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.
Zombie movies are epic and wonderful and far, far superior to the Standard Horror Movie featuring horny teenagers getting mowed down by the Boogeyman, or silly scientists who create genetically modified super-sharks which, of course, escape their tanks and EAT EVERYONE.
People–especially those who wear tweed and like to talk about “dialectical materialism” all the time–tend to lump horror movies along with other B movie trash, including zombie movies.
They are wrong.
Zombie movies are NOT like your Standard Horror Movie.
(1) They are better.
(2) They feature zombies.
(3) Zombies rock.
Seriously: zombie movies are different. Let’s pry open the skull of moviegoers — and people who read Stephen King and other horrornovels — to see what’s really going on, which is more interesting than you’d expect.
Looting the local mall is a staple of zombie and disaster movies, and yes, the idea is not only great entertainment on the big screen, it also (2) makes good sense if a real apocalypse happened.
HOWEVER: You’d have to do this right. Because there are real troubles standing between you and driving a stolen U-Haul down the aisles of Home Depot.
Challenge No. 1: You will not be alone
No matter what flavor apocalypse you favor—a giant space rock plowing into the Atlantic, aliens landing to make us mine unobtanimum all day, a supervolcano goes boom or zombies (fast or slow) rise up—everybody is going to have the same idea: loot the local mall.
Things will kick off long before police and civilization breaks down. Store will be jammed with people buying up essentials: canned food, batteries, blankets, generators, ammo, everything.
And yes, this will make the worst excesses of Black Friday look like a holiday.
It will get more interesting after the apocalypse of your choice, with survivors roaming those same stores, except they’ll be pack shotguns instead of VISA cards, and they’ll be a lot more motivated to fill their shopping cart.
Long after whatever Extremely Bad Thing turns things upside down, scavengers will set up camp close to shopping malls and stores. Truly organized and ambitious bands of survivors might turn the local mall into their actual base. Because why commute?
Challenge No. 2: How do you plan on carrying all that, tough guy?
Say your local Home Depot didn’t get emptied by shoppers before the Extremely Bad Thing and is somehow clear of zombies and scavengers after everything went Mad Max.
Let’s pretend there are perfect conditions and nothing to worry about. The store is yours, so go wild.
Here’s the trouble: how will you haul away all that loot?
Not on foot, especially if you’re already carrying all your wordly possessions in a backpack.
Not on bicycle or horseback, though those two options make a lot of sense.
You’re gonna need something bigger.
Challenge No. 3: Where to stash it
If you manage to cart off all sorts of valuable stuff without suffering any casualties, great. The next problem is keeping it safe from the elements and other survivors.
Wherever you hide the loot has to be a long-term solution, since staying in a permanent bunker or fortress isn’t a smart option. Even the best-stocked bunker will eventually run out of MREs and water.
You’ll need to travel with the seasons and follow migrating food sources.
So: how can you loot a mall, then stash all that stuff somewhere safe enough that if you head south for the winter, all those valuable treasures will still be there when you return come spring?
Challenge No. 4: Which stores should you prioritize, and what should you take?
Even if you hotwired a fleet of U-Hauls and RV’s, there’s no way you and your friends could possibly loot an entire mall. There’s too much stuff.
You have to pick the most essential items.
When everything is free for the taking, that’s a hard decision to make. The temptation will be to throw anything you like into your shopping cart.
This is something you’ll need to decide, as a group, before you go in there. And this has to be a team effort. A lone wolf has no shot of pulling it off, because there will be other groups looking to do the same thing. And they won’t want to share.
A practical plan
Rule Number 1: Looting an indoor shopping mall is suicide
There are good reasons to go ixnay on the oppingmallay, despite the fact it has a Regal Cinema while strip malls and big box stores tend to have a Panda Express.
Take a look at this floor plan for an average indoor mall:
That’s a maze, with far too many entrances, exits and hiding spots.
