The brothers Victor and Edward Halperin enlisted the aid of Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, to use voodoo magic as means to transform a perfectly respectable young woman (Madge Bellamy) into his personal dead-eyed slave. Not only is this considered the first feature-length zombie movie, it also spawned the first zombie sequel, 1936's Revolt of the Zombies.
Arguably the most beloved film in the genre, director George Romero's black and white masterpiece created the rules of the modern zombie (slow walking, flesh-eating, shoot 'em in the head, etc), informed aesthetically by both Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls and Vincent Price starrer The Last Man On Earth, as well as Hammer's The Plague of the Zombies. It's also a perfect example of horror film as allegory, with then-timely subtext pertaining to the Civil Rights movement and escalating Vietnam War.
Romero continued his reign of terror by making the first modern zombie movie with a post-apocalyptic outlook. It's fair to say the whole survival dynamic you see every week on "The Walking Dead" was born from the same dress pattern that Romero created, right down to the confining locale, which in this case is a shopping mall. That location also allows for some brilliant moments of social commentary, as well as a bold middle act that is virtually zombie-free. Dawn was given first-class remake treatment by director Zack Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn in 2004.
The idea of a zombie musical could have only been concocted in the brilliantly different mind of the late Michael Jackson. By partnering with make-up effects genius Rick Baker and working with a director who had mastered both horror (An American Werewolf in London) and musical comedy (The Blues Brothers) in John Landis did a great deal towards taking a niche genre and dragging it kicking and dancing into the mainstream. This short film also helped usher in the era of the music video as cultural event.
Harkening back to the pre-Romero era of White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie, Wes Craven's drama explores the "reality" of Haitian voodoo as loosely based on the writings of Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis. Bill Pullman stars as a man searching for the truth behind innocent people made to seem dead and subsequently "resurrected" as zombies through "black magic," which is actually some very potent pharmaceuticals at work.
Before he was tossing gold rings into Mount Doom and earning gold Oscars for his trouble, New Zealand native Peter Jackson perfected the art of splatstick with this depraved zombie comedy. Henpecked momma's boy Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) lawnmowers his way through an army of the undead to save his lady love Paquita (Diana Peñalver) in a scene that may never be topped for the sheer oceans of gore it contains. The tone of this film influenced many others after, including Shaun of the Dead.
Fast zombies. Cool to some, blasphemous to others. Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland thought 'em up first, and also jump-started the contemporary zombie phenomenon, reinvigorating a genre that had more-or-less been dormant. Like the Resident Evil franchise, which was launched in cinemas the same year, Boyle's film relies on the viral infection conceit as the origin of its zombie plague, a little bug called "Rage" that turns folk into bloodthirsty homicide machines.
Not only is this the first stop-motion animated zombie movie, but the first one geared specifically at children. That's right, the Z-word has become so ubiquitous that it's safe to show your kids, although the geniuses at Laika infuse ParaNorman with a message about finding the joy in being weird. There are also plenty of great horror movie references, especially the cell phone ringtones.
Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer became the first movie stars to break the (onscreen) zombie/human love barrier, although (spoiler ahead) technically the story cheats by making the main undead character R technically sputter back to life before their coupling can be consummated. Thankfully. Director Jonathan Levine walks the tightrope between Dawn of the Dead and Twilight, creating a Romeo & Juliet for a new generation that prefers its Romeo already deceased.
Although Will Smith's I Am Legend is considered a zombie movie by some, this was by far the first mega-budget ($200 million) studio production to proudly label itself a zombie movie. Brad Pitt lends his superstar status to an adaptation of Max Brooks' bestselling novel, which chronicles the beginnings of a zombie plague on an epic, worldwide scale. Despite production woes, this proved to be a solid franchise starter for Paramount and helped cement the fact that zombies are here to stay.