Ever since George Romero blew people’s minds in 1968’s ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ the zombie sub-genre has been a mainstay in the world of horror. Since then, there have been countless forays into the world of zombies, ranging from the serious to those with more comic tones. At some point, zombies eventually lost favor with the movie-going audience and use of the undead in flicks, though still present, lost some its gusto.
Then, in 2010, ‘The Walking Dead’ premiered and took the world by storm. Yes, it was based on Richard Kirkman’s wildly successful comic series first published in 2003, and yes there had been a handful of films that had garnered various degrees of critical praise (’28 Days Later’ and ’28 Weeks Later’ are two such examples) but this was the first time a vehicle where zombies were at the forefront became a mainstream success. ‘The Walking Dead”s popularity opened the floodgates for a new period of zombie movies but, after nearly a decade things are starting to slow down. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, riding the wave of a popular trend often dilutes the original product. We’re seeing this now with ‘The Walking Dead”s ratings being the lowest they’ve been in the show’s history. More to the point, there are very few true zombie type movies being put into production now. Oh, there are a few out there but as the zombie subgenre is put to rest behind the revitalization of the demonic horror film—a resurgence that could be attributed to the success of ‘The Conjuring’ franchise—it’s not as easy to find captivating zombie films. Fear not, zombie enthusiasts…they are out there and I’ve got a handful of zombie movies here to satisfy your urge for the undead.
Out of all the movies on this list, ‘Maggie’ has to be the most pleasantly surprising of the group. Taking place in the heart of the US, the story begins as the country tries righting itself from a viral pandemic—necroambulism—that turns people into cannibalistic monsters. Maggie is a young woman who, after being bitten, runs away from home to protect her family from the danger and heartbreak of her eventual transformation. Refusing to let his daughter go, Wade (played brilliantly by Arnold Schwarzenegger) scours the city until he’s able to track her down. He brings her home in the attempts to spend her last days with him. The rest of the movie focuses on Maggie’s own emotions dealing with her impending death and Wade’s own helplessness as he watches his daughter slowly fade from the vibrant young woman he raised to a ghastly shell of death.
It’s easy to substitute the real monster in ‘Maggie,’ the necroambulist virus, for any one of the horrible diseases people face today. In that regard, ‘Maggie’ becomes a study of a family’s struggle coming to grips with the inevitable. Abigail Breslin is wonderful as Maggie but it’s Schwarzenegger that steals the show. In what has to be the best onscreen performance of his career, Schwarzenegger pulls the viewer in with an emotionally vulnerable role, the ache of his Wade magnified thanks to the excellent chemistry between he and Breslin. He’s no killing machine or soldier out for vengeance in this movie; he’s just a man powerless to help his dying daughter. It’s a heartbreaking tale whose ending is preordained the moment Maggie is bitten. For anyone that has ever lost someone to a terminal disease, Maggie’s impact will be even more pronounced.
8 out of 10
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
The first of three movies on this list adapted from a book, ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ follows a society holding on by a thread after a fungal infection has wiped out most of humanity. Humanity’s only chance is to harness the second-generation of infected; children who literally ate their way out of their infected mothers’ wombs. Though this second-generation still craves flesh, they are able to think and feel. They are kept on one of the last safe places, a military base led by the work of Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who hopes that, by studying these children, she will be able to discover a cure/vaccination that can stave off the fungal infection. Helen (Gemma Arterton) is tasked with teaching the children and despite their condition, Helen is extremely protective of her students. She has an especially close bond to Melanie, the most intelligent of the bunch. When the infected infiltrate the base, forcing Caldwell, Helen, and a handful of soldiers (along with Melanie) to find shelter in the outside world, we see just how isolated the survivors are in the scant remnants of society where hungry roam as well as wild packs of second-gen children. Caldwell continues her work to try to discover a vaccine and, though she believes she can, it requires on a heavy sacrifice. When she is wounded in an attack, Caldwell knows that time is short but is forced to expedite her plan. Melanie, finally understanding her place in the world, makes a decision that will forever change the landscape of humanity.
