You’re working at the lab, late one night, when you realize you were supposed to make a mixtape for that cute ghoul who’s taking you on a date when you get off in an hour. Uh oh.
Your new friend has been dead long enough that a mixtape is an ax-ceptable, early-in-the-relationship offering. And this special corpse even puts up with your groan-inducing, Crypt Keeper-wannabe puns, so you really need to make a good impression. Before you blow the whole thing by putting “Thriller,” “Zombie Zoo,” and other played-out, DOA tracks on your tape, get hip to these 20 undead tunes that will really impress the breathless.
The Cramps, “Zombie Dance”
Few bands embody the zombie aesthetic better than The Cramps. Part punk, part garage-rock, part rockabilly, and all screams, the ghoulish band whipped up horrific kitsch like “Zombie Dance,” in which the late Lux Interior perceptively observes of zombies, “They don’t give a damn / They’re done dead already!”
Roky Erickson, “I Walked with a Zombie”
By all rights, Roky Erickson ought to be dead himself. Thankfully, though, the psychedelic legend survived his days with the 13th Floor Elevators—not to mention a few years in a mental hospital where he regularly received electroshock therapy—to enjoy a recent comeback. He’s brought back many stories (in song form) from his journeys to the darkest parts of human existence, but “I Walked with a Zombie” may be his most harrowing (yet catchy) one.
Misfits, “Astro Zombies”
Granted, the Misfits are an obvious choice for just about any horror-themed playlist, but that doesn’t make their inclusion here any less valid or, indeed, compulsory. The only conundrum is: which of the band’s undead songs to use? “Astro Zombies” muscled out “Brain Eaters,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and other zombified Misfits classics by virtue of being totally wicked, and for incorporating the science-fiction elements of the source film with Glenn Danzig’s trademark whoaaah-ohhhhing.
The Widow’s Bane, “Haul Away Boys”
Not just zombies, not just pirates, but zombie pirates, the crew of the good ship Widow’s Bane have been around the block for a few centuries now, and unlike many a zombie band that might briefly amuse as a novelty act, these boys have the musical chops to back up their stage presence. More details on these enigmatic undead gentlemen are forthcoming in an expose by Molly Tanzer that will be published at Strange Horizons on September 27th, but in the meantime, savor the band’s sullied, salty booty.
Dr. Dooom featuring Fathed, “Run For Your Life”
Kool Keith (aka Dr. Dooom, aka Dr. Octagon, aka Black Elvis, aka over fifty other aliases), has been underground longer than most flavor-of-the-month musical acts have been alive. And as with any self-respecting fiend, underground seems to be where Kool Keith likes it. This track is less an undead anthem and more an old-school monster mash along the lines of Lon Chaney’s Spider Baby theme (in turn brilliantly covered by Mike Patton’s Fantomas). But there are enough zombie references to make even the most restless dead settle down and have a listen to Keith’s ever-satisfying lyrics.
Fela Kuti & Afrika 70, “Zombie”
Fela Kuti, the undisputed king of afrobeat, lived practically like a king in his native Nigeria during the height of his fame in the ’70s and ’80s. And while songs like “Zombie” don’t have a lot of lyrics through which to drive home the theme of the song (they vocals don’t even kick in until after the five-minute mark), it’s easy to imagine the regal Kuti commanding a legion of the shambling, funky undead.
Mekons, “Big Zombie”
Many zombie songs are scary or kitschy, but leave it to the Chicago-by-way-of-England band the Mekons to make a poignant zombie song. Above a rollicking (and vaguely Pogues-like) folk-punk shuffle, leader Jon Langford talks about feeling “just not human tonight” as he drives around in a post-zombiepocalypse world looking for a diner. As for the other hungry beings he encounters: “They’d be better off eating cat food at home.”
Rob Zombie, “Living Dead Girl”
As with the Misfits, Rob Zombie’s fusion of often-esoteric horror references with badass, high-energy music makes his placement on this list a foregone conclusion. Although several of his White Zombie-era tracks are every bit as topical and worthy as this solo offering, the music video (and its Cabinet of Caligari homage) seals the deal. It would be easy to compose a list of nothing but metal tracks featuring the undead, but Zombie will suffice for now.
Saint Vitus, “Zombie Hunger”
Doom-metal titans Saint Vitus started playing a Black Sabbath-esque strain of heaviness in the ’80s, long after it had ceased to be cool. Accordingly, the band felt at home with the resurrected dead—namely zombies. “Zombie Hunger” is seven-plus minutes of sludgy riffs, spooky vocals, and sympathy for the brain-eaters. Then again, this is the band that released an entire EP titled The Walking Dead—whose title track comprises a full eleven minutes of zombie awesomeness.