You’d need an army to secure every entrance before clearing out each tiny store. Only then could you move on to Sears (no apostrophe, don’t ask why) and Macy’s (yes apostrophe, because grammar).
Rule Number 2: Go for big box stores and strip malls
Big box stores and strip malls are much easier to secure than an indoor mall. Plus we can do them in sequence instead of putting our eyes on swivel for zombies.
With your average big box store or strip mall joint, there’s just one main entrance and a back door with a loading dock. Let’s back up the bus on that sentence for a second: loading doooock. Oh yes.
Big Box stores also specialize, which gives us more selection.
Rule Number 3: Get your Mad Max on
For a dozen good reasons, relying on a motor vehicle during any sort of apocalypse is an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey. HOWEVER: This is one situation where you absolutely, positively have to get behind the wheel, at least temporarily.
Sedans aren’t a good choice. Can’t hold much loot.
Station wagons and SUV’s are better.
You’d think a semi would be perfect, except most people don’t know how to drive a semi and you need a haul your loot up a long ramp to get it inside.
Best bet: U-Haul trucks. There common, they’re easy to drive and they’ll hold a lot of stuff. Grab your friends and nab two or three of these before heading to the shopping center of choice.
Rule Number 4: Shopping carts are old and busted; handcarts and wheelbarrows are the new hotness
Speed is essential. You want to load up on treasures, roll them into your borrowed U-Haul, stack them neatly and skip back inside the store.
Shopping carts are the enemy of speed. They make it easy to put things inside and hard to take out.
This is why your first store should be in the Home Depot / Lowe’s family, where you can grab handtrucks and wheelbarrows right off.
Rule Number 5: Take what others don’t want
Here’s a short list of unsustainable items people will fight over to grab first, compared to the smart, sustainable alternative that you and your friends will take instead:
Sustainable and smart
Flashlights, batteries and generators
Lanterns and kerosene
Guns and ammunition
Bows, crossbows and slingshots
Chainsaws and power tools
Regular saws and hand tools
Lighters and matches
Flint and steel
Wire, cordage and traps
Perishable food and vegetables
Seeds to plant
Rule Number 6: Improve your start by starting at a home improvement store
The first stop should be a hardware/home improvement store like Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Here’s why: carrying things by hand stinks. Begin in the garden section to grab wheelbarrows and hand trucks.
Stay there to fill your wheelbarrow full of every seed packet of edible goodness in sight and load up on machetes, axes, shovels and other good stuff right by the garden gnomes and garden hoses.
Sidenote: You would not believe some of the deadly stuff they have in the garden section, and it’s all sturdy, well-made stuff, which is in stark comparison to your average gas station ninja superstore, where the nonsense they sell (ninja swords for $12, throwing stars for $5) won’t cut through a snowman. Not kidding.
Check out this thing, which Home Depot calls a ditch blade. I call it a The Beheader of Giants.
After you pillage the gardening section, head inside the store proper to the tool section for heavy work gloves, hammers, crowbars and multi-tools.
Then swing over to the nuts-bolts-screws-nails aisle to snag a variety of boxes, especially oversized bolts and such you won’t be able to scrounge from the average garage of private home.
Then hit the rope and chain section for cordage, chains and padlocks (important!) before cruising over to grab all the Gorilla Glue / Crazy Glue / Super Crazy Gorilla Glue and such you can find.
Rule Number 7: Sporting goods will give you a sporting chance
Big 5, Dicks and other sports stores are pretty common.
Here’s why you want to head there second: a sports store is a great source for backpacks, hiking boots, socks and camping material: sleeping bags, tents, compasses, canteens, rain gear, fishing poles, slingshots, bows and arrows, crossbows, cheap guns and ammo, knives and clothing.
This is also your best bet to pick up practical armor, which is a topic deep enough for future post all by itself.
For now, just know that imitating the body armor of the Army and Marines isn’t a real option. What soldiers wear is incredibly heavy. Once you get shot, whatever panel that got hit needs to be replaced, which you won’t be able to do.
