Yes, seeing legions of the undead advance on the living has seldom been so en vogue, but this sub-genre has offered up a great many quality films over the years. Many of them rank among my personal favorites, and I would be lying if I didn't say that I consider myself to be an expert of sorts on the subject. So then, let's get this party started. I hope you will share your thoughts, and I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
Top 5 Zombie Films
1) Return of the Living Dead - 1985
Look, sometimes the pedigree isn't there, yet the end result can still turn out to be a masterpiece. There aren't enough people out there who cherish Dan O'Bannon and actors like Clu Galager and James Karen were never household names, but it doesn't matter. Return of the Living Dead is an absolute blast, an insane riff on zombie movies that winds up improving upon the very pictures that it was inspired by and set out to rib. This surprising outcome isn't necessarily tied to the steady direction or the the terrific performances, and it can't be attributed directly to the rollicking punk score or the quality effects either. No, Return of the Living Dead works as well as it does because it is a sum of its parts, and they fit together perfectly.
Every role is given the same weight, and that is one of the keys to the movie's power. Every second matters, and time is running out. Every scene counts. Every death is striking. This is no horror film fueled by senseless nudity and a body count, but it isn't going to disappoint anyone looking for such cheap thrills either. At the end of the day, everyone should be happy.
This is a fast-moving story with incredible momentum and some of the finest dialogue ever scripted. It boasts fast zombies and it was made long before recent trends made that the norm. ROTLD marries itself to the punk rock scene to terrific effect, to include a morbidly charming band of teenage rogues at the forefront, and that superb soundtrack. There are songs from The Cramps and The Damned and the music really adds a lot to the movie. The script is wildly inventive, the pace is relentless, and the special effects are totally convincing.
Most of all, though, it's that acidic dialogue that really makes this one work. As the shit hits the fan and stress levels rise, the characters gripe, plead, sob, taunt, and snarl at one another in a most realistic fashion. Sometimes they're all talking at once, and the tension is palpable as they face off in verbal duels that resonate. Exchanges like this one make ROTLD a genuine pleasure:
Chuck: Hey, Casey, do you like sex with death?
Casey: Yeah, so fuck off and die.
Or this one:
Suicide: How come you guys only come around when you need a ride someplace?
Spider: 'Cause you're one spooky motherfucker.
Here's another of my faves:
Frank: What are we gonna do, Burt?
Burt: I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to be sued by the Darrow Chemical Company. I might even be investigated by the government. I might become very famous. I might even lose my business. I might even go to jail, goddamit! That's what I'm going to do!
And, of course:
Frank: Watch your tongue, boy, if you like this job!
Freddy: Like this job!?!
Return of the Living Dead is volatile, it's scary, it's disgusting, it's lean, and it's just a hell of a good time. It has to be one of my favorite movies over all, and I'm officially pegging it as my top zombie flick. It's a quick and bumpy ride that is packed with thrills and laughs, and it remains a fresh take on a beloved sub-genre long after it should have grown stale. In fact, I think the opposite is true, and as horror features that generate as many chuckles all too often veer into parody, this dazzling blend of terror and humor is becoming more and more potent. Yes, it's a wild ride, but it also has some serious bite. This one has it all, and though it may be a strange pick for the top spot on this list, I think it is ferocious enough to warrant it.
2) Dawn of the Dead (original) - 1978
No one says: "Screw the MPAA, we'll release the damn thing unrated." No one. Well, no one except George Romero, who landed a major hit in the process. No one else could capture the goriest satire ever and perhaps one of the most profound statements on commercialism we'll ever see on film. No one else would have been able to dig so deeply into the premise, lovingly mining each character and the fragile relationships this nightmarish scenario gives birth to. No one else could have brought us the sheer heartbreak that comes as a result of watching these determined survivors struggle, facing off with both the undead and their futile attempts to pretend that things really aren't all that different when there aren't zombies trying to knock down the door.
