The Cult Primer is a new article series on MRFH where we help to introduce you to a new genre you might not have sampled by pointing out the “essentials” to get you started.
They rise from the grave. They shamble. They decay. They hunger for brains. They pursue. They outnumber us. And every one of us that they kill… becomes one of them.
If you’ve never given zombie flicks much of a fair shake, then you are missing out on one of the greatest achievements of horror filmmaking. Forget vampires, werewolves, mummies — give me a flock of undead any day of the week, and I’ll sit attentively, hands folded and eyes wide. Zombies are a very popular sub-genre of horror, a combination of monsters, survival and quite often, post-apocalyptic earth. Although several decades old, the genre boomed in the 80’s and has soared in the 2000’s, spawning several sub-sub genres, such as the zombie comedy (zomcom) and zombie romance (romzom).
While easy to dismiss as exercises in gratuitous gore (which, to be fair, they often are), the affection for these films comes from some of the more unique facets of zombies themselves:
- Zombies prey upon people’s fears of corpses
- They are a mobile embodiment of a plague, constantly infecting and “turning” the living into a greater mass of living dead
- Although human-shaped, viewers hold little sympathy for them, enabling the filmmakers to dispose of them frequently
- Zombies have sheer numbers on their side, which often creates a hopeless state for our heroes (an unwinnable, unsurvivable situation)
Obviously, by the chart above, there are bound to be a ton of sub-par zombie films, and thus your first experience might be your last. Here are ten essential zombie films that get to the meat — make that brains — of the field:
1. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
That’s right — one of the worst-made movies of all time just so happens to be a zombie movie, as aliens enact “plan 9” to take over the world by turning folks into mindless zombies. It’s funny in ways director Ed Wood never intended, such as beef-head Tor Johnson trying (unsuccessfully) to play a detective who becomes a (unsuccessful) member of the undead.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
While zombie movies date back to the early 1900’s, it was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead that catapulted them into stardom. This is a full-fledged classic, my friends, that begins with an inexplicable rising of the dead at a graveyard and ends with a tense siege at a farmhouse. More graphic and creepy than it gets credit for these days, Romero’s first Living Dead film accidentally fell into public domain, meaning anyone and everyone could make copies and sell it.
3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
If anything, Romero’s follow-up eclipsed Night of the Living Dead to become the gold standard of zombie movies, partially in thanks to a genius makeup artist known as Tom Savini. It follows a handful of survivors who hole up in a suburban mall following the zombie uprising. At first they feel as though they’re living in a consumerist paradise, but before long the walls close in and the zombies make headway. Its large dose of black humor went a long way to taking the sting out of Romero’s satire against society (a theme that got more and more annoying as his series progressed).
4. Zombi 2 (1979)
Lucio Fulci might not be a household name for you, but in the zombie movie genre, he’s a pretty big player for his role in directing Zombi 2 (which, confusingly, isn’t a direct sequel to anything, and has other titles such as Zombie as well). Zombi 2‘s approach was to take what had already been seen in zombie films to date, and go far over the top in an effort to one up them. Hence, a movie where, among other things, a zombie fights a tiger shark — an actual shark, mind you.
5. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
ROTLD isn’t so much of a part of Romero’s Dead series as it is an offshoot, with only a tenuous connection to the original Living Dead. Part comedy, part horror, part punk and part splatterpunk, ROTLD played up the humor and light parody, while still delivering some noteworthy chills (such as the infamous Tar Man). The zombies in this series are interesting in that they often can talk, especially about their fondness for brains as an entree.
6. Re-Animator (1985)
Most zombie movies focus on the aftermath of an uprising, with only lip service given to how the zombies came to be in the first place. Re-Animator, however, is all about the Frankenscience that created zombies — in this case, a twisted medical genius (Herbert West, played by horror staple Jeffrey Combs) who is obsessed with resurrecting the dead. As you may imagine, this doesn’t have happy results.
7. Braindead (1992)
Before he was tapped for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson was best known for his splatter-horror roots, particularly in the ultra-gory Braindead. The film centers around a New Zealand town that gradually converts to zombieism, and a final blood-drenched party where our hero Lionel takes on an endless horde of undead with a lawnmower strapped to his chest. Awesome, funny stuff.
8. Resident Evil (2002)
Based on the popular video game series, Resident Evil launched another zombie franchise with an action-packed flick that pitted Milla Jovovich and a group of commandos who storm an underground lab, only to find out that the zombies (and zombie dogs!) might have the upper hand. An enjoyable, guilty pleasure of many, including yours truly.
9. 28 Days Later (2002)
While there are technically no zombies in this film (they’re “infected” humans, but, y’know, same difference), 28 Days Later is note-by-note a classic zombie tale of the end of the world. Well, the end of England, at least, as a medical patient awakens to discover that the island is just about deserted, except for packs of sprinting fiends whose blood is highly contageous.
10. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Both a full-fledged parody of the zombie genre and an honest zombie thriller in its own right, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost enjoyed tweaking the undead on the nose by playing up the genre’s conventions, all the while adding a subplot of romance and bromance to keep things spicy. It gets bonus points for referencing Evil Dead’s Ash.
Looking for even more past these? I’d add these five to your plate, if you have the stomach:
- Evil Dead 2 – Debatable as a pure “zombie” film, but it is certainly close enough for all intents and purposes. And it is awesome.
- Day of the Dead – Romero’s third Dead film isn’t a personal favorite, but it does get a lot of props for a talking zombie and incredible special effects.
- Dawn of the Dead (2004) – Zack Snyder’s pseudo-remake of Romero’s film is relentlessly bloody, bleak and — dare I say it — kind of awesome. It has one of the best openings of any zombie movie ever made.
- Pet Sematary – A crude adaptation of Stephen King’s classic, but it’s creepy and effective as animals and humans are brought back to life with the aid of an ancient graveyard.
- Deadgirl – Two losers find a gorgeous zombie tied up in an abandoned mental hospital, and decide to keep her for… questionable purposes.