Zombies have officially hit the big time. Somehow, the concept of walking corpses that crave human flesh has gone mainstream, taking over both the small and large screens. Audiences have transformed AMC's The Walking Dead into one of the biggest hits on television and this weekend Brad Pitt will officially drag the genre into the blockbuster arena with the very expensive epic World War Z. But what if you want to know more? For the zombie neophyte who has only been bitten (har har) recently, the rest of the genre can seem daunting. There are countless movies about the walking dead, so where do you start?
Don't worry -- we've got you covered. Depending on exactly what you're looking for in your zombie story, any of the films below should be an excellent place to jump on in. You journey to become an expert on zombie movies starts now!
For the History:
White Zombie (1932)
Although the zombie movie as we know it didn't really become a thing until the 1960s, the word and the phenomena have existed for significantly longer. For the modern horror aficionado, Victor Halperin's White Zombie may be unrecognizable as a zombie movie, but it's an important example of what the genre represented in a past life. Rather than a deadly virus that reanimates the dead, White Zombie deals with voodoo and dark magic transforming people into mindless slaves. Although certainly not sensitive to Haitian culture (the great Romanian actor Bela Lugosi plays a voodoo priest, after all), the film is creepy and melodramatic in equal measure, telling the story of "Murder" Legendre, a nasty guy with an army of personal zombie slaves who targets on a young newlywed couple. Like other horror films of the time, White Zombie can be a little creaky when watched today, but if you're willing to meet if halfway, you'll discover a strangely charming and atmospheric experience enhanced by a terrific Lugosi performance. Plus, you'll be able to say that you've seen what many people consider to the be the first zombie movie!
For the One That Started It All:
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
There's no denying it: Night of the Living Dead is the most important and influential zombie movie ever made. Directed by the great George Romero, this now-familiar story follows a group of people who barricade themselves in an isolated farmhouse to protect themselves from the flesh-eating walking dead. Although the whole project is undeniably a B movie (shot in black and white on a shoestring budget), it remains wildly entertaining to this day. More importantly, virtually every zombie movie that followed in its wake used its "rules" as a template. Yes, that includes The Walking Dead. The film introduces the idea of zombies being the result of some kind of disease (instantly cutting off the religious origins of these creatures) and, more importantly, it is the first to establish that only a strong blow to the head will kill a zombie. However, the film's most important contribution to the genre is the emphasis on human conflict. The only thing worse than the zombies in a zombie apocalypse are the people sharing the now-ruined world with you. In fact, it even takes precedence over the zombies themselves in Romero's future films!
For the Social Satire:
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero's Dawn of the Dead isn't as creepy as Night of the Living Dead, but it's just as important and iconic as its predecessor. Moving the action out of farm country and onto a larger scale, the film follows four survivors who take refuge in a shopping mall when a zombie plague tears society apart. Although it has all of the head-exploding gore and "human beings are the real monsters!" subtext that you'd expect from a film like this, it delivers something very fresh indeed: vicious, smart satire. Depending on who's at the helm of a zombie movie, the walking dead could just be monsters out to menace the human race or they could represent something else. Shambling corpses who eat people aren't a subject that allow for subtle satire, so Romero uses them like a sledgehammer in Dawn of the Dead, filling an entire mall with zombies, who aimlessly wander from store to store like the mindless consumers they once were. Thanks to Dawn of the Dead, it's hard to find a modern zombie story that doesn't at least attempt some kind of social commentary, but few have reached the silly and gleeful heights achieved here.
