With the passing of the great George A. Romero, it’s time to take a look back at the best zombie movies ever made since he pioneered the genre in the 1960s with a little independent movie known as Night of the Living Dead. It’s safe to say that no other game-changing movie has ever spawned quite as many rip-offs as Night of the Living Dead – not even Quentin Tarantino’s script-flipping debut feature Reservoir Dogs – and the movie world is all the better for it. Naysayers will tell you that there were zombies in fiction before Romero, but shrug them off as cynics, because there’s no modern zombie without George A. Romero. Sure, the idea of the undead had been bandied around earlier than Romero – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance – but the idea of the ‘zombie’ as we think of it today was all Romero. The hunger for human brains and flesh, the slow walking, the moaning, the hordes descending upon a ragtag group of survivors, the astute social commentary about racism and American consumerism – that was all Romero. Sadly, he has recently passed away, but his legacy will live on forever. So, here are the fifteen greatest zombie movies of all time. Of course, most of them are directed by Romero. The rest were heavily influenced by Romero. We’ll miss you, buddy.
15. World War Z
The first ever epic-scale, big-budget blockbuster in the zombie genre, World War Z is kind of an anomaly. The genre had, up until World War Z, been confined to small, low-budget grindhouse flicks with no-name actors in them. The undead flesh-eaters were the stars. But then $200 million was spent on a globe-trotting Hollywood adventure through a zombie-infested world, starring A-list topper Brad Pitt. It was based on Max Brooks’ previously considered unfilmable novel, a series of fictional UN reports about a fictional zombie apocalypse, and they pulled it off admirably by thrusting Pitt deep into that world. Paramount lost faith in the movie during production, and even considered pulling the plug. However, it paid off, since it grossed over $500 million worldwide and it’s a non-stop thrill-ride from start to finish with a commitment to character, thanks to a family angle. So, let’s start getting excited about the long overdue sequel, expected to be released as late as 2019 (but it gets closer every single day).
Any zombie movie that features Bill Murray, as himself, pretending to be a zombie amid a real zombie apocalypse, and then getting shot dead when the prank gets too real and his performance gets too believable, is worthy of classic status. Zombieland stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin as a group of survivors who reluctantly join forces and head to an amusement park. Zombieland is a riotously enjoyable movie, from its wacky and absurd sense of humor, showing the realities of surviving a zombie apocalypse while suffering from IBS and the greatest zombie kill of all time, utilizing a piano as the weapon of choice, to its ridiculous levels of gore worth their wait in shock value. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.
2014’s Cooties didn’t get a huge release. It had a premiere at Sundance and then a limited theatrical release and a general VOD release (the modern day alternative to direct to DVD releasing). However, it’s not half bad as a movie. And it deserves a spot on this list for its premise alone. It’s genius! It’s a horror comedy about an elementary school that gets hit with a virus that turns the kids into zombies and leaves the teachers fighting for their lives. The whole point of the zombie genre is its potential for symbolism and conveying metaphors, and this is clearly a metaphor for the struggles of the teaching profession, and it’s brilliant. Plus, it gets bonus points for its writer, Leigh Whannell, the guy who gave us Saw, and the cast: Elijah Wood (aka Frodo Baggins), Rainn Wilson (aka Dwight Schrute), Jack McBrayer (aka Kenneth Parcell), Jorge Garcia (aka Hurley), Nasim Pedrad (aka Shallon, Heshy, Bedelia, and many more), and Matt Jones (aka Badger).
12. I Am Legend
I Am Legend is a rare kind of zombie movie that’s set way, way after the peak of the apocalypse. It sees Will Smith’s Robert Neville hanging around an isolated, empty, decimated New York City. It’s visually striking and some of the shots look beautiful. Plus, the empty streets that are usually terribly busy have a brilliantly haunting quality, as do Neville’s dialogue exchanges with inanimate mannequins. And most of the time, nothing happens, so that when something does happen, like Neville encounters one of the shadow-dwelling mutants that now inhabit the Earth, it’s all the more exciting and terrifying. This may not sound so great, but look only to the scene where Neville’s dog – his only true companion in the world – runs into a dark building and Neville goes in after him to see what a thrilling flick I Am Legend is. And its ending inspires hope, which is all too rare in the zombie genre.
