Zombies: a series – Countdown

In 2 months, 4 days and 12 hours, the dead will walk… onto your TV screen!

Premiering on Halloween night, AMC TV’s presentation of “The Walking Dead“, which long-time readers may remember is my favorite zombie book, has all of the makings of becoming my favorite visual zombie experience as well.  Veteran (and venerable) screenwriter and director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) is at the helm and the writer for the graphic novels, Robert Kirkman, is heavily involved.

A trailer was premiered last month that the San Diego Comic-Con and the official AMC website has some other great behind the scenes video clips, including a time-lapse of a three and a half hour makeup and prosthetic appliance session shown at sixty times normal speed.  Darabont is well-known for his attention to detail, so I have no doubt that he has gathered a crack team of special effects wizards to bring this story of the limits of human survival to life.

I look forward to re-reading the books, while I wait for this highly anticipated event and I hope the kids that come to the door looking for treats on Halloween night appreciate my homage.

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Zombies: a series – Zombie Humor

No, this post isn’t about shuffling dead taking center stage at the local pub’s open mic night.  Rather, if you like your zombies mixed with a little bit (or a lot) of humor, then the recent  Zombieland and the venerable Shaun of the Dead have to be on the ticket (or at least in your Netflix queue).

Released in 2004, Shaun of the Dead follows a group of regular folks that find themselves in the early stages of a zombie uprising in London.  The horror and gore aspects of the film are downplayed and the humor is heightened by way of its subtlety.  The story builds consistently to its climax, deftly resolving into a humorous postscript.

Released in 2009, Zombieland is a big budget film that follows several loners as they come together during the advanced stages of a worldwide zombie apocalypse.  The horror and gore aspects of the film are over the top and the humor is often times a bit heavy handed.  The story builds chaotically at times and, as is often the case with today’s big budget films, paves the way for a sequel.

For Shaun of the Dead, the zombies are wielded as both metaphor and antagonist, with parallels drawn between the main characters’ lives and the devolving scene around them.

For Zombieland, the zombies are front and centerpiece to the action with great special effects and lots of splatter.
As two sides of the zombie humor coin, both films ably walk the line between horror and comedy.  While I certainly prefer the style of Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland is entertaining as well.

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Armchair Editing: The Curse of the Amateur

There’s an old saying about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing and another one about ignorance being bliss.  In the case of storytelling that can lead to a weird limbo of discrimination and discernment.  As your own skill of the craft grows you undoubtedly find yourself appreciating good storytelling more and you’ll have a growing vocabulary to express that appreciation.  You’ll likely also have less and less patience for bad writing or, even worse, lazy writing.  These are probably good things.  The limbo part comes when something isn’t necessarily bad…it’s just not good.  Then your new skills and vocabulary may move you to pretentiously play editor-after-the-fact.  Of course just because your opinion is amateur doesn’t mean it’s invalid.  Opinions on, say…

Stephen King’s Cell was a great short story.  Or it would have been if it wasn’t a few hundred pages long.  It was a good story idea–every single cell phone sends a signal (which comes to be known as the Pulse) at the same time.  That signal turns people into murder machines.  Everybody loves a good technophobic horror story and this made for King’s entry in the Zombie genre (spoiler: they’re fast zombies).  The signal happens in the first few pages and the rest is our hero trying to make it home to Maine from Boston to see what’s become of his young son.  There are eventually explanations floated about what the Pulse really is and where it came from but they struck me as sort of weak.  Clay, the hero finds his son after some close calls and heroics.  The boy is infected but there’s a chance he can be ‘cured’ by reexposure to the now ‘mutated’ Pulse.  Again, not bad, but…unsatisfying.  

At novel length not enough of the causes of the apocolypse were developed (like in The Stand) and the fact that he was trying to get home to his son got a little lost in the adventures of humanity against phone-freak.  Alternatively the whole thing could have been trimmed radically to a shorter work.  Maybe not a true short story but perhaps novella length like The Mist.  It would have meant big cuts but the narrative would have been a lot tighter (‘tight’ will be a common word in your new writer’s vocabulary).

This will tend to be more noticeable in movies with their more rigid screenplay structure.  If a filmmaker is gonna go long on a first act he better be giving us something worth watching.  You will also find yourself less willing to cut a guy slack for leaving in scenes that don’t need to be there.  Boondock Saints was a new take on the vigilante story with engaging dialog, interesting characters, and a tight (there’s that tight again) narrative pace depsite the audience experiencing much of the movie after it’s happened (if you haven’t seen it just trust me, it’s a sort of flashback structure).  Of course with a first time filmmaker and limited distribution it took DVD to make it a hit and a cult film. 