It’s funny that ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ plays out like a video game, especially considering it shares several elements with the critically acclaimed game, ‘The Last of Us,’ including a fungal infection being the catalyst for the world’s desolation. In a way, the movie is a piece on how we as a society would handle our impending destruction…or better yet, the knowledge that we were headed towards extinction, replaced by a species adapted to the changing conditions. It’s an amazing ride with very strong action sequences but the relationship between Helen and Melanie provides the story’s emotional backbone. Add to it a breathtaking ending that will keep you thinking and ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ is a must-see for fans of the zombie apocalypse.
8 out of 10
Warm Bodies (2013)
Of the movies on this list, ‘Warm Bodies‘ has to be the most unique of the bunch. Based off Isaac Marion’s book of the same name, this movie follows R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who, despite his current undead status and though beholden to his need for brains, still has the ability to think. In the world of ‘Warm Bodies,’ zombies still maintain small pieces of their past life, though those fragments act as one who’s in a waking dream. But then there are the Boneys, a zombie’s final state, reached only after full decomposition, the flesh sloughed from bone. They are the pinnacle of the zombie evolution, free of the physical limitations and kernels of the humanity of a normal zombie.
Though all zombies will eventually achieve “Boney” status, when R sees Julie (Teresa Palmer) as her group of survivors scavenge for supplies, his heart beats for the first time since he was first zombiefied. This unexplained effect Julie has on him is only increased when R eats the brain of Perry (David Franco), Julie’s boyfriend. Not the best place to begin a romance but, as they spend more time together, R’s feelings for Julie continues to get better and, as they do, so does more of his humanity. Julie sees this as well and tries to convince her father, Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich), leader of the human survivors, that maybe zombies aren’t a hopeless case. It’s exacerbated when the Boneys attack the human settlement and humanity finds itself fighting alongside what they thought to be their enemy but may be key to re-establishing the human race.
‘Warm Bodies’ is a fun romp that contains the familiar elements of a rom-com parceled in with the similarly familiar beats of the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. Much like ‘Zombieland,’ ‘Warm Bodies’ offers a more lighthearted take on the genre, giving the audience the romance and laughs of a rom-com, with the action, drama, and stakes (muted, of course) expected of a zombie flick. It’s not for everyone but, if you need a break from the serious and heartbreaking losses of life seen in the other movies on this list, maybe ‘Warm Bodies’ is the medicine you need to finish things off.
6.5 out of 10
World War Z (2013)
Loosely based on Max Brooks’ splendid book of the same name, ‘World War Z‘ was a film whose ominous beginnings did not give confidence to its eventual success. First, the film was an extensive departure from the book, basically sharing the title and a handful of story beats. Couple that with the massive reshoots—the entire third act was completely redone—and edits (including a PG-13 rating), plus a budget that ballooned to nearly $200 million, the fears of ‘World War Z’ was set to become a colossal failure.
My, how wrong they were.
Not only was ‘World War Z’ a box office surprise (its worldwide take topped out at around $540M) but for a zombie apocalypse fan like myself, it was an adrenaline-filled ride that caters to multiple re-watches. Brad Pitt is the story’s main protagonist, playing Gerry Lane, a former UN employee who is tasked with discovering the beginnings of the virus in order for the government to set about creating a vaccine. Caught in an initial surge of infected on the streets of Philadelphia, Gerry, with his family in tow, is able to escape the city before eventually being picked up by the military and dumped on a Naval ship, where many survivors are being placed. From there it’s a world-hopping adventure where the infected, whose aggressive movement patterns imitate a bird flock, overrun cities, and planes, and Gerry looks for answers.
