What are the best zombie movies? Zombie movies are an acquired taste (ahem). They occupy their own space in the horror encyclopedia. Some die-hard horror fans might write them off as cheesy. At the same time, those who would never go near a scary movie will binge watch The Walking Dead.
There is also the unique relationship zombie movies have with comedy. Unlike most other horror sub-genres, zombie movies prove to be a natural fit for homage and satire. And if we’re going to qualify what makes a good zombie movie, we need to return to the template laid out by a guy named George A. Romero. While this is not an exhaustive list, the following is a highlight reel of the best zombie movies that stand above the rest.
1. The best new zombie movies
The zombie film was born over 50 years ago. Those first few years laid the groundwork for the sub-genre. But in the last two decades, zombie movies have resurrected in a big way.
In 2002, two films emerged that kick-started this renaissance: 28 Days Later... and Resident Evil. Two years later, a remake of Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead blew the doors wide open.
The mid-2000s were a feast for zombie fans. Even George A. Romero, the zombie grandfather, got back into the game with his final three films.
In 2010, The Walking Dead closed the gap between a niche subculture and the mainstream. Finally, the heavy metal teenager had something in common with their lame parents.
Lately, the zombie wave of the last twenty years seems to be ebbing away. The zombie movie might be heading for another hibernation. But if we know anything about zombies...
They'll rise again.
Let's look back at some of the best new zombie movies and give them their much-deserved eulogy.
The Best Zombie Movies: 28 Days Later… (2002)
According to Alex Garland and Danny Boyle, this film shouldn't be on this list. The writer and director went out of their way to avoid comparisons to a zombie movie...
...by making one of the best zombie movies.
No matter what you call it, 28 Days Later... is a direct descendant of George Romero’s zombie movies. The pessimistic tone, the helplessness, the crumbling of civilization.
These are hallmarks of the best zombie films.
This is not to suggest that Boyle's film is a carbon copy. There are significant changes that echo Romero but also plant their own flag.
The biggest, and most controversial, change is giving the zombie's speed. Romero's ambling "ghouls" are now adrenaline-fueled killers. Their velocity and ferocity have now become genre standards.
Another great attribute to 28 Days Later... is the use of consumer grade video to capture the images. Ever since Night of the Living Dead, the "quality" of the image in a zombie movie has always been lo-fi.
A low budget can often lead to a rough or imperfect image. This aesthetic matches the themes of decaying flesh and a disintegrating society.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
As far as remakes go, Zack Snyder's debut film is a stunner. Coming near the beginning of the 2000s revival, it signaled the return of the zombie.
Like George Romero's original, the setting (mall) and commentary on consumerism remain intact. The dark comedic aspects from the original are toned down and replaced with a focus on violence.
This version gives violence and the loss of life an edge that the original didn't quite have. This falls in line with the horror films coming out after 9/11 and during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite the "heaviness," Snyder's film is still a lot of fun. The sequences in the mall have that same whimsical, "wouldn't it be fun" quality.
Did You Know?
The film was shot in an abandoned mall in Canada. They production designers restocked all of the stores to make it look like a functioning mall.
There are also exceptional performances by Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer and a pre-"Modern Family" Ty Burrell.
The opening sequence is an extremely effective shattering of suburban tranquility. Polley's character is innocent. She is us. She has a husband, a home and she's just trying to get by.
This is taken away from her suddenly and brutally. It's an introduction to this new world that sets the tone for the rest of the film. It is a reminder that beyond the spectacle of blood and gore, there are real people dealing with it.
This stronger and darker presentation still resonates 15 years later, making this one of the best zombie movies.
World War Z (2013)
This film became the high-water mark for Hollywood's embrace of zombie pictures. With a massive budget and A-lister Brad Pitt starring, there was a lot riding on the film.
Max Brooks' original novel was already a hit with fans. Then word got out that the film was straying significantly from the source material. Fanboys bemoaned this blasphemy, even after Brooks himself approved of the new direction.
Trouble with the third act required a new script, reshoots and millions more to the budget. History has shown us that reshoots are a giant red flag.
Doubts were confirmed and hopes were dashed.
Sometimes, though, the finished film benefits from these last minute changes. World War Z ended up being better than "OK."
It was a bonafide hit.
World War Z accomplishes what many of the best zombie movies have suggested but never shown. The global impact.
We've seen maps that show the outbreak in red as it spreads around the world. We've seen news footage from those other places. But the typical zombie story focuses on a small group of survivors in an isolated location.
