To properly honor this month’s delightful holiday and the horror (and sometimes horrific) films that always accompany it, I thought it time to salute the best in cinema’s proud zombie-slaying history. Like many of you out there, I too have a soft spot in my heart for the living dead — George Romero’s contribution to film’s horror legacy not one to be underestimated in this author’s opinion. Sure, there were zombies before Night of the Living Dead, yet after Romero slow-played their utility as triggers for death’s inescapable immediacy, a genre was born. Hell, the Vikings may have discovered America, but at the end of the day, because he did it with style, it’s Columbus that got the holiday.
With any good zombie film, there’s always that one character that stands out as the cream of the murderous crop: that one person who for whatever reason just happens to kill a mean zombie. Extermination abilities aside, one cannot live on bread alone just as one can’t rely simply on ass-kicking prowess. It’s a keen mind and cautious eye that keeps a person alive during a Zombocalypse, the marriage of skills and savvy a must for any dedicated survivor. With this in mind, I had to eliminate Roger from the original Dawn of the Dead, for while the guy had some moves, he wasn’t able to keep his head in the game throughout the entire duration. Though a huge favorite and all-around wicked character, Dr. West from Re-Animator failed to place, for like Lionel in Dead Alive, he was more skilled at creating zombies than he was at eliminating them. Thus, that leaves us with …
These poor, stupid bastards. Dear old England, what will you do when the Zombocalypse descends on you, and you’ve little more than soccer balls and broken tea saucers for your defense? While you janky-toothed Europeans might currently get the last laugh due to drastically lower gunshot fatality rates, we’ll see who’s chuckling when the shit starts raining down, and the zombies rise up to cash their check. As this movie correctly pointed out, when approached by a curious looking stranger with mouth ajar and an arm off, the British are liable to ask if that person’s okay rather than shoot them in both eyes with the pistol all of us Americans carry in our back pockets.
Obviously constructed of stronger cord than most of his countrymen, Shaun battled through his polite sensibilities and startling lack of weaponry to emerge a tested soldier. Smart enough to realize that any plan today is better than the perfect plan tomorrow, Shaun was a decisive leader and a resolute zombie foe. Scoring more than two dozen kills throughout the course of the movie with weaponry ranging from LP vinyl to cold, American, lever-action steel, the film’s protagonist would have ranked higher had he not lost the battle to save his mother, stepfather, and best friend (a most shameful trifecta). While he did the best he could despite cultural hindrances, and was in possession of five times the screen time as the next entrant, there’s no denying that when it comes to killing zombies, Americans just do it better…
Now, let’s get one thing straight before going any further: I’m not saying this remake was better than the original. I am stating for the record, however, that the 21st century has better zombie killers than the previous generation, if only because technology has given us the edge. Take Andy, for example. Sure, the 60s and 70s had all the tools involved in Andy’s gun-store siege, but did those saps have the benefit of an A-Team inspired childhood to get some serious welding and battle-wagon action going? Just in case you’re wondering, the answer there is HELL NO! It was because Andy was such a good shot and was slowly starving to death that the mall crew got into action to form a plan along with a steel warhorse. Indeed, Andy was such a bad-ass and all-around commodity that roughly half a dozen comfortable survivors risked seemingly endless security within the confines of a mall to save the dude.
Sure, they were getting a little stir crazy, but had the mall crowd fashioned a reasonable plan to get food to the guy, Andy could have sniped the world dry with his seemingly endless supply of ammo and skills. Demonstrating his utility in terms of ballistics, brains, and balls, it was his failure to fully contribute to ultimate victory that kept him from moving higher into contention. Like the next entrant, Andy’s fate was an unfortunate one, yet as was the case with both men, what they contributed in the little time afforded, and their rationality in the face of hell-on-earth, got them a nod …
Again, had the guy lived to see a non-zombie dawn, he might well have made the top three or so. Cruel, shitty world that it is, however, the guy had to go. And that’s too bad, for Ben was meant to battle lifeless hordes like Mickey Mantle was meant to swing a bat. Back before people had movies or a highly organized N.R.A. to rely upon, rules got made pretty much on the spot, and clear-headed action like that which was displayed by this film’s hero was at a premium. Coming into the picture about fifteen minutes in, Ben never faltered, and kept a clear head while staying on point. Rational to the end, Ben made good decisions, and he made them fast. A natural leader, he kept his priorities in order searching first for a means of escape, then for weapons and ammunition, going for fortification implements thereafter.
