The 20 Best Horror Zombie Movies - A Countdown
In recent years, in the vast world of cinematic zombies, comedy and self-parody seemed to be the predominant factor.
However, true horror has always been associated with the undead. There are a lot of gems that invested their energies in dreary atmospheres, latent threats and cruel and unforgettable deaths instead of jokes and splatstick.
This ranking aims to collect the best exponents of that category. Films that treat their zombies with seriousness, whose purpose is really to enervate the spectator, never to get a laugh.
Enjoy our countdown of the best horror zombie movies ever made! And remember that zombies could be a very serious thing.
20) The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Long before George A. Romero came to change everything, zombies had been terrorizing audiences for years. Displayed as more basic creatures, usually associated with voodoo rites or mad scientists, the undead still filled seats and drove forward stories on the big screen.
And John Gilling's The Plague of the Zombies is one of the best examples of that pre-Romero stage.
With a fantastic setting of the late 19th century and with a plot that included rituals, bourgeois voodoo sects, and enslaved zombies to enrich their master with forced labor (proto-zombie-social commentary FTW!), this film was a great influence on how the undead would be perceived from there on.
19) The Horde (2009)
France makes this list with one of the most cynical, bleaks and violent titles in the whole ranking.
The Horde uses the claustrophobic confines of a residential building with the latent feeling of the Apocalypse covering everything else, to move its explosive action forward. And the action is not tamed: the number of bullets grinding zombie bodies must be one of the highest in the whole genre.
The Horde is torn between being perceived as an ode to xenophobic sentiment or a stark portrayal of the absurdity of violence and fear of the immigrant. Regardless of the verdict, the fact that the film raises this debate shows its enormous intensity.
18) The Dead (2010)
This little British surprise hit is one of those cases in which a low budget ends up boosting narrative creativity instead of blatant exploitation of cheap aesthetics.
The Dead looks like a movie with five times its budget. Its great infernal cinematography and special effects full of shots, exploded heads, car chases, and exposed viscera are some of the elements of its great calling card.
However, the most interesting thing about The Dead is the premise about two soldiers, one African and one American, joining forces to cross the desert and achieve their impossible survival goals. They must face zombies, thirst, starvation, and cultural barriers.
The great flaw of The Dead is the deep lightness in which the creators comprises an entire continent. For a movie that aspires to be a portrait of African rural violence, the research is non-existent and borderline-racist-generalizations are several.
17) Survival of the Dead (2009)
The last movie directed by George A. Romero doesn't have the respect it deserves. Perhaps tainted by the failed attempt of his previous experiment, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead is frequently overlooked.
The truth is that this film displays the more creative and existentialist Romero not seen since the '70s. This is a Romero more concerned in showing moral dilemmas and building complete arcs for the characters.
The story about two family/factions and their radically different postures about how to deal with the undead really triggers discussion and debate. This is an entertaining existentialist western with some dark moments.
In many ways, Survival of the Dead was the perfect final Romero movie. The acceptance of the zombie as part of the everyday life was a narrative trope that obsessed him since the mid-80s, and this film is the one that perhaps best modeled the debate about it.
16) Evil Dead (2013)
We must give credit to Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez. Given the impossibility of the challenge of making a satisfactory remake of an absolute classic, Alvarez decided to just do his own thing.
In many ways, this Evil Dead reboot/remake/sequel is radically and tonally opposed to the adventures of Ash Williams. At the same time, it clearly belongs to the same universe full of cruel Deadites, decadent cabins, cursed books, electric saws, and frequent amputations. Achieving that balance requires a very special talent.
Decidedly darker, more in the vein of the body horror and gore and with a social commentary on addictions, Evil Dead is supported in a great performance by Jane Levy to emerge as a movie with a crushing personality.
15) City of the Living Dead (1980)
It's almost impossible to follow the multiple stories and characters that pile up (and die horribly) in City of the Living Dead. It also has an ending so confusing and drastic, that there are even theories that the editor unintentionally destroyed the film with the original conclusion.
Yes, this film has several narrative shortcomings, but to be honest, that matters little in a Lucio Fulci movie. The key is to experience their mastery in the setting and in the creation of moments of intense horror.
And in that aspect, City of the Living Dead and its more religious/supernatural version of the undead offers at least three truly unforgettable sequences.
This movie is also the perfect introduction to The Beyond, which would be Fulci's most praised work. A back-to-back marathon with these two gems will always be a great plan.
14) Dawn of the Dead (2004)
A remake of George A. Romero's masterpiece directed by Zack Snyder sure sounds like an absolute blasphemy.
Miraculously, it's not. People often forget that Snyder is a great visual director. And in this case, he's allied with a great little screenwriter called James Gunn (you know, the Guardians of the Galaxy guy?), to create a dignified update to Dawn of the Dead.
