You can’t keep a good zombie down, as evident in the unrelenting onslaught of the living dead in our multiplexes (World War Z) and living rooms (The Walking Dead). But for every moldy George Romero knockoff, the genre boasts plenty of lesser-known ghoulish gems waiting to be unearthed by clutching hands.
Every day this month we're bringing Top 13 lists tied to the world of horror. You can follow them all here.
White Zombie (1932)
Rob Zombie took the name of his first band from this granddaddy of living dead films, the first movie to explore the Caribbean origins of these killer corpses. The legendary Bela Lugosi, in one of his best non-Dracula roles, stars as the diabolical Murder Legendre, a sorcerer who turns hapless humans into zombie slaves to work his Haitian plantation. Universal monster maker Jack Pierce (Frankenstein, The Wolf Man) created Lugosi’s Mephistophelean makeup.
The Walking Dead (1936)
Lugosi’s main rival for top scream king, Boris Karloff, took the title role in this early zombie film, which bears no resemblance to the hit AMC series of the same name. Karloff plays a framed ex-con who, after he’s executed, is brought back to life by kindly doctor Edmund Gwenn (Santa Claus from Miracle on 34th Street) and begins offing the racketeers who set him up. The first horror-gangster movie, helmed with moody panache by future Casablanca director Michael Curtiz.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
After reviving Frankenstein and Dracula in a series of bloody color remakes, Britain’s Hammer Films tried their hand at the living dead with this old-fashioned potboiler. Once again, a union-busting/voodoo-practicing squire uses cheap labor (i.e. reanimated corpses) to toil in his mines. Effective makeups, Hammer’s trademark Gothic trappings and a fiery finale elevate this above many typical ’60s horror programmers.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)
The pain came from Spain in this wholly original post-Night of the Living Dead entry. The Knights Templar, executed for misdeeds in the 13th century and sightless from the crows that plucked out their eyes, return to life in modern day to haunt the countryside. Director Amando de Ossorio lovingly renders atmospheric slow-motion scenes of the dusty zombies riding horseback through night, hunting prey by sound alone. This creepfest spawned three sequels!
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Inspired by Romero’s 1968 trendsetter, this unusual Spanish-Italian production earns top honors in the undead pack. Director Jorge Grau’s images of gory cannibalistic mayhem (including a nasty zombie mastectomy) predate the Lucio Fulci-cycle that arrived five years later. And, would you believe, agricultural experiments spawn this film’s living dead invasion? The first (and only) pro organic zombie film!
Night Life (1989)
This horror comedy (produced by a former Star Wars publicist!) plays like a sort of Night of the Living Dead Bullies. Picked on high-schooler Scott Grimes, who works for his undertaker uncle (Addams Family’s John Astin), can’t escape the punks who pick on him, even after they die in a car crash. Look for General Hospital’s Anthony Geary and frequent TV baddie Mark Pelegrino (Being Human, Dexter, Supernatural) in the cast.
I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain (1998)
The premiere release from Fangoria’s old VHS/DVD line, Andrew Parkinson’s I, Zombie charts in documentary-style the slow decay of a young man (Dean Sipling) after he suffers a mysterious bite and undergoes a terrible progressive illness. One of the first zombie films to examine the vanishing humanity of its undead character with sympathy and compassion, I, Zombie doesn’t hold back from the gruesome bits either; one infamous moment serves as an embarrassing warning to zombie masturbators. The trailer (with spanish subtitles!) is above.
The Greeks have more to fear than a faltering economy when construction workers accidentally unleash a supernatural force that possesses them in this energetic gore comedy (a.k.a. To Kako in its native land). Despite a tiny budget, filmmaker Yorgos Noussias creates effective scenes of an abandoned Athens and keeps the splatstick coming fast and furious. Watch for the even better sequel, 2009’s Evil - In The Time of Heroes, with Billy Zane! Above is a fan made tribute:
Flight of the Living Dead (2007)
Yes, zombies on a plane! Don’t be put off by the silly premise of this unapologetic B-movie. Flight of the Living Dead is an off-the-wall, fast-paced hoot-and-a-half with a game cast (including The Mummy’s Kevin J. O’Connor). Great zombie FX (those air-sickness bags come in handy), loads of airborne action and a (severed) tongue-in-cheek script keep Flight of the Living Dead flying high.
Dance of the Dead (2008)
A Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe permeates this entertaining horror romp where a small group of teen nerds and outcasts must save the high school prom (that they couldn’t get dates for in the first place) when the undead crash the bash. Dance of the Dead receives high grades for its likeable characters and the bloodiest prom since Carrie took the crown.
Would you believe, an intellectual zombie film?! Adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel and directed by Canadian indie darling Bruce McDonald, Pontypool’s zombie virus is spread by…the English language. Trapped inside his radio studio with a small staff, sardonic DJ Stephen McHattie (playing a character modeled after shock jock Don Imus) remains literally speechless during the offbeat outbreak. Subversive and unique, Pontypool rates as a zombie flick with a brain.
The Horde (2009)
If Quentin Tarantino made a zombie picture, it might look like this French flesh-eater film, orchestrated by Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher. A bunch of rogue cops and vicious gangsters square off in an apartment building, but a greater foe emerges when an army of hyperactive zombies takes a bite out of the conflict. Terrific fight scenes and wild scenes of a postapocalyptic Paris further distinguish this sizzling piece of French dead.
Though only running a scant 63 minutes, the Berlin-set Rammbock packs in more bloody bits, edge-of-your-seat suspense and zombie thrills than the entire second season of The Walking Dead. Sad sack loser Michael Fuith shows up at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment building to patch things up, only to be met by a 28 Days Later-esque zombie epidemic. The exciting ending will have you screaming for a sequel!
That's our list. How many of these have you seen? Any other movies we may have missed?