I'm not even going to dance around it. The fact is, I have not been a lifetime horror fan. As it turns out, there have been quite a few that I've liked along the way, but they seldom made me want to get deeper into the genre. On top of that, I've been even less interested in zombie movies. Until recently, they've predominantly been products of the lowest production values and the sparest creativity. Gore for the sake of gore is rather a bore.
So what business do I have making a list of "Best Zombie Movies" anyway? Well, if you're a hardcore zombie junkie, you don't need this. You'll watch anything and you already know what you like. I'm not approaching this as a zombie fan, but as a film fan, so my picks won't necessarily reflect the priorities of the hardcore fans. The biggest example of this is the exclusion of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. While it's considered THE seminal zombie movie and (to be fair) pretty much established the sub-genre by itself, I just didn't LIKE it, and I found all the praise of its subtext to be vastly overstated. It does, however, set the pattern upon which future zombie movies would expand. In short: the newly dead rise from the grave and eat the living. Fleeing strangers seek refuge. They're gradually picked off either by zombies or their own paranoia. One or two might survive, but chances are they'll get killed anyway. Much as with punk rock, The Sex Pistols may have been the founders, but The Clash were the masters. Deal with that. Bring on the masters...
28 Days Later... - 2002
Written by Alex Garland
Directed by Danny Boyle
The Gold Standard for modern zombie movies. While not strictly the first movie to feature "fast-movers," it was the one that popularized them. They certainly enhance the sense of threat, but 28 Days doesn't make them the focus. It, like many of the best ones, places the emphasis on how humans manage to survive each other in the presence of such a sudden and soul-jarring disaster. It's interesting to me that, in the absence of hot-and-cold-running firearms in England, the story so strongly centers on protecting humanity in more ways than the physical. Also that "Rage" is the super-contagion creating mindless killing machines.
Warm Bodies - 2013
Written by Jonathan Levine from the
Book by Isaac Marion
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Now this is something different. Told from the perspective of a teenaged zombie who is surprised to discover that he has a perspective. He develops thoughts and feelings, particularly concerning a living young woman. They team up, realizing that there might be more to the whole zombie thing than eating brains or being target practice (respectively), and that realization threatens the stability of both their worlds. It's funny. It's sweet. It's everything that hardcore zombie fans hate. It dares... to have hope. (gasp) *choke* My only complaint is that the "Bonies," zombies who've lost all hope and become dessicated, skeletal corpses, run faster than both the regular zombies and the humans, which just makes no sense whatsoever from a biological standpoint. Being little more than skeletons, they don't have the muscles to run fast. They do play an important role as the ultimate threat, so I guess there's that.
Open Grave - 2013
Written by Chris & Eddie Borey
Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego
I sort of hate to include this one here because it's much better if you go into it not knowing that there are zombies, and you definitely should not expect it to be a "Zombie Movie." On the other hand, you're unlikely to see this film without having it recommended, and it deserves to be seen. A man awakens in a pit full of dead bodies with no idea who he is or how he got there. He finds his way to a nearby house where a group of people is similarly afflicted. Trust is in even shorter supply than answers. In addition to setting up a tremendous mystery/thriller, when it does reveal its "Z" connection, its an aspect of such stories that we have rarely, if ever, seen addressed before.
The Battery - 2012
Written & Directed by Jeremy Gardner
This little indie places the focus squarely on survival. Two former baseball teammates have stuck together ever since the outbreak, and over time it becomes clear that it's less out of any particular bond between them, and more a matter of just not wanting to be alone, and really not having any better ideas than going on. In an unusual character twist for a z-flick, Mickey refuses to kill zombies, and doesn't show much of an instinct for survival at all. Ben continues to carry him, and it helps that the zombies are old-school brain-dead slow-movers. After so long together, it's clear that they're reaching the end of their ropes. Mickey escapes into his headphones as much as possible, and Ben is starting to take a little too much glee in the zombie-slaying. When they intercept a radio transmission from a xenophobic stronghold of survivors, Mickey becomes even more dangerous to their team as he tries to establish contact with the woman on the radio. This is a quieter piece which nevertheless builds the tension as bad choices and bad luck collide.
Dawn of the Dead - 1978
Written & Directed by George Romero
I may not care for Romero's foundational Night of the Living Dead, but as disappointing as I found that one, I thought the next one, Dawn of the Dead, delivered. Here, the social satire is on full display as four survivors take refuge atop a shopping mall where the zombies still stroll because it's all they can remember how to do. With swarms of slow-walkers, the threat is much better represented than in the first, and the threat of other humans is considerably ramped up as well. The humor is abundant, and the characters are actually likeable. Anyone seeking a foundational zombie movie would get everything they needed here. Romero's Dawn of the Dead is so seminal that the Dead Rising video game is basically a direct riff on it. Also, there's...
