The Most Frightening Zombies that Movies and Games Have Brought Us
What are your favorite types of zombies? Specifically, which variants of zombie or zombie-like creature in your anecdotal experience are the most memorable, and how so? Do you prefer one that is the scariest, smartest, deadliest, most tragic, most challenging, most entertaining, most original, etc?
Here are my personal Current Top 10 Favorite Zombie Types (in descending order, by date & alphabetically). Comment below what your favorites are and why feedback is welcome:
Note: No disrespect or condescension intended, but please spare us pedantic arguments as to why one or more of these are “not actually zombies.” It does not have to be undead or eat flesh, so long as it at least shares zombie-like traits and/or fits conventions of the genre. To quote Max Landis (foreword writer of 2014’s Zombies on Film: The Definitive History of Undead Cinema):
“A trope is a trope. If it’s mostly brain-dead and comes at you in big groups trying to infect you with something that turns you into one of it, it’s a ZOMBIE.”
#10: Black Summer (2019-Present)
Even for zombie fiction, the danger level with these freaks is absurd. Imagine Romero’s rule of “Everyone who dies (without a head-shot) becomes another zombie” combined with World War Z‘s crazy-fast infection rate.
Then, just for good measure, make the process even quicker and more effective (almost like death itself is the infection now rather than any disease, radiation, or other common zombification sources)! Top this off with the popular speed & agility of the monsters from 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead‘s remake, and that gives your outbreak one seriously frustrating edge over the living.
It’s practically unfair to expect humanity to survive a zombie uprising where we witness a victim die and turn all in a matter of seconds while still being on their feet (Seriously, if that sounds like an exaggeration, watch it on Netflix before it’s gone and count for yourself). Yikes!
#9: Dying Light series (2015-Present)
Volatiles, enough said. Jokes aside, this nightmare fuel’s designers definitely saw Blade II at least once. Of all the zombie types encountered in the franchise to date, this one still creeps me out the most.
Even after leveling up + unlocking enough blueprints to the point that my overpowered Crane can farm them for XP with relative ease (provided I have a strategy, defensible position, and reliable escape route), I still tense up when hunting Volatiles. They just never stop making my skin crawl, man.
#8: The Last of Us series (2013-Present)
The Cordyceps apocalypse was one of the most creative attempts I’d seen in recent years to bring an outbreak’s premise closer to plausibility while at the same time portraying something terrifying. While the common Runners don’t diverge too far from what we’d expect in fast zombie-like infected (The concept art for their stages of transformation was scarier), the Clicker stands unopposed as the highlight of this pathogen in scare factor.
#7: Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
It’s typically more difficult for monsters of the fantasy genre (particularly those created by magic) to genuinely scare me in comparison to horror. Wights and White Walkers are a strong exception. Their speed, intelligence, ability to fight with weapons and the Night King’s power to instantly raise those killed by his forces are all formidable to imagine fighting. The Hardhome Massacre’s ending made my jaw drop on the first viewing.
The Night King raises the dead at Hardhome I Game of Thrones
Granted, I find the more grounded human Wights (especially the children) more visually unsettling.
The undead giants, dragon, the icy-skinned Night King and his generals are still intimidating, absolutely. However, their less humanoid appearances remind me more of Draugr (Ex- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), which I can’t connect to emotionally as well on a human level. The same goes for the more skeletal Wights, which made me think of Army of Darkness.
#6: Dead Space series (2008-2013)
The first time I ran from a necromorph as Isaac Clarke into that elevator on the USG Ishimura and watched this Lovecraftian horror pry the door open to almost get me, I had to take a breath afterward.
These space-zombies are, without a doubt, some of the most profoundly f*cked up creations I’ve ever seen in all of fiction, period. They’re also one of the most physically dangerous & versatile, mutating into potentially countless forms all designed to aid in the one goal that drives their existence: Search, kill, infect, repeat.
Capable of coordinating attacks, sneaking up on unwary victims, and armed with various means of utterly destroying you (slashing, stabbing, biting, crushing, tearing, melting, etc), it’s easy to imagine how the Ishimura’s unprepared crew were overrun in such a short time. Thanks to the necromorphs’ ability to emerge from almost anywhere onboard this ship’s labyrinth of vents, corridors, and other openings, I almost never fully relaxed when playing. As the old saying goes: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Dead Space Story Trailer
2008’s animated prequel Dead Space: Downfall somehow managed to make these jerks even scarier as we see the crew’s deaths play out over the course of the outbreak (Ex- Heather’s in the shower locker room).
