Top 10 Non-Zombie Films Influenced by Zombie Films

Starting with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, and developing sporadically throughout the 1970s, the zombie film finally congealed into a genre of its own by the mid-1980s. Zombie films are typified by a small, resilient band of survivors struggling to survive in a world infested with the reanimated remains of the recently dead. Common tropes involve running, barricading, very specific rules about how to actually kill an enemy which doesn’t initially seem to be killable, and a pervading sense of sorrow as we watch the structures of society crumble.

Removing the body’s death as the natural end to human existence causes a whole slew of unexpected consequences, both practical and philosophical. Zombie films combine aspects of the war film, body horror, gothic science fiction, contagion stories, bottle episodes, dystopian post-apocalypse, and home invasion. They teach lessons about conformity, appeasement, social justice, racism, poverty, class struggles, and even gender dynamics, all depending on which lens the filmmaker chooses to look through.

But in concrete storytelling terms, zombies are merely a mechanism to compress desperate human energy into a small space, to show (at least in metaphor) how we are each the hero in a story of brave and intelligent resistance against the slow but inexorable forces of death and decay. And sometimes (in the movies at least) we even win.

This is a universal story to tell, a ubiquitous theme that can actually be told any number of ways, with or without brains-loving walking corpses. And thanks to the (checks Flickchart) six hundred sixty-seven films in the zombie genre, we have a rich cinematic language to draw upon as we retell this same story in other contexts.

Here are the top 10 non-zombie films which show a clear (though perhaps subconscious) influence from zombie films, ranked by the Flickchart Globals at the time of this writing.

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Criminally under-ranked on Flickchart (and chillingly prescient), Bushwick stars Brittany Snow and Dave Bautista as two Brooklynites caught running for their lives as the South actually does rise again: Heavily armed militiamen from seceding states start dropping into New York City from helicopter gunships, attempting to make the first strike in a new American civil war.

Filmed in a Birdman-style faux-single-take, we see a terrifyingly realistic no-cut-no-bullshit version of modern urban warfare. The focus remains myopic, on our tiny band of desperate survivors alternating between barricading and fighting their way to a friendly DMZ just north of Bushwick in Grover Cleveland Park. Their opposing forces are the nearly-faceless hordes of American paramilitary soldiers who, just like zombies, used to be people we cared about, but now have become our enemy.

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If ever there were a time to barricade ourselves against our friends and family.

James DeMonaco’s dystopian franchise paints a picture of an America that equates prosperity with Living-Dead-style home fortification. One night a year all laws are suspended, and Americans themselves become the rampaging ghouls wandering their own countryside.

The atmosphere is rich with many of the same lampshaded, socio-political overtones that characterize zombie films: Who are we to let into our bubble of safety? Will our friends still be our friends an hour from now? Or will they have turned into one of our assailants?

Most crucially, to what extent is this a disaster of our own making? As I reload my weapon, I must also contemplate my own moral burden.

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The odd success of the Fallen franchise is due to it successfully applying the “Die Hard-on-a” formula that so dominated the 1990s. This time the White House is our Nakatomi Tower, but for the purposes of our list, what makes this a better entry than Die Hard itself has to do with the initial assault.

Unlike most other heist/siege films (including Die Hard) the Korean paramilitaries swarm their quarry using shock and awe instead of subterfuge. (Subterfuge is eventually employed, but in pursuit of a much more complex goal.) A nearly faceless horde descends upon the fortress of our heroes, which through their superior numbers (and, okay, firepower) prove that our society is not as resilient as we may think.

The lesson here is that there is always a critical mass of aggression against which we are simply unable to stand. And for those trapped on the inside looking out, whether inside the White House or down in the Pentagon emergency briefing room, the painful realization of this fact is a very cinematic moment.

The best zombie films always have a moment like this, usually deep in the second act slump, when the heroes have the bittersweet space to contemplate the true implications of the situation: even if we survive, nothing will ever be the same again.

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In most zombie films, the zombies function as a kind of MacGuffin, a unifying but ultimately meaningless force to the plot and to all character interactions. Zombies’ essential reality as reanimated corpses rarely enters into the matter. (Which is one the reasons that zombie mythology is so ((wonderfully)) inconsistent: Is it a virus or a ray from space?; Do you become a zombie immediately upon being bitten or do you have to die first?; etc., etc.)

