BRAINS: A Ranked List of Zombie Horror Films as Determined by a Duke Student with a Concerning Regard for the Genre

In this detailed list, Cate provides a truly comprehensive guide to the best zombie flicks out there.

When Spooky Season returns each October, movie watchers everywhere unite to celebrate the beauty that is the gore, guts, and blood curdling screams of horror cinema. Even though—and I adhere to this notion because horror movies are my lifeblood—horror can be enjoyed throughout the year, there is something about the changing colors of the trees and cool, crisp winds of autumn that make all the jumps, scares and possessions even more terrifying. October may have come to a close, but the fall season endures, and there is still no better time than the present to cook up some good ole microwave popcorn and watch some classic horror films. If you’re not sure what to watch, don’t worry, friends! I’ve got some recommendations that will have you reaching for that trusty nightlight.

Now, I love myself some supernatural action or slasher excitement. But, as anyone who has ever spoken with me about film for longer than five minutes knows, I LOVE zombie movies. It’s a controversial opinion for sure—especially for someone who claims to enjoy “good” cinema. Zombie movies are known for their kitsch tropes and over-the-top cliches. However, for this list, I’ve picked out the gems of the genre; a diverse group of films that remain amongst my favorites due to their impeccable filmmaking, brilliant performances, and poignant social commentary. So, what do you say folks? On to the films!

1.) Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

For all of you Squid Game fans out there just now discovering the legend himself, Gong Yoo, boy oh boy are you in luck—also welcome to the fandom, kids. Train to Busan (2016) is the story of fund manager Seo Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) who gets caught in a zombie apocalypse as he takes his daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an) on the typically 1-hour train ride from Seoul to Busan. Along the way, they meet fellow passengers Yoon Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), and Min Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik of Parasite fame), all of whom are incredible, but Yoon Sang-hwa—who takes out zombies with his bare fists—might take the title for “Best Male Character Ever to Exist in a Zombie Film.”

The beauty of Train to Busan lies in its compelling characterization. The people we come to know on the train are dimensional beings whose personalities, desires, strengths, and weaknesses are highlighted, rather than sidelined, during this apocalypse. The film focuses on these characters, and on their relationships with one another, to create social commentary that is deftly woven throughout the film. Topics of socioeconomic disparity, elitism, and capitalism are brought up in Train to Busan(2016) with unusual intensity and efficacy; an impressive feat for any film, nonetheless a zombie movie. So, if you haven’t already, Train to Busan is the first film I would watch to truly appreciate the poignancy of zombie cinema. It’s surely a classic in the making. Now streaming on Peacock and Tubi for free.

2.) Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)

No ranked list of zombie movies would be complete without a shout-out to the man who fully established the zombie movie as sub-genre of horror: George A. Romero. With his 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead, Romero terrified the public with these cannibalistic creatures who only desire human flesh. The film follows a group of individuals including Ben (Duane Jones), Barbara (Judith O’Dea), and Harry (Karl Hardman) who take refuge in an old farmhouse after ghouls—the Romero term for zombies—begin to leave their cemeteries in search of living humans to devour. Gradually, the ghouls make their way inside the house, and the individuals begin to fall victim to their tragic fate.

Facing much controversy upon its original release due to its graphic sequences, Night of the Living Dead(1968) cemented the modern zombie movie as a staple of Western entertainment. For that alone, this film belongs on my list. Moreover, the filmmaking itself is visually stunning; it features strong use of chiaroscuro—intense lights and darks—which emphasizes the severity and dire circumstances of Romero’s world. Duane Jones also gives a particularly strong performance as Ben, a character whose abilities are constantly put into question by the others, but who is also responsible for the group’s ability to last as long as it does in the end. Now available for free on Peacock and Amazon Prime Video. Also on HBO Max.

P.S. I actually have never seen it, but many film critics often hail George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) as his best, as well as the greatest zombie film ever created.

3.) Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) 

I’m sorry, but you don’t really know comedy until you’ve seen two men fighting over which records from their vinyl collection are expendable enough to throw at an approaching zombie. That, my friends, is simply one golden moment from Shaun of the Dead (2004). Goodness knows there are so many more. Even thinking about this film, I laugh. Maybe it’s the quintessential British humor masterfully captured by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright in the pithy dialogue and creative sequences of this film. Maybe it’s the epic appearance of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now in a perfectly choreographed routine of zombie bashing. Either way, everything about this film screams iconic.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) is Edgar Wright’s grand addition to the zombie movie genre. It follows “disappointment” Shaun (Simon Pegg, also a co-writer), a lackluster 21st-century man who works at an electronics shop, during the onset of the zombie apocalypse. At first, even as the violence and terror grow around him, Shaun is too concerned with his roommate Ed (Nick Frost) and girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to notice the startling carnage. But soon, even Shaun must face the challenges set before him and protect his mother (Penelope Wilton) and Liz.

