The 8 Ball 06.18.13: The Top 8 Zombie Films
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 06.18.2013
From Shaun of the Dead and Dead Alive to the original Night of the Living Dead, Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 zombie films of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 Zombie Films
After a long, troubled production and tons of hype both positive and negative, World War Z releases into theaters this weekend. The Brad Pitt-starring film is based on the acclaimed novel by Max Brooks and tells the story of a zombie outbreak that sends mankind teetering on the edge of extinction. Whether it is good or bad, the film will join a storied subgenre of horror in the zombie film. Zombie films are both celebrated and denigrated by the movie going public; the reanimated dead are an unmistakable part of pop culture and are a favorite of studios looking for a built-in audience but often find themselves a target of critics and fans for a variety of reasons. I figured this week would be a good opportunity to look at the best films in the subgenre.
Caveat: There has always been a fierce debate about what qualifies as a zombie film. I'm keeping it simple on this one: the film has to focus on zombies as the primary subject matter (i.e. Cabin in the Woods doesn't count as a zombie film just because it has the Buckners). And by "zombie" I mean someone who has died and been reanimated into an undead, non-vampire monster. This means that yes, 28 Days Later does not qualify. I also wanted to make a clear delineation between traditional zombies and the demonically possessed, which disqualified the Evil Dead franchise and the [REC] films, both of which were about possession and not true "zombies," so to speak.
Just Missing The Cut
• White Zombie (1932)
• Zombi 2 (1979)
• Day of the Dead (1985)
• Cemetery Man (1994)
• Re-Animator (1985)
#8: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
First up on our list is the film that kicked off an underrated franchise of zombie films. Return of the Living Dead has often been called "that other zombie franchise" and is largely considered to be second-tier at best when compared to the works of George Romero. Ironically, Return was the creation of John Russo, who co-wrote Night of the Living Dead with Romero. When the two parted ways Russo retained the rights to the Living Dead name while Romero was allowed to create direct sequels to Night as long as he didn't use "Living Dead" in the title. Russo eventually came up with this franchise, which eschewed most of Romero's tendencies toward social subtext in favor of a horror/comedy style. The result was a fantastically gory and funny film that introduced several core concepts into zombie lore, not the least of which is the zombie obsession with eating brains. Many of the effects are well ahead of what the low budget of the film would lead you to expect, most significantly the Tarman who was portrayed by renowned puppeteer Allan Trautman. It's goofy and over the top but in all the right ways and the end result is quite spectacular, particularly for a film of its budget and era.
#7: Fido (2006)
The zombie comedy has become its own stylized subgenre, in no small part thanks to the aforementioned Return of the Living Dead films. The mix of zombies and humor often makes for a very fun situation and Fido is a great example of that. The film is set in a world where humanity defeated the zombies years earlier but still have to deal with them and have turned to a company called Zomcon for protection. Zombies are treated as slaves and servants by way of a collar that suppresses their hunger. When a housewife buys a zombie despite her husband's fear of them, which their son names Fido, their community is threatened by the collar's malfunctioning technology. Billy Connelly is absolutely fantastic as the titular zombie while Carrie-Anne Moss, Dylan Baker, K'Sun Ray, Henry Czerny and the rest of the cast all perform quite ably as well. Placing the film within a 1950s-esque setting works nicely and adds an extra element of style to the film. It works just as well in terms of being a "boy and his dog" tale as it does a zombie film, making it a great (and, unfairly, somewhat ignored) zombie film.
#6: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Dawn of the Dead is probably one of the more controversial pure zombie films out there. When you attempt to update a George Romero zombie film you are treading on sacred ground, something that the 2008 straight-to-video remake of Day of the Dead learned the hard way. (As a side note, Tom Savini's 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake recognized the importance of what came before and just narrowly missed making this list). When Zack Snyder was hired by Universal Pictures to direct a new take on Romero's mall zombie epic a lot of people were very sketchy on the idea; Snyder was an unknown filmmaker at that time. To his credit, he decided not to try and top Romero's take and used the story to provide his own look at what a zombie film should be. He made his zombies "fast zombies," popularizing the style that was kicked off by the Return franchise and told a more straight-forward survival horror tale that worked very well in that respect. Sarah Polley is very good in the lead role and the rest of the ensemble cast is generally great, while Snyder does some interesting things from a directorial point of view that keeps us tense and jumping. Even the pessimistic Romero, while not directly endorsing it, said it was much better than he expected it to be. It may not be (SPOILER ALERT) as good as the original, but that is a high bar to set for success and it is quite good in its own right.
