For a long term horror movie fan like myself, the recent mainstream love affair with zombie films is still surprising. How such a hyper-violent genre has become acceptable outside of hardcore horror fan circles is beyond me, but it warms the cockles of my black little heart to see zombies getting their time in the spotlight with larger audiences.
For those newer fans that have discovered their love of zombies through comic books and television shows like "The Walking Dead," there are many great moments in zombie films going back decades. I sometimes wish I could see a few of those movies again, as if it was the first time. One of the things about horror films in general, but especially about zombie movies, is that there are lots of standout scenes - notable because they're particularly scary, innovative, jaw-droppingly surprising, or so goofy that they entertain us. Here are some of my favorite scenes from zombie films of the past five decades or so.
8. The Tarman scenes ("The Return of the Living Dead" 1985)
This film is considered by many zombie fans as one of the best movies of the genre, and I have to agree. It mixes black comedy with horror, and while that mix doesn't work a lot of the time, it definitely does in this case. Pitting chemically reanimated zombies in a graveyard against a group of punk rockers and older guys in the nearby funeral home, "The Return of the Living Dead" is one consistently fun ride. This is also one of the first films with "fast zombies" and is the first where zombies specifically eat people's brains. Some of the better makeup effects are spent on "The Tarman", a disgusting skeletal melted fellow that enjoys a punk rock brain buffet before getting his block knocked off with a baseball bat. If you're a zombie movie fan and haven't seen this film yet, fix that situation as soon as possible.
7. The hospital zombies ("The Beyond" 1981)
Italian filmmakers churned out a ton of zombie movies in the early '80s, many of which are terrible, or terribly funny depending on your point of view. Lucio Fulci was one of the more popular Italian directors making zombie films, and "The Beyond" is considered by many to be one of his best. The film is not a strict zombie film, and is really a loosely constructed series of set pieces ranging from ridiculous to very spooky, but near the end, the protagonists encounter a large group of the undead in a hospital. Those scenes are creepy and effective, and are probably the best in the film.
6. Severed Head Cunnilingus ("Re-Animator" 1985)
This 1985 gore fest, inspired loosely by an H.P. Lovecraft story is a lot of fun due to its over the top special effects and inspired casting of Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, an arrogant young medical student who has invented a serum for returning the dead to life. The ghoulish tale also involves a creepy older professor named Dr. Hill who wants both the serum and the sexual attention of a young student named Megan Halsey. After having his head chopped off with a shovel (a great scene in itself), Dr. Hill continues to plague the young protagonists, after having both his head and headless body re-animated.
The movie culminates with the evil duo of Dr. Hill's chopped off head and body and a whole bunch of naked zombies running around a lab, while Megan is strapped to a table. In one of zombiedom's creepier scenes, Dr. Hill's body shoves his severed head down between Megan's legs, for some forced oral sex. It's a memorable scene in a movie full of them.
5. Zombie BBQ feast, and matricide ("Night of the Living Dead" 1968)
Enough has been written about this film to fill volumes, so I won't get into the obvious reasons that it's an amazing film. It goes without saying that it created the modern zombie film, established most of the standard zombie "rules," and reinvented the old fashioned, not very scary voodoo bogeys into terrifying flesh eating walking corpses. In short, "Night of the Living Dead" is bad ass, and was one of the films that jump started modern horror. While most of the violence is tame compared to what would come in later zombie films, "Night" still packs a hell of a punch, and there are a handful of scenes that are still shocking.
After a young couple ends up dying in a fiery botched raid on a fuel pump, the ensuing smorgasbord of their body parts and entrails by hungry zombies is still pretty heavy stuff. I'm sure it would've been really shocking to an audience in 1968, and it's still effective today.
Another scene that scores high on the creepometer is when the young daughter of a dysfunctional family hiding in the farmhouse's basement succumbs to a zombie bite wound and reanimates just in time to start eating her also recently deceased father. When mom walks in on her daughter snacking on dad, the young zombie proceeds to stab her to death with a gardening trowel. It's still a pretty gnarly scene.
4. Zombies versus Bikers ("Dawn of the Dead" 1978)
A lot of people consider the original "Dawn of the Dead" to be the overall best zombie film ever made, and I agree with that sentiment. It's still wildly entertaining, and was every bit as groundbreaking as "Night of the Living Dead" was before it. Building on that previous masterpiece, George Romero and a talented crew pit a dwindling group of humans against the growing population of flesh eating dead, and most of the film takes place in a shopping mall.
There is so much creative mayhem throughout the film that it's difficult to pick a moment that's particularly spectacular, because really the whole film is. But late into the action, a marauding gang of bikers descends on the mall, hoping to kill off the people surviving there and to take it for themselves. Their raid doesn't work out well, and the bikers are systematically torn to pieces and eaten by the horde of undead that they let in. Just go watch the whole thing, it's great.
3. Captain Rhodes makes zombies "Choke on em." ("Day of the Dead" 1985)
1985's "Day of the Dead" had a very hard act to follow, as its predecessor "Dawn of the Dead" had set the bar very high bar for a zombie film, or any kind of horror film, for that matter. The film has its flaws. A lot of the characters have heavy, not very convincing accents of various kinds, and the main conflict between research scientists and the increasingly vicious soldiers left to protect them feels a little forced at times, but overall "Day" is a superior zombie film.
It introduces "Bub", one of the genres first sympathetic zombies, and who still displays some slight evidence of memory and intelligence. Bub plays into one of the film's most memorable scenes, when Captain Rhodes, the hateful leader of the movie's rogue soldiers finally meets his end in the most gruesome way possible. He is shot by Bub, who has relearned how to operate a gun, and then torn in two by a group of other zombies. As they drag off his bloody lower half, Rhodes defiantly mutters "Choke on em... Choke on em." Intense.
2. Lawnmower scene ("Braindead" AKA "Dead Alive" 1992)
Before making blockbusters like "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Hobbit," Peter Jackson spent years making extremely violent gory horror movies, and the best of them was his zombie masterpiece "Braindead." A clever movie mixing equal parts comedy and horror, it has plenty of over the top moments that make it a memorable film, but the best of those scenes has to be when the protagonist turns a lawn mower into a zombie Cuisinart. Blood flows so liberally in this scene that there's no way to take it seriously, and it's a great example of funny excess.
1. Zombie versus shark ("Zombi 2" 1979)
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This Lucio Fulci film kicked off the Italian zombie movie feeding frenzy, and was in itself made to exploit the huge success "Dawn of the Dead" had experienced internationally. That film had been co-produced by Italians, and had appeared in Italy as "Zombi," so by naming Fulci's film "Zombi 2" the filmmakers were attempting to promote it as a sequel to Romero's masterpiece from the year before.
Italian zombie films are a "love them or hate them" kind of thing, often using large amounts of gore and nudity in exchange for shoddy plots and acting. But the best of them usually have a certain unique quality that some people enjoy. "Zombi 2" is definitely one of the best, and despite some problems is generally entertaining throughout its running time.
It has several standout set pieces, but the one that always astounded me, and still does, is when a zombie that's underwater attacks a woman who is swimming, and then is attacked by a shark. The zombie and shark grapple underwater, in what could've been a ridiculously executed scene using a crude shark puppet or something equally unconvincing, except for one thing. The shark is real and alive. So the guy playing the zombie in full makeup had to wrestle with what looks like a large tiger shark to get that scene filmed. There's no way that would've ever happened in an American production at the time. I'm still shocked that they managed to get that scene on film. It remains one of the most memorable scenes I've ever seen in a zombie movie.
And that's pretty damn cool.