Battling the understandable inclination to hole up and wait things out, Ben understood that options, not a lack of them, were the group’s most valuable commodity. To this end he fought both his allies and the undead enemy fast approaching to assure his back wasn’t put up against a wall unless absolutely necessary. Setting the template for all good survivors to follow in the years after, Ben’s lack of automatic weapons and a big sign that read “I AM NOT A ZOMBIE – DO NOT SHOOT” kept him from placing higher. As far as the next candidate, however, longevity and kill counts were certainly not issues …
Though it’s easy to call Selena a natural, as she seemed to have her shit together from the word ‘go’ in this film, it’s hard to speculate on what her first 28 days were like after the infection broke. Sure, she was all business when Jim (Cillian Murphy) ran into her, what with appropriate face protection and melee weaponry (again, those poor, poor Brits and their sensible firearm regulations), but who knows what kind of a state she was in when she had to hack off her first head? Regardless, this was one tough bitch. Calm under pressure, skilled with a machete, quick on her feet, and with the emotional fortitude of a goddamned Navy Seal, she repeatedly came through for the group.
She proved that she had the stomach of a true Zombocalypse survivor when she immediately dispatched an infected member of her party without hesitation. Later, she just about had Jim ready to do the same before some soldiers swooped in to take care of dear old Dad, thereby letting the old bike messenger off the hook. When in the clutches of the aforementioned Army squad, she showed startling fortitude in the face of a very likely rape, proving she had what it took to weather storms from infected and immune alike. Resolute, practical, psychologically sturdy, deadly, and pretty frickin’ hot, she was about as good as it gets when it comes to British action in the face of an undead uprising.
Another member of the Romero zombie family, Cholo was definitely a product of the Zombocalypse-reconstruction era, operating comfortably in the ruins of a broken United States. In this film, Leguizamo’s character worked as something of a zombie bag-man, running dirty errands for the fascist overlord that ran the show in what remained of Pittsburgh, PA. Agile, ruthless, pragmatic, and armed with a sweet-ass spear gun, Cholo demonstrated early on in the film why he was working directly for the head honcho, slicing through a gaggle of the undead like shit through a goose. Rocking a hard-assed don’t-give-a-fuck attitude shared by many of his contemporaries on this list, Cholo was not a dude to be trifled with.
Hell, even the powerful Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) was an eventual victim to the man’s revenge. Burned on a deal that would have allowed him access to the fatter side of society, Cholo went Apache on Kaufman’s ass and stole the big-wig’s battle wagon, essentially starting a chain of events that would see the total collapse of the survivor society and privileged power base in charge. Seeing his vendetta through, even once in the clutches of a full-on zombie reanimation, Cholo got a spot for not only killing a fine zombie, but because he was such a trooper throughout the entire ordeal: his life lost, though never his honor.
I think what I like most about El Wray is that he had a backstory so brutal and epic that the film simply couldn’t be bothered with explaining all the details. Indeed, this guy was so hard, his character so unquestionably bad-ass and capable, that to waste time explaining would have just been that: a waste. This was especially evident when demonstration after demonstration proved the guy to be the bee’s nuts, words pitifully inefficient in the face of action. Indeed, why tell what you can easily show? Double-wielding butterfly knives, pistols, or an automatic rifle, the guy “never missed,” killing zombies with such efficiency that he looked specially trained for the task. His abilities never in dispute, he also took time to showcase his intelligence, keeping his posse in control yet in good standing with whatever situation they encountered.
Content to hole up and fight when needed as well as hit the road to flee if necessary, El Wray never found himself in a position he couldn’t handle. Shit, even in his death he seemed totally in charge, mandating action and instructing the most efficient course of retreat to his last breath. Resourceful to a startling degree, the guy didn’t even let the loss of his girlfriend’s leg ruin his party, for he fashioned a machine gun to her stump in maybe the most romantic gesture in the history of zombie cinema. To get over on so awesome a specimen as El Wray, a person would have to overcome both his kill-count and physical abilities, something the next character did with almost frightening ease …
Though I wasn’t a fan of the concept to begin with, only getting into the series after the second installment, I must begrudgingly admit that Milla has some serious moves. Hampered by a lack of memory and plausible SFX in the first film, her Alice character still flexes some serious muscle. Escaping from an underground cannibal hive after defeating a posse of reanimated creatures of the damned, she was cruelly thrown into a corporate program to turn her into a zombie-killing god in the second picture. The proof was in the pudding, for when released, she not only took on an entire city of the walking dead, but went head-to-head with a giant medical experiment gone to shit, and used her new superhuman abilities to stave off the infection and a five hundred pound creature blasting everything in sight to hell.
Subsequent installments saw the feisty heroine getting deeper and deeper into the shit, post-apocalyptic wastelands no match for the spinning wheel of death that was Jovovich’s Alice. Though ridiculous, perhaps her best moment came near the beginning of the second film, when she made her entrance on a motorcycle, guns blazing, only to ditch the vehicle so she could use it as a self-propelled detonator. To take this scene over any of the other absurd action sequences patched together throughout the series really isn’t fair, however, as the woman’s gift for killing knows no real bounds. Indeed, had she met the next contender in an alternate universe, spawned progeny with him, and unleashed their brood upon the world, a zombie infection would almost instantly have its antidote.
