The 10 Best 21st Century Zombie Films

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It’s officially October: the month where stories about creeping clown hoaxes make national news, and movie buffs return to the guilty pleasure films they would never deign to watch at any other time of the year. Among those films is the concept of the zombie film. Ever since George Romero introduced the world to walking, flesh-eating ghouls with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, something about the mindlessly hungry nature of the zombie has captured the public’s imagination. In the 21st century, there are more zombie films coming out than ever. Zombies are ideal subject matter for every indie horror filmmaker who hopes that his low-budget splatter fest ends up on Netflix. Ever since AMC’s The Walking Dead premiered in 2010, zombies have been the new vampires. They’re everywhere.

Many film fans look at the zombie genre with condescension. But even as early as the ’60s and ’70s George Romero learned how to use zombie films to produce biting commentary on American racial issues and society’s rabid consumerism. He just so happened to do so while slathering the message in gore. And before he ever perfected his filmmaking techniques with The Lords of the Rings, Peter Jackson learned that some of the funniest comedy could come disguised in a bloodbath.

The modern zombie renaissance has continued Romero’s early trend of burying uncommon intelligence within a monster film. For every 5 low-budget zombie films that are painful to get through, there are at least a few truly masterful pieces of horror, drama, and comedy that just so happen to also feature the walking dead. It should be noted, that while all 10 films are worth watching, 10-8 stand as guilty pleasures, as opposed to truly good films.

  1. Dance of the Dead (2008)

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Dir. Gregg Bishop

Plot: On the night of the big High-School Prom, the dead rise to eat the living, and the only people who can stop them are the losers who couldn’t get dates to the dance.

Quietly screened at a few film festivals in 2008, before dropping onto DVD as part of Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Underground series, Dance of the Dead cannot necessarily be described as a “good film” per say in the way that many of the others on this list might be. That being said, Sundance TV recently named it one of the 10 Funniest Zombie Comedies of All Time (yes, there is an entire subgenre for that). With expectations kept low, the film is an absolute blast. The makeup is rubbery, the nuclear power plant in the background is badly superimposed, and the cast is largely amateur, yet the film seems aware of all this, and acts accordingly. It plays with all of the angsty teen movie tropes, and absolutely refuses to take itself seriously. Zombies launch out of their graves like circus catapulters, science lab frogs re-animate and consume faculty members, zombies learn to drive cars and find themselves swooning, like teenagers, to garage band music. And alongside its absurdity, the film occasionally surprises with its kills. There are also a few gems of dialogue, and the trope of the gun-wielding maniac gym teacher is handled amusingly. Once again, the film is nowhere near the quality of later films on this list, but for sheer, amusing low-budget zombie shlock, it is hard to resist.

Fun Fact: the film features a pre-fame Lucas Till.

Worth any awards consideration? Absolutely not.

  1. Warm Bodies (2013)

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Dir. Jonathan Levine

Plot: After a highly unusual zombie saves a still-living girl from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

After Twilight managed to convince teens that an undead creature that was desperate for human blood was actually deeply romantic, it was only a matter of time before the film industry turned to other supernatural creatures for sex appeal. Writer/director, Jonathan Levine found the answer in a Warm Bodies, a film that features a flesh-eating zombie protagonist who introduces himself to the audience by caving in Dave Franco’s head and eating his brains, before revealing that he’s really just searching for love, and also happens to enjoy Bob Dylan and The National. If the idea sounds beyond ridiculous, that’s because it is. And yet, the film kind of works. While Warm Bodies fails to fully capitalize on the potential for humor that it initially promised with its trailer, it also provides a relatively sweet supernatural love story, and some unexpected depth as a metaphor for depression. Oscar-nominated composer, Marco Beltrami adds some extra emotion with an underrated score, and the film’s overall soundtrack captures just the right amount of angst. The film could potentially been truly ‘great,’ had it been willing to poke a bit more fun at its concept. As it stands, its earnest nature is endearing enough to make it worth seeing.

