Phillip's Horror Lists, Part Five: I, Zombie
An integral part of any list of horror films has to include zombie movies. Personally, I'm a huge fan and have probably seen several hundred. As a rule, many zombie films are pretty terrible: it's fairly easy to get some friends together, slap on some crude makeup and film your own version of "The Walking Dead." Truly classy, well-made and effective zombie films, however, are actually kind of rare. Here, then, are some of my all-time favorites. These start with the 4-star ones before moving into 5-star territory with the last four films on the list. I've even included one 3-star film ("Zombie") that I still consider to be essential viewing for fans, even if the film itself isn't quite up to snuff. As always, here's the list:
Zombie (1979) – Even though I only rate this as 3-star, I still consider it required viewing for any zombie-film fanatic. Fulci’s gore-epic is actually fairly restrained, at least as far as Italian exploitation acting/action goes. The set-pieces, however (the zombie/shark fight; the slow push of the splinter into the eyeball), are still the stuff of legends. A zombie epidemic breaks out on a desolate tropical island…chaos ensues. If you’ve seen any zombie films whatsoever, you can probably plot this movie point by point. Nonetheless, the effects are great and the pace is nice and slow.
Dead Girl (2008) – Now here’s a nasty little film, well-suited for those with a slightly twisted streak. Two teenage reprobates are exploring an abandoned hospital/asylum when they make a strange discovery: a naked, dirty woman chained to a table. After some experimentation, they discover that the woman can’t be hurt: she is, essentially, a zombie. She also has a nasty tendency to snap at them, so they keep her chained to the table. Being teenage boys, however, they eventually come to one conclusion regarding the “dead girl”: any lovin’ is good lovin’. What follows is a completely nightmarish stroll down the deepest, darkest recesses of human lust, desire, morality and mortality. This is the only film I know that can come with the viewer warning of “zombie rape.” Proceed at your own discretion.
Diary of the Dead (2007) – Even though I yearn for the glory days of Romero, I like the guy enough to take whatever I can get, these days. I was at first wary of the “found-footage’ aspect of “Diary of the Dead,” figuring that Romero was just jumping on whatever bandwagon was readily available. In reality, however, the found-footage works well and there is lots of Romero’s customary political/social commentary to be found here. This ain’t no “Dawn of the Dead,” but it’s pretty darn good.
Fido (2006) – Think of this film as a bizarre-world accompaniment to “Parents.” Both films are set in highly stylized visions of 1950’s America, both films use odd color choices to accentuate the mood and both are blackly comic. “Fido” revolves around the notion that, thanks to special collars, zombies have been “tamed” and “domesticated” in the 1950’s-era of this film. A young boy comes to truly love his zombie, elevating him to a position somewhere between beloved pet and playground buddy. Can you ever truly domesticate a wild animal, however? “Fido” is charming, sweet and surprisingly thought-provoking. A nice breath of fresh coffin-air in a stagnant sub-genre.
Grace (2009) – A truly inspired take on the zombie/vampire sub-genre. Madeline, the young mother at the center of the film, loses her unborn baby but insists on carrying it to term, anyway. After it’s born, however, the baby suddenly comes back to life. Madeline is thrilled with this miraculous development but there are a few caveats: flies seem to flock to her little baby and the tyke has developed quite the appetite for blood and raw meat. What follows is a dark, tragic treatise on the unstoppable force that is motherhood, a force that may be strong enough to reverse the laws of the natural world. If Madeline only loves the baby enough, everything will be alright. If only life were that simple…
Land of the Dead (2005) – “LOTD” was Romero’s first return to the zombie genre he helped kickstart after swearing he would never return after “Day of the Dead” in 1985. “LOTD” isn’t a perfect film, by any stretch, but it definitely has its moments. The undead plague has spread to every corner of the world, forcing the survivors into whatever strongholds they can find. In one particular city, the rich have built a giant, fortified tower to keep the zombies (and the poor) out. Revolutionaries, however, want into the safe zone. Do you suppose that all the in-fighting will lead to a zombie massacre? You may be correct!
Planet Terror (Grindhouse) (2007) – Taken together, “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror” make up one of my all-time favorite features. Separated, Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” is a pretty damn great zombie film. As splattery as the day is long (this is Rodriguez, after all) and filled with a multitude of clever references and analogies to the sub-genre, “Planet Terror” is a zombie film for zombie nerds. Besides which, any film that features a tough chick with a machine-gun leg has to be great, right?
