May 10 2011 6:20pm

Learning to Love Zombies: 5 Places to Start

Me: Hey, I just watched/read/played this amazing zombie movie/show/book/game. You have to try it.

Friend: That’s nice, but I don’t really like zombies.

Me: But this one is really good. I promise you’ll like it.

Friend: No, thanks. I don’t like undead things.

Me: What about vampires?

Friend: Oh, I like vampires.

Me: Vampires are undead.

Friend: But it’s different.

Me: How so?

Friend: Zombies are gross.

Me: Have you seen the trailer for Priest? They’re not all sparkly.

Friend: I just don't like zombies.

Zombies maybe bigger than ever right now, but there are still lots of people, like my unnamed friend, who refuse to go near anything that features the truly undead. I aim to change that. Sure zombies may represent American consumerism, remind you of your own mortality, or scare the begeeses out of you, but there’s no reason they can’t entertain you in the process. I’m giving you my picks for the best zombie movie, TV show, book, game, and music video. Even if you think you’re one of those zombie abstainers, these are the places to start if you want to embrace change:

Best Zombie Movie: Shaun of the Dead

Who doesn’t love Romantic Comedies? How about Romantic Comedies with Zombies? Don’t worry, no one is making sexy time with a reanimated corpse in Shaun of the Dead. Shaun (aka Simon Pegg who also co-wrote the movie) is pushing thirty in a dead end sales job. He’s got father issues, roommate issues, and a fed up girlfriend. On his professional and personal day from hell, the zombie apocalypse begins. When Shaun and his roommate Ed realize what’s happening, they hightail it through town to persuade friends and family, including his now ex-girlfriend, to come with them to the safest place they know: the local pub. There’s plenty of gore, but the wit and sharp humor are consistent enough that you might not even notice:

[looking through Shaun's LPs for suitable records to throw at two approaching zombies]
Ed: 'Purple Rain'?
Shaun: No.
Ed: 'Sign o' the Times'?
Shaun: Definitely not.
Ed: The 'Batman' soundtrack?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: 'Dire Straits'?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: Ooh, 'Stone Roses'.
Shaun: Um, No.
Ed: 'Second Coming'.
Shaun: I like it!
Ed: Ahhh! 'Sade'.
Shaun: Yeah, but that's Liz's!
Ed: Yeah, but she did dump you.
Shaun: Oh!

See also: Zombieland


Best Zombie TV Show: The Walking Dead

Based on the graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, AMC’s The Walking Dead gets my vote for the best thing on television right now. A small town Sherif Deputy wakes up in an empty hospital, staggers outside and sees a world that is unrecognizable. There are thousands of body bags and abandoned military vehicles in the parking lot, but not a single living soul. He sets out to find the wife and child he hopes escaped and eventually meets up with a small band of survivors.

Don’t dismiss this as another horror story, it’s much more than that. The emotional resonance hits on every level. You will experience fearful disorientation with Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) when he walks down a bullet ridden hospital hallway, raw anguish with Morgan Jones (Lennie James) as he prepares to shoot his wife who has become a Walker, and simple joy when the survivors find a working shower with hot water. And that’s just the first episode. The zombie effects are magnificently grotesque and surpass anything that Hollywood has achieved, but it’s the story itself that is shocking, and heartbreaking, and so beyond words awesome that my love for zombies has reached an all new high.

See Also: The Walking Dead graphic novels, and be on the lookout for the CW show Awakeningin Fall 2011


Best Zombie Book: Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield

I end up reading quite a few zombie books every year, but this one stands out as my all time favorite. I read it just coming off of the high of season one of The Walking Dead and was bemoaning the fact that I’d have to wait until October for season two. I had zero expectations when I picked up Aftertime (Published on February 22nd, 2011 by Luna), but before I’d even finished the first chapter, you’d have had to pry it out of my cold, dead hands to get it away from me.

The story follows Cass, a young mother and recovering addict, as she searches desperately for her daughter mere months after the mysterious infection set in and turned most of the population into ravenous, cannibalistic zombies. Her only companion is a reclusive man known simply as Smoke. He agrees for his own reasons to help Cass and together they brave a world where zombies carry off children to feast on in their nests, power hungry men seize what little society is left and begin Rebuilding it to suit themselves, cults thrive, and oblivion is sought after by anyone sane enough to know what’s happening on the streets each night. The horror is unimaginable.

This is the world the Cass wakes up in. Alone and nearly skinned. Desperate to find her daughter, terrified of what she can’t remember, and fiercely determined to survive. She’s like Terminator’s Sarah Connor and Downside Ghost’s Chess Putnam rolled into one. A deeply damaged woman with a seedy drug and alcohol hazed past full of dark alleys and strange beds. She’s clawed her way out of addiction and has only one care in the world: her daughter.