Fun Fact: “In R’s home (the abandoned airplane), it turns out he owns a Blu-ray of the movie Zombie (1979) directed by Lucio Fulci, often noted as being one of the greatest zombie movies of all time.” (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)

Worth Any Awards Consideration? No, but the score is excellent.

  1. Planet Terror (2007)

Dir. Robert Rodriguez

Plot: After an experimental bio-weapon is released, turning thousands into zombie-like creatures, it’s up to a rag-tag group of survivors to stop the infected and those behind its release.

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, with help from Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth set out to make Grindhouse: an expensive, but loving tribute to 70’s exploitation horror films. The result was a 3 hour-plus cinematic experience, complete with a double feature and fake trailers. The end result was a mixed bag, with Tarantino’s half of the film, Death Proof, proving highly divisive. Rodriguez’s half of the film, Planet Terror, proved to be exactly the kind of absurdly entertaining trash that the two hoped to pay tribute to. Boasting a strong cast, including Rose McGowan, Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis, Lost’s Naveen Andrews, Michael Biehn, and strangely enough, Fergie, as well as Rodriguez regulars like Tom Savini, the film combines a seedy, grimy 70’s look with state-of-the-art makeup and visual effects to create Rodriguez’s loving tribute to a bygone era of filmmaking. If the above-mentioned Dance of the Dead succeeds because it doesn’t take itself to seriously, Planet Terror one-ups it, boasting a protagonist with a machine gun for a leg, a missing reel midway through the film (the implication being a projectionist ran away with the reel containing a gratuitous sex scene along with crucial character background information). The film devours clichés, and spits them out with such pseudo-seriousness that it’s difficult to keep a straight face. Rodriguez knows exactly what he wants to pay tribute to, and he does. The creature effects are truly disgusting. In a year with some of the century’s best makeup effects (La Vie En Rose, Sweeney Todd, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and more), the film somehow manages to stand out, with some truly memorable images. Planet Terror zombies are some of the most distinctive in screen history. Gore hounds should check this one out, although it is best viewed as far away from a meal as possible. Like Dance of the Dead, Planet Terror is difficult to defend as an objectively ‘good’ film, but it is the most enjoyable type of film for what it is.

Fun Fact: “Joel Coen and Ethan Coen refused to give Josh Brolin an audition for the role of Llewelyn in their movie No Country for Old Men (2007), so he asked director Robert Rodriguez to help him shoot an audition tape while Brolin was filming his Grindhouse (2007) segment (Planet Terror (2007)) for Rodriguez. Rodriguez shot and Quentin Tarantino directed the tape, which was shot using a $950,000 digital camera. Marley Shelton, who was playing Brolin’s character’s wife in Grindhouse, agreed to read the lines for Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (eventually played by Kelly MacDonald).” (Courtesy of IMDB Trivia)

Worth Any Awards Consideration? Yes, the makeup effects are truly disgusting, but spectacular.

  1. Dawn of the Dead (2004)dawn-of-the-dead-2004-truck

Dir. Zack Snyder

Plot: A nurse, a policeman, a young married couple, a salesman, and other survivors of a worldwide plague that is producing aggressive, flesh-eating zombies, take refuge in a mega Midwestern shopping mall.

It is remarkable, that even with the massive budgets, and endless wealth of stories Zack Snyder now has at his fingertips to choose from, he has yet to direct a film with as much personality as his brutal debut, Dawn of the Dead. While the film lacks the original’s attention to character, and fails to offer a similarly scathing commentary on American consumerism, it does manage to be a wild, and thrilling action film with some excellent makeup, and a relatively likable cast of characters. The opening titles, set to Johnny Cash’s Man Comes Around are a prime example of visual storytelling (incorporating riots and religious turmoil into a world of rapidly spreading infection), and some of the zombie concepts were novel: the film is one of the first to introduce the now-common concept of the “sprinting zombie,” as well explores the disturbing question of zombie birth. Like some of the other films on the list, the film’s screenplay is nothing to write home about, but the visceral direction ultimately compensates, creating a fun, adrenaline-pumping experience.

