Over the last month or so, I’ve watched a BUNCH of zombie movies. From absolute classics like Night of the Living Dead, to foreign offerings like The Horde, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the terrible in the way of zombie movies. While this is to be expected of all movie genres (but perhaps especially those which tend to hover around the B-movie monicker), for me, it’s not the typical things that make zombie movies great or awful. Some movies live and die on acting, special effects, and plot. While these are certainly not un-important in a zombie flick, they don’t sit on the top of the list in my book. Rather, what makes a great zombie movie is one which follows the rules of zombie movies.

The Rules

Ok, first of all, I don’t think there are *really* any hard-and-fast zombie rules. Sure, some will argue about whether zombies should be able to run, or whether they should be intelligent enough to organize efforts on a minimal level, or whether they should have enough dexterity to turn a doorknob. But in my thinking, trying to pigeon-hole such an expansive field of horror-creature is just wrong.

So these are not the kinds of rules that I’m talking about. I personally don’t care if zombies can run or are only capable of ambling about. I don’t care if they have sufficient strength to break through a wall, or if they are only able to mindlessly pound on a door. And while I don’t particularly care for thinking or–gasp!–talking zombies, I’m not necessarily against them…so long as they follow the rules.

The rules, then, are very simple. They are completely a product of my own not-yet-zombified brain, so feel free to disagree. I will outline them in detail below, but for simplicity’s sake, they all orbit a common idea of CONSISTENCY. Let your zombie be what it will be…just let it be consistent. I will be happy with that, and your zombie movie will probably get a passing nod. However, if you violate this one overarching rule, no number of over-paid actors, amazing special effects, or number of head shots will redeem the fiasco that you have perpetrated upon zombie-dom.

Rule #1:  Clearly Define a Zombie’s Abilities

This one is hugely important, because it’s one of the bedrocks of identifying with the survivors’ plight. What I mean by this is that when you clearly articulate the range of a zombie’s abilities, I can imagine myself in the shoes of those fighting the zombies. I can imagine having to deal with the forces of undead being amassed against me. If, however, you play fast-and-loose with what zombies can and cannot do, then there is no element of realism to it. I remain a disaffected viewer, simply trudging through whatever scenes you throw at me with no real landmark for connecting to the events that unfold.

For example, consider a zombie’s strength. Let’s say that a zombie can punch a decaying fist through a cabin wall (such as in Dead Snow). Fine, I can deal with that. But given that definition of the zombie’s power, there should never be a scene in the same movie where one of the survivors is successfully fending off a zombie attack with his (or her) bare hands. Realistically, if a zombie can punch through a wall of wood, the same zombie can easily overpower any human defense in close-quarters combat. So don’t try to pull any of that.

In the same vein, be consistent about a zombie’s general speed. If a zombie can run, that’s perfectly fine and good. Heck, if a zombie can teleport, I’m okay with that too. However, if a zombie can teleport, please don’t show scenes of zombies chasing survivors on foot, as if there is some chance of them outrunning the teleportation-enabled zombies. Let teleporting zombies teleport, and let them do it with gusto.

Before moving on, a critical part of this is that as survivors come to understand the zombies’ strengths, they should begin to consistently act in ways that are designed to overcome the strengths (if possible). So if zombies can punch through walls, survivors should not naively continue depending on the same kinds of walls in the hope that “perhaps this one” will not be broken through. Rather, they should do those things which might prevent “this other wall” from being compromised, like barricading it with furniture, nailing up several layers of boards, etc. And if they become aware that zombies can–and do–consistently use teleportation or other forms of super-speed to move about, the survivors should be working on ways of achieiving faster-than-foot speed, like a car, helicopter, etc. They may not have any hope of actually achieving these ends (that’s another matter altogether), but they should not then simply and naively believe that they can accomplish what they need simply by outrunning teleporting zombies.

Rule #2: Clearly Define a Zombie’s Weaknesses

This is similar to Rule #1, but probably more important. All zombies should have weaknesses–after all, if they are ultimately un-killable, there’s no point in holding out any hope that the survivors might make it to another day. Therefore, good zombies movies must clearly define zombie weaknesses and stick to them.

So, if zombies can be killed by the classic destruction of the brain, then head shots, spikes to the head, large falling boulders, and the like should kill zombies (not just the first killed zombie where the survivors happen to get a head shot and have an epiphany about head-shots).

And as with Rule #1, once the protagonists figure out the zombies’ weaknesses, a good zombie movie will have them seeking to exploit these weaknesses as much as possible. So just as fire is used often throughout Night of the Living Dead to repel the horde, survivors should seek to deal the right kind of damage to each zombie as much as it is in their power to do so. What this means, then, is that survivors should not suddenly forget that head shots kill zombies as they go on a below-the-neck shooting spree. While they might certainly miss on several (maybe even most) occasions, they should be primarily motivated to do that which they know will be most effective against the zombies. If your zombie movie depends upon the survivors forgetting or simply ignoring such epiphanies (whether intentionally or simply because of bad writing) that they’ve already had, then you’ve made a bad movie.

Rule #3: Clearly Define a Zombie’s Motivations

This is big one for me, but it can get a little tricky.

In most zombie flicks, zombies are after human flesh. Whether they are actually hungry, or simply like the taste, most zombies want to much on brains, skin, or whatever. The tricky part to work out, however, is what a zombie does once he’s gotten what he’s after. Let me explain.

Imagine that a single zombie (a bit unrealistic, but whatever) is faced with 5 survivors. Let’s even imagine that this is one of the able-to-punch-through-walls kinds of zombie (see Rule #1). Given this scenario, will the zombie:

  • Attack one survivor and immediately begin feasting on it
  • Attack all 5 survivors before starting in on his snack
  • ???

