Zombies are by far my favorite movie monster. There’s nothing about zombies that scares me, per se. I would actually go so far as to say that they’re fairly low on the list of scariest movie monsters. But zombie movies, to me, are never really about the monsters. Zombies bring out the monsters that live within us and within the people we encounter every day.
The characters in a good zombie movie react to the walking plague of flesh eating hordes in ways that always reveal their true character. The beta male in regular life could become a hero in light of the zombie apocalypse. Likewise someone whose station in regular life was to protect people could (and often) becomes a threat to the people surviving the apocalypse’s rapidly shortened livelihood.
My love of zombie movies is due to it simply being the only genre of horror movie I can think of where character growth and character development is needed to make a good film and tell a good story. You can pit people against waves of zombies and show them get picked off one by one like a slasher movie but the true nature of each character is what always drives the plot.
For this edition of my “4 Days of Blood” Shocktober series, I have created a list of some of my favorite (and a couple not-so-favorite) zombie movies. For this post, I’ve taken the titles and paired them with similar movies. So each section acts as its own miniature Double Feature.
Let me know what you think of this list and the zombie genre itself in the comments below. And don’t forget to follow the blog around the internet.
Prologue: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
I put Night of the Living Dead by itself simply because it’s in a class by itself. With this movie, George Romero created the zombie genre. The movie is the simplest form of what has become the standard zombie story. In it, a group of people survives together but ultimate clashes with disastrous results when tactics of survival and morality are discussed.
It’s a simplistic story, but the character motivations and the overall ramifications for the genre are vast. The movie that established the monster also proved to be groundbreaking in its depiction of a black man as the central protagonist. The movie was released in 1968 and so giving a black actor a role of such significance and moral grounding was unheard of in the horror genre.
Romero’s choice to kill the main character at the end provides a shocking ending to a movie whose tension is never compromised. Having Ben shot by rednecks puts the pin on a shocking and depressive allegory of race issues.
Chapter 1: Dawn of the Dead (1978) & Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The original Dawn of the Dead is probably my favorite zombie movie. Officially designating it as such is a very difficult thing to do. Given my love of the genre, picking an absolute favorite is a bit like choosing which of my kids I love more. Clichéd comparison aside, my appreciation of Dawn grows with every single viewing.
The movie’s criticism of consumer culture strikes a nice balance between honest allegory and humorous send-up and the core group of characters work well together. That’s really what I enjoy most about Dawn 1978, it’s exponentially larger than Night but the story it tells is just as simplistic. It’s indicative of the versatility of the zombie genre.
In 2004, Dawn of the Dead was remade. It was a couple years after 28 Days Later redefined the genre and brought about the “fast zombie” craze. James Gunn (Super, Slither) wrote the remake’s script and put fast zombies into it. The result is a remake that works very well.
Had this been a by the numbers remake that followed Romero’s masterpiece it wouldn’t have stood up to the new era of the zombie genre. It was a smart move by Gunn and director Zack Snyder. The movie gets a ton of points for originality. It does what a remake should do. It takes the original and carries on its spirit for a new era. The end result is another one of my favorite zombie movies.
Chapter 2: Day of the Dead (1985) & Day of the Dead (2008)
In 1985 Romero returned to the zombie genre for Day of the Dead. I feel like this movie is really underrated since a lot of discussion tends to move toward Bub the domesticated zombie. While I agree that his arc in the movie gets to be a little bit silly (the salute was ultra-cheesy). I would count Bub firing a gun as disobeying the rules of the genre if the man who created the genre itself hadn’t helmed the movie.
But there’s more to Day than Bub. This movie is a great showcase for the survivor vs. survivor dynamic that is prevalent throughout the genre. The movie designates the survivors in two groups. One group is comprised of scientists who are working to understand the zombies. The other group is filled with hotheaded military personnel who don’t see eye to eye with the way the scientists’ prioritize researching the undead. There’s a very engaging power struggle in this movie that all comes to a head in the final, blood filled act.
