The Top 15 Zombie Movies of All Time
by Dan Collacott
Zombie movies aren’t dead, they may smell bad, they may still feast on other genres for inspiration, but they continue to rise again almost fifty years after they first shambled into our movie theatres.
Martin Freeman recently showed us how the burden of parenthood is even worse during a slightly racist Australian apocalypse, in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s wonderful Cargo. The Cured proved that zombies can serve as an allegory for Ireland’s troubled past just as TV series In The Flesh took aim at small town attitudes and prejudices. Zombieland is even finally getting a sequel, even scandi noir TV got an entry in the zombie verse with The Rain. French zombie film The Night Eats the World was lauded by critics for being an art-house horror film with many nods to 28 Days Later. Recent release The Dead Don't Die even stars Bill Murray and Kylo Ren! While One Cut of the Dead brought meta zombies to the world of horror.
Beginners Guide to Zombie Films
There are so many must see zombie movies that have captivated horror fans over the last twenty years it is hard to wittle the undead down to just a handful of films. But if you are new to the genre then check out our introduction to the best zombie films to watch and get you started with the brain-munching genre that is still taking graveyards by storm!
This Spanish zombie flick was part of the glut of endless terrible 'found footage' films that flooded the world of horror following the success of Blair Witch. But unlike much that went before Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza's REC was a huge success, spawning four sequels, one US remake (Quarantine-2008) and a sequel to that remake that abandoned the original mythos. The original follows a television reporter and cameraman who investigate and uncover a strange outbreak in an apartment building in Barcelona. What sets this film apart is the location, with intense claustrophobia and growing dread building as the reporter gets closer to uncovering the unholy secrets behind the outbreak. The sequels are worth a watch to even if they are far less nuanced and interesting than the first film.
14. The Night Eats The World (La nuit a dévoré le monde) - 2018
On the morning after a big party most people find themselves with a hang over and various degrees of shame. In The Night Eats The World, Sam wakes up to find Paris invaded by zombies, forced to barricade himself in the large block of flats he once shared with the living. Dominique Rocher dials up the isolation and guilt in this brutal dissection of human nature and loneliness. Swapping budget sapping scale and action set pieces for psychological drama.
13. One Cut of the Dead - 2019
Praised for its originality and for its extremely meta and satirical take on the zombie movie, Shinichirou Ueda's One Cut of the dead is already considered a modern classic. The plot focuses on a struggling director and film crew shooting a low budget zombie film in an abandoned WWII Japanese facility when the real undead arrive in search of flesh. Ueda uses a familiar and predictable formula as a springboard to launch plenty of fast paced inspired action and comedy laden chaos.
12. Cemetery Man - 1984
Italian Director Michele Soavi (who worked with horror legends Lucio Fulci's and Dario Argento) brought shuffling to life this criminally underrated and largely ignored 80s horror flick. Cemetery Man is part comedy part zombie horror and all Rupert Everett. Everett actually plays the central role of the cemetery caretaker who calmly deals with an influx of corpses returning from the dead. The film is tinged with elements of folk horror as well as ethereal and slightly mystical movie tropes, bringing a few new layers to the genre.
11. Brain Dead - 1992
Famous for being one of Peter Jackson's early films (before he started to develop bad hobbits). Braindead is a gory piece of schlock horror fun that follows an unfortunate group of victims who are infected at the claws of a zoo dwelling zombie rat. Channeling the spirit of Psycho, complete with an overbearing mother and beaten down son, this B-movie classic ramps up the disgusting, with a series of classic stop motion and physical effects all laced with quotable humour.
10. Dead Snow - 2009
Nazi Zombie film’s became their own sub genre and let’s be honest not a particularly good one. That is until Norwegian Director Tommy Wirkola brought Dead Snow into our lives.
The film centers on a group of students on a skiing holiday in the mountains when they start to encounter undead Nazi SS officers (package holidays aren’t what they were). Dead Snow blends typical cabin in the wood/Evil Dead elements, with typically crunchy inventive zombie munching style deaths and Word War Two revenge narrative. Recovering their previously stolen treasure also proves a huge motivation for the Nazi zombies.
