And this is the way it could all end: With humanity confronting an implacable force, virulent beyond any imagination. We cower and cling to the tenuous security of our homes, helplessly watching as friends and loved-ones succumb. The government, ill-equipped to cope with the challenge, eventually flounders and fails, and social norms collapse, surrendering civilization into the hands of the brutish and ignorant.
But enough about 2020. Let’s talk zombies!
Surprising to think that George Romero had a fifty-year head start in prepping us for the worst year in… well, if not human history, at least since that period in the Seventies when wide lapels were in style. And in the decades that followed, he and his colleagues continued to find ways to use the rising of animated corpses to deconstruct everything from consumer culture to the efficacy of government emergency systems to WWII heroics. In fact, the zombie genre has covered the gamut so thoroughly that filmmakers have pretty much run out of fertile environments in which to insinuate their walking dead. I mean, what’s next, zombies invading the Maori culture of pre-colonial New Zealand? Oh, wait.
And after a while, it all becomes a bit of a slog, doesn’t it? You can only watch civilization crumble so many times before you begin to envy the numbed existence of the walking dead. So, what should we do, give up on the genre? Pfft, don’t be ridiculous! Instead, let’s take that defeatist frown, turn it upside-down, and steer our rictus-like grins toward films that milk the apocalypse for every last laugh…
Below are ten films that bear witness to the rise of the dead, kick up their heels, and resolve that if this is the way we go down, we may as well surrender with a smile. Just one technical note: The definition of “zombie” is fairly fluid—it can range from mindless, flesh-hungry animate corpses to semi-sentient entities who are just really pissed-off. For the purposes of this article, can we all agree that the baseline is a barely-conscious being who is prone to violence? C’mon, it’s the only way we’ll be able to move on and unite the nation.
Night of the Comet (1984)
If you were lucky, you got exposed to a full dose of cosmic radiation from the passing, once-in-a-lifetime comet, and were just disintegrated into a pile of dust next to a mound of empty clothing. If you were not-so-lucky and got only partial exposure, then your body and brain are slowly decomposing, reducing you to a shambling, rage-filled monster. And if you’re really unlucky, you were shielded from the comet’s deadly effects, and you now have to cope in a world where most of the population has been eradicated, save for the inhabitants of a sinister government laboratory, and a couple of Valley Girl sisters (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) whose natural reaction to the end of civilization is, “Let’s go shopping!”
To be fair, the zombies don’t amount to much in this film—they’re more there to add a fillip of peril to the fall of humanity, rather than represent an ever-burgeoning threat. Still, there’s amusement in watching an extremely pre-Chakotay Robert Beltran fight off a ravenous eight-year-old (“There goes the neighborhood,” he quips), and writer/director Thom Eberhardt manages to bring a level of nuance to the film’s blithe-yet-surprisingly-resilient siblings, managing to leverage their self-involvement into a form of plucky heroism. Add in a surprisingly low-key performance from horror-comedy queen Mary Woronov, and you wind up with a teen comedy that has a bit more emotional meat on the (zombie-tempting) bone than was normal for the time.
Army of Darkness (1992)
The third installment of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy casts supernatural punching-bag Ash (Bruce Campbell) back to 14th-century England, where he must retrieve the Necronomicon in order to get back home. All that stands in the way are a clutch of skeptical villagers, an army of resurrected “deadites,” and his own, limitless incompetence.
Raimi essentially splits Army into two films, the first replicating the break-neck mayhem of the previous Evil Dead chapters, the second leaning more toward Harryhausen-esque fantasy as Ash leads the defense of a castle against an onslaught of walking—and armored—corpses. The two halves don’t completely mesh, and the zombies exhibit more personality than is common—all the better for them to engage in some of Raimi’s signature Three Stooges-style hijinks. Still, you’ve got Campbell receiving his expected lion’s share of abuse—including one precious sequence where arms sprouting from the ground deliver face-slaps, eye-pokes, and other hits in an assault that would have made Moe Howard proud—and there are loads o’ laffs in watching the overconfident doofus try to handle being thrown out of his familiar time and place. Not quite a tale of legend, but a movie that makes the dead just as goofy as they are evil.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
If there wasn’t a category for Scottish Teen Angst Horror Musical, there is now. The day after her high school’s Xmas pageant, Anna (Ella Hunt) must not only cope with her father’s (Mark Benton) reaction to the news that she isn’t planning on going to college, and navigate a triangle between the puppy-dog devoted John (Malcolm Cumming) and charismatic bad boy Nick (Ben Wiggins), she must also rally with the few friends left alive to fight off a townful of resurrected dead. There’ll be little help from the army, which succumbs early to the onslaught, while her school’s principal (Paul Kaye) is more than happy to use the advent of cannibalistic corpses to indulge his own fascistic, teen-hating impulses. Giant, weaponized candy canes will be wielded, blood will be spilled. And it’ll all be done…while singing!
