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The 15 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

October 8, 2012  |  9:19am

With The Walking Dead returning to AMC this coming Sunday, we decided to celebrate Zombie Week here at Paste, with examinations of zombies in pop culture each day. We start the week off with The 15 Best Zombie Movies.

I’m fascinated by the way we’ve our depiction of zombies has changed over the years—when reviewing Isaac Marion’s book Warm Bodies, which will soon get a movie treatment of its own, I wrote, “The zombie threat is an idea that won’t go away—a monster who not only eats our flesh but robs us of our character, our brains, our essence. Worse than the death of the body is the thievery of the soul, leaving behind a morally bankrupt shell governed by our basest instict—the need to feed.”

Humanity has made more than 500 zombie movies from almost-no-budget B-movies to the upcoming $125 million dollar World War Z (you can even attend Zombiecon). We’ve narrowed the list down to our favorite 15 films, which span nearly 100 years. We have fast zombies, slow zombies, early-20th-century proto-zombies and, of course, a shark-eating zombie. Here are our 15 favorite zombie movies—tell us yours in the comments section below.

15. Pontypool (2009)
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Director: Bruce McDonald
Stars: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts, Boyd Banks
A quick plot summary of Pontypool makes it sound like just a rehash of Orson Welles’ 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast with zombies in the place of aliens, and while it’s certainly more than a little bit indebted to that work, that would be to give the film far too little credit. The movie instead draws thematic inspiration from the words of its radio broadcast and recasts the zombie disease as verbal, a product of mindless repetition and meaningless phrases in the English language. Pontypool’s clever script is superbly acted, and the film manages to take the zombie genre in a different direction without going the route of ironic deconstruction.—Sean Gandert

14. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
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Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae
Fun fact: eating bad fish will turn you into a zombie. The details may be fuzzy, but that’s the conclusion real-life ethnobotonist Wade Davis arrived at after finding puffer fish poison (or tetrodotoxin, for those who can pronounce it) in zombie powder during his studies in Haiti. Horror maestro Wes Craven adapted Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow into the titular film, a creepy fever dream that features Bill Pullman fighting voodoo priests with an inspirational jaguar. Less gruesome than your average zombie tale, the religious and cultural overtones expand the genre’s mythos at its point of origin.—Sean Edgar

13. White Zombie (1932)
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Director: Victor Halperin and Edward Halperin
Stars: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn
Bela Lugosi may be remembered as the cinematic face of 1931’s Dracula, but the Hungarian icon hypnotized audiences a year later as a voodoo master in White Zombie, considered the first feature about the walking undead. While the modern zombie subtext tackles such millennial fears as disease and social anomie, this grim tale and those it influenced focus on such evils as slavery and exploitation (check out 2008’s Dead Girl for a modern interpretation). Brothers Victor and Edward Halperin direct an atmospheric nightmare about a Haitian wedding from hell, creating a new horror genus in the process.—Sean Edgar

12. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
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Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Stars: Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner, Harold Perrineau, Catherine McCormack, Idris Elba
Like ESPN’s X Games, where spectator sports get jacked up to the extreme, the undead of 28 Weeks Later operate on a separate gear from the lumbering corpses of George Romero classics. They’re faster, more ravenous, determined to chomp down on anything in their paths. They’re extreme zombies after most of England’s population has been infected and transformed into mindless, homicidal maniacs. Despite a great turn from Robert Carlyle—who’s helping rebuild London once all the infected have died from starvation—the film doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. But Xombie Games: Now there’s an idea.—Tim Basham

11. Slither (2006)
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Director: James Gunn
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker
After scripting Zach Snyder’s harrowing 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, James Gunn wrote and directed this hilarious sci-fi/zombie hybrid about alien worms that turn the inhabitants of a rural South Carolina town into grotesque hive-minded hosts. Highly quotable with a cast of gold (Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks vs. a pre-Walking Dead Michael Rooker), Gunn’s ex-wife Jenna Fischer even makes a cameo as a secretary outside of Dunder Mifflin.—Sean Edgar

10. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
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Director: Jacques Tourneur
Stars: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway
Although marred by racist undertones—and, for that matter, overtones—everything else about this classic remains effective. As a pre-George Romero flick, I Walked With a Zombie based its story on the original Caribbean roots of zombies (and, oddly enough, Jane Eyre) but remains ambiguous as to the true root of the zombies’ mindless affliction. Best of all, director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton created its horror from a nightmarish atmosphere rather than the frenzied, haphazard scares of modern zombie flicks. For all its dated aspects, this remains one of the most cinematic and thoughtful zombie films ever made.—Sean Gandert

