Zombies scare the pants off of us here at ZRS. That’s why we got into zombie research in the first place, to deal with our overwhelming fear of the coming undead plague. But what exactly is the scariest zombie of all time?

To streamline the field of contenders, the list below only includes zombies from film. We took into account each zombie’s look, behavior, lethality, interaction with other characters, and impact on both their specific movie and the zombie sub-genre as a whole.

#6) The Clown – Zombieland (2009)

The plague in Zombieland is caused by a mutated form of mad cow disease that doesn’t kill its victims, but instead turns them into raving lunatics with an appetite for human flesh. Its great box-office success solidified this new form of living zombie in the sub-genre, and proved once again that just because the world is dead doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun. Geeky hero Columbus reveals that the only thing he fears more than zombies is clowns. Unfortunately, to save the girl of his dreams he has to fight a snarling zombie clown on its home turf: an apocalyptic amusement park. The zombie clown is a recurring theme throughout the movie, garnering it the number six spot.

#5) Tarman – Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Tarman crawls out of a fifty-gallon drum of toxic sludge with a hunger for one thing and one thing only: brains. After a military experiment goes horribly wrong, Tarman is the first modern zombie to ever say “brains” and the first modern zombie to ever eat brains, making him one of the most iconic ghouls of all time. Though Return of the Living Dead is mostly comical, Tarman and the horde he spawns is smart, fast and not afraid to rack up a huge body count. William Stout is the famed production designer of ROLTD, and he later worked on creature design for Predator (1987), Men in Black (1997), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

#4) Colonel Herzog – Dead Snow (2009)

Colonel Herzog and his undead Nazi troops behave much more like mummies than actual zombies. They are preserved in ice, rather than being relentlessly aggressive they just want their gold back, and they may not even be contagious. But they’re called zombies by name throughout Dead Snow, making the intentions of this Norwegian romp clear. Herzog follows in a well established Nazi zombie tradition, with earlier movies including Shock Waves (1977), and Zombie Lake (1981). He captures the number four spot because he is the lead ghoul in the first-ever Scandinavian zombie movie, and he ruthlessly commands his legion of undead stormtroopers.

#3) Scuba Dive Zombie – Zombie (1979)

Zombie, also known as Zombi 2, is an Italian film directed by horror icon Lucio Fulci. In the movie’s early minutes a topless, scuba-diving young woman retreats from an aggressive shark in the coral reef at the ocean floor, only to be attacked by a submerged zombie hiding therein. The two mortal threats soon lose interest in the helpless woman and fight each other instead, leading to one of the most legendary zombie fight scenes ever filmed: shark versus zombie. The zombie lands a clean bite before having his arm ripped off by the shark as it speeds away. This ghoul locks the number three spot for reminding us that zombies can pop up in the most unlikely of places.

#2) Mrs. Izquierdo – [REC] (2007)

Spanish director Paco Plaza gave us what at first appears to be a new and deadly form of rabies in [REC]. A local crew of firefighters is called to an apartment complex in Barcelona where they find Mrs. Isquierdo confused and bloody in her unit. The old woman soon attacks and bites one man, before throwing another off the balcony three floors up. As the terrifying story unfolds,we learn that something sinister is at work. A secret experiment in the penthouse apartment has unleashed a new virus on the unsuspecting residents. Mrs. Izquierdo is the first sign of what’s to come. Her rage, strength, unpredictability and disturbing appearance land her at number two.

#1) Karen Cooper – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Karen Cooper is the first film character ever to turn into a modern zombie on screen. Her parents frantically attend to a bite she’s suffered, only to be killed and eaten by their little girl in the basement of a secluded Pennsylvania farmhouse. Child zombies are arguably the most scary type in general, and Karen Cooper is certainly the queen of all pint-sized ghouls. She even uses a garden trowel to slice her helpless mother into pieces much like Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho . Though she never appears outdoors in the film, a promotional photo of Karen standing in the farmhouse yard is one of the most iconic and creepy images from Night of the Living Dead.



  1. The zombie that’s always stuck in my head as being terrifying (the only zombie to ever give me nightmares) was the little brother zombie from Diary of the Dead. I know that movie isn’t particularly popular among most Romero fans, but then neither is Day of the Dead and that was his favorite of all his movies. I personally found Diary to be the most frightening of the series. It’s the only one that really scared me. And as an older sister, the idea of my zombie brother jumping on my back is absolutely terrifying.

  2. Excellent.

    If we group the infected cannibalistic human in the definition then we must needs change our view to strategies and tactics used when dealing with this similar but significantly different threat.

    I would say precision in conveyance of ideas, but yeah it was snarky wasn’t it? Sorry about that,

  3. A couple of points here. I copied that principle off of the Home page off of (drumroll please) the Zombie Research Society Home Page!!! Where is this “updated” version posted?

    We define a zombie as a reanimated human corpse.

    Then we have a “living zombie”??

    That is the same as saing 0 = 1.

    If something is dead, it is dead. If it isn’t dead, then it isnt a Zed.

    • The raving horde in zombieland were called zombies by the people in the movie, and the movie is titled ZOMBIEland. Who are we, you or anyone to say that it wasn’t a zombie movie? There is a new trend in the zombie sub-genre of the living zombie – some people call in “infected” which is fine, but can be confused with many other infection moved (like contagion) that have nothing to do with relentlessly aggressive masses of contagious cannibals. We call them living zombies here at ZRS.

      But you make some really good points (mixed with a healthy dose of snarkiness). We really need to clarify our position on this, so look for changes to the website info in the next week or so. We just relaunched everything, which may be why you saw the old definition. Working to update it all asap.

      We are going to include a section on the types of zombies we study on the “about” page – and what we call the living zombie is certainly one of them.


  4. Actually the principle #1 is this:

    The modern zombie is a relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse driven by a biological infection.

    That is the updated version, but your point still stand. BUT we also define the living zombie like this:

    The living zombie is a relentlessly aggressive human driven by a biological infection.

    So you are right that it is not a traditional undead zombie movie, but we do call it a living zombie movie.

  5. I agree with the comment about Zombieland. I also think that tar man is not so much scary as iconic. I would have included Johnny from NOTLD. There was nothing more frighting in that movie that seeing him drag out his sister to be torn to shreads. The fact that he looked more living than dead made him that much more frighting. Karen Cooper as number one is perfect.

  6. Good call on nos. 6 and especially no. 1. That iconic image of Karen cornering her mother in the basement still gives me the willies.

  7. ZRS foundational principle number 1:

    A zombie is a biologically definable, animated being occupying a human corpse;

    There were no zombies in Zombieland. It was an outbreak film not a zombie film.

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