Like most third installments, Day of the Dead doesn’t operate in the same league as Night and Dawn. The movie takes unique and somewhat controversial turns yet it still ends up memorable. It deserves some more recognition.
So there’s a remake to Day of the Dead that was released in 2008. I won’t write about it that much. I won’t even grade it (though if I did grade it, I’d give it a “Don’t Even Bother”). I watched it in 2011 and didn’t find it very memorable. Ving Rhames is in it, which stood out because of his role in Dawn’s remake. I think he played the remake’s version of Rhoades.
I only remember a few things from it. One, the movie starred Mena Suvari as a military leader (let that sink in). Two, Nick Cannon was in it. The only thing I remember is the only positive thought I had toward the movie. The character of Bub was (if memory serves) converted into one of Mena Suvari’s subordinates who gets turned into a zombie around the midway point of the movie. I appreciated that but that’s about all it did for me.
IMDb does have a page for another Day of the Dead remake. The page has zero information but the year listed is 2014. I wonder if anything will come of it.
Chapter 3: 28 Days Later… (2002) & 28 Weeks Later (2007)
There have been countless debates among the horror community as to whether 28 Days Later qualifies as a zombie movie. I won’t entertain that here except to say that yes, it is a zombie movie. The Infected may not be the literal, Romero definition of zombie, but it carries on the traditions and the spirit of the genre spectacularly.
Simply put, what I love about this movie is (among other things) the growth of Cillian Murphy’s character. He begins the movie bedridden and in the dark. By the end of the movie, he’s a leader and strong. The gradual road to this transformation is filled with sweet moments of gloom and horror. The flat tire in the tunnel is one of the most intense sequences I’ve watched in a zombie movie.
The overall tone of the movie is another big draw for me. It begins in the bleakest of scenarios and by the movie’s end we’re overcome with hope for the characters and the world in which they live. I also have a deep admiration for the movie’s 3-act structure and how clear tonal shifts usher in a new section of story. Writer Alex Garland later employed this type of narrative technique in 2007’s Sunshine, which I wrote about in my “Horrors of Space” post.
Finally, special mention absolutely has got to be made for John Murphy’s magnificent score. I purposely didn’t singe his praises for his work in Sunshine the other day, only because I knew it would bring out a tangent. In these two movies, he created such emotionally packed music complimented their respective stories very well. He composes music that you can’t wait to have stuck in your head.
It speaks really highly of the zombie genre that almost 12 years after the release of 28 Days Later, the genre is still going strong and its permeated into all kinds of media outlets. I don’t know if or when the zombie bubble will pop. But I know I’ll still be counting 28 Days Later among my favorites.
In an interesting reversal of the original movie, 28 Weeks Later picks up with the feeling of hope that we were left with and then quickly deteriorates into a dread-filled final sequence that leaves you feeling like you’re been punched. It’s a nice juxtaposition that works well in the sequel’s favor.
As with most sequels of its kind and genre, 28 Weeks Later takes the established threat of the virus and tweaks the formula slightly. New wrinkles are introduced to the mythology of the “rage virus” that suits the story being told very well. By centering the story on kids who possess genes that could help create a cure for the virus, 28 Weeks Later creates a precedent that justifies its lightning fast pace.
Themes of sacrifice play out as the kids try to get to safety as the world around them goes to hell. These scenes are sudden and welcomed as they provide an additional shock factor to the proceedings.
28 Weeks Later is a respectable sequel that suffers somewhat by the lack of Boyle’s presence in the director’s chair. Regardless, it’s a good, quickly paced zombie movie.
Chapter 4: Dead Snow (2009) & The Horde (2009)
Dead Snow is hands down the best Norwegian Nazi zombie movie set in a cabin in the Norwegian Alps. This movie is witty and extraordinarily sharp with its almost meta approach to depicting zombies.
I saw this movie on Halloween in 2010. It was part of my “Zombie Day” marathon that concluded with the series premiere of The Walking Dead. Dead Snow actually kicked off the marathon and within the first 15 minutes I knew it would be a staple of the holiday season.
