The zombie film is a genre that will never die. Zombies first came to the fore of popular cinema in the 1930s, and they are still around nearly a century later. Though their popularity has dipped and soared over the decades, every generation of filmmakers has its fair share of the walking dead. With that much history, it’s natural that the zombie film has evolved over time.
It’s fairly easy to pinpoint the beginnings of major shifts within the zombie genre. In 1932, White Zombie from director Victor Halperin popularized the idea of zombies controlled by voodoo magic. This was the main form zombies took until George Romero’s landmark movie Night of the Living Dead (1968) changed zombies into shambling, reanimated corpses driven by a compulsion to eat flesh. Then, in 2002, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later opened up a path for a greater variety of zombies on film by popularizing fast zombies that may or may not be a reanimated corpse.
Since 2002, zombies have remained extremely popular in what could be considered a post-modern era for the monster. Zombie fans have been treated to films beyond just the horror genre, seeing the undead in comedies, action flicks, romances, arthouse films, blockbusters, and everything in-between. Collected here are the very best and most important zombies movies spanning the near-century of zombie cinema history.
Old Zombie Movies
White Zombie is recognized as being the first feature-length zombie movie ever made. At the heart of the story is a love triangle in which a jealous plantation owner enlists the help of a voodoo master to help him steal the love of another man’s fiancé. The voodoo master has his own plans though, turning the poor woman into a zombie. White Zombie was a low-budget production, and that combined with its age makes it a bit rough around the edges. Still, it is the movie that established the voodoo-zombie genre, and it is still an entertaining watch thanks to the star power of Bela Lugosi.
I Walked With a Zombie is more sophisticated than many of the zombie movies that had come before. While many of its predecessors were rather campy, I Walked With a Zombie deals with some heavy subjects in serious ways. In the story, a young nurse named Betsy (Francis Dee) accepts a job caring for a sick woman at a sugar plantation on a Caribbean island, but she ends up in the middle of family drama involving antagonistic brothers and voodoo practices. In addition to the basic plots, the film includes numerous allusions to the injustice and indignity of slavery through its dialogue and visuals.
Plague of the Zombies stands as one of British production company Hammer’s most interesting films of the 1960s. Rather than using vampires, werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monster like in many of their more popular movies, Hammer took a chance and made a movie about zombies brought to life through Haitian voodoo. The story is set in a small English village in the 1860s where people are dying from a mysterious disease. Upon investigation by the local doctor, coffins are found empty, and a trail leads to the local squire who learned dark magic in Haiti.
Night of the Living Dead is the movie that changed the world’s perception of zombies and created a format that has been emulated time and time again. Its story of a group of strangers forced to barricade themselves in an old house as zombies gather outside might feel cliché, but that’s because this is the movie that popularized the cliché. The film was controversial during its time for its depiction of violence, but it is widely regarded as one of the best horror films of all time.
Also popularly known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, this classic European horror film sets itself apart from other zombies movies of the time with its engaging story that combines crime films and science fiction. Edna (Cristina Galbó) and George (Ray Lovelock) are two strangers traveling together thanks to an accident, and who become entangled in a murder investigation involving Edna’s sister. As George and Edna work to clear Edna’s sister of any wrongdoing, they are drawn closer into a crisis in which the dead are coming back to life in search of human flesh. But can they convince the police of their discovery before it’s too late?
Ten years after the release of Night of the Living Dead, George Romero brought his version of zombies back to the screen in Dawn of the Dead. This time, special effects wizard Tom Savini brought an increased level of blood and gore to life in vivid color. With its combination of strong metaphors (which would quickly become synonymous with zombie movies) and ultra-violence, Dawn of the Dead is arguably the best zombie movie ever made. It also established the classic combination of zombies and shopping malls.
Though marketed in Italy as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead (which was re-edited and titled Zombi in Italy), Zombie (also known as Zombi 2 and Zombie Flesh Eaters) has only a few superficial connections to George A. Romero’s film. Rather, Zombie is Italian director Lucio Fulci’s masterpiece of zombie gore that is distinctly different from Romero’s film. A woman (Tisa Farrow) joins with a journalist (Ian McCulloch) to travel to a Caribbean island to investigate why her father’s boat ended up drifting into a New York harbor without him on it (though there was a zombie on board). What they discover is an island overrun with rotting corpses eating people while voodoo drums can be heard in the distance.
Re-Animator is a body-horror classic that falls into the “mad scientist” category of sci-fi zombie films. Jeffrey Combs stars as Herbert West, a medical student who experiments with bringing the dead back to life. Not all of his experiments work out so well, causing some of his subjects to turn dangerously violent (and undead). Re-Animator is based on “Herbert West-Reanimator” by H.P. Lovecraft.