Dawn of the Dead follows four survivors trying to find their way in a zombie apocalypse. They set up shop in a mall and make an attempt to find some sort of solace. They find some measure of peace, but it isn't long before a marauding band of bikers/looters come barreling through. It's a tragedy, really, but there are thrills, and there's a lot of humor, and somehow this one doesn't wind up feeling like the downer it truly is. While the viewer must pay an emotional toll, there is a lot of fun to be had along the way. This film has a little bit of everything, to include terror, drama, suspense, and comedy, and it strives to be a character study of the highest order.
It should be noted that none of the leads were established stars, but that doesn't stop these thespians from putting on a hell of show. The four lead roles are all rather complex, but all of the performers involved deliver. Tom Savini shines in a small but crucial part, and his effects work is still impressive to behold. That man was a wizard, and his importance to the horror genre can't be overstated. I believe this was his finest hour and his strongest contribution to the industry.
Dawn of the Dead is certainly Romero's best movie, and it may just be the richest zombie film of all time. I enjoyed the remake, but it lacked the depth and the scope of the original. In truth, this is the biggest and most remarkable zombie picture of them all, and it is amazing to think that George set his sights so high and delivered such a rousing feature. Dawn of the Dead is a true juggernaut, a massive film that continues to shock and entertain. Many will argue that it should hold the top spot on this list, and, in fact, it did when I last sat down to rank the best of the zombie films. I have the utmost respect for this film, and I can appreciate the argument that it should be king of the mountain. I just chose to go in a different direction this time.
3) Night of the Living Dead (original) - 1968
The little picture that started it all is still a potent horror film; it remains genuinely disturbing and continues to inspire conversation some 45 years after its release. Throughout this lean descent into terror, Romero offers up one deft observation after another. Despite the presence of the undead fiends who have risen from the grave, it is George's ability to stage conflict amongst the living that makes NOTLD so worthwhile. This is a theme that he would explore in greater detail throughout his career, but this is Romero at his most bloodthirsty, and the end result is damn impressive.
This is a scary yarn, a grim voyage that concludes on a sour note, and certainly much of the reverence the film receives is due to its ability to scare audiences decades after its original release. Additionally, people often think that this film is lacking in gore, but I would argue that it merely seems that way because it was shot in black-and-white. The gore is there, make no mistake about it, it's just that it isn't bright red. There is a lot of gut-munching, and if there is more gore in George's later efforts, that might have a lot to do with longer running times.
This is a true ensemble piece, following a group of survivors who are immediately thrust into a world gone mad, a world where the dead eat the living. They take refuge in a desolate farmhouse, and it isn't long before they begin to turn on one another. This "family" under duress doesn't co-exist well and the tension is almost unbearable at times. Yes, it's a simple premise, but it serves as the foundation for a rewarding picture that has garnered legions of fans. The movie works, and the bare-bones premise yields a lot of wit, a lot of insight, and a wealth of scares.
10 years before Romero directed Dawn of the Dead, his talent and his love for the genre were evident. Though his career trajectory has represented a decline, this film announced the arrival of a genuine presence. Romero's debut film starts with a bang and never relents, and everyone watching knew that the director of this feature was a voice to be reckoned with. He would produce at least one more classic, a superior film entitled Dawn of the Dead, but that film has its own spot on this list. This spot belongs to Night of the Living Dead, a movie that is one of the most significant horror films of all time for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, NOTLD is a highly-entertaining piece of social commentary that has proven to be a timeless frightfest.
4) Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive) - 1992
Zombies have rarely been so much fun. In 1992, Peter Jackson managed to make one of the sub-genre's most gleefully disgusting pictures of all time. Braindead is a bizarre love story that is packed with laughs and oozing blood, and you're not likely to find another picture like it. Indeed, this film goes to such extremes that it nearly becomes a spoof. There's a kung-fu priest who kicks ass for the lord, a fiendish zombie tot who our hero takes to the park, a vicious Sumatran Rat-Monkey, and the most domineering mother of all time. Seriously, that mother is a real piece of work. She makes the Sumatran Rat-Monkey seem like Mickey Mouse.
