In June 2013, to tie in with the U.K. release of World War Z, I compiled a list of My Top Ten Zombie Movies for publication on the Telegraph website. I cheated a bit by lumping Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead together with Night of the Living Dead, even though I think each deserves to be in the Top Ten in its own right. Otherwise, I don’t think any of these choices is particularly controversial, though I realise a lot of people prefer 28 Days Later to the sequel, and I know Return of the Living Dead has its fans. Notable omissions include [REC] and its sequels, which have their moments, and are probably the best of the Found Footage zombie movies.
I also think a lot of horror fans are fed up with zombie movies, which is nowadays the Monster of Choice for low budget film-makers (it’s cheap!) though it’s rare for any of them to bring interesting new variations to the party. But I do recommend The Battery, an elegant and thoughtful low budget zombie film I saw at Amsterdam’s Imagine festival in 2013. And I’ll take low-budget zombies over big-budget blockbuster ones any day. World War Z, needless to say, was shite.
I’m old school. I prefer slow-moving zombies to the sprinting variety. Because “They’re dead. They’re all messed up.”
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t the first mash-up of 19th century Eng Lit and zombies – it’s 70 years since legendary RKO B-movie producer Val Lewton asked screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray to update and transpose the story of Jane Eyre to a Caribbean island. “There’s no beauty here, only death and decay,” says a sugar plantation owner to the young nurse who has come to the island to care for his sick wife – but Jacques Tourneur’s directing ensures this is the most hauntingly beautiful zombie movie ever made.
Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, 1968)
George A. Romero’s terrifying low-budget sleeper shattered horror movie rules and transformed movie zombies from the traditional drugged labour of voodoo lore into the flesh-eating ambulant cadavers we know and love today. Romero followed it up with Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the criminally underrated (and fantastically grim) Day of the Dead (1985). The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, in which the dead were no longer walking but running, was visceral fun, but lacked the original’s trenchant social satire. Romero’s subsequent zombie pics have been less well received, yet still contain more intelligence in their (rotting) little fingers than in nearly all the rest of his imitators’ films laid end to end.
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)
Jorge Grau’s Spanish-Italian shocker is set in the Lake District, not Manchester, and like many Italian horror movies revels in multiple alternative titles (15 at the last count, including Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti). But it’s one of the earliest and best of the Night of the Living Dead rip-offs, with a uniquely unsettling atmosphere and the Spanish-Italian cast supplemented by American character actor Arthur Kennedy as an Irish cop. Agricultural insecticide causes the dead to walk; the resulting zombie mayhem is relentless.
Zombi 2 (1979)
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released in Europe as Zombi, hence the title of this unofficial sequel (also known as Zombie Flesh-Eaters and Island of the Living Dead) directed by Lucio Fulci and starring Tisa Farrow (Mia’s sister) and British TV stalwarts Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson. After a sublimely creepy opening in New York harbour, the action shifts to the Caribbean for gore galore, a zombie-versus-shark fight and a memorably nasty encounter with a large splinter. Best line: “I’ve just been informed that zombies have entered the building… They’re at the door… They’re coming in… AAAAGH!”
Radical Chicago theatre director Stuart Gordon made his film-directing debut for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, responsible for some of the zippiest low-budget horror of the 1980s, with this splatterfest adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Reanimator, and garnished with music that’s such a blatant steal from Psycho it’s a wonder Bernard Herrmann didn’t rise from his grave in protest. Jeffrey Combs hams his way into cultdom as the frankly rather bonkers West, whose experiments in reanimating dead tissue result in a zombie cat attack, a decapitated doctor who sexually molests the heroine with his own severed head, and yes, plenty of zombie mayhem.
Before Peter Jackson went mainstream with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, he dabbled in wilfully tasteless horror comedies like this cheerful romp, set in 1950s New Zealand, in which the hero’s mother is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey, leading to Wellington being overrun by zombies, some of whom have their blocks knocked off by a kung fu-fighting priest who declares, “I kick ass for the Lord!”. Gross-out humour and a superabundance of splatter climax with one of the goriest bloodbaths ever filmed when the hero uses a rotary lawnmower to eviscerate or dismember about a trillion zillion zombies.
Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)
Michele Soavi started out as assistant director to Dario Argento before making his debut as a horror film-maker. He has since gone mainstream, but not before giving Rupert Everett what was his arguably the finest role of his career with this Franco-Italian-German co-production (also known as Cemetery Man) adapted from Tiziano Sclavi’s “Dylan Dog” series of horror comics. Everett plays the weary, disillusioned live-in caretaker in the cemetery of a small Italian town, where his job involves dispatching the walking dead who routinely rise from their graves seven days after interment. The plentiful zombie action is enhanced by some astonishing flights of visual surrealism.
Ryuhei Kitamura, who would go on to direct No One Lives, made his feature directing debut with this low-budget Japanese splatter action-horror-comedy in which pretty-boy gangsters ill-advisedly bury the corpses of their victims in the all-too-aptly named Forest of Resurrection, with exactly the results you’d expect. What you might not expect are the barking mad camera angles, zombie-fu, Kenji Matsuda’s insanely over-the-top performance, and the cunning way in which Kitamura manages to insert historical samurai into the mix.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
This “zom-rom-com” from the team that brought you Spaced works because its genre-savvy director, Edgar Wright, and his co-writer and star Simon Pegg take both the horror and the comedy aspects seriously. Slacker Shaun is so cut up about being dumped by his girlfriend he doesn’t notice North London is being overrun by the walking dead. Full of very British humour and a cast of familiar faces (some of them meeting extremely gruesome fates), it’s the perfect balance of gags and gore.
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later shifted the goalposts by making the rampaging hordes a) fast sprinters, and b) not dead but infected by a rabies-like virus, leading to much quibbling as to whether they even qualified as zombies at all. But I’m calling them zombies, and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s sequel is even scarier than its predecessor. It begins with an act of extreme cowardice, and gets steadily more intense as Jeremy Renner and his American-led NATO force struggle to secure their Isle of Dogs safe zone. Metaphor alert! But the pace is so frenetic there’s little time to dwell on it.
This list was first published in June 2013, on the Telegraph website.
I have written one zombie story. It’s called Paris When It Sizzles, about a fashion blogger who is trapped in the centre of Paris when the city is overrun by zombies. The story can be found in Zombie Apocalypse: Fightback! edited by Stephen Jones (Mammoth Books).