Top 13: Just Shoot ‘Em In the Head (E-issue #2-August 09)
Welcome to another Black Glove Top 13. This month we’re tackling one of the most popular sub-genres in the horror world- zombies. Now in picking our 13 best zombies films, we had to discard any movie that did not contain actual undead shambling meat frames. So, unfortunately, as great as “28 Days Later” and its impossibly awesome sequel, “28 Weeks Later”, were, they do not qualify as zombie movies. Their particular ferocious killers were infected with a 100% lethal virus called RAGE, not undead. It’s a pity, though, because I think along with two of the films listed below in our Top 13, Danny Boyle’s uber-serious take on the zombie sub-genre “28 Days Later” was responsible for bringing about a resurgence in the zombie’s popularity. There were some pretty lean years leading up to “28 Days Later” for zombie lovers. And I’ll go an extra mile and add that without Brian Keene’s “The Rising” an excellent horror novel published by Leisure back in April of 2003), there may not have been quite as much of a resurgence as we zombie fans enjoy today (of course, the argument needs to be made that, in horror fiction, at least, there would have been no Brian Keene without editors John Skipp and Craig Spector , and their landmark 1989 splatter classic anthology, “Book of the Dead”, and it’s no less inspiring sequel anthology, 1992’s “Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2”). But I am concerned that more and more zombie movies are being sold as comedy horror films. I think any horror fans knows that when Hollywood starts playing them for laughs more than chills the ride is just about over. It happened with the Universal monsters; it even happened with the ultra-violent slasher genre back in the 1990s, so it’s only a matter of time before we see the death of the undead sub genre until the next cycle brings them to life again- if you’ll pardon the pun.
But that’s tomorrow.
For now, we feast upon the undead horn-o-plenty, because zombies are everywhere- movies, both foreign and domestic, books and even charity zombie-walk-a-thons have spread across the world.
And now, we present our Shoot ‘Em In the Head- Top 13 Zombie movies of all time:
13. White Zombie (1932)
Made on a shoestring budget, this indie horror film became the underdog hit of its day, and still continues to entertain subsequent generations of horror film fans. It’s a dark and moody, mostly silent, movie about an evil voodoo master who uses his black magic to turn a lovely new bride into a walking corpse, stealing her seemingly dead body from its crypt and absconding to his high cliff fortress by the sea. The sense of the Gothic is strong and it feels at times more like a myth than a narrative. Bela Lugosi’s turn as "Murder" Legendre is one of the classics of horror and every bit as engrossing and creepy as his Dracula interpretation. It is simply a must see for any horror fan, especially for zombie fans, as he has an army of blank eyed undead who do his bidding- killing and dying without a trace of emotion.
12. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Before George Romero came back with his ultra bloody, nihilistic second installment to his now classic zombie series, 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead” this Spanish director, Jorge Grau, gave us his own reactionary movie to 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead”. This was nihilistic before it was cool in Hollywood. A sense of oppressiveness and dread pervades the film, as we follow a young Bohemian art dealer from the decayed streets of a filthy London into the lush green earth of the countryside. And it’s within all this life that he must confront the ultimate truth of death, as the newly dead come back to life and begin attacking the living. There are some surreal touches that have yet to be beaten. From the ultra high frequency bug killing machine that creates the zombies, to the new born flesh eating baby in the hospital. “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” unfolds like a nightmare from which you cannot escape. Within its gore and oppression, we also get social messages against pollution and anti-authority. This is a smart film that has not a ray of light. Truly classic.
11. Re-Animator (1985)
Ostensibly based upon an H. P. Lovecraft short story, “Herbert West: Reanimator”, this film bears very little resemblance to Lovecraft and more to Romero’s films of shambling, moaning dead. The slight sci-fi tincture given to the narrative by screenwriter/director Stuart Gordon gives it strong enough legs to carry scenes that are horrifyingly graphic in their depiction of the destruction of the human anatomy in a professional setting, a hospital, and also able to bear the weight of some rather dark humor. “Re-Animator”, for all its thrills and chills, is a funny movie. But it’s also ultra gory.
Herbert West (played by the great Jeffrey Combs) is an insane medical student intent on creating a substance he calls ‘re-agent’, a dayglo green liquid that is a major punctuation in the movie. When he moves in with a quiet, unassuming fellow student, he continues to carry on his illicit experiments in the basement on the family cat. But he’s soon moving up the biological pyramid to humans. Before you can say “shoot ‘em in the head” there are more zombies than West can handle. His plans go seriously to hell when he kills and revives an arch nemesis doctor, played as a wonderfully sinister pervert by David Gale, bringing him back to life to carry his decapitated head around in a metal pan. If you’ve never seen “Re-Animator”, you’re in for a real treat. There’s never been a movie like it, and I doubt there ever will be again- especially in our modern PC culture where horror means PG13 CGI creations by, and for, numbskulls.