Zombie-comedy The Return of the Living Dead is the most hilarious zombie comedy of the 1980s. In the movie, two bumbling workers (James Karen & Thom Mathews) at a medical supply company accidentally break open a barrel containing a chemical gas called 2-4-5 Trioxin. The chemical gets into the nearby cemetery, causing the dead to rise from their graves. The Return of the Living Dead was important for popularizing a number of significant modifications to traditional movie-zombies. For one, these zombies are smart and some of them can even hold conversations with people. The zombies here are also fast, pre-dating the running zombies of the early 2000s by more than a decade. This is also the movie that established the idea that zombies specifically want to eat brains.
Dead Alive (known as Braindead outside of North America) is a goofy zombie comedy from director Peter Jackson. After Lionel’s (Timothy Balme) mother is bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey at a zoo, she becomes sick from a mysterious illness. Lionel tries to hide his mother’s sickness and her subsequent reanimation after death, but things spin out of control as his mother continues to infect others with her zombie virus. Dead Alive is one of the craziest and goriest zombie movies of all time, ending with a monstrous confrontation between mother and son that, once seen, cannot be forgotten.
Cemetery Man is a beautiful Italian zombie movie about love that takes place in a cemetery where the dead don’t stay dead. The cemetery’s caretaker, Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), is tasked with killing the undead and keeping them from escaping the cemetery, but his unhealthy romantic interests irrevocably complicate his life. Francesco’s mind begins to fracture after a tryst that ends with the death of a beautiful woman (Anna Falchi), and, acting on advice from the Grim Reaper, he sets out to ensure that the dead don’t rise before they become zombies. Cemetery Man is odd, gorgeous, and surreal, making it one of the most artful zombie films ever.
New Zombie Movies
While some people with debate whether the infected in 28 Days Later are actually zombies, writer Alex Garland assures us that they are. Besides, the influences of George Romero on the film are plentiful and unmistakable, though, of course, there are notable differences. A virus that causes people to be overcome with rage has spread at a rapid pace in the United Kingdom, and Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma 28 days after the infections began. We follow Jim as he does his best to protect himself and his newfound friends from hordes of fast and highly-aggressive infected people. These zombies aren’t the dead brought back to life, but they still helped usher in a new wave of zombie films over the ensuing years.
For the remake of Dawn of the Dead, producers wanted a full reimagining of Romero’s story that stood on its own while paying tribute to the broader premise of the original. Screenwriter James Gunn, whose biggest script prior to this was Scooby-Doo (2002), used the shopping mall setting, but beyond that he allowed the story to flow in its own way. Director Zack Snyder wanted to have his zombies run as a way to add a heightened sense of danger, and the fast zombies also served to set his movie even further apart from Romero’s original.
Shaun of the Dead is one of the rare zombie comedies that gets the balance of humor and seriousness exactly right. Simon Pegg stars as Shaun, an underachieving retail salesman who gets dumped by his girlfriend. When a zombie apocalypse breaks out, Shaun tries to sort his life out with the help of his slovenly best friend Ed (Nick Frost). Pegg co-wrote the script with director Edgar Wright, and their love of zombie movies, especially Romero’s zombie movies, is clear with all of the loving homages and references sprinkled throughout the film.
REC is shot in a found footage style, and it delivers intense scares at a rapid pace. While documenting the nightly routine of a fire department for a television show, reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman become trapped inside a locked-down building while accompanying firemen on a call. Residents in the apartment are becoming unnaturally aggressive, and the people they attack are infected with whatever is causing their shifts in personality. The dwindling group of survivors must band together to try to survive the night in an enclosed space with an increasing number of very fast zombie-like monsters.
Planet Terror is an homage to the low-budget exploitation movies of the 1970s and 1980s. The plot is convoluted in wonderfully humorous ways, but it is basically about a chemical weapon that is released and turns most of a town’s residents into a grotesque zombie horde. A superb cast including Rose McGowan, Bruce Willis, Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey, Tom Savini, and more bring this utterly ridiculous zombie movie to life with intentionally over-the-top performances. Maybe the best part though, is that director Robert Rodriguez took the “grindhouse” aesthetic to heart, throwing in (or rather, taking out) a few “missing reels” where large chunks of story are simply gone, despite huge changes happening in the moments we’ll never get to see.
Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin star in this great zombie comedy from director Ruben Fleischer. Zombieland is essentially a road movie set during a zombie apocalypse in which four survivors travel throughout the United States killing zombies, looking for Twinkies, and maybe even falling in love. Zombieland was a hit in theaters thanks in large part to its stellar cast and great combination of laughs and gore.
Dead Snow is possibly the most fun movie within the disturbingly extensive subgenre of Nazi zombie movies. It is a Norwegian film that follows a group of students taking a vacation in an isolated cabin near the village of Øksfjord in Northern Norway. The cabin is in a location with a dark history involving Nazis killed by local villagers during World War II. The Nazis, naturally, rise as zombies and attack the students, leading to an intentionally campy and sufficiently gory zombie movie with a fantastic setting.