#5: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
When my sisters and I first tried watching this at my grandmother’s house, she made us turn it off after zombie-Vivian entered onscreen before killing Luis. I put on a brave face for my sisters, but, secretly, I was relieved at the time. That night, I struggled to sleep while imagining a zombie-brat like that walking right through Gran’s front door.
Yeah, as much criticism as it’s gotten over the years when compared to the original, this is still one of my all-time favorite zombie flicks with what is in my opinion perhaps the best intro to an apocalypse ever filmed (and a great song choice to boot, I can’t not think of this movie now when I hear it).
Dawn Of The Dead (2004) – Intro
And for those who dissociate 28 Days Later‘s infected from the genre, here’s a more than worthy substitute. These things personify “zombies on steroids”, moving like Olympians and rarely slowing down even after rotting or missing limbs. Sure, we could point out how that makes no logical sense whatsoever, referencing Romero’s over-quoted comment in zombie-related internet debates that “their ankles would snap”. But hey, we already suspend disbelief at the dead rising. So, why not suspend a little more, right?
While some horror fans may still prefer shamblers for their fear factor, runners beat them by miles in danger factor. Plus, they don’t share the classic living dead’s fear of fire. The only drawbacks Zack Snyder’s undead have are that they require bites or fluidic contact to spread the plague (most likely a creative choice to make the apocalypse closer to a “realistic” epidemic) and conveniently seem blind to any food besides humans. Romero’s, by contrast, turn no matter how they died, provided the brain is intact and will eat any/all fresh meat available without exception.
#4: Siren/Forbidden Siren series (2003-2008)
If you’re unfamiliar with this one, it’s understandable. Because it originated in Japan with a heavy emphasis on its native culture & themes, only later finding a small following in America (The 2nd game is still region-locked), this survival-horror stealth gem has sadly maintained a level of obscurity.
The first time I saw the box for the original Siren in the game section at Hollywood Video (R.I.P.), I was tempted a few times to ask my parents to rent it for me but ultimately never did. Apart from the fact that I doubt Mom or Dad would’ve looked past the M rating, the imagery on the box alone was enough to give me a “This would be too scary” vibe. Having watched playthroughs years later, my gut was accurate.
Essentially Silent Hill director Keiichiro Toyama’s answer to the question, “What if we made Silent Hill again, but for a Japanese audience this time instead of the Western market?”, this under-appreciated franchise concocted a new threat that left countless gamers playing with the lights on. The shibito is one of the most SH*T-YOUR-PANTS frightening creatures to me for the following reasons:
Forbidden Siren Trailer
A) The premise of being trapped (in this case, on an island isolated in another dimension) with something supernatural chasing you.
B) The bleeding eyes & mouths remind me of 28 Days Later‘s infected.
C) Their intelligence, retaining enough memory to strategize, use weapons, perform familiar routines from life, and speak in those goosebump-inducing distorted voices. The concept of undead beings who keep some semblance of personality from life is nothing new, but the thought of being trapped inside a shell of myself like that, perhaps unaware that I’m dead or hurting others, sounds like a whole new circle of Hell.
D) Like Dead Space‘s Necromorphs, they undergo progressively more challenging and gruesome (albeit, generally not as extensive) mutations, the worst for me being Siren: New Translation/Blood Curse‘s Spider shibito (pictured below, second from the right).
E) Seeing them closing in on you via the games’ revolutionary sight-jacking mechanic is tense, especially while sneaking. Picture yourself seeing through the eyes of the very monster chasing you as it approaches, holding your breath in the darkness, and praying it doesn’t realize where you’re hiding.
F) You cannot permanently kill a shibito no matter how hard you hit, how much you cut it up, or how many bullets you fire. True to their Japanese name, literally translating to “corpse people”, shibito take the phrase “You can’t kill what’s already dead” to the extreme. This is truly their most horrifying advantage over the human survivors you portray.
Players can disable shibito with enough damage, but almost every one of those same bodies will inevitably reanimate at some point (not just re-spawning new models), most often when revisiting areas. In a survival-horror game where limited resources & ammo are already a balancing act, you must exercise further caution in this case about deciding when engaging a foe is necessary. Even head-shots don’t put them all down for good (Some wander levels with bullet holes already in their heads).