This is important because, as with Rules #1 and #2, this gets at the issue of consistency. Is a zombie motivated by hunger? The desire to kill? Both? Neither? However one answers this (and I think there are a number of perfectly acceptable answers), the core rule is that one should be consistent with the decision. If a zombie is mindlessly seeking flesh to eat, perhaps the zombie should eat whatever flesh it can find, even if it will inevitably take a beating from remaining survivors while beginning its feast. If a zombie is instinctually (or otherwise) aware of the threat posed by the fallen meal’s comrades, perhaps it should first ensure that it can eat its fill in peace by attacking the other survivors. This important dynamic will determine, to a pretty important extent, how survivors will interact with the zombies they encounter, and whether or not they might be able to use their less fortunate comrades (or other creatures, such as the horse in The Walking Dead) as meat shields.

Rule #4: Articulate How Survivor-to-Zombie Transformation Occurs

It’s impossible to talk about zombie-movie rules without touching on this one. After all, the transformation of survivors into one of the “infected” is one of more terrifying parts of zombie movies, for it pits former comrades-in-arms against now mindless and flesh-hungry zombies with familiar faces.

But in order to pull this off, you have to be articulate about how this transformation occurs. It is viral? Does it take a bite? A scratch? A certain depth of bite? In order to really commiserate with the plight of the survivors, you have to know what they–and you–should be guarding against as they inevitably engage their zombies nemesis in battle.

Yet equally important is defining precisely how quickly this transformation takes place. Does it take a day for a bitten survivor to turn full-on zombie? A minute? Two-weeks? Or is it random? Whatever the case is, be consistent with it. So if the transformation has a random duration, don’t have all your bitten survivors transform within 5 minutes. If you need for it to happen in 5 minutes, make it 5 minutes. If not, then stick with your premise.

Finally, related to this is the subject of possible cures for those who are bitten/scratched/whatever. Can the spread of the infection from the spot of invasion be stopped through antiseptic? Amputation? If such things are possible, let us know the rationale. And if survivors randomly–but futilely–amputate limbs and appendages in the vain hope of stopping the transformation, that’s cool too :)

Rule #5: Don’t Get Too Crazy with Explanations

If there is one criticism I have of Night of the Living Dead, it is that so much time is given to walking through the explanation of how the outbreak of “mass homicides” started. While I think it’s still more or less effectively done through the tension-laden atmosphere of the huddled survivors listening to the radio and watching the TV (all the while surrounded by a horde of zombies just outside), it still seems like a little too much.

Keep in mind that the real appeal of zombie movies is not how the outbreak occurred, or even how (or if) it can be resolved. Zombie movies–the good ones at least–keep people watching because they are stories of survival (even if it’s only temporary!) against ridiculous odds. With this in mind, it’s not terribly important to develop an involved description of why this is happening. Some of the more interesting stories–like The Horde–don’t give ANY explanation. Characters are simply thrown into a full-on zombie invasion and have to deal with figuring out how to survive. Kind of like what would probably happen if such a thing ever really did occur… :)

But above all, don’t let the explanation, or the proposed resolution, drive the story. If the primary focus of the survivors is on figuring out how this zombie apocalypse happened, or how they can stop it, you’re not watching a zombie flick. Why? Because in good zombie movies, survivors spend their time trying to survive. If they have time to think about possible resolutions, then you’ve gotten yourself into a different kind of movie.

Rule #6: Leave a Light at the End of the Tunnel…Even if it’s a Train-shaped Zombie

Let’s face facts: most zombie movies end with everyone dead. That’s kind of how zombie apocalypses go. Sure, the survivors will last a few hours, days or longer, but eventually the relentless horde catches up to them, catches them off guard, and reaps their delicious rewards.

But despite this dismal expectation that I’m sure everyone assumes when launching into a zombie film, the story should at least hold out hope of the survivors somehow pulling through. While we know that they will probably not survive, there is something about the hope of survival–even in the face of inevitable doom–that makes for a compelling story. If you take away this sliver of hope, however, then there’s nothing left but a hack-fest. Hope your special effects are good, because such a hope-less movie will be otherwise incapable of creating any emotional connection with the audience.

Rule #7: Rambo and Zombies Do Not Mix

You’ve seen the zombie movies where there’s one central character whose guns never miss, whose fists are seemingly wrought of iron, and who is incapable of suffering even the slightest scratch, right? Chances are, those zombies movies were terrible. This is because good zombie movies are not built around nearly super-human heroes who take a zombie apocalypse in stride. Rather, the real connection of a zombie movie with the audience lies in the painfully normal-ness of the people who are thrust into such dire tests of survival. These are the more compelling stories, simply because we can identify with such people, with their weaknesses, with their mistakes, and with their fear.

And let’s face it: if a survivor does not have fear in the face of such a terrifying enemy, they are probably more zombie than human. Or they’ve been through this before, in which case you’re watching a sequel. But the real connection from survivor to movie watcher occurs when the survivors struggle to make sense of what’s going on around them, all while trying desperately to survive and make sense of the distorted reality into which they’ve been so violently flung.

So what’s the best way to prevent a Rambo from developing during the course of your zombie movie? The answer is simple: randomly kill off characters, even if they might seem to be central to the cohesion of the survivors’ group (or your movie’s plot). Such random succumbing to the relentless onslaught of the zombie horde–while perhaps a bit unnerving–feels a lot more realistic. Zombies, after all, don’t care what your name is. They only care that you are delicious.

Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive list of my zombie movie rules. In the coming weeks, I’ll be adding more to the list, so stay tuned. And in the meantime, leave a comment or two, and let me know which rules you think are most important or most ridiculous. And of course, feel free to post any rules that you think should be added.