I sit to begin this list with the background noise of Romero’s Day of the Dead playing, and it’s a great flick to have as motivation for putting together a list like the one I’m about to compile.
It’s not a part of this list, which is no slight; this list isn’t necessarily about the best, most common or most loved zombie flicks. If it was, Day of the Dead would probably be around #6 for me. I love this damn movie!
What I plan to do here, however, is explore the idea(s) behind the zombie mythos, from a number of different origins. I hope that maybe, just maybe, I stumble upon a good point or two in this, but my primary goal here is to apply all that makes a zombie movie a zombie movie to flicks which might not always garner such a distinction.
After all, if the zombie is a metaphor for so much in the films in which they’re contained, why can’t living characters in other films be metaphors for zombies?
I do think it’s a two-way street, and I hope I get to show that a little bit…as well as just profess my undying and undead love for movies full of brain-munching. On that, let’s go!
10) George A. Romero’s
Survival of the Dead
As of the writing of this list, this one hasn’t even had a theatrical release yet, but I think it’s very cool and pretty important in the Bible of zombie horror that has books added to it by the day. Twists and plot points aside, it’s a traditional Romero zombie flick, except for its ending, which essentially blows the top off of Romero’s zombies. In my opinion, Romero managed to kill his creation a bit with this film, and the artistic guts seen in that is a sight to behold, especially coming from the AARP-aged Romero. And at the same time as it kills the genre, it resurrects it, ultimately giving the legacy away to anyone with a camera and a dream. It really is that important a film in the sub-genre, and I do hope it receives its due appreciation as such.
9) 28 Days Later
Here’s our first look at really fast zombies, athletic zombies, and where it doesn’t make sense in most other films that aim to employ the technique, it fits for the zombies of Danny Boyle’s creation. They’re not dead–at least, not necessarily–they’re just overcome, and that distinction allows for a fully-muscled, running strong and punching hard zombie. With his tweaks in the idea of what is and isn’t a zombie, wiggle room was given to a sub-genre which had pretty much had its head cut off and its body burned. Others had re-imagined the zombie, but it was this film that truly modernized them. Rules, a sense of science and logic are necessary to have Rage-infected zombies like those in 28 Days Later, but if those rules are made firm, then there really is no limit to what artists can do with the concept.
8) The Matrix
Yeah. Seriously, too! It’s a huge stretch, but The Matrix is a zombie flick, and it’s definitely worth viewing as such. Basically, it’s the zombie story inverted; everyone’s infected in that world, and the “zombies” are those who are freed by the red pill. Suddenly, however, in one world those who are freed become anathema to the rest of the constructed society, an evil with a chance to spread and infect…just like a zombie. While that line of action develops, we also have the story of Neo and the gang fighting the robots in the real world, where they battle to save humanity from its enslavement, its zombification at the bits and bytes of the machines. Sure, it’s a sci-fi epic…but it’s a zombie flick, too. Just like Boyle’s running zombies in 28 Days Later, all it takes to see them as such is a slight logical shift.
7) The Happening
M. Night Shyamalan’s much-hated film also falls into that “zombie with a stretch” category, although it’s far more obvious and plausible. It’s also a far more localized form of a zombie, a deeply personal and intense portrayal of the struggle made enormous in so many other pieces of the sub-genre. Whether one loves or hates The Happening (I liked it), it’s basically the story of a zombie, one man at a time. An unknown force sweeps over the masses, turning the human populace into a group of creatures hell-bent on its own demise. Those who are infected are consumed to the degree of catatonia with the idea of killing the human race. The only difference is that the human hatred is internalized, nipped in the bud by each person who contracts it. It’s definitely a zombie flick…and it’s a good movie. So shut up already!
6) Choking Hazard
I’ve already praised this film in previous lists, so I won’t give it much more lip service, but suffice it to say that I think this movie goes neck-and-neck with Shaun of the Dead as a sheer zombie comedy flick. It’s only sin for Western audiences is that it’s a Czech film. Otherwise, it’s as witty as a movie comes, hilarious, gory and full of flesh-eating zombies who bite their way through an entire cast of goofs, sluts, thugs and douche bags until the credits roll. “Good f*ckin’ time,” in my book!
This one was a shocker for me. As I sat down to brainstorm for this list, I hadn’t even thought of this movie. My girlfriend shot it forth as an idea from out of the blue, and I immediately crumpled to the floor, absolutely ashamed that I missed this perfect example of not only a great zombie movie, but one of the first. Everyone knows the story, everyone knows the legend and the impact that Mary Shelley’s creation has had on horror literature as a collective. Again, I’m just ashamed that this wasn’t the first thing that came to mind, because if ever a perfect example of a “zombie” existed, it’s in this tale. Simple, re-animated flesh: what more do you need?
4) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
I like this entry particularly because it doesn’t have the gore that other entries in this category might. It doesn’t fit that flesh-gorging ultra-violence we’ve all come to know and love from a good zombie flick, and was a wildly artistic film that makes the idea of a zombie, or in this case a somnambulist, as terrifying as some rotting corpse that wants a taste of my midsection. Like Frankenstein, it’s an absolute classic, and there isn’t a whole lot more for me to say about it that hasn’t already been said, except that I should make an additional urge: if you haven’t seen it, see it. Consider it a second-week assignment of Horror 101.
3) They Live
John Carpenter’s incredible film about aliens who have come to enslave us all is an alien flick, right? It’s not about zombies, right? Wrong. It’s all about creating docile masses via subliminal propaganda, and a small resistance looking to violently end that status quo. The everyday human being in that film is a slave, a zombie in the strictest and most literal sense, and though aliens are the ones being blown to sh*t by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David, zombies are the ever-present, underlying theme. Without the resistance, we’re all zombies. We’re all resigned to a fate of believing what the media tells us…think about it like that, and the whole zombie thing isn’t even a metaphor anymore; it’s just us.
2) Night of the Living Dead
To spoil my own list, my final two selections are Romero zombie flicks, and they’re the two best-known. It’s just a matter of which one’s more important. Many would say that the first is the best, the most important, and though it was scary and new for the time, and though it holds up well over the years, its underlying themes were a bit less clear than in my favorite zombie movie of all time, where the zombie metaphor couldn’t possibly be more apt. Night of the Living Dead has it all, though, and is such an important, essential, scary and just damned GOOD movie that it would be tantamount to a sin if I didn’t include it in this list, no matter how avant-garde I’d like to pretend I’m being. If The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is 2nd-week material in Horror 101, I’d go so far as to say that this is 1st-night material. This is icebreaker material. This is the key which opens the Pandora’s Box that is zombie horror.
1) George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead
And while Night of the Living Dead might be the most important, it’s my view that Dawn of the Dead is the flat-out best. The zombie metaphor, used in this film to directly address the idea of growing consumerism and how it shapes our everyday lives, was so perfectly applied that it seems completely seamless. This film also broods when it needs to, has kick-ass action when necessary, displays true pathos, hits major marks on isolation & paranoia and really hammers home how the zombies are hardly ever the undoing of the humans with whom we’re supposed to identify; humanity always brings humanity down, and the zombies are just the saprophytic clean-up crew that washes over the mess that we’ve made of ourselves. If not for that blue make-up, I’d say that this movie was absolutely perfect, regardless of genre. Whether big-budget or not, high-concept or not, this movie was about as perfect as a movie gets in conveying all of its points, from philosophy to fear. That’s why it’s #1; that’s why no other zombie flick even stands a chance in the face of Dawn of the Dead.