By Will Mavity It’s officially October: the month where stories about creeping clown hoaxes make national news and movie buffs return to the guilty pleasure films they would never deign to watch at any other time of the year. Among those films is the concept of the zombie film. Ever since George Romero introduced the world to walking, flesh-eating ghouls with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” something about the mindlessly hungry nature of the zombie has captured the public’s imagination. In the 21st century, there are more zombie films coming out than ever. Zombies are ideal subject matter for every indie horror filmmaker who hopes that his low-budget splatter fest ends up on Netflix. Ever since AMC’s “The Walking Dead” premiered in 2010, zombies have been the new vampires. They’re everywhere.
Many film fans look at the zombie genre with condescension. But even as early as the ’60s and ’70s George Romero learned how to use zombie films to produce biting commentary on American racial issues and society’s rabid consumerism. He just so happened to do so while slathering the message in gore. Before he perfected his filmmaking techniques with “The Lords of the Rings,” Peter Jackson learned that some of the funniest comedy could come disguised in a bloodbath.
The modern zombie renaissance has continued Romero’s early trend of burying uncommon intelligence within a monster film. For every 5 low-budget zombie films that are painful to get through, there are at least a few truly masterful pieces of horror, drama, and comedy that just so happen to also feature the walking dead. It should be noted, that while all 10 films are worth watching, 10-8 stand as guilty pleasures, as opposed to truly good films. With that said, let’s kick off Part 1 of gory undead list.
10. “Dance Of The Dead” (2008)
Plot: On the night of the big High-School Prom, the dead rise to eat the living, and the only people who can stop them are the losers who couldn’t get dates to the dance.
Quietly screened at a few film festivals in 2008, before dropping onto DVD as part of Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Underground series, Dance of the Dead cannot necessarily be described as a “good film” per say in the way that many of the others on this list might be. That being said, Sundance TV recently named it one of the 10 Funniest Zombie Comedies of All Time (yes, there is an entire subgenre for that). With expectations kept low, the film is an absolute blast. The makeup is rubbery, the nuclear power plant in the background is badly superimposed, and the cast is largely amateur, yet the film seems aware of all this, and acts accordingly. It plays with all of the angsty teen movie tropes, and absolutely refuses to take itself seriously. Zombies launch out of their graves like circus catapulters, science lab frogs re-animate and consume faculty members, zombies learn to drive cars and find themselves swooning, like teenagers, to garage band music. And alongside its absurdity, the film occasionally surprises with its kills. There are also a few gems of dialogue, and the trope of the gun-wielding maniac gym teacher is handled amusingly. Once again, the film is nowhere near the quality of later films on this list, but for sheer, amusing low-budget zombie shlock, it is hard to resist.
Fun Fact: The film features a pre-fame Lucas Till.
Worth Any Awards Consideration? Absolutely not.
9. “Warm Bodies” (2013)
Plot: After a highly unusual zombie saves a still-living girl from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion events that might transform the entire lifeless world.
After “Twilight” managed to convince teens that an undead creature that was desperate for human blood was actually deeply romantic, it was only a matter of time before the film industry turned to other supernatural creatures for sex appeal. Writer/director, Jonathan Levine found the answer in a “Warm Bodies,” a film that features a flesh-eating zombie protagonist who introduces himself to the audience by caving in Dave Franco’s head and eating his brains, before revealing that he’s really just searching for love, and also happens to enjoy Bob Dylan and The National. If the idea sounds beyond ridiculous, that’s because it is. And yet, the film kind of works. While “Warm Bodies” fails to fully capitalize on the potential for humor that it initially promised with its trailer, it also provides a relatively sweet supernatural love story, and some unexpected depth as a metaphor for depression. Oscar-nominated composer, Marco Beltrami adds some extra emotion with an underrated score, and the film’s overall soundtrack captures just the right amount of angst. The film could potentially been truly ‘great,’ had it been willing to poke a bit more fun at its concept. As it stands, its earnest nature is endearing enough to make it worth seeing.
Fun Fact: “In R’s home (the abandoned airplane), it turns out he owns a Blu-ray of the movie “Zombie” (1979) directed by Lucio Fulci, often noted as being one of the greatest zombie movies of all time.” (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)
Worth Any Awards Consideration? No, but the score is excellent.
8. “Planet Terror” (2007)
Plot: After an experimental bio-weapon is released, turning thousands into zombie-like creatures, it’s up to a rag-tag group of survivors to stop the infected and those behind its release.