Unnecessary? Very likely. But this remake doesn't want to artistically overcome the original gem but to make a more frenetic, violent and curiously more optimistic version.
This movie would be a little higher on this list if it hadn't kinda betrayed itself in the last few minutes. But other than that, this is a must-watch.
13) Day of the Dead (1985)
The eternal bronze medal in the original George A. Romero trilogy, Day of the Dead deserves to be highlighted and remembered as the most grotesque, violent and terrifying entry of his filmography.
Romero takes his time (perhaps too much time) to make clear the movie's motif about the tragic inevitability of the poor communication between humans even facing extinction. But once we get to the last act, the memorable images (and zombies!) begin to accumulate.
From that desolate Florida city where only the lamentable echoes of the "hellooo? is anyone there?" is heard, through that impotent and agonizing scream of "Choke on em!", Day of the Dead offers too many iconic moments that deserve to be revisited.
That, and also "Bub", probably the first recurring zombie character.
12) The Battery (2012)
In recent years, a new wave of films that mix indie aesthetics with the zombie genre has made its way to the big and little screen.
Of all of them, The Battery is one of the most interesting. Based on the two most common classic attitudes of human characters facing a zombie apocalypse, The Battery uses a baseball analogy to show a dynamic between two very different survival partners.
The Battery is a slow burn, but the performances of Jeremy Gardner and Adam Cronheim (who also direct and produce respectively) feel so genuine that it's impossible not to immerse in this fiction.
The Battery is an interesting little study on survival, trust, cynicism and the use of dehumanized brutality.
11) Pontypool (2008)
Pontypool is probably the most cerebral (pun intended!)zombie movie ever made.
Set inside a radio station, the outside world has begun to go to hell thanks to a virus that is transmitted by the vocal cords. That means, there are trigger words and their understanding unleash the virus. Weird.
And yes, the movie is much more terrifying and interesting than the premise sounds. Pontypool has a fantastic creepy atmosphere and a great casting. This is one of those movies that force the audience to use their imagination to fill the gaps. Sure, Pontypool has zombies, but it's the debate about what we believe is happening and its irreversibility where the real horror lies.
The movie moves like the virus: We hear words and we make sense of them. Pontypool's meta-structure is unique and must be experienced at least once.
10) The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)
So far, the video game The Last Of Us is the best story told in this millennium about humanity's contradictions in the context of a zombie epidemic. There is no way that a movie adaptation could be a superior step. The times they are a-changing'.
Colm McCarthy's The Girl With All The Gifts has done the logical thing and has built a different film, strongly inspired by several key moments of that game. The result is one of the best zombie movies of the decade, full of bloody moments, interesting characters, relevant moral debates and a fancy cast led by Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, and the revelation Sennia Nanua.
But the best thing about The Girl With All The Gifts is its treatment of the inevitable. The human race is doomed to be surpassed for the next evolutive step and there is really nothing to be done about it. This movie manages to show this horrendous fate with dignity, argumentation and even compassion.
9) No Profanar Los Sueños de Los Muertos (1974)
Directed by Spanish auteur Jorge Grau, co-produced by Italy and set in England, this movie seems designed to disconcert and eliminate any sense of safety.
This is one of those rare cases where the slow burn in the genre ends up really paying off the waiting for a final act full of tragedy.
The reason for the existence of zombies in this story sound really ridiculous. But the best trick of No Profanar Los Sueños de Los Muertos is how it uses that ridiculousness for its own benefit. The authority mocks the theory of an experimental ultrasonic radiation machine from the Ministry of Agriculture being responsible for the undead, and that is precisely what ends up condemning humanity.
However, the best thing about this movie is its atmosphere. The creepy mood is top notch and the main reason to revisit this classic.
8) Dead & Buried (1981)
This film directed by Gary Sherman and written by the legendary Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett (who had previously collaborated on that little unknown movie called Alien), alternates quiet pacing with surprising in-your-face horrible violence.
Dead & Buried flirts with torture porn, detective drama and absurd campy sci-fi horror, creating an enerving atmosphere like very few movies. It's inspired by the classic trope of the urban fear of the small towns and the rural world, with a couple of great final twists that satisfy even when some could be predictable.
Put it simply, Dead & Buried looks like a terrifying and rated R episode of The Twilight Zone. If that description doesn't make you want to watch it, I genuinely don't understand what are you doing reading this.
7) The Beyond (1981)
The Beyond is the second installment in the "Gates of Hell" trilogy directed by Lucio Fulci. Undoubtedly, this is also the most respected and praised film of the godfather of gore.
Yes, The Beyond is full of undead and ghouls, but this is really a movie about the most unknown side of darkness. Fulci seems to unleash all his demons against the audience, creating the most bloody, raw and painful sequences of his filmography.