Fun Fact: The two zombies with missing limbs (the jogger missing an arm and the legless zombie in the parking garage) were both played by actual amputees. (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)

Worth Any Awards Consideration? No, but the creature makeup is strong.

  1. 28 Weeks Later (2007)28-weeks-later-lb-1

Dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

Plot: Six months after the rage virus was inflicted on the population of Great Britain, the US Army helps to secure a small area of London for the survivors to repopulate and start again. But not everything goes to plan.

Following up Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a film that many consider to be the crowning achievement of zombie cinema, is no easy task. And director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo doesn’t quite pull it off. The film’s comparatively thin screenplay limits it from reaching the greatness that Days reached. But, Fresnadillo’s propulsive, visceral direction is a wonder to behold. The opening scene might be the single most thrilling sequence in zombie movie history. The whip-crack editing, bone crunching sound design, chaotic yet artful camerawork all serve to create a sequence that leaves the viewer out of breath. On its own, the sequence could serve as maybe the greatest horror short film in history. Sadly, the film never reaches that stunning high point. But, what follows are a series of tremendously well-cut, and anxiety inducing set-pieces (a terrifyingly claustrophobic sequence in a crowded evacuation room being a particular high point.) The film also boasts an impressive cast, including Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Renner, Rose Byrne, Idris Elba, and Imogen Poots, who manage to breathe such life into their characters that each death is devastating, leaving the viewer fearful and unsure about the safety of anyone onscreen. And unlike many horror films, 28 Weeks is willing to offer some form subtext, exploring the morality of US military intervention in a foreign land. Composer John Murphy also builds his already excellent score from the previous film into something more haunting than ever, while editor, Chris Gill ratchets the tension to almost unbearable levels. 28 Weeks is one of the rare times that direction is strong enough to ‘fix’ a weak script. The film is such a truly adrenaline pumping experience that it stands as one of the great horror films of the 21st century.

Fun Fact: “The farm at the start of the film is the same farm that appears in Children of Men (2006).” (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)

Worth Any Awards Consideration? 2007 was the strongest year for film of its decade. In another year, the editing and makeup would warrant consideration. 

  1. Train to Busan (2016)

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Dir: San Ho-Yeon

Plot:. While a zombie-virus breaks out in South Korea, a couple of passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.

If 2016 was the summer for disappointing US blockbusters, South Korea produced the antidote in Train to Busan. A genuine global hit, Train to Busan has shattered global records: it is the highest grossing Korean film in history in Hong Kong and Taiwan, 1/5 of the entire population of South Korea has already seen the film, and the film has grossed close to $100 million worldwide.

Imagine a combination of Snowpiercer, and the parts of World War Z that worked, along with a hefty dose of social commentary, and then you have Train to Busan. Though the film is set primarily on a bullet train, it manages to contrive inventive ways to keep the plot moving and stay endlessly surprising. Director San-Ho Yeon, and editor Yang Jin-mo create a beast of relentless tension and energy. And though the film’s cinematography is nothing groundbreaking, the film manages to offer several memorable images of destruction. The characters are likable, and the order in which the film picks them off is often unpredictable, allowing an already nerve-wracking experience to become even more anxiety-inducing. The stuntwork is remarkable, and Ho-Yeo proves that unlike many blockbuster directors, he has something to say beyond spectacle: the film is a damning attack on corporate greed, and the tendency to value one’s own life over the lives of many. Because the piece is more-character driven than many in the genre, it occasionally veers into excessive melodrama, and the final thirty minutes aren’t quite as impressive as the film’s first hour, but Busan is nonetheless a riveting and inventive blockbuster experience. A popcorn film that still has a soul in an era where some a concept seems nonexistent.

Fun Fact: This is the director’s first non-animated film.

Worth Any Awards Consideration? The film’s editing is excellent, as are its stunts.