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, with help from Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth set out to make “Grindhouse”: an expensive, but loving tribute to 70’s exploitation horror films. The result was a 3 hour-plus cinematic experience, complete with a double feature and fake trailers. The end result was a mixed bag, with Tarantino’s half of the film, “Death Proof,” proving highly divisive. Rodriguez’s half of the film, “Planet Terror,” proved to be exactly the kind of absurdly entertaining trash that the two hoped to pay tribute to. Boasting a strong cast, including Rose McGowan, Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis, “Lost’s” Naveen Andrews, Michael Biehn, and strangely enough, Fergie, as well as Rodriguez regulars like Tom Savini, the film combines a seedy, grimy 70’s look with state-of-the-art makeup and visual effects to create Rodriguez’s loving tribute to a bygone era of filmmaking. If the above-mentioned “Dance of the Dead” succeeds because it doesn’t take itself to seriously, “Planet Terror” one-ups it, boasting a protagonist with a machine gun for a leg, a missing reel midway through the film (the implication being a projectionist ran away with the reel containing a gratuitous sex scene along with crucial character background information). The film devours clichés, and spits them out with such pseudo-seriousness that it’s difficult to keep a straight face. Rodriguez knows exactly what he wants to pay tribute to, and he does. The creature effects are truly disgusting. In a year with some of the century’s best makeup effects (“La Vie En Rose,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” and more), the film somehow manages to stand out, with some truly memorable images. “Planet Terror” zombies are some of the most distinctive in screen history. Gore hounds should check this one out, although it is best viewed as far away from a meal as possible. Like “Dance of the Dead,” “Planet Terror” is difficult to defend as an objectively ‘good’ film, but it is the most enjoyable type of film for what it is.
Fun Fact: “Joel Coen and Ethan Coen refused to give Josh Brolin an audition for the role of Llewelyn in their movie “No Country for Old Men” (2007), so he asked director Robert Rodriguez to help him shoot an audition tape while Brolin was filming his “Grindhouse” (2007) segment (“Planet Terror” (2007)) for Rodriguez. Rodriguez shot and Quentin Tarantino directed the tape, which was shot using a $950,000 digital camera. Marley Shelton, who was playing Brolin’s character’s wife in “Grindhouse,” agreed to read the lines for Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (eventually played by Kelly MacDonald).” (Courtesy of IMDB Trivia)
Worth Any Awards Consideration? Yes, the makeup effects are truly disgusting, but spectacular.
7. “Dawn Of The Dead” (2004)
Plot: A nurse, a policeman, a young married couple, a salesman, and other survivors of a worldwide plague that is producing aggressive, flesh-eating zombies, take refuge in a mega Midwestern shopping mall.
It is remarkable, that even with the massive budgets, and endless wealth of stories Zack Snyder now has at his fingertips to choose from, he has yet to direct a film with as much personality as his brutal debut, “Dawn of the Dead.” While the film lacks the original’s attention to character, and fails to offer a similarly scathing commentary on American consumerism, it does manage to be a wild, and thrilling action film with some excellent makeup, and a relatively likable cast of characters. The opening titles, set to Johnny Cash’s Man Comes Around are a prime example of visual storytelling (incorporating riots and religious turmoil into a world of rapidly spreading infection), and some of the zombie concepts were novel: the film is one of the first to introduce the now-common concept of the “sprinting zombie,” as well explores the disturbing question of zombie birth. Like some of the other films on the list, the film’s screenplay is nothing to write home about, but the visceral direction ultimately compensates, creating a fun, adrenaline-pumping experience.
Fun Fact: The two zombies with missing limbs (the jogger missing an arm and the legless zombie in the parking garage) were both played by actual amputees. (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)
Worth Any Awards Consideration? No, but the creature makeup is strong.
6. “28 Weeks Later” (2007)
Plot: Six months after the rage virus was inflicted on the population of Great Britain, the US Army helps to secure a small area of London for the survivors to repopulate and start again. But not everything goes to plan.
Following up Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” a film that many consider to be the crowning achievement of zombie cinema, is no easy task. And director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo doesn’t quite pull it off. The film’s comparatively thin screenplay limits it from reaching the greatness that Days reached. But, Fresnadillo’s propulsive, visceral direction is a wonder to behold. The opening scene might be the single most thrilling sequence in zombie movie history. The whip-crack editing, bone crunching sound design, chaotic yet artful camerawork all serve to create a sequence that leaves the viewer out of breath. On its own, the sequence could serve as maybe the greatest horror short film in history. Sadly, the film never reaches that stunning high point. But, what follows are a series of tremendously well-cut, and anxiety inducing set-pieces (a terrifyingly claustrophobic sequence in a crowded evacuation room being a particular high point.) The film also boasts an impressive cast, including Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Renner, Rose Byrne, Idris Elba, and Imogen Poots, who manage to breathe such life into their characters that each death is devastating, leaving the viewer fearful and unsure about the safety of anyone onscreen. And unlike many horror films, “28 Weeks Later” is willing to offer some form subtext, exploring the morality of US military intervention in a foreign land. Composer John Murphy also builds his already excellent score from the previous film into something more haunting than ever, while editor, Chris Gill ratchets the tension to almost unbearable levels. 28 Weeks is one of the rare times that direction is strong enough to ‘fix’ a weak script. The film is such a truly adrenaline pumping experience that it stands as one of the great horror films of the 21st century.
Fun Fact: “The farm at the start of the film is the same farm that appears in “Children of Men” (2006).” (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)
Worth Any Awards Consideration? 2007 was the strongest year for film of its decade. In another year, the editing and makeup would warrant consideration.
And that will do it for part 1 of the 10 Best Zombie Films Of The 21st Century. Check back at a later date for Part 2 of this article for my 5-1 picks.
You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies