The Best 70s Zombie Movies

Updated on June 17, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie movies. Pessimistic and survival films I also enjoy a lot.

After the impact of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, the zombie sub-genre had a slow but key resurgence in the '70s.

Romero showed that horror could be a vehicle for other issues. This decade was full of experimentation. The undead were present in a mix of genres that included soft porn, blaxploitation, old-school horror, and social commentary and satire narratives. Everything was framed in a wonderful and brand new dedication to the visual craft.

Here, we present the 12 best films of the decade. Our criteria? Its importance in history, its cinematic quality and its ability to better encapsulate the decade.

12) The Demoniacs (1974)

A gang of anachronistic pirates finds two beautiful women (Patricia Hermenier and Lieva Lone) shipwrecked on a nearby beach. Their reaction? They rape them savagely and stone them to death.

The women reappear days later and manage to take refuge in some ruins, where a woman disguised as a clown (!) leads them to The Exorcist (Ben Zimet), who also introduces them to The Devil (Miletic Zivomir). Both women want revenge, so The Devil offers a deal: They have to donate their mortal bodies (via fornication, of course) and in return, they'll reborn as immortal beings... for a few hours.

The Demoniacs is practically a soft-porn movie (there are naked women in 60% of the scenes) with a supernatural backdrop. It has a unique personality and is one of the clearest evidence of gender experimentation in this decade.

Director Jean Rollin would return some years later, way more focused, with The Grapes of Death.

11) Night Of The Seagulls (1975)

The last installment of the Blind Dead saga by Spanish director Amando de Ossorio, is also technically the best one.

The story is told from the point of view of a city doctor and his wife, who arrive at an enigmatic coastal old town to rebuild their lives. There, they find a hostile population and a horrendous secret that includes undead and human sacrifices.

With beautiful cinematography, glamorous use of sexploitation and a great atmosphere, this film gives a loud closure to the mythology around the Templar Knights zombies and their knack for drinking beautiful women's blood.

10) Horror Express (1972)

To persuade you to go watch—or rewatch—this horror gem directed by Eugenio Martín should be easy.

Listen: We're talking about a story that happens inside the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow, with a Christopher Lee and a Peter Cushing passive-aggressively taking shots at each other. The horror begins when some sort of extraterrestrial parasite begins to kill/revive the dead--including a primitive humanoid fossil!--absorbing the brain of the poor victims—memories and thoughts included!—using some red laser eyes.

Still not convinced? FINE. The great Telly Savalas (you know, Kojak) makes an appearance as a creative and cruel Cossack officer and at some point, Lee's character tries to "rationalize" the phenomenon by blaming hypnosis or yoga.

You're welcome.

9) Shock Waves (1977)

In this movie, the main villains are aquatic Nazi zombies—which are three words that I will never get tired of. So, obviously, what was expected was an incredibly pulpy, funny and absurd experience.

However, the surprising thing about this film directed by Ken Wiederhorn is that the tone leans toward suspense instead of gore. Violence is scarce but the terrifying atmosphere is simply fantastic.

The story revolves around a group of tourists led by Brook Adams, John Carradine, and Luke Halpin, who are shipwrecked on a mysterious island where there's only one abandoned giant mansion where an old German ex-SS commander with a horrible scar on his face (played by Peter Cushing!) lives.

One by one, all will be hunted by a former Nazi "Death Corps" that after being abandoned for decades at sea by reckless attitude (by Nazi standards!), ended up becoming aquatic Nazi zombies. Never gets old.

8) Tombs Of The Blind Dead (1972)

Of all the Spanish cinema zombie made during the '70s, Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead saga was the one that undoubtedly had more success.

Tombs of the Blind Dead is a fantastic exponent of the sub-genre. It mixes wonderful cinematography, a loud and colorful costume design with a fantastic score by Antón García Abril.

In the center of the horror are some blind and slow Nazgul-Templar-like zombies (who even ride horses!) Who enjoy feeding on female blood. Of course, there is a large amount of sexploitation: Naked women, tortures and even a completely unnecessary rape scene that doesn't move the plot at all.

Its final sequence, incredibly cruel and obscure, is perhaps the main reason for its historical success. This film would end up producing three sequels in the following three years.

7) The Grapes of Death (1978)

This is probably the most European zombie movie ever made. I mean, the cause of the epidemic that turns its victims into mindless killers is a whole crop of contaminated grapes. Let me be clearer: DRINKING WINE is what turns humans into zombies. That simple idea just deserves a slow clapping that becomes a standing ovation.

