October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best zombie movies not directed by George Romero movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Zombies are one of the all-time great movie monsters. A staple of the horror genre for decades, their undead origins can be traced back to 1932 and the release of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie. For nearly one hundred years, the cinematic zombie has undergone several transformations. Early films like White Zombie, King of the Zombies, and I Walked With a Zombie usually centered on a voodoo ritual to raise the dead. While still undead, these zombies were raised with a specific purpose — usually to do the bidding of some old, rich, evil white man.
Zombie films as we know them today, about hordes of undead beings chomping on human flesh, came to prominence in 1968 with the release of Night of the Living Dead from director George A. Romero. Romero’s first living dead completely changed the game and popularized zombies, and shaped their image in modern culture. Throughout six Living Dead films (and arguably The Crazies), Romero established a reputation as the de facto king of the zombies. And that’s precisely why his films won’t be included on this list. A 10-film list dominated by one guy would be boring.* So before you yell at us, know that this was intentional.
We also purposely left out infection movies (ie ones where people simply become zombie-like without having died first) as well. That’s a separate subgenre of horror films. We focused on the undead rising from the beyond. Sure, this caused a few fights among the group. Tears were shed, and feelings were hurt. But we cracked open a few skulls, shared a couple of brains, and then Rob Hunter, Anna Swanson, Meg Shields, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, Valerie Ettenhofer, and myself came to the definitive conclusion on the 10 best zombies films that were not directed by George A. Romero.
*Yes, we are aware that this list is 30% Lucio Fulci. Our list, our rules.
10. Evil Dead II (1987)
The undead has rarely ever looked as cool as they do in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II. The filmmaker followed up his 1981 cult hit with a bigger-budget exploration of a similar story, and it was clearly money well spent. While there’s a thin line between the film’s demons and zombies, the film’s corpse-invading deadites pretty much function the same way as the undead do: they’re nasty and vicious and can almost always only be killed via full-body dismemberment. More importantly, they look just like zombies – really, really awesomely grody zombies.
While Ash’s girlfriend Linda, previous cabin resident Henrietta (Ted Raimi in deadite form), and Ash himself (Bruce Campbell) are among the most noteworthy deadites, I have a special fondness for one of the movie’s most unique undead entities: the possessed taxidermied deer head that laughs maniacally at Ash when he’s in the depths of his hellish night. Between the deer, Henrietta’s rotted, levitating body, and Linda’s dancing, headless body, Evil Dead II includes some of the most memorable reanimated corpse practical effects work in film history. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
9. City of the Living Dead (1980)
City of the Living Dead, ranking the lowest of three Lucio Fulci movies to appear on this list, is a testament to just how great The Godfather of Gore’s films are. Christopher George stars as a reporter who teams with a psychic (Catriona MacColl) to investigate the death of a priest that may have opened the gates of Hell, allowing the dead to rise and invade Earth. Truthfully, the plot does not matter. City of the Living Dead is all about basking in nightmare-inducing imagery and superb special effects. Want to see a woman bleed from her eyes and then begin to puke up her intestines and organs? Maybe you’d like to see a drill enter someone’s head and exit on the other side? Or perhaps you’re in the mood for seeing the back of someone’s skull crushed open by hand and their brains pulled out? City of the Living Dead has all that and then some. (Chris Coffel)
8. The Beyond (1981)
Move over, grey-skinned Romero shufflers! Take a seat, cheeky Return of the Living Dead brain-munchers. The pinnacle of zombified corpses belongs to Lucio “Mamma Mia” Fulci. The second entry in the Italian genre great’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy, The Beyond throws H.P. Lovecraft and Southern Gothic mysticism into a blender with nightmarish results. I’d explain the rest of the plot to you, but as Roger Ebert hilariously puts it in his half-star review, succinctly detailing the narrative machinations of The Beyond is a fool’s errand. Now, if you are familiar with Fulci’s nothing-but-bangers filmography, you’ll know the man is a genius of texture. Fulci’s zombies are 60% paper mâché, 30% unidentifiable slime, and 10% candy apple-red Karo syrup. His gargling ghouls really do look like they’ve been rotting in flooded basements and soft, fetid coffins. They look like worm food. They look like a strong wind would blow their heads off. And somehow, all that decrepitude makes these goopy ghouls that much more terrifying. Their bloated, dripping bodies are moved by something beyond the power of morphology, physics, and common sense. Good thing rational explanations have no place here. (Meg Shields)
7. Train to Busan (2016)
Did we skirt our own pre-established rules by allowing Train to Busan to land on this list? Possibly, but we’re rebels like that. Passengers on a high-speed train traveling from Seoul to Busan have their commute interrupted when a zombie outbreak hops onboard. Riders are forced to band together to fight off the swarm of mindless creatures. In the end, we learn that humans are the true monsters. Is Yeon Sang-ho‘s undead train ride the result of a man-made virus that simply turns its victims? It’s more implied than explicitly stated, so we’re willing to look past that to celebrate what is arguably one of the best horror films of the last ten years. The zombie action is great as droves of the undead make their way from cart to cart, infecting everyone on board. The film’s highlight, though? Zombies falling from helicopters, smacking against the concrete, and quickly rising to their feet to attack a group of skaters. (Chris Coffel)
6. Demons (1985)
The infection in Demons ignites, unlike any other zombie flick. This horde seemingly comes out of the silver screen, seeping into the audience members, who then take it out on the road with them… eventually. The notion originally stemmed from a single segment in a proposed horror anthology, but director Lamberto Bava enjoyed the premise so much that he blew it up into a feature. Thank his maniac heart. Demons is an utterly grotesque zombie flick where devilish evil spreads similarly to what you’d experience in Night of the Living Dead or whatever other undead Romero horror you might be thinking of. They rip and claw and poison those who fall into close contact. Their eyes pierce into the darkness, and their victims are hopeless against their non-stop encroachment. The inevitability of contamination is as terrifying as the lumbering bodies that make it possible. It’s all apocalypse, baby. (Brad Gullickson)
This list of the best zombie movies (not directed by George A. Romero) concludes on the next page…
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