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Stylus Magazine’s Top 10 Zombie Films of All Time
01. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
It feels a bit unfair to call Dawn of the Dead a zombie movie. There's a reason George Romero has never used the word 'zombie' to describe the hordes of mindless, flesh-eating dead that lumber through his films—he is not interested in movie monsters. Romero's vision of a crumbling world where the dead vastly outnumber the living is a rich, comic metaphor, a device used to discuss deeply disturbing truths about American society. It's impossible to miss the bluntly comedic way that Dawn's shopping mall setting skewers the zombification of the consumer-culture, but there are finer, subtler ironies at work here. Made on an shoestring budget and peopled with an amateur cast of limited performers, Dawn sees its main characters escape the apocalyptic nightmare of the walking dead by barricading themselves in an abandoned shopping mall, where they construct an illusion of a 'normal' middle-class lifestyle, distracting themselves with wealth, material pleasures and cheap entertainment while millions of walking dead loom outside their doors.
Set against this rich bed of explicit social commentary, the frequent eruptions of shocking gore—faces blown apart, bodies torn to pieces, entrails eaten by the handful—begins to feel less like movie violence, and more like a Brechtian device used to shock complacent audiences into paying attention. More than just a horror movie, Dawn of the Dead is a frightening, playful, and bitterly ironic vision of an America that has learned to bury dark undercurrents of existential dread under the gleaming surfaces of wealth, materialism, and the endless, dead-eyed routine of commerce. Who knew shopping could be so scary?
02. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Most of us recall that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Glenda the Good Witch transforms suddenly into the Wicked Witch of the West invading Dorothy’s crystal ball. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later magnifies that moment a thousand-fold. Even now, watching his handful of survivors flee “the infected” across an England wasted by a “rage virus” epidemic makes me jump in half a dozen spots. The last movie this scary—Kubrick’s The Shining—was made in 1980. Boyle’s capacity to hold wonder and terror in such exquisite balance may be why, though the chases are first-rate and the infected gruesome. Boyle developed this further in Millions—the robbers after those kids really intended to kill them—and in this year’s Sunshine, where he again uses actor Cillian Murphy’s luminous eyes and open brow in ways so right you wonder why it took so long.
Here, Murphy is Jim, first seen from above, waking from a month-long coma—light dusts his stirring eyelashes like a blessing—he is naked, soft, wired to IVs. This image echoes the strapped-down lab chimp opening the film and recurs later—in Jim’s parents, fragile suicides in their bed, and the infected soldier Mailer, pitiably chained by his neck in the garden by Major West “for observation.” “Hell,” breathes the animal rights activist, glancing around the lab. Then the chimps tear her to pieces when she opens the cage. Boyle’s film comes full circle when those left—Jim, the machete-bearing Selena (Naomi Harris) and young Hannah (Megan Burns), whose decent, beefy father (Brendan Gleeson) turned infected before her eyes—work frantically on a signal laid in a meadow for passing planes. Incomplete, the giant word HELLO lacks its final letter. Jim’s nightmare—from which he’s constantly awaking—is this loneliness, so total rescue may not be coming.
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
03. Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)
The real ghoul of the film, the third in Romero’s peerless trilogy, is Captain Rhodes, the asshole to beat them all. His sneering, antagonistic presence is a haunting menace that makes the zombie massacre at the film’s glorious end a sincere relief. Offended and affronted by everything he confronts, Rhodes is destined to be punished—and he is, in royal fashion. Given one of the all time great kiss-off lines, Rhodes screams “Choke on me! Choke on me!” as the Zombies tear him limb-from-limb, stuffing fistfuls of his guts into their eager mouths. Unbeatable, Rhodes is superior even in digestion. The aggression of Rhodes is a clear counter-point to the docility of Bub, the near-friendly, housetrained zombie. The exquisite scene in which Dr. Logan urges Bub to slur “Hello Aunt Alicia” into a dummy phone is priceless. Logan himself is right out of the monster movies of the 30s, a demented Frankenstein with an elastic conscience. In Day of the Dead, Romero makes explicit his notion that the zombies are becoming increasingly human and the humans—in their desperation to preserve themselves—are becoming less so, as if adaptation opens the door to humanity.
04. Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)
Dead Alive isn’t the scariest, smartest, or funniest movie on this list. But it’s made with such grisly imagination and unholy abandon that it deserves a seat alongside the greatest. From the kung fu priest (“I kick ass for the lord!”) to the farcical examination of zombie table manners to the penultimate lawn-mower splatterfest, director Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson) strings a near-flawless procession of creative set-pieces that get fouler and bloodier by the second. By the final showdown, a big Freudian mess staged between the blood-soaked hero and his monstrous mega-zombie mother, you’ll have witnessed some of the most indelible and inspired images that the genre has to offer. And while Dead Alive is obviously not for the weak-stomached, it’s an ultimately exuberant affair, and perhaps the most kind-hearted film you’ll ever see to feature a zombie infant getting pureed in a blender.
05. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Torneur, 1943)
An ingenious development of the Jane Eyre backstory, Jacques Tourneur’s melodrama uses the brooding mysticism of the Caribbean as the exotic setting for his voodoo masterpiece. It teems with unsettling, peculiar imagery and the glorious Francis Dee spends much of the film retreating into the shadows cast by dark family secrets. There is a sultry, dishonorable frustration to the film, the plucked seams of the picture seeping sexual tension. The torrid erotica of ritual and sacrifice is used to great effect, played out as a kind of somnambulistic gratification: the body reaching peaks of disconnected satisfaction without responsibility. This may be a creaky, outdated and depraved representation of ‘The Islands,’ but only in the same way that Conrad uses the Congo or Philip K. Dick the future. Stories have to be set somewhere and it’s only right they use the fears of the day to express themselves. The poet of the pulps, Tourneur, knows all about this form of artistic exploitation and he whips this broad narrative into some kind of classic. The film is to be remade in 2009 by Twisted Pictures, the cut and shut company behind the Saw movies.
06. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
A lot of people praise Dawn of the Dead as Romero’s best film, but I like to argue in favor of Night of the Living Dead. For one thing, its somber and enigmatic tone is more suited to Romero’s heavy-handed politics. The genius of this movie is its low budget; the almost news-reel black and white footage gives it an eerie homespun quality that parallels simultaneous footage from the civil rights movement and Vietnam, and makes us question our own pleasure in watching it. The anonymous setting of a cottage in a semi-rural section of America feeds into the claustrophobic sense of the semi-apocalyptic universe of the series better than any of the garish costume and special effects of Romero’s later Dead movies.
Also, Romero wisely spends most of the movie examining the humanity of the survivors. Their inevitable downfall results less from the incidental follies they all cause but the cultural weaknesses they carry with them into the cottage. The story draws you into the issues on a personal level to the point where you feel frighteningly vindicated by the violence in their plot. After Harry betrays Ben by not letting him back into the house and then pulling a gun on him, you want him to suffer somehow. It’s an unsettling feeling, and it makes you wonder what you’d be impelled to do in a similar situation. Ultimately, I suppose beyond entertaining you, that’s the best that zombies can do.
07. Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985)
After Night of the Living Dead came out, the creators subsequently went their separate ways. Romero continued his exploration into the personal and cultural defects that a zombie attack would exploit, and John Russo harped more on the reflexive and humorous potential of the undead. I don’t know if this was the first artistic rift caused by mythological disagreements about the nature of zombies, but it was certainly the most dramatic. Purists will contend that Return of the Living Dead started a lot of the false rumors about zombies (such as their ability to run, speak, and think at the same level as they could when they were alive). Perhaps the inception of zombie’s comic lust for “live brains” did change the monsters from legitimately frightening creatures to the horror-comedy straw-men that they are today. But who really cares? So what if the already loose definition of “the living dead” changes every other scene as dogs, corpses, even butterflies return from the grave to attack the surviving heroes? A self-respecting movie wouldn’t advertise itself with a line like “they’re back from the dead, they’re hungry, and they’re not vegetarian” anyway. Return of the Living Dead is hard to describe, it’s probably one of the best times you’ll have watching a movie. Sit back, suspend disbelief, and enjoy some “live brains.”
08. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1974)
It’s a classic war-movie trope: The men come to the door, somber but intent, with some bad news. It’s Andy. He isn’t coming home. Since Bob Clark’s Deathdream opens as Andy is killed in Vietnam, we’re inclined to believe them. But one night, amid a well of unnatural whispers and shadows, he reappears. That he’s not quite the same is not a surprise—that’s another cornerstone of this fiction—but news, for example, of a murder the night he returned home suggests something much deeper is wrong. Clark’s Vietnam nightmare is somewhat dated, but his fusion of war paranoia and an unusual breed of zombie horror strikes a patient, disconcerting rhythm. By the time we learn Andy’s secret, the movie becomes a little silly, but its anxieties linger.
09. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
A brilliant deconstruction of the zombie genre and a biting commentary on the collective ennui of the masses, Shaun of the Dead is nothing like the silly spoof its title suggests. Director Edgar Wright has studied the classics closely and sends them up at every opportunity, but he does so while innovatively carving his own niche within the genre. Again and again, we find ourselves less concerned with what the zombies are up to or how the principals are going to survive, than we are with the state of each character’s relationships with friends, family, and significant others. Add to that the impeccable comic timing of the leads, and makeup and special effects that seem to belong in a much more serious horror movie (though are perfectly welcome here) and you’ve got one of the funniest movies ever made about people, alive or dead.
10. Pet Semetary (Mary Lambert, 1989)
To write about Pet Semetary is difficult because I still have trouble watching every frame. Stephen King’s adaptation of his own novel is in wildly poor taste—there is no child or beloved family pet the film isn’t willing to kill violently and then tear from the grave—and it has the emotional sincerity of a Saw movie. Its nihilism is unabashed, even cheerful. But every few years, following the first time I snuck it by my parents when I was in grade school, I return to the movie, and there’s always something cathartic in facing its horrors. The idea of an ancient burial ground resurrecting corrupted versions a pet, a baby, a mom—my dog, my baby brother, my mom—is outrageously perverse, but there’s something to be said for the movie’s willingness to push so insistently and so far. Beneath the extreme violence lies a deep skepticism of family and tradition, institutions I’ve scarcely seen questioned on screen with this kind of force.