I ♥ zombie movies.
Not all of them mind you. As far as indie B horror movie goes, it’s a genre of horror movies that’s rife with craptacular attempts. Even some of the major studios have made some incredibly dull and unoriginal movies. But generally, I love watching the human struggle to survive against an unrelenting, nearly unstoppable horror that threatens to consume and assimilate you. A lot of my favorite movies to rewatch are zombie flicks. Not everyone is going to agree – I like a good story with zombies in it. Some people just like the gore.
As AMC prepares to bring the “The Walking Dead” to life (pun intended), I thought I’d go over some of my favorites, and point out some of the things that make good zombie movies and things that make bad zombie movies.
My Top Picks For Zombie Movies
28 Days Later
What made 28 Days Later great can probably be pinned on one defining factor: The zombies can run. This changed the game a lot, as suddenly the old version of shambling masses of undead filling the streets wasn’t the only fear. Even one zombie on it’s own was incredibly dangerous. Having a huge herd of them pounding into the tunnel, or attempting to attack the compound was exciting, but the little boy in the way station was just as fear-inspiring. That, combined with the speed of infection in this film meant that one zombie could realistically cause a huge outbreak. One of the great flaws in zombie movies is that it assumes that people don’t understand what’s going on and refuse to believe it, even after witnessing several attacks – which I often find hard to believe. In some of the more traditional movies that use infection + shambling zombies, it makes very little sense that the outbreak is so widespread at such an accelerated rate. Cinematially, Danny Boyle shot a movie with some real grit, and his style of film making really brought the story to life in a way that people are trying to hard to emulate. The character development here is fantastic, as we see the different levels and timelines of the Kübler-Ross Model played out between the main characters. Cillian Murphy does a brilliant job leading the cast.
zombieland is hilariously great. Though not as funny as Shaun of the Dead, it mixes action, comedy and romance in a way that many of the indie movies tend to fail in. It’s not hard to point out what exactly makes this movie great – attention to details. Instead of focusing on the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse, it very lightly takes a look at what the world would be like once people had adjusted to the horror of a zombie world. Where ‘Land of the Dead‘ failed, zombieland does a great job of focusing on character development, witty writing, and the evolution of consequences. Details like renaming themselves after their destinations or hometowns, ‘Columbus’s Rules, and varying the reasons for peoples motivations (Tallahassee in search of a Twinkie is particularly brilliant) all create a world that is richly believable, and ridiculously entertaining. The editing fashion of showing the rules, and adding in ‘zombie Kill of the Week’ were fantastic comedic takes on the zombie genre.
Shaun of the Dead
Simply the best comedy of the zombie genre. I might be biased because I often prefer British humor, but I think this one works well because it does something that most zombie movies fail to do. As it’s tagline states: A romantic comedy. With zombies. It focuses more on the romantic comedy aspect, using dry British humor and some seriously flawed characters to drive a story. Then they added zombies as a backdrop – shambling, slow moving zombies. There’s some incredibly hilarious moments generated by the speed of the zombies: a little tounge-in-cheek at the genre that may lessen the fear factor of the zombies themselves, but points out how useless one or two zombies is in compared to an amassing horde.
Night of the Living Dead
It’s the original. What more can I really say about it? It’s cheap, fun and amazing. The first film I saw was the Tom Savini remake – which I loved. You can forgive some of the acting because of the era, and some of the terrible editing as well. But all in all, it started a whole new genre of movies, all based off of not ripping off a vampire story. It’s worth watching the original, or the remake. It doesn’t necessarily stick all of the factors that normally make a zombie movie great, but they both work as precursors. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t seem to be due to an infection – the dead simply come back to ‘life’.
