I originally wrote this in 2009 on my Blogger Blog. I think the list still holds up pretty well, and to it I'd add some gems I've seen on Netflix or in the box office, the main criteria being that they add something new to the genre:
Go see them all. Right now. Or you're out of the family! Anyway, here's the original list, plus commentary.
To define the beautiful is to misunderstand it. - Fernando Pessoa
Zombies are pretty popular these days. Having been a fan of the genre long before it was as mainstream-popular as it is now (I was zombie when zombie wasn't cool, so to speak), I try to see all the zombie films I can when they come out, and lately I've even taken to reading zombie fiction. Most of it is great, and like bedroom antics, even the bad is pretty good. Not much of it, however, adds anything new that's truly interesting. Here are some exceptions:
This Lovecraft short story series, along with introducing the Arkham-based "Miskatonic University" to the world, is arguably the birth of modern zombie fiction. In the stories, the newly dead can be brought back to life with a "re-agent", but they are basically pugilistic monsters. In one story in the series, a reanimated head being carried in a box by its body gives the body orders with voice commands, or something like that.
The series is rumored to be a spoof on Frankenstein, and like Frankenstein's monster, the reanimated in this series are not true zombies, biting and spreading, moaning for brains, shambling, what have you, but are rather revenants - a broad class of things that return from the dead. (If you need a better distinction, Pumpkinhead was also a revenant. He take revenge on your behalf, say if city folk run over your kid on their motorbikes, and then happily goes back from whence he came. All zombies are revenants, not all rev... you get it.)
The cult movie Re-Animator was based on the Herbert West stories, and includes most of the elements from the stories, including the head in the box. I unfortunately found this movie when I was looking for good horror (in the 80s when this came out, that would have been "The Hunger", "The Seventh Sign", and their ilk), and it was too campy for me to finish. After becoming a fan of zombie comedies like the "Return of the Living Dead" series and "Shaun of the Dead", I think I should give Re-Animator another go.
This is where all modern depictions of zombies originate, as everyone already knows. "They're coming to get you, Barbara." Ring a bell? Naturally. The infection spreads through bites. The dead rise from their graves for reasons that aren't explained, and cooperate with each other trying to eat the living. People barricade themselves, argue, panic, and ultimately fall to the superior numbers of the enemy.
Simple and pure, a thing of beauty. The original and its (superior) 1980s remake, and most zombie films that followed have one thing in common that tends to get overlooked: They follow Aristotle's Classical Unities. There is one main action - the zombies are attacking. There is one main place - the refuge the living are holed up in. The action takes place in a single 24 hour period - the day of the zombie apocalypse.
The Rage, man! The Rage, also known as the "Human Cortico-deficiency Virus", will mess your shit up. It will leave you panicked, confused, and eager to kill anyone near you. If someone with The Rage bites you, you have just a few seconds before the infection takes you over. Most significantly, people with The Rage run really freakin' fast - mainly because they aren't dead. Zombies from this universe aren't the living dead, they're just mentally taken over by the virus.
There are subtle visuals in this movie that are just astonishing, like before the main character realizes the quiet earth is really filled with the nocturnal infected waiting for sunset, he goes into a church and says "Hello?", upon which a single infected man pops his head up over a pew, and looks at him with this perfect expression of surprise and desperation. Another striking example is the reactions of the activists when they see the ape being forced to watch video clips of war and destruction.
But even better than the visual touches like that are some of the conversations, such as the unnamed political figure giving a press conference answering questions with a despondent "We... don't know," over and over, and the dad talking about trying to catch a plane at the crowded airport, and the wave of infected starts spreading to them until you can't tell who's infected because everyone is screaming and terrified. Well done and believable. Not a bit of camp.
What if zombies could be controlled with shock collars, made to be your servants, and it was the 1950s? This movie was full of camp and 1950s archetypes (and cars and furniture, and dress), wasn't overtly gory, and never took itself too seriously. Billy Connolly does a bang-up job as the title character, and Trinity plays the mom who reluctantly grows to love him.
At one point, the main family's son, Timmy, gets caught in a sticky situation and has to send Fido off to get help. Get it? I believe they also say at some point that the zombie outbreak was caused by aliens, or rays from space, or something like that. Good stuff.
I bought this book for my mentee on his birthday, and we both really enjoyed it. Or maybe it was Christmas - can't remember. It's a novella in diary format about a standard zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a military pilot who happens to be on leave and has lots of weapons in his house. It strays from standard zombie formulae in that the action takes place over several weeks, the key to survival is staying quiet and making periodic sorties for supplies and food, and rather than having a party that you lose to attrition, the main character collects living people as the story progresses.
What's left of the government decides to nuke large cities that have been infested, however that unfortunately upgrades the zombies just outside of the blast radius from shamblers to fast zombies. Bummin'.
All in all it's pretty nicely done, and a quick read, and cheap. So go buy it.
A short story by my brother-in-law. It strays from standard zombie fare in where one particular zombie likes to hang out. A concise summary here would take the wind out of the story's sails, so I suggest instead that you click the link and go read it. It's fairly short, and a unique perspective.
Originally I linked to the short story on Eric's blog, but he has now released this in a collection of his other work on Amazon as a Kindle book titled Gertie, A Collection of Five Dark Short Stories for 99 cents. A real bargain.
So go read it. Seriously.
I bought this for my daughter for her 13th birthday, and I just finished reading it a few days ago. Unique in all the zombie stories I've ever seen or read, the setting is several generations after a zombie apocalypse, rather than immediately after the outbreak. The remaining living people have been secluded in the same small wooded town for as long as anyone remembers. A fire burned away most of the artifacts of pre-zombie life. No one has ever seen skyscrapers, airplanes, hairdryers, the ocean, etc.
The initial action is in a place that reminds me of The Village, both the M. Night Shyamalan movie and also the other village, the one from the 60s TV show "The Prisoner". The lead character is upset with the way things are run and wants to unmask the conspiracy and escape. The town is surrounded by fencing (assumedly some sort of reinforced chain-link, but I don't think it was ever described directly), and there are constantly zombies shambling and moaning outside, trying to breach the fence and get into the town to, you know, eat everyone's brains.
Occasionally there is a breach, and the security forces ("The Guardians") sound the alarm, slay the zombies, and repair the fence. During the course of one particularly bad breech, a ragtag team of characters flees through a forbidden fenced-in path, and discovers...
Anyway, this was a surprisingly awesome book. It has a touch of the teen angst romance "our not-so-secret love pits the world against us" stuff, but that's forgivable.
So yeah, man. Zombies. Woo-hoo!