Man. The 2000s. This was the start of something big for zombie enthusiasts the world over. Werewolves, vampires, and other monsters still made appearances here and there, as you'll see below, but zombies freaking exploded.
And for the sake of argument, yeah, we're calling the infected in 28 Days Later, zombies this time around.
Look out behind you!
2000 – Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett)
It's odd that there are so few horror films that deal in puberty. As far as real human development goes, it's arguably the scariest, most horrifying time of our lives, a time when our bodies are working against us, changing in unsettling and disgusting ways. And even the famous works that have utilized puberty well often do so through a single scene or reference, like the infamous opening of Carrie. But with his 2000 breakout film, John Fawcett faced puberty head on, collaborating with screenwriter Karen Walton to construct an entire horror film around female sexual maturity and in the process he made one of the most fascinating, clever and unique horror works in recent years.
Ginger Snaps is the story of the Fitzgerald sisters, two macabre outcasts who only find solace in each other and a general refusal to mature, particularly from a physical standpoint. The titular Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) is the elder and while she's the one snapping in this specific venture, her younger sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) is the possessor of the real perspective, observing the sinister changes and collecting evidence concerning the situation just as we viewers are doing the same.
What Brigitte is observing is that her sister is transforming into a hideous, aggressive beast with horrifying appetites, or more simply, she's becoming a werewolf. Ginger and Brigitte attempt to tell the adults in their life what's going on but in one of the best scenes of the film, their fears are essentially written off by the school nurse as standard puberty jitters. Growing hair in weird places? Hormones acting up? Well, that all comes with the territory, doesn't it?
Of course, as the film progresses, Ginger's "condition" is impossible to write off as mere growing pains, especially since her teen angst has a body count. Fawcett never shies away from gore at any moment in Ginger Snaps, but as the film progresses he and his characters grow bolder, until the sisters are forced to be at odds, Brigitte acknowledging both the futility of fighting adulthood and the futility of hoping for her sister to regress. Brigitte may have come out in the end a little harder, a little tougher but still scarred and traumatized. But isn't that what puberty's all about?
– Nick Hanover
2000 – Versus (Ryûhei Kitamura)
I can't remember where I first heard of Versus, but I had been buying cheapo imported Asian films for a year or two before it hit the market. My original intention had been to catch up on Hong Kong action films, but when I stumbled across the genius that was Bio-Zombie (1998), I started keeping my eye out for other Asian takes on the zombie genre. As soon as Versus arrived in the mail, I slid it into my DVD player and suddenly a whole new world of film making opened up before me.
That might sound hyperbolic, but really, at the time this was unlike anything else I, or many people, had ever seen. Writer/Director Kitamura captured the frenetic energy of Evil Dead and mixed it generously with the pacing and swordplay of a Kurosawa film, and threw in enough gangsters and gunfights to make John Woo proud.
It was the mash-up to end all mash-ups.
Or maybe to launch all mash-ups.
The story is pretty simple. There are 666 portals to hell on Earth, and in Japan's Forest of Resurrection lies the 444th. The film opens in the 10th century with a lone samurai doing battle with zombies before being killed by a mysterious samurai and his henchmen.
Then we leap to present day where two prisoners escape through a mysterious forest and meet up with a gang of Yakuza and their captive, The Girl (Chieko Misaka). Our main character, Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) doesn't like what's going on and violence ensues. And then zombie violence ensues. And ensues, and ensues, and ensues.
It was a bold approach to telling a zombie story and while some might argue that it was a case of style over substance, I have to disagree.
Versus was a breath of fresh air heading into the new decade.
The Nineties had not been kind to zombies. After Dead Alive and Army of Darkness in '92, the only other bright spot was really Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) and then Bio-Zombie in '98. I suppose we could argue about whether or not Return of the Living Dead 3 was a bright spot, and while it had its moments, I don't consider it anywhere near the levels of these films, and that's speaking as a Brian Yuzna fan.
Anyway, Versus was the opening salvo to a new decade, a new millennium really, of zombie films that has yet to really slow down. Hell, depending on the looseness of your definition, there are five or six more zombie films on this list alone. And it was Versus that threw down the gauntlet on what could be done with the genre.
– Paul Brian McCoy
2002 – 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle)
Two things I’m not really fond of: animal cruelty and zombies. So creating zombies by experimenting on animals? I should hate this film. Instead, I adore it. Given everything else about it, it’s hardly surprising.
