What makes a zombie? Originally, the word referred to one of the dead brought back to life via voodoo and forced to engage in menial labor. Then, after being inspired by I am Legend by mid-twentieth century horror and science fiction writer Richard Matheson, George Romero redefined the word to mean “a reanimated corpse with a hunger for human (and sometimes animal) flesh.” Fairly quickly, the term gained widespread acceptance as meaning something like “a mindless member of a crowd who is led easily and perhaps animated by some simple desire or emotion leveraged by another.” This cultural definition may shed some light on the fact that, as of 2022 at least, the zombie has been the most successful cinematic monster of the 21st century. For all sorts of reasons, the figure of the ideologically driven horde has a special resonance today, with members of virtually every thought-group eager to paint their nemeses as brainless zombies.
In film, the flesh-eating zombie variant has of course spread the furthest. From Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and onward, the shambling, rotting, and anthropophagous (fancy word for people-eating) monster has rampaged bloodily, destroying hundreds of fictional worlds. Romero’s initial Dead trilogy form the canonical scriptures of this monster’s cult, with Dan O’Bannon’s hilarious Return of the Living Dead adding the special feature of brain-eating. Despite the latter only being the focus of O’Bannon’s series, it somehow entered into the zeitgeist and is often assumed to be a necessary component of the creature’s diet. Plenty could be (and has been) said about this hunger for brains.
Plenty more could be said about the image of people being torn apart alive by a crowd and then eaten. “Sparagmos” is a word used to describe just such a rite carried out by the followers of Dionysus, and it has its corollaries in cults all across the planet. This image, the rending and eating of a living victim, is often the “money shot” in zombie films and apparently has a special resonance for human beings above and beyond the obvious fascination and terror with it being such a horrible way to die.
But you haven’t come here for cultural analysis, have you? The following are zombie movies that are a little off the beaten track. I am using the expanded definition of “zombie” to some degree in my selection, so expect some creatures that aren’t undead or who even hunger for something other than cannibalism. They instead lean into the idea of an infection of mindlessness and the formation of a dangerous and civilization-destroying crowd. Of the movies that do focus on the hungry undead, several are pulse-pounding action flicks, some are comedies, some social commentaries, and some romantic, even erotic takes on the subject. They all explore or exploit this monster in ways I’ve found exciting, interesting, or just plain weird.
As always, remember to check the bottom of the list for suggestions of other films I’ve covered that more or less fall into this sub-genre. Stay hungry, folks!
They Came from Within/Shivers/The Parasite Murders (1975)
I’m starting this list with a film that zombie movie purists would tear me apart for claiming as part of the sub-genre. Shivers, after all, concerns neither the animation of the dead nor the consumption of human flesh. It does, though, deal with an infection that turns its victims into dangerous and largely mindless spreaders of that disease. Rather than focusing on the fear of cannibalism, Shivers taps into unchecked sexual desire. This does mean that this film contains a lot of sexual assault. Though it’s all more implied than graphically shown, those who find the very idea of such a thing to be upsetting should probably sit this one out.
Set in a luxury apartment complex outside Montreal, Shivers begins with a puzzling murder-suicide. The killer in this scenario was brilliant scientist Emil Hobbes, and as Roger St. Luc, resident doctor of Starliner Towers and our protagonist, will soon discover, Hobbes has left behind a dark gift for humanity. This gift rapidly spreads, threatening not only everyone in the Towers, but possibly the world beyond as well.
Cronenberg’s first feature film, Shivers set an expectation for gruesome body-horror and intellectual content from the director, an expectation he has more than fulfilled in films like The Brood, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ.
Zeder/Revenge of the Dead (1983)
“Mystery” and “intrigue” aren’t words that usually come to mind when thinking of zombie movies, but Zeder and Dellamorte, Dellamore, next on this list, are exceptions to that rule. This is most likely because both were heavily influenced by the Giallo tradition of movies, in which mystery and horror are blended. Zeder, directed by the unique filmmaker Pupi Avati, follows a young novelist in Bologna. When Stefano’s wife gives him an old typewriter as a birthday present, he discovers the machine’s ribbon still bears the record of a previous owner’s work. That work: an essay on how to bring the dead back to life.