This not only makes the enemy more intimidating but further encourages stealth to survive over combat. Take it from me, if you don’t scare easily and enjoyed the Silent Hill series, do not miss your chance to check out Siren. The remastered original is currently available on the PS4’s PS2 library, while Blood Curse is a PS3 exclusive. Either one promises an experience you won’t soon forget.
Siren: Blood Curse — Full Game Playstation 3 Trailer
#3: 28 Days Later series (2002-2007)
Undead or not, flesh-eating or not, the direct influence of this film on today’s zombie media is undeniable. Without it, we likely wouldn’t have Dawn of the Dead‘s remake, Left 4 Dead, the Dead Island series + its successor Dying Light, Zombieland, and many other modern properties.
I remember having to turn off 28 Days Later as a kid shortly after the first time getting to the chapel scene where Jim encountered the infected priest. The erratic body language, bleeding fiery eyes, and inhuman sounds were just too much for me to handle back then. I didn’t quite understand what I was looking at and didn’t want to know.
28 Days Later Chapel Scene: Jim Meets The Priest
It was the most scared I’d been of a horror movie in general, let alone a zombie film, since discovering Romero’s work. When I later finished it on another attempt, I was also disturbed at the infected child and seeing Mailer vomit blood.
Apart from being my introduction to fast zombies, I was equally chilled at the concept of such a fast-acting pathogen. The speed at which Frank turned from one drop of infected blood in the eye made me paranoid about germs for a while.
#2: Autumn series (2001-2012)
It’s difficult to talk about this one without spoilers (even compared to the rest of my list, which is already spoiler-heavy), as I believe the only way to fully appreciate this take on zombies is by reading it or listening to an audio-book for yourself. Trust me; it’s worth it.
Suffice it to say it’s different but in some interesting and definitely eerie ways. I recommend only investing in the original trilogy (Autumn, The City, Purification) and The Human Condition though, the other entries aren’t as good from my assessment and don’t follow the same characters.
And now, for the moment you’ve been tediously scrolling for, the title of my #1 favorite type of zombie goes to…
#1: George A. Romero’s Dead series (1968-2009)
I know, some readers may be crying “Cop out” right now but this is still genuinely my all-time favorite incarnation of the undead. Even if it wasn’t, I feel like it would be almost sacrilegious to omit this. While Romero did cite I Am Legend‘s vampire outbreak as a major inspiration for his apocalyptic mythology (a fact I’ve mentioned before), most would agree that he & Russo invented the Hollywood zombie.
Despite the fact that reanimated corpses and characters “zombified” by some force were a presence in cinema decades before 1968 (Ex- ‘32’s White Zombie), none had anywhere near the same impact that made the word “zombie” a household name as well as a media giant.
This is fundamentally owed to the simple brilliance of three masterfully combined tropes:
A) Fear of pursuit from something that seemingly won’t die.
B) Fear of being eaten alive.
C) Fear of isolation from death’s creeping inevitability closing in on you (physically & symbolically).
It’s a historically effective conceptual trifecta. As oversaturated as these themes have become throughout the genre, we cling to such cliches even after the 1,000th time we’ve seen them because (To be blunt) they still generally work. Like the invasion of zombies into popular culture, it will persist as long as it makes money and gets butts in seats. Moreover, the progression across films culminating in 2005’s Land of the Dead as the zombies grow smarter, appearing to retain some memory, adds a new layer of sympathy, humanization, and tragedy to a fate worse than death.
Let’s give credit to a few honorable mentions I couldn’t bear to leave out (Some were EXTREMELY difficult for me to decide on which didn’t get top spots):
Train to Busan & Seoul Station (2016)
Yes, the rumors you’ve heard are true. This Korean action-horror thriller begins with a zombie-deer! If you think that’s wild, buckle up because you’re in for an emotional rollercoaster. Some jaded cynics might dismiss this flick as “just zombies on a train”, but I can assure you that there’s much more to it than that. Though admittedly a slow-burn in the 1st act, once the actual apocalypse gets going, it rarely lets up.
In terms of appearance, body language, and their swarming advance, it wouldn’t be unfair at all to compare these zombies to World War Z. However, keeping the focus of this story mostly within the titular moving train and seeing how that dynamic affects the characters’ struggle to their destination makes for a unique conflict. After so many years of seeing all the tropes & cliches, it takes A LOT for any zombie plot to make me emotional, but this movie is a legitimate triumph in suspense, terror, and storytelling.
