Zombies are everywhere these days. They’re on our TVs, they’re in our videogames, they’re in books, comics, cartoons, and even toyshops. Little did Old Uncle George realize back in 1968 that he wasn’t just crafting a scary little low-budget horror film; he was creating a bona fide new monster sensation.
Regardless of the intention or the inspiration (Viet Nam? Carnival of Souls? Pittsburgh?), the horror film world changed in 1968 and has never been the same. Night of the Living Dead sent shockwaves around the world, most notably in Italy, but nearly every country on the planet with a film industry has dipped their toes into the bloody pool.
So, leaving the obvious honorable mention films like the Italian films of Fulci (don’t want to overwhelm the list, after all), as well as Peter Jackson’s zombie opus Dead Alive, the UK TV mini-series Dead Set, and the kinetic Japanese yakuza epic Versus, here are my favorite picks for your Top Five International Zombie Films you may not have seen before:
#5: To Kako (Evil) (Greece 2005)
Billed as “The First Greek Zombie Film!” Evil is a bit of a mixed bag, which is why it places as Number Five on my list. But being a mixed bag isn’t really a bad thing, when the film takes inspiration from all over and blends it all together into a satisfying mix.
Evil is about a zombie outbreak, triggered by the underground discovery of a mysterious cave and a very Evil Dead-style formless evil. The workmen who discovered the cave, go home, go about their lives, and then violently erupt into zombified murder machines.
It’s a quick and efficient way of getting the mayhem started, and before too long we’ve met our main characters and their struggle for survival has begun. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
In fact, while this film does take the situation seriously for the most part, it has a pretty entertaining splatterstick approach to zombie fighting and we are treated to heads being knocked off, holes being punched in zombie bodies, and the obligatory kung fu fighting.
It’s not the greatest work of zombie film ever released, but it’s extremely entertaining. Plus there’s a sequel out now with Billy Zane as a zombie fighting monk in Ancient Greece. Watch this one to get you ready for that one!
#4: Bio-Zombie (Hong Kong 1998)
Inspired by Dawn of the Dead, Bio-Zombie takes place in a Hong Kong shopping center as a zombie epidemic spreads, infecting nearly the entire world. There’s a lot of splatterstick humor here, too, as well as some early videogame references that we wouldn’t see in other zombie horror films for a few years to come.
Our two heroes are Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee), and with names like those what more do you need? They’re lovable losers stuck working at the mall selling bootleg video discs when they are partially responsible for the zombie outbreak.
You see, they accidentally run over a guy who just happens to be leaving a secret meeting where biological weapons were being bought and sold. The weapon is put into a soft drink and when they give it to the injured man, guess what happens?
Yeah, it’s silly, but that’s beside the point. As Woody and Crazy Bee deal with the zombie holocaust, they also develop into likeable characters with a tragic future in store. In fact, this movie is so much fun that the bleak ending is a bit of a shock.
#3: Dead Snow (Norway 2009)
2009 was a good year for the undead, as the next three films demonstrate.
Rounding out the comedic zombie films on the list is Norway’s Dead Snow, a cross between a “Young People in a Remote Cabin” shocker and well, “Zombie Nazis.” What more do I have to say?
Okay, a little more, then.
After a fairly tedious bit of character introduction (yes, it is clear that the filmmakers love old horror films) and the “Fun in the Snow Montage,” we get down to business. These zombies are part of a secret Nazi experiment that are brought back to life when one of our heroes pockets some lost Nazi gold.
Yes. Nazi gold.
The zombies here aren’t your garden variety mindless brain-eaters. They’re smart, fast, and led by Standartenführer Herzog (Orjan Gamst), who will stop at nothing to get his gold back. Not only are the gore effects top notch, the deaths are violently horrible and there are quite a few laugh-out-loud funny bits.
Oh, and one cringe-inducing self-mutilation that is both horrifying and hilarious.
#2: Mutants (France 2009)
And that’s it for the fun. Now things get serious. And who does serious better than the French?
What we have here is a horrifying, nightmare of a plague film. Technically, Mutants isn’t about zombies, but the mutated infected. Sure, they turn into monstrous, hard-to-kill flesh eating monsters, so they make the list.
They’re more zombie-like than the 28 Days Later infected.
But what really makes this film rank so highly on my list is the sheer existential horror that makes up the centerpiece of the film. We watch as one of our main characters, Marco, who was infected early on, slowly transforms into a monster, shedding his humanity like he sheds his bodily fluids.
The performances, particularly by Hélène de Fougerolles and Francis Renaud as Sonia and Marco are gut-wrenching. The rest of the cast does well with their roles, but aren’t really required to do much more than provide sounding boards for the exploration and development of Sonia and Marco.
Anyone who is really bothered by bodily deterioration should probably skip this one. Any cancer or AIDS anxieties will be hammered hard with this film.
There’s so much time spent watching Marco slowly fall apart that we almost overlook the idea that Sonia was bitten earlier, before the film began, and survived. She seems to be immune, so her desperate hope is to contact the government, let them know she could be the source of a cure, and get Marco there before he completely turns.
This one’s all about the body horror, folks. Although we do get a healthy dose of gunfire and monsters, too.
#1: Pontypool (Canada 2009)
This is my favorite new zombie film in years, although I could see where some people might not care for it. This is a pretty minimalist approach and we really don’t get a lot of zombie action.
At least not on-screen.
Pontypool is structured like a radio or stage play, with one main setting and a very limited cast. The story is set in a small radio station headquartered in the basement of an old church in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario.
Stephen McHattie, as Grant Mazzy, does a great job as the crotchety and cantankerous DJ and his and Lisa Houle’s (radio producer Sydney Briar) chemistry that really make the film work. Director Bruce McDonald also sidesteps the budgetary demands of filming a widespread zombie outbr
eak by having callers describe what’s happening rather than showing it.
The script is written by Tony Burgess, who wrote the book upon which this is based. While there isn’t a lot of gore, when there is a chance for some, the film doesn’t disappoint.
In the end, it was the novelty of the way the infection is spread through language that really won me over, though. It seems that the English language has become infected. Not entirely, you see, but only certain words. Once you say or hear these words, they start to get a grip inside of you and take you over.
This is a serious film with some very innovative and interesting ideas at its core.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot. His first novel,The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook, or can be sampled and/or purchased at Smashwords. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.