This "microcosm approach" works. But any effective apocalyptic scenario deserves the largest canvas possible.
Here, we get the full picture as Gerry Lane (Pitt) travels the globe in search of a cure. The film shot in England, Scotland, Korea, Malta, Wales, and Hungary. This level of authenticity bolsters the realism and textures the story in a way we've never seen.
It takes a Hollywood budget to pull off such a massive production and the film benefits from it.
Who wasn't awestruck by the sight of an undead horde scaling that wall?
World War Z was able to present a zombie apocalypse movie with size and scope, as close to "real" as anything we've seen.
As you prepare your upcoming zombie movie, chances are you won’t have the resources of World War Z. That just means you have to creatively and cheaply address the “macrocosm” of your zombie outbreak.
If you use StudioBinder’s shooting schedule, you could find an opportunity to do some location shooting that will expand the canvas of your story.
Train to Busan (2016)
This import from South Korea does a lot right. It gives us empathetic characters surrounded by claustrophobic chaos. It hits these two points so well, it reminds us how uncomplicated the best zombie apocalypse movies need to be.
In the best zombie movies, the outbreak/invasion/apocalypse is just a backdrop for the real story. Sometimes "finding a cure" is the goal but without compelling human drama, we're lost.
Blood, guts, and mayhem can only hold your attention for so long. At some point, we need substance, a reason to care.
In Train to Busan, we have an emotional story that resonates beyond nationality, language or genre. We don't need to speak Korean or be zombie movie experts to recognize a story about family.
The best zombie movies value character over anything.
Sure, we expect our survivors to die off every few minutes but they should be more than zombie food.
Train to Busan uses the zombie apocalypse to create deep and meaningful characters. Seok-woo begins as an absent father and must now dedicate his life to protecting his daughter. Hope is important when facing the end of the world and the best zombie movies capture this sentiment.
When it comes to zombie performance, the playbook is very short.
Snarl, moan, swipe, bite, repeat.
It's a familiar routine that we take for granted until we see something like this.
You cannot take your eyes off these zombies. The physical performance of these actors is show-stopping. The dedication, from the featured brain eaters to the background extras, is remarkable.
Lame zombies are the death of your film.
When sharing your StudioBinder project with your casting director, give them examples of what you’re looking for…
...and what you’re not.
Maybe it's time to tone it down a bit?
A Zombie Walks Into a Bar
2. The best funny zombie movies
If a genre lasts any significant amount of time, it will evolve through various stages. One of those stages is "parody"--that moment when what was once serious is now treated with humor.
Sometimes, parodies mark the end of that genre being taken seriously. It might take years or decades for the legitimacy of the genre to return.
For comedy zombie movies, there were parodic examples as early as the 1980s. Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) would be great examples. This was during a lull in the sub-genre's popularity.
What happened in the 2000s, though, is interesting.
At the same time, we have this new wave of earnest zombie movies, comedy zombie movies join the conversation.
Why might that be?
Is there something inherently funny about zombies? Has the scare factor for zombies diminished so much that they are now laughable?
Or are we savvy enough in our postmodernism to allow "serious" and "funny" at the same time? Whatever the case, the zombie comedy ("zom-com") staked a claim on pop culture. Here are some of the best zombie comedy movies, from the reverent to the absurd.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Don't call it a spoof. Call it a love letter. The admiration director Edgar Wright and co-writer Simon Pegg have for Romero is obvious.
What makes Shaun of the Dead so great is its ability to juggle two genres at the same time. Many films have difficulty getting a single genre right, let alone two.
Imagine a Venn diagram of a Romantic Comedy and a Zombie film: at the center lies Shaun of the Dead. People looking for a fresh and funny romantic comedy will find it. People looking for a heartfelt homage to Romero will also strike gold.
The intelligence on display from Wright and Pegg is staggering. They know the zombie movie inside and out, but that's easy to do. What's difficult is combining that knowledge with strong filmmaking craft.
This way, the jokes are baked into the story, characters, world, etc. This makes the humor accessible to anyone, not only Romero aficionados.
There is a trend in RomComs, especially lately, for the male lead to be a dud. He is lazy, unmotivated, uncommitted. This is Shaun (Pegg) to the letter. His girlfriend has had enough and given him the boot.
In the end, Shaun steps up and proves his worth to Liz (Kate Ashfield) but what did it take? Shaun's apathetic condition is so severe, it requires a zombie apocalypse to cure him.