Dead Snow is a fun undead romp with plenty of well-executed darkly comic moments, power tool fuelled deaths and some rather lovely mountain scenery. Best enjoyed with a mug of Horlicks.
The sequel Dead Snow 2: Red or Dead, doesn’t disappoint either.
9. Day of the Dead - 1985
The third in the original Romero trilogy widely credited for populising the zombie movie genre. Day of the Dead is set after the events of Night of Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Humanity is now losing the war against the zombie apocalypse.
Hunkered down in a cold war nuclear bunker a team of scientists are working to try and understand how the un-dead function, how they behave, what of their previous humanity and motor functions is retained. All this leads to one of Romero’s most inspired creations, Bub, the pet zombie.
The local military reluctantly bring lead scientist and Bub’s owner Dr. Logan more and more zombie test subjects, risking their lives in a world overrun by the undead. Relations between the scientists and the military begin to fracture. By the end of the film order breaks down, the humans involved turn on each other and the undead over run the base.
There have been several pretty awful Day of the Dead remakes, in 2008 Ving Rhymes starred in a low rent version with superhuman zombies (the jumping dead). There was even a dire 2005 sequel called Day of The Dead 2: Contagium, which like the remakes, had no involvement or endorsement by Romero.
8. Zombieland 2009
While Shaun of the Dead introduced the world to the concept of (intentional) comedy in zombie films or zomedy as no one calls it. Five years later Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland took that sub genre and dialed it up a little with a bigger budget and big US stars; including early introductions to Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin and Emma Stone (alongside the more seasoned Woody Harrelson).
The movie is a fairly typical survival road movie set in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, but features a ‘America’s funniest videos’ aesthetic with cut scene replays of ‘kill of the week.’ Another cool feature is the film’s 33 rules for survival, which are quoted throughout by Columbus (Eisenberg). The film takes the characters through various locations in largely deserted (by humans) Southern America, including encounters with Bill Murray (as himself) and the inspired climax in a theme park.
Brutally inventive, brilliantly acted and darkly comic, Zombieland was the highest grossing zombie film until Brad Pitt’s World War Z came along. An Amazon originals TV pilot was aborted after a poor fan reception but the 2019 sequel at least provided enough fan service without setting the world alight.
7. Zombi 2 - 1979
Italian horror director Lucio Fulci intended Zombi 2 to be a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which was released as Zombi in Italy).
Zombi 2 begins in New York when a mysterious boat belonging to a missing scientist washes up in the harbor. The scientist’s daughter then goes searching for him on the fictional island of Matul.
The film is largely set in the Caribbean and focuses on more traditional undead themes of voodoo, which are at the center of the islands scientific investigation. Filmed mostly on location in Italy as well as Santo Domingo, Fulci with little budget creates beautiful on location cinematography, typical of his films.
With gruesomely inventive kills, the much-adored ‘zombie vs. shark’ under water moment and a much-lauded soundtrack by frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi. Zombi 2 is an interesting blend of early 60s-70s zombie movies and their 1930s forerunners.
Fulci did return to the genre nine years later for Zombi 3, but this was a sequel in name only.
6. Land of the Dead - 2005
Arguably the last Zombie film Romero made before his death that maintained the standard of the films that went before (even if Diary and Survival of The Dead were by no means terrible).
Land of The Dead is set a long time after the events of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in a post apocalyptic America where much of the land has been abandoned to the undead. The film focuses on one of the remaining human colonies, built around a large hotel complex where a ruling class live in luxury whilst the under class live in the surrounding ghetto. Those outside of the main building risk their lives on salvage missions in the zombie-infested world outside, just to bring the rich their supplies. Cholo (John Leguizamo) schemes and scavages in the hope of earning his place in the hotel run by a sociopathic Kaufman (Dennis Hopper).
Meanwhile the zombies themselves are objects of ridicule and killed for sport (see if you can spot the cameos from Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Tom Savini) but like Bub before him, one Zombie (affectionately known as Big Daddy) begins to actively fight back against his human oppressors, first protecting then leading his fellow zombies on a mission to avenge their fallen.
