Stemming from Haitian and African folklore, the concept of the living dead has grown over the centuries from a macabre folk tale to a staple of the big screen. From the early days of cinema to the billion dollar blockbusters of the modern era, zombies have always been a part of cinema, and they’ve been absolutely critical to the success of the horror genre, in particular.
There is no such thing as a creative void and, as innovative as films like Second World War and Train to Busan may seem today, there is a huge library of previous films that contributed to the undead phenomenon of today.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
Stream on AMC +, Hoopla, Tubi, Roku, Shudder and Kanopy
Considered by some historians to be the first “real” horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was a silent film from 1920 often considered one of the most important examples of the German Expressionist art movement. The film presents a plot that, for the time, would have been incredibly complex, and it remains a defining artistic statement more than a century after its release.
Although it does not feature any traditional zombies, Caligari introduces a character named Cesare who can apparently be coerced into murder while sleepwalking. It’s a far cry from modern concepts of the living dead, but it’s one of the earliest examples of humans slipping into murderous trances.
Stream on Classix
Adapted from a 1927 play based on the 1818 novel Merry Shelly Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1931s Frankenstein is arguably the most famous of the Universal monster movie collection. A well-known tale as haunting as it is macabre, Frankenstein helped establish many iconic tropes of zombie horror.
From pillaging graves to literally resuscitating a corpse – or, more precisely, an amalgamation of corpses –Frankenstein laid the foundation for much of modern horror, and its influence on modern representations of zombies is undeniable.
White Zombie (1932)
Stream on Amazon Prime, Hoopla, Paramount +, Shudder, Kanopy, Tubi, and Epix
A Haitian plantation owner yearns for a woman he can’t have and, desperate to have her by any means necessary, he turns to a voodoo doctor to turn her into a zombie. Eventually, the woman’s real fiancé finds out what is going on and seeks to save her love.
Considered the first true zombie movie, White zombie borrows a lot from Haitian folklore. The zombies here are not flesh-eating maniacs, but rather depicted as very human reanimated corpses resurrected to continue their master’s bidding in death. It’s closer to what most people think of as a real zombie, but it doesn’t quite live up to modern standards.
I walked with a zombie (1943)
Rent on Apple TV
Another film that delves deeply into the folk origins of the zombie, the 1943s I walked with a zombie sees a foreign nurse travel to the Caribbean to care for the wife of a plantation owner with a mysterious illness. The plot thickens when it is revealed that her husband may have been the instigator of this zombie-like state and locals believe she is a real zombie.
Not shrinking from the tragic story of racism and slavery at the heart of zombie mythology, I walked with a zombie is an important film for those interested in the multicultural relevance of the living dead.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Stream on HBO Max, Paramount +, Peacock, Epic, AMC +, Roku, Starz, and Shudder
Perhaps the most important zombie movie of all time, George A. Romero’s 1968 effort Night of the Living Dead defined public perception of the living dead. Dilapidated, rotten, and flesh-hungry corpses, Romero’s zombies were true horror monsters far removed from the voodoo-possessed zombies of previous films.
years 1968 Night of the Living Dead would inspire a plethora of sequels and remakes over the following decades, but its impact goes far beyond Romero’s own works. Crucial to making zombies the main characters in the Horror Hall of Fame, this film is as culturally significant as the horror genre can be.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Not available to stream
While it’s widely recognized as a sequel to the 1968 original, Dawn of the dead, the sequel to Romero’s original hit that debuted a decade later, has little to do with the first film and is more of a spiritual successor than a true sequel. That said, it doubles the horror and madness of Night of the Living Dead, increasing the setting in terms of gore and greatly expanding the range.
One of the first zombie films to focus on a national scourge of the living dead, Dawn of the dead set the stage for famous films such as 28 days later and Second World War.
Stream on Shudder and AMC +
Originally marketed in Europe as a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the dead, the years 1979 Zombie has become a cult horror classic in its own right. When an abandoned yacht is discovered adrift in New York Harbor, it uncovers an undead mystery that dates back to the Caribbean.
Uniting Romero’s undead with a classic rendition inspired by monster folklore, Zombie is a mix of old and new. It’s also intensely gory and presented with enough realism to sound genuinely edgy.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Stream on Max Go and HBO Max
One of the movies famous for helping solidify the “cabin in the woods” trope as one of the best in horror, 1981 Diabolical death broke new ground by marrying unbridled gore and horror with a wacky country side that allowed for memorable moments of lightness. The film also merged the concept of demonic possession with the idea of postmortem reanimation, creating hybrids of zombie demons known as Deadites.
While the sequels would focus more on humor and camp, the first evil Dead The movie proved that zombie movies don’t need to follow specific rules and that filmmakers can successfully play with the concept.
Braindead / Dead Alive (1992)
Not available to stream
Before his epic adaptations of the the Lord of the Rings and King Kong properties, Peter Jackson was a freelance filmmaker best known for his extremely vile and quirky horror comedy films. Brain death, known as Undead in the United States, is perhaps the most recognized film of this stage of his career.
Diabolical death may seem cartoonish and over the top to some, but Brain death composes until eleven o’clock, introducing scenes seemingly designed to intentionally provoke and disturb audiences. Considered by some to be the most gory film ever made, Brain death was a zombie movie that deliberately crossed a line so other filmmakers in the genre could remember where it was.
28 days later (2002)
Stream on HBO Max and Max Go
As Night of the Living Dead reinvented the concept of zombies in 1968, 28 days later breathed new life into the dead in 2002. Depicted with a shocking amount of authenticity, 28 days later takes an almost documentary approach to his very disturbing subject matter.
Telling the story of a group of survivors struggling to survive after a viral outbreak decimated the British Isles, 28 days later was, compared to many contemporary horror films, grounded in a terrifying level of reality, and it paved the way for big hits like Shaun of the Dead, World War Z and even Romero’s last three “from the dead” movies.
NEXT: 10 Best Zombie Movies That Aren’t Really About Zombies
Black Widow’s Florence Pugh passed out after last piercing