Sports stores have the kind of armor that’s sustainable and works against the main threat you’ll face: melee combat. Football helmets and pads are good protection against blunt instruments and blades.
Even better: motorcycle and mountain bike armor, which is tough leather with Kevlar inserts. This sort of armor is also easy to move in.
Rule Number 8: Don’t forget the small stuff
A little pharmacy may not seem like a top target, yet it’s a gold mine.
First aid kits, crutches, allergy pills, sunscreen, antibiotics, sunglasses, prescription drugs, toilet paper—the best stuff from a pharmacy is life-saving gold and perhaps the best trading material possible.
Let everybody else stock up on gold bars and AK-47s. When they run out of ammo, which will happen sooner than you think, what will they do with those heavy, useless gold bars? You can’t eat them. They won’t keep you warm at night. What are you gonna do, make necklaces out of them?
Raid a pharmacy and you’ll have what everyone else wants and needs. Because people will inevitably get cut, shot, sick or infected.
Rule Number 9: Before you start, figure out where you’ll safeguard all this good stuff
Any option you choose has to protect your liberated loot from the elements, wild animals and other survivors.
If you get a bunch of plastic bins, garbage bags and five-gallon buckets from your first top at Home Depot, you can hide and/or bury your loot all over the place. Just keep a map of where you put it all.
Unloading all the stuff into a safe building seems like a good choice until you think about how long any building will be safe when every single person is hungry, wandering around and breaking into places to scrounge for food and stay warm.
The best bets: (a) hide your fleet of U-Hauls in plain sight by driving them into a junk yard, (b) drive them far off into the woods on logging roads and ram those suckers into the forest until the wheels don’t move, (c) bury the moving trucks in junk, dirt and debris or (d) lock them with multiple padlocks and chains, then park them back-to-back, so nobody can get in until you return with the keys.
You can also make cheap, waterproof shebangs that can store a lot of stuff. PVC pipe is a good bet.
Rule Number 10: There’s nothing wrong with pre-looting
Ethically and morally, it’s completely wrong to loot a store today. During a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion, the moral compass changes polarity, because (a) it’s a question of survival and (b) when society collapses, there won’t be any cashiers waiting to take your checks, banks to cash those checks or functioning corporations to make a profit.
HOWEVER: There’s always the option of beating the crowds and the craziness by doing this carefully and comfortably, without worrying about getting munched by zombies or shot by other scavengers. Buy and cache a little every week, writing down what you stored and where you stored it.
It’s not hard to buy and cache a little every week. Because you’re going the smart, sustainable route instead of the expensive, unsustainable path, this won’t be expensive, either.
Below are some different ideas for pre-looting and caching:
Here you go, my friend: a backpack full of tools and gear, for when you add a new friend to your party.
Food, glorious food: a PVC pipe full of beef jerky, jars of peanut butter and MRE’s.
Shelter: a full-size tent, which you wouldn’t want to pack around, pre-placed in a good spot next to running water and a food source.
Hunting and gathering: Snares, traps, bows and arrows, slingshots, fishing nets and a sturdy metal pot to boil things up.
War: Let’s say a wannabe-Negan mugged you, taking all your gear and weapons. It’s never a back idea to have backups stashed someplace safe.
Next week: Chapter 6—Suit Up with Seriously Practical Armor
Movies with subtitles are typically depressing and bad, and only watchable when you’re in college and think that French existentialism is amazing, that you should wear a black beret and smoke Gallouise Blondes the rest of your life, which will be spent in a cafe in Paris, sipping coffee and eating pan au chocolat as you discuss politics and philosophy with other intellectuals, never mind the fact that YOU DON’T SPEAK FRENCH.
There are two exceptions to the Law of Subtitles.
The first is DEAD SNOW, a Norwegian movie that isn’t just about zombies (yes!) but Nazi zombies (double yes!).
The second exception is JUAN OF THE DEAD, a Cuban zombie movie that isn’t afraid to pile on the craziness.