“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” – My Top 5 Zombie Apocalypse Movies

3 Dec


Next year sees the release of World War Z, a big budget adaptation of Max Brooks’ novel, starring one Mr Bradley Pitt. Now, I still can’t decide whether it looks like a pile of shit or the Greatest Movie Ever Made™. Like all CGI-dependent blockbusters, it’s something of a Schrodinger’s Cat. Fortunately, even if World War Z is terrible there are a whole host of great zombie apocalypse movies to enjoy. So here, without further ado, and in chronological (rather than preferential) order, are my personal top 5 zombie apocalypse movies. (Or, for the pedants among you, my top 4 zombie apocalypse movies and favourite zombie apocalypse TV show.)

1) Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

Yes, it’s the granddaddy of modern zombie films. Oh, I know Hammer released The Plague of the Zombies two years earlier, and that the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie was released a whole 34 years before that, but they were old school zombie movies that explained away their walking dead with old-time, borderline-racist voodoo.

Interpret this as you see fit.

Interpret this as you see fit.

The closest George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead comes to offering an explanation for its flesh-eating reanimated corpses is the brief mention of a comet passing by Earth the night before. (So the Night Before The Night of the Living Dead, or just Night of the Dead, if you will.) Mostly, it’s not concerned with the whys or wherefores of a zombie infestation. Instead, it uses the breakdown of society in a zombie apocalypse (and it was the first film to suggest that zombies might cause an apocalypse) as an allegory for the oppression of civil rights.

"Emancipate this..."

“Emancipate this…”

For a film made in the 1960s that didn’t star Sidney Poitier, it was almost unique in having an African American (Duane Jones) as its hero, and its bleak ending packs a punch to this day. What’s more, a good nine months before the release of Easy RiderNight of the Living Dead showed that low budget movies could not only turn a decent profit but make a fortune and paved the way – along with the movies of Roger Corman – for the renaissance of American cinema by the so-called “Movie Brats” in the 1970s.

2) Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dawn of the Dead

Ten years later Romero was back with a kind-of sequel to his 1968 classic. I say “kind-of”, because while none of the characters from the original return (they’re all presumably zombie poop by the time Dawn… kicks off), it’s set in the same universe. The zombie apocalypse is well under way, society is falling apart, and there’s nothing on TV except a pirate version of Francis Ford Coppola.

"Arrrgh. Me next film will be called 'The Godfaaarghther'. Arrrgh."

“Arrrgh. Me next film will be called ‘The Godfaaarhther’.”

Now, there’s plenty wrong with Dawn of the Dead. Its full, 139 minute US cut is probably about 20 minutes too long, the acting is almost uniformly lousy, Francine (Gaylen Ross) is possibly the weakest female character ever committed to celluloid, and there are plenty of giggles to be had at the expense of the bright blue zombies (Hare Krishna Zombie is my personal favourite) and the even brighter red fake blood.

Even so, Dawn of the Dead is still arguably the greatest zombie movie ever made. Why? Because, despite its shortcomings, it’s still a deeply unsettling film. Here, the apocalypse isn’t an endless roller coaster of adventure; it’s a gradual falling apart of everything we take for granted. Romero has a real sense of how things would collapse, and in what order, making all the background detail (the last, shambolic TV broadcasts; the armies of trigger-happy red necks) feel utterly convincing. What’s more, in setting much of the film in an abandoned shopping mall Dawn of the Dead ups the allegory by suggesting it’s not just racist hicks from the deep south who are the zombies; we’re all zombies.

Seriously. Once you’ve watched Dawn of the Dead you’ll never look at early bird pensioners waiting for Primark to open the same way again.

3) Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead

Whether or not you approve of this choice depends on if you still find Simon Pegg and Nick Frost funny, or if you’ve jumped on some hipsterish bandwagon of saying they’re, like, totally overrated. You may also have to forgive director Edgar Wright for making, in Scott Pilgrim vs The World, a film that’s impossible for anyone over the age of 21 to watch, let alone understand.