The Christmas angle seems an odd fit—shouldn’t it be Easter, really? But director John McPhail brings some fresh reinterpretations to the teen drama stock company—which here includes the lesbian editor of the school newspaper (Sarah Swire)—and some unexpected surprises in terms of who eventually falls to the ravenous hordes. Composers Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly do an admirable job delineating character through their musical numbers, a high point being the catchy-yet-bitter ensemble piece, Hollywood Ending. It’s a special art, taking visceral horror and making it all-singing-all-dancing, yet Anna and the Apocalypse pulls it off, and does it with a surprising amount of heart.
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Age up Anna’s teens a couple of years, throw them into college, and you’ve got Night of the Creeps, where the entitled, partying culture of a school’s Greek organizations is significantly disrupted by the arrival of an alien parasite that turns its victims into shambling, contagious corpses. It falls to a trio of young outsiders (Jason Lively, Jill Whitlow, and Steve Marshall) and a hard-boiled, trapped-in-the-fifties police detective (Tom Atkins) to stave off the corruption. At the very least, it’s gonna put a crimp in the next kegger.
“I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.” “What’s the bad news?” “They’re dead.” Writer/director Fred Dekker isn’t shy about acknowledging his colleagues, populating Creeps with characters named, among others, Romero, Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Dante. And, it turns out, heavy on the Dante, with Creeps nimbly replicating the mix of tongue-in-cheek humor and genuine horror previously seen in that director’s The Howling. Yet Dekker also manages to find his own, unique path, giving this zombie tale an offbeat, SF twist, and introducing a disabled lead—Marshall’s J.C.—whose ultimate fate is imbued with a chilling poignance. The finale sets up a sequel that was never to come, which is too bad—a film that’s smarter than it first appears deserved a follow-up.
Kicking off as the collapse of civilization is well and truly underway, Zombieland’s scenario is conveyed through the eyes and narration of lone wanderer Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who’s managed to survive by adhering to a finely crafted set of rules (most important: Double Tap—you’ll understand it when you see it). Happenstance leads him into the SUV of the coolly pragmatic Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson)—whose main philosophy seems to be, “Make no attachments”—and then into a cautious alliance with a couple of scheming sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin). And Bill Murray shows up as himself, because in this reality, he is now the King of Hollywood.
One of the rare zombie films to begin in medias mortui ambulantes, there’s really not a lot to Zombieland. It’s a road movie where the main characters, out of an abundance of caution, struggle to keep each other at arm’s length, and the zombie apocalypse has guttered down to just another force of nature to be dealt with. No, what you’re here for is to watch Woody Harrelson confront the end of the world with swaggering aplomb—punctuated by Tallahassee’s endearing quest for the perfect packet of Twinkies—and to see this team coalesce into a supportive unit despite their differences. “It’s all about family” has become a groaning, Hollywood cliché, but Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer finds an oddball way to make it once again feel meaningful.
Zombie for Sale (2019)
The family of Zombie for Sale is a bit more conventional: an aging patriarch (Choi Jong-ryol), a daughter (Lee Soo-kyung), two brothers (Kim Nam-gil and Jeong Jae-yeong) and the pregnant wife of one of the brothers (Uhm Ji-won), all running a grifty little service station in a small Korean town. But when Dad gets bitten by a zombie (Jung Ga-ram) and paradoxically finds himself rejuvenated by the assault, the clan manages to leverage the elder’s recovery into a new side-business: corralling the walking corpse that delivered the wound, and peddling zombie bites to their town’s large, septuagenarian population. Gee, it would just be too bad if no one thought this all the way through and maybe waited to see if this Fountain of Youth actually led to something far, far worse. Yup, sure would be a problem. Mm-hm. No doubt.