It's a ridiculous idea but also a damn funny one.
Black Sheep (2006)
Is it safe to say that no one asked for a "zombie sheep" movie?
Either way, we got one.
The film is from New Zealand, where sheep outnumber people 10 to 1 (thanks, Wikipedia). Perhaps the film is scarier for Kiwis but, for us "non-shepherds," it's pure comedy.
Black Sheep might live on the absurd end of the zom-com spectrum. But it might also be the king of that particular kingdom.
With a premise this insane, you have two options. Option 1 is to acknowledge the ridiculousness and grind that joke into the ground.
Option 2 is to play it as straight as possible, developing the characters and story as if it were any other movie.
Jonathan King's film went with the second option and we're all glad he did.
It is a challenge to make us care in a zombie sheep movie. First, you have to make the embarrassing confession that this film is about zombie sheep.
Then you have to push the characters and story to a point where we’ve forgotten that fact. For example, when a character dies we feel it. There is genuine emotion attached. When you remember that they died from a zombie sheep attack, that’s when you know you’re witnessing greatness.
By the time Zombieland came around, the zombie film was ripe for deconstruction. If it was ever in doubt, this film confirmed our pop culture obsession with zombies.
What Zombieland makes abundantly clear is how much FUN we can have with the undead. Columbus’ (Jesse Eisenberg) rules to survival are a blast. Like Shaun of the Dead, this film has nothing but respect for the genre and audiences can feel that.
The ability to laugh “with” the cliches of zombie movies is much different than laughing “at” them. Here, the deconstruction of the zombie movie shows us what makes these movies good as opposed to pointing out the flaws.
But Ruben Fleischer's film is also drawing on another contemporary addiction: video games.
Zombie video games have been popular since the '90s, before this new wave of zombie movies. Of course, with the zombie boom of the 2000s, videos games also saw a surge.
With Zombieland, the stars align to produce a self-aware and genuinely entertaining film. The blood ‘n’ guts quotient is high, the characters are charismatic and audiences ate it up.
The Zombie Godfather
3. George Romero's filmography
In July 2017, the Godfather of the Dead passed away. George A. Romero is a horror icon and is credited with originating what we know as the zombie film.
This mythology has sustained more than 5 decades.
Many people point to the "vagueness" of zombies as the secret to their longevity. They become the perfect canvas with which to paint our anxieties.
Their lack of personality or agenda means they can be repurposed for any situation. A foreign invasion? Excessive consumerism? Viral infections? Climate change? Government experimentation?
All the above.
Romero understood this flexibility and used each of his six "living dead films" to tackle a new threat. Instead of making a single film six times, Romero made a clear effort to push and expand the allegory.
For Romero, the critique was about us, not the zombies.
“My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I'm pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.”
— George Romero
We've discussed some of the more successful films inspired by Romero. But any recap of the best zombie movies needs to include the master himself. Here are Romero's six "Living Dead" films in honor of the late great ghoul.
George Romero Movies: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
There is where it all began. The source. Patient zero. The first zombie movie (as we know them today).
George Romero ran a production company in Pittsburgh, making commercials and training films. He and his partners wanted to branch out into feature filmmaking but they needed a story and money.
Inspired by Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend," Romero wanted a similar story. He switched out the vampires for "ghouls" for this apocalyptic survival story. The script in hand, they raised over $100k and shot in an abandoned house scheduled for demolition. This was a textbook independent film.
Friends and family became extras. A butcher donated the "flesh" for the ghouls to devour. And chocolate syrup acted as blood.
Thus, a legacy and a mythology were born.
Released in 1968, you can read a lot of social commentary into the film. This was the height of the various cultural revolutions in America at the time.
The Civil Rights and Women's movements were still blazing. The Vietnam War was as unpopular as ever, dividing the country from the inside out.
The chaos of the world is abstractly represented in the chaos of the film.
We're 50 years removed from those tensions but the film remains as effective as ever. The gore might be comparatively tame and the acting might be over-the-top but its legacy is secure.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Ten years later, Romero returns to his creation with a bigger budget and bigger ideas. For many, this second entry is superior to Night of the Living Dead and the best of the cycle.
The social commentary for Night is more subdued but there's no mistaking the message here.
Americans love "stuff" and it will save us, even from the end of the world.
In the film, the survivors take refuge in a mall where everything they've ever wanted is now theirs. It's nothing short of heaven.
Of course, this consumer sanctuary doesn't last long.
The survivors are overrun by the undead legion who have also come to the mall for their own piece of heaven.
