I don’t know what it is about those lumbering, flesh-eating horrors that I find so endearing, but I love zombies. They’ve proven highly adaptable, serving as metaphors for everything from racism to warning about AIDS. They’re blank slates onto which filmmakers can paint anything from horror to comedy. They’re a rich genre that can be broken down into subdivisions of voodoo, demonic zombies, infected people, reanimated corpses, and more.
These are the best “Old School” zombies, and by that I mean zombies who follow George A. Romero’s classic rules for zombie movies.
1) George Romero’s Dead Opus (1968-2009)
Any zombie list must begin with George A. Romero, the King of the Zombies. Romero didn’t invent zombies, but he gave us the rules. Shooting them in the head or destroying the brain is the only way to stop them; if one bites you, you die and come back as a zombie; they’re mindless, slow-moving, and with minimal motor skills; and they crave human flesh.
Zombies may work on limited brain cells but not Romero. He’s repeatedly delivered fun, cleverly conceived splatter fests with a message beginning with his seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968), and continuing with Dawn of the Dead (the best in the series), Day of the Dead (giving us the world’s most lovable zombie, Bub), Land of the Dead (biggest budgeted), Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead. Dawn also gave us the best, most elegant explanation for why we have zombies: “When there’s no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth.”
2) The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Writer/director Dan O’Bannon (who also wrote) openly acknowledges his debt to Romero by having the characters in the opening scene discuss how Night of the Living Dead was all true. Then the bumbling warehouse workers release a toxic gas that reanimates the dead inhabitants of the local cemetery.
The chief innovation here (aside from faster moving zombies that could also talk) was that the zombies only wanted to feast on human brains. One zombie explains that it hurts to be dead and that eating brains “makes the pain go away.” But the best line in the film is from a zombie who, after eating some paramedics, answers the radio in the truck by saying, “Send more paramedics.” It’s like ordering takeout!
3) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
This rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy) stands as one of the most inspired and clever zombie films of all time. It pays homage to Romero with lumbering reanimated corpses that crave human flesh, but then it creates a style uniquely its own. The gore is first-rate, the comedy smart, and the characters are ones we genuinely care for. You need a scorecard to keep track of all the movie references.
Created by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the film serves up what may be the best description of a zombie: “Look at the face, it’s vacant with the hint of sadness, like a drunk who lost a bet.” Zombies are like a faded memory of what it’s like to be human; they used to be us and sometimes we sense they are trying to be like us again. The film also suggests that many people were zombified before the zombie invasion even began. This is reanimated perfection!
4) Zombie (1979)
No zombie list can be complete without at least one Italian zombie film. Lucio Fulci made a zombie trilogy and although The Beyond is the best film of the three, Zombie offers the best zombies. Plus, it possesses that rare creature: the underwater zombie.
The caked-on layers of rotting flesh were made possible by make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi, and there was plenty of gore, including a memorable eye-gouging scene. Trailers for the film in America promised that the theater management would provide any patron airline-style “barf bags.” Buon appetito!
5) Fido (2006)
Fido, like Shaun of the Dead, hooks audiences with clever comedy and appealing characters. This Canadian zombie comedy basically delivers a zombie version of Lassie, but in this case little Timmy has a male zombie as his faithful pet. Fido sticks with a lot of the conventions of the genre — the zombies are slow, dumb, and hungry for human flesh. But the film relocates the zombies in a kind of retro-future that looks amazingly like a picture-perfect portrait of Eisenhower-era suburbia.
Director and co-writer Andrew Currie creates a black comedy done in the style of a fifties sitcom but with a high Technicolor gloss — to better capture the blood, of course!
6) Sugar Hill (1974)
Any film that opens with the song “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” has to be great. These are classic zombies in the lethargy, blank-eyed stare department but the cause of their reanimation and zombification stems from a voodoo ritual and one women’s quest to use her them for revenge. One distinguishing feature is shiny silver orbs for eyes.
This is a classic Blaxploitation film and the zombies are former slaves who died on their way to the U.S. and were buried in mass graves. The voodoo master brings them back from the dead and tells Sugar, “Put them to evil use, that’s all they know or want.”
7) The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
This is an entry from England’s famed horror studio, Hammer Films. There’s a voodoo element here as an aristocrat who spent time in Haiti brings some local corpses back from the grave in order to make them slave away in his mines.
The film marks a bit of a turning point for zombies by using the voodoo origin that had been popular but would start to fade with Romero (although not completely disappear) and they are starting to look more physically decayed as they would become with Romero and beyond.
8) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
I have to confess that the main reason for including this film is for Arthur Kennedy’s line as the frustrated inspector: “I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, so then I could kill you again.” It’s also fun to see zombies roaming the British countryside in full daylight.
These zombies display a little more mental capacities and dexterity than the Romero zombies, but they are most definitely reanimated dead corpses (reanimated by radiation rays).
9) Night of the Creeps (1986)
This has a rather original cause for the zombies: alien parasites enter the human body and they turn their human hosts into zombie killing machines. The film pays homage to horror favorites by giving characters such names as Chris ROMERO, Sgt. RAIMI, and Detective LANDIS, and calling the campus CORMAN University.
Best line: “I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they’re dead.” A 23-year-old Greg Nicotero has an uncredited cameo. A year later he would get his first feature film make-up credit for the demonic zombies of The Evil Dead II.
10) I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
I also wanted to include this early, eerie, and atmospheric voodoo entry from Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton. Classic voodoo films of the ’30s and ’40s like I Walked with a Zombie, The Walking Dead, and White Zombie left an indelible mark on the zombie genre, laying a creepy foundation for what was to come with Romero in the ’60s. This one was gloriously shot in black and white, and had one of the most striking zombies ever in the tall black actor Darby Jones.
Bonus round: Nazi Zombies
I couldn’t leave the realm of old school zombies without mention of the popular sub-genre of Nazi zombies. The most memorable ones were the underwater ones from Shock Waves (1977). The Nazi zombie went amphibious again in Zombie Lake (1981) where they cruised the water like Spielberg’s Jaws and feasted upon a nubile young French girl who for some reason kept swimming naked in the lake. They came roaring back to reanimated cinematic life in Norway’s Dead Snow (2006). They pushed the classic zombie categorization by being fast-moving, but they were great fun. There’s also a fabulous scene in which a victim of a zombie attack wakes up and we see (from her point of view) her intestines being ripped out.