The zombie – along with the vampire, the ghost, the witch and the monster – is an essential element of horror cinema, and undoubtedly one of the most enduring.
Slotting thematically into everything from lighthearted comedies such as Shaun of the Dead to gross-out splatter classics like Braindead, the image of the brain-eating undead is as versatile as it is iconic. With so much choice, it can be daunting to know where to start delving deeper beyond the classics, so feast on this list of eight great cult zombie movies that are sure to fright and delight.
Zombie Flesh Eaters aka Zombi 2 (1979)
It wouldn’t be a cult zombie list without Fulci. As each outstanding entry into his infamous ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy proves, the Italian maestro knew the undead like no other. For anyone looking to start with Fulci or cult zombie films in general, Zombie Flesh Eaters is regarded by many to be the director’s most accessible work, and one of his most financially successful.
Taking the zombie mythos back to its voodoo roots, Zombie Flesh Eaters takes place on a cursed Carribean island. In an attempt to find her missing scientist father, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) travels to the island Matul with guide Brian Hull (Al Cliver), where they are met with the terrifying truth of this tropical paradise. What follows are some of the most iconic scenes in zombie history, including an excruciatingly graphic eye-gouging and, of course, the fight between one of the undead and a – very real – tiger shark.
One of Zombie Flesh Eater’s most notable achievements is that the zombies truly do look dead. Crusty, sunbaked corpses drag themselves across the island with the relentless determination of creatures bound only for blood. It’s a testimony to the artistry of Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani’s makeup and effects work that, even after 44 years, the sight of the rotting, maggot-infested undead slowly rising from white Caribbean sands still churns the stomach.
To call Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus merely a zombie film feels like underselling it a tad – this genre-bending slice of gonzo madness is a mix of samurai mythos, gangster shoot-outs and martial arts action.
Versus opens with the assertion that there are 666 portals on Earth that connect our world to Hell, with the 444th portal existing somewhere in Japan and known as The Forest of Resurrection. Said forest is the stage for a bloody battle between escaped convict Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi), and a Yakuza gang in the midst of kidnapping a young woman (Chieko Misaka). From here on out, Versus ramps up into a chaotic onslaught of zombie attacks and past life reckonings that slice through any form of subtlety with a razor sharp katana.
Despite its limited budget, Versus excels as a monument to excess, combining geysers of blood and just the right amount of goofiness to make Kitamura’s labour of love one that deserves the title of cult classic.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
British horror cornerstone Hammer Productions didn’t often dabble in the realm of zombies, preferring to explore more Gothic fare. As a result, John Gilling’s 1966 The Plague of the Zombies is an oft-underrated and underseen jewel in the Hammer crown.
When a mysterious disease spreads throughout a small Cornish village, the local doctor sends for help from former mentor Sir James Forbes (André Morell). Upon travelling to the village with his daughter Sylvia (Diana Clare), it becomes apparent that the disease in question is less viral and more voodoo.
All the Hammer hallmarks are here (lush scenery, swooning damsels and a fog machine working overtime) operating harmoniously with a distinctly anti-capitalist and anti-colonial undertone to earn The Plague of the Zombies a solid cult following.
Night of the Comet (1984)
Camp, kitsch and cult to the core, Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet puts a sci-fi spin on the zombie mythos, with the cause of zombification coming not from biology or black magic, but straight from the sky above.
After the titular comet reduces civilization – very literally – to ashes, teen sisters Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney) must fend off zombies, sinister scientists and stock boys against the backdrop of a blood-red, dust-stained sky.
Night of the Comet is an aggressively eighties romp (hell, there’s even a mall montage thrown in for good measure) – an era encapsulated by the charming Sam and Reggie who, with their big hair and bouncy outfits, offset the hypermasculine heroes of other Reagan era movies by never having to sacrifice their girlishness in order to save the day.
Dead & Buried (1981)
Another proud member of the video nasties club, Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried is an eerie, unsettling and wholly unique entry into the zombie canon.
After a string of grisly murders leave a trail of dead tourists across the foggy coastal town of Potter’s Bluff, it’s up to Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) to solve the mystery by unravelling the small town’s secrets.
Patiently paced with an emphasis on atmosphere, Dead & Buried is not your traditional zombie movie, eschewing the groaning, stiff-legged style for a much more human presentation of the undead. But with its Stephen King-esque story and a slew of grisly moments, Dead & Buried is one zombie film that’ll keep you gripped until the very end.
Cemetery Man (1994)
There is truly something for everyone in Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man; grisly zombies, lusty graveyard liasons, pitch black comedy and phantasmagoria galore.
Rupert Everett stars as Francesco Dellamorte, the keeper of a cemetery that sees its undead residents rise from the grave within the first week of their burial. It is up to Dellamorte to keep the ‘returners’ from spilling over into the neighbouring town of Buffalora. Dellamorte’s sad and solipsistic life is shaken up by the appearance of She (Anna Falchi) a beautiful, grieving widow who sparks in the brooding gravedigger a descent into existential crisis and chaos.
To describe Cemetery Man’s plot in any more cohesive detail is much an exercise in futility as it would take all the fun out of a first-time watch, as Soavi’s moody gothic musing on morality and mortality goes to places both outrageous and surreal. It’s the irresistible combination of gruesome FX, surreal splendour and utter ridiculousness makes it a pitch perfect cult film and a must see for fans of, well, anything really.
The Grapes of Death (1978)
Misunderstood and sadly maligned throughout much of his living career, the works of French auteur Jean Rollin have since found cult reverence thanks to their surrealism, political undertones and ethereal eroticism.
The Grapes of Death (while far less erotic than some of his other titles) encapsulates the aforementioned tonal beats perfectly. A hypnotic and hazy sweep through the breathtaking Gallic countryside, The Grapes of Death follows Élizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) who, en route to her fiancé’s vineyard, runs into trouble with a village suffering from a pesticide-induced infection that manifests as grisly oozing ulcers.
It’s not all soft-focus sensuality though; The Grapes of Death features some notable moments of gore and gloop that turn the feverish dream into a living nightmare.
One Cut of the Dead (2017)
As heart-warming as it is hilarious, Shin’ichirō Ueda’s zomcom One Cut of the Dead is a spectacularly original and impossibly charming take on the idea of a ‘zombie movie’.
Opening as a by-the-numbers B-movie, director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), crushed by debts, resorts to genre fare in an attempt to bring in some easy cash. While shooting the zombie movie, True Fear, Higurashi becomes frustrated with the poor acting skills of his cast and in an attempt to elicit a sincere reaction, triggers a zombie invasion on the set. It’s only after 40 minutes that One Cut reveals its true nature with a bait-and-switch that’s both risky and genius.
In a genre that naturally lends itself so heavily towards brutality and bleakness, One Cut of the Dead is a refreshingly down to earth testimony to the power of resilience and teamwork in the face of adversity.