So suppose instead of reanimated corpses, we had dragons. A planet overrun with them, awakened through forces not really understood, forcing humans to flee the urban centers and to barricade until a bold and possibly foolish counteroffensive can be organized by our rag-tag cross-racial praxis group.

Obviously the dynamics of the conflict change ever-so-slightly when the zombie stand-ins can fly and breathe fire, but discussions of the fictional biologies and sociologies of our antagonists still become the primary points of dialogue. Will X kill them? How about Y? Why are they here? Does it matter?

What am I willing to do just to survive?

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Pitch Black‘s relationship to this subgenre is similar to Reign of Fire, in that our “zombies” are simply animals which obey a certain set of rules and which give our heroes a reason to play out their various dynamics in constrained spaces.

A spaceship crash-lands on a three-sunned desert planet that’s just about to have a triple eclipse. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a race of subterranean creatures which are allergic to light but which are dying for a chance to come to the surface.

What’s different, and more interesting, about this scenario is that while our heroes do “barricade” themselves against the horde (as in any good zombie film), they do so mostly using light instead of walls. Much of the film’s second act takes place on the move in a travelling bubble of light and fire, a trope sometimes employed by zombie films, those which take the time to establish that zombies, just like the bioraptors on planet M6-117, do not like fire.

Frequently, the most interesting parts of zombie movies is showing how, just when you think you hold a trump card, it is the human element that inevitably reveals chinks in the armor. This is precisely what happens in Pitch Black: Our very humanity is our greatest weakness, but ultimately what enables us to survive.

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Arguably the simplest and most realistic film on our list, Green Room represents possibly the most perfect example of the thematic phenomenon I’m trying to illustrate.

Touring low-budget punk band The Ain’t Rights book a sketchy gig at what turns out to be a neo-Nazi compound. In the titular green room, they witness a murder that the skinheads really wish they hadn’t, and our scrawny heroes (led by Anton Yelchin in his best performance) must barricade themselves against wave after wave of Caucasian hate that beats against the door.

It is an extraordinary exercise in the progressive constraint of space, time, and options, while continuing to escalate the violence. Our heroes must solve a series of complex logistical problems in order to survive the night against an enemy of unknown size and capability. Our heroes are in way over their heads but are determined to survive.

Director Jeremy Saulnier (he of Blue Ruin) understands the right balance to strike between establishing sympathy for our heroes and reminding us of the violence awaiting them outside, never weighing one over the other, never giving into the urge to luxuriate in either pathos or gore.

This is the very definition of a non-zombie zombie film. The influence is palpable in every scene.

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This John Goodman–Mary Elizabeth Winstead tour-de-force is the only Earth-based science fiction film on our list. Which means that it shoulders the burden of having to resist “seeming” like a zombie film (i.e. a retread of all the expected tropes) while still making use of the cinematic language that zombie films invented for telling taut, claustrophobic, attrition-oriented stories.

Two people are held captive in an underground bunker by a man who claims that the air outside has become poisonous to breathe. No threats from the outside puncture their bubble of safety, but the psychological conditions inside begin to degrade as doubts, fears, and fantasies about what might or might not be outside begin to wear away at their ability to survive each other.

This film has none of the clawing, fleeing, or fighting of a zombie film, but it makes up for it with the barricading. This outside-McGuffin could very well have been zombies and very little would have had to change about the plot or character dynamics. In essence, 10 Cloverfield Lane is what would have happened to the people in Night of the Living Dead had they happened to flee into an impregnable fortress instead of a clapboard house (or one of them had forced the rest into it; you get what I’m trying to say).

All of the tremendous inter-human conflict juice from NotLD (or Return of the Living Dead, or 28 Days Later, etc.) constitutes almost the entirety of the storytelling in 10 Cloverfield Lane. And the revelation is that it’s fantastic. Not just because of the script and the performances, but structurally, this is sufficient to power a whole movie.

This points to the possibility that zombie films (or maybe all films?) are fundamentally fractal: any one of their tropes can be zoomed in on and can become an entire world for a completely different kind of story.

