NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) “You don’t need to spend $40 million to be creepy,” director, George A. Romero, once smiled. “The best horror films are much less endowed.” Shot in grim, inky black-and-white (on a budget of just US$114,000), and controversially featuring a black hero (a strong turn by Duane Jones), this epochal horror film about a plague of shambling, flesh-eating zombies is filled with both nail biting suspense and eye popping gore, and comes complete with one of the most nihilistic endings in cinema history. Though shot for next to nothing, and released by a small distributor, Night Of The Living Dead stirred instant controversy. The film premiered on October 1, 1968 at The Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh, and was shown as a Saturday afternoon matinée, a typical practice for horror films at the time. Night Of The Living Dead, however, was a far more graphic and brutal horror film than was usual for the time. The MPAA film rating system was not in place until November 1968, so even young children were allowed to purchase tickets to the film, which quickly prompted a major outcry. “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them,” critic, Roger Ebert, wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times. Night Of The Living Dead eventually went on to become one of the most successful independent films of all time, and is widely credited with establishing the “rules” of zombie cinema, hence it taking pride of place on this list. “We go back to The Book Of Genesis – we go back to George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, which I saw when I was fourteen-years-old,” Frank Darabont – the man who initially brought the zombie epic, The Walking Dead, to television – said of the classic. “It was a mythical, legendary movie. Think back to the early Jurassic period when there was no video, and you had to seek this stuff out. Night Of The Living Dead had this weird vibe that was almost like pornography. It was this talked-about, horrible thing, and it had this marvelously attractive, disreputable draw. I loved it immediately.” Night Of The Living Dead would also spawn a host of impressive sequels, including 1978’s masterful and much loved Dawn Of The Dead.
28 DAYS LATER (2002) & 28 WEEKS LATER (2007) The last thing that anybody saw coming, the Danny Boyle/Alex Garland partnership’s (Trainspotting, The Beach) 28 Days Later was a slamming, relentless take on the ultra-cheap Italian zombie sci-fi/horror films of the 1970s. Then little-known actor Cillian Murphy took the lead as Jim, a very lost and frightened hero who awakens in an empty hospital to find London around him deserted. After being attacked by seemingly insane people splattered with their own blood, he’s rescued by fellow survivors of a virus that has apparently wiped out nearly the entire English population. The confused and terrified Jim is given the lowdown by his hardened rescuers: live life looking over your shoulder, never go off alone, and avoid “infecteds” like…well, the plague. In the thrilling 28 Days Later, maniacal creatures spewing blood and tearing victims to bits with their bare hands stand side by side with dramatic, soul searching introspection. The tension is ratcheted up to breaking point time and again, while the scenery and effects are brilliantly bleak and dirty. The characters feel real and honest, and as you stumble around post-apocalyptic England with them, you’ll feel every ounce of their fear and heartbreak. The film also got a criminally under-celebrated sequel, with Spanish director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto, Intruders), imaginatively expanding on Boyle’s post-apocalyptic universe, and delivering a film every gruesome inch as terrifying and disturbing. While documenting the horrific spread of the killer virus across the globe, Fresnadillo also ingeniously personalises the horror, locating it within a wholly relatable family (led by the brilliant Robert Carlyle as Don, an everyman whose simple failings will have dire big-picture consequences) torn apart emotionally by the madness of the world fracturing violently around them.
HOMECOMING (2005) Oh, here’s a hot potato. Imagine, if you will, that the dead rise. Oh, stop rolling your eyes! Yes, you’ve heard that story before…it’s what this whole article is about! But what if they didn’t come back to feast on the (apparently) delicious flesh of the living. What if it was soldiers killed in The Gulf War that came back…to vote George W. Bush out of office? “Homecoming wasn’t subtle,” the film’s director, Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling), told FilmInk in 2006. “The message was that we love our country and we hate George Bush. It came from what I saw as a complete inability by the media to deal with our situation. We went to war and no one in the media seemed to be saying anything negative about it. And that lack of discourse was really starting to piss me off. So Sam Hamm [Homecoming’s writer] and I felt that the door was open – we had an opportunity to really say something. So we did.” Politics and horror are usually played with a degree of subtlety. Take the original Dawn Of The Dead and its whole “we are all mindless consumers” allegory; it was there but as a sort of background buzz. Here the agenda is worn right on its sleeve, as Dante proves that he has the kind of backbone that American pollies have been lacking for, well, a long damn time. This is a simple, but effective, “Fuck you!” to the Bush administration, making it possibly the smartest entry of the original 2005 Masters Of Horror anthology series, which saw a host of genre legends (including the likes of John Landis, Dario Argento, John Carpenter, and more) unite to make a series of short-ish films.