The story is epic in scope. We get a real sense of the entire world ending and waking up to a nightmarish reality that few could have imagined. We never leave the POV of Cass, yet the people she encounters, both friend and foe, add their own piece to the Aftertime world. The dialogue in the first half of the book is understandably scant, but the story itself is startling and unputdownable from beginning to end.

See also: Enclave by Ann Aguirre, and be on the look out for The First Days by Rhiannon Frater on July 5, 2011, and My Life as A White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland on July 5, 2011


Best Zombie Video Game: Resident Evil 4

I was never so glad that I owned a Gamecube in 2005 than I was when Capcom released Resident Evil 4 exclusively for the Nintendo console (it was later released for the PS2, Wii, and PC). You play as Leon S. Kennedy from Resident Evil 2, now a U.S. special agent on a mission to rescue the President’s daughter in a small village somewhere in Europe. That’s right, you don’t ever set foot in Raccoon City in RE4, the first of many radical departures from the previous installments including a groundbreaking over the shoulder camera angle, seamless cut scenes with Quick Time Events (time sensitive button prompts that allow the player limited control during cut scenes), no more annoying typewriter ribbons needed for saving, and some of the most challenging boss fights ever.

The zombies themselves aren’t just victims of the T-virus anymore either. There is a cult called Los Illuminados who are using parasites called Las Plagas. The difference means that the zombies in RE4 run rather than stagger and will even intelligently dodge your attacks. I died many many times playing this game.

The movies spawned by the Resident Evil series are nothing compared to the games, all of which have merit, but none more so than RE4. This is the video game series that started the survival horror genre. The graphics may not scare you by todays standards, but the action packed gameplay, puzzle solving, and replayability make RE4 not just one of the best zombie games, but one of the best video games ever. It’s the only reason I still have my PS2.

See Also: Dead Rising, and be on the look out for Dead Island on August 1, 2011.


Best Zombie Music Video: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson

I may have knocked the werewolf (or werecat) effects in my Top 10 Worst Werewolves in Movies & TV post in March, but that’s the only thing about Michael Jackson’s 14-minute long 1983 music video/film (still widely considered the best music video ever) for Thriller that I take issue with. Michael co-wrote the screenplay with director John Landis and enlisted special effects master Rick Baker (who worked with Landis on An American Werewolf in London) to create the zombie look. Vincent Price provides the voiceover ‘rap’, and did you catch that especially handsome zombie at the very end? That’s an uncredited cameo by Mr. Price.

The song is still a favorite (it’s my ringtone every October), but it’s the iconic zombie dance (choreographed by Jackson and Michael Peters) that makes it so memorable. I have tried and failed to not start mimicking the choreography when I hear it (go ahead and see if you can keep your head from snapping during the dance scene. I dare you). If Jennifer Garner movies have taught me anything, it’s that anyone who grew up in the 80’s spent hours memorizing it. The sheer number of fan homages, including a 1,500+ recreation at a prison in the Philippians and dozens of Wedding party receptions prove that it’s just as popular 28 years later as it was when it debuted.

See Also: N/A

Abigail Johnson manages the Tor.com Urban Fantasy Facebook and Twitter accounts and spends way too much time thinking about vampires, werewolves, zombies and all things paranormal in books, movies, TV and video games.

Gary Schaper
1. Garyfury
Mira Grant's Feed got a Hugo nomination this year, and is well deserving of it for depicting a "soft" zombie apocalypse, showing a society that survives and adapts to the problem rather than being outright destroyed by it.
Jeff R.
2. Jeff R.
Me, I'd substitute "World War Z" on the book position.
Jeff R.
3. Aerudaer
I think the prison may be in the Phillipines ... I doubt Paul is in the video though he was in prison at the time ... :)
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
What was the reason for World War Z's omission as at least an honorable mention in the book category? I've yet to see any work of zombie fiction as comprehensive and compelling as Max Brooks' work.
Abigail Johnson
5. AbigailJohnson
@Jeff R. & @ZetaStriker - The reason is because I haven't read it yet. Yet being the operative word. Would you recommend it for a zombiephobic reader or would you have them start somewhere else?
Chris Palmer
6. cmpalmer
@AbigailJohnson - I loved World War Z, but as engaging as it was to me, it may play off so many zombie memes and genres that it wouldn't be a great place to start. I think an engaging, emotional story might snag a zombiephobe better since WWZ is so episodic.

My wife hates horror movies and would say that she hates gory movies, but for some reason, she loves zombie movies - particularly Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland and The Walking Dead, so I agree that they are excellent choices.
Jeff R.
7. Bracken
If you haven't already, you need to read "Pariah" by Bob Fingerman and "Rise Again" by Ben Tripp before naming something best zombie novel ever.
Abigail Johnson
8. AbigailJohnson
@Braken - not best ever, best for people who don't like zombies.
William Fettes
9. Wolfmage
I haven't played RE4 but I really feel Left 4 Dead (1&2) deserve special mention in the games category.
Leilani Cantu
10. spanishviolet
You have aimed a post at me! I keep eyeing Feed, but passing it by because zombies. My sister was pushing Night of the Living Trekkies on me - "It's great! Full of Star Trek in-jokes! If you were a True Fan you'd read it!" - to which I said But zombies. Also, not big on parodies. Still haven't read it ...

