The Premise versus the Story: The Creative Problems of the Zombie Apocalypse
The zombie genre has many problems—problems that become increasingly evident as The Walking Dead heads into season six. The writers have done a great job keeping viewers interested in the show as they navigate these issues, but they have often been unable to hide the cracks in the show’s foundation.
The zombie genre is unique in that it is the only genre of science fiction or horror where the premise undermines the story, and the story undermines the premise. This inevitable conflict constrains the writer, pushing them along the same well-worn paths traveled by generations of zombie writers.
The premise is fairly straightforward: the dead have returned, and they have killed 99% of the population. The story concerns a small group of people fighting to survive. However, if the zombies are strong enough to kill 99% of the population, how on earth does locking yourself in a mall work? Did nobody else think of locking him or herself inside a building? And if locking oneself in a mall works, then how did they kill everyone? How can Rick live on a farm for a few months? If the country is so zombie free, why didn’t more people find a farmhouse to live in?
The conflict arises from the inadequacy of the zombie as an apocalyptic monster. But a zombie is simply too stupid, too slow, and too weak. It’s only scary in larger numbers, but it can’t get those big numbers if you could just lock yourself away in a mall. The zombie is like the Wizard of Oz, and the writer has to take a lot of measures to make sure the reader doesn’t see behind the curtain. Theses are two of the tropes used to keep the curtain closed.
You Never Actually See the Apocalypse
You can’t show the apocalypse because attempting to show it would expose the tension between the premise and the story, forcing one or the other to win. Either the zombie is so weak that it’s plausible that our team of rather dim, barely armed and untrained heroes could survive—in which case everyone else is still alive, too—or they’re so deadly that you can’t drive your Hyundai back and forth to town without getting caught. Writers have used three major strategies to deal with this: the Five Minutes to Midnight gambit, where the story starts at civilizations last gasp (Dawn of the Dead, 1978); the Zombies Love Mondays gambit, where they show up en masse on Monday morning (Dawn of the Dead, 2004); and the Convenient Coma gambit, where our point of view character is unconscious during the apocalypse. It would be more accurate to say it’s the zombie post-apocalypse genre. The only film that attempted to tackle the Apocalypse was World War Z, though civilization only existed to give Brad Pitt rides from one set piece to the next.
Your Hero is Stupid
The 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake is perhaps the most egregious example of the deep stupidity of zombie heroes, and I could spend all day listing examples. I give Dawn of the Dead a lot of credit for not following the standard zombie gimmick of introducing a crazed military leader to be the foil for the heroes, but they avoided that gimmick by having deeply stupid heroes.
Rather than go into a list of nit-picks, I’ll just put it this way: imagine MacGyver. Now imagine that you gave him all the things in the average American mall, all the fishing line in the sporting goods stores, the tools in the hardware store, the remote control cars and planes in the toy store, the cars in the garage, the lumber in the walls, and a month of electricity. His only goal is to deliver a sandwich to the other side of the parking lot without touching the ground. The only question is which of a hundred methods he’d pick.
Now go watch the remake. You’ll see what I mean. They had a lot of time to come up with something. But nobody tried anything. Instead they strapped a sandwich to a dog when he was about to starve to death.
You could cut two seasons from The Walking Dead if Rick had just gathered everyone together and said “If we get separated, meet at the McDonald’s on 63.” Those two seasons just wouldn’t have happened, and half the cast would be alive. One sentence would do all that.
The point of all this is that because zombies are stupid, your heroes have to be stupid. Because if they’re smart, they debunk the premise that zombies could kill almost everyone.
The writer’s of TWD know how dumb their characters are, which is why they added two different sets of survivors who didn’t even know, a year in to the zombie apocalypse, that you’re supposed to shoot zombies in the head. This would be the equivalent of writing a character that has lived in Alaska for over a year, but doesn’t know he should wear a coat when he goes outside in winter. The heroes can’t be smart, so the writers provide some impossible idiots to make Rick look smart in comparison.
THIS TENSION IS WHY FAST ZOMBIES ARE A THING
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about fast zombies over the years, and I understand the source of those complaints. I love slow zombies, too. But I also understand why some writers have gone with fast zombies—they help balance the tension that handicaps the story. By making zombies faster, it strengthens the premise that they are deadly, which allows for greater latitude in storytelling. The zombie movies that have deviated from the crazy military leader trope that is the staple of zombie fiction (TWD included) have all featured fast zombies. Fast zombies allow for more creative, unconstrained freedom.
I have loved zombies ever since I was digging VHS copies of Day of the Dead out of the bargain bin at Blockbuster. But I also acknowledge the problems. I believe that the zombie mythology in my upcoming novel, Dead Wrangler, solves the issues inherent in the Romero zombie, while adhering to the zombie archetype we all know and love.
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The stench of rotting flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 30+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of June.
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