Set in England, the film tells the story of a small handful of survivors of the Ebola-like Rage virus which turns its victims into zombies. They find each other, and work together to escape London in an attempt to reach an outpost northwest of Manchester from which radio signals are being broadcast, promising food and safety to survivors. What they find there is equally as horrifying as the hell of the zombie-infested city streets.
What elevates 28 Days Later above the average zombie flick is the sharp eye that director Danny Boyle brings to bear on our world—its
violence, apathy, misguided idealism, etc.—and how he helps us see it through an unlikely prism. Shot primarily on digital video and Super 8 films, which give it a rawness and immediacy, the film features quick-moving zombies and an even quicker zombification process, allowing Boyle to kill off characters we would otherwise believe safe. It has a sly sense of humor (the wall of a building that Jim, played by Cillian Murphy, explores is emblazoned with the words “The End is Extremely Fucking Nigh”) coupled with a harsh view of human nature. Light moments are balanced with terrifying images which strip the characters and the audience of any shred of security.
What really makes this film for me though is how it handles something which is, in other zombie/post-apocalyptic movies, quickly glossed over but a very definite issue: the special dangers women would face in such a world and, as we can now see by reading news stories online, which they currently face in our own. Most such films will have an obligatory scene in which a female character (sometimes the heroine, but it rarely matters) is nearly raped by one out-of-control male in order to be saved by another, thus exhibiting the moral and physical superiority of our hero/savior over all the other men around him.
But Boyle takes this to a whole new level, upping the societal ante and rationalizing it in a way that almost convinces. The identity of the character who makes this argument, as well as what he represents, casts it in a whole new light, and should give any right-thinking person pause, considering our current political discourse around women and their rights.
All that said, there is very real magic in the way that Boyle pulls some very disparate pieces together and makes them work. Newcomer Naomie Harris, along with Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson, and Christopher Eccleston put in solid and disturbing performances, and the action (except for perhaps the last fight scene) gives us good reason to worry about their survival. If you can, get the film on Blu-Ray so you can watch the alternative endings, including one which entirely rewrites the film—through narrated storyboards, no less–and give us excellent insight into one of the best horror film lines ever: “Do you want to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck?”
– Laura Akers
2004 – Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder)
Riding the wave of action-packed zombie/plague films that kicked off with Versus in 2000 and was brought screaming and kicking toward the mainstream with Resident Evil (2002) and 28 Days Later (2002), Zack Snyder's remake of Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead remains a controversial film while also being a high water mark for the genre.
James Gunn got the writing credit on this, although Michael Tolkin and Scott Frank were brought in for rewrites, so he caught a lot of the flak for having fast zombies. But we'd already seen this trend starting as far back as Return of the Living Dead. It was that one-two punch of Resident Evil and 28 Days Later that really set the stage.
And whether you love him or hate him, with Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder was making a statement about what he wanted to do with his career. Dawn was exhaustingly action-packed, stylistic (although not to the extent that the rest of his work would be), and pulled no punches, particularly with the Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and Luda (Inna Korobkina) storyline, where we saw a pregnancy in the zombie apocalypse go about as wrong as it possibly could. Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley, and Jake Weber were stand-out leads with Polley's performance against the initial wave of zombie assaults in the film's opening sequence still holding up as one of the most intense stretches of horror in any film of the past twenty years.
The film sticks to the bones of the original plot, with our group of survivors holing up in a locked-down shopping mall, but rather than play up the obvious symbolism that served to reinforce Romero's take, Snyder instead opts to focus on the horror and the action. The symbolism is still there – how can it not be, given the setting? – but this film is about punching you in the gut, not the head.
As such, it may not have the depth of the original, and its larger cast doesn't allow for the deeply personal character development of Romero's, but I'll be damned if it isn't a much more effective thrillride. It's dumber, but it's faster and just as brutal and hopeless in the end.
When I left the theater after seeing this for the first time, I was ready to go buy another ticket and watch it again. Immediately.
– Paul Brian McCoy
2004 – Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright)
Just a month after the release of Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, Edgar Wright's first feature film avoided being confused with the frenetic action thriller, despite the similar name, by going old-school with new-school flair.
Wright and co-writer/lead Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost had cut their teeth on the groundbreaking British comedy Spaced, and Shaun of the Dead serves as a continuation of that series' stylistic aesthetic and approach to storytelling while not being an out-and-out continuation of the series. Loaded with pop culture references and slacker comedy, both Spaced and Shaun succeed in doing what so few horror films – zombie movies in particular – fail to do.
