There was a time when I could honestly say I had seen every zombie movie ever made and read every zombie story ever published. I can’t say that anymore, not truthfully anyway. Over the last few years, there’s been an abundance of zombie books, comics, video games, TV, movies, and stories—it almost equals the zombie apocalyptic scenarios described in those materials. I have tried to keep up though, and I’m glad I have, because there is some wonderfully terrifying stuff out there. There are some real duds of course, and you have to take the good with the bad, but I think I can help with the good. I was asked to list what I thought were the five most terrifying moments in the zombie genre, and while the field is large, my choices were surprisingly easy to make.
My top five most terrifying moments in the zombie genre:
“Bitter Grounds,” Written by Neil Gaiman
This short story, first anthologized in Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by Nalo Hopkinson, and later collected in Neil Gaiman’s short story collection, Fragile Things, tells the story of an emotionally broken man who happens to meet an anthropology professor while driving through the American South. It is a complex, and very subtle story of loss, love, pain, and terror that comes from the deserts of the mind, rather than the slathered gore where most zombie stories get their money shots. There is a scene at the end of the story, where the main character sees the chicory girls walking down the halls of his hotel that sent chills up my spine. But even that chilling moment was overshadowed by the realization the reader makes about the main character long after the story is told. There is a long-standing adage among fiction writers that the first line of your story should mean one thing when you read it for the first time, and something completely different by the time you finish the tale. Nowhere is that adage more deftly illustrated than in this terrifying story.
Night of the Living Dead, Directed by George Romero
Romero, and others, have revisited the Living Dead franchise so many times it’s hard to keep the whole thing straight. But for all the different versions and remakes and deleted/added scenes, to my mind, the franchise never again reached the high water mark it achieved with the original 1968 black and white release of Night of the Living Dead. There were moments in that film, especially those long shots of the zombies staggering through the Pennsylvania countryside, so terrifying they prompted a very young teenage version of me to go to bed for months afterward with a baseball bat cradled in my arms. Few horror movies have ever truly scared me, but Night of the Living Dead most certainly did. In fact, it was the reason I started writing zombie stories.
“Dead Like Me,” by Adam-Troy Castro
This one tops the list as my all time favorite work of zombie fiction. Zombie stories have long been recognized for their capacity to capitalize on metaphor, and nowhere is that more provocatively displayed than in Castro’s powerful indictment of conformity as a form of death. Aside from the story’s technical brilliance, its presentation of a man so scared of death he’s willing to become it left me trembling the first time I read it. Rarely has zombie fiction reached such a pitch. I think this story should be mandatory reading for any author wanting to publish a zombie story; it’s that good.
Serpent and the Rainbow, Directed by Wes Craven
This 1988 film, loosely based on the book of the same name by Wade Davis, is probably Wes Craven’s best movie. In it, a Doctor named Allen goes to Haiti looking for the drug that causes zombiefication. Like Gaiman’s “Bitter Grounds,” the book and film are both throwbacks to the pre-Romero voodoo zombie, which hasn’t attracted the same slavish devotion from zombie fans as Romero’s zombies. I think that’s a shame, I find the zombies of films like as Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie and Halperin’s White Zombie extremely scary. Serpent and the Rainbow is a worthy descendant of those early horror films, it attains many moments of true terror in its 90 odd minutes. The best, and easily the most terrifying of those moments comes in a dream sequence, as the main character, Dr. Allen, dreams of being pulled into the earth by the rotting corpses of Haiti’s dark and troubled past. This one wins an A+ on the terror grading scale.
Cargo, Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke
Horror is one of those genres best served short and sweet. There have been countless great horror novels and films, but rarely do the scares work as powerfully as they do when delivered in short stories. And, more recently, in short films. One of the biggest surprises for me came from Cargo, the award-winning Australian zombie film from directors Howling and Ramke. Often jokingly dubbed “The Walking Dad” by zombie fans, this movie is far from funny. In fact, it’s one of the most grueling and emotional horror films you’re likely to find. It tells the story of a father bitten by a zombie, his wife already dead, hideously changed into one of the walking dead, and he knows he doesn’t have long before he suffers the same fate. The real terror comes when we see his year old infant is blissfully unaware of the impending danger, and completely dependent on her dad to get her to safety. The dad knows he won’t make it far, and if he’s to get his daughter to safety, he has to think of something quickly. His solution is both brilliant and heartbreaking, and for a father like me, it represents a terror so real and immediate that if it doesn’t bring you to tears, you need to check your pulse, you’re probably already a zombie.
And, because there are so many great zombie video games out there, and because I didn’t include one in this list, I’ll give you an Honorable Mention.
Dead Trigger 2
Right now, I’m totally addicted to this first person shooter game. It’s available as an app for most tablets and smartphones, though I play it on my iPad. I love the lush environments the game offers, the easy interface, but above all, the chilling sound effects really manage to make you feel like the living dead are closing in from every side. For me, that claustrophobic closeness has always been at the heart of why zombie stories terrify, and this video game comes the closest to capturing that feeling outside of a book.
Do you agree? If not, challenge me with yours. What are your favorites?