A history of zombie movies

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June 10, 2021

A history of zombie movies

With their uneven gait, rotting faces, and appetite for human flesh, it's easy to see why zombies have endured over decades as iconic cinematic monsters. They represent the idea that humans can find ways to survive against all odds, pitting bleak storylines against optimistic themes. Zombies also represent contemporary fears and anxieties, frequently providing a window into modern unease, from the hollow commercialism represented in shopping malls to shambling through wastelands of environmental disaster.

While the undead are primarily associated with horror films (especially George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" franchise, which popularized the modern idea of zombies), the creatures have range: They've also appeared in memorable comedies like "Shaun of the Dead" and "Re-Animator," and action blockbusters like "World War Z" and "Train to Busan."

While not every zombie movie has made a huge mark on filmmaking, it's important to identify key films in the genre to understand how it's maintained its lasting cultural influence.

So, Stacker dove into zombie film history through the decades, choosing 20 films that marked a major moment in the development of the genre. We then provided context to unpack the influence each film had as a whole. Films are presented in chronological order. So sit back, try not to get bitten, and enjoy this list of notable zombie films—if you dare.

White Zombie (1932)

- Director: Victor Halperin
- IMDb user rating: 6.3
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 69 minutes

“White Zombie,” considered to be the first feature-length zombie movie, was inspired by Kenneth Webb’s Broadway play, "Zombie." The film centers on a man (Robert Frazer) who asks a witch doctor (played by horror icon Bela Lugosi) for help in winning the woman of his dreams (Madge Bellamy), even though she’s engaged. Things go horribly long when she becomes a zombie slave instead.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

- Director: Jacques Tourneur
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 69 minutes

Described by Turner Classic Movies as “one of the most poetic films in the horror genre,” this early zombie classic follows a nurse named Betsy (Frances Dee), who is hired to look after a Carribean sugar plantation owner’s wife (Christine Gordon). The woman has become mysteriously zombified by the locals’ voodoo, and Betsy's attempts to care for her bring her dangerously close to the magic. The classic Charlotte Brontë novel “Jane Eyre” was a major inspiration for the film.

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

- Director: John Gilling
- IMDb user rating: 6.6
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 90 minutes

“The Plague of the Zombies” takes place in an 1860s Cornish village, where a medical professor (Andre Morell) and his daughter (Diane Clare) must race to save their neighbors after they've been infected by a zombie virus conjured by the voodoo magic of the villainous village squire (John Carson). While it’s undersung compared to other zombie flicks, the film directly inspired genre classics like “Night of the Living Dead.”

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

- Director: George A. Romero
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 89
- Runtime: 96 minutes

In this game-changing zombie film, flesh-eating zombies descend upon a rural Pennsylvania town, and the townspeople must barricade themselves in a nearby farmhouse for a chance at survival. Romero’s classic movie is a hallmark of both zombie and horror films. It’s cited as the first modern zombie film, and it also features the first Black horror lead: Duane Jones.

Shivers (1975)

- Director: David Cronenberg
- IMDb user rating: 6.4
- Metascore: 58
- Runtime: 87 minutes

This early Cronenberg film reimagines the zombie: In "Shivers," the zombies are infected apartment residents who become sex-crazed creatures. The acclaimed horror director pushes the boundaries of body horror in this movie, and, as Den of Geek writer Ryan Lambie notes, "Although 'Shivers' is first and foremost a horror film, it's also a very funny exploration of middle-class respectability, and how it's merely a thin veneer."

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

- Director: George A. Romero
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 71
- Runtime: 127 minutes

In this popular follow-up to “Night of the Living Dead,” tensions build when zombie apocalypse survivors take shelter in an abandoned shopping mall. One of the gorier entries in the genre, the movie originally received an “X” rating from the MPAA. Nevertheless, its inventive scares and strong criticism of consumerism guaranteed its status as a cult classic. Zack Snyder directed a 2004 remake of the same name.

Zombie (1979)

- Director: Lucio Fulci
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Metascore: 54
- Runtime: 91 minutes

“Zombie” holds up as a classic Italian horror film and perhaps the only zombie movie in which a member of the undead fights a shark. A sequel to the re-edited Italian version of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” this film centers on a woman (Tisa Farrow) who travels to a Carribean island in search of her father and discovers the island is infested with murderous, voodoo-engineered zombies. In 2012, Guardian critic Phelim O’Neil named it “the ultimate undead movie.”

The Evil Dead (1981)

- Director: Sam Raimi
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 71
- Runtime: 85 minutes

It's impossible to discuss cabin horror movies without mentioning “The Evil Dead.” In this delightfully gory, campy cult classic, a group of friends enjoying a trip to a remote cabin are picked off one by one when they discover a book that raises the dead. “The Evil Dead” spawned one of the most successful American zombie franchises, leading to three film sequels, comic books, video games, and even a TV series.

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

- Director: Dan O'Bannon
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Metascore: 66
- Runtime: 91 minutes

“The Return of the Living Dead” largely operates as a parody of Romero’s iconic zombie films, opening on three employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally releasing a gas that turns corpses into flesh-eating zombies. The film's creatures were also distinct from any zombies that came before them: They were eating brains, they were able to run, they couldn’t be killed from a gunshot to the head, and they could talk.

