Tomorrow marks the dawn of Halloween, a celebration that I was never entirely privy to as an Australian child. Each year its arrival was made apparent, not by the marching of costumed children through the streets, but by the sudden avalanche of American Halloween television specials that poured through the small screen into our living room (usually at least a few days after the day itself).
But of course, Halloween’s origins go back further than the tongue-in-cheek festivities of modern America. The name Halloween is a 260 year old Scottish variant of the original title, All Hallows’ Eve, and in some quarters this name still applies. Traditionally, this was a night of festivities that preceded All Hallows’ Day, a Christian event dedicated to the remembrance of the dead (although some trace its origins back to Celtic pagan traditions that preceded the introduction of Christianity).
Well, call me old fashioned, but I’d like to honor Halloween’s earliest origins by going back to the good old days and remembering the dead… specifically the undead… more specifically, the zombie. In honor of the day, I’m avoiding mention of all films that do not strictly adhere to this criteria such as Evil Dead (demons), The Omega Man (fully functional yet diseased night dwellers) or From Dusk Till Dawn (kind of zombiesque vampires). So without further ado, here are the thirteen zombie films I couldn’t live without.
Day of the Dead (1985)
We all know that George Romero kicked off the contemporary zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and elevated the genre to art with Dawn of the Dead (1978). So I’m giving them a miss this time around. In my opinion, the hysterical hopeless nihilism that pervades Day of the Dead, along with the rather concise running time and forward moving narrative, makes this the most outright entertaining film of the original trilogy.
The story is simple enough: a group of burnt out scientists and soldiers continue on living in an underground scientific research facility long after their mission to cure the world has clearly failed. As basic human decencies disintegrate, the zombies seem to become the secondary threat.
Burial Ground (1981)
Burial Ground is one of those films that violently impedes on the psyche, despite being the product of largely inept filmmaking. The reason: the disturbing and obvious use of a dwarf to play a child, a horrific moment of oedipal horror, and the gorgeous reinvention of zombies as dry dusty corpses prone to disintegration upon impact. Another jarring addition to the genre courtesy of Italy’s era of exploitation cinema.
28 Days Later (2002)
No need to say more, really. Danny Boyle’s flawless addition to the zombie universe is perhaps the most professionally crafted and emotionally intense contribution to the genre. Too bad about the unwatchable sequel.
For those few who haven’t seen it, a young man wakes from a month-long coma in hospital to find out that a virus has just about wiped out the human race, leaving millions of highly-aggressive and very fast zombies to finish off the survivors.
When I first saw Stuart Gordon’s magnum opus as a teenager, I wasn’t quite sure what had happened. Here was the film that I’d been searching for my entire life. The dark comedic tone, the ruthless gore, the ridiculously over-the-top performances of Jeffrey Combs and David Gale, and a psychotic killer cat. Art.
Combs plays a brilliant young doctor whose research into the resurrection of dead tissue has gone as far as it can go without experimenting on the dead. Gale plays the jealous professor who is at first unwilling to accept Combs’ research, until he gains first-hand experience of its potential. Gruesome stuff.
This micro-budget addition to the genre from Canada’s Bruce McDonald is definitely something a little special. Following the events occurring within a radio station as reports of cannibalism and zombieeseque behavior escalate, the menace eventually arrives at the radio-station’s door. From here, a bizarre diversion into a commentary on language subverts the genre, sending the viewer into areas they probably didn’t expect to go.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Some call it the worst movie of all time. I wouldn’t go that far, in fact I’m not sure it’s even the worst film directed by the absurdly named Ed Wood, but there is something near perfect in Wood’s ability to fail in almost every single element of film production. Shonky props, indecipherable accents, awful acting, clunky editing, train-wreck shot composition and inexplicable raw enthusiasm make this an absolutely essential on this list.
Narratively, the film details the ninth attempt by space aliens to take over the earth (apparently the first eight were so bad we didn’t even notice). But this time the plan is perfect – they elect to resurrect three slow moving corpses and have them take over the planet. Yep.
The haphazard addition of Bela Lugosi into the film after his death using stock-footage and an unconvincing double is enough to warrant at least one viewing.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Dan O’Bannon, the gifted screenwriter behind Dark Star and Alien, reinvigorated the zombie genre during the mid-1980s with this comedic classic. Combining a comic-book style zombie aesthetic with a punchy script and game-changing special effects, Return instantly became canon. A huge number of loosely related sequels of varying quality followed.
The story, so far as it goes: when some kids discover some old barrels abandoned by the military, it turns out they’re loaded up with toxic gas and the undead. Of course, a comedic zombie apocalypse quickly ensues.
White Zombie (1932)
It’s a rarely known fact that Bela Lugosi isn’t actually Dracula. Back in 1932, he played the psychotic plantation owner, Murder Legendre, whose band of slave labor zombies were apparently the first film characters to bare the ”Z” name. An eerie atmosphere and Lugosi’s burning eyes mark this as necessary viewing for anybody who takes their zombie history seriously.
Planet Terror (2007)
Robert Rodriguez’s enthusiastic addition to the genre oozes excess in all areas, to the point that any sense of narrative momentum is thoroughly drowned out by his love of each and every moment. But that’s beside the point – it’s hard for any aficionado to not revel in this epic schlock-fest and all its failings (many of them deliberate). Rodriguez’s love of retro-excess parody might be wearing thin with each new production, but this one definitely makes the top of the pile.
What’s it about? Military ooze gets loose. Zombies arrive. A group of crazy cats comes together to fight the good fight. You know the drill.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)
One of the most well-measured zombie films to come out of the European exploitation machine in the 1970s. A surprising excess of proficiency in camerawork, lighting, editing, pacing, scripting and even acting make this a complete package. A reduction in the usual amount of gore also helps to lower the traditional dependence on jarring imagery to get the job done.
When a local experiment in radiation goes awry, the recently deceased start rising from their graves and committing murders. Two strangers get pinned for the crime by the local law enforcement, and find themselves under attack on two fronts.
The Beyond (1981)
I’ve posted about this one before, but it’s definitely worth repeating myself. The Italians aren’t known for their restraint when it comes to horror cinema, and this is no exception. Lucio Fulci’s most effective film is narratively incoherent, awfully dubbed and lazily assembled. But over the course of eighty minutes all of these negatives are inverted into a kind of surreal ball of nihilistic hopelessness that will totally ruin your chances of a good night’s sleep. And the zombies… (shudders).
As far as I can tell, the general gist is that a woman buys a house resting on a doorway to hell. And then it opens… ouch.
Long before The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson was directing a nice little collection of splatter films and gross-out comedies in New Zealand. Braindead, also known as Dead Alive, is by far the best of the lot. At no point in the history of the zombie film has anything quite attained this level of technical proficiency and distastefully skillful artistry in its representation of gore. From the old lady who accidentally eats her own ear to the use of a lawnmower to liquefy an army of zombies, this film never lets up.
The plot? When a rabid rat-monkey bites the protagonist’s grandmother, she quickly deteriorates and drops dead. And then wakes up.
Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
Also known as Zombi 2 in those quarters where George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released as Zombi, this is Lucio Fulci’s most widely celebrated entry into the zombie genre. Featuring Fulci’s usual combination of powerful imagery and incoherent film making, this classic is probably most widely known for the infamous eyeball sequence and the ‘zombie versus shark’ scene.
A group of strangers find themselves on a tropical island in search of a missing person. Soon enough, a zombie outbreak ensues and then bad things happen to sharks and eyeballs.