Let’s have a look at an undead Bakers Dozen of fictional brave men and women and the solid thespians who essayed them and battled cannibal corpses of every persuasion in these key zombie horror classics.
Let’s be honest: all zombie movies and lit owe everything to Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend and this first filmed version is the best adaptation (so far). You can see how strongly George A. Romero ripped it off (Romero’s words in fact) and even though the undead here are a plague of vampires, the aesthetic is pure zombie. Price is excellent in a serious role as Robert Morgan (Neville in the novel) who is the lone (so he thinks) survivor of a vampire apocalypse. He spends his days staking the ghouls and nights cowering in fear as the bloodsuckers come clawing for his flesh.
According to zombie maverick George A. Romero, he didn’t cast African-American actor Duane Jones for any sort of political reasons, he was just the “best man for the job”. That he is. Jones’ Ben is a tough, serious, kind and fearless force of nature that owns every frame that he’s in. The first and maybe best zombie-killing hero.
This Spanish/Italian eco-ghoul flick might just be the best non-Romero zombie film and actor Ray Lovelock makes one helluva cool hero. He was Norman Reedus before Norman Reedus was Norman Reedus, a scruffy, leather-clad biker hippie/beatnik who discovers that a farming device is bringing the hungry dead back to life.
Sure, Ken Foree’s Peter might be the soul of Romero’s monolithic horror masterpiece, but it’s Ross who has the greatest arc and holds the movie together. Maybe as a mea culpa for painting his female characters as weak in Night of the Living Dead, Romero wrote Ross as a strong, adaptable woman who is grounded and forward thinking throughout the film. Thankfully, Romero changed the original ending, which had Ross committing suicide by sticking her head in the helicopter blades. Ross is so good, one wonders why she never had more of a career.
British actor McCulloch kicked zombie ass in Fulci’s Zombie and then was dragged into Girolami’s Zombi Holocaust in essentially the same role. The Italians loved him for his semi-James Bondian presence and so do we.
Lucio Fulci’s main macabre muse also made a potent presence in Fulci’s Italian horror masterworks The Gates of Hell and House by the Cemetery, but in his 1981 metaphysical zombie shocker The Beyond, she carries the weight of the movie. With her strong beauty and fearlessness, she is our point of entry into this confounding surrealist classic.
Though Campbell’s iconic Ash character got campier in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead sequels and the Starz TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead, his turn in the cult classic original (which is really the ONLY purely horrific entry in the series) is his strongest and most effective turn, a portrait of a nice kid who has to butcher his friends and lover to stay alive.
Calfa’s Ernie and Gulager’s Burt are horror’s best serio-comic team since Abbot and Costello and their act in this timeless punk zombie staple never gets old. Both are veteran actors whose deft comic chops bounce off each other expertly as two old friends with a weird history who are forced to first cover up then battle a zombie outbreak.
Outside of Ellen Ripley, is there a better, more human female horror action heroine than Cardille’s Sarah in Romero’s third Dead movie? We don’t think so. She’s tough, vulnerable, sad and yet never gives up, always looking to tomorrow. And when she’s forced to take up arms and get the job done, she does so splendidly.
The Romero scripted, Tom Savini directed 1990 remake of the 1968 landmark is a magnificent zombie film and Tallman’s Barbara is amazing, taking Judy O’Dea’s catatonic turn in the original and propelling it to stratospheric ass-kicking heights.
Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise is more than just a zombie series, but the living dead are still very much the core of what the movies are. And Jovovich was instantly iconic in the first film and now, by the 6th (and supposedly final) film, she’s immortal. Anderson frames his wife like a living work of ass-kicking art in these hit or miss flicks whose power rests in Jovovich’s hyper-physical performance.
Zack Snyder’s remake of Romero’s masterwork is a fine action film but doesn’t really hold up or bear close scrutiny. That said, there’s no denying how great Canadian actor/director Polley is in the film as a nurse faced with madness who must quickly mourn her husband and take instant action to survive.