Whether you love or hate these brain-craving fiends, zombies aren’t going back in the ground anytime soon. The success of AMC’s The Walking Dead made sure of that by beating the odds and making a formerly one-note monster last seven seasons and a spinoff. For mindless shells, zombies are one of the most versatile creatures the horror genre has for bringing our existential fears to life. (Get it?) Zombies allow characters, quite literally, to be eaten alive by their past or chased down by the inevitability of death. Most TV shows can’t handle the challenges of sustaining an apocalypse, however, which is where the zombie episode comes in. The zombie episode is focused on the first days of the dead rising and our heroes stopping—often after causing—a zombie outbreak. So, in those dark days (well, day) between The Walking Dead’s season finale and iZombie’s season premiere (April 4), let these single-dose zombie apocalypses tide you over.
1. The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror III (Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies)”
Who among us hasn’t thought dabbling in the dark arts would be good for a chuckle? And this episode is certainly full of chuckles, from Homer (Dan Castellaneta) killing zombie Flanders to zombies arguing about which grave belongs to who. The horror starts when Bart (Nancy Cartwright) picks a book in the occult section of the library to do a book report on. He’s excited to try out necromancy at the pet cemetery, but he accidentally reads the human zombie-raising spell instead. Things go sideways as zombies overrun the town and the Simpsons family has to fight their way back to the library to find the reverse spell. Be warned: If you read books, you might accidentally raise the dead, but if you watch too much television, you’ll end up acting like a zombie. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
2. Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead”
In 1869 Cardiff, a dead woman breaks out of her coffin and strangles her grandson before catching a show. The show happens to be a live reading from Charles Dickens, and that’s how The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), Rose (Billie Piper), and Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) all end up nearly getting killed by zombies in a Cardiff dungeon. This episode is a zombie outbreak, a ghost story and an alien invasion all in one. The production values are cheap and its story pace is slow, but that all adds to the Masterpiece Theater-meets-B-movie horror experience. The aliens (Zoe Thorne) who’ve been possessing corpses are creepy as they beg for their lives with increased menace, and it’s oddly chilling to see a zombie attack where the humans don’t have real weapons. The Dickens cameo is still a lot of fun even if, like me, you’re a bigger fan of his zombie fighting than his writing.
3. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, “Abominations”
The Legends land in the Civil War-era south amid a zombie outbreak, and everyone faces their worst fears. Stein (Victor Garber) and Ray (Brandon Routh) get themselves cornered on a spaceship with a zombifed Mick (Dominic Purcell). Jax (Franz Drameh) and Amaya (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) have to go undercover as slaves on a plantation to steal secrets for the Union army. Comparing the fictional nightmare of being trapped with a zombie to the harsh reality of life as a black person in America is really on-the-nose commentary, but that’s Legends of Tomorrow for you. They even burn down the plantation for good measure, in case anyone missed that zombies and slave owners deserve equal treatment. Sure, this episode could have leaned in harder on being a full 40 minutes of Dave Chappelle’s Time Haters sketch, but I don’t even see any other shows trying to compete.
4. Misfits, “Season Three, Episode 7”
This one-episode departure into the zombie genre exemplifies the best of Misfits. Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is given the power to raise the dead to bring back his friend Seth’s girlfriend, Shannon (Charlene McKenna). This creates some problems. First, the power doesn’t really cure death—it creates zombies. Second, Seth (Matthew McNulty) is already dating Kelly (Lauren Socha). These two plots play off of each other incredibly well, balancing a gory zombie adventure full of demonic cats and undead cheerleaders with the quieter dread of a clearly dead relationship that came back wrong. This episode also contains one of the best scenes in the series, in which, at the very last moment, a new probation worker walks in and is immediately bitten by a zombie. Rudy (Joseph Gilgun) pulls the literal short straw to kill her and has to explain to her that they’re “really not bad kids,” even as he swings the bat.
5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Zeppo”
Between a looming apocalypse he can’t help stop and a recent break up, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) is feeling inadequate. His ex, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), helps by reminding Xander he is not at all cool. In his desperate attempt to gain outside, and specifically male, social approval, Xander ends up as the car guy to a gang of rabble-rousing zombies. While high school bully/zombie Jack O’Toole (Channon Roe) is still pretty fresh, the show finds a lot of comedy in how rotten the other zombies are, including a physical gag that always gets me, in which Xander accidentally knocks a head off with a mailbox. In an episode about social status, zombies are portrayed as the ultimate posers: These are guys whose lives literally ended in high school. Jack talks about living without fear because he came back from the dead, but actual oblivion scares him shitless. Xander, for all his other failings, likes the quiet.
6. Adventure Time, “Slumber Party Panic”
The episode opens on Finn (Jeremy Shada) helping Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) use science to raise the dead. (She is such an incredible role model for young women.) When the resurrection experiment results in candy-craving zombies, Princess Bubblegum summons the whole Candy Kingdom into the castle to hide until she finds a cure. Finn’s biggest challenge isn’t a horde of zombies, it’s keeping them a secret from his best bro, Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio). Finn Royal Promised not to tell anyone about the zombie outbreak, and he fails. The punishment for breaking a Royal Promise is trial by fire, but since Finn is a friend he gets off easy by solving a simple math problem. Finn correctly adds 2+2, all the zombies are cured, and everyone has a nice slumber party. It’s mathematical!