They make us care about the characters by not sacrificing characterization for gross-out gore. Instead, Shaun elevates characterization while at the same time diving into the deep end of gross-out gore. By taking what would be a fairly standard, and entertaining, romantic comedy premise – Shaun (Pegg) is dumped by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) for having no drive or future, but he's determined to win her back – and throwing in the zombie apocalypse, Wright is able to craft a film that works like no horror comedy had ever worked before.
Dead Alive came close, but veers over into splatterstick humor and ends with a surreal oedipal nightmare. Shaun of the Dead never loses sight of the humanity at the heart of the story. Even when it is covered in blood and has just bashed a zombie over the head with a cricket bat.
By embracing the classic Romero model of the slow-moving undead – and publicly rejecting the fast zombie sc
hool of zombie films – Wright and Pegg essentially craft a love-letter to the man who launched the genre back in 1968, and earn a lot of love from the fans because of it. They proved once and for all, that despite the amping up of action that the fast zombies added to the mix, the original shamblers were still very threatening when used properly.
Thanks to a fresh and original mix of comedy, horror, and an ending that bypasses the nihilism that is sometimes inherent in films of this sort, I have no hesitation at all in calling Shaun of the Dead one of the top five zombie films, and one of the top two or three horror comedies, ever made.
– Paul Brian McCoy
2006 – Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo Del Toro loves creatures and monsters, maybe more than he likes humans. One can look no further than his dark and beautiful fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, where men are the true monsters and the realm of otherworldly creatures is an escape.
A successor to his 2001 film The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth takes place during the Spanish Civil war, where a little girl must deal with her ill, pregnant mother as well as her cruel stepfather, who fights dissidents for Franco. However, she gets help in the form of a magical faun who, believing her to be a reincarnation of a princess, gives her three tasks to prove herself.
As she goes on her quest into the fantastic, her mortal world gets darker and more harrowing. Del Toro has a wonderful handle on the balance of harsh reality and wonderful fantasy, offering beautiful imagery with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Del Toro films often combine extraordinary elegance with a scary realism, and the beings created in Pan's Labyrinth are no exception, thanks to a special effects team that pulled off their otherworldly fairy world with mostly practical effects over excessive CGI.
Perhaps the spooky film that discerning audiences have actually ventured to watch, Pan's Labyrinth is one of Del Toro's most popular films, but one that's indicative of his devotion to the genre. Not only can he turn monster movies into fun action romps of varying scale, but he can also craft somber character-driven pieces using the same tools, with equal amounts of devotion.
– Danny Djeljosevic
2006 – Slither (James Gunn)
The last time I wrote about Slither, I had no way of knowing that James Gunn would soon be seeing a career revival, helming a well-received psychotic superhero indie flick and handpicked by Marvel to take Guardians of the Galaxy to the big screen. Nearly two years ago, Gunn was essentially a has-been, a promising screenwriter who used his success with the Scooby-Doo film franchise and the Dawn of the Dead remake to get the budget to make his dream film: a gonzo rural sci-fi epic about a man who is transformed by an alien slug into a ridiculously powerful and queasily sexualized tentacle beast that overruns an entire town and forms a zombie army. That move is Slither and if you like sci-fi horror works that push boundaries, you owe it to yourself to catch up with this film.
Where sci-fi horror classics like the Alien franchise and The Thing make a point of distancing their heroes from the parasitic aliens trying to make a meal of them, Gunn's great idea with Slither was to show that once you strip humanity down to its essence, we're pretty fucking awful and disgusting too. Few of the characters in Slither are remotely likeable, which probably has a lot to do with why it was such a colossal commercial failure upon release. Chief amongst the likeable characters are Nathan Fillion's Sheriff Bill Pardy, a classic small town hero if ever there was one, and Elizabeth Banks' Starla, trapped by small town minds and small town hopes in a loveless marriage. Yet even these two are borderline despicable; Starla is married to the film's villain, the possessed Grant Grant (a characteristically excellent Michael Rooker), despite how awful she knows him to be, and Bill is a coward of sorts, incapable of vocalizing his true feelings and unwilling to interfere in situations he knows are fucked up.
But Slither's true star is the special effects, from the pulsating, oozing, zombified citizenry to Grant's ever expanding, bloated space worm body. Slither is a disgusting film that packs heart and soul, like Gunn's Troma work on a massive scale, or a better made, more moral Feast, which is yet another castaway of the ridiculously horror wealthy Oughts. Now that Gunn's star is on the rise again, maybe Slither will get its due, but even if it doesn't, it's fitting in a way that a film about a small town full of outcasts surrounded by parasites and nastiness would continue to carry on in its subtle way, winning over a select few and otherwise getting devoured.
