There are dozens of zombie movies worth watching, and hundreds more that are probably worth the time to die-hard fans, but there are five zombie films that have changed the genre and even what the term zombie means. In chronological order, I give you the most important zombie films ever made.
1. White Zombie (1932)
Considered the first feature length film about zombies, White Zombie is very different from what we now think of when talking zombie movies. Set in Haiti, this film plays on the tropes of the voodoo zombie — being a zombie isn’t catching and there’s no biting involved. Basically, a man uses voodoo to steal another man’s woman by turning her into a zombie, but at the end of the film the bad man is punished and she is returned to normal. Bela Lugosi stars as the Haitian voodoo master. For over thirty years, films about zombies followed in White Zombie‘s shambling footsteps until…
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Night of the Living Dead and George Romero’s contribution to the existence of the zombie genre. Inspired in part by I am Legend by Richard Matheson, the Romero zombie is an entirely new creation. Divorced totally from the Haitian voodoo from which the term arose, the Romero zombie is not a creature under a spell nor in the thrall of a man, but a supernatural corpse returned to destroy the living, more like the traditional idea of a ghoul. Like vampires, zombies now have rules — they eat human flesh, a bite eventually turns you into a zombie yourself, they need to be shot in the head or set on fire to be destroyed. It also introduced the tropes of strangers banding together in the face of the attack, thematically dealing with societal problems (racism), and setting horror films in banal, everyday locations.
3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Introduces the worldwide apocalyptic plague of zombies. Set in a mall with large numbers of extras, this film introduces the world of survivors post society-wide infestation. It’s also incredibly gory. The remake is also worth watching.
4. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
It’s a little shocking to believe, but it wasn’t until this film that zombies earned their hallowed cry of “ BRAAINNS”. Before this, zombies just ate flesh like any normal ghoul. It was also the introduction of fast zombies. The tone of this film is also much funnier — more in line with Evil Dead. Films to follow in its footsteps would include Dead Alive from Peter Jackson.
5. 28 Days Later (2002)
This one always runs you the risk of getting into trouble with zombie aficionados because the monsters in the film aren’t technically zombies. But then, neither were the zombies in Romero’s first, so I am going to categorically reject that idea. This are modern zombies — fast, virus-ridden, violent. The film is also credited with reinvigorating zombies for younger audiences. The zombies of the last decade, including those in Shaun of the Dead and World War Z, owe a lot to the success of this movie.