The 25 Greatest Zombie Movies of All Time
It’s been 89 years since zombies first shambled onto the big screen, and our fascination with them is still going strong. They’ve changed dramatically since Bela Lugosi zombified his victims in 1932’s White Zombie, which was largely inspired by a 1929 book about Haitian folklore. But maybe their mutability is the secret of their appeal.
Thanks to constant reinvention, zombies have given form to our fears of other cultures, loss of agency, communism, atomic warfare, race relations and the civil rights movement, capitalism, mass contagions, the space race, and, most importantly, our bone-deep fear of one another. There are hundreds of zombie movies to choose from, and they’re not necessarily confined to the horror genre. From grim anti-war allegories to lighthearted comedies, here are 25 of our favorite zombie movies from around the world.
Note: For the purposes of this list, we’ve decided to be liberal in our interpretation of the word zombie. In the following entries you’ll find flesh-eating ghouls, Deadites, and “conversationalists” rubbing elbows with victims of demonic possession, black magic, and the rage virus. Regardless of what the filmmakers call it, if it looks like a zombie and acts like a zombie, it’s fair game.
1. I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
You wouldn’t guess it from the title, but director Jacques Tourneur’s hauntingly beautiful follow-up to his 1942 surprise hit Cat People borrows heavily from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The script, co-written by The Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak, transports the story to a Caribbean island where voodoo and colonialism are inextricably woven into the cultural fabric. It’s not Hollywood’s first zombie movie, but it was the first to take its subject matter seriously. Of all the films produced by legendary horror maestro Val Lewton, I Walked With a Zombie was reportedly his personal favorite.
2. The Plague Of The Zombies (1966)
England’s legendary Hammer Films is best known for its Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy movies featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but its sole entry in the zombie film canon shouldn’t be overlooked. The Plague of the Zombies was the third of four Hammer films shot in rapid succession in 1965, often using the same sets. (The others were Dracula: Prince of Darkness; Rasputin—The Mad Monk; and The Reptile.) Filmed in crisp, vivid Technicolor, The Plague of the Zombies is a fascinating bridge between Hollywood’s voodoo-created zombies of the ’30s and ’40s and the gruesome re-imagining that would come two years later.
3. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero was only 28 years old when he revolutionized cinematic horror with Night of the Living Dead. Among his many laudable creative choices was the casting of Duane Jones as Ben, the film’s noble but doomed hero. It was a stark contrast to the way Black men had been portrayed in horror films up to then: either as background characters with no agency, or as threatening aggressors. Besides delivering a great performance, Jones—who had studied at the Sorbonne, spoke several languages, and completed an M.A. in Communications at NYU while shooting Night of the Living Dead—made considerable improvements to the script by rewriting his dialogue. The actor also had a hand in the film’s devastating final scene. When Romero considered a more upbeat ending, Jones insisted on the shocking finale that we know today: Ben survives the zombie onslaught, only to be murdered by a white police officer.
4. Deathdream (1974)
After he made the horror-comedy Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and before he kickstarted the slasher subgenre with Black Christmas, Canadian filmmaker Bob Clark headed to Florida to shoot the relentlessly bleak anti-war film Deathdream. Clark’s movie is both a novel take on zombie lore and a disturbing portrait of a family that comes apart at the seams after the son is killed in Vietnam, only to show up in his parents’ living room hours after they’re informed of his death. Even if you’re just here for the zombies, Deathdream is worth your time; it features the first zombie effects by FX legend Tom Savini, who would go on to create the groundbreaking rotters of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead a few years later.
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5. The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974)
This Spanish-Italian co-production is a strange mashup up gothic horror, science fiction, and gory zombie set pieces, with shades of 1970s eco-horror: The zombies are accidentally created by a government experiment to kill crop-destroying insects with ultrasonic radiation. The film has 16 alternate titles thanks to a string of international releases, but whether you know it as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead, Zombie 3, or Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue, it’s a standout entry in the Eurozombie canon. It’s also one of Edgar Wright’s favorite zombie movies; the marketing campaign for the U.S. release as Don’t Open the Window provided inspiration for Wright’s Grindhouse trailer, Don’t.
6. Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
Night of the Living Dead was released a month before the MPAA’s rating system went into effect, so there was nothing to stop theaters from selling tickets to kids—which they happily did, to the horror of film critic Roger Ebert, who saw the movie at a “kiddie matinee” full of unaccompanied children. When the ratings board previewed Dawn of the Dead a decade later, they had a powerful tool at their disposal: the dreaded “X” rating, usually reserved for pornographic movies, which they offered the film based solely on its graphic, gory violence. The Dallas Times Herald called Dawn of the Dead “the most horrific, brutal, nightmarish descent into Hell ever put on the screen,” and The New York Times film critic Janet Maslin famously walked out after 15 minutes. Dawn of the Dead still packs a punch today, though the gore is tempered by Romero’s sly humor and the fact that almost everyone involved seems to clearly be having the time of their life.