9. Zombieland (2009)
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Director: Ruben Fleischer
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone
Most zombie movies take time to establish the genre’s familiar sense of creeping unease and paranoia. It’s the tradition culled from George Romero’s venerable Dead series: the creation of a world-as-we-know-it, and its destruction by societal disintegration and cannibalistic chaos. Not so with Zombieland, whose opening shot frames an inverted U.S. Capitol before a bloodthirsty revenant engulfs the screen seconds later, vomiting blood and chunks of flesh. This is no longer America, our narrator and protagonist (Jesse Eisenberg) informs us. This is Zombieland. First-time director Ruben Fleischer eagerly flips genre conventions; there’s no piercing social commentary cached in the narrative. Equal parts gorefest and buddy-comedy, Zombieland succeeds because it doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a smart, well-produced action flick with snappy dialogue and memorable characters. Like Columbus’ rule number 32, it takes time to enjoy the little things. And all those little things add up to a fun, funny road movie. With zombies.—Michael Saba

8. Zombi 2 (Zombie) (1979)
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Director: Lucio Fulci
Stars: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson
Leave it to the Italians to make a mess. Like fellow gore pioneers Lamberto Bava, Ruggero Deodato, and Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci likes his movies excessively wet and red. His arguable masterpiece, Zombi 2 (released as Zombie in the United States), was initially banned in Britain for its grisly portrayal of the undead feasting on the living in the Virgin Islands. Zombi 2 ranks high for horror aficionados alone for its surreal showdown between a zombie and a sedated shark set against a synth-pop soundtrack.—Sean Edgar

7. [Rec] (2007)
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Directors: Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza
Stars: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano
[Rec] starts out competently enough, taking the shaky cam treatment to the zombie genre as a television reporter and her cameraman ascend a quarantined apartment building crawling with reanimated corpses. The head turner of this Spanish indie pic occurs at the climax, as heroine Angela reaches the top floor and discovers the cause of the outbreak to be a demonically-possessed child. Though there have been many memorable alpha zombies, there have been none like this. The emaciated, hammer-welding ghoul of [Rec] doesn’t just haunt the penthouse, she’ll also haunt your dreams.—Sean Edgar

6. The Cabinet of Caligari (1919)
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Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski
Tim Burton, David Lynch and Dario Argento all owe a great debt to director Robert Wiene and cinematographer Willy Hameister for this surreal, disorienting contribution to German Expressionist cinema. Dr. Caligari stands out for its fully painted sets devoid of any right angles, creating a skewed dream world that would be imitated in the feverish works of animators and horror auteurs for decades. The sleep-walking zombie and mind-fuck ending are just an added bonus to one the most visually arresting horror fantasies ever made.

5. Dead Alive (Braindead) (1992)
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Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin
Admittedly the Peter Jackson/Sam Raimi school of splatter/comedy horror isn’t to everyone’s taste, but for those who can take it Dead Alive (also known as Braindead) offers the fullest expression of this niche genre. While its story is largely perfunctory and filled with clichés, every other aspect of the film is clearly a labor of love, particularly its increasingly gory deaths. Dead Alive is a zombie flick that just wants to have fun, and whether it’s in the form of a karate-trained priest or a zombie-killing lawnmower, the movie succeeds on its own demented terms. And for any guy with mommy issues, the true terror is seeing Lionel’s ultimate showdown with his overbearing mom.—Sean Gandert

4. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
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Director: George Romero
Stars: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Following up the original Night of the Living Dead nearly a decade later, Dawn of the Dead broadened the scope on George A. Romero’s twisted view of a world at the mercy of the undead. This time around, our heroes Peter and Francine are stuck in a shopping mall, a tongue-in-cheek stab at American culture (namely consumerism). It marks a more colorful (and gruesome) step-up from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but it’s still lonely, creepy and panic-inducing enough to place it among the top of the zombie genre.—Tyler Kane

3. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
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Director: Edgar Wright
Stars: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton
Although it’s best known for poking fun at the zombie genre, if you look past the dark humor and slapstick moments, Shaun of the Dead holds up to tradition amazingly well. We see brutal, gory scenes blended with laughs, especially when Shaun (to his own horror) takes out his first zombie by accident. And like George A. Romero’s highly respected catalog, the whole premise highlights (in the most exaggerated way possible) the zombie-like lifestyle some take on thanks to our own modern conveniences. As a comedy, Shaun of the Dead gets its biggest laughs from being self aware, but it never lets that stand in the way of a few truly horrifying moments, and when you add in a depressingly real love story that also makes room for a lifelong friendship (shown perfectly by buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), Shaun of the Dead is bound to stir up all kinds of emotions for any non-flesh eater with a heartbeat.—Tyler Kane

2. 28 Days Later (2002)
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Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson
Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland reconstructed an entire monster archetype with their introduction of the “Rage” virus, a nasty bug that makes zombies a lot more faster, feral and aggressive than grandaddy George A. Romero’s lethargic corpses ever were. More interested in positing a gruesome analogy to the western world’s political isolation during the second Iraqi war, the results nonetheless give a visceral thrill-ride through an abandoned England with crackling chemistry between leading man Cillian Murphy and his costars.

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
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Director: George A. Romero
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman
There were zombie movies long before George Romero shot his debut film, but none defined the genre so thoroughly. All the hallmarks are here for the first time: the band of survivors, the violent power grabs, the stoic hero/martyr, the potential for social metaphor. Too bad so few filmmakers (Romero included) forgot to copy his grim humor and stark black-and-white film stock, which makes everything so much more frightening.

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