Best zombie movies: viruses, fungi, space radiation & voodoo magic

Screenshot from Night of the Living Dead (1968)
(Image credit: Image Ten)

Hollywood has come up with some great excuses to raise the dead, from mutant viruses to voodoo magic. Mercifully, the flesh-eating living dead are firmly a fictional concern, but there are some fascinating real-world inspirations behind some of the best zombie movies, so we thought we'd run down some of our favorites.

While the zombie craze across audiovisual media (and literature) may have died down a bit, the sub-genre isn’t going anywhere. It’s been around for decades now, and with good reason; it’s an effective manifestation of humanity’s deepest fears tangible enough to consistently produce entertaining works of fiction. Since it all started with accessible horror movies that have evolved alongside audiences, we thought it’d be a good idea to cook up a list of the best zombie movies of all time that you can watch right now.

The best thing about zombie fiction is that artists have approached it from wildly different angles over the years, as it can easily be mixed with a variety of other premises. Reanimated corpses are an easy concept to sell, and such phenomena can be explained in a many ways, ranging from voodoo magic to frozen viruses.

(Image credit: HBO)

If we look to stories such as The Last of Us – originally a video game and now enjoying widespread success as a prestige TV series – even mind-controlling fungi come into the picture. Anything goes to make a well-trodden genre fresh once again. And sometimes, all that writers need to hit gold is to focus on the drama amidst all the undead chaos. AMC’s The Walking Dead, based on the hit comic books by Robert Kirkman, has run for 11 seasons and spawned several spinoffs – people clearly love the post-apocalyptic human conflict at the center of it all.

This article, however, is strictly limited to zombie movies. That being said, it’s an entire realm of gory flicks well worth exploring. If you’re in the mood for more flesh-eating horror or simply catastrophic flicks, check our rundown of the Jaws movies ranked, worst to best, or the best disaster movies you can stream, buy, or rent.

1. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: March 19, 2004
  • Cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer
  • Zombie origins: Virus (probably)

Veteran moviegoers traditionally argue that George A. Romero’s original movie is the peak of the zombie genre, especially because of its value as an allegory for mindless consumerism and greed. We strongly agree with much of that sentiment, but Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake – expertly written by now-renowned Marvel and DC filmmaker James Gunn – seemed to capture most of those messages while also adding genuine scares, tense action, and more messed up scenes to the mix. It simply feels like a more complete package and, for our money, it's one of the best-ever movie remakes.

As for the origin of the undead hordes that surround the shopping mall where most of the action takes place, it’s kept a mystery, although the plague seems to function in a straightforward manner, with victims becoming infected after being bitten by previous ghouls which suggests a biological infection like a virus.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Dawn of the Dead is how the entire world goes to hell in less than 24 hours – the opening to Snyder’s remake is unforgettable because it has genuine fun showing us an overnight collapse of modern society.

2. REC (2007)

(Image credit: Casteleo / Filmax)
  • Release date: November 23, 2007
  • Cast: Manuela Velasco, Ferrán Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano, Pablo Rosso
  • Zombie origins: Supernatural virus/demonic possession combo

Horror fanatics might be familiar with Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s REC, a modern Spanish classic that spawned three sequels and a mostly forgettable American remake titled Quarantine (2008). We strongly believed it deserved a spot in this list due to its unique approach to low-budget filmmaking and the relentless pacing it sustains for nearly 80 minutes.

REC may be the most entertaining movie in the list from the science-ish angle as it dabbles in both viral concepts and full-blown supernatural nonsense as the story progresses. What if demonic possessions could be linked to biological outbreaks like viruses? Things get truly unhinged in the second instalment, which threw off many fans of the original movie, but ultimately gave the series a unique narrative identity to go with its ever-evolving visual presentation.

3. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: April 9, 2004
  • Cast: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Nick Frost
  • Zombie origins: Virus

Who said zombie flicks can’t be funny first and gross second? Edgar Wright’s hit British comedy went big with its premise while keeping the focus on its off-beat yet relatable characters. 

Often studied as a clear example of post-9/11 anxiety, Shaun of the Dead opened many doors in the realm of comedy for the undead. Later came the Hollywood-made Zombieland (among many other flicks) and several video games, such as the Dead Rising series, which embraced goofy fun in the middle of the zombie apocalypse.

Although Shaun of the Dead seems to work with the traditional zombie mechanics of getting bit and turning into a mindless flesh-eating monster, there’s quite a bit of witty social commentary on the treatment of epidemics like the flu and the public perception of such diseases. At several points in the movie, secondary characters shrug off their illness as a minor nuisance or a passing cold, and the healthy ones don’t freak out about the whole situation right away. 

For a kooky comedy, that feels all too familiar, doesn’t it?

4. 28 Days Later (2002)

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)
  • Release date: November 1, 2002
  • Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson
  • Zombie origins: Rabies-like virus

Before Shaun of the Dead, the United Kingdom produced another unexpected modern classic with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Written by now-veteran writer-director Alex Garland, this movie might be the darkest one of our list, and that’s saying something. It was responsible for fast zombies taking over the genre as the 2000s progressed, and its most shocking scenes don’t even feature the infected.

28 Days Later launched audiences straight into a deserted UK that broke down after a rabies-like virus – aptly called “Rage” – was unleashed by eco-terrorism gone wrong. It seemingly originated in chimpanzees, but we never learn whether it was man-made or born from nature.

Boyle’s visual approach to every bit of gory violence and unexpected moment of human cruelty in this movie truly elevates it, and it might just be one of the most influential works of the 2000s even if we step outside of the zombie sub-genre to study its reach.

5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

(Image credit: Image Ten)
  • Release date: October 1, 1968
  • Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne
  • Zombie origins: Space radiation

No, we hadn’t forgotten about George A. Romero in this list. After all, he’s widely and unquestionably considered the prolific father of the zombie sub-genre. There are many movies to choose from in his lengthy filmography, but we keep going back to his very first-ever, Night of the Living Dead, as the go-to zombie feature that changed horror cinema forever. It was made on a budget of approximately $100,000 and went on to gross more than 250 times that amount of money. The movie’s explicit violence and gore was considered unprecedented for the time, but those elements quickly cemented its cult status.

While Night of the Living Dead never gives a definitive answer to the disease making the dead rise, scientists theorize the reanimations are occurring due to strange radiation from a space probe that exploded in the atmosphere on its trip back from Venus, which adds a nice layer of science fiction to the already otherworldly scenario.

We're probably stating the obvious here, but there is no evidence of radiation, from space or anywhere else, causing any of the symptoms synonymous with zombie outbreaks, unless you count the being dead. Radiation can definitely kill you, it just won't bring you back as a flesh-eating zombie afterwards.

Fran Ruiz is an entertainment freelancer and massive dinosaur nerd. He has a BA of English Studies, focusing on English Literature, from the University of Malaga, in Spain, as well as a Master's Degree in English Studies, Multilingual and Intercultural Communication. On top of writing features and other longform articles for  Live Science & since 2021, he is a frequent collaborator of VG247 and other gaming sites. He also serves as associate editor over at Star Wars News Net and its sister site, Movie News Net.