S3 E18 - Top 10 Zombie Tropes
Hello my survivor friends. How are you today? Have you been outside the bunker to see the sun? What you can still see of the sun through the radioactive haze of dust… (what is that strange red rash anyhow?) I wouldn’t worry about it. Probably just a reaction to eating too many tinned sardines.
For those of you time traveling it is April 20th 2023, that’s right, it’s the infamous 420 holiday! Have at it! We have just put to bed episode 18 of the After the Apocalypse podcast. Working on 19 as we speak. Wrapping up this season on schedule in a few weeks (hopefully).
I do have a couple fairly exhaustive weeklong business trips coming up, but hopefully I can schedule around that activity.
The other thing keeping me busy is that I’ve started training for a marathon, the Marine Corp Marathon, in the fall. Why do you care? Well, it’s counterintuitive, but I’m much more productive and creative when I’m training consistently and working towards a goal.
Anyway, I’m running this one for a friend’s charity for teen suicide prevention, so if you’re listening to this prior to October 2023, I would appreciate a donation to my cause. I’ll put the link here in the show notes and you can find it on my website oldmanapocalypse.com.
I am fundraising for 2023 Marine Corps Marathon Weekend. Help me reach my fundraising goal!
I would appreciate your support. Just about everyone I know has been impacted by this and anything we can do to help save a life is worth it.
Like I said when I’m out training on these runs my mind starts to generate ideas. Here is an article I wrote that mimics the top 10 lists we’ve been bitching about on the Facebook group. It’s called “The top Ten Zombie Apocalypse Tropes”. Note that everything I reference is linked in the article which I will post to both the website and Facebook Group.
Enjoy and Keep Surviving.
10 Best Zombie Apocalypse Tropes
1. Shoot them in the head.
Everyone knows that if you want to kill a werewolf you need silver bullets. A Vampire? Wooden stake to the heart.
But, what about the evil undead zombies?
You need to shoot them in the head. Why? Well apparently, whatever force is animating these living corpses still needs the brain to function.
One of the most disturbing zombie stories I’ve read is I Zombie by author Hugh Howey. In his story, the person’s brain is still aware inside the zombie but not in control. The thinking brain rides along and has to watch all these awful things that their own zombified bodies do. It’s horrific.
We all know that you need to aim for the head.
If you shoot them in the leg, they’ll keep coming.
Even several high-caliber rounds to the chest just makes them mad.
You need to get the brain.
As writers, this gives us a couple of great gory scenarios that we can put into our zombie stories.
We can have them jumping off buildings, hitting the pavement like a ripe tomato, and then getting up to keep chasing their victims, again I reference Hugh Howey’s book.
We can have them literally torn in half and the top half keeps crawling, remember ‘Bicycle Girl’ in the first season of the Walking Dead?
We can have them walking on the bottom of the ocean or walking while on fire. There are plenty of fun scenes we enable when the zombies are indestructible.
Unless you get the brain.
The second thing this kill-the-brain trope enables is a plethora of fun zombie kills.
You don’t have to shoot them in the head. You can stick a screwdriver or other pointy implement in their eye or ear hole.
You can hit them with a rock or a hammer in the noggin. It’s all great fun. Remember the guy with the sledgehammer in Dawn of the Dead?
Just remember, kill the brain.
2. Smart zombies.
In most Zombie stories the undead are mindless automatons shuffling along in pursuit of their human prey, at least initially.
But in many something changes. Typically after the first season the zombies start to evolve. Why? I like to picture the writer’s room where the creators and editors are planning the second season. None of them ever imagined there would be more than one season and now they have to come up with new ideas.
What to do? The story has started to lose steam. You can only have so many gruesome deaths, harrowing chase scenes and jump scares. Fueled by caffeine and desperation the writers decide to have the zombies evolve.
And then in season two, we see the zombies evolve. They get smarter or they start to morph into specialized mutant zombies.
This gets the writers out of the trap by expanding the possibilities of the zombie universe, while simultaneously raising the stakes for thew survivors.
At first you just had to survive but now you need to find the zombie king, or queen, or hive mind. This also allows the creation of real villains, the “big boss” zombie. You see this in the “We’re Alive” series and in Hell Divers by Nick Sainsbury Smith, although those aren’t technically zombies in Hell Divers.