The Beyond also has a Lynchian charm, one that forces us to feel and not look for logic and explanations to the nightmare we are experiencing. Fulci was always more of a visual master, creating atmospheres and shocking images. And in that respect, The Beyond is undoubtedly one of the most memorable cinematic visits to hell.
6) [REC] (2007)
Spain decided to return to the global horror scene by revitalizing another forgotten sub-genre: the found footage.
The result is probably the best horror film recorded on a handheld camera (sorry, The Blair Witch Project). Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza decided to show something as everyday-ish and inoffensive as a building full of neighbors and make it a bloody hell full of agonizing screams.
[REC] also has an interesting comment on xenophobia and fear of the immigrant, which undoubtedly increases the level of the storytelling.
But even if it were a pure substance, [REC] has many arguments in its favor. One of them is its genuine staging with talented actors, but above all, its greater merit is La Niña Medeiros, masterly played by Javier Botet, which is a guaranteed nightmare fuel.
5) Train to Busan (2016)
The fact that this quite recent movie is already part of this list should be indicative enough.
The South Korean cinema has already been masters of the cinematic horror and tragedy for several years. Train to Busan is the zombie movie that was missing and the result doesn't disappoint at all.
Set mostly in the claustrophobic confines of a moving train with a paradoxical uncertain destination, Train to Busan gradually destroys the sense of safety. Through the eyes of a father and his little daughter, this not-so-subtle symbolism about privilege, class struggle and social Darwinism offers devastating, frenetic moments, one after the other.
Perhaps it gloats a little too much on its despair, but maybe that's what makes it effective. It's impossible for the audience not to feel impotence, sadness, and fear before the flow of violence that consumes innocent and beautifully imperfect lives.
4) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This is the movie that started it all. The one that evolved the zombies of their voodoo racist background and spread them all over the globe, humanizing them and showing them as a warning of our own faults and shortcomings as human beings.
One of the two masterpieces of George A. Romero (the other one is higher up on this list), this movie broke several paradigms. The legacy of its proto-gore is unmeasurable. The use of a black actor as a protagonist, a revolutionary act.
Night of the Living Dead undoubtedly hasn't aged with grace. But if the viewer is willing to contextualize this movie in its time, the experience will remain innovative, terrifying and beautifully cruel.
3) Zombi 2 (1979)
In a historical moment in which zombies were beginning to be used to illustrate more complex social issues, the Italian godfather of gore Lucio Fulci decided to stamp his vision on the creatures and return to the basics and animalistic aspects of fear.
To achieve his goal, Fulci abandoned any complexity in the story and dedicates himself to designing wonderful terrifying environments and memorable scenes.
Every moment in Zombi 2 is full of a rarefied, timeless, unnerving vibration. From the soundtrack to the cinematography, Zombi 2 sure looks like a movie from the past, but one that, far from inspiring nostalgia, enervates us.
Scenes such as the zombie and the shark confrontation or the terrible Giallo agony of an eye and a splintered wood continue to impact audiences even today. Zombi 2 is visually beautiful, but its gloom is total.
What is the best zombie horror movie on the list?
2) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The George A. Romero masterpiece leads thousands of lists with well-deserved reasons. This movie marked the necessary evolution of the genre. Everything that came after has this in its DNA.
With Dawn of the Dead, it was shown that the zombie wasn't only a superficial monster that generates fear, but a medium to channel different symbolism and social commentary.
The zombies are somehow secondary in this movie. The biggest fear that the protagonists in this story have is losing their comfort, amenities, and privileges. And, in many ways, it was the first time that a film of the genre made the audience feel the same.
And boy, that's scary. The first minutes of Dawn of the Dead show the uncertainty of a society that until a few minutes ago was arrogantly believed invincible. That paradigm destroyed and its legacy is simply impossible to quantify.
That's why almost 50 years later we're still talking about this movie. It's also why it is number one on my best zombie movies of all-time list. This movie shows up on the top of nearly all personal rankings.
1) 28 Days Later (2002)
The 2002 gem of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland showed that the zombies were more than ready to continue pushing stories in the 21st century, provided they were given the necessary update.
Focusing on the paranoia of the end of times and the violence present in modern society in the form of discontent, protests, stress, road rage, repression, injustice, etc., the zombies of 28 Days Later are rabid and violent extensions of the human, not slow supernatural creatures.
The threat of extinction is real and no one before 28 Days Later showed it in such a plausible, frightening way. That abandoned London sequence still haunts us.
28 Days Later is horror, road trip, and suspense, all in one package. With a wonderful cast, an emblematic soundtrack and a unique visual personality thanks to the digital handheld feel, we will surely continue talking about this film for the next 50 years.
We hope you enjoyed our list of the best horror zombie movies. You'll find some nice thrills and gore here. If you have recommendations or your own personal favorites that are not on the list, please leave them in the comments.
© 2019 Sam Shepards