Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself
It seems unintuitive that as human beings some of us enjoy watching supremely scary horror films. After all, our very body, nervous system, and brain deal with moments of terror, unknown danger, and perceived threats with involuntary survival mechanisms and responses to external stimuli, overwhelming out conscious mind and body: the heart pounds; the pupils dilate; respiration increases as does our blood pressure; stress hormone production increases dramatically. In all, it doesn’t sound like an experience that we as human beings – which are programmed to avoid and flee from anything that invokes such an extreme biological response – should enjoy.
And yet the existence of fairground rides, extreme sports, free-diving, and various other pastimes which push our survival instincts to the very limit is evidence to the contrary, proving that as long as the fear is purposeful and deliberate, humans actually tend to enjoy the physiological response to it and actively seek out scenarios which allow them to experience it again. If you’re not keen on putting your actual life on the line by skydiving or base jumping, then a good old horror film is your next best alternative. Here is our pick of the top 20 undead films which are guaranteed to give you the visceral thrill you’re after from the comfort of your sofa or computer chair.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
To have a list of undead films without Night of the Living Dead appearing towards the top would be to fundamentally misunderstand and sell short the greatness of both the genre and the film itself. An independent film with budget of just $114, 000, this 1968 classic isn’t known for being particularly poignant or ground-breaking in its approach, but the extreme levels of gore and the special effects utilised to create Tarantino quantities of blood and violence cause significant controversy at the time. Some critics panned the film, writing it off as an over-the-top movie with excessive levels of unnecessary gore. To this very day however, this film is regarded by many as one of the best undead films you can watch and even film historians have attributed deeper political meaning and societal commentary to the movie, even if the plot hinges on a radioactive satellite bringing the brains of the dead back to life.
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Originals are almost always superior to the remakes which inevitably follow, and this holds doubly true with Dawn of the Dead. Another George A. Romero classic, Dawn of the Dead’s focus is a little wider than Night of the Living Dead in that it focuses more on the wider impact of the proliferation of a virus of unknown origin on society. The mass hysteria element to the film gives it a much more broad scope, though the violence is just as prominent as in Night of the Living Dead. Reviews for this film were noticeable more positive than Night of the Living Dead as well, perhaps down to the fact that the film is actually an extremely accurate observation of a society obsessed with material possessions, being noticeably satirical in nature, and acting as one long metaphor for the dismal state of humankind in the modern age and the likely outcome of a zombie-related apocalypse.
3. Braindead (1992)
One of Peter Jackson’s earlier works comes in the form of this terrifying and generally grim tale of a young man whose mother is bitten by a monkey and subsequently dies, but not before coming back to life to consume all manner of living being to survive. The plot is somewhat questionable (I mean come on, a rat-monkey!?), though the use of special effects and the colossal quantity of gore that we have come to expect as standard from horror films these days showcased the talents of Peter Jackson at this early stage in his career. The initial stages of the film lead you to believe that you’re in for something distinctly average and unremarkable, but Peter Jackson’s flare and the wonderfully creative death scenarios in this film make it an absolute must-watch for those that are into horror films.
4. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
We’re in black comedy territory now with this 1985 movie about the release of a horde of undead creatures in a small town. Before The Return of the Living Dead, zombies tended to stick to human flesh but this is movie that is accepted to be the origin of the idea that zombies also like to feast on brain matter. Blood and gore of course come as standard, as does the ever-present influence of punk and heavy bands part of the “deathrock” genre, with the soundtrack featuring a variety of tracks of these extremely niche styles. The influence of this movie is undeniable since there are allusion to it in The Simpsons and South Park as well as many horror films that followed it. It’s just a shame that the sequels didn’t quite live up to the same standard as this movie.
5. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
It is incredibly difficult to believe that it has been almost 10 years since the release of Shaun of the Dead; its supremely humorous take on the undead/horror genre has become legendary and has gained a significant cult following over the years. Though the film is a clear comedic take on the subject of the undead and a spoof of classic horror films, it holds its own with an original storyline (save the pub: any more positive outcomes are purely coincidental) and the ever-hilarious pairing of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. It seems unusual at first that the undead subject matter actually sits in the film as a mere secondary device which intersects a sitcom-like construct, with frequent zombie-related inconveniences woven into the action rather than the entire film being based around the zombie apocalypse. This film has laughs, it has some jumpy moments, and it will occasionally touch your soul; the memorable closing scenes also allude to a future where zombies are an accepted and controlled part of British society, giving some light relief to occasionally heavy subject matter.
6. Zombie (1979)
I enjoyed the relatively original plot of the zombie takeover being based on an island this time instead of a well-populated city. This film is noticeably slow to start and will probably lose many impatient viewers after the first fifteen minutes, but upon reaching the island where the undead seem to have originated from, the violence and action pick up considerably. The inclusion of a zombie-shark attack scene may also attract fans of the ridiculous, but the impressive death scenes, excellent effects, and delicate camera work make Zombie a great title to watch.
7. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
You’ve got to admire a remake that manages to get 7.4 on IMDB. This remake uses pretty much the same locations as the original, and as is the case with many films these days, the acting is considerably better in general, as are the effects and general slickness that the whole film has. Unfortunately, the satirical take-down of consumer society really isn’t nailed very well in this 2004 version, which feels a little dumbed down and devoid of the wit and sharpness of the fantastic 1978 version.
8. 28 Days Later (2002)
For many this incredibly well-made horror movie was the title that put Danny Boyle on the map. You’ll have a hard time finding anything that is anywhere near below par in this movie: the cast are sublime (Cillian Murphy and David Schneider particularly), the script is fantastic, and the film draws you in for the long haul, squeezing most of the true action until the end. In this way it is very much a psychological experience rather than an all-out bloodbath, plus the fast-moving “zombies” aren’t easily put out of your mind either, even if they aren’t technically zombies.
