Friday, November 2, 2012

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Is there anyone out there that doesn’t enjoy a good zombie movie? The infiltration of zombies into our popular culture and continued success of the cinema of the undead suggests that there isn’t. While zombie cinema is a genre that owes its beginning to the seminal Night of the Living Dead in the late 1960s, it’s also one that has shown remarkable growth over the last few years as renewed interest in the genre has produced films like 28 Days Later,ZombielandDead SnowPontypoolThe Chernobyl Diaries, the forthcomingWorld War Z, and even a critically-acclaimed television series in The Walking Dead. So, that naturally led me to wonder what exactly the best zombie movies were; which subsequently led to establishing the inclusion criteria for just such a list.
Do I include something like Frankenstein, which is essentially the creation of the first film zombie, or do I stick with the traditional view of the undead as flesh-crazed hordes that can only be killed by destroying their lifeless brains? Eventually, I opted for the later, which somehow seemed more elegant, or at least certainly allowed for an interesting pool of films to choose from. I also decided that I couldn’t restrict the list to the type of ghouls featured in Night of the Living Dead and had to, at the very least, entertain modern interpretations of the zombie, and even some monsters that may not entirely fit the traditional or canon definition of the zombie.
So, please settle in with a nice bowl of fresh brains and enjoy this list of some of the greatest zombie movies ever made. Well, so far at least….
______________________________________________________10. Fido
This odd little entry to the zombie canon makes the cut more for its originality than its execution (though it is both hilarious and quirky in its own right). The film takes place in the not too distant future, an eerily 1950s-like world. While the setting may be par for the course for every undead flick worth the film stock it’s printed on, the catch here is that the zombies have been domesticated and are now servants and pets. As is always the case, some fat, bloated corporation seeking to make profits off of the world’s misfortune has developed the method to create this reality – a shock collar that keeps the flesh-craving beasts in check. The film follows the story of one boy (K’Sun Ray) and his pet zombie Fido (Billy Connolly). This relationship gives the zombie genre something it often lacks – pathos. It’s a shame that George Romero didn’t go down this road with at least one of his more recent zombie offerings instead of the Dawn of the Dead and Blair Witch Project retreads he opted for.

9. Day of the Dead

The third film in George Romero’s original trilogy of Dead films tells the story of a camp of survivors who are trying to find a cure or, at least some sort of a solution to the zombie “problem.” Romero had previously told effective zombie parables in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead using chilling survival stories while simultaneously delivering some scathing social commentary (among the many issues touched on in those films – racism and simple capitalistic greed). The problem with Day of the Dead is that the moral “message” is so in your face and the actual humans are so despicable that it’s impossible to care if they make it to the end of the film and the whole thing becomes little more than one gruesome kill trying to top the last one. Given these flaws, you may ask, why is it on this list instead of something like the Dawn of the Dead remake? Well, it’s because the third best zombie film by the father of zombie cinema gets the nod over a remake that offers nothing more to the genre than simply ripping off the fleet of foot zombies from 28 Days Later.

8. Re-Animator

Based on the H.P. Lovecraft story “Herbert West, The Re-Animator,” this surprisingly inventive cult classic tells the story of medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs in a career defining performance) obsessed with reanimating the dead. Once he’s successful, the results aren’t anything like what he expected. Are they ever? What really launches this gorier take on the Frankenstein story above other zombie flicks, apart from Combs, is the film’s use of black humor and action sequences. The film never slows down for a second and you’re either laughing, shocked, or just plain scared silly all the way until the end. It also features what is probably the greatest zombie/human sex scene ever captured on film.

7. Dead-Alive (aka Braindead)

Believe it or not, but this over-the-top gore smorgasbord of a zombie flick was directed by Lord of Rings andHobbit helmsman Peter Jackson. Although this may seem an incredible departure, if you look back at Jackson’s films prior to his journeys to Middle-Earth, you’ll find off-color gems like Meet the Feebles or the underrated ghost story The Frighteners and wonder if it’s possible that the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films may just be the odd entries in his filmography. The film is set in the 1950s and brilliantly plays with the constructs of the zombie genre (a la the Evil Dead films) and features a manic plot involving an infected monkey that turns the hero’s mother into a flesh-craving monster. When he tries to keep her condition under wraps all hell breaks loose (as it always does) since her “disease” is wildly contagious. This results in gore a plenty as our hero is forced to clean up the now infected town (it was his fault after all).

