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.

Here’s why THE MEG works

The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.

Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)

1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story

THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.

In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.

Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.

Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.

The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.

Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.

And it’s a story that’ll always work.

2) Jason Statham sells tickets

There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.

Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.

You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.

Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.

That’s box office gold.

3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears

Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”

Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.

We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.

Why the USS CALLISTER worked so well while METALHEAD turned meh

BLACK MIRROR is a beautifully strange British sci-fi series playing on this thing called Netflix, except they call it “streaming” now and you can do it on your phone, PC, iPad, Nook or 65-inch plasma wallscreen.

Each episode is different, and the showrunners take massive, massive risks. They’re not afraid to fail.

This season, everybody seems to love USS CALLISTER, which is a genuinely great episode starring Meth Damon from BREAKING BAD.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s that same actor rocking the role of Todd in BREAKING BAD:

The other episode I truly, madly and deeply wanted to see this season is METALHEAD, an entirely black-and-white story about an apocalyptic world. Check out the trailer:

So: why does USS CALLISTER work so well while METALHEAD fizzles out at the end?

There’s nothing here about the acting, the sets, the special effects or the directing. All are top notch.

What’s different is the writing.

The trick is, every episode in this series is a horror story. You can say it’s sci-fi, but that’s the setting, not the story.

Horror stories are about punishment. The monster is really the hero, and everybody dies in the end except for the monster, who comes back for endless sequels.

Good horror movies show the people who die first, committing sins they’ll get punished for later. In slasher films, it’s teenagers typically drinking and carousing and breaking the rules. In other horror movies, scientists (and society) get punished for being arrogant enough to think they could invent some insane new technology that, of course, turns on them in the end.

Bad horror movies reverse this and make the regular actors into heroes and the monster into a villain that dies in the end. Doesn’t feel right. That’s a different kind of story with different beats and twists.

The type of story where good guys kill the monster is what Blake Snyder nicknamed Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed place, and either you’re going to kill it or it’s going to kill you. That’s a primal story, something that touches us deep in our caveman souls, and you can see the same essential beats in movies that seem dramatically different: JAWS, ALIENS and FATAL ATTRACTION aren’t really a horror, a sci-fi and a domestic drama–they’re the same story in different settings.

USS CALLISTER is actually Monster in the House instead of horror. There’s a monster in an enclosed place–the starship–and the crew is either gonna kill him or get tortured and killed, forever, by an all-powerful bully who created this world. It takes a lot of creativity and guts for the crew to beat him in the end, and it feels right. They deserve their freedom and he’s a monster who deserves his fate.

METALHEAD is a horror story where everybody dies in the end, except the monsters. Where it goes wrong people don’t get what they deserve. The monster is punishing everyone for a sin you never witness, which makes all the deaths caused by the killer robots feel senseless.

This is why horror movies always start by showing the sinners running around, committing the sins they’ll be punished for later. It doesn’t matter how good-looking and wholesome the teenage actors in a slasher film are, they’re going to die for their sins. Same thing with horror movies with scientists trying to play God: they might be great actors, and the entire team may not be evil, but the whole lot of them get punished for the sin of thinking they could (a) make an army of robots to do all the work, (b) genetically engineer a way to life forever or (c) create super-smart sharks with lasers.

If we had seen the original sin in METALHEAD, and the characters who all die were somehow associated with that sin, then it would feel right for them all to get punished. Instead, the killer robots seem off. It feels like the most likely explanation is whoever created and programmed security robots for warehouses did waaaaay too good of a job. Now if that man and his team got killed by his own creations, the audience would swallow it.

Video

4 ways to improve STARLORD VS MUTANT DINOSAURLAND (aka JURRASIC WORLD)

Seen it yet? Go buy tickets and eat insane amount of popcorn. Everybody on the planet is required to do so.

I’ll wait. Don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

Actually, I want to improve the ending. And the beginning. Maybe the middle, too.

Not that this is a bad movie. It’s summer popcorn fun and will make bazillions of dollars. Chris the Pratt is a great actor, our generation’s Harrison Ford, an action star who makes you laugh.

HOWEVER: there are four easy ways to radically improve JURASSIC WORLD, especially compared to the last two Chris Pratt movies, which were structurally sound.

This is more important than you think. A solid story is the difference between “Yeah, that was fun” and “Even though we just saw it, I’d happily pay another $15, keep this dorky glasses on and see this in 3D again right now.”

Despite my dislike for Tom Cruise, an amazing story structure is why I paid cash money to see THE EDGE OF TOMORROW in theaters three times and bought the Blu-Ray to see it twice more.

Want the easy way to see if a movie has story problems? Count the number of writers. One is great. Two might work if they collaborate a lot, or if they’re the Coen brothers. Three means trouble.

If you see four or more writers when the credits roll, that says “People gave us $389 million dollars for a film about transforming robots, lightsabers or mutant dinosaurs, so we spent about half a percent of the budget on script rewrites until we had a story that would thrill the high tastes and standards of 9-year-old boys sitting in theater seats as they drink 72 ounces of Mountain Dew.”

On to four easy ways to improve JURASSIC WORLD: Continue reading

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

barbed wire

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire
A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster
The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.