Sharing some similarities with Mad Max and other bad future movies, Romero once again paints a grim picture of society, proving that even after the apocalypse happens the rich still subjugate the weak and poor. But even more uniquely after the credits roll you’ll actually sympathise with the Big Daddy and his fellow zombies, the ultimate under class.
5. Dawn of the Dead 2004 (Remake)
Whilst the original Romero film will always be a classic, Zack Snyder’s remake warrants a mention because it was probably the first real mainstream big budget zombie film that brought the whole genre into the centre ground (28 Days Later laid some serious groundwork but didn’t have the same budget). George Romero himself is even credited as being involved in the script penned by James Gunn.
The film manages to build on the themes and settings of the original, bringing added scale and bigger special effects to the American Shopping mall setting. It sacrifices some of the social commentary and bloated script of the original for a much leaner, faster and suspenseful film.
The character acting is solid if unspectacular with Ving Rhymes and Sarah Polley doing a fair job of leading the action. The survival plot follows most of the same beats as the original, with a few different twists and substitutions. But from the first panning aerial shot of an Oil Tanker totalling a car, you knew that the Zombie film had finally gone from B movie nasty to big time action movie. Without this we would probably have no World War Z or Walking Dead TV franchise (amongst numerous other undead hits).
4. Shaun of the Dead - 2004
The first in the Cornetto trilogy saw Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg create a very British and now cult zombie film. An idea sewn when they were making the sitcom Spaced, Shaun of the Dead is a classic underdog story of how the titular loser faces up to the zombie apocalypse in an attempt to both survive and repair his broken relationship.
Described as a zombie romantic comedy or zom com rom the film is full of nods to the films that went before as well as a litany of pop culture references and riffs on friendship and pub culture. Shaun of the Dead is easy to watch and fun to re-watch for all the things you missed in the background the first time.
It also paved the way for other title puns like Night of the Living Deb and the excellent Juan of the Dead as well as the already mentioned Zombieland. The original Evil Dead is clearly the king of undead comedy but it exists in its own awesome genre, whereas Shaun of the Dead sits firmly in the universe Romero created.
3. 28 Days Later - 2002
Danny Boyle and Alex Garland brought the apocalypse to London with a heavily stylized and brutal zombie film. Featuring haunting and now iconic scenes of a confused Jim (Cillian Murphy) wandering through deserted landmarks in the capital during the aftermath.
The film moves from its disorienting survival premise to a road movie in search of hope as the main characters seek out any remains of civilisation. They eventually find a functioning military base, which despite the sanctuary and hope it offers descends into chaos as its leader, Major Henry West's (Christopher Eccleston in inspired form) disturbed motives are laid bare.
28 Days Later has equal amounts of heart and tragedy as well as it’s chilling cinematography. Swapping the shambling undead for the much more immediate brutal threat of the faster more agile rage zombie (first introduced in part by David Kronenburg’s Rabid). Featuring a virus not only fuelled by hate but transmitted by contact with blood. The film brought more dramatic weight to the zombie genre, doubling down on the wider impacts of the apocalypse. 28 Weeks later followed in 2007 and was an adequate if unspectacular sequel.
2. Night of the Living Dead - 1968
The opening picture in George A. Romero’s core zombie trilogy certainly wasn’t the first film featuring the shambling undead, but it is still widely credited with bringing the genre to forefront of society.
The movie centres on a group of survivors holed up in a farmhouse as the dead rise from their graves to attack and eat the living. It also offers the rule that only a ‘gun shot or heavy blow to the head’ can stop the ghouls (in addition to burning the corpses).
The scenes where the dead eat the living earned the movie stiff rebuke from the critics at the time of release, pre teens who saw the film (due to the lack of certification) where genuinely terrified. Despite this the film grossed 250 times its original budget as cinema-goers flocked to see it.
The pitch black ending, destructive human behaviour, inventive use of gore and practical special effects, plus a light sprinkling of the type of social commentary that would become a mainstay of Romero’s films ensured Night of the Living Dead has maintained a revered place in film history.