But in addition, French director Jean Rollin—who in true French fashion came from the adult erotic movies industry—manages to mix doses of eroticism with body horror. All, framed in a little European rural villa.

Although somewhat disperse, The Grapes of Death deserves our attention only for all the scenes in which Brigitte Lahaie unleash her enigmatic "grande femme blonde". YES, that's the official name of her character.

6) Dead of Night (1974)

Dead of Night is a slow-built family thriller. It tells the story of an American soldier named Andy (Richard Backus) who after being fatally shot by a Vietnamese sniper and declared dead, somehow come back to his family.

The truly memorable thing about Dead of Night isn't the great performances of Lynn Carlin or John Marley as the anguished parents. Neither are the special effects, although they are of great quality and had a debutant Tom Savini as a make-up artist. The truly groundbreaking thing about this movie is its devastating analogy about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something that would be just accepted and defined 6 years later by the American Psychiatric Association. Through Andy's character, all the symptoms of the trauma are perfectly displayed. It wasn't subtle at all, but it certainly was effective.

Yes, the relevance of Dead of Night is mostly a socio-political one. And if that seems like an inconsequential reason to rate a zombie horror movie, you haven't been paying attention.

5) Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

The greatest merit of director Bob Clark is the way he plays with the expectations and empathy of the audience.

During the vast majority of the time, the film presents us a snobbish theater group full of entitled young actors who decide to break into the quietness of a lonely island supposedly used as a cemetery for deranged killers (I know, I know). Their stupid motivation? To "pass the weekend" desecrating tombs and competing among them to see who has better knowledge about satanic rites.

So although at first we, the audience, fear the zombies, by the second act we will practically be clamoring for the presence of the undead. We just need them to tear these unbearable humans apart.

And when, after a lot of fake jumps scares, we almost lose hope of that happening, the violent catharsis finally arrives. And we welcome it.

4) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)

In true proto-Romero fashion, this Italo-Spanish zombie film directed by Jorge Grau places capitalism and consumerism as the true antagonists and the absolute causes of the mayhem ensued.

In this story, a sophisticated biker (Ray Lovelock) and a nervous woman (Cristina Galbó) begin to discover a connection between a series of murders and experimental ultrasonic radiation (?) device used by the government in the agriculture of a small rural area.

But of course, it will be our own humanity that will lead us to extinction. The pride, prejudice and human miscommunication of the local police will end up looking for the culprit on all the wrong parts, thus allowing the outbreak.

The atmosphere of the inevitable mixed with the impotence feeling of witnessing human stupidity is what makes this film a wonderful exponent of the genre.

3) Sugar Hill (1974)

If you need to pick a single zombie movie that aesthetically speaking best encapsulates the 70s, your choice definitely has to be Sugar Hill.

The plot is pure and simple revenge fantasy: A beautiful black woman named Sugar Hill-whose name honors her glorious glam-Afro-funk style-decides to take revenge on the criminal mafia that murdered her love.

In order to achieve that, she won't resource to guns. Instead, Sugar Hill will connect with her Afro-Caribbean roots and release the power of voodoo on her mortal enemies. Baron Samedi and his undead army are her allies. The mafia is fucked.

Blaxploitation, a satire of the genre and a lot of creative kills make this film an essential one.

What is the best 1970s zombie movie?

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2) Zombi 2 (1979)

Zombi 2 received its sequel name thanks to the success of George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, a year before. But beyond that grab-cash marketing move, both films aren't related. AT ALL. Quite the opposite.

In more than one way, this Lucio Fulci gem was an act of thematic stubbornness to the new Zombie imposed by Romero. While Romero used the zombie to show us a mirror, Fulci stubbornly refused to humanize the undead. Where Romero urbanized the zombie, Fulci returned to the old voodoo tropes to explain them.

And what's truly admirable about Fulci is that even though he was completely thematically out of time, his technical mastery was so undeniable that Zombi 2 would become one of the best horror films of all time.

You just have to remember iconic scenes like the battle between a zombie and a real shark to understand its well-deserved place in history.

1) Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I'll say it one more time: George A. Romero's masterpiece is the reason why this and any other zombie horror movie ranking exist.

10 years before, Romero had already rescued the zombie from voodoo (and from oblivion). But with Dawn of the Dead, Romero outdid himself in exponential fashion. He showed that horror didn't have to be a merely superficial genre, but that, in fact, it was a perfect vehicle to portray our humanity.

In Dawn of the Dead, zombies and humans struggle—almost like on the two sides of a mirror—to perpetuate their daily existence inside of a mall. More than 40 years later, that Romero's genius idea (supported by the great Dario Argento, who helped him with the script, direction, and musicalization) continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers.

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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