With DIARY OF THE DEAD opening in exclusive engagements around the country this weekend, horror fans have zombies on the brain. In fact, zombie fans are probably wondering aloud at this very moment: Just what are the Top Ten Zombie Films of All Time? And we bet they just can’t wait for us to tell them – so here we go!
A word of warning: You may find this list questionable; in fact, you may find some of the entries and omissions so bizarre that you even start to question our sanity. Rest assured, however, that there is a method to our madness. Can you decipher what it is?
1. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). This moody black-and-white opus from the producer-director team of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourner features a nurse who comes to the West Indies to take charge of a catatonic patient. It turns out the brain-dead woman may have been struck down not by disease but by voodoo. Midway through, the nurse takes her patient on a long trek to a local priestess in hope of finding a cure; along the way, they encounter another zombie, Carrefour (Darby Jones) – or is he? The mysterious storyline leaves the question of the supernatural up for grabs, creating an eerie ambiguity that chills the mind.
2. WHITE ZOMBIE (1932). Bela Lugosi (DRACULA) stars as a voodoo master who uses zombies to work his sugar mill. He is hired by a love-struck plantation owner to abscond with another man’s fiancee, but he decides to keep the beautiful woman for himself, turning her into a mindless automaton. The script makes clever use of the “facts” of zombies, reciting a local ordinance the prohibits the use of drugs to create a death-like trance from which the victim can be awakened. This leaves open the question of whether any of the zombies we see are, in fact, the walking dead or merely victims in a trance. Either way, this creaky old effort is historically important as the first zombie film ever, and it overcomes its flaws thanks to its rich atmosphere and the strength of Lugosi’s performance.
3. THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1987). Director Wes Craven turns in a fictionalized film version of a non-fiction book about an anthropologist who heads to Haiti in search of the truth behind the myth of zombies. As in WHITE ZOMBIE, the scientific explanation revolves around the use of drugs to render the victim with no will of his own, so that he resembles the walking dead. However, Craven tosses in several of his patented hallucinatory dream sequences, leaving open the question of whether the supernatural exists or not.
4. THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940). Bob Hope and Paulette Godard star in this follow-up to THE CAT AND THE CANARY, in which the couple head to Cuba to take possession of an inherited castle, which turns out to be haunted not only by ghost but also, according to the locals, by a zombie (Noble Johnson). Although a comedy, the horror elements are played relatively straight, and the black-and-white atmosphere is genuinely spooky. Of course, the last-reel explains the supernatural elements away, but lingering doubts remain.
5. PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966). Hammer Films’ only zombie flick is set in a Cornish village where a powerful local squire is using voodoo to revive the dead, whom he then puts to work in his tin mine. Although the ending is weak, this is otherwise a strong effort, featuring a wonderfully hallucinatory sequence of the dead rising from their graves, clawing their way through the earth to attack the hero, who watches in horror as the resurrected corpse of his dead wife is decapitated.
6. SUGAR HILL (1974). The titular character (played by Marki Bey) is a tough black woman who uses voodoo to seek revenge after her boyfriend is murdered by a white mobster as part of a plan to take over the victim’s night club. With the help of the god Baron Samedi, Sugar resurrects some black slaves who died on the boat to America centuries ago and turns the zombies loose on the murderous thugs. This obscure title is not really very good, but it is fun to see the cross-pollination of the blaxploitation and horror genres, and Robert Quarry, as the villain, is a real hoot.
7. ZOMBIE (a.k.a. “Zombie 2,” 1980). Director Lucio Fulci’s rip-off of DAWN OF THE DEAD combines the explosive flesh-eating splatter of George A. Romero’s urban film with the moody island atmospherics of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. The story is mostly set in the Caribbean, where a scientist (Richard Johnson) tries to find a solution to the question of why his dead patients keep returning from the grave. His assistant, a local native, believes he has the answer: a local voodoo priest has put a curse on the island that brings the dead back to life. This is the film with the infamous scene of a woman’s eye being skewered by a splinter of wood. Almost as much fun is the amusing but ridiculous scene of a face-off between a shark and a zombie, each trying to eat the other.
