First vampires, and now I’m tackling zombies. Which is fitting, of course … not just because it’s October (a month during which not only I but many of my friends seem to just watch as many horror movies as we can muster), but also because this weekend brings the annual Zombie Pub Crawl to the Twin Cities once again.
That’s right, a whole army of the undead are set to get their booze on and hunt for juicy brains to devour right here in our quite little burg. The event has grown so quickly and exponentially from its humble beginnings, you’d swear it was a veritable pandemic. It may in fact be.
Zombies are the slowest and paradoxically most modern of the main movie monsters. Unlike mummies and vampires and werewolves, they seem more universal and homegrown. Their monolithic, “blank slate” character and tendency to pit individuals against a societal “other” has made them remarkably versatile figures upon which to project political subtexts.
Such is the nature of subjective list-making that three of the 10 slots on this list are all consumed by separate entries in what is now a six-film series (a series many fans hope will cease before the returns can diminish any further), and a fourth comes from the same director. But anyone who argues against the notion that George Romero and his Image Ten company basically invented the movie zombie as we know it today is deluded.
Here are my picks for ten of the best zombie movies ever, listed chronologically.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
Elegance, grace, romance, exoticism. These are not qualities shared by any of the other films on this list and, as such, this is probably not going to win many fans among those tearing their faces off with makeup while getting blotto along the West Bank. But if you want to see one of the most ethereal horror movies ever made, check out Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s downright poetic unofficial adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. (Come to think of it, this movie all but invalidates the entire series of zombified Jane Austen books everyone’s reading these days.)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The granddaddy of them all, and unquestionably one of the most influential, powerful, singular works of independent American cinema ever. George Romero’s still-terrifying black-and-white masterpiece is not just one of the most unnervingly grueling horror movies ever (though, having seen the movie with my share of skeptics for whom the movie’s technical shortcomings are more campy than creepy, your mileage may vary), but also one of the most cogent parables for the nation’s psychological meltdown in the late ’60s.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
And then came the ’70s. Romero’s decade-later sequel to what was, at the time, still his only notable theatrical success … well, became his second notable theatrical success, proving the maxim “stick with what you know.” Dawn‘s candy-colored grue may seem garish next to Night‘s stark B&W, but it’s just as politically potent for the sequel’s satirical view of America hopelessly mired in consumerism.
The Beyond (1981)
Lucio Fulci’s fans would probably put him on this list for Zombie. (Or, as it’s known in Europe, Zombi 2, to avoid being confused with Zombi, which is the title Dawn of the Dead went by on the other side of the pond … confused?) Personally, I find that once you get beyond the epic underwater fight scene pitting zombie vs. shark, there’s not much left on the bone. I much prefer this far more hallucinatory masterwork, which is far less clumsy and arguably as gruesome.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi took the baton of cartoonish brutality from Romero’s Dawn, tied it to his cast’s intestines and just ran with it as far as his speedy handheld camera could muster. The Evil Dead is what would happen if the Three Stooges filmed a movie in hell. In other words, teens vivisecting each other as demons hopscotch through their souls is played for laughs. Raimi’s remake/sequel Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn is more polished, but doesn’t walk the “Are. You. Kidding. Me?” tightrope as brazenly as the original.
Romero makes a “bonus” appearance here with a movie that falls outside of his zombie lexicon. Instead, it’s a loving tribute to the EC horror comics that partially inspired Night, titles like “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror,” all of which were suffused with the reanimated corpses of wronged victims coming back to life to wreak bloody vengeance. Creepshow‘s five stories boast their fair share of zombie retribution scenarios.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Romero’s much-maligned third installment of his zombie series burrows deep underground. More downbeat than the previous installments, the titular broad daylight can’t disguise the fact that the battle against the undead has effectively been lost. Appropriately, the gore this time around is deeper, redder.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Bill Pullman + Nail = Ultimate Cringe.
Peter Jackson tries to one-up Sam Raimi and the result may be the most gooey movie ever made. Certainly the lawnmower sequence qualifies as one of the great examples of horror ingenuity.
Planet Terror (2007)
As horror movies have generally gotten more and more somber and post-Y2K mopey, and torture porn has usurped zombie flicks as the purveyors of unfettered viscera, depictions of the walking undead have embraced old school camp. So instead of the worthy 28 Days Later, and with apologies to Edgar Wright’s moderately overrated Shaun of the Dead, I honor Robert Rodriguez’s John Carpenter-esque Grindhouse entry, which is both state-of-the-art and tongue-in-cheek. (Someone else’s tongue, someone else’s cheek.)