PLANET TERROR (2007) Prolific director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn) is a master at delivering wildly entertaining, if slightly choppy, films. Many of his movies, great as they are, could use a bit of a polish. With Planet Terror, however, that roughness fits like a glove. As his half of the now infamous Grindhouse double-deal, it’s supposed to be messy and not-fully-realised, and is actually more satisfying than its partner film, Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s more highly anticipated entry in their faux drive-in double feature. Pulse-pounding and enjoyably sleazy right from the get-go – with the very sexy Rose McGowan performing a lurid bump-and-grind strip-joint routine – Planet Terror is all blood, pus and guts, as a small Texas town is overrun by chemical-gas-induced-flesh-munching-“sickos” (read: zombies). Complete with a great hero (Freddy Rodriguez), nasty bad guys (Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis), sassy babes (McGowan, Marley Shelton, Fergie), grindhouse-ready film scratches and “missing reels”, and imaginative action and horror sequences, Planet Terror is a gruesomely hilarious delight from go to whoa. “I knew that zombie movies were going to come back in a big way, so I tried to write one fast, before they all came out,” Robert Rodriguez told FilmInk in 2007. “But I couldn’t finish it. That was in 1997. I couldn’t figure out where the zombies came from, and also what happened at the end of the story. So I gave up and, sure enough, about four years later, zombie movies started coming back. But by doing it in this Grindhouse style, I thought that I could still do my zombie movie.”
DEAD SNOW (2009) What do you get when you cross Nazis and zombies? Apart from Zombie-Nazis, you get ninety minutes of justifiable and cathartic slaughter. Something often sorely lacking in today’s horror climate of remakes, sequels and cheap torture porn is originality, which makes Dead Snow all the more enjoyable. Horror fans will not be able to resist this Norwegian blood-romp, especially with the tagline: “Ein. Zwei. Die!” A group of medical students rent a snow lodge near an abandoned fortification used during the Nazi occupation of Norway. A diabolical combination of carnage and side-splitting black humour ensues as they soon find out what’s inside. Blood looks wonderful against the deathly white snow, and this film from director Tommy Wirkola (whose previous effort was Kill Buljo: The Movie, a Norwegian parody of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill) does not disappoint. The horror movie cliches throttled out early on are soon eclipsed by a clever and hilarious script, which is backed up by some of the goriest and most creative zombie-related deaths in horror history. “When we were about to sit down and write the actual script, we started thinking ‘What is more evil than a zombie?’ A Nazi-zombie,” Tommy Wirkola – who got the Hollywood call-up with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – told Movie Reviews. “We have a really strong war-history up in the north of Norway from World War Two, so it was fun to combine actual events with our own story. And you know Nazis have always been the ultimate villains in movies. Combine that with zombies and you really get something that no one would sympathise with. I like to think of them as Nazi zombies. Nazis first, then zombies.” The film was followed by a strong sequel in 2014’s Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead.
WORLD WAR Z (2013) With stories infamously rife about the troubled production of World War Z, “industry experts” tipped a financial disaster of mammoth proportions. These predictions were made, of course, before anybody had seen the actual film. More influenced by what they saw on screen than what they read (or didn’t read) on the internet, the punters flocked to this cinematic first – a truly epic, big budget zombie movie – and a sequel is now in some form of development. Though wildly different from Max Brooks’ keenly intelligent, geopolitically themed (and impossible to adapt literally) source book, Marc Forster’s globe-spanning slab of zombie horror is exciting from go to whoa, as Brad Pitt’s United Nations operative searches frantically for a cure for the zombie apocalypse. Terrifyingly engineered scenes of monstrous hordes of the fast-paced undead are unlike anything ever put to film, while the film’s claustrophobic climax harks creepily back to George A. Romero’s classics. Imaginative and highly entertaining, World War Z is a top flight take on the zombie apocalypse. “I wanted to have it as much as possible based on reality, and to be very grounded,” Marc Forster told FilmInk in 2013. “I wanted it to seem real, as if it’s something that could really happen today. And at the same time, I loved the seventies movies of George A. Romero. Way back, it was a metaphor for consumerism, but our zombies are more a reference to biology; they’re like ants. Today, there is over-population and not enough resources, and by 2050, we will be a world of 50 billion people. This is really a movie that shows how the world collapses due to over-population, a massive lack of resources, and a viral epidemic.”
