When people think of good zombie movies most people will mention 28 Days Later (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Some people may even mention the newly released World War Z (2013). The problem is that these are gems amongst a plethora of terrible zombie movies. Searching for zombie movies on Netflix you will undoubtedly find that the majority of the movies are trash. This got me wondering, what did these movies do right and the others didn’t? I came to the conclusion that a good zombie flick depends on the atmosphere, the zombies, and most importantly the character development.
The atmosphere of the story should reflect the feeling that is desired to be projected to the audience. World War Z (2013) had wonderful scenes where the viewer can be immersed in visuals. For example, the apartment scene where Brad Pitt ushers his family through the apartment complex, it is dark, the hallways are long and narrow, and the stairs they climb to the top seem endless as they are being chased by screeching zombies. The adrenaline and fear is very palpable due to the effectiveness of the filming.
There are different types of zombies, the most popular being the shuffler and the sprinter. The shuffler is what is seen in Night of the Living Dead (1968). These monsters take forever to get anywhere, but if they get ahold of you, you’re done for. The sprinter was proliferated in 28 Days Later (2002). These guys seem to be as fast as Usain Bolt, if he had an appetite for human flesh.
What is scary is human horror. People that are thrust into extreme situations that drive them to atrocities are the real nightmare. These characters are what drive the fear and emotion home to the viewers. It is important that the actors are competent. They must be effective in their projection of the feelings they are relaying to the viewers. Beyond the competency of the actors, the characters they are portraying must be fleshed out and complex so that the audience can relate to them. A zombie story that perfected the art of character development is the series The Walking Dead. Though not a movie, the series has effectively shifted the focus from the half rotted flesh eating monsters to that of the characters that bring the story to life. AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkland’s graphic novel series follows Kirkland’s example in that the show focuses on the horrors that the characters deal with rather than the stumbling of the rotting corpses that are trying to eat the characters. Indeed, it is apparent that the zombies are more effective in a lesser role than as the main protagonist. Scenes where zombies are attacking the characters are certainly frightening, but it is neither the only way nor the best way to go about making a good zombie movie.
Ultimately it’s a mix of several elements that make a good zombie movie. The atmosphere that the movie is set in, the zombies, and the characters that drive the story work together to create a piece of art that can be cherished by those that like a good story and want to be scared by the aspects of horror present in that story.