Ever since the inception of horror filmmaking, zombies have wandered the Earth. We all know George A. Romero as Godfather of the Dead or some other moniker, but historians track the first zombies on screen back to 1932’s “White Zombie” starring Bela Lugosi. Before “The Walking Dead” made flesh-munching a source of mainstream cable entertainment, voodoo curses turned the living into dead-eyed shufflers like in Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked With a Zombie.” Then came the brain feasts, the often debated runners, the contemporary remakes, and Negan’s trusty Lucille.
Film historians can connect the dots between zombie benchmarks that travel at different speeds over decades of releases. Lucky for you, we’re here to rank the twenty-five best zombie movies to set the record straight. Our list, our rules for inclusion. Let’s slash through the endless horde of zombie titles and see which are left standing as the undefeatables.
“Dawn of the Dead” (1978)
George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is widely considered the masterpiece of zombie cinema. Pennsylvania’s Monroeville Mall doubles as a safe haven for survivors as Romero uses his decaying apocalypse as an avenue for consumerism satire. Tom Savini’s career as a special effects guru blossoms with bluish-grayish makeup applications and cartoonishly bright fake blood, not to mention shotgun-blasted heads and helicopter haircuts. The small primary cast featuring Ken Foree and Gaylen Ross navigates a zombie doomsday with the thoughtfulness of Romero’s magnifying glass on society’s darkest tendencies, always understanding that zombies are not the only horrors to be found. Some critics might have chastised “Dawn of the Dead” for its gratuitous gore, but as said best in Roger Ebert’s review, “nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”
“The Return of the Living Dead”
A horror comedy in the two spot? Dan O’Bannon’s punk-rock graveyard smash is oodles more than a party-hearty knee-slapper. A soundtrack including The Cramps and 45 Grave backdrops O’Bannon’s zombie classic that fearlessly lambasts government ineptitude. From Clu Gulager’s Uneeda boss hoss to Linnea Quigley’s free-spirited sexpot Trash, the cast is loaded with standouts of veteran entertainers to leather-spiked goofballs. Its legacy is more than rebellious vibes and sludgy Tarman runoff — “The Return of the Living Dead” is the first zombie film to introduce the undead’s hunger for brains. John A. Russo’s split from Romero after “Night of the Living Dead” led them down different paths, thankfully steering Russo towards helping create one of the most successful horror comedies, zombies or not.
“[REC]” + “[REC] 2”
The “[REC]” movies are zombie movies. I understand how infected apartment dwellers (then more) are being controlled by Tristana Medeiros’ parasite. But if they look like a zombie, bite like a zombie and operate within zombie movie norms?
Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s “[REC]” is a found footage nightmare like no other, and “[REC] 2” is the perfect sequel. I’ve tethered both because on any given day, either “[REC]” or “[REC] 2” is my favorite — both an up-close-and-personal blend of intense perspective-based horror storytelling that is outstandingly terrifying. The claustrophobia of a Barcelona apartment complex locks us in with Manuela Velasco’s late-night reporter as the unthinkable happens, then continues via tactical police team camera rigs. The insidiousness of the Vatican coverup, the quarantine paranoia, the sense of urgency that immediately overtakes — these movies are the horror genre’s “The Godfather” and “The Godfather 2.”
Is any horror listicle complete without a Barbara Crampton mention? Or Jeffrey Combs? Or Stuart Gordon? This adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West–Reanimator” is quintessential 80s horror that’s freakishly morbid, obscenely funny and happily over-the-top. Combs and Crampton sell every delicious ounce of absurdity caused by a glowing green serum, from salacious decapitated zombie heads to fights with reanimated cat corpses. It’s endless genre enjoyment as experimentation leads to a morgue-set monster mash, always preaching that name of gleeful practical effects. When senior horror fans reminisce about their “good old days of horror,” they’re talking about movies like “Re-Animator.”
“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
Romero and Russo kickstarted a subgenre revolution with a little flick called “Night of the Living Dead,” now a Criterion selection responsible for zombie cinema as it’s evolved to this nanosecond. Few horror films can boast its influence, whether a superior blend of political commentary under genre makeup or the beginnings of zombie mythologies (then called “ghouls”). Judith O’Dea put aside her fears of horror movies to star alongside Black stage actor Duane Jones, a boldly progressive choice of on-screen hero in the 60s (heck, even still). Romero’s identification of the horror genre as a place where rules can be broken is alive and well in “Night of the Living Dead,” a patient zero film that stands on its own unsettling merits beyond historical prestige.