10. Burial Ground (1981)
Don’t look for much story in this underground guilty pleasure of zombie-dom, because there isn’t much of one. A mad doctor performs some ambiguous ceremony or other in a dank cellar room and suddenly the dead arise to tear him apart. They then break from their cobwebbed tombs and moldy graves just in time to start munching on the 70s cheese casts of dubbed hirsute macho men and barely concealed Euro-hotties. Another humorless take on the zombie genre, this is full of rotting corpses that do everything from throw knives to pin their victims to the wall before eating their flesh, to using a reaper’s blade to behead a squirming meal. These are thinking, tool bearing zombies that seem to keep growing in number despite the fact that they keep eating their victims whole. “Burial Ground” goes for the balls and digs in for some seriously weird zombie horror. But the strangest scene has to be the small boned 30-something year old man who plays a 12 year old child who comes back to take a big bite out his mommy’s mammoth mammary. Talk about uncomfortable viewing…
9. Dead Alive (1992)
Also known as “Braindead” in most of the world, this zombie comedy became an almost instant cult favorite with horror fans. Directed by “Lord of the Rings” sensei, Peter Jackson, knows how to push the envelope. This has to be one of the goriest, stomach churning movies ever made- but, of course, it’s all for laughs. You get zombie babies, zombie sex, zombie Kung-Fu (I kick ass for The Lord!!), lawnmowers as weapons, giant undead Mother ingesting her son in the most overt Oedipus complex ever. It’s hard to be offended because the dialogue is hilarious, the story impossibly slapstick, so even if you aren’t a gore fan, you’re sure to love “Dead Alive” And I promise you’ll stay away from the dread Sumatra Rat Monkey after seeing this movie.
8. Night of the Creeps (1986)
Every zombie movie has to come up with a half believable pseudo-scientific reason for the undead coming back to life to feast upon the living. Some use radiation, high frequency noise emissions, comets, drugs. But none had used brain eating space slugs, until Fred Dekker’s (also directed another cult classic of the 80s, “The Monster Squad”) cult classic 80s smorgasbord of horror, “Night of the Creeps”. This one gives you ex wielding maniacs, aliens, zombie dogs and cats, and most importantly, that cutie, Jill Whitlow, with a flamethrower (HOT!). Set on a college campus, using the tried and true “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds” frat boy humor formula to get laughs, this is a must see for every zombie fan, young and old. It has a perfect blend of smart comedy and realistic scares. Tom Atkins gives what may be his best weary cop performance, ever! Snapping off sharply funny insults with the precision of a nail gun, his character asks for only one thing in life, “Thrill me…”
For those who have had a hard time finding this to purchase, looks like there’s an official 2-discs Director’s Cut October 09 release in the works.
7. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Yet another horror comedy, but this time it comes from Britain, a country not known for its horror comedies. Directed by Edgar Wright, and starring two of the best comedian actors to ever be teamed together, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, “Shaun of the Dead” tells the unlikely story of Britain’s zombie infestation from the view point of two thirty somethings with dead end lives, who only get motivated when the dead come back to life. Full of some of the funniest situation comedy and one liners in a horror film, this one will keep you rolling in the aisles even as the gore splatters the screen. And if you’re a true blue zombie fan, you’ll love the little inside jokes peppered throughout the production (for instance, check out the name of Shaun’s workplace).
6. Day of the Dead (1985)
So then we go from some of the funniest zombie moviemaking to some downright humorlessly dark viewing with Romero’s third installment in his Dead series. It’s now
pretty much the end of the world: the zombie apocalypse has the undead outnumbering the living by 400,000 to 1, so there’s no hope of reclaiming civilization. Which makes the main crux of this film the complex moral and existential dilemma: Should the survivors even try to save the human race or just live out the remainder of their lives and be as happy as they can while keeping far way from the undead? The scientists doggedly insist on trying to find ways to save the human race. While the tired increasingly rebellious soldiers assigned to protect them just want to escape and live in peace. Unfortunately, Joe Pilato’s manic Capt. Rhodes is one fry short of a Happy Meal. He’s ready to leave the scientists “…and their high falutin’ friends…” in the underground research facility the American governments has so graciously trapped them within. For my money, Pilato makes this movie. He’s nuts! A trigger happy, half insane commander who doesn’t give a crap who he kills, as long as they don’t get back up again.
The gore factor in this movie is way over the top, too, with some truly memorably gut wrenching special effects sequences created by the great Tom Savini (another aspect that makes this movie one of the best gore movies, ever).
5. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The only remake likely to make a best of zombie list of any kind (as of this writing, there have been no less than three remakes of “Night of the Living Dead”, one for “Day of the Dead”, and there is a proposed remake of “Return of the Living Dead”) and that because it brought something to the zombie mythos not seen since the mid 80s- running zombies. Did I say running zombies? I mean, fucking sprinting zombies, people! Zack Snyder’s undead haul ass, brother, chasing down vehicles, people, you name it. These spry living dead monsters are blood thirsty and as rabid as killer dogs. Snyder gave the slow moving creatures a sense of animal ferocity that added an edge that made them even more horrifying than the blue faced zombies of Romero’s day. Of course, he had the success of “28 Days Later” to build upon when making this film, so it was a no brainer to take what made the infected so incredibly dangerous and overlay it on the zombie world. Still, love ‘em or hate ‘em, the new and improved running zombies truly gave a jolt to the undead world again.
But there was to this film’s greatness than running-boogie zombies; Synder also managed to snag some really top notch performance from some great actors and actresses. He gave us believable survivors who weren’t your standard badasses with guns; they were every bit as human and weak as the rest of us and reacted as any real human would probably react in such a horrifying situation. (P.S.—and the soundtrack kicked ass!)
4. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
What do you get when you take punk rock and zombies and smash them together? You get this too-good-to-be-true horror flick that mixes gore and comedy like no other film before or since. There is nothing about this movie that doesn’t majorly rock- from the soundtrack to the special effects. Directed by genre master, Dan O’ Bannon, and written by part of the original team that brought us the cult classic midnight movie, “Night of the Living Dead”, this took the concept of the undead and added some kick ass music and made something akin to the rock and roll horror of the 50s and 60s. There is one truly memorable scene of Linnea Quigley doing a cemetery striptease that would make a dead man rise, if you know what I mean. And there is even a hint of the running zombies to come in 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake. It’s a fun movie, never taking itself too seriously, but still able to transcend its own simplicity by verve alone.
3. Zombi (1979)
This is THE grue classic of all time! No other zombie movie has ever had as much cult underground hype as Lucio Fulci’s Italian cheapie rip off of Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” hit and still managed to surpass it. Even today, there is something so visceral about the gory, decayed-looking special effects that make even the most jaded of zombie-philes wince. There are two scenes that have, over the years, come to be legendary- the shark vs. zombie underwater sequence and the infamously disturbing eye-gouging scene. And they are still just as awesome to behold now as they were 30 years ago. If you see no other zombie film in your life, this should be the one to scar you forever. I know plenty of horror fans who will attest that this movie has never been far from their hearts once they viewed- no matter their age.
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Romero took the horror cred he gained with his debut horror film, “Night of the Living Dead” and expanded on its mythos. And this time he did it in full gory Technicolor. With special effects master, Tom Savini, on board to supervise the gore and creation of the zombie army, he cemented the ‘zombie’ as a verifiable cultural icon. Blue faced and slow moving, Romero held up the mirror for America to witness its own decaying social mores, and its mindless slavery to consumerism. It is a bleak, and almost humorless, look at the good old USA, late 1970s. Sky rocketing gas prices, Watergate, Nixon, Vietnam and dope seemed like minor troubles when the dead crawled from their graves and began to munch on baseball, mom and apple pie, tearing apart the myth with cold dead fingers. The best and worst thing about Romero’s visions are that they would probably be damned accurate if—I mean—when the zombie apocalypse finally takes place. So if you’re smart, start planning a safe path to the local mall and stock up on canned meats and ammo. The end of the world has never been so fun!
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
And it’s probably no surprise that “Night of the Living Dead” comes out on top. After all, it’s responsible for creating a whole new monster mythos (a refined concept borrowed liberally from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”). With this film, a young upstart team of Pittsburg based amateurs made history. It became the highest grossing indie film of its day and wasn’t topped for ten years. Starting slowly, but building word of mouth momentum, “Night of the Living Dead” became a drive-in staple, and then became a truly American horror classic, transcending the midnight movie circuits. These days, it’s been allowed to go into public domain status, so finding it on DVD is as easy as walking into any Walgreen’s Drug Store and searching through their dollar DVDs. But maybe that’s okay, too. Maybe with a movie that makes such a powerful social statement, it should be readily available to even the cheapest or poorest film lover. Shot in glorious black and white, it set the standard for siege movies for decades to come and helped many a fledgling filmmaker find a cheap and easy way to make a horror film (are you listening, John Carpenter?). The acting is slipshod, the special effects almost non-existent, and the production values poor…but there is something that works like magic on the subconscious mind when you view it. It feels so bleak, so real, like a documentary instead of fantasy. There are so many reasons to praise this little black and white gem of horror, but watch it yourself- if you haven’t already- and discover for yourself why it belongs in every horror film library.