Although the concept of the zombie predates the 20th century, it was only in recent decades that it truly became a part of pop culture. Credit for that goes to George A. Romero and his seminal 1968 film Night of the Living Death, which single-handedly created a whole new sub-genre of horror movies.
Since then, zombies – so humble by themselves, but so horrifying in hordes – became an almost infinitely pliable trope that can be used for horror, humor and social commentary. With that in mind, we took it upon ourselves to compile a list of the 12 Best Zombie Movies of All Time.
Honorable Mention: Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)
When low-level accountants Larry (Andrew McCarthy) and Richard (Jonathan Silverman) discover that someone has been stealing money from their firm, they hope to get a promotion. Since their boss, Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser), is the one doing the embezzling, he orders a hit on the would-be saviors instead. The mobsters kill Bernie by accident, leaving Larry and Richard with a dead body on their hands and a desperate need to convince everyone that Bernie is still alive.
The dead body in Weekend at Bernie’s is not quite a zombie: Bernie really is dead, but everyone, from his murderer to his mistress, is just stupid enough to believe he’s still alive. In the 1993 sequel Weekend at Bernie’s II, he does get re-animated, but voodoo ceremony is only partially successful, so Bernie can’t move around unless he hears loud music. Although Weekend at Bernie’s was panned by the critics upon its release, for a generation of kids growing up on VHS tapes in early 1990s, it remains a cherished memory.
12. White Zombie (1932)
Released in 1932, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie is the first horror film to feature zombies. Although it lacks shambling hordes we all know and love, the movie does have immortal Bela Lugosi as the necromancer “Murder” Legendre. Legendre uses voodoo magic to produce zombie slave labor for his Haiti plantation. In a move that is as classy as it is vengeful, he turns all of his enemies into personal zombie guards. There’s also a dashing young hero trying to save his wife, but nobody cares because… Bela Lugosi! Zombies!
Being a product of its time, White Zombie lacks gore, but compensates this with its morbid tone and implied gruesomeness, most wonderfully so in a scene set within Legendre’s sugar cane mill. Since its copyright expired, the film is free to watch and available online. Despite being dated, White Zombie is well worth watching and, at a breezy 67 minutes, won’t take too much of your time.
11. The Beyond (1981)
As Liza Merril (Catriona MacColl) renovates an old Louisiana hotel, she learns she’s facing far worse problems than leaky faucets and rusty pipes. Decades ago, a resident of the hotel was accused of sorcery and lynched by the mob. That act opened one of the Seven Doors of Death, allowing the dead to leave Hell and re-enter our world. As demonic entities begin to kill and possess the people in hotel, Liza and other survivors struggle to prevent the apocalyptic invasion.
Horror films by the Italian director Lucio Fulci are in no small part informed by his years of studying medicine before entering the movie business. This has earned him the nickname “Godfather of Gore” by his fans. Heavily censored during its initial 1981 release, Fulci’s zombie horror The Beyond (also known as Seven Doors of Death) is a great example of his style. Together with City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond forms a very loose Gates of Hell trilogy.
10. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Although it contains scenes of nightmarish horror, The Serpent and the Rainbow may be most disturbing because of its implication – no matter how tenuous – that it is inspired by the real events and beliefs. Very loosely based upon a non-fiction book by botanist Wade Davis, the film follows Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), a scientist who explores the toxins used by voodoo priests of Haiti to produce zombies. As Alan investigates the truth behind the zombie legends, he gets threatened and attacked by the corrupt policeman (Zakes Mokae) who uses voodoo magic to maintain the brutal regime governing the island.
Wes Craven helped redefine the horror genre throughout three decades. In the 1970s he made exploitation horrors such as Hills Have Eyes. In the 1980s, he helped introduce the audience to teen slashers with his Nightmare on Elm Street series. And in the 1990s, he directed self-referential meta-horror Scream. The Serpent and the Rainbow remains his lone venture into the zombie horror territory, in which he once again explores his favorite theme: the nature of reality.
9. Zombie (1979)
First horror film to feature a zombie fighting a shark, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie follows Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), a scientist’s daughter traveling to a tropical island in the Caribbean to help her sick father. Little does she know that the island lies under the deadly voodoo curse that revives the dead and turns them into rabid zombies. Soon enough, Anne and her friends have enough trouble trying to save themselves from the zombies, let alone her father!
Despite being a prolific movie director for decades, Lucio Fulci only got his international breakthrough in 1979 with Zombie. This horror film was originally released under the title Zombi 2, presenting itself as an unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Edited by the horror master Dario Argento and based on a screenplay by Dardano Sacchetti, Zombie was inspired by Val Lewton’s 1943 horror classic I Walked with a Zombie as well as by H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.
8. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
In this 1985 horror comedy, punks battle zombies as the accidental release of a toxic gas from a medical supply warehouse causes the local graveyard to erupt in re-animated corpses. As Burt (Clu Gulager), Freddy (Thom Mathews), his girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and their friends fight for their lives, living dead attack first the warehouse and then the entire town.
Dan O’Bannon is known for writing the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror Alien, as well as for working on John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star. O’Bannon’s 1985 horror comedy Return of the Living Dead first introduced a trope of zombies eating human brains instead of devouring entire bodies. It was also the first zombie horror to prominently feature zombies running, rather than loping. This caused some amount of controversy among the zombie connoisseurs of the day, as George A. Romero deliberately presented his living dead as a slow but ever-encroaching menace. Nevertheless, Return of the Living Dead remains a cult classic.
