At the behest of certain interested parties, I have been entreated to compile a list of the top ten greatest zombie movies of all time. No mean feat. Nevertheless, I have taken a crack at it, and as with all top ten lists, the goal here is really more to generate discussion than to make definitive statements. Here are the criteria I used in order of importance:
a) importance to the genre
b) quality as a film
c) personal taste
Please note: I do not consider anything to be a zombie which is not literally a reanimated corpse. There is no need to advise me that I “forgot” Sam Raimi or Danny Boyle. I’m familiar with their work. People possessed by demons or infected by viruses while still living simply don’t count for these purposes.
1. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) - I can already predict that this is going to be my most controversial choice. However, this is the one occasion where the quality of the film outweighed its contribution to the genre. DAWN established the capacity for glorious setpieces, laugh-out-loud humor (blood pressure test, anyone?) and potent, still jarring political commentary that resonates to this day. If watching the ghouls gonk out on the ice rink at the end doesn’t make you slap your forehead and say, “Jesus, what kind of a world do we live in?” I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
2. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - The original, still the scariest (Karen Cooper, Jesus Christ!), but just not quite as good watching as the sequel. Obviously, without this one, there would be no modern zombie genre. Its importance categorically cannot be overstated, but due to some creaky acting and the satire being a little less cutting than DAWN’s, it takes the #2 spot.
3. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD - Probably the first major departure from the traditional, slow-moving, shoot-them-in-the-head Romero zombies, ROTLD gifted the world with the Russo zombie. Russo’s zombies can talk, are indestructible, and, perhaps most notably, crave “braaaaains.” On a personal note, this is my all-time favorite zombie movie, eminently watchable and rewatchable, ridiculously laugh-out-loud funny, and with an almost impossibly good soundtrack. “Send…more…cops!”
4. DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) - The first ten minutes of this movie is perhaps the greatest ten minutes in cinematic history. Sad to say, that glorious tour-de-force could not continue for the next ninety, otherwise this might take the top spot. However, considering this was a remake of a sequel, it had a surprisingly big impact on the genre. Eschewing the usual political satire, unfortunately (except perhaps for the scene with the stillborn baby) it instead focused on establishing “fast” zombies as a real and credible threat. Some people credit 28 DAYS LATER with that development, but the two were contemporaries, and, obviously, this is a list of zombie movies, not a list of “ooh, booga-booga, we got infected by monkey Rage virus and are still alive” movies.
5. ZOMBI II aka ZOMBIE - Picture a zombie poster in your head. Are you surprised at the one that popped in there almost instantly, with the worm crawling out of its nose? This ubiquitous image is probably the most lasting contribution of Lucio Fulci’s seminal work, but in terms of altering the landscape of Italian horror, its cannot be overlooked. This film could be ninety minutes of Andy Rooney picking his nose and just that thirty second scene where the splinter pierces Paola Menard’s eye and I would still watch it. Also, answers the age-old question of who would win in a fight: the zombie or the shark.
6. SHAUN OF THE DEAD - SHAUN probably doesn’t deserve to be this high on the list on its own merits, but for kicking off the zombie renaissance of the last decade, it can hardly be overlooked. Most non-gorehounds, in fact, will cite this as the one zombie movie they’ve seen. Possibly the funniest movie on this list and probably the best acted - check that, DEFINITELY the best acted. I always appreciate a genre spoof that also works in the lexicon of the genre it’s spoofing. (You hear that, makers of MEET THE SPARTANS who keep churning this crap out every year? Go watch SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and respect the god-damned source material!)
7. DAY OF THE DEAD - Rounding out the Holy Trilogy, I really hate to give DAY OF THE DEAD such short shrift, since it gets such short shrift from everybody else, but I really can’t justify ranking it higher. Even Romero was upset with the changes he had to make (go read the original script if you want to see what the genre’s crowning masterpiece could’ve looked like.) However, for the introduction of Bub alone this film deserves the #6 slot. Never before had a zombie been a sympathetic character, thus paving the way for Big Daddy in LAND OF THE DEAD, COLIN, FIDO, R in WARM BODIES…come to think of it, pretty much every zombie character since then. Also, Rhodes’s comeuppance? Guess you’re not running this monkey farm anymore, eh, Frankenstein?
8. BRAINDEAD aka DEAD ALIVE - Some people claim that THE LORD OF THE RINGS is Peter Jackson’s best film. Those people haven’t seen DEAD ALIVE. The goriest movie of all time™ still stands up with the best and the bloodiest of them after 20 years. “I kick ass…FOR THE LORD!”
9. RE-ANIMATOR - “Herbert West.” Just try to say it without using Jeffrey Combs’s creepy-ass inflection. RE-ANIMATOR definitely takes the top slot in the “mad scientist who makes zombies” sub-genre. There is no other character quite as composed, charming, brilliant, and batshit crazy as “Wesssssssst!” For a different look at the havoc that just a few zombies can cause, as opposed to the deluge we usually end up with, RE-ANIMATOR definitely takes the cake. (Hint: decapitated blowjob.) And, yes, there’s a deluge at the end.
10. DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE aka CEMETERY MAN - Didn’t think this movie was going to make it on here, did you? Well, fuck you. If nothing else CEMETERY MAN proves that zombie cinema can be high art. A haunting, disturbing film that nevertheless doesn’t give any short shrift to the sheer zombie awesomeness, CEMETERY MAN is perhaps the most unique film on this list and definitely deserving to be ranked amongst the top of the canon.
JUAN OF THE DEAD - notable if for no other reason than for being the first Cuban film released internationally, it shows the universality of the zombie metaphor in a glorious satire of the Castro regime that makes me wonder how many of the filmmakers got shot afterwards
FIDO - since NOTLD was made in 1968, we had no idea how the people of the 1950s would’ve reacted to a zombie invasion…until Fido came out. Clever, though slight, it adds little to the genre and so gets knocked out of the top ten. Also notable for introducing the zombie control collar.
RESIDENT EVIL - easily overlooked in the wake of its execrable sequels (yes, I’ve watched every last one and will keep doing so) the original RE film was a bit of a gem, and helped bridge the long gap between the late ‘80s/early 90’s unofficial moratorium (ha!) on the genre and the latter day zombie renaissance. Similar to the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, if the opening ten minutes doesn’t blow you away, you’re a little bit dead inside.
ZOMBIELAND - one of the tightest film-as-a-films on this list, clever, watchable, with a fun gimmick and great characters. But ultimately it just doesn’t add a whole lot to the genre, except popular exposure.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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