This is a movie that horror fans should watch. People love the (for lack of a better word) gimmick of Nazi zombies, but the real brilliance in this movie lies on the characters. A group of med students head to a cabin party and there are moments where the dialogue makes me want to just watch them bullshit back and forth.
Dead Snow is fun, clever and gory. According to IMDb, there appears to be a sequel on the way. Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead is listed as being in post-production. I hope it doesn’t get stuck in development hell.
I compare Dead Snow with The Horde quite a bit. The two really aren’t that comparable. Dead Snow is a Norwegian horror-comedy about Nazi zombies and party-crazed college kids. On the other hand, The Horde is a French action-thriller about corrupt cops, fiendish gangsters and (you guessed it) endless waves of zombies. It goes to show that my stupid American brain will probably lump together any foreign language movie with any thematic similarities.
What sets The Horde apart from other zombie movies is the unexpected use of beautifully choreographed hand-to-hand combat and epic action set pieces. The movie revolves around gangsters and cops trying to escape an overrun apartment bloc. Throughout it we’re given amazing visuals that I, for one, have never seen in a zombie movie.
Chapter 5: Shaun of the Dead (2004) & Zombieland (2009)
A genre is only as good as its best parody and while these next two movies aren’t exactly parodies in the traditional sense, they do take to lampooning the genre’s many conventions like the recently deceased take to warm flesh.
2004’s Shaun of the Dead is fascinating to watch. With each viewing, I’m in awe of the intricate way the script is layered with callbacks and setups. What Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright accomplished with the script alone is something that should be celebrated.
The comedy in Shaun is impressive but it provides only a section of the entertainment. The movie’s more dramatic plot (Shaun getting his life together and rescuing his girlfriend) is played really well. I love that the zombie story isn’t treated as merely a backdrop for the character plot. It’s a central piece of the puzzle that acts as a poignant and respectful nod to the genre.
Five years after Shaun of the Dead came what I like to think of as its American contemporary. Zombieland takes a slightly harsher approach to its comedic and heartwarming zombie story. Where Shaun took on themes of personal responsibility and growing up, Zombieland tackled the search for acceptance and fitting into a world or society that just as unfamiliar as the last.
Zombieland’s comedy rests heavily on the chemistry of the actors. Luckily they’ve got it in spades. Woody Harrelson steals the show as badass Tallahassee, who acts as a perfect balance to Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus. The two of them share great chemistry that is only amplified when Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin enter the picture.
This band of survivors makes the movie what it is, a perfect meld of comedy, drama and zombies. It’s no question why the Amazon TV pilot didn’t work out.
I want to take a moment to talk about Romero’s zombie revival that happened between 2005 and 2009. He released Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead between 2005 and 2009. I’m not going to review them here.
Honestly, it’s been a couple years since I watched them but I wanted to share what I remember. I was fairly disappointed with Land of the Dead. I thought some of the deaths were interesting, sure, but the plot didn’t engage me at all. I don’t even remember Survival of the Dead, if I’m being honest.
What I do remember is enjoying Diary of the Dead a bit. There was something about the climax that I found myself enjoying more then anything else in the movie, but I can’t put my finger on it. All I know is that they weren’t memorable enough to become yearly viewings.
I consider these three movies to be sort of like Romero’s version of Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. But, somehow despite them not performing quite as much for me, I would still buy a complete blu-ray set of all six movies if it were available to me. I say that knowing full well the irony considering Dawn of the Dead and its critique of consumerism.
I think that’s a good way to gauge a love of something like a movie genre. I like to think the fact that I would spend money on something of which I only truly enjoy 50%, is the mark of something special. Even if I don’t like the movies, I can still find something to latch onto and enjoy. It’s why I continue to watch The Walking Dead.
Also, if you’re a fan of horror, you should really check out The Obsessive Viewer Podcast’s interview with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s John Dugan.