7. Braindead (1992)
Lionel (Timothy Balme) lives with his cruel, manipulative mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody). After she gets bitten in the zoo by a rare specimen of a Sumatran Rat-Monkey, Vera turns into a ravenous zombie attacking everyone in sight. Unwilling to kill her, or her victims, Lionel instead clumsily hides her and the ever-growing number of zombies, with disastrous results.
Made in 1992 by young New Zealand movie director Peter Jackson, Braindead (also known under its US title, Dead Alive) was initially a commercial failure. However, its gory sequences were so outrageously over-the-top that the movie soon gained fame – and notoriety – for its copious amount of blood, guts and dismembered bodies. Jackson would go on to direct a drama Heavenly Creatures, horror comedy The Frighteners and, lest we forget, the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
6. Re-Animator (1985)
From the moment it hit the theaters in 1985, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator was destined to become a cult movie. Its grotesque levels of gore took it beyond horror straight into a realm of a farcical dark comedy. Loosely based upon the 1921 story “Herbert West–Reanimator,” by the celebrated horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, the film follows a mad scientist as he attempts to re-animate the dead with hilarious and horrific results. Even as Dr. West gets brutally attacked by each and every creature he brings back to life, his devotion to experiment never wavers.
The center of all this macabre mayhem is Jeffrey Combs, who portrays West as a madman who is sadistically determined yet somehow pathetic. The rest of the cast includes Bruce Abbott as West’s reluctant accomplice Dan Cain, Barbara Crampton as Dan’s girlfriend Megan Halsey and David Gale as villainous Dr. Hill. Re-Animator eventually became first in a trilogy of movies, followed by Bride of Re-Animator in 1990 and Beyond Re-Animator in 2003.
5. Zombieland (2009)
From its opening, featuring Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and CGI credits floating amid zombie carnage, the 2009 black comedy Zombieland establishes itself as an American response to Shaun of the Dead. This horror comedy follows a ragtag group of survivors on a continental road trip across the zombie-infested USA. Even as the characters dispatch the undead in a cartoonish manner, and compete for the “Zombie Kill of the Week,” first-time director Ruben Fleischer nevertheless conveys how much they really lost in the zombie apocalypse.
The casting is pitch-perfect. Jesse Eisenberg plays a neurotic college student with a long list of survival rules that also serve as a meta-commentary on zombie horror movies. Woody Harrelson is crazy and charismatic redneck while Emma Stone plays a sexy, yet vulnerable, con-artist protecting her younger sister (Abigail Breslin). Zombieland also features Bill Murray in one of the most entertaining movie cameos in recent years.
4. 28 Days Later (2002)
After spending a month in a coma, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a deserted London hospital. He quickly learns that the country was struck by a highly contagious disease that infects people with an unstoppable killing rage. Jim and a small group of survivors – Selena (Naomie Harris), Mark (Noah Huntley), Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) – embark on a trip through an eerily empty England, hoping to find some remnant of civilization.
Although 28 Days Later didn’t invent fast zombies (that honor goes to Return of the Living Dead), it did (along with Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake) help popularize the concept and re-invigorate the genre. Directed by the Academy Award-winning Danny Boyle and based upon a screenplay by the novelist Alex Garland, 28 Days Later skillfully mixes humor, horror, action and drama. Critically and commercially successful, it was followed in 2007 by 28 Weeks Later, which, although not as good, has its own virtues.
3. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
Despite approaching his 30th birthday, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is stuck in a perpetual adolescence, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Shaun works a dead-end job and spends most of his free time either playing video games or drinking with his deadbeat friend Ed (Nick Frost). It will take a strong incentive to change Shaun and, sure enough, it comes – in a form of zombie horde.
Made in 2004, Shaun of the Dead is a British horror comedy that first drew attention to the young film maker Edgar Wright. Wright combines sitcom tropes and horror to a great effect, telling a story about the world’s most inept zombie survivors with style and wit. It was a sign of things to come in Wright’s later movies like Hot Fuzz and The World’s End that, together with Shaun of the Dead, form a loose series called Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy.
2. The Evil Dead (1981)
Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is a college student on a spring break in a deserted cabin with his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), and their friends. But when they discover an ancient manuscript containing demon-summoning chants, people get possessed – Dead or alive! – and chaos ensues.
It took two years for Sam Raimi, his childhood friend Bruce Campbell and his college buddy Robert Tapert to produce their exploitation-horror The Evil Dead. When the film was finally released in 1981, it was met with positive reviews and soon gained a small but vocal fan base. Six years later, Raimi directed Evil Dead II – a sequel/remake boasting a larger budget and more assured film making. 1992’s Army of Darkness lacked horror, but more than made up for it with cartoonish humor and the sheer charisma of Bruce Campbell’s performance as Ash. The story was recently revisited in the TV series Ash vs. the Evil Dead, which premiered in October of 2015 on the Starz network.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Patient Zero of modern zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead was filmed in 1968 on a shoe-string budget by a young filmmaker named George A. Romero. Its tale is lean and mean: after the dead begin to mysteriously rise from their graves, a tiny group of survivors led by Ben Huss (Duane Jones as the first-ever black lead in a horror film) hides within an isolated farmhouse. Bolted inside, they struggle to survive the unceasing attacks of the living dead as long as possible.
The film is also the first title in an informal series of Romero’s zombie-themed horrors. Out of them, the most notable are the two first sequels to Night. Filmed in 1978, Dawn of the Dead is Romero’s satire of American consumerism, in which zombies besiege the survivors in the local shopping mall. His 1985 film Day of the Dead mocks scientific and military establishment as the surviving soldiers and scientists endlessly bicker in a hidden army base while the undead conquer the world. Both of these horrors featured incredible practical special effects by Tom Savini.
With such an rich subject, it’s almost inevitable that we missed some of your zombie movie favorites. Share them with us in your comments!