corpses feasting on human flesh. Despite being shot on an extremely low budget, the film is straight up savage, pulling no punches as the terrifying zombies multiply and stalk and finally overrun the house. Zombies don’t need to be fast to be terrifying—Romero’s zombies are at their most dangerous after they’ve clumped up near a window, and when one of them remembers how to use a rock to break glass, and when they become a wall of vice-like hands and snapping mouths.
Night of the Living Dead was and is a daring movie. It featured a black male lead, touching on many nerves in the tumultuous world of 1968 America. It was subversive to depict a black man as resourceful and commanding, successfully surviving the night’s horrors only to be killed by a white man who mistakes him for a zombie. Even after almost 50 years, Night of the Living Dead is not only horrifying but still culturally relevant, with its themes of masculinity, the disintegration of order, and the human chaos that ensues.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Zombies have taken over the U.S. The police and armed forces are doing their best to contain the spread of the zombie hoard, but they lose ground steadily. The cities are no longer sage, and the dead have ventured into the countryside. Fleeing the carnage, a radio station employee, his girlfriend, and two SWAT member stumble upon an abandoned yet fully stocked shopping mall. Recognizing the mall as a haven, they try their best to make it there fortress against the threats of the new world.
Of course George A. Romero pops up on my list again for his sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Whereas the first film gave us a narrow glimpse into a zombie outbreak, Dawn of the Dead offers a sweeping look at a world overrun with zombies. This movie is a fair bit gorier, with tons of violence as the foursome shoot their way out of every scrap the find themselves in. Even with all that fake blood, the violence never feels cheap, adding to the horror of the reality of the world—they must be prepared to kill. Yu can see how the weight of their nasty work weighs on them.
For the survivors, taking refuge in mall is something like paradise. There’s food, guns, clothing, jewelry, perfume; anything they could ever want and need is there. Try as they might to distract themselves by going “shopping”, occasionally taking great delight in shooting zombies or mowing through a hoard of them, the group quickly finds that nothing can keep the zombies at bay.
Medical student Herbert West is obsessed with the idea of bringing the dead back to life. Unafraid of the practical or ethical consequences of his morbid work, West carries out his experiments on anyone unlucky enough to get in his way. But West doesn’t know what he’s in for, as his reagent serum brings his enemy back to life with unexpected results.
I know Re-Animator isn’t a typical zombie movie, mostly because it lacks the widespread apocalypse that has become an integral part of zombie films. I still love it, mainly for being a successful hybrid of the mad scientist and zombie genres. Re-Animator is a gross, weird, unsettling movie that charges straight ahead into gore and depravity. For that, it earns a spot on my list.
Re-Animator is a story about a crazed, frantic quest for knowledge without regard for human life. West is a hypocrite of the first order, bring cats and people back to life only after he killed them. I love how the more desperate West becomes and the more his work consumes him, the more difficulty he has in controlling his monstrous creations, especially when it comes to his arch-enemy Dr. Hill. Re-Animator is not to be missed for the effective and entertaining script, impressive make-ups, and deeply disturbing shocks.
Pet Sematary (1989)
When the Creed family relocate to Maine, everything seems to be perfect—their neighbors are friendly, Dr. Creed has a good job, and everyone is settling in nicely. After the family’s cat is killed, an elderly neighbor named Jud shares a deadly secret with Dr. Creed. Behind their houses lies an abandoned cemetery that was built on an ancient native American burial ground. If a person buries a corpse in the cemetery, the corpse will come back to life. Jud and Dr. Creed bury the cat there and successfully bring it back to life. Only the cat is…different now. And not in a good way. Tragedy strikes again when Dr. Creed’s son dies in a horrific accident. Against Jud’s warnings, Dr. Creed buries his son in the cemetery in a desperate attempt to resurrect his son.
I like Pet Sematary for driving home how difficult it would be to confront a zombified loved one. Little zombie Gage is utterly horrifying, with his disturbing love of “playing” with his father’s scalpels. Pet Sematary isn’t the best film, but casting such a cherubic little boy as Gage, who could twist his little face into hideous grimaces makes the film extremely scary. The way little Gage has a maniacal gleam in his eyes and is intent on murdering all the adults is alarming. The way he carries out his murders is the stuff of nightmares. No one ever wants to believe that our loved ones could be capable of such grotesque, atrocious actions, even if they are zombies. But we especially don’t want to think of our cute children slicing and dicing us up.