Stefano’s investigation into this strange piece drags him further and further into a world of mad experimentation and criminal intrigue. If you can get a hold of this rare zombie movie, don’t expect apocalyptic plagues and massacres. Rather, expect a quirky and mystery with an unexpectedly dark climax.
Dellamorte, Dellamore/Cemetery Man (1994)
This will likely be the weirdest zombie movie you’ll ever see, as well as the most sexual. If George Romero had teamed up with the surrealist director Luis Buñuel to make an erotic movie, this is something like would’ve emerged. Set in a strange and isolated city, Dellamorte, Dellamore is about a cemetery caretaker played by Rupert Everett who has discovered that many of the people who are buried in his cemetery come back to life as flesh-eating ghouls. Francesco Dellamorte has given up trying to warn city officials about the zombie menace, though, and has resigned himself to just putting the creatures down himself.
One day, a beautiful widow shows more interest in this sullen caretaker and his macabre surroundings than anyone has before. Soon, Dellamorte’s life becomes a chaos of misunderstandings, mysteries, and murder. And, of course, zombies.
Directed by Michele Soavi, a long-term collaborator with Dario Argento and the director of the hallucinatory The Church, Dellamorte, Dellamore doesn’t follow the usual pattern of movies about the undead, avoiding mass carnage and survival horror in favor of a deeply weird, sexual, and ultimately hilarious examination of love, lust, and violence. If you like existentialist and surreal horror films and aren’t afraid of nudity, this is the zombie movie for you.
Land of the Dead (2005)
In making these lists, I try to avoid leaning on obvious genre titles. When it comes to the best zombie movies, George Romero’s films shouldn’t need much introduction. Night of the Living Dead essentially created the sub-genre, and Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are absolute must-watch horror movies. Land of the Dead, though, is still more obscure a film than it should be.
Land takes place decades after the zombie apocalypse that began in Night, long enough that large settlements of survivors have begun forming and even thriving. In Fiddler’s Green, a high-rise in what was formerly Pittsburgh, the wealthy live a life of opulence not much different from what they had before the arrival of the undead. All around, though, poor survivors live in terrible conditions.
Into this loaded situation, Romero injects not only incipient revolution, but also a horde of zombies, some of whom are getting ominously smarter. The political commentary in this entry in Romero’s series is more explicit than in the previous movies, but that doesn’t stop Land of the Dead from serving up plenty of gory zombie action.
How good a pet could a zombie be? One of the only zombie movies I know of to be set in an alternate universe, Fido explores just that question. It mixes social commentary, satirical domestic comedy, and some zombie gore into a fun blend of its own. In the 1950’s, humanity is recovering from the horrific Zombie Wars. Once the tide turned against the undead, people began building big walled-in suburban cities. One of the things that made this possible was the invention of a special collar that transforms zombies from flesh-eating ghouls into obedient pets/slaves.
When Helen Robinson buys one of these domesticated zombies, her husband is resistant, having developed a phobia of the living dead. Her son Timmy, though, quickly takes to their new pet Fido, finding in him the loyal friend he can’t find amongst his peers. But local bullies and busybodies can’t leave the two to frolic in peace, and soon Timmy will have more to deal with than a swirly.
Fido is, among other things, a spoof of the Lassie franchise, with a mostly friendly zombie taking the place of the bright Collie. It is probably the most “heart-warming” movie on this list, at least insofar as it’s more focused on comedy and familial high-jinks than on the bloody action on display in Train to Busan. But when things go wrong, more than one person will meet Fido’s wrath at those who would hurt Timmy Robinson.
This is a strange little flick that’s quickly becoming a cult classic. First off, it’s important to note that this Canadian horror film isn’t a zombie movie, per se, but it is certainly zombie-adjacent. And it’s so damn entertaining, with engaging performances by its main stars, that it really should be seen by any afficionado of the undead film sub-genre.
Beginning one snowy early morning in Pontypool, Ontario, the movie follows grizzled radio host Grant Mazzy on his way to work. After an encounter with a disturbed woman, Grant is eager to settle into his shock jock patter, but a weird riot downtown proves his day is going to be anything but normal.