7. Zombi 2 (1979)
When Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy, it was re-edited by Dario Argento, re-scored by Italian prog rockers Goblin, and titled simply Zombi. Because of a quirk in Italian copyright law that allows for unauthorized sequels, enterprising Italian producers quickly set out to capitalize on Zombi’s success with an unofficial sequel helmed by Lucio Fulci. Zombi 2 features some infamous gore gags and gnarly, worm-eaten zombies, and it’s notable for reintroducing the element of black magic that had fallen out of favor in post-Night of the Living Dead zombie cinema. But its most memorable scene is a weird underwater showstopper that pits a zombie against a live shark. Fulci refused to shoot the scene, so it was passed off to a second unit, with underwater photographer Ramón Bravo slathering on some zombie makeup and performing the dangerous stunt with a doped-up, well-fed tiger shark.
8. Dead & Buried (1981)
We promise you’ve never seen a zombie movie—or any kind of movie, for that matter—like Dead & Buried. Director Gary Sherman originally intended it to be a black comedy, reasoning that hefty doses of comic relief would make the scares more intense. But the production company disliked the tone of Sherman’s initial cut and asked for less humor and more gore. The result is an atmospheric, somber movie that combines elements of a grisly murder mystery with its unusual take on zombification. Its undead are mostly victims of brutal, gruesome murders, and a young Stan Winston must have had a blast with the movie’s famously gross FX work, including a remarkably lifelike mechanical dummy built to pull off Dead & Buried’s most infamous kill—a scene that helped land the movie on the UK’s list of banned “video nasties.”
9. Night Of The Comet (1984)
Writer-director Thom Eberhardt has maintained that Night of the Comet isn’t a zombie movie, but it’s hard to take him at his word when stars Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney and production designer John Muto have all insisted that an early version of the script was titled Teenage Comet Zombies (a phrase that’s also spoken in the movie). According to Stewart, Eberhardt and the film’s producers had two very different ideas of what the movie should be. “The producers wanted a zombie horror movie with a couple of cute young female victims,” Stewart said. “Thom … had a whole different concept. There were scenes that we shot two different ways to accommodate the two visions. Fortunately, Thom’s concept won out.” According to an interview with Filmforce, Joss Whedon credits Night of the Comet’s fun tone and well-drawn, capable female characters with inspiring him to create Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
10. Day Of The Dead (1985)
George Romero conceived the third entry in his Dead series to be epic in scope—he wanted it to be, in his words, “the Gone With the Wind of zombie films.” His producers offered him a $7 million budget, with the caveat that he’d have to deliver an R-rated movie so that the film’s backers could recoup their investment. Romero refused, opting to pare back his vision rather than water it down to accommodate the MPAA’s subjective, arbitrary restrictions on violence. His original script was an adventure story that explored the wider ramifications of the zombie outbreak, but the version that made it to the screen confines most of the action to a Florida military bunker. It’s a bleak, intensely nihilistic movie that was savaged by critics upon release, but it found a devoted fan base in the decades that followed. Romero is said to have singled it out as his favorite installment in the Dead series.
11. The Return Of The Living Dead (1985)
Originally conceived in 1972 by Night of the Living Dead collaborators John Russo, Russ Steiner, and Rudy Ricci as a direct sequel to Romero’s film, The Return of the Living Dead was delayed for more than a decade by legal wrangling. When it finally got off the ground, it was only after director (and Alien screenwriter) Dan O’Bannon scrubbed all vestiges of Romero’s seminal film from the script, turning it into a thoroughly ’80s punk-rock comedy that popularized the notion that zombies prefer brains to other human bits.
12. Re-Animator (1985)
Filmmaker Stuart Gordon made remarkable use of his 72 years on this planet. He was arrested on obscenity charges for a 1968 stage production of Peter Pan, brought David Mamet’s first full-length play to the stage in 1974, and co-created Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise in the late ’80s. But he’s perhaps best remembered for his gonzo Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator. Gordon wanted to adapt Lovecraft’s 1922 short story “Herbert West: Re-Animator” as a half-hour television show, but he switched gears when he was told there was no market for 30-minute horror on the small screen. Re-Animator also marked the birth of one of horror’s most beloved scream queens: Soap opera star Barbara Crampton made her horror debut in Re-Animator before going on to appear in a string of genre films that spans five decades so far.