28 Days Later (2002)
Londoner Jim wakes up from his month-long coma to find the city completely deserted. The streets are abandoned, save for the victims of a mysterious virus. This virus turns the infested into rabid, mindless zombies. Desperate to survive, Jim falls in with a group of survivors. Together they flee London in search of a less-densely populated area and a safer area, unsure of the dangers they will find.
28 Days Later is my favorite zombie movie. It’s so, so good—scary, provocative, intelligent, and just really well made. This was the first film depiction of zombies as fast, agile creatures instead of slow, lumbering monsters. The film was a huge game changer for the whole zombie subgenre. I think we can all agree that fast zombies are a million times worse than slow zombies. I know I’d be a goner for sure.
The real genius of 28 Days Later comes not from this new horrendous breed of zombies, but from the breakdown of society and how it impacts the characters. Like I mentioned above, zombies symbolize our ears of becoming lost to the hoard, of losing our mental capacities. Our ability to reason makes us civilized and separates us from the beasts. In the film, Jim and his band of survivors learn how human beings don’t need to be infested to devolve into uncivilized brutes. All we need is a big push to expose our inner savagery.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun is 30-something year old who is content with his life as a slacker, to the great disappointment of his longtime girlfriend Liz. All Shaun and his slacker friend Ed want to do is hang out at their neighborhood pub. One day, their boring lives are upended by a zombie outbreak. Shaun must man-up and grow-up in order to save Liz, his mother, and his friends.
I watch Shaun of the Dead every year because it is damn funny. It’s also a really good zombie horror film, carefully balancing laughs with Grade A zombie gross-outs. Seriously, you can tell just how much writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright love zombie movies and love to make fun of zombie movies. It’s a movie for horror lovers and non-horror-lovers, which is a rare and difficult kind of movie to create.
The best part about Shaun of the Dead is its surprisingly heart-warming, human message. It’s easy for zombie movies to become mired in blood and guts and jump scares. It’s difficult to retain the human element. Not for Shaun of the Dead, which never forgets that relationships are the most important thing, even to deadbeat slackers in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
Angela and her camera man are filming a segment on a local fire station when the firefighters receive an emergency call. Angela decides to shadow the firefighters on their call, following the responders to an apartment building. Inside, an elderly woman is extremely ill. Soon they realize that a devastating viral outbreak has gripped the entire apartment building, transforming the inhabitants into ferocious cannibals. Angela, her camera man, and the firefighters are quarantined in the building, unable to escape.
As schlocky as it sounded, I enjoyed the blending of zombie and demonic possession. After all, both of those subgenres deal with a loss of mental and physical control, so they seem ripe for pairing. I also enjoyed how Rec finally figured out how to do found-footage horror without sacrificing lot or character motivation to get the shot. That’s because the film is more focuses on creating suspense, building tension, and creating a terrifying claustrophobic film. Rec is genuinely scary, using the best parts of mood and found footage to deliver a truly shocking, unique film.
A viral outbreak has decimated the world, turning the population into zombies and bringing civilization to its knees. Four strangers band together in an uneasy agreement to travel across America to Los Angeles, the location of a rumored refuge. Against their best intentions, the four strangers become friends, sharing their survival rules, zombie-killing tactics, and details of their lives before the apocalypse.
Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland delights in pairing laughs with nasty, vicious zombies. Zombieland takes it even farther, embracing zombies with a finely developed sense of whimsical, macabre humor. What other movie has made zombie-killing into a literal amusement park attraction. And who wouldn’t want to be a total badass and take out a zombie with a banjo? Freaking awesome!
I know, zombies used to be people, it would be terrible to make fun of the people they used to be, blah blah blah, but here’s a movie where the characters fully understand that. And because zombies are no longer people, the characters are going to get their kicks where they can and have a bit of fun while surviving. There is no room for decorum and a certain gallows humor is more appropriate. It is the end of the world after all, and good taste died with it.
Zombieland is surprisingly touching as well. Even these talented zombie-killers, bristling with defense mechanisms and distrust, gradually allow themselves to get close to each other. It may not be the most polite, refined group of people, but they end up together as a family, proving that human beings can make the best out of any situation.