Give director Lee Min-jae credit: His sprightly tale of the walking dead vs. the profit motive finds a staggering number of ways to subvert the standard tropes of the genre. Taking a page out of the Bong Joon-ho playbook, his focus family is close-knit but fractious, with each member seeking to exploit their new garage-guest for their own purposes. The zombie is just as happy munching on cabbages as human flesh; the family preps for the coming fall by studying Train to Busan; and the daughter, who’s established as having a history of killing the family’s clutch of rabbits, adopts the uncommonly winsome walking corpse as her next treasured pet. And when the zombie apocalypse does arrive—as you knew it must—it comes not only with rampant carnage and the near destruction of the town, but also with a dazzling fireworks display. The humor of Zombie for Sale is just as black as the situation demands, but is leavened with a heavy dose of silly. There are plenty of ways to watch the end of the world, but few that will leave one quite as happy.
There’s silly, and then there’s silly…and then there’s the Japanese film, Versus, which is just full-on WTF? A pair of escaped convicts (Tak Sakaguchi and Motonari Komiya) rendezvous with a clutch of yakuza (Hideo Sakaki is their leader) and a kidnapped, seemingly random woman (Chieko Misaka) in a forest where the dead begin to reanimate. Unfortunately, it also happens to be the forest where the criminals have buried their victims, so these zombies are not only rising from the grave, they’re rising with an agenda. Martial arts, gun fights (how many guns can one person hide in his/her pants?), knife fights, wire-fu, and clashes with 21st-century tactical katanas ensue. And all of this is before we find out the actual reason for the mayhem, which somehow involves reincarnation, immortality, other-dimensional portals, and… uh… hey, are you guys just making this up as you go along?
A paragon of the go-for-broke style of Japanese genre filmmaking, Versus just keeps getting more delirious as it progresses. Director Ryûhei Kitamura crams the screen with well-choreographed fight scenes, hyper-stylized characters (a cop blurts out, a propos of nothing, “I grew up in Yellowstone National Park in Canada,” which may be the greatest line in film history), and tons of gore, and yet somehow manages to avoid the numbing effect that such overkill (heh) usually invokes. That may be the result of the film’s loopy, low-budget aesthetic—the majority of it is shot outdoors in natural settings, which graces the proceedings with a charm that a more ambitious production couldn’t replicate. However it manages it, Versus, for all its spurting blood and mounds of corpses, succeeds in being delightfully energizing. It may be the most life-affirming movie about rampant death, ever.
Dead Alive (aka Braindead) (1992)
Of course, on a sploosh-for-sploosh scale, Versus is a wading pool in comparison to Dead Alive’s Olympic-size immersion. Over-the-top from its first frame, this tale of a nebbishy son (Timothy Balme) who contends—poorly—with the repercussions once his abusive, controlling mother (Elizabeth Moody) is bitten by a rabid Sumatran rat-monkey and turns into a rapidly decomposing cannibal is the gold-standard for pure, visceral explicitness. Throw in a love interest (Diana Peñalver) with a fortune-telling grandmother (Davina Whitehouse), a greedy uncle (Ian Watkin) and his hard-partying, soon-to-be-zombie-horde friends, and a kung-fu fighting priest (Stuart Devenie) who “kicks ass for the Lord,” and you’ve got two hours that even the word “excess” would think was excessive.
It would be interesting to compare this early effort by director Peter Jackson to his later Lord of the Rings trilogy—because, yeah, I do think parallels can be drawn—but to be clear, Dead Alive has a raw, unabashed energy that Jackson’s later, more refined, bigger budgeted films come nowhere near meeting. It feels as if at least 75% of the film is told in wide-angled, discomfiting close-ups, all the better to capture the grotesque, mutated faces, the throbbing buboes, and the unlimited gouts of pus, blood, bloody pus and pus-y blood. The practical, pre-CG effects are crude, but perfect—the zombie baby puppet is practically worth the price of admission by itself. Dead Alive is one of those cases where you may be finished with the film before the film is finished with you, but it’s worth hanging on, if only for bragging rights.