WARM BODIES (2013) Based on a debut novel by Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies is a fine addition to the burgeoning comedic sub-genre which shows the zombie apocalypse from the point of view of the infected…romantic yearnings and all. The film differentiates itself from other examples of the genre like The Revenant (viscerally funny, but bleak) and Deadheads (emphasis on gags) by being ultimately a fairytale with, one feels, its eye on the Twilight audience. Here, the instantly recognisable post-apocalyptic landscape, cleared of life by the shambling undead, is commandeered as a backdrop for a story about the curative power of love. Nicholas Hoult gives a fine physical performance as R, the sentient zombie whose gormless attraction to a living girl merges endearingly with his undead clumsiness. A wry voiceover gives us access to his inner thoughts. As Julie, the object of R’s affections, Australian actress, Teresa Palmer, is refreshingly no-nonsense, and the growing, unforced rapport between her and R propels the film delightfully. There’s a notable lack of the glorious anatomical messiness that we’ve come to expect from The Walking Dead, for example, but Warm Bodies, as a horror-inflected, life-affirming love story, gets the balance right, and is both touching and uplifting. “At the core of the story – which I think is so smart – is that R is just a shy guy,” the film’s director, Jonathan Levine, told FilmInk in 2013. “He’s just a guy trapped in his own body, which a lot of guys can identify with. I can certainly identify with that. That’s the central guiding post that allows you to cut through all the other noise that could totally derail the movie. That was one of the main reasons why I did the movie: the metaphor of what zombie-ism represents.”
WYRMWOOD (2014) “We’re taking this seriously,” Australian director, Kiah Roache-Turner, told FilmInk in the middle of shooting his low budget zombie opus, Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead. “Really seriously. And that’s the difference. I’m a massive cinema fan, and what I’m going for is Apocalypse Now…with zombies…in my country! And ‘in my country’ is a very important underline. So people who are expecting a jokey, tongue-in-cheek, Bad Taste sort of thing…we’ve seen that. Shaun Of The Dead is the best zombie comedy that will ever happen. It doesn’t really matter what genre you attempt. If you really attempt it in a true cinematic style, it’ll always be good. That’s the key to originality – just a good story told well.” Borrowing from mum, dad, friends, and a campaign on the crowd-funding website, IndiGOGO (thank you, zombie fans), Kiah and his brother, Tristan, “basically did it exactly the way that Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson did it: you fund it yourself with whatever you can borrow or steal.” The wonderfully ingenious and inventive Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead doesn’t waste any time in introducing a herd of zombies being massacred by our heroes. We flashback to discover the origins of the plague, but that’s really irrelevant, plus there’s the creepiest of doctor-types experimenting with the undead for some godforsaken reason. The plot, really, is disposable – it’s the characters, their ingenuity, and the kills that really shine. The unashamed Australiana, meanwhile, makes it really zing for local audiences. “It’s a rollercoaster,” Kiah Roache-Turner told FilmInk after he’d completed the film. “If you want to be thrilled and scared, then it will deliver because it’s 97 minutes of mayhem.”
THE WALKING DEAD (2010 – ) Defined as much by rivers of tears as it is by pools of blood, US cable TV sensation The Walking Dead (now heading into its seventh season) follows the horrific trials and tribulations of Rick Grimes (superb UK import, Andrew Lincoln), a sheriff’s deputy who wakes from a coma kick-started by a shot taken during a violent fire-fight to discover that the entire world around him has been engulfed in a zombie apocalypse. Taking the lead of a small band of survivors (that swells and dwindles per the dangers of a kill-happy world ravaged by the undead, and dotted with the worst of the living), Rick’s once true-north-set moral compass spins out of control as he has to fight to keep his newfound family alive. The Walking Dead is a truly towering piece of American television, and a small screen masterpiece of the first order. It might ostensibly belong to the horror genre, but this richly textured drama feels more like a piece of quality American literature than it does a blood-soaked scare-fest…though there’s plenty of that too! Pure twisted genius. “You always hope that something is going to be watched by people, but this has caught people’s imaginations like nothing else that I’ve ever been involved in,” Andrew Lincoln told FilmInk. “It moves across generations as well; we have young people, we have parents, and we have grandparents saying that they watch the show, and that they relate to these characters. That’s what we try to do as actors; we try to ground the emotional side of the show as much as we can, and to sell the zombies idea. The alchemy seems to be working,” Lincoln laughs.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: UNDEAD (2003), LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), [REC] (2007), THE REVENANT (2009), ZOMBIELAND (2009), THE HORDE (2009), DEADHEADS (2011), AND MANY, MANY MORE…
Train To Busan will screen at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 12, and at The Korean Film Festival In Australia on August 11. Train To Busan will then screen from August 12 in Sydney (Event George St, Burwood, Top Ryde, Hornsby, Parramatta, Hoyts Chatswood), Newcastle (Event Kotara), Brisbane (Event Garden City, Event Myer Centre, Morayfield), The Gold Coast (Event Southport), Queensland (Cairns), Perth (Event Innaloo), The ACT (Event Manuka), Adelaide (Event Arndale), Auckland (Event Broadway, Albany, Chartwell, Hamilton), Christchurch (Hoyts Northlands), Fiji (Village 6), and Papua New Guinea (Waigani Central), and from August 18 in Melbourne (Hoyts Melbourne Central, Village Century City, Village Sunshine, Lido Hawthorn, Chinatown).