If there’s one thing that AMC’s The Walking Dead has taught us is that a zombie story doesn’t have to be all blood and gore. A great zombie story challenges the brain more so than the eyes. This past Sunday, AMC’s spin off show, Fear the Walking Dead set out to be an even more cerebral experience by focusing mostly on family issues and battles with personal addictions amidst an impending zombie apocalypse. It made me think about all the zombie movies I’d seen that made it their number one priority to explore social issues as wellas the human condition. After decades of zombie films following a similar format or being only concerned with showing zombies being killed or humans eaten, we got a surge of films in the 2000s that aimed to reinvent the genre like Colin, a (not very good) film told from the perspective of a zombie.
Reminder: These aren’t necessarily my top 10 zombie movies. These are the zombie movies that I felt challenged my intellect more so than my eyes’ ability to withstand gore or mass amounts of killing.
- Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s debut film is arguably the film that made zombies as popular as they are today. He was able to achieve this with a basic premise – people are trapped in a farm house with a hoard of flesh eating zombies approaching. It put its audiences in the survival chair, possibly for the first time, and challenged them with key social issues such as racism and sexism as driving forces that make human beings act irrationally instead of working together to help each other.
Quite possibly the most unsettling zombie film ever made, Deadgirl is an exploration of the mind of bored teenage boys living in the suburbs. It creates a scenario in which these boys can act out their most depraved fantasies without ever getting caught, and the depths to which they would go to keep such fantasies a secret.
- I Walked with a Zombie
This RKO produced 1943 horror film is a love story first, focusing on a Canadian nurse living on a West Indian plantation who falls for its owner. The owner’s daughter falls ill and the nurse decides to cure her by any means necessary. The film builds quiet suspense and keeps the actual zombie killing to a minimum. Instead, we get a lot of screen time that explores the nurse’s reasoning behind her decisions.
This Italian horror flick is more of a supernatural mystery where the science team in question rings remarkably similar to the DHARMA Initiative from the TV show Lost. Its plot focuses on a young journalist piecing together information as he receives it and about the use of questionable scientific experiments that may not prove to be best for mankind.
Imagine if you had a zombie as a pet, or what if a zombie could become a productive member of society? That’s what Fido is about, a hilariously unique take on a corporation that has the ability to change society’s perceptions of zombies, as well as each other.
- Warm Bodies
Warm Bodies attempts to reinvent our idea of what a zombie can be while also thwarting the rules of teenage romances, and it succeeds wonderfully. This is an extremely intelligent film, using the zombie as a metaphor for adolescence and the quest to find one’s own individuality.
Canadian director Bruce McDonald created one of the most unique zombie movies ever made with Pontypool. Taking place entirely in a secluded radio station, a talk radio host is forced to uncover the cure for a virus that is quickly turning people into vicious, cannibalistic creatures. He must do this trapped inside a small building, in which the film unexpectedly enters semantic territory.
Using the found footage style before it became its own subgenre, [Rec] follows a camera crew and a small team of firefighters as they become quarantined in an apartment complex without explanation. This is one hell of a frightening experience but scares are placed few and far between while the film slowly unravels the mystery of what is happening.
- 28 Days Later
From its “last man on Earth” opening to its third act portrayal of human beings as possibly worse creatures than the “Infected,” Danny Boyle’s brilliantly made fast moving zombie horror is a film rich in character development, subtext, and exploration of the need to survive.
- Dawn of the Dead
There is a reason why George A. Romero’s follow up to Night of the Living Dead tops almost every zombie film related this. That is because it is the perfect zombie film. It is the Citizen Kane of zombie films. Its bleak satire and systematic breakdown of consumerism as the driving force of our society raises serious questions of where we are and where we are going. It is made even more disturbing because it is still ever so relevant today, almost forty years since its release.