“Dawn of the Dead” (2004)
The union of Zack Snyder’s vision and James Gunn’s screenwriting birthed the best zombie remake, without argument. “Dawn of the Dead” defines the “dark and gritty” remake modes of the early 2000s, while going 100% harder in almost every conceivable aspect. Gunn’s nuttiness leads to “Mad Max” style weapon-fitted vehicles, parents forced to confront their zombie babies, and bleak commentaries about the reprehensible nature of humanity when morality is no longer in style. It’s one of the earlier “runner” zombie movies and becomes more frightfully impactful since walkers turn into sprinters with tremendous stamina, as Snyder exploits American megamall cultures of the modern era. All that, and the smooth lounge-singer crooning of Richard Cheese’s “Down With the Sickness” rendition? “Dawn of the Dead” is what we call a total package.
“Train to Busan” (2016)
South Korea’s “Train to Busan” was a much-needed injection of adrenaline to the zombie subgenre upon its arrival. A24’s slower-burn, backend-loaded horror brand had taken over genre trends by the time “Train to Busan” hit stateside, as familiar zombie stories became less popular. Then comes Yeon Sang-ho’s transportation nightmare about a speeding commuter deathtrap filled with survivors protecting their cars from growing ranks of undead gangs. It’s breakneck zombie action that savors beautiful, chaotic South Korean fight choreography and is also emotionally rewarding, following a guilty workaholic divorced dad who protects his daughter from biters.
What Ryuhei Kitamura accomplishes with a $10K budget in “Versus” is downright absurd. It’s a melting pot of genre extravagance, from zombie deadheads to “Chanbara” blade choreography to zany shootouts in the middle of a wooded backdrop dubbed “The Forest of Reanimation.” Storytelling speaks of portals, cuts between timelines and relies on science fiction lawlessness, but you’re here for the undead battles against armed factions. Yakuzas, escaped prisoners and special agents engage in high-excitement combat as they navigate leafy trails — a buffet of brutality complete with camera shots that can see through holes in bodies. It’s a midnighter that learns from Quentin Tarantino and Sam Raimi with equal attention, kicking ass and taking names like you’ve rarely seen before.
“28 Days Later” (2002)
Danny Boyle draws ire from the zombie community because he dared nuke tradition with his fast-moving outbreak stunner. Boyle has even said he doesn’t consider “28 Days Later” a zombie movie, but I point back to my “[REC]” blurb. “28 Days Later” is what the zombie subgenre needed in 2002, reinvigorating a shambling brand of horror film that barely had two chewed-raw legs to stand on. Cillian Murphy’s journey through a “Rage Virus”-ravaged Great Britain features stellar supporting performances from Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson, as Alex Garland’s script evaluates the incomprehensible dread of complete societal breakdowns. Boyle redefines what zombie movies can look like, even if that’s not what “28 Days Later” was meant to accomplish.
“Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
Edgar Wright became an overnight geekdom superpower with his zombie-loving comedy “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s as much a love letter to the works of Romero and other zombie classics as it is a competent horror-comedy about slackers who are the last to figure out a zombie apocalypse is happening. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost radiate with buddy chemistry as Wright immediately asserts himself as a quick-cutting and zippy filmmaker with truckloads of style. Wright’s zombie reverence isn’t overshadowed by his slapstick gags or borderline spoofing of familiar subgenre tropes, which engages meta humor like Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson did on “Scream” but infinitely sillier. However you slice it, “Shaun of the Dead” is the textbook definition of “damn funny” — but don’t you dare count out intestine-ripping special effects.
Has a more essential scene ever been put to film than when Lucio Fulci made a zombie fight a shark? “Zombie” (or “Zombi 2” overseas) will always be remembered for its aquatic highlight, but there’s more to Italy’s “Dawn of the Dead” sequel than fish food. Fulci uses Firetruck Red blood that flows like rivers from gnawed open throats, making a visual spectacle of feeding sequences. We’ve all seen the eyeball puncture clip a billion times over, so there’s no need to expand upon the outstanding effects work that dazzles in this Caribbean voodoo throwback. Zombie basics are knocked out of the park and shamblers utterly terrify while tearing into living victims — this video nasty pushes the boundaries of decency with the best of ‘em.
“Dead Alive” (1992)
A movie so slathered in grossness you need a shower afterward. Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” (aka “Braindead”) has become legendary as one of the goriest horror titles in genre history. The lawnmower blender, the bouncy baby, the animal stimulants — all phrases that bring an immediate smile to the face of anyone who’s seen “Dead Alive.” Sensational sloppiness sprays gallons of pink sludge from whirring blades while you can practically hear Jackson cackling behind the camera. Even more impressive is the creativity spent on each cracked cranium, impaled priest and mauled partygoer, which is why “Dead Alive” still dominates conversations decades later. It’s a magnum opus of zombie massacre magnificence that shines as a practical effects showcase.
