The zombie movie is a genre unlike any other in film. It can be a complete exploitation vehicle replete with buxom babes and crazy flesh eaters. It can be stylistically well put together and elevate both the genre and medium. Or, it can serve as a metaphor for the times we are living in. When MovieWeb interviewed the Godfather of zombie films, George A. Romero, he was asked if he wanted to make anymore Dead films. To paraphrase, he said that he did but he wanted to have the films "mean something." One could argue that you could do this in any genre, but there is something about the zombie genre that lends itself to metaphors.
So what makes a great zombie movie? Is it the FX? Is it the story? Is it how it might speak to the events of our time? Is it the Walking Dead themselves? It seems that it needs to be a mix of all these things. And, if the film is lucky, even amidst the craziest moments of doom, it appears that an element of comedy doesn't hurt either. These films can't be Mr. Holmes. The need to have a big mix, the kitchen sink, and let's not forget at least a little sex never hurts. Unless it's with a biting severed head hungry for more brains!
The best zombie films are able to be political (Night of the Living Dead), farcical (Zombieland), scary (Day Of The Dead), and unique (Shaun of the Dead). Like anything, these rules aren't hard and fast. Just because a zombie film has all these elements, that doesn't make it a good zombie film. It still needs to be executed well. Trust us when we say that over the years, there have been plenty of Living Dead movies that have either been brain dead, or completely devoid of life all together. You won't find any of those movies here.
In putting together this list of 'The 16 Best Zombie Movies of All Time', we wanted to satisfy ourselves as well as the hardcore fans of the genre. As we stated above, zombie films are unique. They take us into a world that is both multifaceted and horrifying. It stands to reason that a list celebrating these films should be both scary and filled with surprises. And that's exactly what we hope happens here. If you disagree with one of the movies, or think we're assholes for not including Juan of the Dead alongside Dawn and Shaun, just know it would have been our 18th pick (we already have a bonus entry!). And don't even get us started about World War Z.
George A. Romero is the father of the zombie flick. So of course we kick things off with him right at the top. Please don't be upset that we split his third film away from the original trio. While we like that movie a lot, we feel a few newer releases stepped up the genre, and said some of the things better than Day Of The Dead could have hoped to. With that said, here we go. Here are our picks for the 16 best Zombie movies of all time. Agree to disagree!
1Night of the Living Dead 1968
George A. Romero's groundbreaking tale of zombies attacking people in a small house is a thing of legend. Never before had we seen brutality on screen like this. How many times before this had we seen an African American man as the hero in a horror movie? Filled with comedy, frights, and the somberness of the 1960s, Night of the Living Dead was also a metaphor for the atrocities of war with the US incursion in Vietnam firmly in its sights. A truly groundbreaking, landmark film in ANY genre.
2Dawn Of The Dead 1978
George A. Romero returned 10 years later with another gem. Set in a mall, Dawn Of The Dead more overtly seems to be skewering the American tenets of capitalism and consumerism. With the zombie problem now at epidemic proportions, people are forced to hole up in a mall as they seek refuge and fight off these human flesh eaters. Aside from the top notch FX and intriguing story, Dawn Of The Dead is a really good movie; it just happens to have zombies in it. No death in this film is a throw away. There is a reason for the kills. Statements are being made, and by proxy, Dawn Of The Dead elevates itself in the process.
3Shaun of the Dead 2004
Released in 2004, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead was truly a revelation. This was a film that turned the genre inside out. Yet, it wasn't deconstructing the zombie films that had come before it (like Scream did with the horror genre), it was celebrating them in a way that everybody was "in on the joke" because there was no joke to be had. As with all great zombie films, Shaun of the Dead centers around (you guessed it!) a zombie outbreak. However, rather than just fight for survival, our main characters (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), have to reconcile relationships in the process. Sure, this film is filled with jokes and grand moments of comedy, but it is truly groundbreaking the way this film breaks down the zombie genre and manages to give us a pretty darn good gorefest in the process.
4 Zombie 1980
This seminal zombie film has it all. First off, it has the legendary Lucio Fulci as its director. He was a man who reveled in the work he did within the horror genre. It was as if he saw all the violence, gore, and mayhem that zombies could elicit, and he knew that could be a platform to explore other ideas. Secondly, you have people in a tropical paradise that are experiencing a nightmare. The ability to contrast pristine settings with flesh eating creatures from the undead, is part and parcel of what makes these films effective. Lastly, look at the cover art for this movie. If you met someone who had no idea what a zombie was, all you would need to do would be to show them this image. It is grotesquely beautiful just like the film itself.
5 The Return of the Living Dead 1985
Director Dan O'Bannon's mid-80s film was more fun than the other Dead films, but that doesn't mean it is less effective. The great conceit of the zombie films is that even amidst these treacherous situations, there is plenty of room for humor and contemplation. The story is simple, a gaseous substance is released into the air and suddenly the dead return to wreak havoc. This would be enough but these zombies have a punk rock angle! Now, maybe this was a subtle way of saying that marginalized sub-cultures would soon take over pop culture (as it happened!), or perhaps it was a way of cashing in on one of punk rock's nadir moments. Whatever the case, it is very hard to sit through The Return of the Living Dead and not be entertained.