The great success of The Walking Dead TV series has created new fans of the zombie genre all across the globe. With this success has come a wave of undead-inspired films, books, and video games — some quite good, some pretty awful.
So with that in mind, the question needs to be asked: What constitutes a good zombie story?
As a lifelong fan of the genre, here’s my list of five essentials for any zombie tale:
They Have to be Dead
It should go without saying that a story about zombies should actually feature the dead coming back to life. The temptation is always there for writers and filmmakers to get too cutesy in trying to explain these flesh-chomping creatures. Fans of the genre should be able to rattle off at least a half-dozen otherwise solid zombie flicks ruined by silly explanations for the end-of-world outbreak. Zombies need to be the walking, ever-hungry dead, not the product of bad burgers, tainted ice cream, or alien invasion.
It’s a cliché for the genre, but every zombie story has to involve, at some point, the main characters trapped somewhere with a world of flesh-hungry creeps trying their best to get at them. Aside from just being a standard for the genre, this “trapped” storytelling device allows for character development. In a world gone undead, there would be lots of running and looking for safety. In the movies or books, though, characters need a chance to become real in order for you to care if they get chomped on or not.
A zombie story without copious amounts of gore is like a banana split without the ice cream, sprinkles, and cherry. However, there’s a fine line between the necessary amount of blood and guts and comical overuse of the blood bucket. If your characters are shin-deep in blood and the abundance of butcher-bought pig guts makes your set look like the ground floor of a rendering plant, you’ve probably gone too far. A successful zombie movie’s gore should be strong enough to frighten, but sparse enough not to desensitize the audience.
Let’s face it, one on one, the typical zombie is not exactly the Wolfman or Frankenstein. The real terror in zombie flicks comes from the fact that there are thousands, if not millions, of flesh-hungry ghouls in your immediate vicinity eager to snack on your innards. When trying to escape to safety, a sea of grabbing hands reach for you and a multitude of slime-covered teeth look to bite at any bit of exposed flesh. If you want to ruin your zombie movie, have your main characters execute their daring, death-defying escape from the middle of a Zombie Apocalypse while being pursued by what looks to be five or six mildly agitated undead. A willingness to hire extras goes a long way in a zombie movie.
Unlike most movies in the horror genre, the zombie flick is notorious for its political and/or social undertones. Whether it’s a morality play pointing the finger at excessive consumerism or the inherent dangers of group-think, a zombie story is more than a chase ’em, eat ’em monster tale.