There are some really eye-popping/heart-pounding moments in this movie. The entire Jerusalem sequence is alone with the price of admission and the tension is ratcheted up to 11. When one of Gerry’s escorts to the plane is bitten, his decision to save the soldier is epic. After such an unexpected box office performance, it was announced earlier this month that the long-discussed sequel will begin filming in June of 2019. Whether or not the second dive into this world will be able to capture the surprising magic of the first film remains to be seen. But for now, do yourself a solid and give ‘World War Z’ a try.
7.5 out of 10
Train to Busan (2016)—Netflix
While Netflix has always been a hub of foreign films, it seems that, over the last 18 months or so, they’ve made an even more concerted effort to expand their international selection. I am not a purveyor of foreign films, so deciding to catch ‘Train to Busan’ was an uncertain decision, one I am thoroughly pleased to have made.
Sharing similar story beats as the previously mentioned ‘World War Z,’ ‘Train to Busan’ begins innocently enough. Yoo Gong, the main protagonist, is a man whose busy as a fund manager has upended his family. His wife has already moved on and, when we first see him, his young daughter, Su-an, is close to doing the same. For her birthday, he offers to take his Su-an to see her mother in Busan. Unfortunately for them—and a whole host of passengers—a woman infected by a mysterious virus gets onto the train and it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.
From an action and suspense standpoint, ‘Train to Busan’ is second-to-none. Yes, there are a handful of expected casualties but once the zombies start mounting their charge at the passengers through the train, it remains an edge of your seat ride. But it’s the story’s emotional structure that makes it such a memorable experience. Over the course of two hours, Yoo Gong slowly realizes how selfish he’s been, ignoring the most amazing little human in his life. It’s a journey that is both uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time, with ‘Train’ showing us that, unlike Yon-suk, the film’s human antagonist, love and selflessness, sacrificing one’s own comforts for others, is the only way that we can survive.
‘Train to Busan’ is one of those films that, due to its origins (South Korea) may not get the attention it deserves. That’s shameful considering the wondrous ride Sang-ho Yeon takes us on. Even if zombie flicks aren’t your cuppa tea, ‘Train to Busan’ still has enough heart, action, and suspense for a devilishly fun time.
8.5 out of 10
First premiering at the Adelaide Film Festival last October, ‘Cargo’ is one of those movies where Netflix gained the distribution rights to for exclusive use on their service. Starring Martin Freeman as Andy, ‘Cargo’ takes place in the Australian outback. The world has been struck by a virus that, once exposed, turns a person into your typical zombie (except for the whole burying their heads in the sand thing) within 48 hours of exposure. Unlike most end-of-the-world situations Andy and his wife Kay are also toting around their toddler Rosie. In a serious of unfortunate events—or questionable decisions—first Kay, then Andy, is infected. Knowing he has a short window to see to his daughter’s future, Andy treks through the Aboriginal plains where he meets a handful of people, hoping that one of them will be able to give Rosie a chance at life.
‘Cargo’ moves at a deliberate pace, foregoing the action many films in the zombie subgenre favor. By no means does this mean ‘Cargo’ is dull or boring. In fact, there is something about knowing there is only so much time left for Andy that creates tension while also bringing into question each decision our protagonist makes. Additionally, ‘Cargo’ is an examination of the human condition. How do we accept the inevitable when those when the safety of those we love are at stake? When society breaks, even where civilization is sparse, do we become our ideal self or do we all the fear and the darker parts of ourselves free?
Stamped at a Netflix original whose trailer positioned it as a more slowly paced film, ‘Cargo’ was set to continue the stigma of Netflix movies being more miss than hit. Thankfully that’s not the case. Freeman delivers a powerful performance as a man who knows his time is short but continues on in desperation, giving his all to make certain that his dear Rosie finds a family to call her own. It may not have the action that will have people watching it over and over again, but Cargo is a fine character piece that deals more with the aftermath of tragedy than the events itself.
7 out of 10
There you have it, zombie fans, my list for some of the most memorable zombie flicks of the last few years. Have you seen any of these and, if so, what do you think? Are there movies you’d put on this list instead? Let me know your thoughts below and Happy Halloween’ing!