  1. Slither (2006)slither_nathan_fillion_06

Dir. James Gunn

Plot: A small town is taken over by an alien plague, turning residents into zombies and all forms of mutant monsters.

Before James Gunn directed Guardians of the Galaxy, he cut his teeth on one of the most disgusting horror films in history. Managing to balance truly nauseating gross-out gore, with genuine scares, and some of 2006’s best dialogue was a difficult task. Fortunately, the witty and twisted Gunn was more than up to the task. He does the impossible, forging a coherent tone out of a tonally inconsistent concept (brutal violence and deadpan comedy), creating a slimy masterpiece that has the audience laughing as much as they flinch. (It should be noted that the film scared a younger me into sleeping with my mouth covered for months.) The stars Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker, Jenna Fischer, and Gregg Henry, and allows nearly everyone in the cast a chance to explore their comedic sides through Gunn’s ridiculous, but delightful dialogue. Like Planet Terror, the film boasts above-average creature makeup. But, if Planet Terror were merely content to pay tribute to the schlocky nature of 70’s creature horror, Slither goes one step forward into brilliantly spoofing the genre. It is telling, that in his review of the film, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum stated, “Gross-out horror comedy is my least favorite genre, but this movie’s so skillful I have to take my hat off to it.” If you have the stomach for it, Slither is a rare masterpiece in the horror-comedy genre.

Fun Fact: Stay after the credits for a disgusting extra scene. And assume that any character or building name is a reference to another zombie film.

Worth Any Awards Consideration: 2006 is a strong year for makeup, and Slither doesn’t quite make the cut. The creature work is excellent, however.

  1. Zombieland (2009)movies-based-video-games-zombieland-left-4-dead

Dir. Ruben Fleischer

Plot: A shy student trying to reach his family in Ohio, a gun-toting tough guy trying to find the last Twinkie, and a pair of sisters trying to get to an amusement park join forces to travel across a zombie-filled America.

2009’s Zombieland is a marvel. Running less than 90 minutes, the film manages to pack an incredible number of jokes in. It also systematically established Jesse Eisenberg as a genuine comedic presence, and not the “poor man’s Michael Cera” some had previously described him as, reminded the film world why Woody Harrelson is a cinematic treasure, offered Emma Stone her first major leading role, and provided one of the funniest celebrity cameos…ever. Like Dawn of the Dead before it, Fleischer strives to set the film off with one of horror’s best opening credits sequences, full of slow motion images of a zombie outbreaks at weddings, father-son sack races, and strip clubs, while blasting Metallica. But unlike many members of the ‘zombedy’ genre, Zombieland doesn’t opt to derive humor from extreme gore effects, but instead lets its wonderful characters do the bulk of the comedic heavy lifting. And as a result, the film ends up, not only as a buddy comedy, but also oddly enough as a sort of study on neuroticism, masculinity, and family (all done through the most hilarious lens possible, of course.) Oh and with the many rumored clown sightings around the country, the film is as timely as ever in recognizing that while zombies may be scary, clowns are scarier.

Fun Fact: 2-Time Academy Award Winning Screenwriter, William Goldman did uncredited rewrites on the script.

Worth Any Awards Consideration? Best Original Screenplay

  1. Shaun of the Dead (2004)shaun_of_the_dead_5.jpg

Dir. Edgar Wright

Plot: A man decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living.