Dawn of the Dead - 2004
Written by James Gunn from the original by George Romero
Directed by Zack Snyder
Given that Snyder's films tend to be visually impressive, but ultimately dead things anyway, it's unsurprising that this is in many ways his least disappointing film. In fact, it's the humanity shown that makes this a worthwhile (if much less brilliant) remake. This time, a larger group of survivors affords more opportunities for interpersonal drama... and loss. While there was a pregnancy in Romero's Dawn, Snyder's sees it through to its unholy conclusion in the film's most unforgettable scene. This Dawn served as an effective, uncomplicated base for the new zombie trend that was to follow. I'm not saying it sparked it, but it provided a handy return to basics.
Shaun of the Dead - 2004
Written by Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright
Directed by Edgar Wright
Now this is one of the films that helped spark it (along with 28 Days Later). Zombie movies seem particularly well-suited to comedy for some reason. Perhaps it's the inherent absurdity or the opportunities for extreme behavior. Maybe it's just whistling past the graveyard. Notice the homage to Dawn of the Dead in the title. Pegg & Wright's Shaun uses the zombies as metaphor for the dead end that not-quite-so-young-anymore Shaun has reached in his life due to his unwillingness to wake up and smell the choices. Filled with quotable lines, Shaun of the Dead launched the international careers of Pegg, Wright and Nick Frost.
Zombieland - 2009
Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Speaking of how zombies are well-suited to comedy, Zombieland definitely favors the comedy side of the family. Good ol' boy Woody Harrelson joins a particularly twitchy Jesse Eisenberg on a cross-country trek post outbreak. They run into Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as another duo of survivors. Neither duo wants to trust the other, but they just might need each other. The rules of Zombie Survival are discussed, Twinkies are the ultimate food in post-civilzation America, and Bill Murray steals the show, appearing as... Bill Murray.
The Cabin in the Woods - 2012
Written by Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard
Okay, this barely qualifies as a zombie movie, but there ARE zombies, and it IS a great movie. As has happened time and again in ages past, five young people go to a remote cabin and unleash a terrible evil. The evil they happen to unleash in this case is an inbred frontier family of living deadness. The blood begins to flow... but there's more going on here than meets the dangling eyeball. Though frequently overlooked as such, this is a fully qualified entry in the greater Whedon family of quality entertainments.
ParaNorman - 2012
Written by Chris Butler
Directed by Chris Butler & Sam Fell
Norman Babcock is like a lot of kids his age. He's fascinated with monster movies; zombies in particular. Norman is NOT like a lot of kids. Norman sees dead people. Everywhere. All the time. This tends not to endear him to his classmates at school, and frustrates the hell out of his family. When his crazy uncle dies, it falls to Norman to perform the ritual that will protect his town from the curse of a colonial era witch or the dead will walk again.
Norman does not perform the ritual.
Mayhem ensues, and everyone has a lesson or two coming their way. ParaNorman is a funny and touching work of stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and The Box Trolls.
Maybe not great films, but ones that offer something fresh or interesting to the zombie library.
Deadgirl - 2008
Written by Trent Haaga
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento & Gadi Harel
I almost forgot this one because it's so unsettling. A couple of teenage boys explore a long-since abandoned asylum, discovering a locked door buried behind a hallway crammed full of old equipment and refuse. Behind the door, they find the body of a girl in much better condition than her surroundings. To their surprise, she's not exactly dead... but not exactly alive either. What follows is, shall we say, some of the poorer behavior of which opportunistic teenage boys are capable. The tension and fear at work in Deadgirl hinge primarily on human behavior. Their secret discovery builds conflict between them, and the tinder of conflict grows until something has to ignite it. While relatively light on the gore, Deadgirl is probably the most genuinely horrific film on this entire list.
Dance of the Dead - 2008
Written by Joe Ballarini
Directed by Gregg Bishop
A zombie plague strikes on the night of the senior prom and it falls to the schools dateless misfits to rescue their classmates, or at least achieve a little cathartic release on what remains. A fun, funny high school flick with lots of head-smashy goodness.
28 Weeks Later - 2007
Written by [see link for writing team]
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
This loosely related sequel to 28 Days Later is in nowhere near the same class as the original, but taken on its own terms, it does tell a unique story. It's a more traditional zombie movie with the hook being that it focuses on the members of a single family and their recurring bouts of terror as England experiences the cleansing, and recurrence of the "Rage Virus."
World War Z - 2013
Written by [see link for writing team]
Directed by Marc Forster
WWZ is rumored to have had a troubled production, and it shows. While possessing many flaws, the fact remains that WWZ is a high-budget mad spectacle, and for that alone, it's worth a viewing. Granted, some of this spectacle also qualifies as flaws -- such as ridiculously fast-moving zombies forming a giant mound to reach the top of a stories-high protective wall which should be beyond both zombie logic and basic physics, but it's undeniably freaky and cool nevertheless. It also follows the efforts to sort out the cause and develop a cure, which is an aspect that we rarely get to see.
This list is subject to change pending further viewing.