There’s a reason zombie films have had such an enduring impact; this triple feature explores the films that have reshaped the sub-genre.
In our newest feature, we help you curate the perfect themed movie night — a triple feature of three essential films from a sub-genre.
To kick things off, we’re taking a looking at zombie films. Though a heavily saturated sub-genre full of unforgettable or even downright disastrous entries, there’s a reason why filmmakers continue to revisit the walking dead as a source of cinematic inspiration. While it may be hard to stand out from the crowd these days, the undead as a sub-genre is far from dead. Perhaps that’s because zombie films have always been a powerful form of political commentary — an allegory of national trauma, representing our deepest fears.
For nearly a century, zombies have been used as a metaphor for everything from racism to atomic destruction to government corruption t0 mass contagion. The resurrected dead are a metaphor for the decisions of the past coming back to wreak havoc on the future. Thus, it’s no surprise that the undead are as popular now as ever before.
For your triple feature, we suggest a journey of the influential sub-genre, from the early emergence of the zombie as a cultural icon to its most recent evolution.
1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the Dead is often hailed as the ultimate zombie movie and largely responsible for making the zombie so popular. In the iconic film, a group of people seeks shelter in a mall, a winning formula that many films have borrowed heavily from over the years. The movie is at times absurd, brutal, and comedic. But legendary filmmaker George A. Romero somehow made it all work seamlessly.
The movie is a sequel to the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead (1968) and is much more ambitious, showing a more confident and technically proficient filmmaker in Romero. While dealing with chopped limbs, exploding heads, and ripped intestines, our characters begin to consider the horror they have made for themselves in “paradise”.
Both a brilliant horror film and an intelligent social commentary on American consumer culture, DAWN OF THE DEAD is a zombie apocalypse masterpiece that is just as relevant today as when it was first released.
The film is about the desire to ignore the danger and horror of the real world by escaping to the comfort of consumerism. In the midst of pandemic, where so many have so vehemently protested to reopen shopping malls and hair salons — well before it was safe to do so — in order to get “back to normal”, it’s hard not to be reminded of the heroes in Dawn of the Dead who tried to fill their time with leisure and material goods while the very real and present threat of cataclysmic disaster was tapping at the door.
You can watch Dawn of the Dead for free on YouTube.
2. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
The Return of the Living Dead is a rare cinema experience that perfectly combines black humor with shocking gore, while embracing an anti-authoritarian counter culture. The focus of Dan O’Bannon’s game-changing film is on a young group of misfits and outsiders who must deal with the accidental release of a horde of unstoppable zombies over the Fourth of July weekend. Unlike the zombies of earlier films, this undead threat is far more impressive — fast-moving, intelligent, and dangerous.
O’Bannon refused to feature dumb zombies, choosing instead to make them characters in their own right. He also delivered another major twist on zombie tropes by having survivors fall victim to the sickness after breathing in some toxic gas, ramping up the terror through the suspense of not knowing when the humans would fully turn and become a danger to their friends.
Loosely adapted from a novel of the same name by John Russo, Romero’s co-writer on Night of the Living Dead, Return is often referred to as one of the greatest horror comedies of all time. A trailblazer in many ways, it also gave us one of the most famous zombies of all time in Tarman. The film is famous for introducing the popular concept of brain-eating zombies who are more human than their predecessors and can’t be taken out by a simple shot to the head.
The film’s enduring popularity has spawned four seequels and made it an undisputed cult classic.
You can stream Return of the Living Dead on HBO Max.
3. Army of the Dead (2021)
Launched by Netflix in May 2021, Army of the Dead from visionary director Zack Snyder follows a gang of mercenaries battling their way into Las Vegas to pull off a massive heist after a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the city. It’s enough to make the audience glad to have access to a live dealer online casino instead of risking the gruesome undead of Sin City. The battle against the undead is led by Scott Ward (played by Dave Bautista) and has been well received by audiences and critics alike (currently sitting at a 68% critics score and a 75% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes).
This is only Snyder’s second original story, after Sucker Punch in 2011, though he is famous for having directed the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead — widely hailed as one of the most effective remakes of all time — and superhero blockbusters like Man of Steel, Watchmen, and Justice League. This is also the start of a new streaming franchise for Netflix that will include a prequel and a planned anime-style TV series.
Just like Romero’s Dead trilogy, which tackled a barrage of important social issues, Snyder’s Army of the Dead includes layers of subtext reflecting current socio-political topics like building a wall to contain people, detainment camps, and quarantining those suspected of carrying the zombie virus.
“I felt like to really do the genre correctly, social commentary is at its heart and at its roots,” said Snyder.