Is there anything scarier than a zombie? Yes, exhausted and unoriginal zombie tropes.
As The Walking Dead staggers forward in its latest season, it’s time to look at the zombie genre as a whole. How can filmmakers keep things fresh while staying bloody and crusty? How do they keep it exciting, while still terrifying? How do they keep it alive and well, while still undead?
The Walking Dead might be the most successful zombie property since… well, ever. It brings in millions of viewers and showcases the true epitome of undead special effects. But the show also drops the ball in a lot of ways, leaving many horror fanatics cold. What are some of the common mistakes the show makes? What should filmmakers avoid when they’re making their own zombie tale? Here are several often made errors that prevent good zombie movies and shows from being great.
Creating Dumb Characters
While all zombie fiction needs lots of undead ghouls, they also need humans. Who else will be eaten by the zombies? The hardest aspect for films and shows to nail is likable, believable and intelligent characters. This is a common, frustrating mistake made far too many times. How many dumb people have made jaw-droppingly silly choices in these movies and shows? Chased by a legion of blood-thirsty living dead? Just hide in a rickety, unreliable shack! Is a member of your party bitten by a walker? Let it pass, it’s probably nothing! Did your dog run off into a dark forest next to your camp ground? Go ahead and track him down, you’ll be safe! These are just some of the many stupid moves that countless characters have made in zombie films. And not just zombie films, but all horror films.
We understand that bad choices need to happen to propel the story forward. But they can’t be that ridiculous because viewers will soon lose patience if they’re constantly shouting at the screen. With few exceptions, you never want your audience feeling that much smarter than your characters. The truth of the matter is that when someone is stuck in an extraordinary situation, they get wise really quick or they get dead. The characters in zombie fiction should be smart or else they just simply wouldn’t have survived the initial outbreak.
Fighting for Survival… And Only Survival
Speaking of survival, it’s obviously very important. Survival is paramount in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. While it’s vital to live to fight another day, characters in zombie-centric movies and shows need to strive for more than just the next sunrise. It took a while for The Walking Dead to learn this lesson. For the most part, the early seasons of the show were strictly about outliving the abominations that destroyed society. They slowly made their way to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, but there wasn’t anything else keeping them going. Of course, the core desire will always be living long enough to rebuild society. But it’s important to give the heroes more direct and immediate challenges otherwise the story gets tired, aimless and repetitive.
Take Jurassic Park, for example. Spielberg’s dinosaur blockbuster wasn’t only about getting off the island — though that was obviously the end-all, be-all goal. Instead, the movie was about getting the power back on, saving the kids, gathering all the characters together and then getting off the island. There was a whole slew of priorities, not just one. This is doubly important for TV because there are so many hours to fill. Giving characters multiple scaled-down goals rather than just staying alive allows these stories to be unique, exciting and can create even more drama.
Mistaking Gore for Horror
Tension is what drives a horror film. Most tension in zombie movies comes from the horror of traversing a landscape filled with gory, blood-splattered monsters. However, too many films get caught up in the brilliant make-up. Sadly, this replaces genuine terror in some productions. Zombie gore is great, it’s one of the reasons so many horror fans love the genre. However, gore alone isn’t terrifying. It’s gross, it’s upsetting, it’s sometimes jaw-droppingly impressive but it’s not horror. Too often filmmakers forget to create moments of true fear because they spend so much time showing zombies getting their heads chopped off and various appendages smashed. Again, this is something The Walking Dead has been guilty of on occasion. The show has had some strong episodes but how many truly scary moments? Uncomfortable moments? Yes. Gory moments? So, so many. But moments that stick with you and make you leave the light on at night? Not as many.
There are few things scarier than zombies. They are walking death, surrounding you and moving in slowly but surely. No matter what you do, they will eventually crash through a window or infect a family member and ultimately infect you too. There is no escape as the entire world turns into brain-dead brain-hungry beasts. That’s downright terrifying. However, too many movies and shows forget that and instead focus on the blood and guts. That’s a shame because zombies are bone-chillingly frightening.
Avoiding Scary Subtext
Zombies are scary in so many ways and so is what they represent. Zombie movies are about the breakdown of society, but they can be about so much more. It’s a crime when films and movies don’t capitalize on that aspect. Brilliant zombie movies can be about more than just shambling undead. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later — these are a few examples of movies that used the lens of apocalyptic dread to talk about society as a whole. Racism, consumerism, religion, family, and the crimes of people in crisis are just some of the large, real-world topics that can be addressed with zombies.
Hard to believe, but horror movies and comedies have a lot in common. Audiences are open to true satire when they’re either laughing or shrieking with fright. Yet too often zombie shows and movies just take the undead at face value. Much like how characters shouldn’t only be focusing on surviving, the films and shows they’re in shouldn’t only be focusing on zombies. The undead can be an allegory for so many things from global warming to the alienation of society to war to bird flu to the reliance on technology. The list goes on and on and on. Great horror should scare you for many reasons, from the terror on screen to the unshakable truth written between the lines and buried under subtext. Few genres can do that better than zombie films, but too many filmmakers have forgotten that.
There are many monsters of the silver screen — werewolves, vampires, masked men with kitchen knives — but nothing touches the zombie. Zombies play on our universal fears and unnerve us in a way few things do. Zombies are here to stay and with good reason. We’re happy to see so much attention given to the perpetually undead, but it’s time filmmakers stop making age-old mistakes again and again. We want zombie films and shows with true horror, real characters and, ironically, lots of brains.