The Top 10 Zombie Movies of All-Time
Unlike other websites, our Top Ten lists are created from the empirical data of our global rankings decided upon collectively by all the users of Flickchart.
Some debate exists about the “zombie-ness” of a few of these films. Genre purists draw distinct lines between “the infected”, “demon-possessed corpses”, and Zombies with a capital “Z”. The conceit of their inclusion here is that these films adhere to the spirit of the storytelling law, if not its letter. Erring on the side of inclusion can be controversial, but such is the nature of Flickchart. Besides, who wants to rank the Best Movies That Include Some Kind of Re-Animated Corpse or Crazed Infected Person At Least Once In The Movie of All-Time?
Zombies have long been associated with anxiety, both provoking it in viewers and reflecting it in society. These films are often a crucible for the social contract which ordinarily governs our daily lives. How do we respond to threats that violate that contract? Fans of the genre respond to themes of uniting in face of danger, protecting their loved ones, and literally getting away with murder. Opponents of the genre often point to it as a fantasy for people who view the social contract as a leash, rather than a shield. Whether you get excited about bashing brains with a shovel, or cringe at the idea of another viewer being excited about bashing brains with a shovel, here are the current Top 10 Zombie Movies of All-Time, as determined by the Flickchart global community… and a pair of bonus recommendations, to boot!
There’s something to be said for filmmakers using a genre’s conventions to subvert the audience’s expectations, but Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon really took it to another level with The Cabin in the Woods. They not only subvert our expectations of the “teens in a cabin” horror clichés but also find a very clever way to explain all of the clichés in a wholly original way that still fits the genre. While I’m hesitant to call this a zombie movie, it certainly has zombies in it, and if you haven’t seen it, I’m hard-pressed to explain why that makes sense. This is really one of those ‘you have to see it to understand what they’re talking about’ movies. It’s fun to watch as a meta-experience, and if you’re a fan of any type of cliché horror movies, it’s a must-see.
Zombieland is another entry into the zombie subgenre that plays with conventions, though this time by mixing it with comedy. Both the script and the direction have so much fun mixing these two genres up that the film breezes by filled with bloody laughs. Like any good story, though, it balances the laughs with serious moments, and we get some surprisingly great characters with interesting back stories and motivations. Woody Harrelson is particularly brilliant, as is the surprise guest that turns up midway through the film (or perhaps it’s just brilliant to have him turn up period). The story gets bogged down late in the second act but manages to resurrect itself (rise like the undead?) to come back for a fitting conclusion. If the filmmakers learned anything from their genre mashup predecessor, Shaun of the Dead, it was to balance the comedy and the horror with truthful character moments, which they did.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Re-Animator feels like a perfect representative of an 80s horror movie, or if it would be better to say it feels like a perfect low-budget horror movie. Either way, it fits the bill. The blood and gore are over-the-top, but not in a modern torture porn sort of way. The actors really chew the scenes, but in a way that is fun because of it. Likewise, the story is ridiculous, but perfect for the genre. The story of a mad scientist doing everything he can to re-animate the dead is horrific; in this film, it’s mostly horrific because he has such a lack of interest in the people – he only cares about his success. When one of his experiments turns on him, it brings the film to its most horrifying moment – when our heroes are trapped in the morgue as all the corpses don’t just rise from their slabs but practically leap to life. Okay, so it’s not really that horrifying by today’s standards, but I can see it really working on my 1985 self. (One last note – how on Earth did they manage to steal Herrmann’s Psycho theme for the opening titles without crediting him anywhere?)
The thing that has always drawn me to George A. Romero’s 1978 classic zombie movie Dawn of the Dead is the commentary on modern society. There’s nothing more bitingly funny in this movie than seeing the zombie hordes shuffling through the mall, not looking that different from the crowds of consumers who are really there every day. It’s a bit of genius filmmaking that the Shaun of the Dead filmmakers wisely reused. Tom Savini also has a great time with his gruesome special effects. Top of head sliced off by helicopter blades? Check! Screwdriver into the ear? Check! It’s not an overly terrifying movie but with the social commentary and the buckets of wonderful zombie gore, it’s essential viewing.
The shuffling zombie was pretty standard by the time Danny Boyle took a crack at the zombie movie with 28 Days Later… and made his zombies actually run like a wild animal pack. Okay, so the zombies technically aren’t the dead come back to life but instead are people who have been infected with a horrible virus that turns them into zombie-like creatures, so it makes sense that they can still run. But it sure shook up the genre! Since then, zombies don’t seem as threatening unless they’re running at you full-force. Aside from this genre shake-up, the film also has a great critique of society and the monsters we can become without having to actually become zombies. There are some issues with the final act, but it’s still a great ride and a great entry into the genre.
