Somewhere after F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and the 1950s’ monster mash-up movies featuring mummies and werewolves, the horror genre took a slight detour, trading monster-centric and supernatural premises for more psychological, socially apt and, ultimately, more human antagonists. In the process, two new sub-genres were formed within horror cinema: The slasher flick and the zombie movie.
A staple of every teenager’s movie collection, the slasher flick is known for pitting parent-free adolescents against psychopathic killers. From the hockey-masked Jason in Friday the 13th to Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the genre spurned more teenage bloodshed and girl versus psychopath endings than any previous genre. The zombie movie, in all its apocalyptic glory and over-the-top gore, presents a vision of a world becoming worse and worse; a social critique with enough cannibalism, gut-eating and foot-dragging to be considered a new form of horror movie.
While both sub-genres may be derivative in many ways, it’s clear that without the slasher flick and the zombie movie, the horror genre would still be caught in the world of mummies and vampires, without a base in the most basic of human fears: Ourselves.
Here, MM counts down the top five landmark slasher flicks and the top five genre-defining zombie movies of all time.
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Though Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene lasts only three minutes, it’s been the focus of countless books, essays and film courses, as well as the center of imitation and parody in almost every form of popular culture. The father (or mother) of all slasher flicks, Psycho defined the basic guidelines for the sub-genre. A defenseless female character all on her own? Check! A seemingly abandoned motel? Check! An unstable psychopath with a penchant for ladies’ clothes and butcher knives? Check, check, check! While some debate its credibility as a slasher movie, it’s clear that without Psycho, the sub-genre would never have become as popular.
Black Christmas (1974)
directed by Bob Clark
Knives, pick axes, hooks—these are all fair game in the world of slasher flicks. But Black Christmas shows true originality with its murder delivered by plastic bag. Considered by some to be the first true slasher movie, it not only paved the way for Halloween by giving the murderer’s point of view, but in its holiday-theme as well; when else can a crowd of carolers block out the screams coming from the attic? The movie follows a group of sorority girls in the days before leaving campus for Christmas break as they unknowingly house a murderer in their attic. Gratuitous phone calls ensue, girls begin to disappear and a twist ending has you looking at rocking chairs in a whole new way. The film’s biggest twist? Nine years after Black Christmas, director Clark revisted the holiday film with the ultimate December classic, A Christmas Story.
directed by John Carpenter
The slow paced walk; the butcher knife; the uncomfortable breath forced from behind the empty, lifeless mask; characteristics that made Michael Myers the poster child for slasher flicks, lurking behind bushes and following you home from school. With director John Carpenter’s use of P.O.V. shots—shooting scenes through the eyeholes in Myers’ mask, the movie marked a horrifying achievement in voyeurism as the antagonist escapes from a sanitarium, stalks a group of teenagers and goes head to head with Jamie Lee Curtis, who, no matter the sharp object, just can’t seem to kill him. Grossing more than $50 million, Halloween also established the high profit possibilities of the sub-genre.
directed by Wes Craven
You can thank Wes Craven for the late-1990s’ Halloween craze of “Ghostface” costumes and the always creepy “Do you like scary movies?” greeting on the telephone. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movie theater, Craven re-energized the slasher flick and spearheaded a resurgence of similar movies with this one about a group of teenagers plagued by a murderer’s movie-bantered phone calls and killing spree. With its constant horror movie references—specifically to slasher movies—Scream marked two especially big steps in the sub-genre: The first being the characters awareness of their own demise; the second being genre references, which allowed for a more satirical look at the sub-genre and made the movie all the more realistic.
Death Proof (2007)
directed by Quentin Tarantino
Leave it to Tarantino to bring back the slasher flick in one of its funniest forms: As one half of Grindhouse, the double bill he shared with director Robert Rodriguez. The features were meant to evoke the exploitation movies of the 1970s and exploited we were as psychopathic stunt car driver Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) targets beautiful woman after beautiful woman in his supposedly “death proof” Chevy Nova.
White Zombie (1932)
directed by Victor Halperin
Not only did White Zombie mark a new direction in horror as the first movie to feature zombies, but it also served as one of the earliest independently-produced horror films of all time, paving the way for directors like George A. Romero and John Carpenter who also went the independent route with their original horror ideas. The story follows a young couple, invited by an acquaintance to get married on his plantation in Haiti. When the acquaintance looks to make the young girl his own, he enlists the help of local Voodoo master Murder Legendre—played with great skill by the infamous Bela Lugosi—to turn her into a zombie and get rid of her fiance. But Legendre has some plans of his own that might have the couple looking for a new place to honeymoon. The movie’s slow foot-to-head pan of its zombies has been replicated in everything from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
directed by George A. Romero
White Zombie may have been the first movie to feature zombies, but Romero’s Night of the Living Dead popularized the undead sub-genre, bringing a much needed social commentary along for the ride. The story is the blueprint from which all other zombie movies have derived since: A group of people caught within a country house must fend for themselves as the dead come back to life, feeding on the living. The choice to have Duane Jones, an African-American actor, play the lead role of Ben is what really makes the movie a standout; the ending crystallizing a historic moment in cinema that, like all great zombie movies, asks people to think about the society in which they live.
Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)
directed by Sam Raimi
Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash Williams in Raimi’s groovy sequel for more Book of the Dead fun. After an evil spirit is released from this mysterious book, Ash is thrown up against some of his toughest and funniest adversaries (including a girlfriend who has her head cut off, a hand with a mind of its own and trees that come to life). With a chainsaw in place of a hand and a whole lot of undead people trying to kill Ash before daybreak, it’s not hard to do the math; the formula adds up to zombie gold every time.
28 Days Later… (2002)
directed by Danny Boyle
Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) brought new life to the zombie film in this stark revision of the sub-genre. After waking from a coma, Jim (Cillian Murphy) finds both the hospital and streets of London completely deserted and lifeless—with the exception of zombie-like humans infected with the “Rage” virus. As Jim and a handful of other survivors set out for and find a military base believed to be their last hope, the attitude and beliefs of their military protectors have the survivors questioning whether they’d be better off outside with the zombies. With Boyle making it almost impossible to decipher between Jim and a released zombie in the military base, 28 Days Later… dropped the cheesiness of the sub-genre and replaced it with the full-blown horror of a world obsessed with violence. By the way, forget the zombie sidestep, these zombies can run.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
directed by Edgar Wright
Who said zombie movies couldn’t be funny—or romantic—and still thrilling? This brilliant “rom-zom-com” is part homage to the sub-genre and wholly original in asking whether our daily routines are turning us into zombies. When Shaun’s going-nowhere life (which includes a girlfriend who wants more adventure than a regular evening date at the local pub, a stepfather who still treats him like a child and a best friend who is trying his best to keep him a child) is interrupted by an outbreak of zombies, he has to make a change to save the people he loves. Ironically, this involves holing up in the local pub. The first feature collaboration between Simon Pegg, director Edgar Wright and Nick Frost, the movie is equal parts hilarious, heart-warming, scary and pop culture reference.