It’s the premiere of season 6 of AMC’s The Walking Dead this weekend (October 11, 2015), and I have to start by saying that the series is, hands-down, in my humble opinion, the best zombie narrative in every way ever. But . . . when you’re not watching The Walking Dead, you have plenty of great films to sate the appetite for quality zombie fare.
There are also lots of lists out there detailing the best zombie films. (I found Zomboy’s Top 10 Zombie Movies on Bloody Disgusting to be one of the best, covering everything from the classics to the parodies.)[i]
I want to put a slightly different spin on things, offering you what I think are the ten most provocative zombie films. They’re great films—and they’ll also make you think.
-1. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943). Set on a Caribbean island steeped in a history of slavery, this film is the best example of the pre-Romero zombie film, in which becoming a zombie is the result of voodoo not a virus and in which you’re divested of mind and soul, your body under the control of someone else (a voodoo priest usually), not that you’re a cannibalistic ghoul. The film addresses all kinds of issues, from sexual betrayal to the oppression of women to America’s colonial aspirations and slaveholding history. The film evokes Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and looks toward Jean Rhys’s later postcolonial rewriting of Bronte’s classic novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).
-2. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). The original zombie classic, Night began the mindless-cannibal-horde zombie tradition. Loads of critics have written about how this film speaks to the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and sixties radicalism, but I want to point out two ways in which Romero’s film seems newly relevant today. First, some have argued that Night’s zombies (all white) symbolized Nixon’s “silent majority.” With Donald Trump adopting this phrase for his supporters in the 2015 presidential campaign, Night again explicitly enters the political terrain almost 50 years after its original release. (How awesome is that?) And the infamous ending—the fate of the lone survivor of the night of the living dead—also seems to gain new significance in light of increased scrutiny of race-based police shootings.
-3. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002). This British film is perhaps my favorite zombie film. Like many zombie fictions, it ruminates (with lots of blood) on what happens to humanity when all our institutions collapse, but I love the extended opening for its suggestion that the famous “rage virus” that precipitates the collapse is actually a kind of media virus—one that spawns in monkeys in part through their being forced to watch continuous video feeds of human violence. If you’re interested in the notion of zombies created by a rage that seems contagious, check out British writer Dave Moody’s Hater trilogy (2006-11)—some of the best zombie fiction I’ve read.[ii]
-4. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004). Another of my favorite zombie films for all kinds of reasons (not least, it’s hilarious!), this British horror comedy makes us think about how we spend so much of our daily lives running on “zombie consciousness”—a kind of automatic pilot that can literally become deadening. The film loses power, I think, toward the end, but the beginning is funny and existentially-chilling at the same time (no mean feat) in its portrayal of zombies who look just like everyone else, and who are basically indistinguishable from the shambling mass of humanity. Ferocious, ravening zombies who are trying to eat us are one kind of scary. Zombies who are us are a whole other kind of scary.
-5. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007). Reams of prose has been written about Dawn of the Dead (Romero 1978) and its critique of conspicuous consumption, as well as the so-explicitly-political-it-almost-forgets-zombies-are-supposed-to-be-scary Land of the Dead (Romero 2005), so here I want to go in a slightly different direction and recommend the under-rated Diary (a “re-boot” of the night the zombie apocalypse begins). It offers great insights into our media-saturated culture, as well as commenting on humanity’s enduring, not-so-pleasant qualities.[iii]
-6. 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007). One of those rare things—a sequel that’s almost as good as the original without being derivative. This film makes you think about what it’s like to live in a police state and also makes it clear that mobs of zombies and mobs of humans ain’t that different. I also like the film for making us ponder the stakes of moral cowardice in a genre that’s usually known mostly for its heroics. What do we make of a man who abandons his wife when the mob arrives at the door? Should he (almost certainly uselessly) have sacrificed his own life? The film dwells thoughtfully on this dilemma and its aftereffects in ways that reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, Lord Jim (1899-1900).
-7. REC (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007). This Spanish zombie-virus film offers a disturbing portrait of a seemingly benign government willing to ruthlessly sacrifice its citizens. Of course it also suggests that the government may be right—and is indeed serving the greater good. Once the residents of the infected apartment complex realize they are trapped, they display an alarming xenophobia and a complete unwillingness (and inability) to work together to save themselves. REC was re-made in the US as Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008), a decent film that’s different in some interesting ways (mostly concerning the origin of the virus) from its Spanish counterpart. Together, however, both films suggest that the tendency to blame the “outsider” for any and all disasters may well be a human tendency that crosses national borders.
-8. Dead Snow (Tommy Wirkola, 2009). A Norwegian film that cleverly combines Nazi zombies with a slasher plot (seven teens in a cabin, harking back to the classic Evil Dead  only in the mountains not the woods). Norway was occupied by the German army for five years during World War II, and this film explicitly raises the abuses perpetuated by the Nazis as well as lingering guilt over Norwegian collaboration. While the film has enough gore to satisfy hardcore fans, it might also send you to the history books to learn more about aspects of the war that have been pretty much absent from mainstream Hollywood.
-9. Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos, Alejandro Brugués, 2010). Clearly inspired by Shaun of the Dead, a similarly hilarious zombie-comedy that takes aim at Cuban communism and US capitalism/imperialism at the same time. My colleague at Lehigh University, Miguel Pillado, puts the political thrust of the film perfectly: Juan is “a political parody of both Castro’s socialist Cuba and American capitalism. In order to survive the Cuban tragedy (of socialism), Juan, the main character, becomes a capitalist entrepreneur, creating a zombie-killing company whose promotional motto sarcastically reads, ‘Juan of the dead, we kill your love ones, how can I help you?’” I loved how the zombies are routinely dismissed by the jaded Cuban protagonists as “dissidents” (described at one point as “antisocial people in collusion with the imperialist US government”).
-10. Rammbock: Berlin Undead (Marvin Kren, 2010). This meditative, grey-toned German film offers an interesting take on the rage virus. Like REC and Quarantine, it follows some inhabitants of an apartment complex (in Berlin) under siege by the infected. Early on, they learn from news broadcasts that the immune system may well be able to “conquer the disease.” The pathogen only enters the brain, the report intones, “when the body releases adrenaline. Stay calm,” and, “if possible, sedate yourself.” By giving the infected some degree of control over the virus, Rammbock intensifies its allegory about the prevalence of rage and violence.
[iii] I’ve written in a more scholarly vein about Diary in “Zombie Evolution: Stephen King’s Cell, George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, and the Future of the Human,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 11.2 (Fall 2012). http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2012/keetley.htm, but I have to give a shout out to what I think is the best essay out there on the film, written by Randy Laist, “Soft Murders: Motion Pictures and Living Death in Diary of the Dead, in Generation Zombie, edited by Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz (McFarland, 2011).