The best zombie movies of all time

What are the best zombie movies of all time? No matter where you stand on the debate around zombie running speed, picking out the best films for ravenous, flesh-eating ghouls is always a contentious process. There’s just so many greats to choose from, and everyone has that hidden gem of rotting skin they think deserves more love.

Following extensive research into the archives of zombification and the walking dead, only the absolute best has made our list. From around the world, spanning decades, from indie cinema on a micro-budget to near blockbusters, these movies represent the breadth of creativity, terror, and sheer bloody gore this particular hive of horror is beloved for.

Not everything could make the list, and we’re as gutted about some of the severed limbs as you are. Sometimes being the arbiters of bad taste comes with a price, and it’s one we’re happy to pay to bring you the absolute greatest flicks in living dead history. Pack a bag, and don’t forget your torch – it’s time to face the horde.

What are the best Zombie movies? 

  • Day of the Dead
  • The Girl with all the Gifts
  • Braindead
  • [REC]
  • Train to Busan
  • Night of the Living Dead
  • 28 Days Later
  • Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
  • Shaun of the Dead
  • The Battery
  • Dawn of the Dead

Day of the Dead (1985)

The first, but definitely not the last time you’ll see something from George A. Romero on this list. Famed architect of the modern zombie film contributed a few classics to the subgenre, and the third in his Living Dead trilogy is among his greatest.

Day of the Dead shows a world where the worst just keeps happening. Zombies have taken over the cities, driving whoever’s left underground. Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) is part of one such group, a scientist assisting Dr. Matthew Logan (Richard Liberty) with looking into this plague that resurrects the dead. They’re trapped in a claustrophobic bunker with Capt. Henry Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), who leads a belligerent cohort of soldiers.

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Romero had initially planned for this to be more grandiose, but budget cuts forced him to scale back. This  only adds to the isolation, and watching this boiling pot that might be the last bastion of mankind go pear-shaped, surrounded by nothing but ambivalent concrete in any direction, is riveting.

The Girl with all the Gifts (2016)

That time Glenn Close was in a zombie film. Based on the book of the same name, and directed by Colm McCarthy, parasitic fungi is infecting humans, and Melanie is a young girl who harbors it without needing to tear out the neck of anyone who gets near. A small crew featuring Dr. Carolin Caldwell (Close) and Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) has to escort Melanie through London, doing their level best to navigate the infested capital.

Overgrown urbanism and frenzied action are shot with the same eye for majestic desolation, cinematographer Simon Dennis capturing every detail. Perhaps the disorder is all part of a necessary transition, as Melanie begins to consider. Considering McCarthy would go on to direct an episode of Black Mirror, it should come as no surprise the final shot carries some heft.

Braindead (aka Dead Alive) (1992)

Before Peter Jackson directed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he made his name doing schlocky gore flicks like Braindead (aka Dead Alive). Full of the same grossout New Zealand humour as his 1989 debut Bad Taste, Braindead takes everything up a notch by ending with a full on zombie massacre using a lawn mower.

This is after our hapless hero, Lionel (Timothy Balme), manages to give them animal stimulants, because he thought poisoning these shambling corpses would work. One madcap scene after another, threaded along by Lionel’s burgeoning romance with Paquita (Diana Peñalver), Braindead is everything-and-the-kitchen-sink filmmaking, all centred on trying to stop your family from embarrassing you on a date.

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After this, he’d make Heavenly Creatures, and move away from gore altogether. When you’ve started using gardening tools, what else is there?

[REC] (2007)

If a zombie outbreak happened today, the first place most of us would hear about it is Twitter, glued to our trending tabs for more information and live feeds. 2007’s [REC] was right on the cusp of our social media obsession, and recognises with unnerving clarity our profound inability to look away.

An apartment building in Barcelona is closed off when some residents become increasingly aggressive. Among those trapped inside are emergency responders, and reporter Angela Vidal and her cameraman Pablo, who are making a documentary.

Following everything through the lens of Pablo’s camera, we helplessly watch the infection spread, and the group of survivors gradually whittle down. Found footage may have a bad reputation, but [REC], directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, clearly shows the potential of the approach, capturing the overwhelming panic and quiet moments with equal terror.

Train to Busan (2016)

Zombies on one of South Korea’s high speed trains, forcing a small band of survivors to keep each other alive long enough to get off at the next stop. Train To Busan, from director Yeon Sang-ho, is simple, elegant, and has Ma Dong-seok reveal his biceps like we need a permit just for viewing.