6. Dawn of the Dead

George Romero’s brilliant sequel to the classic Night of the Living Dead is a biting social commentary on the excesses of American life. A small group of survivors of the zombie hordes take refuge in a shopping mall and create their own version of paradise until it is all inevitably lost. The film is a treatise on consumption, greed, and asks the rather poignant question of whether we may live more like zombies than the actual undead do. It also helps that it’s a damn fine horror film. Apart from the effective exploration of the evils of society, there’s an ample amount of gore, graphic violence, and humor to make the zombie movie lover in all of us squeal with delight. It’s easily Romero’s last truly great entry to zombie cinema.

5. Zombieland

This is easily one of the most entertaining zombie movies ever made. It’s an absolutely flawless blend of comedy, horror, and action that delivers from beginning to end. Sure, you can cite the various and creative ways to kill a zombie used in the film as the source of its appeal (to be fair, those are certainly part of its charm). Or you could say that the film’s humor, as showcased in the superb Bill Murray cameo, is what makes it shine. But, the real reason this film is so entertaining is the relationship between zombie-killing, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and the less-heroic Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). These two are easily the best comedy-action duo since Martin and Riggs and this may be the most fun you’ll have watching any movie on this list.

4. 28 Days Later

Director Danny Boyle reinvigorated the zombie genre with the release of this tale of a zombie-like plague ravaging England. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital after recovering from an accident and finds London deserted until he unwittingly happens upon a group of “zombies” infected with what turns out to be a rage virus that was unwittingly released by animal rights activists. What follows is a harrowing survival tale that features a ton of subterfuge and some rather effective explorations of human nature. The film’s real power comes from the decision to tell the story from Jim’s point of view. Events only unfold as Jim learns of them so you’re forced to watch in the same bewildered and frightened state as poor Jim. It also helps that the film gave us the now widely preferred “running” zombie. These are not the shuffling across the lawn crying for brains undead your parents grew up with. No, these beasts will leap over cars and run at you like cheetahs to tear you apart. Now that’s terrifying.

3. Shaun of the Dead

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s foray into the zombie genre has been called a romantic zombie comedy, which makes it one of a kind (unless you can name another movie that fits the bill). The story of everyman slacker Shaun, who, along with his dimwitted best mate Ed (Nick Frost) somehow survives yet another filmic zombie apocalypse while simultaneously reinventing himself to save the day and win back the girl who recently scorned him. The film hilariously plays off all of the clichés of the genre while at the same time delivering an effective entry in itself, complete with its own spirited set of scares and gory bits (though it never gets too out of control).

2. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn

What can be said about Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn that hasn’t already been said numerous times via countless DVD collections, on an endless number of fan sites, in assorted magazine articles, etc? Probably not too much other than echoing the praise already heaped upon it. This tongue-in-cheek sequel (though it’s really more of a remake) to Sam Raimi’s original film is arguably the greatest horror-comedy ever made. The film recounts what happens when passages from the Necronomicon (the Book of the Dead) are read aloud and Deadites (that’s what zombies are called in the Evil Dead universe for the uninitiated) cross over to the land of the living. It also certainly doesn’t hurt that it features the incomparable cult-icon Bruce Campbell as the Deadite killing hero Ash. While some may argue it’s not exactly a “classic” zombie movie and shouldn’t be on this list, I would argue that the Deadites are really just zombies on speed (a la those featured in 28 Days Later) and that qualifies the film in my book.

1. Night of the Living Dead

Can there really be any doubt as to what the greatest zombie movie of all time is? Sure a film like 28 Days Laterreinvented the genre and may play better to modern audiences and a film like Zombieland may elicit a good deal more laughs than screams but there’s no denying the staying power of a film made in 1968 that still somehow manages to scare the hell out of modern audiences. George Romero’s genre-creating tour de force is a classic in every sense of the word. Every element of the film works. The claustrophobic setting of the deserted farmhouse (possibly necessitated by the film’s sparse budget) only adds to the terror of isolation as the characters (and the audience) realize that death no longer exists. The b-grade (possibly lower) cast makes the characters all the more identifiable and real. And the black-and-white photography allows the terror to occur organically and never forces anything using the old blood and guts trickery so often employed in later films. Zombie movies may have evolved since Night of the Living Dead but they’ve never been better.

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