Zombina and the Skeletones, “Nobody Likes You When You’re Dead”
There’s the Canadian horrorbilly band the Creepshow. There’s the British rock outfit the Priscillas. And then there’s England’s deathrock-horror-punkabilly band Zombina and the Skeletones, who do it all and have been around longer than the other two bands put together. Which is not to say those other fine bands aren’t worthy. But there’s something about Zombina and the Skeletones that’s as infectious as a shambler’s bite.
Harry Belafonte, “Zombie Jamboree”
As any zombologist knows, zombies have strong roots in the Caribbean, so it only makes sense that Harry Belafonte—the man who almost singlehandedly popularized Caribbean calypso music in the United States—would sing a zombie song. And it’s a kooky, spooky, ooky song at that, especially seeing as how it subconsciously recalls the appearance of Belafonte’s music in two of the best scenes from Beetlejuice.
Ramones, “Pet Sematary”
Although the decision was made, albeit with much reluctance, to omit Goblin and other iconic masters of zombie-cinema soundtracks (lest this devolve into a compendium of horror movie themes), a line had to be drawn somewhere. And that line was drawn firmly in front of the Ramones’ contribution to the film version of Pet Sematary, Stephen King’s classic story of love and zombies. Sometimes dead really is better.
The Fleshtones, “I Was a Teenage Zombie”
Okay, we’ll cheat one more time when it comes to songs from zombie-flick soundtracks. The Fleshtones—an ’80s band that promoted garage-rock as filtered through Rocky Horror—wrote “I Was a Teenage Zombie” for the campy cult movie of the same name from 1987. The horror-punk outfit Murderdolls later retaliated with their own unofficial theme song for the film, “She Was a Teenage Zombie.”
The Dickies, “Infidel Zombie”
One of the first of an unholy horde of punk bands to latch onto the zombie craze of the ’70s, California’s the Dickies not only named their second album, 1979’s Dawn of the Dickies, after George Romero’s recently released Dawn of the Dead, they included a song titled “Infidel Zombie.” Catchy, campy, clever, and cool, it’s more or less the epitome of zombie-rock.
Man Man, “Big Trouble”
Seeing the teeming art-rock ensemble Man Man perform live is an experience comparable to witnessing a zombie uprising: intense, impressive, and awesome, especially if you have the high ground to look down on the surprisingly complex proceedings without risk of being mobbed yourself.
The Aquabats, “Fashion Zombies”
Although not the most dramatic villains the Aquabats have faced over the years, this particular variety of zombie proved a formidable foe indeed for MC Bat Commander and his team of extraterrestrial, ska-powered superheroes.
Julia Marcell, “Night of the Living Dead”
No playlist in the year 2010 is complete without referencing at least one contemporary, sensitive, indie singer-songwriter. And rather than backing the obvious zombie-themed number from Sufjan Stevens, this list will take it one step further by including a contemporary European indie singer-songwriter: Polish pop musician Julia Marcell and her paean to zombie-maestro Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Dead Infection, “Rich Zombie”
Not all zombie-loving musicians in Poland, however, are as demure as Marcell. Submitted for your regurgitation: Polish grindcore band Dead Infection and their brain-gargling, brutally incomprehensible song, “Rich Zombie.” From the title, we’re guessing it’s about zombies—but really, your guess is as good as ours.
Dr. Re-Animator, “Move Your Dead Bones”
For those who found the Ramones’ take on Pet Sematary to be a bit too subdued, this video should inject some life into the playlist. Quietly tucked away on the special features of the Beyond Re-Animator DVD, “Move Your Dead Bones” quickly attained cult classic status among the legions of Lovecraft fans dying for a bargain basement Ricky Martin to adapt the Gentleman from Providence’s work to the blue screen. Dr. Re-Animator puts his freaky, glowing soul (or lack thereof) into mixing contemporary European dance music with the eldritch horror of HPL. The results shriek for themselves.
The Zombeatles, “A Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead”
With two of the four Beatles already pushing up daisies, we wish Paul and Ringo long, happy dotages. That said: If the Beatles became extinct, returned in zombie form, and made music like the Zombeatles, we could live with that. Sure, mashing up “A Hard Day’s Night” with Night of the Living Dead may be sacrilege—even cannibalism—to some. But isn’t that what being a zombie is all about?
Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the forthcoming The Enterprise of Death. His short fiction and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous anthologies, magazines, and newspapers, and he has a column titled Films of High Adventure that runs every Wednesday on his website and the website of his collaborator Molly Tanzer, (as well as on Fantasy Magazine on the last Wednesday of every month).
Jason Heller’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in dozens of publications including Weird Tales, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Apex Magazine, Sybil’s Garage, Alternative Press, and The A.V. Club, where he’s a regular contributor. He’s also writes Frequency Rotation, Tor.com’s weekly look at the overlap of science fiction, fantasy, and music. He also has credits in the SF anthology Descended from Darkness and the A.V. Club book Inventory, and he’s the author of Quirk Books’ upcoming The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. His first novel will be published by Quirk in 2012.