There is currently an obsession with zombies that might be on it’s last legs now, however it’s bred so many sub-par and mediocre zombie movies and pop culture references that some people (me included) are ready for a moratorium on them for a few years.
The Walking Dead (which, admittedly, is a good show, tho the comic is a little better) has ushered in a new era of unprecedented zombie love (tho the build-up to zombie overdose has been going since before it started).
I’m constantly asked by people what my fav zombie movie is, and I constantly see people renting and buying terrible, sub par, or (worst of all) boring zombie movies thrown together to make a buck off the craze.
So, to celebrate this day of the most famous zombie to rise from the dead of all time (Easter), I’m going to list my top most fav zombie movies that came out before the zombie craze of the 2000s (so no Zombieland, Shawn of the Dead, Cabin In the woods, etc., great as they may be) , with the exception of George Romero’s oeuvre (because you’ve all already seen all of them, RIGHT?) as well as some that you just need to see if you’re a zombie fan and haven’t. So, in chronological order…
1) Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) probably don’t totally count, but I’m listing them anyway because they are excellent movies and classics (and much better than the atmospheric but ultimately fairly boring White Zombie (1932)).
2) Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1973)- in the commentary, the writer says “I’d taken a whole bunch of friends to see Night of the Living Dead and we’d decided we were just going to rip it off, only this time in color!”, and that’s pretty much what they did, except they mix in a strong Hammer studios feel to it as well. Really, the main reason I’m listing this one is because of it’s historical relevance- it has a quirky charm to it, and does evoke a good atmosphere at times, but it’s also very slow moving, and the characters (esp the main character Alan) are pretty annoying and grating to watch. It concerns a group of actors who go to a graveyard to rehearse a movie, and they bring along a real corpse to act with. They perform a ritual to bring back the dead on him (among other disrespectful actions) which seemingly doesn’t work, then retire to an old house to bitch and argue and do weird things for awhile. At some point the movie finally picks up when it’s revealed that the ritual just took longer than usual and didn’t just bring the one corpse back to life, but the whole graveyard full of them! The movie is pretty damn good from that point on, and is a necessary watch for zombie completists. It was directed by Bob Clark (Black Christmas, A Christmas Story, Porky’s).
3) The Living Dead At the Manchester Morgue (aka Breakfast At the Manchester Morgue, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) (1974), is a pretty well put together and ambitious story for an early ’70s low budget horror movie. Two outcast/ hippie types are suspected of some Manson clan-esque crimes by the bitter inspector of the police department, but it actually turns out to be the acts of zombies brought back to life by chemical pesticide. The zombies are still the Romero-style not so gory looking ones (tho they are a bit faster), and the gore isn’t over the top (tho still more graphic than NOTLD). The characters and story are more interesting than most low budget zombie movies, and an actual star (Arthur Kennedy of Lawrence of Arabia fame, among many more) is in it.
4) Zombie (also called Zombi, Zombi 2, and Zombie Flesh Eaters) (1979)- definitely one of my topmost favs of my favorites (along with Return of the Living Dead and Dellamorte Dellamore (see below)), this movie oozes atmosphere and horror. The zombies are the coolest looking there are, caked in mud and blood with wriggling worms and maggots hanging off their faces. The story is about an island being slowly overrun by zombies and a doctor who is trying to figure out what’s going on. His daughter travels from New York to find him, and unfortunately for her, does.
The movie is permeated with a mood of hopelessness and decay, and the gore is quite graphic- there’s a scene of close up eye trauma (with a splintered piece of wood no less) that doesn’t flinch, many flesh ripping scenes, and even a fight between a zombie and a shark. A company called Arrow just released it last year (under the title Zombie Flesh Eaters) on blu ray and dvd uncut with loads of cool extras and in a metal box, so look for it.
5) Gates of Hell (aka City of the Living Dead) (1980)- Truthfully, I’m not a huge fan of this movie, but am including it because I know so many people who would call me a blasphemer if I didn’t include it. Done by Lucio Fulci (same guy who did the last movie on this list Zombie), this one is pretty silly and kind of confusing (truthfully, it doesn’t make a lot of sense). A priest (I think) hangs himself, which opens the gates of hell. Zombies attack, gore flies rampant (including the famous drill to the neck scene), and a couple of people (including a psychic) scramble to close the gates. Entertaining but not a fav.
