Top Ten Zombie Films, Plus One or Two

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!

Noble Johnson as the zombie in THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)

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 [1932] 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.

Undead (2003) – Horror Film Review

Zombies are big business these day, or at least Hollywood hopes so, with RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION opening later this month. So we thought we would take this opportunity to shine the light on a lesser known – but quite entertaining zombie opus – a fun-filled combo of gore and John Woo-style action that is more farce than fear. UNDEAD is an amusingly outrageous Australian variation on the familiar zombie theme, played mostly for laughs but with enough exciting action and horrible makeup effects to qualify as a tongue-in-cheek horror film rather than an outright spoof. It’s not as funny as it means to be, and some of the character conflict is annoying rather than dramatic, but the stunts and sight gags make it worth sitting through the weaker moments.
The film begins with an apparently ordinary day in a small Australian town. The local beauty queen (Felicity Mason), fed up with her life there, is on her way out, when circumstances intervene: a meteor lands downtown, poking a hole through one of the hapless inhabitants. (That the abrupt incongruity of this disruption of dull normality draws chuckles instead of screams is our first hint that we’re not in for a straight-out fright fest.) Then, as in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the meteor turns people into zombies, whose bite then turns their victims into even more zombies. (To be fair, UNDEAD was released in its native land in 2003, a year before SHAUN.) A gravel-voiced, gun-wielding man (Mungo McKay) comes to the rescue, but in the end it is our beauty queen who rises to the occasion and proves herself to be the true survivor. Along the way, our characters find that their town has been completely surrounded by vast, unscalable wall, completely isolating them from the rest of the world; there is a mysterious rain that causes some unknown changes into the people it touches, after which they a levitated above the town, where they hang suspended in a coma; and just to top things off, some aliens show up….
Obviously, this is not just another low-budget Romero knock-off. The acknowledged intention of the writing-directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig was to craft a film in the manner of Peter Jackson’s early, outrageous gorefests, BAD TASTE and BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. DEAD/ALIVE), two films that pushed carnage well past the limits set by George Romero in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), but which adopted a hyper-kinetic cartoon aesthetic more in keeping with Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II. Into this mix, the Spierig Brothers add a healthy doze of John Woo-style action antics: having the hero dive in slow motion while firing guns, two-handed, at the advancing zombies; or, in a wonderfully over-the-top moment, performing a 180-degree leap into the air, embedding his spurs into the top of a door frame, and firing while suspended upside down. With action like this, the film clearly is not interested in believability; it’s a movie-movie that works as a showcase for bravura excesses of action and gore that are meant to yield laughs more than screams.
Yet, somehow, it manages to avoid losing all credibility. The result is both frightening and funny — a combination of humor and horror somewhat similar to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, although the script and characterizations for UNDEAD are, frankly, not quite up to the caliber of that film. Mason is fine as our heroine, but McKay’s gravel-voice Clint Eastwood impersonation yields a one-note performance that feels fake. The rest of the cast strive to delineate their characters, but they are undermined by a script that forces them to play narrowly defined caricatures (e.g. the over-bearing, authoritative police officer and his insecure junior partner).
In particular, the film stumbles in its attempts to build dramatic tension among the supporting cast. Early on, when the characters are forced to take shelter in an underground lock-up, they begin pointlessly yelling at each other, instead of trying to figure out what they need to do. The effect is forced: it’s the script telling them to tear into each other, without really justifying their reactions, and the performers fall into the trap of trying to goose-up the weak writing by throwing themselves into it full-bore. Fortunately, these missteps are balanced by the nicely-staged action, which elevate the film a level above the usual low-budget zombie-spoof. There is also some well-done prosthetics, including the de rigueur gore expected in this sort of film.
On top of that, there are numerous, impressive computer-generated special effects that provide a larger sense of scale (such as when a small airplane weaves in and out of the levitating bodies floating over town). In the end, UNDEAD is not as sophisticated as the Romero DEAD films, nor as sinister as 28 DAYS LATER, nor as witty and clever as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but it does not intend to be. The aesthetic here is “cult film” all the way, and on that level the Spierig Brothers succeed, creating mindless movie entertainment that works at least as well as Hollywood popcorn movies like RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. UNDEAD is the ultimate, ultra-cool, gun-smoking, brain-splattering zombie-action-comedy-gore-flick.
UNDEAD (2003). Written and directed by Michael & Peter Spierig. Cast: Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dick Hunter, Emma Randall