Thursday, October 8, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Zombie Movies

In the last month, I have seen three zombie movies – George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead at the Toronto Film Festival, Dead Snow, the Norwegian Nazi zombie movie, and Ruben Fleischer’s delightful Zombieland. So I figured it was about time to do a list of the best zombie movies of all time. I love zombie movies. I think that out of all the horror subgenres, the zombie movie most easily lends itself to interesting subtext and ideas in their telling. Romero is the obvious master of this genre, and I really could put at least 5 of his 6 zombie films on this list, but I limited myself to 3, to give us a little variety. But anyway, here is the list.

10. White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932)
White Zombie is probably the first zombie movie ever made, so it deserves a spot on this list despite some of the films shortcomings. Bela Legosi plays a plantation owner with the unusual name of Murder Legendare, who uses his supernatural powers to control the people of Haiti by making them mindless zombies. A local man comes to Murder after a woman rejects his marriage proposal. He wants Murder to place her under his spell, so she can become his sex slave (this was pre-code Hollywood after all). The atmosphere of the movie is brilliant – bringing to mind the great work producer Val Lewton was to do a decade later – and Legosi is quite good as Murder. The rest of the cast is terrible, and the story is over the top, but since White Zombie started it all, it has to be mentioned.

9. Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977)
Director Cronenberg’s second low budget Canadian feature, was this interesting movie starring porn star Marilyn Chambers, as a woman who is critically injured in a motorcycle accident, and undergoes an experimental procedure that makes her tissue “morphogenticall neutral” to replace the skin and other damages. The procedure works, however she develops an orifice in her armpit, with a phallic stinger, that she uses to suck the blood from victims, and eventually turn them into rabid zombies, who bite people and continue to spread the disease. I was hesitant to put this film on the list, as it is only part zombie movie, but I enjoy it too much not to include it. While this certainly does not rank with Cronenberg’s best films, it is nevertheless an interesting precursor to his signature obsessions – body horror, bizarre medical experiments gone awry, etc. It is also a damn fine film in its own right.

8. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2008)
Romero’s first four zombie films represent a series unto themselves, but with this one he decided it was best to reset and start all over again. In doing so, he created one of his very best films. A group of film students are making their cheesy looking monster movie, when the zombie outbreak begins. They pile into van, and take off, trying to find safety, but encountering nothing but trouble. For much of the movie, zombies are mainly seen in online videos, and the film itself is a video diary that we watch, assuming that all the characters are dead. There is an intense sequence at a hospital, and the finale is terrific. But, as with all Romero films, this one is interested in social commentary – and he uses the film to talk about the Iraq war and George W. Bush, yet the film remains unpreachy. This was the film that proved that 40 years later, Romero was still the master of the zombie genre.

7. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a loser whose life is going nowhere, and his fed up girlfriend has had enough and dumps in. He drowns his sorrow at the pub with his best friend (Nick Frost), but reaches a decision to turn his life around. Unfortunately, the same night he makes this decision, is the same night there is a zombie outbreak in London. His goal is to save his girlfriend, and make his way to his beloved pub to ride out the storm. Edgar Wright’s brilliant zomromcom as they called it (zombie romantic comedy) is hilarious in its opening scenes, brilliantly playing with the conventions of the zombie genre, but by the end, it has turned into a great, bloody zombie movie in its own right as well. The final climatic battle sequence is as bloody as they come. A great comedy and a great zombie movie.

6. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
When they announced that a remake of Dawn of the Dead was on its way, I was wary. There is no way that a new film could possibly improve on the original right? And while Zack Snyder’s film (still his best in my opinion) is certainly not on par with Romero’s original, it is still one of the best American horror films of the decade. The film movies with breakneck speed, and is truly terrifying at moments – particularly the opening sequence with Sarah Polley and the little zombie girl. The film isn’t afraid to get bloody or disturbing (hell, they kill a zombie BABY for God’s sake), and the performances remain solid throughout. True, this film is no masterpiece, but as an example of horror cinema in this decade, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example.

5. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009)
I didn’t think that there would be a zombie comedy better than Shaun of the Dead, until I saw this film. This film bests that one because it better integrates the comedy and horror aspects of the movie together, instead of switching gears for its finale. Also, I feel that if I was ever in a zombie outbreak, I’d act much like Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) in this film. Woody Harrelson gives one of his best performances as Tallahassee, a deranged; zombie killing madman, and Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are smart and sweet as a pair of sisters. Bill Murray’s cameo is absolutely brilliant – the entire sequence at his house elevates the entire movie to another level. The film, while wickedly funny, is also bloody as hell and exciting. In short, I loved it!

4. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
With Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero pretty much invented the modern zombie genre as we know it today. A group of people hide out in an old farmhouse as they are besieged by a group of zombies who have come back to life and want to attack them. The gory special effects were a revelation in 1968, and although they are a little tame by today’s standards, they are still extremely effective. Even more effective is the subtext of the film, as right from the beginning of his Dead series, Romero used the zombie film to attack social issues. Here the destruction of the nuclear family, racism and Vietnam are all hinted at, and simmer beneath the surface, culminating in the films shocking ending. Night of the Living Dead may not be quite as shocking now as it was 40 years ago, but it is still a great film.

3. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is the film that renergerized the zombie movie earlier this decade. The film, shot mainly on digital video, paints a dark picture set in a London that has pretty much been completed destroyed by the release of a virus that has caused the residents to become zombies. Cillian Murphy plays a man who awakens from a coma 28 days after the outbreak began, and is now lost in a world he does not understand. He hooks up with other survivors, and tries to make their way to a military compound, where they are offered safety – but at a price. Much like a Romero movie, Boyle uses the zombie movie to investigate humanity. The soldiers at the end are in a way, much worse than the zombies themselves. The zombies cannot help what they are, but the soldiers can, and they don’t care. The film is scary, violent and disturbing, and brilliantly directed and acted. A near perfect zombie movie.

2. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
Producer Val Lewton created some of the best horror movies of the 1940s, giving some truly great filmmakers their first opportunity to direct. In my mind, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie is the best of the Lewton horror films. Loosely based on Jane Eyre, I Walked with a Zombie tells the story of a Canadian nurse who is hired to care for the wife of a plantation owner on a Caribbean island. The plantation owner’s wife is catatonic, and wanders around staring aimlessly. The nurse, who has fallen in love with the plantation owner, wants to make him happy by curing his wife, and takes her to a voodoo doctor. But things are not as they appear. I Walked with a Zombie is not a typical zombie movie, as there is not rising zombie apocalypse, and really there is only one zombie in the film. As with many of Lewton’s movies, the supernatural is hinted at, but never explicitly explained. The wife may not be a zombie at all. But I Walked with a Zombie is an atmospheric, thriller, with great performances, that is truly shocking.

1. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1979)
I have praised George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead on this blog before, and I have nothing really new to add to it. This is the ultimate zombie movie, in that it is both terrifying and intelligent. The special effects still pack a wallop today, and Romero’s bleak view of humanity is at its best here. The people in this movie are shallow and superficial, spending all of their long months in a shopping mall gathering possessions as the world outside crumbles. When a rival gang invades, instead of banding together, they attack each other, allowing the zombies to get in, and essentially doom them all. Romero’s film is an utter masterpiece, and easily the best zombie movie ever made.

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