Chock-full of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and 28 Days Later (2003) references—amongst others—Shaun of the Dead pays homage to the zombie film genre as a whole. But it is far from a parody. Although indeed a comedy, this film is full of serious, self-reflective moments in which Wright and Pegg contemplate what it really might mean for an average 21st-century Londoner to get trapped in a moment of bloody carnage. Now available for rental on Amazon and Apple TV.

4.) 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2003)

There are literally so many reasons to watch this film, it’s hard to choose one as the opening hook. My gut instinct is to bring up the love of my life, Cillian Murphy—who plays our protagonist Jim in 28 Days Later. Not to even mention all his other killer roles… Peaky Blinders? Batman Begins? So iconic. But see, director Danny Boyle and his impeccable taste for cinema could almost beat that out. Boyle’s film Trainspotting (1996), released 7 years before 28 Days Later, is one of the most hilarious, yet heart wrenching films I have ever watched. Boyle’s style of grainy, gritty filmmaking is brilliant and works wonders , both in this film and in Trainspotting.

28 Days Later follows Jim (Cillian Murphy), a man who wakes up from a coma a month after animal rights activists release Chimpanzees infected with the “Rage” into the world. The “Rage” is a fast-acting virus, and humans that contract said virus become rage-filled zombies within 20 seconds. As Jim walks out of the hospital, he finds a deserted London with only zombies for inhabitants. Immediately forced to go on the run from these terrifyingly fast corpses, he meets a group of survivors who embark with him on a fraught journey of survival.

It is a beautiful film—never heard that about a zombie movie before, eh—that presents stark imagery of a collapsing civilization. In the opening sequences, Jim wanders through the empty London streets. An overturned bus lies in the asphalt. Plastic bags and old newspapers blow by in the wind. It’s an unsettling sequence, and Boyle creates a true atmosphere of eeriness before a zombie even enters the scene. Often seen as an expression of post-9/11 anxieties and the 2003 SARS epidemic, 28 Days Later revitalized the zombie genre in the early 2000s and remains relevant to our current fears and anxieties during the ongoing Covid Pandemic. Plus, I mean, it’s Cillian Murphy. Now available on Hulu and HBO Max. 

5.) [•REC] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)

Blair Witch Project meets zombie flick in this Spanish found-footage film. To be completely honest, Rec is the only film on this list I found truly terrifying in the conventional horror movie sense of the word. The jump scares in this one had me flinching, or in some cases, jumping out of my seat—not the most common of occurrences for this horror film junkie…

Rec focuses on the story of late-night TV host Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) as they follow local firemen on a call to an apartment building where an old woman is presumedly trapped. There, they find that the woman has been infected with a virus that makes her an insanely strong, rage-filled zombie. The group, along with the apartment building’s terrified residents, are then trapped inside the building by police and health officials. They are not allowed to leave, even as one by one, the individuals start to join the zombie ranks.

At only 75-minutes in runtime, Rec hits viewers with action sequences throughout almost every moment. The performances and cinematography work to create a claustrophobic, tense experience in which all emotions are heightened. We the viewers are on high alert in this seemingly real, authentic narrative, and thus we become extra sensitive to the jump scares and other ploys employed by the filmmaker. In comparison to the other films on the list, Rec is not about a zombie apocalypse. The zombie infestation, here, is an isolated event; it never leaves the single apartment the group of individuals are trapped inside. It is unique in that sense, and the filmmakers masterfully execute the extreme claustrophobia of the characters’ situation. Now available on Amazon Prime Video.

Bonus! Guilty Pleasure Zombie Flicks

For those of you who enjoy a good kitschy film, I’ve included some trope-abiding walking dead movies as a bonus treat! If you’re just in the mood for some pure zombie entertainment, I highly recommend these fun-loving flicks.

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (Burr Steers, 2016) —  With this film you’ve got zombies + Lily James + regency rra costuming…. Need I say more?

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) —  Imagine Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Emma Stone getting caught in the zombie apocalypse and you basically know Zombieland’s entire plot. Bill Murray also makes an unforgettable cameo.

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