The fatal flaw with zombie apocalypse movies

zombie woman angelina jolie pretty zombie woman zombie girl

There are great zombie movies, and horrifically beautiful apocalyptic films.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, WATERWORLD (hey, I’m kidding)–you get the idea.

So why do zombie apocalypse movies smash into the brick wall of failure?

Zombie comedy? Sure. SEAN OF THE DEAD. Zombie romance? Yeah, they’ve tried that. Zombie drama? Yep.

You’d think this would be like peanut butter and chocolate, two great things that taste even greater when mashed together. But I can’t think of a single zombie apocalypse movie that truly works.

The biggest such film–WORLD WAR Z–went splat, despite the star power of Brad Pitt and a big budget. Why? 

I’ve pondered this, downed a pot of coffee and consulted the oracle.

Here’s the deal.

In a horror movie, everybody dies

Not because the screenwriter and director are sadistic. The whole point of a horror movie is society getting punished for its sins by the monster, who’s actually the hero.

That’s why Freddy, Jason and all the other horror monsters never truly get killed off.

Slasher movies show teenagers breaking the rules–shoplifting, getting drunk, having premarital sex, lying to their parents about it all–and getting punished by the boogeyman for their sins.

Another big branch of horror movies is about man playing God–inventing super-smart sharks with lasers, creating hybrid genetic experiments that go wrong, or sewing together body parts from the grave and using lightning to reanimate the thing. Then those creations rise up to punish the scientists for their arrogance.

This is why horror movies can fail. If the teenagers or scientists actually win in the end, the movie confuses the message. You might start out rooting for the teeny boppers or mad scientists, but in the end, you’re supposed to see the monsters as agents of rough justice.

Same thing with a zombie movie.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is actually about racism.

DAWN OF THE DEAD is about consumerism, which is why it’s set in a mall.

Monster in the House is a great story and a dangerous one for zombies

There’s a primal story that screenwriter Blake Snyder identifies as Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed space and either it’s gonna kill you or you’re gonna kill it.

JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION are all Monster in the House stories.

There’s a big difference between these stories and a true horror movie. The ending is completely opposite. 

The shark dies in the end of JAWS, as does the alien and the obsessed, discarded mistress played by Glenn Close. 

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD feature the same enclosed space problem, because it’s good storytelling to put characters in a cage with your monster. But they stay true to the message and let the monsters win, punishing society for our sins.

In an apocalyptic movie, tons of people die–but the story ends with hope

The storytelling bones of a good apocalyptic movie are completely different than a horror story.

Civilization goes buh-bye, and the fun of an apocalyptic movie is seeing how that happens and what replaces the status quo.

Also, you get to loot the hardware store and the mall. Who doesn’t like to see that on film? Always a good time.

The message of an apocalypse film, though, is that lots of people die because they make bad, selfish choices, while the few heroes who survive make good, unselfish choices.

It just doesn’t work to mix a true zombie movie, where everybody dies as punishment for society’s sins, with an apocalyptic film, with its message of survival if you make the right choices.

So: back to the movie, WORLD WAR Z, which is a confused beast.

If you read the novel–which you should–it’s not a horror story, where everybody gets nom-nommed by the living dead. It’s a true zombie apocalypse story that can work, with the end showing the undead almost destroying the world. They’re only beaten when society makes painful, fundamental changes to work together and win the war.

Hope and survival. That’s the right way to thread the needle and tell a zombie apocalypse story that works. Give us that, Hollywood–Brad Pitt is optional.

ONE DAY vs. THE DESCENDANTS

On the airplane to Germany and back, I saw many, many movies.

Some were good. Some were terrible. Though my record of seeing something like 5,982 films on a flight to Dubai wasn’t broken, I saw plenty.

Two movies made a real impression for entirely different reasons: ONE DAY starring Anne the Hathaway and THE DESCENDANTS starring George the Clooney.

First up: ONE DAY.

Anne Hatheway — Catwoman this summer in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES — is a good actress in this bad movie, which smelled strongly of Nicholas Sparks.

Here’s the plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, girl gets hit by a truck and dies.

I kid you not.

When the truck smashed into Anne the Hatheway, I wanted to throw cutlery at the screen.

Then there was 10 minutes of the boy, Dexter, being sad about the love of his life dying like that. The End.

But maybe my sleep-deprived brain was being grumpy. So when I got home, I fired up the Series of Tubes and hit Rotten Tomatoes to see what professional critics thought of this movie, and they thought it stank up the joint. This reviewer hits it on the head.