13. Night Of The Creeps (1986)
If you’re a horror fan of a certain age, there’s a good chance that your first brush with Night of the Creeps was the iconic poster that was plastered all over video store walls in the ’80s, depicting a zombified frat dude in a bloody tux and the memorable tag line “The good news is your date is here. The bad news is … he’s dead.” It’s a great poster, but it doesn’t convey the heady mix of throwback science fiction, grisly practical FX, and frat-house humor that make up Fred Dekker’s directorial debut. Night of the Creeps bombed at the box office before slowly amassing a cult following on home video. If you were one of the lucky few who saw the movie in theaters, you might’ve walked away with some swag that would come in handy today. At some screenings, TriStar Pictures gave away “anti-Creep protection masks” stamped with the admonition that “If you scream … you’re dead.”
14. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)
When Sam Raimi finished his initial cut of Evil Dead 2, no one bothered to submit it to the MPAA for a rating. Everyone who saw it agreed that, despite the film’s slapstick comedy, its grisly violence would have garnered it an X rating. The problem was two-fold: Not only did exhibitors often refuse to screen X-rated movies, but many newspapers and television stations wouldn’t accept advertisements for them, making them nearly impossible to promote in the days before the internet. Since Raimi was contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film, and his distributor, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), was a signatory member of the MPAA and couldn’t release the film without the board’s rating, DEG representatives found a creative solution: They created a shell company called Rosebud Releasing Corp. (a cheeky reference to Citizen Kane’s famous mystery) and released the movie on the sly.
15. Braindead (1992)
Before Peter Jackson scored an Oscar nomination for Heavenly Creatures and became the king of big-budget, family-friendly epic fantasy, he made a trio of hard-R exploitation films in his native New Zealand. One of those is Braindead (released in North America as Dead Alive), a ridiculously gory and strangely good-humored zombie movie that finds its hero wrestling an undead baby, dispatching a horde of flesh-eaters with a lawnmower, and returning to the womb of his zombified mother. Though it was shot on 16mm, Braindead’s cult of devoted fans might soon get a chance to see the film’s legendary set pieces in painstakingly restored high definition. In 2018, Jackson revealed plans to use technology pioneered for his World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old to produce 4K restorations of his early splatter films, including Braindead.
16. Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)
The ’90s weren’t a great decade for zombies. According to the now-defunct Zombie Movie Database, only 46 zombie films were produced in the ’90s, compared with 69 in the ’80s and a whopping 172 in the aughts. The decade produced at least a couple of standout zombie films, though: Besides Braindead, it gave us the wonderfully weird Italian production Dellamorte Dellamore, known in North America as Cemetery Man. Director Michele Soavi had worked with Italian horror maestros Lucio Fulci, Joe D’Amato, and Dario Argento, but it’s his stint as assistant director to Terry Gilliam on 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen that might have yielded the biggest influence on his beautiful, grotesque, and darkly funny film about a cemetery watchman (Rupert Everett) who has a harder time keeping people in the graveyard than out of it. It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s never boring, and it features some of the most hallucinatory imagery in all of zombie cinema.
17. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic thriller is best known for introducing fast-moving zombies, but it deserves endless credit for the creativity and logistical maneuvering required to pull off its depiction of an eerily deserted London. The crew sometimes had only an hour or two to shoot key scenes in early-morning hours, using up to eight small digital cameras simultaneously so filming could be completed as quickly as possible while police used rolling roadblocks to keep traffic at bay. To lend added realism, Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle often modeled their shots after iconic news footage from real-life crises, including images from Bosnia, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland.
18. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg didn’t invent the “zomcom” with Shaun of the Dead, but they brought it into the 21st century and made it palatable to mainstream audiences without alienating genre fans. If the many-worlds theory is true and anything that can happen does, somewhere there’s a universe where Shaun of the Dead stars Helen Mirren. According to Clark Collis’s definitive Shaun of the Dead book You’ve Got Red on You, the filmmakers approached Mirren and offered her the role of Shaun’s mother, Barbara. As Wright tells it, Mirren ultimately passed on the grounds that she “would only do the movie if [she] got to play Ed.” Things worked out pretty well in the end, though. Barbara was played by Penelope Wilton, the actress Wright and Pegg had in mind when they wrote the script, and Ed was played by Nick Frost. (Though we have to admit that Mirren would have made an unforgettable Ed.)