Pontypool (2008) – An ingenious take on the zombie genre, “Pontypool” oozes invention from the first frame to the last. In a small town in Ontario, the neighborhood shock-radio-jock has noticed that people are acting mighty strange…very zombie-like, if you will. Thing is, this particular virus isn’t spread by biting: it’s spread by language. That’s right, hearing and saying certain unknown words turns people into zombies. Fucking genius! I won’t spoil any more of this fantastic little sleeper: half the joy is discovering how the thing turns out.
Undead (2003) – Oh, those crazy Aussies…not sure what they put in the water down-under but they sure do make some kooky films. Case in point: “Undead.” One part alien invasion flick, one part zombie film, one part post-apocalyptic road movie, one part comedy, all killer, no filler! Meteorites turn an Australian fishing village into zombies, survivors must survive, blah blah blah. All that you have to know is that the film features an actor named Mungo McKay, playing a complete badass named Marion. Marion carries around a gun made of several combined shotguns and is such a complete and total bad motherfucker that he would make Jules faint. Fantastic combo of big laughs and suspense make this one not to miss.
Zombieland (2009) – I debated putting this one in my “Comedy” post but I think the zombie material helps tip the scale the other way. By this point, most everyone who’s interested in “Zombieland” has either seen it or knows all about it: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin band together to survive the zombie apocalypse. They’re on a road trip to get across America, for a multitude of reasons, but those pesky flesh-eaters keep getting in the way. Eventually, loyalties are tested, love blooms and problems are resolved only to spring up anew. This is one of those rare horror-comedies is that is equal parts both: definitely a crowd pleaser, perfect for big groups.
And now: the best of the zombie flicks. Here are my 5-star picks:
Dawn of the Dead (1978) – The single best zombie film of all-time, period. “NOTLD” came first but “DOTD” showed the world how to do it. Everything about this film is magical and it still stands, to this day, as one of the most perfect cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. The gore and effects are revolutionary, the acting is perfect for the story, the setting can’t be beat and the film’s social commentary rings completely true, even 34 years later. I’m presuming that most people here have already seen this but, if not, what are you waiting for? This is the film that truly taught me to fear Hare Krishnas.
Dead Alive (1992) – Like with “Zombieland,” this one almost went into the “Comedy” category. At the last minute, however, I realized that I couldn’t deprive my zombie blog of one of the freshest, funnest, most original and most outrageous zombie films to ever grace a silver screen. Made by infant terrible Peter Jackson, “Dead Alive” is the apex of his splattery, gross-out early years (“Meet the Feebles” comes pretty damn close, though) and pulls double-duty as not only a truly great zombie film but as a laugh-out-loud comedy, to boot. Lionel loves Paquita but there’s one thing standing in his way: his absolutely horrible Mum. Turns out, Mum is even more insufferable after she gets bitten by a Sumatran rat monkey and turns into one of the living dead. What’s a good son to do but keep his undead mom and a growing legion of her “victims” locked in his basement and doped up on animal tranquilizers? What happens when the tranquilizers accidentally get swapped for amphetamines? “Dead Alive’ features graphic zombie-on-zombie sex; death by lawnmower; at least a hundred disembowelments; a drastically bad-ass kung-fu priest; a militant zombie baby; a gigantic zombie mom with an enormous womb…you get the idea. “Dead Alive” has to be one of the most violent, gore-drenched films ever made (if not THE most) but the copious amounts of good humor help offset the carnage. You can’t really call yourself a horror nerd until you’ve seen this one at least three or four times.
Mulberry Street (2006) – A zombie movie about rat people? You betta believe it! In New York, a strange virus is turning people into, for lack of a better word, rat-people. A small group of survivors must band together to weather out the assault. Even though the infected in “Mulberry Street” are turned into rat-people, this is classic zombie cinema all the way. Jim Mickle would go on to direct “Stake Land,” my all-time favorite vampire movie and one of my favorite films ever. “Mulberry Street” is just a notch below “Stake Land,” making this one solid 5-star treat all the way. As someone who watches a lot of zombie films, it’s always a great experience to find a film that takes the sub-genre in new and exciting directions.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – The spiritual godfather of all modern zombie films, “NOTLD” is required viewing for not only serious horror fans but film fans, in general. By now, the story is as old-hat as Aesop’s Fables: a group of disparate strangers are trapped in a small farmhouse by the undead and must fight to survive. Once in a claustrophobic space, however, the egos and foibles of the human survivors quickly work to do them in. There are so many iconic moments in this film that to list them all might take at least another page: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”…the trowel…the death of Ben…the zombie in the nightshirt…they’re all here and more! If you’ve never seen “NOTLD” before because it’s too “old-fashioned” or “cheesy,” get off yer butt and get to viewing. Romero may have made a bakers’-dozen films since then, but he’s rarely come close to equaling this original masterpiece.