World War Z is one of the more recognizable and fun action-zombie movies of the 2010s. Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator who is forced back into service when a zombie pandemic spreads across the world. Lane travels the world in his search to find the origin of the zombie virus, encountering various groups of people doing their best to survive. World War Z had one of the biggest budgets of any zombie movie ever, helping it to deliver a gigantic scope that dwarfs most other zombie films which tend to tell smaller stories.
Train to Busan is the zombie film that sparked South Korea’s interest in the genre. It is a fantastic film with great characters, fun action, tense moments, and a surprising amount of heart. The movie takes place almost entirely on a moving train headed to the city of Busan. A zombie outbreak is occurring as the train leaves its first station, and an infected person slips on board just as the train doors close. While the movie contains fabulous zombie action, the heart of the movie is in the relationships we see develop between the survivors, most of who we know won’t be surviving for long. If you’re going to watch only one South Korean zombie movie, make it this one. But also, you should watch more South Korean zombie movies.
One Cut of the Dead is a Japanese movie that burst into worldwide acclaim and popularity thanks to its clever writing and unexpectedly wonderful take on zombie movies. The film starts with a tiny crew attempting to make a zombie movie when real zombies crash the set. As the story develops, viewers are treated to clever twists and drastic changes in style and tone as the movie peels back the layers of what we’ve already seen. To say more would spoil the experience, so if you’ve never seen One Cut of the Dead, try to go into it with no spoilers.
The Night Eats the World is a quiet, introspective movie about a man trying to survive alone in a Paris apartment building during a zombie invasion. Viewers follow the man, Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), as his days go from chaos to order while trying to stave off boredom and a complete mental breakdown. The movie incorporates familiar moments and ideas seen in films like The Last Man on Earth (1964), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and 28 Days Later (2002), but it treats them in a more realistic manner.
More Great Zombie Movies
- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) – Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Black Christmas) directs this dark comedy about a theater troupe who accidently wake the dead on a small island.
- Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) – In this Spanish movie, people are stalked by a group of ancient knights cursed to come back to life every night as zombies.
- Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981) – This cheap European zombie flick has some wild ideas, including a subplot about a boy (played by an adult actor) who has a disturbingly apparent Oedipus complex.
- Night of the Comet (1984) – Earth flies through the tail of a comet which kills most people on the planet, and most of the survivors turn into zombies.
- Day of the Dead (1985) – The third of George Romero’s classic zombie movies is likely the goriest of the series.
- Night of the Creeps (1986) – Alien slugs burrow into the brains of people on a college campus, turning them into zombies in this horror comedy.
- The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – Wes Craven’s take on zombies goes for a more balanced approach than most voodoo movies, though it still contains the director’s trademark violence and nightmares.
- Night of the Living Dead (1990) – Starring Tony Todd and directed by special effects master Tom Savini, this new version of George Romero’s classic updates the original characters to give the movie a welcome new feeling.
- Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) – A young man revives his dead girlfriend, but now, self-inflicted pain is the only thing that can keep her mind off of her insatiable hunger for brains.
- Bio-Zombie (1998) – Two small-time criminals try to stay alive in a shopping mall during a zombie outbreak in this Hong Kong zombie comedy.
- Versus (2000) – Zombie and yakuza films collide in this glorious Japanese action/horror movie.
- Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies (2001) – A zombie infection only affecting teenage girls which causes “Near Death Happiness” is the basis for this head-shakingly silly Japanese zombie movie.
- Resident Evil (2002) – The first movie in this series starring Milla Jovovich is arguably the best of the live-action Resident Evil adaptations.
- Pontypool (2008) – In one of the most unique zombie movies ever made, a radio host in a small Canadian town stays on the air as a mysterious zombie outbreak rages.
- The Battery (2012) – Two men with greatly different ideas about how to survive during a zombie apocalypse travel together through Connecticut.
- Warm Bodies (2013) – Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer star as star-crossed lovers with one big problem: he’s a zombie, but she isn’t.
- Little Monsters (2019) – Lupita Nyong’o stars as a kindergarten teacher who must keep her class safe during a zombie outbreak while on a field trip.
- Zombie for Sale (2019) – A struggling family tries to monetize zombification for its revitalizing benefits in this South Korean zombie comedy.
- Army of the Dead (2021) – Zack Snyder’s return to zombie movies was met with a divisive reaction from audiences, but it’s combination of action, horror, and sci-fi is fun for the right audience.
- Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021) – This overstuffed reboot of the live-action Resident Evil movies packs in elements from the first two video games.
- The Sadness (2021) – The Sadness is often described as the most brutal zombie movie of all time. The brutality in this Taiwanese flick is not overstated, and the only reason this fantastic movie isn’t on the main list is because the infected people in this film aren’t really zombies.