We look at both classic and current examples, and keep track of all of the core elements of the genre you need for your zombie shorts and features.
Even if you try to kill it with a bloody shovel, the nascent zombie horror genre just isn't going to die. From its earliest roots with films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) to new blockbuster features like Zombieland: Double Tap (2019) and Army of the Dead (2021), the zombie is Genre still alive and kicking – and carnivorous.
But what makes a zombie film a zombie film? Besides, you know. . . Zombies? While these lovable brain eater may be a core trait, the typical elements of filmmaking in zombie films can be found in the scripts and castings, in costume and make-up, as well as in other tributes and tropes.
1. Ensemble line-up
An example of the ensemble in Zack Snyder's zombie remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). Image via Universal.
While there are notable exceptions to this zombie movie element, most zombie movies use ensemble cast. This is useful for a number of reasons. Most of all, it just gives you more characters to bounce off as the narrative progresses. Some amazing examples include Dawn of the Dead or the recently mentioned Army of the Dead, which follows several characters on their journeys to clean up zombies.
Just because you have a cast of the main cast, you should really make sure that at least one or two characters are your "main characters", who will be the last to stay alive (if you choose that street, of course). Relationships with the other characters should be built and maintained, but keep most of your narrative work for these ultimate survivors.
2nd Sci-Fi Genre Exhibition
Many zombie films use science fiction elements to construct their world, such as the Korean zombie thriller #Alive (2020). Image via Lotte Entertainment.
From a genre point of view, zombie films offer the opportunity to cross genres and adopt elements from other film types. If you just look at the storytelling mechanics that help shape the world where zombie movies abound, you will find traces of science fiction genre movies.
Science fiction films are great fodder for disaster narratives as fear of future technologies can help inform man-made disasters like nuclear events, massive storms, or even zombie outbreaks. It is interesting to examine how various filmmakers wrestled with these science fiction elements in their zombie films. It's up to you how many sci-fi genre elements you want to include in explaining how zombies exist and what brought them to your movie world.
3. Horror Jump Scares
A classic zombie jump shot from the horror film 28 Weeks Later (2007). Image via 20th Century Studios.
Aside from the science fiction elements, the other genre most closely related to zombie films is of course horror. Horror genre films come in many different shapes and sizes, from slashers to folk and body horror to popular found footage. But just because zombie horror could be its own subgenre doesn't mean you can't take tropes and horrors from other classic horror elements.
Some perfect examples of using other types of horror movie tricks in your zombie projects are the many different types of jumps and scares that you can find in many zombie movies. Films like 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later are characterized by the fact that they drive the zombie genre further into pure horror styles, with many exciting scenes and great fear of jumping at every turn.
4. Homage to the classics
One of the most famous zombie shots from George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Image via Walter Reade organization.
It's always smart to research a movie idea and genre before diving in. Zombie movies have plenty of fun, classic examples to comb through over the past few decades. Zombie films in particular are characterized by how much they borrow from each other.
Perhaps the best example of this homage is how many zombie films name themselves. While we can find many early zombie films from the 30s and 40s, the birth of the modern zombie genre comes with the films of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Its naming scheme "of the Dead" has been copied over the years and honored with examples such as Shaun of the Dead, One Cut of the Dead and the recent Army of the Dead. It goes further than just names and titles, however, as zombie films have left subtle references and thematic tributes for zombie fans over the decades to see if they can catch and enjoy.
5. Zombie Infectee Trope
Sooner or later one of your characters will get infected as you can see in this setting from The Walking Dead. Image via AMC.
If you are looking for specific zombie movie tropes to add to your script, you have come to the right place with the zombie infectious disease that recurs in all zombie fiction films including movies, comics, literature, and fan fiction circles of all kinds shows up.
You've probably seen a zombie movie where this happens. One of your Ensemble characters is bitten or infected during a brief battle. Most of the time, the infected person realizes that he or she has been infected and is most likely doomed to failure. However, instead of alerting the rest of the crew, they will try to hide their infection – often with disastrous results.
However, it is important to note that while this trope has been used countless times in zombie projects, that doesn't mean you have to use it in your projects the same way. To really advance the trope and genre as a whole, consider other alternatives to getting any of your characters infected. What if they don't hide it? What if they acknowledge it to their team? How would your characters react? What decisions would they make from there?
6. Costume and makeup aesthetics
A close look at zombie makeup and costume design from Shaun of the Dead (2004). Image via Universal.
Outside of the narrative choices, many of the zombie filmmaker elements for your movie will come from the presentation of the zombies themselves. Again, you have many questions that you should ask early on. What kind of zombies are you up against here? Do they have rotten meat and missing pieces? Or do they look more human with red eyes and sweaty skin?
For many, these elements of presentation are what makes a zombie movie. Hardcore fans of the zombie genre like to get dressed and are always looking for a cool new zombie aesthetic. In addition to researching other classic zombie looks, you can experiment with your own zombie designs using some of the following resources: costumes, makeup, and even post-production techniques:
7. Open Ended Endings for sequels
The ending of your zombie movies should leave things open to new narratives. Image of the Army of the Dead via Netflix.
One element of zombie films that you will find repeatedly is the open ending. For some reason, zombie films make great franchises – Zombieland, Resident Evil, and The Walking Dead to name a few. Even Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead is a spiritual sequel to his Dawn of the Dead, which is said to offer spin-offs and a possible sequel of its own.
Even if you leave things open, you can stay open to possible franchise expansion, but it's also a prime tenant for the horror roots of the zombie genre. The real horror of a zombie movie is that there will be more and more zombies around the corner. So if you leave things open, the tension is enough to keep the audience excited and wanting more.
For more insight, inspiration, and advice on genre filmmaking, check out the following articles:
Cover photo from #Alive via Lotte Entertainment.