Purists might balk at the incorporation of CGI tomake the ever-burgeoning swarm of reanimated corpses more visibly horde-like, but form meets function. Using special effects makes filming these scenes easier on a ground level, and gives us a greater sense of what the protagonists are looking at.

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Have you ever considered what a load of zombies coming towards you would look like? You’d probably think you were hallucinating, lost in the uncanny valley because the dead don’t walk, or run, they’re just dead. Train to Busan is all about realising it’s definitely not a dream.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The rest of the entries in this list do not exist without this film. That is a simple fact. In 1968, a young George A. Romero, and his friends John Russo and Russell Steiner, put out the archetypal zombie movie. Ben (Duane Jones) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) take refuge from the living dead in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse, where they find another family living in the basement.

Contrasting ideas for survival are bandied around, and some handle the anxiety better than others. Meanwhile, walking corpses gather outside. Tight and psychological, Night of the Living Dead denoted a shift in genre and indie filmmaking, spawning innumerable copycats. Rest assured, the original may seem quaint, but it’s still absolutely one of the best.

28 Days Later (2002)

It might be hard to believe now post-The Walking Dead, but in the late ’90s, zombies were near nonexistent in the mainstream. Enter 28 Days Later, from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle. The first of two collaborations with writer Alex Garland, 28 Days Later imagines a Great Britain that’s ravaged by a virus that turns us into rage-filled monsters.

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A small gaggle of survivors, led by Jim (Cillian Murphy) and Selena (Naomie Harris), head towards Manchester from London for a military outpost that promises salvation. Hope is in short supply here, though, when it turns out those soldiers don’t need any viral infection to be inhuman predators. Visions of tribalism, chauvinism, and empty English capitals have aged alarmingly well.

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)

Movies featuring reanimated corpses that are suitable for children is a short list that Scoob and the gang’s ghoulish encounter happily sits on top of. Having gone their separate ways, the members of Mystery, Inc. Have a wee get together to help Daphne scout locations for her travel show. One stop in New Orleans, Louisiana brings to a haunted island that, despite the resounding skepticism, turns out to actually be haunted.

Mook Animation, a contributing studio to X-Men: Evolution, Men in Black: The Series, and Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn, provided the animation, which is  full of brilliant colours and gloomy effects. Light on its feet, musical numbers punctuate scares for any especially young viewers. Comfort food.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Another film, alongside Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and the aforementioned 28 Days Later, that helped reignite public interest in zombies. Reuniting with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost from TV show Spaced, director Edgar Wright began his Cornetto Trilogy with a pastiche of living dead films, horror, and being middle-aged and bored in Britain.

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Pegg co-wrote the screenplay that delivers a jolt or two among the regular laughs. Despite coming years before gifs would become part of our online vocabulary, many shots and lines have become memes unto themselves. Now, let’s go to The Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this all to blow over.

The Battery (2012)

Not everything to do with the walking dead has to be violent, or even especially scary. The Battery, directed and written by Jeremy Gardner, who also co-stars, is basically a drama about two men who happen to be surviving a zombie apocalypse.

While wandering the backroads of New England, Ben (Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) catch word of another group doing the same. Unfortunately for them, this other group doesn’t care to bolster its ranks, and leaves Ben and Mickey for dead. Minimal and despondent, but not without slivers of optimism, this is indie horror at its best.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Our last entry, and the third part of Romero’s Living Dead trilogy. This is not a ranking, but if it was, Dawn of the Dead would be number one. Romero’s sequel to Night off the Living Dead kept the burgeoning zombie outbreak, but pivoted to Philadelphia, and a new cast of characters. The violence is dialed up, but so is the pathology, and examination of the shambling dead.

Cities are becoming hives of brutal standoffs between police and residents, infected and non-infected, and a small group of four, Stephen, Francine, Peter, and Roger manage to escape in a helicopter. Eventually, they find respite at a shopping mall – the now iconic Monroeville Mall – where they discover scores of zombies mindlessly browsing the stores. Memories, they theorise, of when these people were part of the living.

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Social commentary abounds, and in the preferable 1979 theatrical cut, Romero’s playful direction is complemented by Goblin’s proggy soundtrack, and the legendary Tom Savini’s practical effects work. Each of the cast elevates the drama when necessary, and the frenzied conclusion is one of cinema’s great last gasps. Zombie films do not get better.

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Anthony McGlynn

Staff writer

Updated: Jun 19, 2021


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