11. Land of the Dead
Every time George A. Romero made a new Dead movie, the story would take place a little further down the zombie apocalypse timeline. See, he’d already tackled the outbreak of the zombie virus and he’d already tackled the resulting breakdown of society, so rather than retread territory he’d already covered, he would take the next logical step in the story with each successive film. His movie Land of the Dead was an interesting take on the zombie movie premise. It was the closest Romero got to portraying The Walking Dead part of the apocalypse, where society has learned to deal with the undead, so their problems with each other are coming back to the forefront. It’s about the political response, as a governing body has formed over the survivors. Also, interesting cameo alert: Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the creative team behind the Romero-inspired masterpiece Shaun of the Dead, play zombies in the movie.
10. Night of the Creeps
Night of the Creeps was not a financially successful movie, but it’s achieved cult film status over the years. It’s hardly surprising, since it doesn’t exactly scream mass appeal. Writer-director Fred Dekker went out of his way to make a cliché-ridden B-movie, utilizing all the tropes of the genre in the script, which he wrote in just a week. It’s really great – the main story involves zombies, while subplots involve an alien invasion and a serial killer. Dekker managed to achieve more than just a B-movie homage – he made a real film. Nina Darnton wrote that while it is derivative, Dekker’s Night of the Creeps still manages “to create suspense, build tension, and achieve respectable performances.” Eric Profancik of DVD Verdict called it “a great flick that deserves its cult status.” Steve Barton of Dread Central gave it five stars and said that Night of the Creeps is “a classic in every sense of the word.” Michael Gingold of Fangoria wrote that the movie has “a sure hand on its tone and never descended into spoofery,” which is very difficult to pull off.
Re-Animator is perhaps best remembered for its horrifying rape scene, in which a naked woman is raped by a decapitating head, bringing all new meaning to the term “giving head” (apologies for the pun). The movie’s director and co-writer Stuart Gordon originally came up with the story after he realized how many Dracula-based or Dracula-inspired movies were being made and expressed interest in seeing a Frankenstein movie. So, he crafted an adaptation of a story by H.P. Lovecraft and made it memorably vile, disgusting, creepy, and unsettling – everything a good zombie flick should be! Also, the producers struggled to get the rating down from box office killing X. Any horror movie where this is the case is bound to terrify you!
8. Planet Terror
It might have flopped at the box office, but Planet Terror is a heck of a movie. It’s not particularly smart, but that’s the point – it’s not supposed to be smart! Someone with a lot of money told Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that they could make a zombie movie however the hell they wanted to, no matter how crazy, no matter how expensive. Put it this way: it’s a movie in which a woman replaces her leg with an assault rifle. It’s stupid, but in a good way. In theaters, it was paired with Tarantino’s only bad movie, Death Proof, and released as a double feature under the title Grindhouse, as it was both an homage to and a parody of exploitation movies of the 1970s. One neat little twist in Planet Terror is that Rodriguez used a real-life problem with missing reels to movies to fix his story problem, by pretending to have a missing reel and therefore skipping over some major changes to the story. After the so-called ‘missing reel,’ the characters are talking to each other differently and the story is totally different and you have absolutely no idea what’s going on.
7. 28 Days Later
28 Days Later succeeds by having a gritty aesthetic, unnerving visuals, and a basis in reality. For starters, the virus spreads thanks to a bunch of animal liberation activists who accidentally release it on one of their humanitarian quests. From “Repent – the end is extremely fucking night” written on the wall of a zombie-infested church to the sight of Cillian Murphy walking the empty streets of London after leaving the hospital, having woken up from routine surgery into a world where society has broken down and people are eating other people. Director Danny Boyle will insist to his dying day that 28 Days Later is not a zombie movie, but of course it is. It set the stage for the modern zombie movie, with the gritty realism and the shaky camerawork. Bloody Disgusting put it perfectly when they ranked it the seventh best horror movie of the decade: “Zombie movie? Political allegory? Humanist drama? 28 Days Later is all of those things and more – a genuine work of art by a director at the top of his game. What’s so amazing about the film is the way it so expertly balances scenes of white-knuckled, hell-for-leather horror with moments of intimate beauty.”