I’ve just started watching this series, and I already love it. It’s not technically a movie, but as a five part mini-series, it’ll do. The idea of focusing on a small cadre of divas and attention seekers that don’t even realize what’s going on is an amazing hook. Imagine if your group of survivors was a bunch of idiot prats that don’t know that toes have bones? It’s also the perfect setup for a bunch of misaligned characters to hole up together and learn to work together. Cinematically, it looks as though it’s taking a similar feel to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later – gritty, focused and a little washed out, which contrasts nicely with the polished brightly lit scenes of the Big Brother House.
I might have to argue that the Crazies even is a zombie movie. But I do think it fits into the genre – They’re not the undead, per se, but as monsters, they do behave similarly. Relentless, focused on death – it’s a movie that uses zombies as the inspiration for the kind of horror that zombies inflict. What works here that doesn’t normally is giving the zombies a degenerating cognitive ability – in the initial stages of infection, they’re capable of operating heavy machinery, weapons and communicating. However, they do slowly regress into more simplistic killing machines as the corrupting agent accumulates it’s effects. Zombies are horrifying because they kill without thought or remorse. They don’t reason or rationalize or learn – they hunt and kill with less than rudimentary skills. That they gather in relentless hordes that you can’t reason with is what makes them scary. They’ll just keep coming.
This movie is ridiculous. Ridiculous in a way that only a few cult classics can ever be – like Sam Rami’s Evil Dead series. Undead is over-the-top, gritty, full of hilariously bad acting, and is probably a rip from George A. Romero’s orginal concept for Night of the Living Dead. It lacks in cohesion, seems to take some really odd turns, and has a ton of consistency goofs. But all that terribleness that didn’t work in a dozen or so other movies, somehow comes together well with an Australian accent. There’s something adorable about it.
What makes A Good Zombie Movie?
- Zombie Archetypes
Zombies are unrelenting, singularly focused on their need. They infect with a bite, and that’s all you need. Adding things like the ability to learn (Land of the Dead) or sympathy for them (28 Weeks Later) take away from the actual horror of a zombie outbreak.
- Character Development
It’s not enough to have a girl with her boobs out screaming clinging to a tough badass choking on cigars and blowing away zombies for 90 minutes. Characters need to change through the movie – the Kübler-Ross Model provides a good arc for characters to follow in an outbreak situation, as an example.
Since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it’s been increasingly important to add a “what if” factor to each new entry. The core story of “What if the Dead were to come back hungry for human flesh?” started the genre – making it an original story is what is going to make it good. Hooks like “What if zombies could run?” (28 Days Later) and “What if zombies were pyschotic killers instead of the undead?” (The Crazies) can lead to a strong story. If 28 Weeks Later had instead focused on the “What if there were human carriers of the rage virus, immune to the symptoms?” – they might have made a good movie.
- Moderate Gore
There are a ton of ‘Horror’ Filmmakers that focus on surprise and gore to fit into the horror drama. But I find that those that play with suspense and character tension are the ones that get my hackles up right.
In most of the movies I like here, there are character limitations that the filmmakers stick with. Just because someone drives a cab doesn’t mean they know how to fix cars. Just because they have to shoot zombies doesn’t mean they’re going to be a good shot. It’s these limitations that force characters to adapt and grow, which, as I’ve stated, is where the real entertainment is in a good zombie movie.
Things I’d Like to See in Zombie Movies
- I’d love to see a zombie Movie set somewhere other than a Western Civilization. I think somewhere like India, Pakistan or Japan might make interesting settings, simply because of the density of the populations in areas. The first two especially, because of a lower standard of luxury and a higher poverty base would make the infection rate higher, and the safety zones much smaller. Imagine a horde of millions. Scary.
- There are a ton of movies out there that all start at the point of outbreak, but I’d love to see one set well after a zombie infestation. What would it look like 40 years down the road? What would the world look like if only a North America was infected – but 50 years later the zombies managed to show up on the shores of Africa? Would they be prepared? Would they have warning?
- 28 Weeks Later redone so that it doesn’t suck (cutting out the zombie sympathy scenes would help), so that 28 Months Later could be made.