9. Day of the Dead (1985)
Another Romero classic, Day of the Dead is really part of a set of films that you either love or hate. I tend not to be too thrilled with a select few older horror movies, though this trilogy actually gripped me quite strongly. Unfortunately, it feels as if Romero ran out of ideas a little by the time this movie was released. It features a pretty boring and uninteresting setting (underground storage facility) and the characters have very few redeeming qualities. A disappointing way to end a trilogy.
10. Zombieland (2009)
Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg are perfectly paired in this 2009 comedy-horror hybrid. Purists may sneer at modern-day undead films but Zombieland is humorous, it has a great deal of thrills, and is a fantastic portrayal of a post-apocalyptic scenario.
11. Fido (2006)
Few zombie films are able to claim to be as tear-invoking as they are gory, but Fido is comedy horror that at times borders on touching. Space dust is the plot device that explains zombies coming back from the dead here, resulting in a unique zombie film that isn’t exactly chilling or horrifying but rather a sort of man-and-his-dog kind of story, only a little bit more grown up.
12. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
Robert Carlyle is the incredible actor that makes this film worth watching merely because of his presence, but sadly 28 Weeks Later doesn’t have quite the same impact as its predecessor. This movie seems hesitant to put forward a coherent storyline and actually veers away from Carlyle in favour of focusing on characters that just aren’t that interesting. You can tell almost immediately that Danny Boyle isn’t in the director’s seat for this movie; the script is lacking in quality and is a disappointment considering the original; the special effects are lacking and consist of the camera being jolted around as if we’re supposed to accept this is an intentional effect to put us there with the zombies. No no, 28 Weeks Later is watchable but in all, a bit of a disappointment.
13. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
This film has many aliases but we’ve gone for its most popular one here, but whatever you call it, it’s not really in the same league as Night of the Living Dead and the like. The lack of gore is noticeable, but in all it really doesn’t make that much of an impression. At least it can be said that it was reasonably well acted and is probably one of the better films since NOTLD, only in full colour and with a half-decent plot involving pesticides as the catalyst for zombi-fication.
14. Resident Evil (2002)
Many enjoy Resident Evil purely for Mila Jovovich, and who can blame them? That red dress is nothing short of a triumph and certainly holds the attention of the younger audience. This film has nostalgia and downright geeky value to it as well, with the video game of the same name being alluded to more than once. You’ve got a central location called the Hive and Umbrella as the omniscient baddie, as well as all those zombies, the killing of which make for some dazzling action and satisfying gore. It makes a change to see a good-quality movie that began life as a video game.
15. I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
You wouldn’t think that a zombie film from 1943 would hold much weight these days, but this one does have its qualities. The plot takes you to a remote location, St. Sebastian, where a Canadian nurse discovers unusual island traditions, though as you would expect there isn’t huge amounts of gore. This film holds you in suspense, has some tense moments, and is generally well acted and very well shot. The Voodoo Ceremony scene is one of the peaks of tension in the whole thing, though not redeeming enough to afford this film a place in the top 10.
16. Warm Bodies (2013)
You could count the number of truly compelling zombie movies of the past ten years on one hand and have fingers left over, but Warm Bodies is one that deserves a place on one of your spare finger. You don’t see many plots which involve a relationship between a zombie (called R) and a human (called Julie) but Warm Bodies gives R human qualities which develop with the relationship between the two. All-out gore isn’t the name of the game here but what is on the cards is some laughter and some genuinely touching moments, with this one best described as a “RomZomCom” since it possesses qualities of all three genres whose partial names appear in this convenient word.
17. Versus (2000)
666 portals to “the other side” are hidden from humans on earth, and there exists the 444th which is known as the forest of resurrection – from this you can imagine the sort of events that unfold in this Japanese classic from 13 years ago. It’s got Yakuza, martial arts, zombies, vampires, and an amount of blood that wouldn’t be too far removed from the quantities seen in Battle Royale. Expect extreme violence, gratuitous gore, and a film that is based almost exclusively around action scenes.
18. Land of the Dead (2005)
This 2005 movie is one of those where zombies have almost won, but a group of survivors take hold in a walled/gated settlement, which is the setting for this particular title. This one is pretty much an excuse for a lot of blood and yet more gore. It isn’t a terrible account of one of the possible scenarios of a post-apocalyptic world, and Dennis Hopper plays the evil CEO very well, allowing refuge and relief to the wealthy and casting out the poor and unfortunate. This one is fairly entertaining but you should prioritise watching the above films before you consider spending your precious time on something that isn’t remarkable by any means.
19. Planet Terror (2007)
The presence of Bruce Willis is really what attracted me to this film, but I was surprised to find that it was actually a very entertaining and engaging take on the whole undead scenario. Rodriguez ensured that there was action galore, of which much of it consists of explosions and various scenes that would make a pyromaniac blush. This is straight-up action-horror not at its best, but at a fine level of entertainment that alludes to times past.
20. Dead Snow (2009)
It is pretty difficult to keep a straight face when trying to talk seriously about a film whose plot hinges on the appearance of and events surrounding a bunch of Nazi zombies, but that’s what we’re dealing with here with Dead Snow. As you can imagine, this is a comedy horror that isn’t taking itself too seriously at any point, but the result is actually more than one would expect from a movie with such subject matter. The plot is well-structured, the surroundings are fresh and quite removed from the usual gritty atmosphere you get with many zombie movies, and the characters are clear stereotypes seen in your standard horror flick. This is one of the most surprisingly brilliant of all horror films I’ve seen which I initially wrote off due to the subject matter.