Between watching 28 Days Later again, reading Steven Knight’s Left with the Dead, and sketching out an idea for a new short story, I’ve had zombies on the brain. So here’s a little list of some of my favorite zombie movies excepting zombie movies that already made my favorite horror/comedy movies list. Several of those would have easily made this list had they not been there, but there’s little fun in repetition. In no particular order…
28 Days Later
Since it’s fresh in my mind and the primary catalyst for thinking about zombie movies we’ll start with this movie that technically isn’t a zombie movie at all. The foils here are still alive and infected with a rage virus. But they function basically like zombies, and the movie is built around all the tropes of a zombie move aside from dying first so close enough. The setup may be a twist, but the rest falls right in line. Danny Boyle has made a lot of great movies in a variety of genres. Shallow Grave, Transpotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours are all fantastic too. Even Millions is a very good kid’s movie. It’s hard to single out his best movie but 28 Days Later is in the running.The opening, with Cillian Murphy waking up from a coma in an empty hospital, and empty London, is haunting. Act II is just as strong as the film goes through its zombie apocalypse survival sequence. And then the movie takes a beautifully unexpected turn as the survivors reach the relative safety of a military base.
Night of the Living Dead
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but George Romero’s film sets the stage in almost every way for what we think of as a zombie movie today. I can’t recall a zombie movie since that doesn’t include or intentionally play against the basic concepts in this film. And it’s creepy despite its age, old even when I saw it years ago sitting in the dark alone late at night. The black and white only adds to the atmosphere. The final scene is gloriously bleak.
This is hands down one of the funniest zombie movies ever. If Shaun of the Dead didn’t exist, it’s easy to argue it would take the prize. It’s gruesome at times, but not particularly scary. While lacking straight up scares, it is incredibly clever and has characters with real charisma, characters you’re rooting for rather than waiting to see get eaten and that carries the film a long way, through a climax that isn’t as strong as the rest of the film. But despite the slightly weak ending, I really love this movie and can barely believe I didn’t even note it in the honorable mentions of the horror/comedy list. How could I forget? (In hindsight, I think swapping this and Return of the Living Dead between lists might be more representative.) Anyway, Ruben Fleischer’s feature debut is unusually assured and shot inventively particularly in the earlier stages. Jessie Eisenberg plays a thinly disguised neurotic Woody Allen cypher and his list of unexpected rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse are a running joke that even manages to pay off at the end. Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abagail Breslin are equally strong in their roles as the rest of the survivalists. And the second act features a cameo that you really, REALLY do not want to have spoiled before you see it in context because it’s one of the funniest scenes in recent memory.
Army of Darkness
Ash and his chainsaw return for their third Evil Dead film with a movie that originally had a much cooler name in Medieval Dead. Ash goes from hero to zero in this installment when he is thrown back in time and accidentally releases the army of the dead on Lord Arthur’s keep which is woefully unprepared to fight back. The movie mostly plays the situation for laughs and it’s not much of a surprise when Ash is once again the reluctant hero by the end.
Dawn of the Dead (2004 remake)
Romero fans freaked the hell out over this movie playing fast (literally!) and loose with the zombie lore of a film they treasure but I found it energetic and incredibly effective. Maybe I would feel differently if I’d seen the original. Alas, it remains a gaping hole in my zombie filmography. The first fifteen minutes are terrifying and set the stage for something that’s clearly not intended to be a retread of the original despite being slapped with the same name. Zack Snyder’s debut feature (like Fleischer’s) runs out of steam a bit as it moves along without ever dropping below pretty good. The cast does decent work in time-limited roles due to the number of characters holed up in the shopping mall waiting to be eaten, but the atmosphere and set pieces are the stars here anyway and they shine.