The best films on this list transcend their genre trappings. And the fact that Shaun of the Dead marched its way into a frontier rarely explored by zombie films (awards season) is very telling. The film boasts BAFTA, London Film Critics, Online Film Critics Society Nominations, and wins from the British Independent Film Awards, and describes itself as “a romantic comedy with zombies.” Which is to say it is far more than your run of the mill zombie film, but instead, is a riotous comedy. But not only is the film funny, it is impeccably well-made. The film’s hilarious long takes have since become iconic, while Oscar Winning Editor, Chris Dickens gives the film a breakneck, and distinctive pace. And of course, Wright and co-writer, Simon Pegg pepper the film with references to other classic horror films (28 Days Later, An American Werewolf in London, and Night of the Living Dead, to name a few), as well as provide enough subtle puns to summarize the entire film’s plot. Cracked.Com pointed out that when Shaun describes his day (“A bloody Mary [Mary the garden zombie] first thing, a bite at the King’s Head [Shaun’s stepfather is bitten], couple at the Little Princess [meeting David and Diana at Liz’s flat], stagger back here [pretend to be zombies] and bang … back to the bar for shots [the final scene at the Winchester, where they shoot their way out].”), he has summarized the entire film. And of course, like the best zombie films, Shaun of the Dead  makes a statement about apathetic society (oblivious Shaun doesn’t realize people are zombies, because zombie don’t behave differently from the humans already mindlessly going about their daily lives.) Finally, while Shaun of the Dead shies away from the excessive blood sprayed by other members of its genre, it still offers enough creative weapons (pool cues, throwing darts, vinyl records) to satisfy gore hounds, as well as offer brilliant slapstick comedy.

Fun Fact: “Shaun tells his girlfriend that he’s going to take her to “the place that does all the fish”. When he opens the phone book you can see that the restaurant is literally called ‘The Place That Does All the Fish’.” (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)

Worth Any Awards Consideration? Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing

  1. 28 Days Later (2002)28-days-later-2002-021

Dir. Danny Boyle

Plot: Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary.

There is a large chunk of the internet who refuses to refer to 28 Days Later as “a zombie film,” opting instead to describe it as “an infection film,” because they feel “zombie film” does not do justice to the film’s genre-transcending nature. But 28 Days Later is a zombie film, and a damned good one at that. Boasting an impressive cast that includes Cilian Murphy, Naomi Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Dr. Who’s Christopher Eccleston, the film values character first, and zombie spectacle second. Murphy and Harris have clear, believable character arcs that explore the question of “when is violence acceptable,” while Eccleston and his soldiers give a glimpse into redefined morality in a world that lacks any sort of moral absolutes. Anthony Dod Mantle’ s early foray into digital cinematography is impressive, despite the film’s low budget, and John Murphy’s score is alternately gorgeous and terrifying. What’s particularly impressive is, with only $8 million dollars, the film transforms London into a believably apocalyptic wasteland. 28 Days Later takes the viewer on a wild roller coaster of emotions, along with its thrilling spectacle, offering humor, tragedy, and hope. The film is so dedicated to its character study, that zombies are entirely absent from large chunks of the film. Like many Alex Garland scripts, the film does falter a bit in its third act, but the overall product is a work of art, a standard for zombie filmmaking that has yet to be topped, and a prime example, that films should not be ignored solely because of their genre.

Fun Fact: “The scene where Jim and Selena celebrate with Frank and Hannah was shot on September 11, 2001. Danny Boyle said it felt extremely strange to shoot a celebratory scene on that particular day.” (Courtesy of IMDB trivia)

Worth Any Awards Consideration: Best Editing, Best Original Score

Honorable Mentions:

World War Z (2013) was one of those big studio films that everyone seemed to be rooting against after its troubled production…and then to everyone’s surprise, it ended up being decent. The first 30 minutes could even be considered better than decent. It also made enough money back to justify a sequel. The film loses points for bearing absolutely no resemblance to its source material, and a lackluster third act, but deserves a mention as an entertaining addition to the genre.

Resident Evil (2002): Although the film bears little to no resemblance to its source material, and demonstrates more than a few zombie film clichés, it also boasts some entertaining action sequences and explores a fun, claustrophobic setting. Loses points for spawning a series of increasingly less-impressive sequels.

Dead Snow (2009): A film that works better in concept than in execution. The initial gag wears thin, but the prospect of Norwegian Nazi Zombies is amusing enough until the novelty wears off.

REC (2007): One of the strongest found-footage horror films out there, REC is a genuinely unsettling experience.

Shoutout to The Girl with All The Gifts (2016), which has yet to receive a US release date, but has received strong reviews in the U.K.

 

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