#5: Zombieland (2009)
As we've already covered, zombie comedies are so plentiful at this point that they provide a subgenre all their own. There are a lot of reasons for that but the primary one is simply that zombie films are very cheap to make and comedy allows filmmakers to provide a more varied take on the idea of a zombie-infested world. Many of the best zomcoms are low-budget affairs but this is the rare big-budget zombie comedy that really works. The success of Zombieland comes in the fact that it doesn't ever really feel like a big-budget film outside of the cast, and even that at the time seemed more like indie fare. Jessie Eisenberg was still building his name in 2009, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin were relatively unknown and Woody Harrelson was not at the high point of his career yet. The story takes a subversive tone, throwing most things that you know about zombie films on their head. The idea of mistrust toward your fellow man is there, but you don't see the constant betrayal that is common in the genre. The survivors aren't military types, nurses or policemen; you have a geek who survived because of a World of Warcraft bender, a sisterly con duo and a loose cannon who just wants his damned Twinkies. Zombieland hits just about the perfect mix of humor and gore, and also has a surprisingly high amount of heart to it as well. There have been efforts to bring about a sequel but I'm actually glad they've failed; this works fine as it is and the scuttled Amazon TV series was an abomination by comparison.
#4: Dead Alive (1992)
Peter Jackson didn't always make high-brow fantasy blockbusters. Before he was the man behind the Lord of the Rings films, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, he was a low-budget gore filmmaker. And one of his most beautifully demented films was a zombie film where everything goes off the rails in breathtakingly glorious fashion. The whole thing kicks off an explorer hunting for the Sumatran Rat-Monkey, a bizarre hybrid that comes about when a tree monkey gets raped by a plague-carrying rat. Yeah, it's that kind of movie. Of course someone gets bitten and then before long it gets back to our main character's vicinity. In this case it is poor mama's boy Lionel Cosgrove, played to perfection by Timothy Balme. When his mother gets infected he finds himself thrust into a world of zombies, kung-fu priests and romance with a local shopkeeper's daughter. The set-up is a lot of wacky fun before they get to the last half of the film in which an incalculable amount of gore and blood goes flying. There are so many great scenes that it would be too much to list them all, but of particular note is Lionel's use of a lawn mower to literally mow down the undead. There's no subtext here and no seriousness; it's just pure gory zombie kicks.
#3: Shaun of the Dead (2004)
When we did 411mania's Top 50 Films of the 411 Era a few years ago, Shaun of the Dead wound up at #6. That garnered a little bit of controversy but you can't deny that when it comes to zombie films it has to be considered one of the best. Edgar Wright, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg were not well-known here in the US before this film but after it they were instant stars. The film takes a fantastic spin on the zombie story, injecting it with a lot of humor and yet not skimping on the gore either. Every other zombie film tends to have the bad-asses, the doctors and other conveniently-placed people who happen to be necessary to surviving the end of the world. This one is similar to Zombieland in the fact that...well, not so much on that front. This motley crew, headed by Pegg and Frost's unambitious slackers, have no idea what to do and that creates a ton of laughs as a result. The humor in this is the kind that you can watch many times and still laugh, the horror is actually quite unsettling and the story even holds up outside of comedy. It's just a brilliant piece of work and you can't help but love it.
#2: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
You have to give it up for the film that officially kicked off the modern zombie film. Certainly there were zombie films before George A. Romero and John Russo; a quick look at my honorable mention list shows you White Zombie, which was basically the first zombie film. But Romero largely created what we know as zombies today. This 1968 film is still creepy today. I can't hear Russell Streiner say "They're coming to get you, Barbra" without feeling a little shiver running through my spine, and that's not even the creepy part of the movie. Of course, Night of the Living Dead is more than just a creepy film; it's also got a lot of social commentary in it. Romero has gone back and forth on how much commentary was intentional, but the fact is that you can see a lot of commentary on racism, American society in the '60s and more. Night set the stage for horror films to join sci-fi as a genre in which you could hide social critique in a more viscerally enjoyable film and say things that wouldn't fly in a larger-budget mainstream studio film. On influence alone it deserves a high spot on this list; that it is a great zombie film only makes for an even stronger case.
#1: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
There really wasn't any choice on this one. Dawn of the Dead is the most revered of Romero's Living Dead series and the peak of zombie movie-making for a very good reason. The film's ability to mix hefty doses of social commentary into the top-notch gore and horror elements without ever seeming preachy was absolutely unprecedented at the time and I daresay it's never been topped since. Dawn of the Dead took the concepts of the first film and placed them within a better context, a more developed script and better fleshed-out characters. And Romero is at the top of his game as well, delivering more mood and tension in this film than any other in his career. What's amazing is that the commentary on America's consumer culture is still relevant today and likely will be for decades to come. This is a film that has lost none of its potency over the three and a half decades since its release and it stands high as the greatest zombie film ever made.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season:Season Thirteen (1975) Episodes Watched: 621 Last Serial Completed:The Android Invasion - The Doctor and Sarah find themselves in the English village of Devesham near a Space Defence Station. The village seems deserted, the telephones don't work, calendars are stuck on the same date and white-suited figures are wandering about aimlessly. Who are the Kraals and what are their plans for Earth? Surviving Episodes Remaining: 20
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.