Zombie movies may be the most prevalent subgenre in horror because the basic form offers so many possibilities for variation. The dead who come back to life and have an insatiable hunger for human flesh can serve as an allegory for a variety of social issues, or they can be a simple, easily identifiable threat to characters in a rudimentary horror movie.
The best zombie movies do more than just throw the ravening undead at a group of hapless humans. Some of the most influential movies in the history of horror are zombie stories, and zombies have branched out into comedy and romance as the genre has grown. Here are seven essential zombie movies that demonstrate just how much filmmakers can accomplish within this basic framework.
Night of the Living Dead
The zombie genre as we know it wouldn’t exist without George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film, which invented the modern conception of the zombie as a shambling, reanimated corpse driven to feast on human flesh. Romero didn’t set out to define an entire horror genre, though, and Night of the Living Dead is modest in scope, set mostly in a remote farmhouse where the characters hide out from the undead uprising.
From the eerie, unsettling opening in a graveyard through the final gut punch of an ending, Romero never lets up, putting the audience alongside the characters as they face a chaotic, unimaginable situation. Even if you’ve seen dozens of zombie movies, or have seen this particular movie multiple times, Night of the Living Dead remains viscerally terrifying.
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Shaun of the Dead
The elements of the zombie genre are so ingrained in pop culture that they are perfect targets for parody, even for viewers who haven’t ever watched a zombie movie. Director Edgar Wright takes advantage of that in this pitch-perfect horror comedy, which pokes fun at familiar zombie-movie cliches while also using them to tell an effective story about fighting against the undead.
Simon Pegg’s title character doesn’t even notice the zombie outbreak at first, and he and his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) have to come up with a haphazard plan to avoid zombie attacks and rescue their loved ones. Wright combines clever movie references and self-aware humor with a deep understanding of the genre he’s playing with, making Shaun of the Dead a heartwarming comedy as well as a horror movie with a real sense of danger.
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Train to Busan
There’s an irresistible hook to this Korean box-office hit, featuring passengers trapped on a commuter train rapidly filling up with zombies. The nature of zombie infections means that everyone on the train is a potential killer, and the ratio of zombies to humans will only keep increasing as the train continues its journey. Director Yeon Sang-ho builds tension as the main characters slowly become aware of just how much danger they’re in.
Yeon also stages impressive set pieces within the confined space of the train, delivering blockbuster-style action while sticking to a single location. There are somewhat cheesy character arcs for several of the passengers, but that emotional storytelling keeps the movie grounded as the zombie attacks become more intense and brutal. It’s no surprise that this ambitious yet accessible movie eventually launched a franchise.
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Can a zombie movie be a romance? That question gets a surprising affirmative answer in this adaptation of a popular young adult novel, which tells a more genuine and heartfelt story than many other supernatural romances. It also has more on its mind than just the love story between yearning zombie R (Nicholas Hoult) and human resistance fighter Julie (Teresa Palmer). It’s about fostering understanding between warring factions, even if one of those factions is the literal undead.
R and Julie’s romance starts with a kidnapping, but as it blossoms into something deeper, Hoult and Palmer give their characters an affecting connection that combines passion with empathy. The villain here is not the largely passive zombies, but Julie’s militaristic human father (John Malkovich), who needs to embrace a new path of peaceful coexistence.
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The Girl With All the Gifts
HBO’s The Last of Us has popularized the ideas of zombies controlled by an insidious fungus, but this movie based on the novel by M.R. Carey got there before the TV series. Both explore the idea of a real-life fungus that can control the actions of ants mutating into a form that can control humans. The movie takes a more hopeful approach, set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have gained a greater understanding of how zombies function.
The title character (Sennia Nanua) is a young girl held captive by a military group studying the evolution of zombies, particularly children like Nanua’s Melanie, who are able to speak and reason. As Melanie goes on the run with her teacher (Gemma Arterton), they work toward a shared future for zombies and humans, involving a new phase of existence for both.
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