Zombies. We know it’s a tired concept and category, but there’s just something so irresistible about the idea of humans—in death—still being unable to rest in peace. Our bodies are so often these strange vessels we use to travel and experience life; when they are inverted to become cages, that’s where ideas like zombies become truly horrifying propositions. Even in 2021, we’re seeing the zombie genre blossom the occasional new and fresh take on the undead, and it seems foolish to simply shrug them off as “more of the same."
We gathered up eight zombie films that you need to experience because they may very well change the way you feel about the zombie genre.
One Cut of the Dead
From the dredges of the Japanese indie theater, this film managed to transcend its small budget and extremely limited release (it debuted in a tiny theater and showtimes ran for only six days) to become something so original, film fans hunted down a way to view it for themselves.
What begins as a narrative about a director shooting the eponymously titled One Cut of the Dead, which also happens to be a low-budget zombie film, at a water filtration plant, things quickly turn south when the director, failing to rein in the interest and talent of his actors, paints a pentagram and conducts a ritual in hopes of conjuring up zombies as per the legend surrounding the filtration plant.
It doesn’t take long for an unexpected twist—the fake zombies become real as zombified yakuza populate the set. Of course, no one is any wiser until the bites become real and the undead become an undying threat. The mixture of metaphysical playfulness and the whole low-budget, self-aware humor of the film made it a tremendously unique film that every fan of zombie films and horror in general should enjoy.
Rear Window meets World War Z with a dash of otaku culture, #Alive is a claustrophobic rendition of the zombie apocalypse. Instead of survivors roaming around as a pack, viewers hunker down with Joon-woo, a video game streamer living with his parents in a South Korean apartment complex, when suddenly portions of the city and country go into lockdown and quickly accelerate towards uncontrollable threat.
Joon-woo’s only connections with the outside world are his internet connection, the phone in his hands, and the narrow glimpses he can muster when gaining the courage to poke his head outside via the balcony. Between contemplating suicide and yearning for communication with someone, anyone, #Alive might just be the freshest take on a zombie apocalypse in the era of post-COVID.
The Dead Don't Die
Add a little humor to your horror. At least that’s what The Dead Don’t Die demonstrates as an effective way to freshen up the zombie apocalypse. The film dispenses with the usual tension typical of the genre and features a star-studded cast including co-stars Bill Murray and Adam Driver as two ignorant police officers patrolling the middle-of-nowhere American suburbs when things go horribly awry. Thing is, they seem to be too detached and nihilistic to notice.
When shit hits the fan proper, the bumbling cops face everything from missing farm animals to coffee-obsessed zombies. The film makes the loose connection that zombie or human, we’re all existentially bound to a life that seems so very long and short at the same time.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The sinister pairing of Reanimator and Pontypool, The Autopsy of Jane Doe begins and ends with the unidentifiable corpse hinted in the title. Authorities discover the body of a young woman found at the scene of a homicide. Seemingly there are no indications of foul play, with the victims leaving evidence to suggest that they were fleeing the body rather than the other way around. The body is sent to a local morgue for an autopsy.
Father-son duo Tommy and Austin go about their job like any other night shift, only to experience all matters of supernatural activity. Though less zombie outbreak and more a calmer and suggestive thriller loosening the term “undead” to encapsulate multiple paranormal activities, the film suggests the residual haunt and horror of a body that refuses to rest, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is quite smart and will leave many viewers wondering if zombie films need to be so gory and action-packed. Perhaps a single zombie is all that’s necessary.
This film is all kinds of fun and cunningly pushes the zombie threat off as a secondary (or even tertiary) part of the narrative. At its core, this is about a teacher defending children in the face of an unmitigated threat.
Dave is a failed musician that has nowhere else to go after his life kind of blows up in his face (no opportunities, breakup) and goes and lives with his sister Tess and her eccentric son, Felix. Dave helps as much as he can and one of his responsibilities is to drop Felix off at school. While doing so he meets Miss Caroline, played wonderfully by Lupita Nyong'o (Us), and develops an instant attraction.
This leads to him volunteering where he can to get to know her, including a field trip that goes awry, a nearby zombie outbreak resulting in Miss Caroline, Dave, and a group of children forced to survive against the zombie horde. Little Monsters manages to deftly blend together smart writing with humor and just enough emotional resonance to entertain even the most seasoned zombie aficionados.
The film might have a lot going against it—it’s about zombies and it’s also a shaky cam film. However, REC plays to its advantages: dark, claustrophobic spaces, an unknown threat, and the desperation of media to cover said threat.
The film’s focus is on a young news reporter on the scene of an apartment building in Barcelona. It’s supposed to be nothing more than a few shots, maybe a little chat with a few tenants and a firefighter, when the scent of a bigger story keeps the reporter and camera on the scene. Soon they are locked into the apartment with the other tenants as every single room and hallway becomes a dangerous proposition.
The zombie horrors behind closed doors coupled with the closed in camera make for frequent demonstrations of menace. The film was so well-received during its launch in 2007 that it spawned numerous sequels.
You’d think there would be more wilderness zombie apocalypse films. The Battery is among the handful of films that take the undead to naturalistic settings instead of rundown cities or science labs. Ben and Mickey are baseball players living in New England at the time of the zombie apocalypse. They drive around the backwoods dirt roads with nowhere in mind.
Traumatized from recent events, their choice to have no particular destination and to cater more to the outside elements than staying sheltered indoors is a deliberate one. They want to be constantly on the move. Of course the two friends don’t see eye-to-eye. This on the move wilderness lifestyle is Ben’s choice; Mickey is just along for the ride.
Over time the internal struggle between their bond ruptures into its own legit threat. The “airiness” of the film is perhaps among its greatest achievements because though zombie films are good at tension, it’s difficult to truly capture the desolate silence and openness of a world inching towards human extinction.
Though technically not a film at all, Dead Set is a piece of British horror that can easily be binged in the same amount of time it would take to watch one film. Set across five episodes and five nights, the limited series debut back in 2008 when many of its integral concepts were new and fresh; however, it still manages to retain a setting that hasn’t been done to death.
The setting is none other than Big Brother, the original reality television show. The housemates are busily tending to the internal drama while unbeknownst to them the world outside is crumbling. Eventually the zombies make their way in and yet the way it all comes apart, it’s so worth it.