19. [REC] (2007)
Besides being one of the scariest zombie movies in recent memory, this Spanish shocker is one of the keystones of the modern found footage cycle. Writer-directors Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró were both working for Spanish production company Filmax when they began talking about what new elements they could bring to the horror genre. Three months later, the pair had secured funding from their employer and began shooting [REC], a single-camera, one-location movie staged as a real-time television news report. Though it takes a few cues from The Blair Witch Project, [REC] is very much a product of the gothic-tinged Spanish horror boom of the early 2000s. It’s also one of the few movies to put an unnerving religious spin on the zombie-outbreak trope. Regardless of your spiritual persuasion, the final moments are cinematic terror distilled to its purest, pulse-pounding form.
20. Pontypool (2008)
Director Bruce McDonald has insisted that Pontypool’s aggressors aren’t zombies at all, referring to them as conversationalists instead. The virus in the film is spread through a corruption of language that drives the infected to commit gruesome acts of violence, mostly out of frustration with their inability to communicate. (Note that the word typo is embedded in the title.) Screenwriter Tony Burgess adapted the script from his 1995 novel Pontypool Changes Everything, reportedly drawing inspiration from Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Set in a radio station as a possible apocalypse unfolds outside, Pontypool is a cerebral, inventive take on the subgenre.
21. Train To Busan (2016)
Train to Busan was a massive hit in its native South Korea, grossing more than $80 million in its domestic theatrical run. It’s the first live-action feature directed by Yeon Sang-ho, who was highly regarded for a pair of adult-oriented animated films before he set out to make South Korea’s first feature-length, live-action zombie movie. He came up with the idea for Train to Busan while he was working on an animated feature called Seoul Station, a zombie apocalypse story inspired by the plight of homeless people living in one of Seoul’s largest train terminals. According to an interview with the newspaper Korea JoongAng Daily, Yeon was more heavily influenced by close-quarter, single-location thrillers such as United 93 and Captain Phillips than other zombie films.
22. The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)
This film has the most unique hero of any entry on this list. Besides being a child and a person of color, Melanie, played by 13-year-old Sennia Nanua, is also a zombie (or a hungry, as they’re called in the film). According to an interview with Rue Morgue magazine’s Monica S. Kuebler, the filmmakers auditioned more than 1000 young actresses by video and met with about 500 girls in person to cast the lead role. Nanua, a British actress who had never appeared in a feature film, was the last young woman to audition. The Girl With All the Gifts casts Nanua opposite two other daunting female leads: Gemma Arterton as a teacher who bonds with the young zombie, and Glenn Close as a scientist who wants to dissect her to find a cure for the fungal infection that caused the outbreak.
23. One Cut Of The Dead (2017)
Purists might insist that this terrific Japanese production doesn’t belong on this list, but to say why would ruin one of the movie’s best surprises. Just know that you might be a little puzzled for the first 40 minutes or so, before writer-director Shin’ichirô Ueda’s bold scheme starts to come into focus. One Cut of the Dead, which was shot in eight days at an abandoned water filtration plant, rode a wave of strong reviews and enthusiastic word-of-mouth to become a hit of historic proportions. The production company hoped the movie might sell 5000 tickets; a year after the film’s release, it had sold more than 2 million.
24. Anna And The Apocalypse (2017)
It’s ironic that the most unapologetically joyous movie on this list has one of the most tragic backstories. Anna and the Apocalypse was first conceived by Scottish filmmaker Ryan McHenry, who wrote and directed a short film called Zombie Musical in 2011. Over the next few years, McHenry and a team of close friends worked to develop the short into a feature that would re-imagine a zombie apocalypse tale as a feel-good Christmas musical. Sadly, McHenry didn’t live to see audiences embrace the movie at film festivals such as Fantastic Fest; he died of cancer in 2015. Director John McPhail was brought in to complete the film, which might be the funniest, most heartwarming zombie flick you’ll watch this (or any other) year.
25. Blood Quantum (2019)
In historical terms, blood quantum refers to a controversial method of determining a person’s Native American or First Nations heritage according to what fraction of their ancestors could demonstrate tribal ties. In the context of this list, it’s a Canadian zombie movie with a clever conceit: Members of Canada’s Mi’kmaq tribe successfully fortify their reservation against an undead onslaught because they’re genetically immune to the disease, only to find themselves fighting zombies anyway when infected white people seek refuge on their land. According to an interview with The Toronto Star, Mi’kmaq writer-director Jeff Barnaby viewed the zombie subgenre “as a tool to contextualize colonialism and the horror of the past so it can be digested for the future.”