The film had numerous re-releases and revisions including a colour version, then 3D and a 1990 remake by Tom Savini (based on a re-written screen play by Romero). Romero had legal and copyright issues, which meant he needed the remakes and re-releases to help him make money from the film.
Co-creator John Russo released a series of films called The Return of the Living Dead that were an alternative continuity to sequel Dawn of the Dead, but this sparked legal battles with Romero as Return would competed with and lightly plagiarise his next release Day of The Dead.
Despite the copyright and legal battles and the controversial remakes (Russo’s 30th Anniversary special to name but a few). Night of the Living Dead in its original form wrote the rulebook for the modern day Zombie film.
1. Train to Busan (Busanhaeng) - 2016
South Korea’s highest grossing film of all time just happens to be one of the best zombie movies of the last five years. Sang-ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park’s film focuses on a group of passengers travelling on a Seoul train to Busan as a zombie apocalypse ravages South Korea.
The train struggles to keep ahead of the outbreak, with the survivors unable to disembark as the stations on route become over run. An absent father’s attempts to keep his young daughter safe are undermined by the typically selfish and illogical behaviour from some of the passengers. Soon their train is laid siege to by the undead and the have to battle to survive the titular journey as the apocalypse gathers pace around them.
Train to Busan can be described as '28 Days Later on a train', but it is much more than this. The filming locations across South Korea create a visually compelling landscape for the outbreak. The pace of the film is relentless and frenetic, the drama keeps you gripped and the zombies themselves are fast and savage with a neat twist thrown in for good measure.
The rights to an English spoken remake have been bought by Gaumont and an inspired anime prequel Seoul Station (released just a month later) have ensured the franchise has a future beyond this wonderful first entry to the series.
Honourable Mentions: Zombie Films You Also Must See!
What is the first ever Zombie Film?
The first zombie film ever made is considered to be White Zombie directed by Victor Halperin and released in 1932. The film focused on voodoo mind controlled humans rather than the dead rising again to eat the living.
Can Zombies Infect Animals?
Traditionally the zombie virus is unique to humans but in the 2014 comedy Zombeavers and the pitch black comedy film Black Sheep in 2006, both beavers and sheep are turned into blood thirsty zombie animals. To be fair neither set of animals inherits the condition from human zombie bites.
In some horror films wild packs of dogs even feed on zombies. Pet Sematary in 1989 and its 1992 sequel (and 2019 remake) introduced us to zombie cats and in 2007 Will Smith’s beloved pooch clearly turns a bit zombie (if the new race of creatures can be considered zombies as they are more like vampires maybe even just human evolution).
Can Zombies Die? (Naturally)
Zombies can die just very very slowly!
At the end of 28 Days Later they appear to starve. But in theory they don’t need food, as they have no working digestive system. But in most films or TV series like The Walking Dead, older zombies appear to rot away to nothing, indicating that the host body of the virus breaks down and potentially the virus needs that to survive. In many films zombies bite humans in order to ensure the virus inside them continues to survive and multiply. The undead don’t need oxygen, food or blood, they can exist under water and as long as the brain lives can usually be reduced to a severed head.
But there are plenty of exceptions to the rot till you drop rule. In the film Warm Bodies the most dangerous form of zombies are called ‘Bonies’ and these are literally walking skeletons, so in this instance flesh, organs, even brain aren’t a requirement for undead existence.
Scientifically speaking if a virus takes over a human being, then like a passenger in a car, it still needs the oil to run the engine and the electrics to start the car. It is mildly plausible that an infected body can act as a host and maybe the virus itself creates its own replica network of veins, vessels, systems that supply energy and control without the need for blood, food or oxygen. But these things are rarely explained or even alluded to in film.
Why do Zombies Eat Brains?
To be honest they rarely do eat brains, certainly not in modern zombie films. In those film nasties where they munch on a frontal lobe, it’s more of a parody of other zombie films. The brain is big pink and tasty after all, but if they solely relied on eating brains they would probably starve, as the skull isn’t an easy thing to crack for those wanting a tasty pink snack.
