Zombies: a series – part 2

The teenager who works behind the counter at the corner convenience store after school; the hot girl in spandex who works out at the gym in the mornings; the elderly widow that lives across the street and two houses down. What do they have in common? Well, in a zombie story, they may be the next member of the undead horde who comes to call on the living characters. As monsters go, zombies occupy an interesting niche. Functioning member of society one minute, flesh devouring automaton the next. Stripped of their humanity by some random event (another zombie, a comet’s tail particles, irradiated groundwater, etc.), they are people in appearance only.

But that very appearance of normalcy from afar can prominently figure into the story. Zombies are usually up close and in your face dangerous. From ten yards away, they just look like a person in distress. No cunning involved, no premeditated plan, no trap of their own making. Stimulus and response. Enter their space of awareness, you are now prey. When they’re not actively chasing a tasty brain snack, they usually fall into patterns of aimless wandering.

As a writer, there are a couple of interesting plays on human/zombie encounters to consider. One is the character who goes missing for some time and is then rediscovered. Were they “turned” in their absence? Do they think the other characters have “turned” in their absence? Plenty of room for the writer to craft an encounter to keep the reader engaged. Another staple is the “safe haven” that is found to be compromised. Likely, the characters have had to endure hardships to reach this place of presumed refuge. Now what are they going to do? Plenty of room for the writer to explore the emotional dynamic of the living characters.

It has been some time since my first post in this series. Although I am a fan of the genre and have embarked on the writing of a trilogy of screenplays in this space (one down, two to go), I realized that there are great gobs of zombie-centric movies and books of which I was unaware. I am but a necrophyte! (a term coined by a member of my writing group, today). I started getting caught in a research loop. So, this post is an effort to break me out of that cycle as well.

Zombies: a series – part 1

Shuffling and shambling their way onto the screen and into popular culture, the zombie has gained widespread appeal as a horror film and book icon.  From their first appearance in Night of the Living Dead to the frightening (and sometimes frightful) abundance of subsequent offerings, the undead horde relentlessly propel themselves onward, seeking fresh brains in the form of new fans.  I’ve been a fan of this sub-genre for quite a while and for many years I portrayed a zombie at Halloween (stage blood gel-caps and a rubber foot are wonderful props for scaring the trick-or-treaters).

One of the prominent features of most of these stories is the fact that, if left unchecked, the zombie menace will quickly outpace the remaining human population.  There isn’t time to just “wait it out” while conventional society quickly degrades.  The living must band together and put aside their differences, creating internal side conflicts in addition to the primary core conflict of human vs. zombie.

In this series, I shall be examining various aspects of the zombie motif.  First up, my personal favorite zombie incarnations and a few that I feel could have just been left in the ground.

Favorite movie:

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The great-grand-daddy of zombie films.  Set the tone for one branch of the zombie pantheon: The dead rise and if you are dead or become dead through whatever means, you will join their ranks.  The iconic shuffling gait, blank stare and mindless pursuit of prey all got their start here.

Least favorite movie:

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Too campy in my opinion, this one foregoes any real horror moments for a big splash of humor.  While John A. Russo got the rights to use the name “Living Dead” after the split, Romero’s line of sequels (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead) retained more of the spirit of the original.

Favorite book:

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman (writer)

This continuing series of comics explores a present-day world where a zombie outbreak quickly gained a critical mass.  Thus, the story centers more on the ability of humans to adapt and survive in a post-apocalyptic setting, while still dealing with the considerable amounts of emotional baggage they brought along for the trip.

Least favorite book:

Cell: A Novel by Stephen King

Perhaps that this was given a zombie story attribution was its greatest downfall for me.  I expected the horror master’s take on a classic scenario, but instead found the “rules” hard to figure out.  In my opinion, it’s more akin to The Matrix than zombie lore.

Slow zombies or fast? Know your rules.

In my recent screenplay class, one other student was working on a pretty slick idea that involved zombies.  I won’t get into the details other than to say when he got to the details of the zombies getting around, a battle broke out in the class.

True connoisseurs of the brain eating undead grew up watching the Slow zombies trudge across the screen in classics like Night of the Living Dead.  The zombies were scary because they were like a force of nature, inexorable and relentless.  You could whack, smack, slap, beat, and repeat these things and they were still coming for you.  They were like Death itself – you could run, but eventually you would fall.

Newer zombie movies tend to favor Fast zombies.  Rigor mortis doesn’t bother this crew. In fact, they’re like rotting ninjas as they come over every obstacle and around every corner.  If you didn’t bring your track shoes you’re going to be lunch.

The debate was mostly along generational lines, or which versions you saw first as you were growing up.  Slow or Fast, they each have a different story to tell.  The moral of it all was to know the rules of your own universe.

I’m a Slow Zombie guy, so I lobbied my case accordingly. I got nervous when the writer said he was going for a mix of Fast and Slow zombies. A mix?! He was a little fuzzy on what was causing his zombies to become zombified, and just liked the idea of two different speeds.  We then pushed him to try and define his world better. You need to know your own rules to convey them effectively to the audience.  You’ll quickly lose your viewer if your genre changes mid-stream or the impossible happens out of left field.  They’ll feel cheated.

So pick your zombie’s top speed to suit your story, then let them do their thing.