8. DAWN OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. “Zombie,” 1978). George A. Romero’s sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD relocates the cannibalistic corpses to a modern shopping mall, where a group of human survivors hope to ride out the apocalypse in comfort and style, thanks the the abundant supply of consumer goods around them. Whereas NIGHT offered a science-fiction explanation for the return of the dead (radiation from a crashed satellite), DAWN introduces hints of the supernatural, as Peter (Ken Foree) quotes his grandmother, a voodoo priestess: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth.” The film also includes Romero’s first reference to the living dead by their traditional voodoo name: when a motorcycle gang breaks into the mall near the end, Peter notes that the place will soon be filled with “zombies.”
9. LAND OF THE DEAD (2005). Twenty years after DAY OF THE DEAD, Romero has another go at the subject, this time with metaphoric references to the military occupation of Iraq, in the form of a “Green Zone,” where the rich and affluent can live in comfort, protected from the horrors outside. This expensive studio films lacks the inspired creativity of Romero’s earlier films, but it still has plenty to offer, including an amusing performance from Dennis Hopper, who at one point remarks casually, “Zombies, man…they creep me out.”
10. CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIE TOWN (1988). This low-budget cult film mixes elements of Russ Meyer with George Romero in its tale of a female biker gang that rides into a small town where a mad scientist (Don Calfa) has resurrected the dead and put them to work in the local Uranium mine. It’s not very scary, but it is quite funny. Billy Bob Thornton makes an early appearance as the boyfriend of one of the biker chicks, who becomes one of the living dead.
11. UNDEAD (2004). A tongue-in-cheek effort from Australia, this film borrows Romero’s rules for the living dead (i.e., shoot ’em in the head) and adds slow-motion gunplay lifted from John Woo. It’s funny, though not quite as funny as it intended, and actor Mungo McKay’s attempt to channel Clint Eastwood through an Aussie accent is a bit of a botch. Still, you have to give credit to a film that has a hero who has been expecting the coming disaster ever since he was attacked by a “zombie fish.”
12. ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN (a.k.a. “Flesh for Frankenstein,” 1974). Actually written by Warhol protege Paul Morrissey (with assistance from Antonio Margerit on filming the 3-D gore effects), this bizarre piece of bloody camp may seem out of place in this list, but Baron Frankenstein (the marvelous Udo Kier) refers to his piecemeal creations, male and female, as “my zombies.” This is a film that really needs to be seen in 3-D; otherwise, you loose the impact of those entrails handing out of the screen into your nose.
Well, that’s it – the Top Twelve Zombie Films of All Time. What’s that, you say? Wondering why SUGAR HILL ranks above DAWN OF THE DEAD? Aghast that your favorite flick is not on the list? Appalled by the absence of classics like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, EVIL DEAD 2, DAY OF THE DEAD, RE-ANIMATOR, DEATH DREAM, BRAIN DEAD (DEAD/ALIVE), THE BEYOND, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, and 28 DAYS LATER. Uncertain just what form of crack we’ve been smoking?
Well, we warned you up front that this list would be eccentric, but there is a rational behind our choices. Have you figured it out? It’s a little hard if you haven’t seen the films, but we tried to lace the entries with clues: check out the titles, plots descriptions, and dialogue references, and you might be able to piece it together, even if you have missed one or two of the movies.
Give up? Okay, we’ll tell you. By and large, when it comes to the cannibalistic walking dead seen on screen since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the bottom line is this: They’re not Zombies!
As George Romero himself says, “For me, zombies were the slave workers in WHITE ZOMBIE  with Bela Lugosi. […] I never thought of [the walking corpses in my films] as zombies; I never called them zombies in NIGHT. They were ‘ghouls’ or ‘those things.’”
As Romero rightly points out, the word “zombie” specifically refers to a corpse that is resurrected through voodoo and mindlessly obeys the commands of its master. Our Top Twelve emphasizes films that feature this traditional definition of the word “zombie.” Failing that, we have selected films that either include “zombie” in the title or use it in the dialogue to refer to the walking dead. Consequently, movies like ZOMBIE and SUGAR HILL, which feature Caribbean settings and/or references to voodoo, rank above Romero’s DAWN and LAND, which feature only brief lip service references to “zombies.” That’s why we called this a “Top Ten” list rather than a “Best of” list.
Okay, so maybe it’s not the cleverest conceit in the world, but it did give us an excuse to assemble a list that was not just a hodge-podge of the obvious.