Tallahassee stands as a testament to the possibilities afforded a true red-blooded American during any given Zombocalypse. Indeed, as narrator Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) remarks during the film, the guy just had an uncanny knack for undead extermination. And while Columbus certainly displays some admirable qualities both in the brain and brawn department, there’s not a person in this film that came close to approaching the skill-set on Harrelson’s character. Indeed, while the narrator showed how far a person could get on common sense, logic, and a good stretching routine, the sage-like Tallahassee showed that this was all worthless if stuck in the middle of an abandoned highway without wheels, whiskey, or solid weaponry.
Yeah, once Columbus hooked up with the Twinkie-loving titan, things were pretty gravy, small hiccups like a grift and robbery scam small prices to pay for an eventual fine piece of ass, sweet gift-shop destruction, and a good Bill Murray story. A survivor of the Zombocalypse, it’s obvious that Tallahassee was smarter than he let on, for he certainly knew his way around the undead. An unquestioned maestro in terms of his zombie-killing technique, the supermarket melee and fun-park climax demonstrated without question that this guy deserved a place near the top of any ranking of this sort. Alive at the end of the picture, a healthy zombie-count easily in the three digit range, it would take true warriors of men to dethrone so mighty a force from the top spot, but in the next two candidates, we got just that …
Leave it to the Italians to run a country so tangled in bureaucracy and red tape that its people need to kill their own zombies rather than rely on their government to handle the situation. And this wasn’t even at a point in this movie where the central governing apparatus was destroyed, no. This was one cemetery that produced monthly batches of fresh, re-animated corpses roaming the night, and the caretaker got so tired of the hassles of interacting with his government that he just started killing the damn things himself. Say what you will about the good ol’ U.S. of A, but I think our cinematic zombie resume has proven that if nothing else, our government would take the Zombocalypse by the horns (though, admittedly, we’d probably get gored). Not in Italy, though, where they can’t be bothered to open shop before 10am, wear deodorant, or properly dispose of the undead.
As a result, this film’s hero spent most of his free time killing the recently dead, giving new meaning to the word “caretaker.” Understandably, the guy went a little off the rails at the end, figuring that the best way to keep the coming hordes at bay would be to shoot them in the head prior to burial. Problem is, he also figured it wasn’t necessary to wait until a person was, “dead” first. However, for fighting the good fight for so long a duration, and because his kill count clocked in at such a remarkable total (extra style points for Francesco as well), the gentleman got recognition. Really, though, are you going to sit there and argue against the next fella and his spot at the top of the mountain? For when it came to scalps at the belt, style, and all-around bad-assery, just try and top this guy…
“Are all men from the future loud-mouthed braggarts?”
“Nope. Just me, baby.”
Who among us couldn’t throw around our favorite Ash quotes for hours, nay, days, if ample liquor and fellow dorks abounded? This guy set the standard for zombie-slaying and complete manliness in three magnificent installments: each more outstanding than the last. Mr. Campbell’s iconic master creation was both the best the audience could hope for themselves as well as the dredges of what we feared might become of us. In each film, Ash was presented with a terrible dilemma that was thrust upon him by mystical forces of the damned. In every instance, the mighty Ashley entered a dark night of the soul and wallowed in the most cowardly acts imaginable, doing everything from girlish panic-cries to a full-on puss-out during the Army of Darkness post-Necronomicon mission. Yet wasn’t that fair? Wouldn’t the best of us crack under the pressure of murdering and dismembering one’s zombie girlfriend? Who among you is bold enough to point fingers at a man for losing his nerve a little following a death-match with a murderous doppelganger?
No, you’d all crack like peanut brittle. But not Ash. When the evil got into his hand, he took a goddamned chainsaw to the thing and turned himself into a lefty (respect). When his lady friend wouldn’t stay dead, he put her head in a vice-grip and turned the surrounding area into modern art. And when an army of the risen dead marched on a castle housing little more than a few dozen men, he battened down the hatches, trained his crew, and got to fucking work. A survivor of multiple incursions against insurmountable odds, thrown without training into situations that would make a Mossad agent weep, Ash kept killing, and did so with style. Mr. Campbell’s greatest contribution to the universe gets the top spot because he murdered the shit out of an ass-load of zombies, and because he was an absolute stallion when doing so. Cocky to a fault, bombastic, crude, and totally capable of walking every inch of the talk, Ash owns the list because while others have killed zombies and done so well, nobody looked as good or acted cooler doing it.
Seattle-based writer Warren Cantrell has a B.A. and M.A. in American History and created the website 10Rant.com.