Friday, March 29, 2013

My 13 Favorite Zombie Movies

Today millions of Christians around the world are celebrating Good Friday, which marks the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. After which he will rise from the dead and become some kind of zombie god that yells at people when they masturbate or have sex for reasons other than procreation (unless you are a priest having sex with non-consenting children, then it’s OK). Though I have a vitriolic hatred for all things Christian, a religion inspired by cannibalism with a zombie savior is pretty hilarious, so I’ve decided to commemorate the day by celebrating other, better kinds of zombies.

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy are so obvious I have left them off this list, though you could argue that there are some other obvious, classic choices on here. I have also left of all post-1995 zombie films, because I think almost all current zombie movies (and TV shows) are utterly boring and redundant. 

For the 12 apostles and zombie Jesus, here is a list of my favorite 13 zombie films of all time.

1. City of the Living Dead aka Gates of Hell (Lucio Fulci, 1980)
When I was 14, I walked into a Suncoast Video and bought this on VHS because I liked the title and the cover art. Little did I know it would introduce me to a whole new world: Lucio Fulci, non-American zombie films, Italian horror, etc. I'm sure if it hadn't been City of the Living Dead (or Gates of Hell, as I knew it then) it would have been another film, but I can't stress the importance of this movie on my young life. It remains my favorite zombie film of all time. A priest kills himself and opens the gate to hell. A young psychic has a vision of this event and temporarily dies, only to realize she has been buried alive. A reporter rescues her and they travel to the priest's town to tries to the close the gate before it is too late. This has some of the most iconic gore in any Italian horror film, particularly scenes of the poor Daniela Doria (who died brutal deaths in many of Fulci's films) bleeding from the eyeballs and vomiting up her own intestines. If you haven't seen Fulci's The Beyond, it also involves the living dead and comes highly recommended.

2. Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon, 1985)
It seems impossible that a comic "sequel" to a landmark series could be good, but Return of the Living Dead is easily one of the most fun zombie films. Everything from the script (thanks to director Dan O'Bannon who co-write Alien), the performances, the beautiful effects, and the amazing soundtrack make this film near perfect. It's one of many great '80s horror films with comic elements, plus my uncle is in it. Loving horror movies is obviously in my blood. Also check out Return of the Living Dead 2 for a lot more slapstick humor and Return of the Living Dead 3 for a very serious film about a doomed romance. Here's my uncle (the paramedic without the beard):

3. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)
A predictable choice, I know, but this is the most perfect zombie film ever made and the best film ever made at a mall. The number of times I have seen this movie are beyond count. Words cannot express the perfection that is Dawn of the Dead. And that score... I also love the conclusion to Romero's trilogy, Day of the Dead, though it is a completely different type of zombie film. One of the happiest moments of my life was seeing the film screened outside at a horror convention many years ago with a reunion of the Day of the Dead cast. Then afterwards I got to drink with some of them, namely Joe Pilato, who gave me my first glass of scotch. At the time I thought it was gross, but now I barely drink anything else. 

4. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (Andrea Bianchi, 1981)
The most obscure film on this list so far, the first time I saw Burial Ground my mind was completely blown. It has achieved underground cult status for a very good reason, as it has some incredible gore and scare sequences. A group of people are trapped in an old mansion when the dead begin to rise and feast on them. Included in the group are a young boy (actually played by an adult dwarf, Peter Bark, who is basically the pint size twin of Dario Argento) and his babe of a mother, with whom he has a semi-incestuous relationship. In the English dubbed version, his mother's voice is dubbed by the same woman who dubs Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red and has done dozens of other Italian horror films. I am desperate to find out who she is, and if anyone knows, I will send you a prize of some sort. Seriously. 


5. White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932)
Before I discovered European horror and more obscure horror films, I watched a lot of old Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff movies (thanks, Turner Classic Movies). One of the first zombie movies I fell in love with was White Zombie, an effectively creepy film set in Haiti. Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, a practitioner of voodoo who helps a local plantation owner enslave a young woman, Madeleine, who is travelling with her fiancé. The plantation owner is obsessed with her and wishes to marry her, but to his horror, Legendre's plan is not quite what he expected. A beautiful film with a horrifying premise, White Zombie may not be a traditional zombie film - the plot is actually very similar to Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein - but it is the granddaddy of them all.

6. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
Other early horror legends Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton created some of the loveliest and most subtle horror films of the '40s, such as Cat People and Leopard Man. Their voodoo/zombie film for RKO, I Walked With a Zombie is one of the most haunting zombie films ever made. A young nurse comes to a plantation to care for the manager's paralyzed wife and gets wrapped up in a web of voodoo and un-death. 

7. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Jorge Grau, 1974)
Spain is one of my favorite places for both food and horror movies, so there was no way I could leave this film off the list. Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Don't Open the Window, this Spanish-Italian co-production is bizarrely set in London and concerns two people being framed for a series of murders actually committed by zombies. Though somewhat slow paced (as are many Spanish horror films), there is some lovely gore. "Satan's all the rage these days."

8. Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971)
Speaking of Satan and Spain, the next film on my list is one of the most iconic, non-traditional zombie films ever made. A group of Satan-worshipping Knights Templar arise as blind zombies and terrorize the Spanish countryside. Incredibly slow and creepy, this might not please viewers with limited attention spans, but the imagery is fantastic and the very simple score is terrifying. And where else are you going to see Knights Templar as zombies? It was actually turned into a series, but the first film is the undeniably the best. 

9. Shock Waves (Ken Wiederhorn, 1977)
If you thought satanic Knights Templar zombies were insane, Shockwaves introduced the world to aquatic Nazi zombies. Repeat that with me. Aquatic Nazi zombies. Though it is absolutely ridiculous, this is one of my favorite non-Italian zombie films, thanks in part to Peter Cushing, who generously rescued this film with some assistance from John Carradine. A group of people yachting are shipwrecked on an island, which turns out to be really the wrong island, as Nazi zombies rise from their oceanic slumber and begin hunting down the survivors. The plot is absurd, but this film is a ton of fun if you go into it with the right expectations.

10. Le morte vivante aka Living Dead Girl (Jean Rollin, 1982)
Though French horror-erotica director Jean Rollin is mostly known for his surreal, sexy vampire films, he added a few zombie films into the mix over the years. Somewhere in between his best zombie film, The Grapes of Death, and his absolute worst, Zombie Lake, falls Living Dead Girl. Though it has not aged particularly well, it was the first Rollin film I had the pleasure to see and remains one of my favorite. Catherine, a young girl who died many years ago, is revived by a toxic waste spill and returns as a very svelte looking zombie. Her childhood best friend discovers Catherine and attempts to care for her, quickly learning that Catherine has some very specific dietary requirements: human flesh. Though this is an acquired taste (yes, I went there), particularly as zombie films go, Living Dead Girl is melancholic, bloody, and romantic, with an ending that packs an emotional punch.

11. Cemetery Man aka Dellamorte Dellamore (Michele Soavi, 1994)
Similar in tone to Living Dead Girl, Cemetery Man is probably the most romantic, dream-like zombie film ever made. Based on the comic book Dylan Dog, Cemetery Man concerns the exploits of Francesco Dellamorte, the socially ostracized caretaker of a small town cemetery. Bodies in the cemetery begin to rise as zombies and Dellamorte deals with the situation calmly until he meets a young widow and falls in love. This sensitive, surreal film is from my favorite late period Italian horror director, the imaginative Michele Soavi, and is unlike any other zombie film. 

12. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972)
The wonderful Bob Clark, responsible for two of the greatest Christmas films of all time - Black Christmas and A Christmas Story - made this unusual, effective take on the classic W.W. Jacob's horror tale "The Monkey's Paw." Andy dies during the Vietnam War and his family is heartbroken, but determined he will come back. And so he does. This odd zombie film is full of anti-war commentary and is also partly about the break down of a family. It is also one of the most touching, upsetting zombie films ever made, though I'm sure there are people out there who would argue with me about whether or not this is a true zombie film. Also worth checking out is Clark's first film, the imaginative, funny, and very low budget Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, about a theater troupe that holds a joke seance on a cursed island and finds out that they will not get the last laugh.

13. Dead and Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)
One of the most imaginative and satisfying films about the undead ever made, Dead and Buried is not a traditional zombie film, but it had to make the list. Written by Dan O'Bannon (already mentioned for writing and directing Return of the Living Dead), Dead and Buried concerns the very creepy town of Potter's Bluff. The local townspeople gather together to brutally kill visitors and the sheriff and coroner attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery. I generally hate twists in movies, but everything that happens in Dead and Buried is fantastic and this film represents what is probably the most refreshing use of zombies on this list. 

Runners up include British horror studio Hammer's surprisingly affective zombie film, Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966), in line with their series of more obscure horror films about small towns affected by various "plagues" (The Reptile, The Gorgon, etc). The surreal, somewhat baffling and very dark Messiah of Evil (Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, 1972) is about a girl who goes to a small California town to look for her artist father and finds his journals full of writing about how darkness is consuming the town. Between the surreal, dreamlike plot and disturbing visuals, Messiah of Evil is an obscure, but necessary '70s zombie effort.

City of the Walking Dead aka Nightmare City (Umberto Lenzi, 1980) has some wonderfully delirious moments and benefits from a chin-stroking performance by Mexican B-movie star Hugo Stiglitz. Ever wanted to see zombies attack a jazzercise morning news show and eat the dancers? Here's your chance. Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) is another gross-out zombie classic with some of the most insane special effects on this list, complete with such wonders as a priest that "kicks ass for the lord."
Japanese film Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi, 1999) must be seen to be believed. Flying saucers crash into Japan, bringing with them a zombie plague. Punk band Guitar Wolf team up with their biggest fan, Ace, and use their special powers to defeat the undead threat, as well as a corrupt music producer. Probably the only pro-transexual zombie film ever made.

Viva Zombies!

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