Some purists suggest they are after the serotonin in the brain as like a drug, humans give the best high. In TV series IZombie the female lead (who is a zombie) eats segments of human brain shortly after death as that allows her to see and experience the memories of the deceased. She also picks up their behavioural traits and use their memories to find out how the dead died, solving crime cases in the process.
What is the difference between shambling zombies and rage virus zombies?
Romero’s shambling zombies came from the grave so their condition was reflected by how long their bodies had been in the ground and the state they were in when they died. Most humans that reanimate after death also follow this rule, although they are likely to be more mobile due to the fact they often died from a single bite and the rest of them is largely in tact.
Other humans who rise again have often been part eaten by the undead beforehand; a lot of zombies are shot or lose limbs when repelled by survivors. Some lack the awareness to protect themselves so happily walk of cliffs and high buildings and literally break themselves as a result. Hence so many classic style movie zombies are mangled, broken creatures, who approach slowly. The Walking Dead (TV Series) zombies often encounter recently turned groups of survivors who tend to therefore be a little quicker and more mobile.
Most science in zombie films is pretty silly but that doesn’t stop some zombies exhibiting strength based on the size and build of the human the virus has infected. Big zombies genuinely put up more of a fight!
Rage zombies (or any zombies that suffer a quick acting virus or radiation/meteorite etc.), tend to turn quickly and retain full motor function and the ability to run and jump. Some can even climb and do other things that make them seem more human. For other zombies the rage affords them extraordinary speed, sometimes they even have super-human levels of strength and physicality.
Why are Zombies scary?
The shambling dead are usually scary in high numbers, or lurking unseen in the darkest and most unsuspecting of places. The war with this type of undead in films is a war of attrition as the zombies (usually) out number the humans.
In Max Brook’s book and film World War Z the threat level is amped up by the fact not only are the zombies more dangerous than Romero zombies, but a plague of thousands of them is devastating to humanity. Rage zombies that infect quickly and in large numbers are almost unstoppable.
Because any human can be infected it means that all humans are dangerous, this can prove especially tragic for situations where there is a large group of survivors. It only takes one zombie to infiltrate a settlement or building, one hidden bite or one overlooked room or space the undead could be trapped in (bare in mind they can survive in any space), for the entire population to become quickly infected.
Are Humans in Zombie Films More Dangerous than Zombies?
In most apocalyptic movies human greed, selfish behaviour, poor logic, stupidity and the overall fall of structure and civilisation tends to mean that humans are far more of a threat to themselves than the zombies (especially if the zombies in question are the slower shambling kind). Humans without government, rules, law and even religion/morals are dumb animals driven only by a will to survive at all costs. The Road, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Day of the Dead and 12 Monkeys are prime examples were civilisation breaks down quickly.
In most films zombies are always the problem, but humanity is both the cause and the core reason order is never full restored. There is nearly always a cure that is fought over, lost, never completed or respected enough to find its way into the right hands. World War Z is possibly one of the only modern films to feature a type of cure that actually provides some level of salvation. TV series Z Nation, video game the Last of Us, 28 Weeks Later and even I Am Legend tease either a hybrid zombie/human who holds the key to infection, or someone with immunity whose blood could provide the cure. Yet the promise of stopping infection rarely ever plays out, it just drives plots and gives the illusion of hope.
What is the best way to kill a zombie?
The three best ways to kill a zombie are typically shooting them in the head or bludgeoning them with a blunt object. ‘Piking’ them in the head with any sharp implement also does the trick. Anything that outright kills the brain will stop a zombie in its undead tracks, if a headshot isn’t possible then aiming for the legs will at least slow them down or render them fairly harmless. In some films (including the first Day of the Dead remake) zombies don’t die from headshots, but this is rare.
What is the best weapon to kill a zombie with?
Any blunt instrument that can be used multiple times and relies more on precision than sharpness. Or any easily sourced implement like a sharp stick or jagged piece of metal or glass is a worthy weapon.
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