by Jason Frank Koenigsberg
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I love zombie movies but I have put off making a Top 10 Zombie Movies list mostly because I had a feeling that it would predominantly be a list of George Romero movies. Well, I was right. George A. Romero basically invented the modern zombie picture with his groundbreaking independent horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) and it stands the test of time as being not only the first but also one of the best zombie movies ever made. The same can be said for some of its sequels. Sure there were zombie movies before George A. Romero brought his signature to the genre like White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi, often cited as the first zombie movie, and then there was also I Walked with a Zombie (1943) among others, both dealt with Voodoo and Haitian lore. Romero’s zombies are the ones that have been embedded in our pop culture since the Nixon administration. It was not until Danny Boyle’s quasi-zombie infection movie 28 Days Later (2003) was released that zombies got an upgrade with fast moving zombies. That is the biggest major changes to the genre. All the thought I put into writing about global infection movies in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic I kept putting off talking about zombie movies. Well since most people are stuck at home now is a better time than ever to write about and rank my favorite cinematic flesh eating ghouls and watch some of these horror favorites. So without any further ado here are the ten best zombie movies of all time.
10. Warm Bodies (2013) directed by Jonathan Levine
You may be scratching your heads that the first zombie film on this top 10 is a PG-13 romantic comedy geared towards teens and young adults. But hear me out. Warm Bodies is a surprisingly effective, feel good zombie movie, with a strong moral center about finding love against all odds in a post apocalyptic world and how that love could cure the problems our planet is facing. Is it a product of absolute fantasy that goes against the grain of most other gruesome zombie movies? Yes, but Warm Bodies is entrancing and the performances from Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer make you root for them and this feels like the most optimistic zombie movie ever made.
9. Return of the Living Dead (1985) directed by Dan O’Bannon
A hilarious and campy gore-fest. Return of the Living Dead has nothing to do with any of George A. Romero’s “Of the Dead” zombie pictures but instead created its own universe and rules about how the zombie apocalypse comes about and spawned its own movie universe with several sequels. The late veteran character actor James Karen gives one of his most memorable performances as one of the two bumbling employees at a medical waste facility that accidentally unleashes a gas that causes the dead to rise from the grave and crave human brains. This is where that cliche of zombies wanting brains comes from. I guess we should all be happy that the airborne Coronavirus does not cause anything seen here to happen. Return of the Living Dead is a high energy B-movie and a very fun horror comedy hybrid with unique make-up effects to satisfy the sickest horror aficionados.
8. Dead Snow (2009) directed by Tommy Wirkola
NAZI ZOMBIES! Need I say any more? Seriously though, I wrote about this movie before and I continue to sing its praises. This Norwegian horror gem is one of the most indisputably fun horror movies that takes a lot of cliches and then piles on the gore and humor as well as the scares to this very popular horror sub-genre. It is without a doubt one of the best zombie films (and that’s saying a lot considering how popular the undead have been this century) and compliments a lot of the zombie films that came before it. Plus, it’s the first film I have seen which has NAZI ZOMBIES! Come on, NAZI ZOMBIES! Why haven’t you seen this movie yet? NAZI ZOMBIES!
7. Dawn of the Dead (2004) directed by Zack Snyder
The Dawn of the Dead remake is very much a product of its time and it was a strong feature film debut from the now well known auteur Zack Snyder. Borrowing heavily from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003) by speeding up the zombies from a slow crawl in Romero’s original, to Speedy Gonzalez paced running in this version. But that is also a commentary on the flow of the movie itself. This Dawn of the Dead moves much faster than its predecessor, in doing so it also lacks the artistry of the original. We now have seen enough to know that Zack Snyder does not necessarily care about artistic subtly, but he certainly can deliver thrills and suspense with a grand visual style that can rival Michael Bay’s. This film is relentless and gets away with a lot as a big budget studio production with an ending that made me raise my first and cheer in the theater. Snyder masterfully used music to amplify the action and managed to make Dawn of the Dead a confident first film and piled on the thrills, violence, and surprises. It is also equipped with a few top notch performances from the talented cast of Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, and Mekhi Phifer.
6. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) directed by Wes Craven
This is the most unique zombie film on the list and I hesitated to even put it on here. What makes The Serpent and the Rainbow so different from everything else is that it does not involve a post apocalyptic scenario or spreading of a disease. Instead it is about a college professor (Bill Pullman) who hears about a black magic drug in Haiti that turn people into zombie like creatures so he goes off to investigate on his own. The scariest part about The Serpent and the Rainbow is that it is allegedly based on a true story. Certainly some liberties were taken to make this into a two hour horror movie, but this is a very bold and captivating picture from the later horror maestro Wes Craven which sadly does not get as much attention as some of his bigger hits like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). The Serpent and the Rainbow is every bit as powerful as his most famous titles and is more challenging than the average horror movie. It is also the only title listed here to bring the modern zombie era back to its original roots in dark underworld magic and voodoo spells.