Pontypool takes place almost entirely inside Mazzy’s radio station, with incoming radio and telephone reports giving us an idea of the chaos unfurling outside. In another movie, such an approach may have seemed a cop-out, but this movie’s performances, soundtrack, and writing all come together to deliver real creepy drama. And the nature of the horror overwhelming Pontypool is simultaneously eerie, funny, and philosophically interesting.
The Horde (2009)
Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher
Coming hot on the heels of the wave of gory Gallic films known as the “New French Extremity,” The Horde is just the sort of zombie movie that’s good for action-horror fans. When French cops raid a crumbling high-rise with the intent of executing a vicious gang leader who killed one of their own, they find a plague of the undead just beginning to unfold. Soon, these police, the criminals they’ve been hunting, and random survivors of the ongoing zombie infestation will all have to band together if they expect to make it out of the building alive. The Horde is probably the most violent of the movies on this list, aiming for broad character-strokes and big action-pieces rather than subtle terrors.
Life After Beth (2014)
For a sub-genre all about death, zombie movies rarely address grief in any sustained way. Granted, an apocalypse of the undead doesn’t give a lot of opportunity for self-reflection and nostalgia. In this quirky horror-comedy film, though, the aftermath of tragic death is explored in ways funny and disturbing.
Zach Orfman has recently lost his girlfriend, Beth (played by the wonderful Aubrey Plaza). While her parents initially invite him to grieve with them, they suddenly cut off contact. When Zach discovers they are hiding their apparently still-living daughter, he is over-joyed at first. Beth, though, is developing some disturbing new tastes, and Zach will soon be forced to reckon with the price of not being able to let go.
Life After Beth has some violence and sporadic gore, but it leans far more into comedic and drama territory and is surprisingly emotionally complex for a zombie movie.
Train to Busan (2016)
The transition from slow zombies to the fast undead has been a bumpy ride. First debuting in mass cinema in 28 Days Later, they saw greater popularization in the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004. But they were there in Peter Jackson’s magnificently gory horror-comedy Dead Alive/Braindead in 1992, and have roots even older in Italian zombie movies of the 1980’s. Even today, slow zombies feature in many movies and television shows like The Walking Dead. It makes sense that they survive, as that shambling horde of the undead creates a special frisson of fear, but the fast ones are certainly here to stay, and Train to Busan fully takes advantage of their terrifying speed.
Seo Seok-woo is a negligent father to his little Su-an, and when she decides she wants to spend her birthday with his former wife, the best he can do is accompany her on the trip to the city of Busan. On the high-speed train they board are a host of other characters we get to know. One of them is sick, and the infection she is about to spread will make this trip a nightmare beyond any of their imaginations. Train to Busan is as fast-paced and bloodthirsty as its vicious zombies, but it spares time in order to lend realism and pathos to its characters, making it all the more horrifying when they are felled by the flesh-eaters. The final sequence of the movie, in particular, is a masterful combination of insane action and genuine emotion, all of which are quickly propelling this film to the front ranks of cinematic zombiedom.
The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
The Dead Don’t Die is one of those “love it or hate it” movies, or so is the impression I get. I fall strongly in the “love it” camp. The humor is dry and sly, the acting entertainingly stylized, and the film abounds in metafictional touches. And, of course, there are zombies. Zombies funnier and stranger than in almost any other film in the sub-genre. It’s also not afraid to assign unhappy fates to its most lovable characters, an aspect one doesn’t often see in horror-comedies. All of this is rounded off with Jim Jarmusch’s laconic directorial delivery and knack for selecting the oddest and most wonderful actors.
Strange days have come to the small town of Centerville. Someone’s stealing chickens, the sun doesn’t seem to be setting, and a gruesome massacre in a coffee shop has left the town’s police force (played endearingly by Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, and Adam Driver) befuddled. By the time Centerville’s residents acknowledge they’re trapped in a budding zombie apocalypse, it may be too late for them. This is not going to end well…
SEE ALSO: Dead Alive, Demons, The Haunting of Rebecca Verlaine, Trouble Every Day, Re-Animator, The Resurrected, Rec, Night of the Creeps, House by the Cemetery