Train to Busan (2016) – Undead Cargo Scene (8/9) I Movieclips
If you desire more zombie action and background on the outbreak, the animated prequel Seoul Station is perfect for a double feature. Starring a compelling voice cast in more isolated stories that transpire just before Train to Busan’s events, it more than lives up to the former in setting up the coming storm.
World War Z (2013)
Regardless of having virtually nothing in common with Max Brooks’ far superior novel except the title, WWZ‘s zombies are still fun to watch with their insect-like swarming and “dog-pile” climbing.
Although initially looking like the writers & directors, this script was passed around to simply thought “Hey, Dawn of the Dead‘s remake was cool, let’s just do that but more over-the-top”, the swarm admittedly became its own beast.
The effects haven’t aged well in several places, and the makeup on most zombies were disappointingly bland due to the PG-13 rating, but their mannerisms do make one uncomfortable with those relentlessly chomping teeth, and the disease-camouflage angle was an intriguing twist.
Left 4 Dead series (2008-2009)
Witches and Hunters and Hordes, OH MY!
REC series (2007-2014)
Technically, this found-footage horror masterpiece’s outbreak is a case of demonic possession (as opposed to the crappy remake’s weaponized Rabies), but these poor souls still behave & kill much like zombies. As said, it doesn’t matter what causes the affliction. What matters is the transformation.
The Walking Dead franchise (2003-Present)
Proudly wearing their Romero inspiration on their rotting sleeves, The Walking Dead’s walkers are largely identical to the classic flesh-eaters but did introduce some new tricks into the genre. Ex- Survivors temporarily disguising their human scent with undead guts. This fan-favorite tactic became so widely referenced, being copied into multiple fictions, that it was even integrated as a gameplay mechanic in Dying Light. As with almost all modern ghouls, the fear of fire is also gone (Sorry, Frankenstein’s monster, find a new support group). However outdated some may consider slow zombies to be, TWD proves they still have an irreplaceable appeal.
Resident Evil (2002)
I never played the 1996 original game (only ‘98’s Resident Evil 2 and ‘99’s 3), so this long-beloved remake was my introduction to the infamous zombie-dog jump-scare. Although I’m still certainly a dog person and have nothing against Rottweilers, I’ve never looked at them the same since.
Half-Life series (1998-2007)
When I let curiosity get the better of me and listened to the crab-head zombies’ sounds played backward, revealing that the victims are still aware while controlled by the crab and screaming for help, that stuck with me for a bit. Look it up at your own risk, as it’s widely regarded as one of the scariest hidden messages in video games. You’ve been warned.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Despite being a longtime Zelda fan, I honestly didn’t play Ocarina of Time much growing up (More of my time was spent on Majora’s Mask). I do remember, however, that the ReDead looked & sounded spooky.
Return of the Living Dead series (1985-2005)
John A. Russo really doesn’t get enough love when it comes to how the genre has been shaped over generations. Romero will, of course always be the icon of the pair, credited with much of the creative genius that made Night of the Living Dead a hit. However, it was Russo who wrote out the original rough idea George used as a springboard. Following their parting ways after NotLD’s release, Russo kept rights to the “Living Dead” title and attempted his take on the concept.
This resulted in what many fans consider the sibling-franchise to Romero’s Dead films, starring the more tongue-in-cheek, toxic tar dripping, skull gnawing zombies we know and love! Faster, smarter, capable of speech, and attacking even when rendered a pile of limbs, these revenants are plagued by the perpetual suffering of undeath that can only be alleviated by live brains! It may never have matched the reputation or longevity of Romero’s works, but Return of the Living Dead still holds a major cult following.
Do I even need to explain this one? I could possibly be kicked off of Horror Movie Talk if I made a favorite zombie list and didn’t, at the very least give the nod to the most popular zombie dance + one of the greatest musical horror shorts of all time. I mean, come on, how many music videos are played in theaters?
Evil Dead franchise (1981-2018)
Again, I’m aware this is demonic possession and that several of the series’ deadites were once living people. They can talk, think, fight with weapons, shape-shift into grotesque forms, and even fly. Nonetheless, this series is titled Evil DEAD. When a body can continue attacking even after being mortally wounded and dismembered (Remember deadite-Linda dancing + wielding a chainsaw without a head in Evil Dead II), I count that as at least zombie-adjacent. The Necronomicon doesn’t discriminate.
Comment below, do you agree with my list? Are there any noteworthy examples I missed? Would you like to see an update of this list in a year or two to find out if my tastes have changed (pun 100% intended)? Until next time, have a happy Halloween!