7. Being Human, “Type 4”
In a show about the humanity of monsters, it’s fitting that a zombie would be the victim who needs to be protected. Mitchell (Aidan Turner) and Annie (Lenora Crichlow) accidentally created zombies when they opened the door to the afterlife, because no one who died in that time could leave their body. Horrifically, the doctors treating these conscious corpses experimented on them without anesthesia until eventually burning them alive. Sasha (Alexandra Roach), a zombie, escaped this horror and just wants to live her life (by drinking, dancing, and flirting). She’s lucky to find a friend in Annie, who helps her peacefully cross into the afterlife. The real zombie horror story is Mitchell’s past, crawling out of its grave in the form of a vampire fanboy (Tony Maudsley) looking to imitate Mitchell’s past crimes. Mitchell is the abomination infecting others, but without rotting flesh, his friends don’t even know to fear him.
8. Moral Orel, “The Lord’s Greatest Gift”
Though Moral Orel is a relatively grounded show, claymation aside, it’s fitting that the pilot goes straight for the ultimate defiance of God, reversing death itself. After hearing a sermon on the Lord’s greatest gift being life, the naive Orel (Carolyn Lawrence) gets it into his head that all corpses are sinning by being dead. He steals a book on necromancy from the library to help the corpses in the cemetery embrace God’s gift of life by bringing them back as zombies. His town immediately descends into bloody chaos. The problem, however, isn’t the zombies ravaging the town, it’s that Orel first stripped the bodies to get them out of their dirty clothes, causing shameful, shameful public nudity. My favorite gag in the episode is that the mindless zombies still say grace before chowing down on human flesh. It’s both a silly joke and a fitting commentary on casual religious hypocrisy.
9. Gravity Falls, “Scary-oke”
Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Grunkle Stan (Alex Hirsch) are in a standoff because Stan wants to keep Dipper away from the weird and dangerous parts of Gravity Falls and Dipper wants to be taken seriously by an authority figure because he knows he’s right about Gravity Falls’ mysteries and magic. Of course, Dipper ends up proving Stan’s point by reading a spell at random and raising hordes of the undead. Luckily for both of them, they have Mabel (Kristen Schaal)’s big heart and love of karaoke to save them. See, the only way to defeat zombies is through the power of three-part harmony. It says a lot about Mabel Pine’s unwavering love and optimism that she’s not going to let a zombie attack ruin a good karaoke party. Although I’m glad he was cured, zombie Soos (Alex Hirsch) was especially delightful as the world’s smartest zombie.
10. The Middleman, “The Flying Fish Zombification”
Is there anything that sums up the wonderful absurdity of The Middleman more than a trout-focused zombie outbreak? The trout-hungry zombies were created by a villain spiking an energy drink called !!!! with the venom of the Peruvian Flying Pike. The plan makes surprising sense in context. While the world hangs in the balance, so do Wendy Watson’s (Natalie Morales) friendships. Her mentor, the Middleman (Matt Keeslar), feels a pang of competitive jealousy as Wendy becomes more his equal than sidekick, and her best friend, Lacey (Brit Morgan), feels betrayed that Wendy keeps bailing on Lacey’s one-woman show. A common theme in zombie episodes is the way a near apocalyptic event causes characters to take stock of their priorities, but in this case it’s Wendy’s duty as a superhero she has to learn to put first. All in all, the scariest part of the episode is Pip’s (Drew Tyler Bell) performance art monologue, “Hey, Mr. God!”
11. Invader Zim, “FBI Warning of Doom”
Zim (Richard Steven Horvitz) has to return a DVD rental to the video store before morning or else fear the wrath of the FBI. It’s worth noting that Zim does not actually know what the FBI is. Zim also doesn’t realize that by breaking into the mall to return the film he’s facing the wrath of the much scarier Sergeant Slab Rankle (Robert Cait) of mall security. After falling into one of the mall’s many booby traps, Zim learns Slab Rankle has been capturing people who break the law of the mall and experimenting on them to create a zombie army. Luckily, Slab Rankle neglected to make fast or smart zombies and instead made slow, dumb zombies that Zim is easily able to walk around. It’s the sort of anti-climax Invader Zim thrives on. If you like your raising the dead stories to be allegories for man’s impotent hubris, this is a perfect zombie episode.
12. The X-Files, “Millennium”
This episode follows Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) chasing a fanatic who is trying to bring about the end of days by raising the dead. While it functions as a wrap-up of the story of the Millennium Group from Fox’s recently (at the time) cancelled Millennium, it also stands on its own. While I have not watched Millenium, Frank Black’s (Lance Henriksen) fear of the Millennium Group tells me all I need to be scared of them. Watched in 2017, the use of coffin cell phones is oddly charming, the slow pace is nerve-wracking, and the fact that they didn’t do a technology-based Y2K plot is still a huge relief 17 years later. It hits the claustrophobic feel you want out of any occult plot, while also using the mounting tension of a hidden government conspiracy. All the undead horror is worth it for the final moments, in which Mulder and Scully finally kiss.
13. Community, “Epidemiology”
“Epidemiology” has everything: Halloween costumes, George Takei, an ABBA soundtrack, zombies and a strong message about friendship. At least, that’s what I most want out of television. The episode’s best scene is when Troy (Donald Glover), Abed (Danny Pudi), and Jeff (Joel McHale) are in the basement to escape the zombies and get sidetracked by a cat jumping in front of them with surprising speed. It’s a perfect mix of bizarre comedy and claustrophobic jump scares. The emotional heart of this story is Troy. He starts the episode feeling embarrassed about his friends making him look uncool, but after the outbreak hits, he realizes how much he would do for his friends at Greendale. Troy loves his friends so much he’ll punch all of them out trying to get to the thermostat, which is very heroic in context. Troy Barnes is the hero we need, and I, for one, hope he enjoyed watching Marmaduke after the party.
Sara Ghaleb is a Los Angeles writer and comedian. She takes pop culture much too seriously. You can see her sketch team The Burbs perform at The Nerdist School Stage. Follow her at @saraghaleb;.