One Cut of the Dead (2017)
Don’t you hate it when the location shoot for your upcoming zombie movie is interrupted by an actual zombie apocalypse? That’s what the Japanese crew of a low-budget production has to contend with, as colleagues succumb, the director—hell-bent on getting realistic performances—goes stark-staring mad, and the zombies start behaving in a curiously unpredictable manner. And it’s all told in one glorious shot, as the swirling, agile camera captures the filmmakers’ desperate battle for survival.
True story: Not too long ago, a very well-known author posted on Facebook a message that said, in essence: “Just tried to watch One Cut of the Dead. God, it was awful! I shut it off after a half-hour.” To which the whole of Facebook replied, as if with one voice, “Nooooooooo!!!” Because…
Look, just watch the film. (It’s available on Shudder.) It really works best if you come into it cold, but if you really can’t wait, or have already seen it, then…
Turns out all the stuff I described above is in the first half-hour of the film. After the credit roll and the fade-out, time rewinds a month, and we fade up on the owners of the all-new Zombie Channel hiring the self-effacing director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu)—whose motto is, “Fast, cheap, and average”—to film their flagship offering: One Cut of the Dead, a live, half-hour TV special in which the crew of a zombie movie finds themselves in the middle of an actual zombie apocalypse, all told in one, glorious camera shot. The film’s second act is then taken up with showing the less-than-inspired cast and crew prepping for the shoot, while the third act replicates the broadcast we saw at the start, but now conveyed from an outside perspective, as everything immediately goes off the rails, the supplicating Higurashi has to step in front of the camera to portray his demonic doppelganger, and everyone has to call upon untapped wells of ingenuity and creativity to pilot a near-disaster to its final, epic crane shot. What starts out as a stock, if weirdly awkward, horror exercise (with most of the weirdnesses clarified as you see what went on behind the scenes), becomes an inspirational treatise on the creative spirit, and how it can rise to the challenge when the situation demands.
[END OF SPOILERS]
…aaand that’s why your mother and I had to go to Cleveland. Oh, sorry. Like I said, just watch the movie.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The zombie apocalypse is yet again upon us! Ranged against humanity: a ravenous horde of flesh-eating corpses. On our side: slacker buddies Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun’s mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), his stepfather, Philip (Bill Nighy), his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), and a couple of Liz’s hipster flatmates (Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran). The plan: Break into the local pub. How’s that going to help? Well…there’s a rifle there (that may not work). Plus toasties. Plus beer.
Humanity is doomed.
Director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg decided to take an episode of their TV series, Spaced, and rework it into a full-length feature. The result maintains the nerdtastic perspective of the show, but with a fetching degree of humanity and tons of humor in seeing people acclimated to the daily effort of just making a living struggling to adjust to a life-or-death situation. Wright rose to prominence with a bunch of superbly choreographed moments in the film—the best may be a single-shot sequence in which Shaun makes a hangover-clearing run to the corner mart, completely oblivious to the mayhem occurring all around him—while Pegg became an instant screen star portraying Shaun’s metamorphosis from detached working grunt to action hero. Shaun of the Dead plays completely within the template of its genre, but with a meta-awareness and sly empathy that elevates it to the top of its field.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Re: Your Brains” (2006)
Yeah, it’s a song, not a movie, but in four fleeting minutes, writer/performer Jonathan Coulton weaves a vivid narrative of Bob, a zombified middle-management type, doing his level best to convince barricaded colleague Tom to let him in to feast on his brains. “I’m glad to see you take constructive criticism well,/Thank you for your time, I know we’re all busy as hell,” Bob corp-speaks, before blandly noting his desire to crack Tom’s skull open. I think we’ve all been in at least one staff meeting like that.
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You may well ask, “Hey! Why’s Return of the Living Dead not on the list?” The answer is simple: It’s not a good film. Didn’t like it during its initial release, and I deeply resented wasting an additional ninety minutes of my life just to confirm what I already knew. But that doesn’t mean you can’t rise to its defense if you’re so inclined—I heartily invite you to comment below. And for that matter, please pitch in with any films you feel were more worthy of the list (too bad I only remembered Chopper Chicks in Zombietown after this article was completed—it might have ranked). Civilization will likely not fall within the next week (though the jury’s still out), so the more viewing options we’ve got, the better.
Originally published in February 2021.
Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!