It’s not always seamless. Some sleight of hand is necessary to pull off the evolving zombies. At the beginning of the the infection and the appearance of zombies is almost plausible. It doesn’t take too much suspension of disbelief. But when you get into evolving zombies you now have created a new universe with new rules. When this happens you might lose your audience. You run the chance of, in the vernacular, ‘jumping the shark’.
3. They want to eat you, why?
What is it that the Zombies want? Apparently, they just want to eat us. Sometimes it’s our brains they want to eat.
It usually turns out that they don’t really want to eat us, they just want to infect us and biting us is a good way to do that. Even so, this trope allows the screenwriters to create some nice gory scenes where the zombies have a buffet of entrails, or are chewing off a screaming survivor’s face.
One interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed is that in the beginner of the stories everyone is extremely scared of getting bitten or scratched. Heck, when the zombies first get loose it seems like they merely need to breathe on you, and you’re done for.
But as you get deeper into the story there are snapping drooling attacking zombies everywhere and no one seems to be overly concerned with casual swapping of fluids. The survivors are cavorting with the undead daily and no one gets infected.
Why is that?
4. Baby zombies and old people zombies
The virus, fungus or space radiation, or whatever starts the zombie plague doesn’t care how old you are. That means child zombies and elderly zombies.
In practice you don’t get too many baby zombies crawling around, I guess that’s just too disturbing. Notably there’s a disturbing birth scene in Dawn of the Dead. And of course the iconic ‘little girl’ in the first season of the Walking Dead.
Thankfully, on the whole, most zombie outbreak stories seem to pass over the kids.
Grandma zombies are kind of fun. It’s a nice comic juxtaposition to take the kindly elderly and turn them into ravenous killers.
Audiences find baby zombies disturbing but don’t care if you throw Granny in the shredder.
There’s great fight scene in the new Ash vs the Evil dead series where Ash chainsaws a kindly old woman who has turned. And of course, the classic Cockneys vs zombies plays with the old-people theme very well.
You know what? It’s probably fun for the old people too. Even when they turn into zombies they get to run around and chase people like spring chickens.
5. The dangerous quest for the cure
At some point in the story the survivors need a reason to keep living. They need a quest. A hero’s journey. This is where the search for the cure comes in. Maybe it’s a vial of something stored in a hidden facility like in the later Resident Evil movies where Alice is on a mission to find the antivirus.
It’s always good form to have a McGuffin to wrap your fight scenes around.
6. The zombie siege
There is nothing better than being surrounded by a hoard of ravenous zombies in your (pick one; house, apartment building, car, boat, shopping mall, etc.) and having the dynamic tension of a group of survivors slowly being squeezed by a hopeless situation.
Will they get in? Will our heroes get out?
7. The zombie herd.
This is one of my favorite zombie tropes. Hey, what happens when everyone is undead? They form into herds of thousands like buffalo and wander about. Not quite sure why they would do this, but safety in numbers, right?
There’s a great scene in the Zombie series Z-Risen where they look down from a helicopter to see a giant herd of zombies marching across the countryside.
Like the evolving zombie, the herd is a good way to up the stakes when you run out of other ideas.
8. The big gun (BFG) (and chainsaws) (or some other unique violent weapon)
When you’re in the business of survival nothing beats finding a BFG to do some damage. Z-Risen also has a great scene where they find a 50 caliber machine gun and mow down the advancing herd with it.
Flame throwers are fun too. And what about a rocket launcher for a change of pace?
When the zombies are coming it’s time to get out the big guns!
9. The Government did it.
It’s not always the government’s fault. It’s a coin flip between the government and an evil corporation. But, somewhere in the latter stages of the story we find out who was responsible.
If you have to blame someone, why not the government? Works for me. Somebody, somewhere was messing around with weaponizing viruses and the zombie apocalypse was their comeuppance! You reap what you sow!
This also allows the writers to introduce an evil doctor character. An who doesn’t love to see an evil doctor get eaten by his creations?
10. The new society
Eventually the writers need to find a way out of the story. But how do you present a happy ending when it’s the zombie apocalypse?
Here’s how, you shift 20 years into the future and show all the survivors living peacefully on a farm straight out of Hallmark central casting. They finally find a war, green space to rebuild civilization.
This is how all the versions of I am Legend end.
It’s the zombie apocalypse version of riding into the sunset.
Those are my top 10 Zombie tropes. What did I miss? What are yours?