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The Halloween Lover's Guide to Zombie Movies

If you've been around the blog a while, you will already know that I am an unrepentant zombie movie nerd. Yes, they all start in the same manner; maybe some powerful organization tries to play God by manipulating some DNA until such time as there is a lab leak or someone gets bitten by a lab rat or an inattentive worker mislays a test tube or accidentally mixes some organic matter then tries to cover it up then inadvertently becomes patient zero, but of course meanwhile nobody wants to listen to the lone wolf but exceptionally hot epidemiologist warning of the coming plague that he or she may or may not have actually had a hand in creating...anyway, I know you know how this goes, we all do.

A woman sitting with a up of coffee, photo altered to make her look like a zombie with red eyes

For those of us who enjoy zombie fiction, It's not the plot of these movies that make them so fun to watch - like I said, everyone already knows what's coming. No, the fun lies in how they choose to unroll said plot.


The sweet spot for any zombie movie is that time right in the beginning of the film where you are on tenderhooks with anticipation. The filmmakers have a blank slate at that point, and we as the audience are quivering with anticipation. How is this thing gonna start? Who will go first? How fast will it spread? Is it gonna be airborne? Will the undead be fast? Slow and shambling? Hungry for brains or just really, really angry? Is it going to take the traditional head shot to put them down? (Yes to that last one. Almost always.) This is the bit where the storytelling decisions are made, and often the place where filmmakers show us something we've seen a million times, only done in a different way that makes it feel new. And that my friends, is the zombie movie high we're all looking for.


During the sweet spot of a zombie movie the plot turbo-accelerates, causing the lead characters (and the audience) to quickly learn about the characteristics of the zombies. As our protagonists get better at killing the zombies off, their (our) knowledge base of the undead grows, and the sweet spot begins to wane.


The sweet spot is soon replaced by phase two - survival mode. In survival mode, the characters are met with the realization that in the wake of the apocalypse, there is a slice of the still-human population that is every bit as dangerous as the undead. This is the part of the film where you will dig into your ethical dilemmas, ranging from the manipulation of the natural world to how far one is willing to go to survive. It's about losing your humanity either by force, persuasion, or by voluntarily giving it away. There are themes of surviving vs living. There is always an ethical dilemma in a zombie movie - you didn't think you were going to get away from this without being accountable, did you?


Such is the allure of the zombie movie. What's even better is that after all that, have I spoiled the plot for you? No I have not. Because as we've just learned, the plot is beside the point.


With no further ado, I present to you some of my favorite zombie movies. Granted, this is not an exhaustive list, and if you've got some of your own, by all means please pop them into the comments. If I haven't seen any of of them (unlikely) I'll definitely want to watch them!



 


Five of My Favorite Zombie Movies


A movie poster from the original 1968 George Romero-directed Night of the Living Dead

Any zombie movie list that does not include the original Night of the Living Dead is simply incomplete. Night of the Living Dead is a film about a group of people trapped in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse, trying to survive a night of being attacked by what we now identify genre-wise as the undead. This film, written by George Romero and John Russo (and directed by Romero) seems entirely corny when watched through our modern lens, but it was considered highly controversial when it was released, due to the shocking and graphic subject matter. That notwithstanding, the film quickly became a cult favorite, grossing 12 million domestically and 18 million internationally, making it one of the most profitable films of its time. Since then, Night of the Living Dead has occupied the primo spot as one of the most important horror films to really help create and shape the genre. Additionally, this film is often discussed in academia for its reflection of the socio-cultural changes that were sweeping America in the 1960s.


The movie poster for the movie 28 days later

In addition to being completely and utterly terrifying, this 2002 film (written by Alex Garland and directed by the incomparable Danny Boyle) is credited for breathing new...er..."life" into the undead genre. Boyle's zombies are fast. Like, really, really fast, and angry AF.


It's said that Danny Boyle himself does not classify 28 Days Later as a zombie film per se, but ask anyone what their top three terrifying zombie films are, and this will feature heavily. Just sayin'.


This movie, based in the UK, is a tale of a very fast-moving epidemic of the "rage virus", a disease that (surprise surprise) escaped a lab after a test subject monkey ravaged someone. This movie really stood apart from the genre at the time of its release, as it has a really character-driven plot, beautiful cinematography, and a haunting original soundtrack by John Murphy. This movie also has a standalone sequel, 28 Weeks Later (directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo), and despite my usual distaste for sequels, it's every bit as terrifying, and stays true to the character driven, cinematic style of the original.


A movie poster for Shawn of the Dead

Another UK based cult classic is Shawn of the Dead. If you are unfamiliar with the handful of modern British comedies that have come out over the years starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (like the absolutely stellar Hot Fuzz), this is a great place to start. Shawn of the Dead is an irreverent comedic sendup of the zombie fiction genre, done to absolute perfection. When you watch this comedic interpretation, you'll notice the importance of the aforementioned zombie movie sweet spot, and how the writers (Pegg himself along with director Edgar Wright) expertly manipulate the sweet spot with great comedic success. I won't say more than that as not to call out any specific moments, other than to tell you that yes, the poster is correct. It's a romantic comedy. With zombies.


A movie poster for the South Korean film Train to Busan

If you're a genre nerd like me, you are already well aware of the fairly large amount of really good zombie content coming out of South Korea. Train to Busan is an excellent example of the genre, it essentially follows the traditional zombie movie sweet spot plot acceleration, but it hits hard, as one might expect from a zombie movie that essentially develops within the confines of a moving train. This film is character-driven, fast-moving, claustrophobic and heart-wrenching all in one (OMG the ending). This one is definitely on any zombie nerd's must-watch list. Train to Busan was written by Joo-Suk Park and Sang-ho Yeon, and was directed by Yeon. It was South Korea's highest-grossing film of 2016. There has since been a stand alone sequel called Peninsula, but I have yet to see it.


Warm Bodies movie poster

Since I had committed to only highlighting five films here, it was a toss-up for me whether I included Warm Bodies here or Zombieland, both similar comedic expressions of the genre that really sort of occupy the same space in my head and in my (cold, dead) heart.


Warm Bodies is unique in that it opens eight years after the zombie apocalypse has already happened, so you don't have that sweet spot acceleration that you get with the traditional zombie movie plot. However, what you do get is the juxtaposition of some very recognizable (and hilarious) human behavioral traits coming from the undead protagonists in the film, and it makes for a delightful watch. The film was written and directed by Jonathan Levine and based on the 2010 novel (of the same name) by Isaac Marion.


Five More Notable Zombie Films



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