I’m not one for spooky-scary stories. I watched The Conjuring with a horror-savvy friend once and couldn’t sleep for two nights. Still, I push myself to try new things, and that often includes books, movies, and shows with distinctly terrifying elements.
I remain a bit of a baby in this regard, I’ll admit. I won’t touch any of A24’s recent horror flicks. But I have dipped my proverbial toe into the murky waters, and I have settled into a subgenre with content scary enough to give me the occasional shudder but palatable enough to keep me from losing sleep: zombies.
I watched (and enjoyed) The Night of the Living Dead (and Shaun of the Dead, because I’m a sucker for satire), most of The Walking Dead, and any number of “traditional” zombie movies or shows. Creators continue to transform the zombie trope in unique ways, often bringing the apocalyptic subgenre into deeply personal and revelatory territory. Here are five of my favorite zombie stories that subvert the typical tropes and breathe new life into the undead.
“Night Of The Mini Dead” (From Love, Death + Robots Season 3)
Two young lovers enjoy a night of cemetery sex, desecrating the graves and sparking a zombie apocalypse. Night Of The Mini Dead blends cartoonish hyperbole and ribaldry with a poignant message while exploring how ridiculously screwed we’d be if our most commonly imagined zombies became reality.
The five-minute short packs a whole lot of storytelling punch into its runtime, capturing various facets of our culture and how people might react to a wave of undead coursing through major cities and rural countrysides. “Night Of The Mini Dead” revels in this shared experience. You could be a monster-truck driving, gun-toting, flame-thrower-wielding zealot, and you still don’t stand a chance. You could be an affluent, suburb-dwelling nuclear family, and you’re outta there. The richest and most powerful might last the longest by virtue of siphoning resources from those who need it most, but the zombie apocalypse doesn’t discriminate. The world is ending; deal with it.
Never in my many, many years (somehow 30 feels like a million these days) on this earth did I expect a five-minute comedy short to become my favorite zombie story, but here we are. Give it a watch (or four). You won’t regret it.
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
Elantris was once the home of Elantrians, humans who had undergone the Shaod and earned amazing powers. Ten years before the events of the book, though, the Shaod…changed. Elantrians became desecrated, experiencing even the smallest pang of pain for years on end. Elantris became a cesspool of hopelessness where fallen Elantrians wallowed in pain and despair and descended into madness. Prince Raoden experiences the Shaod and his father, King Iadon, casts him into Elantris and tells the kingdom his son has died.
Brandon Sanderson’s first novel plays with zombie tropes, giving Elantrians full control over their faculties. Anyone who undergoes the Shaod retains their mental faculties, but their body withers with every minor scratch or injury. Nobody lasts long in Elantris, as Raoden soon learns.
Sanderson himself has said Elantris was his way of sneaking a zombie story into the Cosmere, and it works to dazzling effect. When the Elantrians effectively become zombies who can think and act beyond mere instinct, it’s riveting to follow those who wish to reverse their fate. Zombies with full agency, it turns out, is a fun premise for a fantasy novel. Raoden’s journey in Elantris complements the political intrigue of the cities near Elantris. It isn’t a zombie apocalypse story. It’s a story about changing your fate by taking action.
What If… “Zombies?!”
I unabashedly believe Marvel’s What If…? is one of the company’s best series to date, and it’s a shame it doesn’t get more love. Something about animation makes mainstream masses balk (lookin’ at you, Mom! You still need to watch this!). Joke’s on them, though because What If…? features some of the MCU’s most intriguing and fun tales.
What If…Zombies?! ranks among the wackiest of the series’ episodes for good reason. Certain members of the Avengers get zombified thanks to a Quantum virus contracted by Janet van Dyne (Hank Pym’s wife).
No profound message or major lessons here. Instead, this episode mashes superheroes and zombies together, and it’s cool as hell. Marvel has enjoyed the occasional dalliance with horror, to varying success, and I think this remains the studio’s crowning achievement in the realm of spooky scaries. At the end of the day, it’s awesome to watch superpowered zombies wreaking havoc, especially considering our heroes typically avoid senseless killing. No such restrictions on the undead!
The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
“Go in without any knowledge of the story.” I received this advice before reading The Girl With All the Gifts, and I pass it on to you now. This entry requires some minor spoilers, though, so proceed with caution and stop here if you want to approach the book fresh and free of preconceptions…
In The Girl With All The Gifts, zombies are called “hungries,” and they’re fast. They stand and mope if nothing edible is in sight, but once they catch wind of flesh, they can truck it. Humans have hobbled together meager existences in safe camps, but things look pretty bleak.
The book opens in a strange facility where Melanie, our protagonist, attends daily lessons with other kids. Her teacher, Ms. Justineau, is a caring educator who wants all the kiddos to succeed. But soon, Melanie discovers truths about herself and the other kids in the facility that have world-shaking implications. Together, she and Ms. Justineau set out in search of safety, hoping to learn how they might stem the zombification of the world.
To share what makes The Girl With All The Gifts a truly unique zombie story beyond its fast-as-fuck undead would do you a disservice. Although, my guess is the discerning reader will be able to intuit what’s going on even from my brief description. The book brings charm and heart to the zombie genre, and it’s well worth your time.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
You didn’t think I’d do you dirty, did you? Of course King makes the list, and this novel has a special place in my heart. Pet Sematary was my first Stephen King book.
King asks: What if I put the focus on one particular zombie—one created with the best of intentions—and make its connection with the living characters hyper-personal? What if the zombie means something to someone, and isn’t just a monster or a simulacrum of death?
And hoo boy, do we get an answer. Louis Creed and his family move from Chicago after taking a new job in Maine. New neighbor Jud Crandall shows Louis the nearby pet cemetery, with a sign charmingly misspelled by the local youth (hence the title). But beyond a deadfall—a pile of dead trees that act as a barrier that’s not to be crossed—the land bordering the pet cemetery courses with mysterious power. When tragedy strikes his family, Louis dares to dance with that power, and the results are horrifying.
Pet Sematary shrinks the typically world-spanning zombie tale, making it specific and deeply personal. The Creed family’s saga is made all the more terrifying for its specificity. The world around them moves on as normal while they deal with the mounting repercussions of their loss and grief. Facing the hordes of the zombie apocalypse might be terrifying, but a zombie tearing your family apart while the rest of the world goes about its business might be even more disturbing. Sometimes dead is better.
So, these are my favorite unique zombie tales, but I’m sure there are plenty of other excellent options: Are there any I missed? Any zombie stories I should add to my TBR or watch list? Let me know in the comments!
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.