Dawn of the Dead is also notable for the collaboration between Romero and make-up artist Tom Savini.
Savini was a war photographer in Vietnam, where the carnage he saw became his inspiration. His coping mechanism was to recreate what he saw. Using his fellow soldiers as subjects, Savini created wounds and injuries with make-up. Back in “the world,” Savini applied these talents to horror filmmaking and became an icon in his own right.
Dawn of the Dead marks a noticeable upgrade in the quality and quantity of gore. It would set the standard for his own films as well as his peers.
Day of the Dead (1985)
For his third time out, Romero crafts a zombie movie that explores their nature in greater detail. At a military installation, Dr. "Frankenstein" Logan conducts autopsies in search for answers.
He's also trying to rehabilitate them, maybe there's a way to somehow coexist with the undead. This is where we meet Bub, a zombie inching towards being sympathetic. He is more intelligent than the others and the best case for Logan's theory of domestication.
Romero could have continued to crank out zombie movies without much thought. With the formula established, it would have been easy to sit back and collect paychecks.
But he didn't. Romero took each film as an opportunity to expand and deepen the world he created.
For a lot of people, horror films lack substance or value. These people aren't wrong, but they're not 100% correct either.
Filmmakers like Romero are serious about the work. Films like Day of the Dead show us an artist in dialogue with his creation.
Land of the Dead (2005)
It took 20 years for Romero to return to zombieland but he came back strong as ever. The budget and production values were higher and his cast included some recognizable faces.
Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Simon Baker and Asia Argento star in this installment. Again, Romero twists the formula and takes aim at another human issue: class.
The survivors are now split into the "haves and have-nots" with the zombies there to force the issue.
Instead of Bub, we have a new character named Big Daddy, who is the most "evolved" zombie yet. In a clear and direct allegory, Big Daddy rallies the undead for a revolution.
Romero continues to complicate the zombie, giving them more depth and nuance with each successive chapter.
It's actually quite inspiring to watch an artist revisit their work in meaningful ways. Even if the "art" is flesh-eating zombies.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
This is where Romero does a bit of a reset. The budget for Land of the Dead was approx. $15 million, which is low for Hollywood but high for him.
His decision was to strip this project down to the bare necessities. As a callback to the original Night of the Living Dead, the production would be minimal.
The story was also a chance to start over. Bordering on "reboot" status, Romero started the outbreak all over again. This time, the survivors are film students in the middle of filming a documentary.
2007 marks the beginning of the found footage mini-wave. The first Paranormal Activity film and REC also come out this year.
Romero felt, along with the budget and story reboot, that the aesthetics could also use a change. The use of found footage here is a little awkward but the intended effect is obvious.
The goal of found footage is to bring documentary-level "realism" to horror. The more "real" the horror, the greater the scares.
In the mid-2000s, besides the ubiquity of consumer camcorders, the iPhone is introduced. Now, anyone can film anything at any time.
Found footage turns this technological advancement on its head. The more video cameras available, people can film anything. Even the end of the world.
Survival of the Dead (2009)
Survival of the Dead is Romero's last "Living Dead" film and his last film in total.
This final chapter is underwhelming but it does bear Romero's stamp. Consistent with the other films, Survival pursues a new perspective on the zombie.
Romero wanted to make this film in the style Hollywood auteur William Wyler. This meant a widescreen presentation with vibrant colors.
Basically, the opposite of the previous film.
The themes in Survival relate to the idea of everlasting conflict. The ability for individuals or groups to turn war into a way of life.
Romero's original plan was for Survival to be the first chapter in a standalone trilogy. At this point, he was 70 years old but the ideas kept coming.
Ultimately, his plans for the trilogy were left on the table.
Outside of the zombie cycle, Romero directed some of horror's iconic titles. These included The Crazies (1973), Martin (1978), Creepshow (1982), Monkeyshines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993).
Did You Know?
In the early days of his production company, George Romero also produced content for Mister Roger's Neighborhood.
Now it’s your turn to make a zombie movie Romero would be proud of.
If you’re looking to master your storyboard, and start shooting and scheduling, now maybe you have some inspiration and know where to start.
Zack Snyder’s Directing Style
If you loved Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake as much as we did, we have plenty more where that came from. Step out of the crumbling world of zombie apocalypses, and into Snyder's superhero worlds.
Known for his comic and visual energy on screen, Snyder's directing style is something any filmmaker can learn from, regardless if they like superhero movies or not.