From the TV screen to the silver screen (and all points in between), the walking dead are everywhere, consuming our time, our discretionary dollars and our “braaaaaiiiinnnsss.” The latest entry is World War Z, the apocalyptic Brad Pitt vehicle releasing Friday and expected to bring in big bucks at the box office.
According to Daniel W. Drezner, author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies (Princeton University Press, $16.95), zombies appeal to us because they “map so neatly onto the genuine threats of our day,” such as terrorism, global warming and drug-resistant pandemics.
Regardless of the reasons, the zombie apocalypse is upon us, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So you might as well hunker down, nail the doors and windows shut, grab some snacks (avoid ribs — trust us on this), and have a zombie movie marathon.
Here are 10 films you can watch in the discomfort of your home.
White Zombie (1932)
The first feature-length zombie movie, White Zombie stars the great Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre, a Haitian voodoo master with penetrating eyes, a wicked widow’s peak and a penchant for turning the locals into zombie slaves. When he works his evil magic on a young bride-to-be, a love quadrangle of the creepiest kind ensues.
White Zombie uses leftover sets from Universal’s Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), masking its low budget ($50,000) and rushed filming schedule (11 days), but not its stilted dialogue and subpar performances from the supporting actors. Despite its flaws, it is a must-see cult classic, propped up by dreamlike imagery, a fairy-tale-from-hell storyline and Lugosi’s commanding presence. Just ask Rob Zombie, who named his band after the film.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Filmed in Pittsburgh on a meager budget of $114,000, George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead turns 45 this year, but it hasn’t aged one second in terms of sheer artistic quality and visceral thrills. In fact, in the wake of hundreds of parodies and pastiches, this haunting black-and-white masterpiece, which uses newsreel-style storytelling techniques to good effect, has only gotten better.
While Barbara and Johnny are visiting their father’s grave (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”), a reanimated corpse kills Johnny. Barbara escapes to a nearby farmhouse, where a ragtag band of characters played by largely unknown actors tries desperately to keep an army of zombies at bay. Claustrophobic, original and unrelentingly intense, NOTLD set the framework for all zombie films to follow.
Shock Waves (1977)
Low on gore but adored by B-movie buffs, Shock Waves is an obscure thriller with a cool cast and one of the most chillingly effective scenes of any zombie film: a group of Nazi zombies slowly but surely emerging from underwater. The zombies wear tinted goggles — a cheap sartorial supplement to be sure — but it somehow doesn’t look silly. In fact, the goggles add a touch of menace to the monsters’ ambling, shambling gait.
Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars the same year, is the mastermind behind the subhuman, subterranean storm troopers. The prolific John Carradine, as the captain of a wrecked ship, and the subtly sexy Brooke Adams, as a marooned tourist, guest-star in this creepy cult classic.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Not rated (though it contains strong violence and gore)
The second film in George A. Romero’s original zombie trilogy (sandwiched between Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead), Dawn of the Dead made its U.S. debut at the USA Film Festival at Southern Methodist University. After the screening, opinions on the film were divided. Some viewers complained about the graphic violence, while others proclaimed the movie the best at the fest.
Today, many horror aficionados consider Dawn to be the greatest zombie film of all time, thanks to its slick zombie makeup (by Tom Savini), its brutal death scenes (zombies are eviscerated in virtually every manner imaginable) and, most notably, its skewering of American consumerism — it was shot in a shopping mall, with Muzak playing in the background.
In Zombie, Tisa Farrow (Mia’s sister) plays Anne Bowles, the daughter of a missing scientist. She teams with news reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to go look for him on a tropical island, but they find way more than they bargained for.
Originally released in Europe in 1979 as Zombi 2 (to cash in on the popularity of Zombi, aka Dawn of the Dead), Zombie is Italian director Lucio Fulci’s most famous work, riveting viewers with its extreme gross-out effects and heinous hoards of walking dead. The movie has everything an exploitation film fan could want: action, adventure, babes, an iconic barf-bag scene (bulging eyeball punctured by a shard of wood), and a battle between a shark and a zombie.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
A sequel of sorts to Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead was directed by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for Alien (1979). Unlike the dour, decidedly serious Night, Return is a punk-rock party movie with comedy galore and a killer soundtrack, featuring such tunes as Surfin’ Dead by the Cramps and Eyes Without a Face by the Flesh Eaters.
When a poisonous gas, unwittingly unleashed by a pair of inept medical-supply warehouse employees, revives corpses at a cemetery, pandemonium ensues in the form of brain-craving zombies. The definitive scene in the film is seductive scream queen Linnea Quigley’s graveyard strip tease, followed by the realization of her worst fear: getting eaten alive.
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)
The first in a series of entertaining, direct-to-video movies starring those “meddling kids,” Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is not your father’s Scooby-Doo. The animation is better, the scares are scarier, and the monsters are discovered to be actual supernatural entities, not guys wearing masks. The film, which finds the gang investigating a pirate ghost on a haunted bayou island, has a number of surprises, including a plot twist that turns the zombie subgenre on its ear.
Before the island-adventure high jinks (high-jinkies?), we learn that Mystery Inc. has disbanded: Fred and Daphne run a TV show called Coast to Coast With Daphne Blake, Velma owns a bookstore, and Shaggy and Scooby work customs at an airport. Scooby, searching for “contraband food,” is essentially a drug-sniffing dog, an early clue that this movie would be edgier than any previous Scooby-Doo iteration.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is an unambitious electronics salesman who would rather down a few pints at the pub than spend a romantic evening alone with his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), who breaks up with him. Shaun also has a strained relationship with his stepfather, who thinks Shaun is neglectful of his mother.
British to its core, Shaun of the Dead is a cheeky spoof on zombie films — the title itself pokes fun at Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — but instead of simply presenting a bunch of slapstick zombie deaths, the film focuses on the human characters and their dysfunctional but endearing relationships. (For a serious zombie film from the Brits, check out 2002’s 28 Days Later.)
Planet Terror (2007)
Originally released as part of a double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (under the umbrella title Grindhouse), Planet Terror was written and directed by Texas native Robert Rodriguez. The auteur fills the film, in which an experimental bioweapon turns thousands of people into zombies, with copious amounts of gore and violence, paying over-the-top homage to the grindhouse cinema of the 1970s.
Among the uninfected humans battling the unholy hoards is Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a stripper whose leg is torn off and replaced by a gun equipped with a grenade launcher. Adding to the fun (and funniness) is Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), an anesthesiologist whose hands flop around uselessly after getting anesthetized.
Stylish, gross and hilarious, Planet Terror includes a fake trailer for Machete, which Rodriguez made into a real film in 2010.
Better known for his Academy Award-nominated portrayal of nerdy Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), Jesse Eisenberg, as the equally nerdy Columbus, is one of a handful of survivors of the zombie apocalypse. He owes his survival to a list of prominently displayed rules (a running gag in the film), such as “beware of bathrooms” and “check the backseat.”
Columbus teams with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) as they travel across the country (listen for a potshot about Garland), looking for Twinkies, getting fooled (twice) by a girl (Emma Stone) and her little sister (Abigail Breslin), going to an amusement park, and, of course, killing zombies. The highlight of this comedic jewel is a laugh-out-loud cameo by Bill Murray, a monster comic if there ever was one.