It’s probably important to remember that for about 15 years prior to Shaun of the Dead there were two types of British comedy film:

What 22nd Century Cultural Historians will call "The Mirthless Age".

What 22nd Century Cultural Historians will call “The Frown Age”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against well-written, nicely acted, socially unrealistic romantic comedies, and there’s nowt wrong with smut, but the former gets tiresome if it’s all we get, and if the latter’s both badly written and in your face it’s just embarrassing.

Shaun of the Dead achieved the miraculous by being several things. It was a successful “rom-com” that didn’t star Hugh Grant, it was side-splittingly funny without being particularly crude, and it was a horror comedy that was both funny and scary. It was also spectacularly gruesome, which in those pre-Saw days was refreshing after a decade or so of horror movies that resembled nothing so much as a series of bloodless, Dawson’s Creek Halloween Specials.

The "horror"... The "horror".

The “horror”… The “horror”…

Shaun of the Dead paid homage to the George A. Romero movies without being a spoof, and maintained a great level of suspense while never forgetting that it’s a comedy. The cast are spectacularly good, from Pegg and Frost as our likeable if unlikely heroes to Penelope Wilton as Shaun’s shellshocked mother. And if all that wasn’t enough, it changed forever the way we listen to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

4) Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Dawn of the Dead 2004

In recent years, director Zack Snyder has become a popular whipping boy for many film critics. And yes… When you’ve sat through all 110 baffling minutes of Sucker Punch, it’s easy to see why. And yes… 300 was ridiculous. And yes… Watchmen was all style with only what little substance survived from comic book to movie screen. And no… I haven’t seen that one he did about the owls. But… but… I maintain that Dawn of the Dead is not only one of the best zombie apocalypse movies ever made. It’s also one of the best remakes of all time.

Hear me out. You see, what it loses in the original’s bleak satire it gains in pace, acting, production values and tension. Whereas the original – or certainly its 139 minute cut, mentioned above – runs out of puff somewhere in the middle, Snyder’s 2004 version has a very strong structure of “We’re going to the mall… We’re in the mall… How the Hell do we get out of the mall?” It might not sound like much, but by the last act it makes for a nail-biting horror action film; think Black Hawk Down with zombies. The opening 10 minutes are jaw-droppingly good, worth seeing for this shot alone. (And yes… That is the whole film on Youtube. But, you know… Finish reading this first before you watch it.)

5) Dead Set (2008)

Dead Set

On paper, Dead Set should have been the worst thing Channel 4 has ever shown: A zombie drama based upon the popular reality show Big Brother, starring real-life former housemates and a zombified version of the show’s host, Davina McCall (pictured above). It should have been neither funny nor scary. It should have been car crash TV; self-referential, gimmicky and glib.

Instead, it managed to be one of the most exciting and disturbing pieces of drama on British TV in the last 10 years. It helps that as well as giving some of his characters cracking lines (I’m thinking in particular of Andy Nyman’s vile TV producer), writer Charlie Brooker takes it all very seriously, and plays it absolutely straight. Even Zombie Davina – something which at the very most should have been a brief, only mildly amusing gag – is genuinely scary.

Though, admittedly, not the most disturbing thing to ever come out of 'Big Brother'.

Though, admittedly, not the most disturbing thing to ever come out of ‘Big Brother’.

Like the Romero films to which it clearly owes so much, there’s some gentle, not exactly razor sharp satire about reality TV and the media obsession with celebrity, but most of all it presents a terrifying vision of society descending into chaos. The desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape is as detailed and believable as anything in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road, and the characters’ desperation is all too convincing.

Okay, so strictly speaking it’s not a film (it was broadcast over 5 consecutive nights for Halloween 2008), but take away the ad break titles and “Previously” intros, and what you have is a gripping and often hilarious 140 minute zombie epic which – amazingly, considering Big Brother is now shown on the abandoned funfair that is Channel 5 – hasn’t dated a jot in the 4 years since it was made.


2 Responses to ““They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” – My Top 5 Zombie Apocalypse Movies”

  1. jmspate December 3, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Guitar Wolf: Wild Zero. That is all.

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