HOWEVER: Let’s dive into why the movie rubbed audiences and critics wrong. The acting was fine. The dialogue was good. The episodic thing of showing one day per year of their relationship didn’t hurt the movie that much.

It was the structure and storytelling. The bones were all wrong.

ONE DAY is like sucking all of the comedy from WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and replacing the laughs with misery, then making sure the ending left the audience mad.

Love stories should make you believe in the power of love, not make you think, “The love of my life might get hit by a truck tomorrow, so why bother?”

Up until the truck hits Anne the Hathaway, she’s the focus of the movie, the protag, the heroine. It’s really her POV and she’s quite sympathetic while the boy, Dexter, is a charming jerk. After she’s randomly smashed by a truck, the POV and focus shifts entirely to Dexter for the last minutes of the movie. He wallows in misery. He gets drunk, starts fights in nightclubs, blah blah blah. Then he takes his daughter up to the same hill that he and Anne walked up when they first met and credits roll. Oooookay.

There are rules for (a) love stories, (b) tragedies and (c) horror movies. Rules that make sense for audiences and writers alike.

It’s not really a love story when your heroine gets hit by a truck for no reason. Not a tragedy, either, because tragedies require heroes who fall from grace. They cause their own downfall.

Anne the Hathaway didn’t do anything to deserve her death. Neither did she sacrifice herself for a cause, which would’ve made her death meaningful. Tom Hanks dying in PRIVATE RYAN sucked, but you understood why he did it: to save Matt Damon.

Now in horror movies, it’s perfectly fine for the boogeyman to kill any character in any way, but horror movies are really about punishing sin, with the monster going after lusty teenagers or silly scientists who think they can play god. Everybody dies in the end.

ONE DAY was bad because all sorts of things just happen for no reason.

  • Dexter randomly gets fired from his TV host job.
  • His first wife randomly cheats on him, so they get divorced.
  • Anne the Hathaway randomly gets pancaked by a truck.

If you’re doing a French existentialist movie in black-and-white with subtitles, that sort of thing is fine. Life is meaningless! Personal choice is an illusion! Things just happen!

Good love stories, good tragedies and good horror movies work because things don’t just happen. Characters make choices. Bad choices tend to get punished. Good choices eventually get rewarded. That’s a story.

Verdict: Rent it on Netflix if you want to get truly mad and need to pre-funk before the main event.

THE DESCENDANTS is an entirely different movie, and not just because it has George the Clooney in a Hawaiian shirt instead of Anne the Hathaway pretending to have a British accent.

There is a parallel: George’s wife dies in this movie. She’s in a powerboat accident right off and spends most of the movie in a coma before dying.

Now, that sounds sad, and superficially close to ONE DAY. Except it’s not. The wife isn’t the center of the movie.

The A story is George’s relationship with his two daughters, which isn’t great at the start of the movie. His young daughter keeps getting in trouble at school and his older daughter is in a boarding school to shape up.

The B story is whether or not George, as trustee of 25,000 acres of ancestral land — virginal, undeveloped land in Hawaii — will sell the land and turn it into golf courses and condos.

George’s wife is also a thrill-seeker who (a) does dangerous things like ride really fast in power boats and (b) was cheating on him. Also (c) she isn’t the protag for 3/4ths of the movie, as Anne Hathaway is before getting thwacked by that random truck.

So it makes story sense for George’s wife to get injured while riding too fast in a power boat with a man who’s not her husband, though this is a different man than the one she’s sleeping with.

And it makes story sense for the man she is cheating with — who is also married with kids — to get punished. This happens after George and his daughter visit and the man’s wife figures things out.

To get me to watch ONE DAY again, you’d have to hand me a stack of purple euros and an endless pitcher of margaritas, and even then, I’m 50-50.

I’d happily watch THE DESCENDANTS again. There are plenty of neat little moments throughout, like the obnoxious surfer-stoner friend of the daughter who turns out to be kinder and wiser than he looks. George is also happy to look goofy, like whenever his character runs, which is hilarious. He doesn’t insist on being a movie star.

This is what I like about George and his OCEAN 11 buddies Brad Pitt and Matt Damon — despite being voted Sexiest Man Alive, none of them care about looking stupid. They take risks. They roll the dice with movies big and small.

THE DESCENDANTS is a small movie that says big things. There are no CGI effects. It looks like a no-budget indie movie. And you don’t care, because the story is good.

George suffers, sacrifices and grows. He learns how to be a dad for his daughters, and makes the right choice by not selling all that land, consequences be damned. Things happen for a reason, and nobody gets randomly hit by a truck.

You leave the movie feeling hopeful, and a little wiser.

Verdict: Buy it, if movies can still be bought and stored on the cloud or whatever.