October 2019 marks the premier of the long-awaited sequel “Zombieland: Double Tap”, and in a strange way, it almost marks the end of an era. Zombies were arguably the hottest horror topic for years, leading to what has been referred to as the Zombie Crazed generation. However, the fad seems to be dying down, and while there will always be zombies in our pop culture, they just aren’t quiet as popular as they were ten years ago, when the zombie craze really ignited. Obviously, zombies have been present in our pop culture for years, and with so many featured in our movies and TV shows, it’s almost overwhelming. As such, I suggest sticking to the absolute best of the zombie genera, which leads me to this countdown. I’m not trying to make any kind of official best of list, I’m just going to countdown my own personal top 10 favorite zombie ventures from either the movies or TV. As a side note, even though I’m a fan of the “Left for Dead” games, I won’t be including any video games or novels on this list.
#10 “World War Z” (2013)
It was right at the height of the zombie craze that this Blockbuster came along to deliver some big screen thrills, and it actually marked my first time ever seeing a zombie movie in the theater. While inferior to its source material, “World War Z” was one of the first to bring a zombie epidemic to life on a far grander, global scope then what we’d seen before, and featured some truly epic zombie attacks. Brad Pitt delivers a committed performance, the thrills are genuine, and again, it was just exciting to see zombies on this grand a scale. It’s by no means a horror classic, but a perfectly welcome addition to the genre all the same.
#9 “The Return of the Living Dead” (1985)
The title may mislead some people to think this film is tied in with the classic zombie series that began with “Night of the Living Dead”, but this is a completely original film, and one that stands as a staple of 80’s horror cinema. It masterfully combines gory zombie action with a goofy overtone, and features unique zombies that have rarely been duplicated in other films. These zombies can talk, they can’t be killed by destroying their heads, and they specifically eat brains. This is where the famous zombie quote … “BRAINS” … came about. These are also some of the greatest looking zombie makeup designs of the whole genera, and they still surpass what we mostly see today in terms of gory creature designs. The stakes are higher, the fun factor is upped to ten, and the creature designs are stunning, which make this a mandatory film for long time zombie fans to see.
#8 “Michael Jackson's Thriller” (1983)
Now here’s something out of left field, as it’s a music video that also acts like a short film featuring zombies. It may seem like an odd one to highlight, but Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” really is an important contribution to zombies in our pop culture, and as a longtime fan, I just had to include it. This short was directed by John Landis, the same talent who directed “An American Werewolf in London”, then we have horror legend Vincent Price providing the narration (and subsequently an iconic evil cackle), and finally we have the great Rick Backer behind all the zombie make-up and creature effects. There’s a number of visuals that have always stuck with me as iconic zombie moments, including the corpses rising from the cemetery, the recognizable zombie dance choreography, a headless zombie signing off the video, and of course … Michael Jackson's design as a grotesque, orange suited corpse might just be my all-time favorite Zombie figurehead in our pop-culture.
#7 “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
Here it is, the horror movie legend that started it all, and put zombies in our main stream pop-culture. This is the film that set all the classic staples of the general, depicting ravenous gore, along with political undercurrents, and it set the rules for how zombies should be portrayed on film. Don’t let the films Black and White, low-budget look throw you off, because after all these years, this film still remains one of the most disturbing of the genera. Personally, I think this film features the absolute scariest zombie scene of all time, in which a little zombie girl picks up a sharp object … and stabs the crap out of her own mother. On that note, this is a rare zombie movie that features the dead using old human instincts, like using bricks and other objects as weapons. With its disturbing visuals, horrific sound design, and shocking ending … this is the definitive zombie classic, and the one the genera owes everything too.
#6 “28 Days Later” (2003)
After hitting it out of the park in the 80’s, zombie movies quietly died down through the 90’s, but where then re-awakened with yet another horror classic … “28 Days Later”. It was at the dawn of the 2000’s, and one could make the argument that this film launched our modern-day zombie popularity. Like it’s classic predecessors, this film combined it’s thrilling zombie attacks with political allegories, as well as added something new to the formula that had never been seen before … zombies that can run fast. This is where the notion of the marathon running zombies first took shape, and changed the face of the genera through the early 2000’s. Bounded by the kinetic direction of Danny Boyle, and populated with a strong human cast, “28 Days Later” succeeded in making zombies scary again, and it’s a recognized horror classic in it’s own right.