Writer/director Sam Raimi took a simple concept – five friends who inadvertently stumble onto the forces of evil in a remote cabin – and threw at it every single trick in the movie-making book. Handheld cameras create a sense of immediacy to what we see. Makeup and special effects create some truly gruesome imagery, including injuries to some especially vulnerable parts. Judicious editing keeps the action moving even during the very few “down” times. Throughout it all, though, there’s the sound. Much of the score and foley work takes place in the upper register, and it rarely lets up. The effect is a sensory bombardment that ups the storytelling ante. This is, after all, a harrowing story in which five friends are pitted against one another in a zombie battle royale.
Admittedly, the Army of Darkness fruit falls a bit far from the Evil Dead tree, feeling more like an homage to Ray Harryhausen than part of its own series, much less a zombie film. Regardless, it’s one of the very rare threequels that succeeded in reaching an audience. Squeamish viewers who may be put off by the gore of the first picture in the series can more or less bypass the first two films and just jump into Army of Darkness cold. It works surprisingly well as a standalone film…though, of course, once you remove it from the franchise, it seems even less on-point as a zombie movie. Whatever. It’s groovy anyway!
Few zombie films are as directly relatable to social zeitgeist as is Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. Fewer are as iconic. That the zombies are sluggish is irrelevant. They are relentless, and it is the dread of knowing they’re coming, wave after wave, that dominates the film. Duane Jones gives one of the best performances in the genre as the levelheaded de facto leader of the group of strangers trying to survive. There is also a general consensus that the film is an allegory about anxiety over the civil rights movement of the late Sixties, and Jones’s reassuring presence makes clear that it is a refudiation of the paranoia over desegregation. In short, Night of the Living Dead is “Zombie Movies as Social Allegories 101”. It has been satirized and parodied countless times over the last 45 years. Next Thursday (October 24), Fathom Events will present a live Rifftrax performance of the film in theaters. For all the aping, though, it stands tall as possibly the definitive film of its genre.
2. Evil Dead II
With Evil Dead II, Sam Raimi followed standard sequel operating procedure: He gave us more of the same, but bigger. This time around, the emphasis is on the supernatural as a tormentor, rather than a war of attrition among friends. Though gags abound and we go into camp territory (see: Bruce Campbell dancing with the cabin decorations), Raimi piles on enough action that we’re laughing with the film rather than at it. What’s the point of telling a story about the evilest evil in the universe if not to have fun?
“A romantic comedy. With zombies.” That’s how the poster tagline described Shaun of the Dead, and when I left the theater with my friends, we concurred that was the single best description that could have been offered to us. Horror purists may balk at Shaun of the Dead being considered a Horror film proper, but there’s no denying it’s a zombie film. It has a sense of humor, but the zombies are played straight, as are some genuinely touching scenes of loss. Released in 2004 while American and British troops were committed to both Afghanistan and Iraq, and every day, a different government official was warning us that terror strikes were imminent, Shaun of the Dead was very much also a timely commentary on the kind of social anxiety that dominated during its day. It’s a love letter to the genre, but also a genuinely great zombie film in its own right.
Bonus Zombie Movie Picks
This Top 10 was generated by the global Flickchart community, but here are two more Zombie flicks worth seeing.
Andy’s Highest-Ranked Zombie Movie Outside the Global Top 10:
People seem to either hate “found footage” style movies or tolerate them for what they are. I don’t know why, but I just love them. Even if I find the technique a bit suspect, I still think it’s such a fun way to tell a story. Quarantine really took me by surprise. I still haven’t seen [REC], the Spanish film on which it’s based so can’t compare, but I think it really uses the “found footage” style well and creates some serious scares. Similar to 28 Days Later…, the zombies in this film are really people infected with a nasty virus, but damn if they’re not scary! The filmmakers brilliantly keep the claustrophobic feeling growing through the entire film, constantly squeezing you in all along the way. Sure, the poster did a disservice to the story, but it’s still such a terrifying ride that I never cared once I got to the end.
Travis’s Highest-Ranked Zombie Movie Outside the Global Top 10:
Zack Snyder is polarizing, and I won’t go into all that. I will say, though, that I think Dawn of the Dead is still probably the best showcase of everything he does well as a storyteller. The pace is brisk, the characters are all given sufficient attention, and I don’t think Snyder has yet cobbled together a better set of tunes to accompany his pictures. Starting off with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” set the perfect tone. Plus, there’s Ving Rhames. I’ve enjoyed seeing him in movies ever since Mission: Impossible. (My alternate zombie pick would be Star Trek: First Contact, though far be it from me to try to make the argument that film be formally counted as a zombie movie!)
Which zombie movies make you anxious? Sound off…while you can!
#10-6 written by Andy Nelson
#5-1 written by Travis McClain