5. Shaun of the Dead (2004) directed by Edgar Wright
I mentioned that a lot the movies listed above are “fun”. Well, most of them are if you like zombie horror either to be ultra thrilling, downright comical, or both. I can say with full confidence that Shaun of the Dead is the most fun zombie movie ever made. The whole time it is a loving tribute to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, while at the same time follows all the standard rules of not only his zombie movies, but also the rules of every romantic comedy from the past twenty years, and it works great as a romcom. Julia Roberts should be just as proud of her influence on this film as much as George Romero. Plus, it is also a great subtle social commentary about friendship as much as romantic relationships, and underachieving slacker culture where men feel more comfortable playing video games and hanging out at the pub than following their ambitions to improve their current situations. There is so much to love about Shaun of the Dead and it deserves all of the acclaim it has received since it first premiered sixteen years ago. If anything, it has grown in reputation and is more beloved by the mainstream now than it was as a quirky British import when it first arrived from across the pond. Stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright would make two other films together but most will probably agree that Shaun of the Dead is their best collaboration.
Now we are into Romero territory. A space I wanted to avoid and celebrate equally because this is where it stops becoming a list of zombie movies and turns into a list of his best movies. He is indeed a true visionary of horror and has earned all of the praise he received for inventing the modern zombie sub-genre but also adding onto it with his other zombie films. He did also explore other genres of horror and excelled with pictures like Season of the Witch (1972), Martin (1977), and Monkey Shines (1988) all of which are criminally underrated and deserve their own rediscovering. He also made a global infection movie called The Crazies (1973) which I personally was not so crazy about and slightly preferred the 2010 remake which is extremely unusual. He also made two other zombie films not mentioned in the top ten called Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009) which are worth seeing only for George A. Romero completionists. He made zombie films over a span of five decades. But his best zombie movies stand the test of time and the first four are outstanding each one works in their own brilliant and unique way. They work together as one magnum opus and separately as they dissect different elements of human nature and are some of the best social commentaries ever created in the guise of a horror film.
4. Land of the Dead (2005) directed by George A. Romero
After a twenty year absence from directing a zombie movie. George Romero returned to bring zombies into the 21st century his way with Land of the Dead. He did not miss a beat. From the opening shot with zombies roaming around a gazebo in a park area near a sign that says ‘EATS’ he cleverly brought us up to speed and got the plot rolling with his band of characters struggling to survive and bring back food and items to a well protected fortress of a city gated off from the rest of the world and the flesh eaters. It works as a commentary on the George W. Bush administration and about class culture that even when all seems to be lost and it is the end of the world, there will still be a rich group of people that will live well off the hard labor of the middle and working class. It is a worthy sequel that did not make much at the box office or fair well with critics but deserves to be put in the same category as George A. Romero’s more famous zombie movies. Keep a lookout for a great cameo by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as zombies. Romero loved Shaun of the Dead and they were honored to be zombies in a one of his films.
3. Day of the Dead (1985) directed by George A. Romero
What was originally planned to be a big budget zombie movie lost a lot of its funding when George Romero refused to skimp out on the blood and guts. An R-rating would not be enough to satisfy him and theater chains and newspapers would not support an X-rated or Unrated (which Day of the Dead eventually was) release. So the result was another independent movie with limited distribution and made very little at the box office. But Day of the Dead also contains the best zombie gore effects of any motion picture and that is not a hyperbole. Tom Savini outdid himself with this film and the practical effects have never been topped. The zombies here have more character and personality with just their make up effects than ever before. Day of the Dead focused on characters and the contrasting mentality between military men and scientists. The need to survive is torn between the need to defend and the need to problem solve and seek a cure and better understanding of the enemy. The acting is all over the place but even the gonzo performances from Joe Pilato as the vicious military leader and Richard Liberty as the eccentric Dr. Frankenstein-esque researcher make Day of the Dead stand out from being just a claustrophobic zombie movie in an underground salt mine in Florida. Day of the Dead is much more than just the third Romero zombie movie or the third best Romero zombie movie, it is one of the seminal horror movies of its time.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968) directed by George A. Romero
The one that started it all. The independent film movement officially commenced with George A. Romero’s original zombie masterpiece back in the late 1960’s. I say that not only because it was independently made and financed but also because of its extremely unconventional and controversial ending. It has been debated and analyzed by critics and scholars ever since its first midnight screenings. What it says as a social commentary about racism in America, civil rights, the military, the Cold War, gun culture, all in an isolated farm in rural Pennsylvania outside Romero’s home of Pittsburgh. The fact that it still shocks audiences over fifty years later says a lot about the impact of this low budget horror film. This is a brutal and groundbreaking landmark in cinema that nobody especially George Romero could have ever imagined the impact it would have on our culture. It is amazing what this movie got away with especially key scenes involving a child and minorities. People did not know what to make of Night of the Living Dead when it first came out and its fame spread via word of mouth. The violence and carnage on display was shocking for its time and the black and white cinematography lends a timeless quality that has helped this film to endure as long as it has.
1. Dawn of the Dead (1979) directed by George A. Romero
The only zombie movie and Romero movie that is better than his original masterpiece of horror and independent cinema is the sequel Dawn of the Dead. The way Romero challenged audiences with suspenseful thrills, smart social commentary on civil rights, racism, our gun loving nation, and such an audacious ending, he somehow inexplicably managed to top with Dawn of the Dead. This is one of the best sequels ever made. Romero had a lot to say about the USA since a lot had happened in the ten years since his debut film. This time he channeled his terror into a satire on American consumerism, class struggles, and the Vietnam war. Plus some of the most gut-wrenching special effects by make-up guru Tom Savini. Regardless of being a sequel to a groundbreaking classic, Dawn of the Dead is one of the best horror movies of all time and the greatest zombie movie ever made.