#5 “Dawn of the Dead” (1978)
Proceeding from “The Bride of Frankenstein”, this is yet another sequel that escaped the long shadow of its iconic predecessor and has become a classic in its own right. The original “Night of the Living Dead” is the movie that kick-started the Zombie genera, but it’s the sequel “Dawn of the Dead” which has kept it going strong after so many years, and why Zombies are so popular today. This is a film that blends nasty Zombie action with social commentary on society and becomes gory poetry in the process. For its time, it was one of the bloodiest movies ever made, and still to this day … it’s a horrific visual spectacle. Aside from that, this is just a wildly entertaining film, with great characters, quotable lines and a terrific mall-shop setting. While I can’t say it’s 100% better than the first film, it is undeniably the movie I’d rather watch. If your new to the genera, yet lost in a sea of too many zombie flicks, I’d say that the original “Dawn of the Dead” is the best one to start with.
#4 “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island” (1998)
Here it is, the spooky child-hood venture that introduced me to zombies in the first place. Don’t let the presence of the famous cartoon character through you off, because this makes for a genuinely fun, and thrilling zombie venture on its own, and it’s a personal favorite of mine to this day.
As the title suggests, Scooby-Doo and the gang journey to an island to solve the mystery of disappearing bodies and haunted claims. It may seem average on the surface, but once the sun sets, supernatural oddities come about, dark secrets of the island’s history are explored, and an army of zombies awaken to terrorize our hero’s. The story is respectfully multilayered, there’s a mostly challenging mystery slowly being unraveled, some clever twists, the danger was legitimate, and I feel it’s the closest that Scooby-Doo ever came to being genuinely scary. No joke, the ending gets surprisingly dark … certainly darker than anything else in the franchise. Also, the soundtrack rocked, especially with the theme song “Terror Time Again”, which is easily one of my favorite songs to listen to during October. Personally, I think “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island” is the absolute best thing to ever come out under the character’s name, and one that even non-fans might be able to get behind. This film is almost too good for Scooby-Doo, and probably would have made for a great spooky zombie adventure without him.
#3 “Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
Here’s a rare case in which a silly spoof on zombie tropes escaped its goofy trappings, and has sense been declared a modern classic in its own right, and one that people regularly watch around the Halloween season. With the combined talents of director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg, they crafted a film that was far better than it had any right to be. Beyond being extremely funny, this film one-ups the witty social satire present in “Dawn of the Dead”, to the point where it compares regular everyday people to zombies. It’s all very clever, and when matched with the films wildly creative editing, and camera work, you could almost view “Shaun of the Dead” as the figurative “Citizen Kane” of all zombie movies. The film is also credible for maintaining the same spirit, tension and drama of any great zombie film, to fit right along side all it’s goofy wit and hummer. While I had been exposed to zombies in the media before, “Shaun of the Dead” absolutely marked the point when I became a fan of the genera.
#2 “The Walking Dead” (Seasons 1-5) [2010-2014]
Zombies have arguably never been more popular in our pop culture then through AMC’s hit TV show “The Walking Dead”. The show was a smashing success, and has lasted through the decade from 2010 – 2019. While I personally lost interest in the show after its fifth season, and stopped watching it all together ... I still remember fondly the impact this series initially left. Zombies seemed to thrive in a TV show, as it explored an epidemic in greater detail then a single movie ever could. It also gave us some of the most recognizable and iconic human characters, who could change and develop over the course of the series. While the zombie battles were as exciting as they got, the real strength of the show was it’s exploration of the darkness in humanity, and how prolonged exposure to such an event strips away our individuality and exposes select people for who they really are. It may have over stayed it’s welcome, but the initial run of “The Walking Dead” never the less remains a memorable TV viewing experience that I’d rank among the absolute best of the genera.
Before I reveal my number 1 favorite, here are some Honorable Mentions …
“Dawn of the Dead” (2005)
“I Am Legend”
#1 “Zombieland” (2009)
Surprise, surprise … when it comes to movies revolving around killer zombies, there’s obviously a lot of really good ones, but none have meant more to me then 2009’s “Zombie Land”. While the movie is set in an apocalyptic world that's been taken over by zombies, the experience plays out like a road trip comedy, with a group of travelers going across the country to take refuge at a theme park. There are too many good things in this movie to count, as it has an awesome cast of scene steeling characters, mild but effective scares, kinetic zombie action, and lots of hummer. We have people killing zombies while on theme park rides, a hilarious cameo from Bill Murray, and the worlds coolest gun wielding bad ass who’s desperate to find a Twinkie. It’s all fun with this film, and a perfect blend of both horror and comedy. For me, it’s the gold standard in which I set my zombie films, and one that I make a tradition to watch for the Halloween season. There’s no telling if the sequel will live up to the high points of the first, but weather it’s good or not, there’s no changing the fact that “Zombieland” remains my all-time favorite zombie venture.