Maybe Michael Jackson saw it first. On the surface, the combination of the living dead with the fun, hyper-bright world of the musical seems, well, ridiculous, two great tastes that absolutely don’t go great together. But somehow, it works. Somehow, when these two great tastes are combined in just the right way, you wind up with something that’s substantially better than the sum of its parts. You wind up with a masterpiece.
“But wait,” you might cry, confused by my assertion that everything is better with zombies, “there can’t possibly be that many zombie musicals! Your entire premise is flawed!”
On the contrary my dear, hypothetical reader, there are so many more zombie musicals than anyone seems to realize—definitely more than I’ve seen, because I guarantee you that this list is going to leave something out. It’s the nature of the beast. The shambling, singing, soft-shoeing beast. And with that in mind, welcome one and all. Welcome to the world of…
…THE ZOMBIE MUSICAL.
10: The Midnight Hour
Our first contender is only a zombie musical in the sense that yes, it has zombies, and yes, those zombies perform a musical number. It’s not a true musical: the songs neither come out of nowhere nor advance the plot as a whole. At the same time, my love for this movie is innocent and pure, beginning in 1985 when the movie was first aired on network television. This tale of Halloween hijinks gone awry kept me company while the rest of my family was out trick-or-treating (I was home sick with strep throat), and I can still perform most of the seminal musical number that earns the film its place on this list, “Getting Dead.” It was a clear attempt at a “Thriller” knockoff, and if its ambition was greater than its budget, well. At least they tried.
Is this a musical? Yes, thanks to the framing device, which introduces characters and dialog before the music comes out of nowhere to move the story forward. Michael Jackson intentionally paced and designed the video as a musical, trying to elevate the form. What he succeeded in doing was making a very short, very musical horror movie. This is absolutely a musical, and it’s a classic; this is probably the only contender on our list that sparks impromptu dance parties outside of genre circles. Why is it so low on my list? Because it’s less about the zombies and more about the dance routine. Also because Michael Jackson apparently never met Vincent Price, and that fills me with sorrow.
8: Zombie Musical
This short film by Ryan McHenry provides the seeds for the story that will become the far superior (and substantially longer) Anna and the Apocalypse. Singing, dancing, and the living dead—it’s all here. Of course, a seriously creepy (and not in the good way) subplot about a teacher who views the zombie apocalypse as an opportunity to have sex with a student is also here, which is what knocks this short, sweet, sort of unsettling film so low down the list. We’ll be coming back to this basic premise.
Billed as “zoms vs. poms,” this zombies-and-cheerleaders Disney Channel Original Musical came out in 2018, and is full of brain-chewing earworms that will have you bopping along and hopefully overlooking the many, many plot holes inherent in the premise. (If zombies have only been around for a few decades, how do they have their own language? Are they only in this one small town, or did the chemical accident which caused them not to need hair dye spread across the world? And why does our main cheerleader have white hair? Everything is confusing.) Once you’re in Zombie land, you’ll be happy to sing along…or else.
6: Dead and Breakfast
Okay, so this one triggered a massive fight locally, and now I’m bringing it to you. This 2004 horror/comedy has zombies, definitely. And it has music, absolutely, in the form of a happy singing cowboy who explains the scene changes and transitions (no, really). But is it a zombie musical? I say yes, since there’s a sequence where all the zombies do a line dance routine, and this plus the singing cowboy (who becomes a zombie at one point) means it qualifies. Several of my friends say no, and stop, and please don’t make us watch this again. So feel free to make your own decision.
5: The music video at the end of Plants vs. Zombies
4: Re-Animator: The Musical
Is this a true zombie musical? Well, that gets us into “what is a zombie, exactly,” and that’s a conversation that can take literally weeks, so I’m not going to have it right now. This show is the perfect combination of ridiculous and sublime, and the music is better than it ought to be, which makes it a great way to spend an evening. A+, totally recommended, would watch again. It’s only so low on the list because…
3: Evil Dead: The Musical
…this show exists. And yes, again, this show triggers the “what is a zombie, exactly?” conversation, since Deadites are sort of their own thing. But the score explicitly uses the Z-word (“Your sister has turned into a zombie”), and there are Super Soakers full of gore involved with most productions, making this the perfect date night, assuming you’re dating someone who loves zombies, fake blood, and musical theater as much as I do. The original cast recording is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
It can be easy to assume that all zombie musicals must be silly, because it’s a combination that lends itself well to comedy. This short film starring Mary Kate Wiles (of The Lizzie Benet Diaries) and Monica Sherer is a heartbreaker wrapped in a gory candy shell, and really shows that no genre, however niche, is locked into a single mode of storytelling. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, and I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. This is a beautiful piece of work.
And of course, my number one selection for the zombie musical…
1: Anna and the Apocalypse
When I told people that the movie I was most looking forward to this holiday season was a teen musical zombie horror comedy, they looked at me a little oddly. But I stood by my enthusiasm, and was rewarded with the perfect fusion of all those genres, all mixed up like a blood-covered candy cane. The acting is sublime, the score is gorgeous, the lyrics are cutting and insightful, and you, too, will have “Hollywood Ending” stuck in your head for the next year. You’re welcome.
The zombie musical.
It just won’t stay dead.
New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire is the author of the October Daye urban fantasy series, the InCryptid series, and several other works, both standalone and in trilogies. She lives in a creaky old farmhouse in Northern California, and was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear fives times on the same Hugo ballot. The Wayward Children novella series is available from Tor.com Publishing