– Nick Hanover
Has a shot-for-shot remake ever worked? Gus Van Sant’s Psycho suffered from bizarre casting (but almost made up for it with a kick ass soundtrack), Michael Haneke’s remake of his own film Funny Games felt ten years too late, because it was, and the U.S. remake of the Spanish film [REC], Quarantine suffered from giving-away-the-fucking-ending-in-the-promotional-materials. The originals are all so amazing (maybe not Psycho, because it has aged so poorly), why remake them? Case-in-point, 2007’s [REC]
The film follows a reporter working on a piece about firefighters and their day-to-day lives. After following the firefighters to a call in response to an old woman attacking people, the documentary shoot quickly turns into a battle for survival when she and the cameraman are quarantined inside the apartment building.
One part zombie movie, one part found footage, and one part religious mind trip, [REC] was everything the American remake wasn’t: fresh. It was scary without being over the top. It was over the top without being ridiculous. And ridiculous without being coy about it. A truly frightening ride, [REC] is a must see.
– Dylan Garsee
2008 – Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
Vampire movies may be a mainstay of horror films, but not all vampire movies are created equal (especially lately). The best ones tend to go beyond positing the vampire-as-monster and explore what it is like to actually be a vampire. Such it is with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma), the film adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel.
And while various aspects of the film’s take on vampires are definitely influenced by earlier works on the subject (Lost Boys, The Hunger, Interview with a Vampire) and all the generic rules about inviting vampires in, deadly sunlight, etc, Let the Right One In stands out both in style and substance. Set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg in 1982, it was filmed in the small northern Swedish town of Luleå, ensuring the consistent landscape of snow and ice which Alfredson then pairs with a stark silence that allows the audience to pick up on the far-off-screen taunts of the bullies who are the real bad guys of the piece.
The victim of their abuse is 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a withdrawn boy with little to entice out of his shell until he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), his new preteen next-door neighbor who seems only to venture out at night and is unaffected by the freezing temperatures. She lives with an older man who initially provides her with the blood she needs until he is discovered, endangering his young charge with exposure.
But the real focus of the story is not her status as a vampire. Instead, we are entranced by the slowly blossoming relationship between Oskar and Eli—both terribly isolated and in need of someone who sees more than what the rest of the world can or does. It is a strange and touching courtship of sorts. Eli helps Oskar to find the strength to stand up to the bullies who torment him, while Oskar offers her acceptance of her monstrous self.
But as horrifying as Eli’s feedings may be, they pale in comparison to the way the humans in the piece treat each other, running the full gamut from complete apathy to shameless utility to unreasonable cruelty. By the end, Eli’s blood-drenched visage disturbs us less and less as the film highlights how bloodless and cold the rest of us can be. And while we know instinctively that Eli and Oskar, despite their love for each other, are likely doomed, we cannot help but hope for them. Because, as Alfredson’s starkly beautiful film makes so clear, there is certainly little hope for the rest of us.
– Laura Akers
2012 – The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Horror comedy has got to be the nerdiest genre. People come out to the average straight horror flicks in droves, but it takes a true lover of the genre to be able to brave the scares, stomach the gore and have the ability to laugh.
To call The Cabin in the Woods a comedy feels like pigeonholing, but screenwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard wrote a very funny script for their tale of college students who vacation at a cabin where terrible things happen as conducted by outside forces. To describe the plot details would be giving away the joke, and even though the film came out earlier this year and you probably saw it already, it still feels wrong — it's a really good series of reveals.
It's also the sort of thing that could only be written by people who have seen way too many horror films. More than a mere comedy, The Cabin in the Woods is a meta-exploration of the tropes of horror films that simultaneously doubles as a celebration of them. It's an ingeniously clever concept for a movie based on years of genre study, but it also functions as a horror film for the hardcore fans, so it's not content just showing off the goods — it also delivers them with a raucous, intense and gleefully violent third act that marks one of the most fun sequences of a movie year that included the fucking Avengers in it and a Judge Dredd movie that imitated The Raid. So yeah, super fun.
Originally shot in 2009 before sitting on the shelf for a few years for a variety of reasons, The Cabin in the Woods — a film made by and for horror movie lovers — was a long time coming. And when it finally hit theaters, those who actually bothered to see it sat through their new favorite horror movie, a film that had instantly made its mark as the must-watch horror flick for years to come.
– Danny Djeljosevic
And there you are.