Boondock Saints 2:  All Saint’s Day was…less successful.  I knew it wouldn’t have quite the same punch as the first one, you can’t write a cult classic on purpose after all; but in this one I never really bought the brothers’ motives.  It was supposed to be revenge/justice and clearing their names but after a few menacing glares their steely resolve gets lost in the comic stylings of the new Mexican Saint, Romeo.  It reappears jarringly when they threaten to give a wiseguy 9mm stigmata.  Then redisappears just as quickly.  Then their father, Il Duce shows up and has a showdown because the whole thing was really about him. 

If it sounds muddled, it was.  But even before the movie was over I knew it didn’t have to be muddled.  It just needed editing and some of that would have been the classic darling murders.  There’s a dream scene where Rocco (who died in the first movie) comes back and has a shot with the boys.  He says he was proud to stand with them and then they go on a long rant about what makes a man.  What men do and what they don’t do.  It moves over the whole city from high rise rooftop to artfully lit warehouse.  It doesn’t belong there and a good editor would have cut the scene right after they drink their whiskey.  Four minutes saved and much more dramatic punch. 

Oh, well.  It’s unavoidable so you might as well learn from it.  These points make for good discussions with other writer’s and ‘what if’ sessions.  How would you do it differently,  what would you keep, etc.  You might want to keep it between writer’s though.  Normal people will tend to think you’re a pretentious prick and may even resent you pointing out holes in stuff they used to enjoy.  They might even be right.    

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One Good Detail

“…you see, a .45 will blow a barn door out the back of your head.  There’s alot of drycleaning involved.  Whereas a .22 will just rattle around in your brain like Pacman ’til you die.”    –Vinnie Antonelli from My Blue Heaven.

So, I’m halfway through World War Z by Max Brooks and it’s about the third time he mentions a firearm that’s in .22 caliber.  I just sort of glossed over it at first but I just finished a scene where an air force pilot has to bail out and defend herself with her issued weapon, a .22.  The .22 is not a combat round but as I sat there I had to shake my head at the brilliance. 

The .22 is not a combat round for people but it’s the perfect round for a zombie apocalypse.  With materiel in short supply the forces of the living need a cheap, plentiful cartridge that fires from a broad spectrum of firearms.  A zombie has one kill zone, the brain, so even a civilian who’s never touched a firearm needs to be able to make consistent head shots at variable ranges with very little training.  The accurate and low recoiling .22 is pretty much designed for that very thing.  Quite literally, a child can do it. 

Even if gun and ammo production completely stopped this instant there are literally millions of rounds to be had and scads of handy rifles, carbines, and handguns that will all chamber that one round.  The round is comically cheap to produce and weighs less than most normal combat pistol rounds.  You can acquire and carry a butload and they’ll do the job. 

So what?  Well that one detail did more than anything else to cement the book world as real in my mind.  The .22 is not a sexy movie gun but it’s the perfect answer to the problem of zombie combat.  That one good detail that shows rather than tells that this universe is real and these events are actually happening. 

These details are usually small and are probably more effective the smaller they seem.  There’s a scene in The Lord of the Rings where we catch a brief glance of Strider sharpening his sword.  Just a few seconds but it tells us this is a real weapon and he knows how to take care of it. 

In No Country for Old Men Llewellyn Moss shoots a pronghorn and ejects the shell.  He watches the antelope through the scope but before he starts to track it he picks up the spent casing and puts it in his pocket.  Maybe he just doesn’t like to litter.  Or maybe he’s a trained sniper taught to leave no trace.  If he’s a trained soldier we might believe he has better odds against the psycho chasing him. 

You probably can’t force these details and you definitely want them to be subtle, barely noticed.  But if you find one and a spot to use it, do so.  They’re incredibly effective.

Zombies: a series – Surviving An Uprising (Ignite Phoenix presentation)

I recently had the awesome experience of giving a presentation entitled “Surviving The Next Zombie Uprising” at Ignite Phoenix II. The format revolves around a 20 page presentation, with the slides automatically clicking over every 15 seconds. The five minutes feels like it goes by in a blur as you hit the main points on each slide.

After my topic was selected to be included, I had about a week and a half to put together the slides. I approached it like a screen writing project at that point, breaking down each section into “scenes”, each of which was to move the “story” along. I also tried to keep one of Jeff’s favorite mantras in mind at all times: “Enter late and leave early”. So, for instance, I did not open with “Hi, I’m here to talk to you about zombies”; instead, I chose to lead off with “Why have we had no global zombie uprising to date?” I felt that this imparted a hit-the-ground-running feeling right from the start.

After roughing out the first draft, I made two editing passes through the material and added in some “breather” slides, where I could pause. These were done as large graphics with a catchy title which I hoped would elicit a laugh from the audience allowing me to regroup my thoughts for the next sequence. Although I talked it out several times to myself, something I also do when working through dialogue in a screenplay, there was no substitute for the live experience. Reviewing the video, I definitely see several “scenes” that could have been tightened up.

Since it is a bit hard to see in the video at times, I have included the slide deck.

View the video on Blip TV.