I have a friend who regularly points out that he’s sick of zombies. This friend is a big fan of horror, so it’s not the horror genre he’s sick of. It’s zombies. And I gotta’ say, he has a point. Everywhere you turn, it’s zombies.
Zombies zombies zombies.
Zombie TV shows, zombie movies, zombie video games, zombie walks, zombie parties… the undead really have taken over pop culture.
So yeah, I can totally understand why my friend is sick of zombies.
However, I think zombies are suffering from something worse than culture-saturation. I think they’re suffering from bad storytelling.
It seems to me that Hollywood has forgotten how to make a good zombie movie. They think in terms of “bigger is always better” and because of that, zombie movies have lost touch with the very things that make them icons.
So with that in mind, I give you…
5 Rules For a Good Zombie Movie
Now, I should point out that these rules are purely my opinion. I’m sure some of you will disagree or have additional rules to add. If so, feel free to give your thoughts in the comments.
1. The story should be intimate.
Modern zombie movies seem to think they have to tell a global story. It has to be big. It has to be apocalyptic. While that might make for a good movie, it doesn’t make a good zombie movie. The best example of this is World War Z (the movie, not the book). World War Z might be a fun movie, but it’s not a good zombie movie. Simply put, it’s too big.
The key to “pulling the audience in” to a zombie movie is intimacy. It needs to be small. The audience must feel like they’re part of the story. And while it might be fun watching 10,000 zombies take down a helicopter, the audience isn’t really participating in the horror of that moment. However, walking by a window and having a zombie burst through… that will establish intimacy. That will make it real.
2. Make us feel isolated.
Every great zombie movie manages to tell a story where the characters feel alone and isolated. They’re cut off from the world. They’re separated from other people. They’re separated from safety. That makes the story tense. It makes it scary.
And speaking of scary…
3. Give us a reason to be afraid.
Fear. It seems so fundamental, but many zombie movies forget that fear is a requirement. Don’t get me wrong, humor is fine. Many zombie movies are full of humor, and I love that. But the really good ones also provide fear. They give us genuine danger.
Even Zombieland, which is mostly comedy, starts off the actual story with fear. Yeah, you have the funny intro, but as soon as it starts telling the actual story, it establishes fear. You start with Columbus, alone at an empty gas station. Within seconds, he’s fighting for his life. Night of the Living Dead also begins with fear. At a cemetery, no less. And Dawn of the Dead. All the great zombie movies waste no time making it very clear that a zombie outbreak is a scary event.
4. The characters need to be grounded.
Yes, Tallahassee from Zombieland is a great character. He’s fun. He’s funny. He’s a badass.
He also could not carry a good zombie movie on his own.
He needs Columbus. The audience needs Columbus.
We need someone we can relate to.
I’m not saying the characters have to be weak. They just have to be real. The key to a great zombie movie is opening the door and inviting the audience in. We have to feel like we’re there.
And a great way to do that is to give us characters we can relate to.
5. Not knowing is better than knowing.
Hollywood has an obsession with exposition. Hollywood executives seem to think they have to explain why everything is happening.
Well, part of the fun of a zombie movie is not knowing.
Why is this happening? What are they? Is it a virus? Is it supernatural? Is it religious?
Not knowing makes it scarier.
Hints are fine, and sometimes an explanation works. But usually, being in the figurative dark as well as the literal dark just adds to the terror.
So there you have it. 5 rules that – for me – make a better zombie movie. And if you look at the really great ones, they all stick to this. Just look at Night of the Living Dead, which is widely considered to be the best zombie movie ever made…
A girl and her brother are at a cemetery to visit their mother’s grave. It’s an intimate moment. While at the cemetery, they are attacked by a dead person. It kicks things off with nothing but fear. The girl makes it to a house and meets another man. They lock themselves in. They’re isolated. They discover other people there, but it’s a small group. And all the people are average. They’re just people. They’re grounded. They’re real. And they never really find out why it’s happening. There are TV and radio reports, but the characters never really know.
There are other aspects to a great zombie movie, of course, but by establishing those 5 things, a zombie movie can make us feel like we’re part of the events.
We’re not just spectators.
And that makes all the difference.
p.s. So what about you? What do you think is a requirement for a good zombie movie?