Re-Animator (1985)

- Director: Stuart Gordon
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: 73
- Runtime: 104 minutes

In this horror-comedy cult favorite, a medical student (Jeffrey Combs) who has invented a serum that can reanimate dead bodies goes up against a doctor (David Gale) who attempts to pass the invention off as his own. The film is loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft story "Herbert West, Reanimator" and was followed by two sequels.

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The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

- Director: Wes Craven
- IMDb user rating: 6.5
- Metascore: 64
- Runtime: 98 minutes

In “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” Harvard anthropologist Dennis (Bill Pullman) travels to Haiti to investigate a drug used in religious ceremonies that supposedly turns locals into zombies. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his review, the film stands apart from other zombie films by giving voodoo and Haitian culture respect and credence, rather than treating these cultural elements as sensational plot devices.

Dead Alive (1992)

- Director: Peter Jackson
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 54
- Runtime: 104 minutes

Before Peter Jackson became the acclaimed director of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he made one of the goriest films ever: “Dead Alive.” Timothy Balme plays Lionel, a young man whose attempts to distinguish himself from his overbearing mother are put on pause when she turns into a zombie and begins rampaging across the neighborhood. The film was later cited as a huge influence on the zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead.”

Cemetery Man (1994)

- Director: Michele Soavi
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 105 minutes

If Martin Scorsese refers to a movie as one of the best Italian films of the 1990s, you know it’s got to be good. “Cemetery Man” follows an ordinary cemetery caretaker (Rupert Everett) whose already tedious job becomes more complicated when the undead start rising while he’s on the clock. Bloody Disgusting writer Drew Diestch praised it as “yet another reminder that genuine genre masterpieces frequently came out of the 1990s.”

28 Days Later... (2002)

- Director: Danny Boyle
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 73
- Runtime: 113 minutes

“28 Days Later…” opens on an environmental terrorist group attacking a lab and releasing a zombie-making virus that threatens to wipe out humanity as we know it. The film follows four survivors as they reckon with their new normal and brush up against the military’s overzealous involvement. It’s often credited for revitalizing the zombie genre, and director Danny Boyle’s undead are distinct for being strong and athletic.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

- Director: Edgar Wright
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 76
- Runtime: 99 minutes

"Shaun of the Dead" holds up as both a beloved British comedy and a distillation of post-9/11 cultural anxieties and Gen X disillusionment with life. Simon Pegg plays the titular hero, a 30-something English slacker who's forced to step up when he and his loved ones must hide in the local pub from a sudden zombie apocalypse.

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Planet Terror (2007)

- Director: Robert Rodriguez
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 105 minutes

“Planet Terror” centers on a group of survivors fighting with military interference as they try to curb the spread of a zombie epidemic. It was released in U.S. and Canadian theaters as part of a double feature with Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” and it notably infuses the zombie genre with the hallmarks of ultraviolent exploitation cinema.

REC (2007)

- Directors: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 69
- Runtime: 78 minutes

In “REC,” a cameraman’s (Pablo Rosso) and TV reporter’s (Manuela Velasco) routine coverage turns into a fight for survival when they become trapped in an apartment complex where a virus is turning occupants into murderous zombies. Apart from its standing as one of the best zombie films in recent years, “REC” is also recognized as one of the best and most successful found footage films.

World War Z (2013)

- Director: Marc Forster
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Metascore: 63
- Runtime: 116 minutes

Based on Max Brook’s popular novel of the same name, “World War Z” stars Brad Pitt as a man, determined to protect his family, who must travel the world to find the root of a deadly zombie apocalypse. The Guardian critic Henry Barnes noted that “World War Z” marks an “attempt at large-scale seriousness” in the zombie genre, which sets it apart from many of its counterparts.

Train to Busan (2016)

- Director: Yeon Sang-ho
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 72
- Runtime: 118 minutes

As much a meta commentary on South Korea’s social classism as it is a horror-adventure film, “Train to Busan” follows a father (Gong Yoo) and daughter (Kim Su-an) as they fight for survival when a zombie outbreak spreads to the train they’re riding. With lots of gore and heart, the movie was a smash box-office success in South Korea and proved audiences worldwide still had an appetite for zombie films. A sequel film, “Peninsula,” was released in 2020.

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

- Director: Shin'ichirô Ueda
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: 86
- Runtime: 96 minutes

"One Cut of the Dead'' centers on a hack filmmaker (Takayuki Hamatsu), whose attempt to film a low-budget zombie movie in an abandoned World War II facility becomes much more realistic when literal zombies attack the cast and crew. Variety critic Richard Kuipers called the hit film (which achieved major box office success in Japan) a "marvelously inventive horror-comedy [that] breathes new life into the zombie genre" due to its "irresistibly bouncy spirit."

Army of the Dead (2021)

- Director: Zack Snyder
- IMDb user rating: 6.0
- Metascore: 57
- Runtime: 148 minutes

Time will tell what legacy “Army of the Dead” leaves behind, but, as of June 2021, it stands as one of the newest and most notable entries into the zombie film canon. Conceived as a spiritual companion to Snyder’s 2004 zombie remake “Dawn of the Dead,” this adventure film follows a group of mercenaries who attempt a grand Las Vegas heist against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse. Although some critics took issue with its hefty runtime, the film went on to become one of Netflix’s most-watched original films in history, with an estimated 72 million viewers in its first month.

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