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Director John Carpenter is known for his horror films, but what could be more horrific than the actual violence happening in the streets of Los Angeles on any given Sunday? In between Dark Star and Halloween, Carpenter made a film which was, on paper, a conventional cops-vs-criminals shoot-em-up, but which Carpenter (being Carpenter) managed to elevate to something altogether more weird.

In the final hours before the titular precinct is shut down, an opaque and somehow supernaturally horrible gang conflict is played out as the Street Thunder gang rain bullets and bodies on the skeleton crew of cops, secretaries, and criminals left inside. As the conflict grows more desperate, faceless gangbangers tear through windows, crawl out of ducts, rise up from backseats, and general embody the whole zombie playbook while remaining very definitely living flesh-and-blood.

This is the one film in our list that is acknowledged by its creator to have explicit influence from Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter is enough of a genius to grok what NotLD can teach us about the art of the siege movie; he is able to distill out what isn’t necessarily “zombie-specific” but has a more universal resonance.

He also understands the value of cultivating the image of the enemy as a faceless mob with unlimited powers, not because that in any way reflects the reality of the situation but because that is how they would seem to the protagonists. 

The brilliant application of the principles of the zombie film functions not as a fright-making bag of movie tricks, but as an expression of the perspective of our heroes. This would eventually become a Carpenter trademark, the exquisite use of the lens to reflect one very specific emotional perspective on the events that are unfolding, and we can see this in its first fully-flowered form here in 1976.

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In a nearly-post-apocalyptic New York City of some indeterminate time period, every street gang in New York City, all 60,000 of them, and all 20,000 cops, are after the eight members of The Warriors who are just trying to get back to Coney Island. Why doesn’t matter (for this article). What does matter is that they are going to have to “bop their way home,” that is, engage in a continuous running battle from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, all the way down the island of Manhattan, and across the breadth of Brooklyn back to their home base under the Wonder Wheel.

Due to the nature of the Warriors’ Spartan martial philosophy, hiding or barricading themselves against the horde (as so many of our other heroes in this list have done) is out of the question. So is a pitched toe-to-toe street battle on the turf of some enemy gang; the Warriors know they are under-manned and under-armed. And so they run, they divide and combine, they make clever use of terrain and materiel, and they save the expensive tools of physical violence for when it will have the greatest impact.

The texture that emerges from this unique set of conditions is that of a city come alive with enemies, which our heroes must fight with their mind as much as their fists. The enemy is not quite as faceless as in Assault on Precinct 13 (there are, in fact, many memorable faces). But there are so many such faces of the enemy, and so few faces of our friends (or even neutrals), that it seems like the world mainly consists of those wanting to kill us.

We, the survivors, are the exception, and we are going to have to fight for every step, for every breath, for no other reason than we are not one of them, and we must prove it, if only to ourselves.

Four heroes stand inside the house

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Okay, obviously this is a joke entry, because not only did The Birds precede the modern era of zombie films by half a decade, the influence almost certainly went the other way. But this comparison must be drawn in order to fully understand the phenomenon being illustrated here.

Tippi Hedren buys two love birds to woo Rod Taylor‘s strong chin, and suddenly (well, an entire act later) all of the birds in the world decide that all the people need to die. Gradually the four core humans are driven indoors to barricade themselves against the swarming beaks that eventually tear their way inside. The birds don’t seem to have any strategic or tactical purpose; they’re just in it for the thrill of tearing out human eyes. (I mean, I get it.)

It is notable that this proto-non-zombie film is ranked higher than the rest of the films in our list, higher even than Night of the Living Dead. As if somehow the hidden rubric that zombie films have come to typify had already been taken maximal advantage of years before.

The plot structures and constraints and weird forces that drive unlikely bands of heroes indoors to try to survive hordes that beat themselves against doors and windows, these are universal features of the stories that we have always told. Our species has survived this long because this is what we know how to do.

We are pack animals, mammoth hunters, den-dwellers, city-builders. We may celebrate the fantastic ideals of the lone survivor, the samurai, all the various John McClanes we dream about when we go to the movies. But when the groaning starts, we know that the right move is to grab a rifle and batten down the hatches. Whatever people are within arm’s reach immediately become our blood-relatives; we will fight and die for them as much as for ourselves, even if we only met them tonight, and the fact that they would do the same knits us together into a survival unit that is greater than the sum of our parts.

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