If you’re reading this and hoping for a list of the top five undead, human-consuming individuals then I’m sorry to disappoint—this is a top five of the zombie subgenre across all media. If, however, you placed a chain-wrapped, be-spiked baseball bat to my head and demanded such a list, I would say:
5. Mary from Shaun’s garden in Shaun of the Dead
4. Colin from Colin
3. The Witch from the Left 4 Dead games
2. The Conquistador from Zombi 2
1. Guthrie from The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, you can put Lucille down—yes, she’s awesome—and we can get back to the crème de la crème of the zombie subgrenre.
5. Martin Freeman
Okay, I accept that when you think of Martin Freeman, you don’t leap straight to zombies, but I believe there is a (highly tenuous) argument for his place in this list. My first introduction to Martin Freeman wasn’t in The Office, but as part of the Jessica Hynes led troupe of survivors that mirrored Shaun’s in Shaun of the Dead. Here, I need to admit that I’m cheating as Martin Freeman has only the fleetingist of fleeting appearances in this utterly brilliant film, but I found I didn’t have enough slots to talk about it and Cargo…fortunately, Martin Freeman starred in that and so my only option was to boldly claim that Martin Freeman is a zombie icon.
In Cargo, Martin Freeman plays a father trying to get his child through a hostile, zombie-filled world. The short film that preceded the feature length version is maybe more powerful due to its sweat-inducing premise, but there is something incredibly harrowing about the feature film. This is due, in no small part, to Martin Freeman’s performance.
Side note: this is not a good film recommendation to someone who has just become a parent. As I did with my brother-in-law…
So, here’s to Martin Freeman, tenuous zombie icon…
4. Train to Busan
Anyone who has set foot on the District Line has thought about zombies…this may not be true, but what is true is how brilliant Sang-ho Yeon’s film is. It’s often said that the best horror films are not about the thing that they seem to be concerned with. Jaws isn’t about a shark, The Exorcist isn’t about the devil, Troll 2 isn’t about Trolls (this last example is less about quality and more about the fact that it features lots of goblins and trolls).
Train to Busan isn’t about zombies, it’s about a strained relationship between a father and daughter. And zombies. Like Shaun of the Dead and Cargo, Train to Busan gives you characters that you care about and desperately will to survive in the face of a harsh and brutal virus ravaging the world (that rings a bit of a bell actually).
3. Left 4 Dead
There are plenty of good zombie games, there’s a whole horde of them in fact. Dead Rising, The Last of Us, Resident Evil—I continue to fly the flag for the Resident Evil Gameboy game regardless of how awkward and clunky it was to play! And before anyone argues about whether a game like The Last of Us is a zombie game just remember that it’s a pre-requisite of zombie fiction to not call the zombies zombies.
In the midst of this undead horde: Left 4 Dead holds a special place in my heart. A game where winning was replaced by survival and embodied the idea, lying at the root of the zombie subgenre, that “the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”, to quote Shaun of the Dead quoting Bertrand Russell.
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2. The Walking Dead
It’s impossible to talk about the zombie subgenre and not mention The Walking Dead. Both the comics and the TV series have flaws; the dialogue in the comics I always felt was a little one-note, and as for the TV series…there was the tiger, etc., but the world and the overall story were brilliant.
It is no small feat for a horror TV series to be a mainstream hit that runs for over a decade (and counting if you include the various spin-offs both completed and in the works).
1. George A. Romeo
Who else could it be? If it’s impossible to talk about the zombie subgenre without including The Walking Dead, you have to feel that The Walking Dead might never have existed without the Godfather of the Dead. It’s obligatory to point out that zombies were not created by Romero, but it would be hard to argue that anyone else has had such an important role in the development of the zombie subgenre.
It seems fitting that Romero’s long anticipated novel, The Living Dead, was published in 2020. Completed by Daniel Kraus following Romero’s death in 2017, this is a wonderful (if a touch overlong) tour de force about being human. As well as a brilliant book in its own right, there is a sense of this being a culmination of Romero’s career, uniting the world he created and developed with his Living Dead films.
My personal favourite from these films is Night of the Living Dead—yes, I would choose this over Dawn of the Dead and that’s the hill I will undie on. It’s a brutal, intelligent, and bleak film—and the ending still hits as hard as Negan’s Lucille no matter how many times you’ve seen it. If anything, I find the ending more affecting the more I watch it.
The cultural importance of this film is hard to overstate. As well as setting the standard (and template) for the zombie subgenre over the last fifty-plus years, it has spawned theatrical adaptations. I was fortunate enough to see Night of the Living Dead Live! at the Pleasance Theatre in 2019. It was utterly brilliant and took a loving approach to the film, playing with the idea that there is no right course of action to be taken in the face of the zombie apocalypse; whatever you do it will end badly!
Multimedia theatre company, Imitating the Dog, staged a very different adaptation of NOTLD with their Night of the Living Dead – Remix (still available to watch on their website). And the reason these stage shows can take such wildly different approaches to their adaptations is that the original subject matter is so rich and layered.
We’ll survive if we all just stick together!
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