6. Evil Dead II
The first Evil Dead movie, made by director Sam Raimi on a shoestring budget, was more of a demonic horror movie. When it came time to monopolize on its success and make a sequel, Raimi decided to switch it up a little. Like his forefather George A. Romero, Raimi didn’t want to simply retread territory he had already trodden on with his terrific debut, so he switched out the demons for zombies. With the third movie, Army of Darkness, he switched out the present day for medieval times and had Ash traveling through time with mixed results, but let’s not get into that. Evil Dead II is wildly enjoyable and full of tonal shifts, flitting from terrifying to hilarious to shocking to outrageous to dumb to jaw-dropping, all marvelous.
Stereotypes are never a good thing, but the Spanish know how to make a good horror flick. From The Devil’s Backbone to The Orphanage, they know just what frightens us. REC monopolized on the popularity of the found footage genre that was started with The Blair Witch Project by making a zombie movie set in an apartment building. As always, they put an interesting twist on a time-tested tradition. Usually found footage movies are constructed of footage that was ‘found’ on the camcorder of some amateur nobodies who happened to encounter a horrifying event while they were filming. REC follows a news team as a broadcaster reports on a firehouse’s work. This, of course, devolves into a zombie quarantine. As they investigate further and enter the dark catacombs of the building, it just gets creepier and creepier. After watching REC, you’ll be scared off the dark for weeks.
4. Day of the Dead
George A. Romero’s 1985 movie Day of the Dead – the third instalment in his Dead series after Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead – is a weird kind of movie. It’s not about a group of survivors getting by on the streets, struggling to evade the undead. It digs deeper than that, showing a bunch of scientists at a secure compound trying to figure it out and cure the zombie virus. Romero called Day of the Dead a “tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society.” It was never just about the zombies with him. He was always using them as a framework to tell deeper human stories. It’s great!
3. Shaun of the Dead
Through and through, Shaun of the Dead is a masterpiece. It’s funny, scary, and emotionally engaging. The direction is on point, the writing is phenomenal, the editing is some of the tightest in film history, and the acting is incredible. Perhaps the greatest reason why Shaun of the Dead succeeds is because it didn’t exactly set out to be a zombie movie. When Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg sat down to write it, they weren’t building a story around a zombie apocalypse – they were building a zombie apocalypse around their story. They made a romantic comedy about a boyfriend who’s too complacent and lazy and realizes he needs to commit to making his girlfriend happy because he’s in love with her. Meanwhile, a zombie apocalypse happens. That’s what makes Shaun of the Dead so great and so special, and that’s what makes it stand above the crowd. By the way, if you haven’t yet, check out Edgar’s latest movie Baby Driver – it’s amazing.
2. Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead is the one that started it all. George A. Romero made a little independent black and white movie about a bunch of corpses who rise from their graves to feed on human flesh and he changed horror forever. The thing is, it’s not even really about flesh-eating cadavers come back to life. It’s about racism. No director used the horror genre to properly convey the terrors of racism until Jordan Peele did so this year with his masterpiece Get Out, and when Peele first announced that movie, he even acknowledged the revolutionary work of Romero with Night of the Living Dead. Night of the Living Dead altered the horror genre for generations to come, and even though its director has died, the legacy of his film and his creation will live on for years and years. This is the movie we have to thank for the highest rated show on television today. It’s the movie we have to thank for Stephen King, Eli Roth, and all the other great horror pioneers of the modern day. It’s a landmark movie, topped only by its consumerism satire sequel.
1. Dawn of the Dead
The only zombie movie director to ever top George A. Romero’s original masterpiece Night of the Living Dead was Romero himself with its color sequel, Dawn of the Dead. The original was an allegory of racism, but its sequel was a satire of American consumerism. Its central group of survivors holed up in a shopping mall, and of course the undead swarm the mall. It’s the perfect image to sum up corporate America. Brands and products wall to wall, and the mindless zombies flock there, moaning and desperately trying to get in. It’s a tour de force, and it manages to display the larger effects of a zombie apocalypse on society, larger than its predecessor did. See, that’s what Romero did – he kept bettering himself. Dawn of the Dead was such a fantastically gnarly horror flick that it was banned in some countries, but if you are able to get a hold of it, it’s completely worth it.