Forget the plot, this isn't that kind of movie. This is a movie that is determined to disgust you and tickle your funny-bone in equal measures, and it so far-fetched that it actually becomes quite cartoonish. While the fright factor is rather low, the film is consistently funny and exciting.
Honestly, I can't emphasize enough just how disgusting Braindead is, but it may just be the bloodiest movie ever filmed. Romero got an "X" when he submitted Dawn of the Dead to the ratings board in 1978, and it's hard to see how this film fared any better. Perhaps the MPAA gave Braindead the benefit of the doubt because of the tone, but chuckles aside, this movie is incredibly gross.
There are entire scenes where our hero wages war in a crimson landscape littered with body parts. The finale is deliriously over-the-top and positively revolting, and it presents a "rebirth" that would have made Freud loose his lunch. Yes, I went there, and no, I don't have a fever. Peter Jackson had a fever, and the only prescription he was interested in was more insanity. That's how he went from Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste to perhaps the only film that could possibly make those productions seem tame, and that would be Braindead, his finest film to date. Yes, that means I'm placing Braindead above Jackson's LOTR pictures, which are far superior films. Yet they're rather boring in comparison to this unsettling gem that never fails to provide me with a killer case of the giggles.
5) Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2) – 1979
My choice for #5 on this list is the finest offering from a man hailed as the "Godfather of Gore" for good reason. Some of the films soon to be unveiled here are loaded with quirky humor, but this one is a grueling watch from start to finish. Yes, Lucio Fulci was known for making his audience squirm, and he was at the very top of his game here. Some might argue that The Beyond is his best film, but I strongly disagree. Here, Fulci is on fire, making great use of an ominous score with tribal flourishes and a spooky tropical setting. Additionally, unlike many of his features, the plot is rather coherent this time out. Having said that, there's still room for a truly absurd scene where a zombie duels with a shark that will have you admiring the guts (or stupidity) of a man who may just be the world's bravest stuntman. Yet the true highlight of the picture may be the infamous "eyeball scene" that some of you may have heard about, and that bit is still guaranteed to make you cringe.
The plot is simple enough: a gutsy reporter and a daring damsel head to a mysterious island in search of her father. Score 10 points if you expect them to stumble into a nightmare filled with flesh-eating corpses that have somehow come back to life. Give yourself an additional 10 points if you don't expect anyone to make it out alive. Yet the power of Zombie has little to do with plot, and owes a great debt to the atmosphere and the horror that Fulci unleashes.
Zombie is exceptionally gory, and I think it features the most frightening zombies ever depicted on film or television. There is one sequence where the dead rise from an overgrown cemetery in the midst of the jungle that is positively terrifiying. Lucio wasn't known for his finesse, and as such this one can be a bit clumsy at times, but it remains tense and frightening after all these years. In fact, it is probably the scariest film that will be featured on this list. It might be the most depressing as well, for the 70s were known for gut-wrenching horror flicks with downer endings, and Zombie is no exception. Speaking of which, the ending is a classic. Zombie remains one of the most intriguing zombie films ever put on film. If you haven't experienced Lucio Fulci's most competent shocker, now would be a good time to let this Zombie take a big bite out of you.
. . .
Well, what do you think?
What's your favorite zombie film?
What movie should land at the top of the list?
Note: I have to give a shout out to all the cool people over at RVA Magazine who have been so supportive of me and my work over the years. I have published a great many Top 5 pieces for them, and this will be an updated version of one of them. I would just dust off the original, but every time I sit down with one of these lists after a little time away, it changes. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this Top 5, because you can certainly look forward to more, and if you're not familiar with RVA, do yourself a favor and check them out.