For the Extreme Gore:
Although the modern take on the zombie is an American creation, no one pushed the genre in such absurd, amazing and frequently obscene directions as the Italians. Throughout the '70s and '80s, countless Italian filmmakers pumped out countless zombie movies, with results ranging from the sublime to the unwatchable. One of the undeniable highlights of this phase is Lucio Fulci's Zombie. The setup is simple enough: a group of people arrive on a tropical island to search for a missing man. The island is full of zombies. A lot of people start to die horrible deaths. Although there are more violent zombie movies than Zombie, few manage to supply atmosphere and tension alongside the gore as well as Fulci does here. After a slow, tense first half, the film becomes a bloodbath in its final stretch, offing most of the cast in memorably disgusting ways that still look a little too real today. Like much of its Italian brethren, Zombie doesn't find much time for interesting characters or conflicts, but it revels in letting walking corpses take apart its cast limb by limb. And if that doesn't sell you on this one, just know that there's a scene where a zombie fights a shark. Yep, now you're running out the door to rent this one.
For a Change of Pace:
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
With so many films featuring the Romero-inspired zombie out there, you should take comfort in knowing that the occasional "traditional" zombie film still rears its head. Like White Zombie 55 years previously, Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow tells a zombie story through the lens of voodoo and magic, throwing a helpless American scientist into a realm beyond his understanding. That scientist is played by Bill Pullman and he heads to Haiti to investigate a possible new drug for a pharmaceutical company back in the United States. Of course, his trail to the drug is full of corrupt officials, mindless zombies and, in the film's most famous scene, testicular torture. Like White Zombie, the living dead of The Serpent and the Rainbow don't resemble the common movie zombie in any way, but this crazy, weird and extremely entertaining movie is a nice breather from all of the rotting flesh eaters that otherwise populate the genre.
For the Laughs:
Because they're clumsy and mindless, zombies have always lent themselves pretty easily to comedy. Although the sheer number of horror comedies revolving around zombies can boggle the mind, they all bow down to Braindead (also known as Dead Alive) at the end of the day. Directed by Peter Jackson before he cleaned up his act and made Lord of the Rings, this is typical of his early work: extreme gore in service of slapstick and lowbrow humor. The film follows a young man who desperately attempts to contain his miserable old mother after she transforms into a zombie, only for much of their town to fall victim to her and rise from the grave. For some people, the film's unrelenting silliness will be tough to handle -- this really is the Bringing Up Baby of zombie movies -- but you'll be hard-pressed to find a horror fan who doesn't think that final lawnmower-on-zombie scene is worth the effort. There are scarier zombie movies and there are bloodier zombie movies, but there are rarely zombie movies this funny and weird and totally worth your time.
For the "Fast Zombie" Revolution:
28 Days Later (2002)
Much to the chagrin of old-school horror buffs, recent years have seen a surplus of "fast zombie" movies, where the once shambling corpses have become Olympic class sprinters (see also: World War Z). Although this take on zombies is controversial, the film that started it all is a true modern classic. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is a kick in the pants for a genre that sometimes struggles to find anything new to say. Like most movies of this kind, the film takes place in a world that has all but ended. The streets are empty, survivors have boarded themselves up in high-rises and everywhere you look is another pack of homicidal former humans, victims of the "Rage" virus. Although 28 Days Later follows much of the zombie template to the tee (including a third act that is all about humanity being worse than the infected), its handheld camera work, emotionally raw performances and fast-paced action are simply refreshing. Many films in the past decade have aped what Boyle and his crew have accomplished here, but there's only one film that's managed to top it. Speaking of that one film...
For the Modern Zombie Movie Done Right:
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
How good is the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead? It's so good that director Zack Snyder went on to make 300, Watchmen and Man of Steel and this is still his best movie. Although the thought of remaking George Romero's seminal classic was blasphemous, Snyder's slick direction, James Gunn's smart script and a surprisingly strong cast transformed what should have been a cash-in into one of the best horror films of the '00s and one of the best zombie movies ever made. The setup is the same as the original film (survivors take refuge in a mall during the zombie apocalypse), but Snyder and Gunn diverge wildly from the source at that point, making a film that's gnarly, twisted and hilarious. This movie feels like it was made by people who grew up watching Romero's films and had late-night conversations about how they'd survive the zombie invasion. Thankfully, their overblown take on surviving the end of the world is about as fun as movies get.