“Little Monsters” (2019)
In Abe Forsythe’s “Little Monsters,” Lupita Nyong’o plays a ray-of-sunshine kindergarten teacher forced to protect her students from zombies while on a farmland field trip. Yup, a movie where Lupita Nyong’o fights zombies — and it’s an absolute riot. Forsythe doesn’t let the presence of wee children rob viewers of a pitch-nasty zombie flick that earns its R rating. Josh Gad is doing tremendous work as cowardly children’s entertainer Teddy McGiggle, an alcoholic who secretly despises youngsters. Same for Nyong’o’s co-star Alexander England, the washed-up musician and uncle who ends up chaperoning to repay his sister’s hospitality in a time of selfish need. Expect ukulele Taylor Swift covers, sweetly deranged storytelling and plenty of the juicy red stuff because “Little Monsters” nails the balance between horror and comedy.
“Anna and the Apocalypse” (2017)
There’s never been a better Irish Christmas zombie musical than John McPhail’s “Anna and the Apocalypse” (or at all). It’s a little bit “High School Musical,” a little bit “Shaun of the Dead” and truckloads of blood-soaked festive rebellion. McPhail doesn’t allow elements to overpower one another — choreography, zombie gore, musical numbers and coming-of-age angst all crescendo in harmony. Its mood is infectious but not at a detriment to the honest heartbreak found in lyrics that push back against picture-perfect Disney wonderlands. There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending, and few films deliver that message compassionately while bashing zombie brains like “Anna and the Apocalypse.”
“Cemetery Man” (1994)
Michele Soavi’s adaptation of Tiziano Sclavi’s graphic novel “Dellamorte Dellamore” is battier than a belfry and hornier than a triceratops. Rupert Everett’s Francesco Dellamorte plays caretaker to a graveyard in Italy with a pesky reanimation problem, where he slays zombies and fornicates with widows on their deceased husband’s headstones. Dellamorte seems stuck in a fever dream where locals ignore the apparent zombie problem and reality eventually slips out of the story’s grasp. Eroticism propels Dellamorte’s actions, while violence favors kookiness as much as liquid carnage, blending in this out-of-control descent into undead madness. Heads roll (and walk), injections remove (?) genitalia, girlfriends demand to be eaten by their undead biker lovers — “Cemetery Man” is like a delicious, drug-laced antipasto salad with new trippy flavors in every bite.
“The Beyond” (1981)
“The Beyond” is one helluva drug. Fulci’s Louisiana hotel hell is surrealist Southern gothic exceptionalism like a strain of that good Italian horror plant named “Oops, All Vibes!” Fulci dares open underworld gates in “The Beyond,” unlocking doors to disturbing pasts tied to a New Orleans structure with walls that speak of traumatic histories. It’s more an experience than a concrete narrative. Repulsive violence desecrates the human form like cycling hallucinations of the damned, which works to destabilize audience expectations. Fulci orchestrates ethereal, bloody-red, viscerally arresting and ultimately hypnotic horror atmospheres that are sublime in their presentations despite being packaged without the styrofoam peanuts story beats that’d better hold everything in place.
“Day of the Dead” (1985)
This one’s for you, Bub. George A. Romero’s military hunker-down examines an ecosystem of survivors locked away from what civilization exists as the zombie outbreak continues. Joseph Pilato’s Captain Henry Rhodes stands tall as an exemplary antagonist, becoming the worst of humanity when pushed to the brink. The film’s storytelling evolves zombie traits with Bub’s training, which brings an inquisitive wrinkle to the idea that zombies have no recollection of their breathing days — Bub’s little salute to Rhodes is a chef’s kiss moment. “Day of the Dead” shows Romero as a filmmaker brimming with curiosity and a desire never to make the same movie twice, which is astoundingly hard to find in the zombie subgenre. Where others rinse and repeat the same ideas, Romero dared redefine zombies altogether. “Day of the Dead” may be the weakest of the core trilogy, but ponders zombie attributes in ways most other films are too afraid even to consider.
“Zombieland” rewrote the rules on zombie survival by literally making a movie around rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse. Ruben Fleischer’s road trip comedy about Twinkies and Hollywood trespassing sustains its gimmick of Columbus’ developed rules flashing on screen as this cheeky wink to horror fans who think they, themselves, might be able to survive their favorite undead attack flicks. You can’t say enough good things about the ensemble of Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as they travel towards an amusement park finale for the ages. We all remember Columbus’ final boss confrontation with that gnarly clown — shout out to SFX wizard Tony Gardner for making “Zombieland” such a stomach-churning visual feast.
“Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead” (2014)
Tommy Wirkola struck (Nazi) gold in “Dead Snow,” but it’s his infinitely more bonkers sequel “Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead” that is the double-down we deserve. Right off the bat, Wirkola hits us with an “Evil Dead II” homage as main character Martin finds zombified Nazi commander Herzog’s arm surgically attached (an innocent mistake), and that’s just where the craziness begins. Enter Martin Starr and his character’s “Zombie Squad” conspiracy dorks, zombies blasting WWII Tiger tank artillery, and all-out German vs. Russian warfare with reanimated corpses. “Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead” turns frigid white powder cherry-red like a snow cone and has a blast doing so, charging head first into the more action-oriented zombie bashing you love to cheer.
A zombie movie without any zombie action? Director Bruce McDonald claims victims in “Pontypool” become something other than zombies. However, that’s for our imaginations to determine since this alternative outbreak thriller takes place almost exclusively inside a closed-off radio station while radio waves transmit horrors outside. Stephen McHattie plays slick and charismatic shock-jock DJ Grant Mazzy, who stays on air as Pontypool, Ontario falls under quarantine protocol. Grant unravels the mystery beyond locked doors by taking calls from those fending for their lives, translating into horrors of the spoken word. Terror is in annunciation and non-existent visuals since we can’t see, only hear. It’s a clever trick that makes for a one-of-a-kind experience, emphasizing the power of storytelling the same way “Scare Me” does.
“Wild Zero” (1999)
“Wild Zero” is so much more than just a zombie movie, but it’s still a zombie movie. It’s a rockabilly odyssey featuring Japanese trio Guitar Wolf as they fight all sorts of enemies in the name of love with no borders, nationalities or genders. Expect an after-midnight brand of storytelling that involves meteorites, undead made up to resemble Romero deadheads, magical musician weapons and rockin’ tunes. “Trash and chaos” adorns the poster for “Wild Zero,” putting a premium on explosive silliness that marches to the rhythm of its own blast-beating drum. I mean, hot pants, pompadours, and rocket launchers — what else do you need?
“Land of the Dead” (2005)
“Land of the Dead” is nowhere near Romero’s best, but it’s still Romero doing what he does best. Romero’s “of the Dead” series fast-forwards into a future where protected city-states have popped up across the country, like the now feudal zone of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Societal commentary evolves into class warfare with zero subtlety, where the wealthy reside in their ivory complex called Fiddler’s Green. All of Romero’s signatures swell since Universal granted Romero his highest-budgeted “of the Dead” entry, which leads to expensive toys like the massive mobile command center Dead Reckoning. “Land of the Dead” is Romero with money, and it’s a shame it took as long as it did because the man knew how to architect a lived-in undead universe. Anything you can do with zombies, Romero could probably do better.
“Dead & Breakfast” (2004)
Matthew Leutwyler’s scrappy-as-anything “Dead & Breakfast” is a proud indie darling that boot-scootin’ boogies from the grave. Travelers en route to a wedding find themselves staying at a rural Texas bed and breakfast before a mysterious box starts turning townsfolk into possessed zombie mutants … who dance to hick-hop interludes? Musicians Zachariah and the Lobos Riders provide a soundtrack in-film as they lyricize warnings and threats — songs of caution when they’re human, then songs about “comin’ to kill ya’” once turned. An eclectic cast including Jeremy Sisto, Oz Perkins, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and David Carradine become fodder for brutal bloodletting from beheadings to chainsaw mutilation. Country fried charms and a self-unserious sense of humor go a long way in “Dead & Breakfast,” finding uniqueness at the intersection of horror hilarity and musical accompaniments of the dead.
“Juan of the Dead” (2011)
Cuba’s first zombie movie, “Juan of the Dead,” is more than a charge leader. Alejandro Brugués shows an affinity for the zombie genre through splatter and schlock but also recognizes Romero’s ability to inject political dissension. “Juan of the Dead” becomes a commentary about Cuban lifestyles as much as another worthy “of the Dead” entry (no correlation to Romero’s namesake). It feels like early Romero in terms of budget as Bruges uses more CGI than I’m sure he wished for but stays confident in its mission to bring another international flavor to the zombie subgenre. Where else will you watch a dance-step zombie evasion set to Havana nightclub tunes?
Zombies have been used to represent the working class in films like “Cast a Deadly Spell,” but “Fido” makes parallels obvious. Andrew Currie’s observant horror comedy is a 1950s slice of Pleasantville squeaky-cleanness, except zombies are docile servants (thanks to a collar invention). The storytelling resembles a boy-and-his-dog tale, only switch the dog with a pet-like, protector-like zombie played by veteran actor Billy Connolly. It’s saccharine sweet in a “Leave it to Beaver” way, even with the gnawed-apart limbs, as “Fido” lashes back against classist frustrations. With a cast including Carrie-Anne Moss, Tim Blake Nelso, and Dylan Baker, you’re in good hands with this alternate-reality heartwarming zombie movie.