Here’s something to consider when you start thinking of making a zombie film: it’s been 48 years since the great George A. Romero made his seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and the zombie genre has given us many classic films. As the genre evolved, many types of zombies began to be used in very different films. Here is just a small list to help you understand the pros and cons of writing for one type or the other and help you decide what are the attributes that better fit your zombies and your story.
1 – THE DEAD.
Yes, of course. This is the classic zombie made famous by Mr. Romero – and for years the only zombies around. In a nutshell, these zombies are dead corpses who were reanimated through some process. We can subdivide this group according to the what and why. What type or reanimated corpses? Recently deceased like RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) or the long-dead putrefying masses of dead flesh like BURIAL GROUND (1981)? And why were they reanimated? Perhaps a chemical origin, like in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) or a pure supernatural reason like CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972) and DEAD SNOW (2009) ? Regardless of your answer, these zombies were indeed dead people before they were reanimated and they look just like it!
Pros: usually these are the scariest zombies, since most audiences are truly scared by death and corpses.
Cons: The cost of making a film with these zombies has gone way up since THE WALKING dead started spending big money in its makeup department. This means that the audience nowadays expects elaborate and shocking zombie makeups, a clear contrast with the next type:
2 – THE GREEN DEAD.
These zombies are rare these days. We could see them in the early Romero films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). They are dead people just like in the previous type. However, the level of makeup on them is kept at a minimum that sometimes derails into a simple green face. Of course we love those classic films, but we have to admit that such makeup job would be unacceptable by today’s standards.
Pros: cheap to produce, these zombies can be a matter of personal taste. Also great when far from the camera.
Cons: since the 80’s zombie makeup has evolved a lot. THE WALKING DEAD brought the zombie makeup into state of the Art. Now this type of zombie is just a sign of a no-budget film. That in itself is not a bad thing at all. THE BATTERY (2012) mixes several minimalist zombie makeups with tremendous success.
3 – THE SICK
Contrary to the above, these zombies are not dead. They are sick people who simply transition from healthy to infected to zombie. The time may vary from infection to full zombie. 28 DAYS LATER (2002) is a great example: it just takes seconds. RESIDENT EVIL (2002) tries to walk between the dead and the sick: we know it’s the T-virus alright, but there is a brief moment of inactivity the audience perceives as death. In PONTYPOOL (2008), the virus spread through language!
Pros: in the age of AIDS, Ebola and so many deadly epidemics, this is a very contemporary zombie type that pleases many audiences.
Cons: they have been a bit overused. By now, the “virus” with a strange, enigmatic name (in the air or contained inside some sophisticated glass work) that turns people into zombies has became a huge cliché. This means you have to bring some clever ideas if you want to go with these.
4 – THE SUPER-HERO
These zombies are kinda annoying. They can jump over anything and crawl on walls and ceilings like in the remake-in-title-only DAY OF THE DEAD (2008). The problem here is that these zombies defy reality and easily become unbelievable. The strange zombies in I AM LEGEND (2007) also fall here.
Pros: perhaps the deadliest of all zombies. You can amp the stakes whenever your protagonist meets one of those. Or 200.
Cons: they are mostly unbelievable and signal a poorly written or sloppy script.
5 – THE JUST LIKE THEY WERE WHEN ALIVE
These are truly rare to see, but with lots of potential if you manage to create a great story from them. These zombies are simply people who were dead, but came back in perfect replicas of themselves just like they were when alive. Yuck factor = zero here. However, these zombies can be disturbing and eerie. This is the case with the French film THEY CAME BACK (2004) and the much better series made by the same filmmakers THE RETURNED (2012). Again, no flesh-eating zombies here, but plenty of space for great ideas and innovations in the genre.
Pros: there is limitless potential in these very rare and strange zombies, since they tap into a more complex and highly emotional horror.
Cons: how do you keep the interest of your horror audience and create a horror story out of this? It is very possible, but very hard – and the horror you can create here will not fall in the usual zombie brackets. The potential is there, but this type of project needs a lot of development and imagination.
6 – ZOMBIES FROM OUTER SPACE
Just like the sick zombies, these have also a relatively clear origin: something alien. At times it keeps a straight face like in LIFEFORCE (1985) where a group of life-energy-sucking-space-vampires manage to turn Londoners into zombies. Other times it goes for a lighter comedic tone like in NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1985) where parasitic space slugs turn their hosts into zombies. This type of zombie usually mixes horror and sci-fi with mixed results.
Pros: the sci-fi part can help the writer create some amazing new setups that can be quite inventive. Plus, you can create zombies that can be more that the basic flesh eating beasts.
Cons: sometimes audiences feel confused and frustrated due to some genre/tone fluctuation if at times it goes all the way to horror or to sci-fi, to seriousness or comedy.
7 – THE HYBRID
These zombies exist in combination with a different monster. Vampires are a common choice. Bob Clark’s DEATHDREAM (1974) is a great example: a soldier who died in Vietnam comes home but needs blood to survive. Or he will fall apart. Here the main character walks a fine line between a zombie and a vampire. But there are more extreme versions like the Lickers we see in the RESIDENT EVIL series: larger monstrosities that can be very dangerous.
Pros: visually, they can be quite arresting. Strong, violent and deadly. If you want to create something over the top, maybe you should consider working here.
Cons: they cost more to produce than the regular zombies IF you want to go the RESIDENT EVIL way. Plus, they may lose some scare power since those zombies tend to lose some human familiarity.
8 – INTELLIGENT
These zombies can talk and do things just like we do. They can exist under a ghost form like in PET SEMATARY (1989) and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) or they can be real, functioning (although still very evil) beings like in NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984). They can get as close to a living person as possible just to get what they want. Like Rachel Creed in (again) PET SEMATARY and the zombie who says “send more cops” in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. And let’s not forget Ben in HOUSE (1986).
Pros: a screenwriter can create memorable zombies here, since they often breathe a fresher look into the protagonist’s situation – not to mention some poignant commentary on what is is to be alive or dead.
Cons: those are not the usual zombies and may give the writer a tougher time finding the right story. Some audiences may prefer a more classic approach as they may still favor more flesh-eating and less talking.
The good thing when you are writing a zombie story (on prose or screenplay) is that there are so many ways you can combine those types and so many other degrees and qualities you can add. Zombies do not have to be a boring monster. They can be really a great horror element if you devote some time thinking about what works best in your premise.