Zombies invaded theaters countless times in the past few decades, becoming a genre craze that spread like a virus. While other subgenres of horror, from body horror to sci-fi horror, were neglected, viewers have gotten more than their fill of those ravenous hordes of undead who herald the apocalypse, especially given zombie shows like The Walking Dead on television now. Thankfully, some directors have managed to take this monster that’s become so tired and find interesting things to do with it, and within the genre.
Let’s look back at some of the best unconventional zombie films.
1. 28 Days Later
28 Days Later isn’t so much unconventional now, since the 2002 film almost single-handedly a wave of 21st century zombie flicks that similarly turned the undead from a supernatural phenomenon into a contagious virus. These zombies aren’t dead but simply suffering from the bloodthirsty “rage” virus, enabling them to run just as fast as their human prey.
Beyond the renewed spin on zombie lore, 28 Days Later is also unconventional for placing the emphasis more heavily on the human characters and the conflicts among themselves — a zombie film that’s most devoid of zombies.
2. Warm Bodies
Many films have proven the comedic potential of zombies, but what about romantic? Warm Bodies, the unlikely sleeper hit of early 2013, explores the admittedly silly possibilities of a zombie romance, wherein the undead main character (played by Nicholas Hoult) slowly becomes increasingly more human thanks to (wait for it) the power of love.
As cheesy as it sounds, Warm Bodies turned out to be an entertaining if forgettable riff on zombie lore that stands out for its novel concept and for being told from the point of view of a zombie seeking to understand the human world.
3. Shaun of the Dead
Edgar Wright’s first feature film immediately established his formidable brand of physical comedy and film parody as he used his titular character’s white collar arrested development as the backdrop for a zombie outbreak on the streets of London. Shaun (played by long-time collaborator Simon Pegg) and his lazy drinking buddy Ed (Nick Frost) lead a group of friends and family on an excursion to escape the undead that only becomes increasingly tragic as it goes on, in spite of all the well-earned laughs that come with zombie impersonations and using your record collection to stop a pair of the undead.
The film takes its unconventional spin on zombies one step further in the finale, wherein (spoilers!) a zombified Ed is still kept chained up in Shaun’s backyard to play video games — because a friend is a friend, dead or alive.
4. The Serpent and the Rainbow
In Haiti, zombies aren’t simply reanimated corpses, but reanimated corpses that are being controlled by someone else via voodoo. Horror maestro Wes Craven explores this spiritual mythology in his hallucinatory 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow, wherein an anthropologist (Bill Pullman) struggles to find out more about a zombifying drug while the nation is in the midst of a violent revolution.
Blending political violence and unsettling visions of the dead rising, Craven’s film doesn’t always makes sense, but it’s definitely scary and it certainly shows zombies in a new way.
5. Dead Alive
How do you go from this to The Lord of the Rings? Before he brought Middle Earth to life with stunning clarity, Peter Jackson was making low-budget films like Dead Alive in his native New Zealand, using practical effects and gratuitous violence to create a sort of comedy that can only be described as “splatstick.”
Hapless New Zealander Lionel has to deal with his mother’s wrath until she is bitten by a mysterious rat monkey that turns her into a monstrous clay zombie that infects his entire humble town, forcing him to take matters into his own hands. Between his bloated mother trying to shove him back into her moon to a series of deaths involving a lawnmower blade, things get a little crazy.
Zombies aren’t normally kid-friendly, but leave it Laika Entertainment, the stop-motion production company behind Coraline and The Boxtrolls, to turn the undead into a film that’s fun for the entire family. There’s still plenty of muted creepiness to go around in Paranorman, which follows the exploits of a young outcast with the ability to speak with the dead — an ability that comes in handy when he fails to perform a ritual to keep a group of dead from rising and being tormented by angry townspeople.
Using clever morality switcheroos and a truly compelling villain story, the film mines a lot of unexpected emotion and surprises out of its concept, getting more from its use of zombies than most films manage with an R-rating.
Zombieland is the film for every one of us that has watched a zombie film and said, “These guys are doing it all wrong.” Jesse Eisenberg’s narrating protagonist, known only as Columbus has all the wisdom of your average horror buff and a list of hard-and-fast “rules” for surviving the zombie apocalypse without getting bitten, from “always check the backseat” to the under-valued “double tap.”
Zombieland makes this apocalypse seem like a lot of fun in spite of all the personal tragedies, as Columbus teams up with Woody Harrelson’s surly Tallahassee, making for one hell of an entertaining odd couple.
Despite a weak final act, Pontypool is a valuable lesson in building tension with claustrophobia and a frustrating lack of information. By confining his film to a single radio station during a blustery winter day, director Bruce McDonald ensures that most of the zombie shenanigans occur offscreen, experienced by the confused radio DJs and station operators only through chilling sound.
Thanks to the strong performances and devoted sound design, we’re just as riveted by the unusual developments as the characters are, even if the final revelations about the unusual way this zombie virus spreads don’t quite clear everything up.