6) Burial Ground (aka Burial Ground- The Nights of Terror) (1981)- here’s the third Italian zombie movie in a row, and another good one. I actually watched it recently after having not seen it in awhile, and it’s a little slower than I remembered, but still the horror creeps along and catches you eventually. A beardy professor unleashes a horde of rotting, wormy zombies (the effects were done by Gino De Rossi, the same guy who did Fulci’s zombies in Zombie) who converge on a group of hipster socialites who he invited to his mansion before becoming zombie chow.
The director really tried to ape Zombie, even copying the pierced eyeball close-up (tho with a shard of glass instead of a splinter of wood) as well as the look of the zombies, but he doesn’t quite attain the sense of dread that Fulci does. He does pull off a lot of creepy scenes, however, including one in which an extremely homely and creepy looking little kid (played by a dwarf in real life) wants to nurse from his Mom (he’s supposed to be like 8 or so) in a kind of incestuous implication, and she slaps him for it. later on when he comes back from the dead she’s so happy to see him that she lets him, and of course he bites her nipple off in gory detail. Highly entertaining.
7) Return of the Living Dead (1985)- another topmost fav of my most favs, this movie is pretty much pure mayhem from beginning to end. This is one you just need to take my word for and watch if you haven’t seen it- it’s awesome. A couple of working class slobs release a poisonous gas that makes the dead come back to life, and have to team up with some ’80s punk rockers and the yuppie owner of the company they work for to survive. These zombies, in a twist not seen before, are fast and indestructable (we’ve since seen fast zombies, but this was the first movie I saw with them in it) and they even talk. The movie mixes humor and gore (not in a cheesy or annoying way, but very well done, which isn’t accomplished very often) with horror and a good story, and goes over the top in a lot of scenes. It was co-written by two of the guys who helped out on the original NOTLD.
8) Re-Animator (1985)- Another over-the-top gorefest from 1985, this one concerns an old fashioned mad scientist trying (and succeeding) to bring the dead back to life and his roommate. The pace is slightly slower than Return of the Living Dead, but it’s still a mayhemic movie full of horror and black humor. It’s another one you just need to see if you haven’t. Jeffrey Combs became a cult star because of his excellent performance as the determined and demented Herbert West. It’s supposedly based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, but the connection is tenuous at best. It includes the infamous ‘getting head from the dead’ scene as well…
9) Dead Alive (aka Braindead) (1992)- This was Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s third movie, and quite a doozy! It’s possibly the most violent movie I’ve ever seen- super bloody and over the top. Imagine the gross-out craziness of something like Ren and Stimpy transported into a zombie movie, and you’d have an idea of what this is like. The story is about a guy and a girl who fall in love, however the guy’s mother is an overbearing control freak and while trying to sabotage their relationship gets bit by a ‘Sumatran rat monkey’ (claymation) and becomes zombified. Soon the whole town is overrun by zombies and our protagonists have to try to survive. Includes a scene where a horde of zombies get mowed down by a man holding up a lawn mower. Fast paced and bloody fun.
10) Dellamorte Dellamore (aka The Cemetery Man) (1994)- Another of my topmost favs of my favs, and another offbeat, crazy one. The plot concerns a man who attends to a cemetery (and his helper) where the corpses rise a second time after they are buried. The movie is pure atmosphere, and attains an almost fairytale like quality. The scenes and cinematography are masterful, the violence and storyline once again over the top (absurd in places) and full of black humor. It takes several twists and turns before the strange ending, and main star Rupert Everett flirted with A-list celebrity status for a short while in the late 90s. Directed by Michele (The Church) Soavi.
Most real horror fans have probably seen most of these (or at least heard of them), and there are a lot of more obscure ones I could have mentioned (the Blind Dead series comes to mind), but this is a good list for casual fans who want to watch a good zombie movie but are having trouble distinguishing between the good, bad, stupid, and boring masses of zombie movies available to rent, buy, or watch online.