Saw Shaun of the Dead, mostly enjoyed the early comedy bits, zombie plot at end less so. I did enjoy the modern remake of Dawn of the Dead, but I saw that before suffering through the godawful 24 Weeks Later. Before then I could mostly take or leave zombies, but since then thinking of them gives me traumatic brain-hurting-from-the-stupid flashbacks.

Eventually I may see the Walking Dead because it stars Egg from This Life, which my roommate & I were addicted to in college, and I'm glad he's doing so well, but I hear it's all about the Extreme Gore and that's really not my thing either. So it's low on the priority list.
Jeff R.
11. DarrenJL
@Abigail. Shaun of the Dead does have bromance with a reanimated corpse, though.

@2 WWZ was a letdown for me. Rather than what it purported to be, it really read as a catalogue of every possible variation Brooks could think of for killing (or fail at killing) zombies.

@9 I agree. Such fun games. And has the team aspect so core to zombie fiction.
Jeff R.
12. Mojo
Good article, want to read Aftertime now. I agree with the World War Z lovers in the post. Here's a suggestion: Add "Audiobook" to the categories and give it to World War Z. It works well in that episodic/narritave format, I thought, and it's unabridged.
Jeff R.
13. GuruJ
Gotta say, out of those I could only endorse Shaun of the Dead to a non-zombie lover.

(Thriller doesn't count -- everyone already loves Thriller.)

My pick for a introductory book would actually be Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett. Sure, it's got lots of non-zombie content but the zombie Windle Poons is important enough to get a pick for me.
Paige Morgan
14. paigecm
I haven't read any of these yet, but I'd definitely nominate Feed as the Best Zombie Novel For People Who Think They Don't Like Zombie Novels.

I wouldn't have even glanced at any of these before I read Feed; now I'm figuring out when to fit them into my schedule.
David Thomson
15. ZetaStriker
I'd argue that "Zombedy" needs to be its own
category. While Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead would
still inevitably win it, I think it makes sense to separate films like Dead
and Breakfast or Fido from films like Dawn of the
Dead or 28 Days Later. They're very different takes on the zombie genre, even if the comedies are always more user-friendly.

Back to The Book being discussed, World War Z's audio novel is the best I've ever seen. It has multiple actors, something I see so rarely in audio books and fits that narrative so well I'm surprised I haven't seen it done more often. It also proves that World War Z is a valid introductory novel . . . my mother loved the Audiobook, at least, and she's very, very squeemish. That version of it is at least as user-friendly as The Walking Dead and Shaun of the Dead, and a very high quality production to boot.

As for its content, I thought it was great for a new reader. It upends several tropes simply by distancing the reader from the narrative a bit, but rather than requiring knowledge of those tropes to enjoy it, I felt it just removed several of the stigmas that keep people away from the genre in the first place. Each story is very personal but we hear from a large number of voices, some of them more than once, and through them learn the personal, economic, political and military ramifications of the zombie war across the entirety of the globe. It doesn't resort to cheap thrills, and for the most part we're not following panicking civilians. We're hearing from people with stories to tell beyond their own personal triumphs and tragedies, and through them discover the entire bredth and scope of a full scale outbreak. I felt that this distance from the usual low-information high-action zombie stories, even if it does have many tense moments and descriptions of gore, helped reoncile it with those who normally scoff at the genre.
Lianne Burwell
16. LKBurwell
Another endorsement for Feed from me. It can be pitched as a political thriller about a presidential campaign and the rise of social media in a world that has adjusted to the Zombie apocalypse. I count it as one of my top five books for last year (and since I read close to 100 books a year...)
Ashe Armstrong
17. AsheSaoirse
I just finished Dust by Joan Frances Turner which was a really cool take on the zombie genre. Some of the imagery is classic zombie stuff (guts and gore) but the story felt pretty fresh for the most part.
Jeff R.
18. BenFoldsFlesh
Good article. Dead Set is the best zombie thing done for TV and def. would crossover to the zombie averse. Walking Dead is more awesome as a comic than the show which was uneven. Pariah is def. a good zombie book for newbies as its more about the people by a longshot. Reapers are the Angels is also a good book to recommend. And Zombieland is a good movie for people who don't love zombies because zombies seem an afterthought (it's a bad movie for zombie lovers). High hopes for Dead Island usurping Resident Evil 4's place on this list: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ialZcLaI17Y

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