Getting the most from Zombie Cinema

So as Marcus said on his LJ, the other week I helped shepherd along a game of Zombie Cinema. It’s one of my favourite RPGs – as a light-weight filler game, it is pretty much unsurpassed. It takes about 15-20 minutes per player, and so even if it’s going pretty badly you’re not locked in. And it naturally works its way towards a conclusion, it can never get into a stalemate. Plus: Zombies. Everyone knows what’s what, there should be no lumps and no surprises.


I’ve played this game about 15 times now, and really, there haven’t been any games that sucked, but there has only been one that really lived up to what I hope for each time I sit down at the table. That was at CONfusion a year or so back. We were a mix of visitors, staff and inmates at an old folks’ home. It worked perfectly because we were all creatively on the same page, and it was a page we all knew well. Plus it had steve_hix, which is always a good start.

On Friday, a few things went wrong. Not so wrong as for us not to have a good time, but just enough to remind me that there is actually a quite delicate balance involved in setting up the scenario. Getting the mix of elements right means getting the mix right not only for an interesting roleplaying environment, but a compelling zombie environment too. These are not necessarily too dissimilar in needs, but I think that they are poorly articulated in most conceptions of either.

The first rule of Zombie movies is: it’s not about the zombies. No zombie movie illustrates this better than Zombieland in a positive way and Land of the Dead in a negative way. In Zombieland, the dead create the environment for the buddy-movie, but they are not a central point of interest. In Land of the Dead, the zombies themselves are the focus, as Romero tries to humanize and hence rehabilitate them – and the movie is a mess as a result. It’s as if he didn’t realize that their very point is to be the opposite of human, the embodiment of all we fear about ourselves and our culture.

Zombies simply create an environment that stresses characters. But the focus isn’t really the characters per se either. The slow disintegration of self-identity can make for compelling viewing, but it is difficult to express in a roleplaying environment without a story to showcase the changes. The special feature The Lost Tape: Andy’s Terrifying Last Days Revealed on Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is probably the best study of this. It’s just Andy in his living room, slowly starving and losing his grip on his emotions, there’s not even another character for him to interact with. It’s probably the most affecting horror movie I’ve ever watched, but it would be a very difficult to roleplay.

Characters should have outlets for responding to their stress that does not obviate the source of the stress. This is where both versions of Dawn of the Dead are weakest – once the mall is occupied and secure, the zombies no longer apply stress, other than a certain existential dread. Moreover, those confined characters have no real outlets for any stress they feel. They have no demands other than than simply existing. Night of the Living Dead doesn’t give its characters the same breathing space – inside the house there is no chance of medium-term survival, so the Zombies sustain their stress better, and the gas pump outside the house provides a focus for efforts to relieve the stress. The failure of the expedition to the pump marks the end of hope for the characters, prompting their disintegration as a unit. Night therefore resolves much more organically than Dawn, not requiring any kind of ex machina, as the original did, or perverse anti-survival behaviour as the remake did. The Night characters focus their efforts first on barricading, then on escape, and finally their unstable dynamic collapses, as their outlets are exhausted and they are overwhelmed by stress.

Which leads on to the second rule of Zombie narratives: the characters must be co-dependant. Most often this is framed simply in terms of a safety-in-numbers dynamic. This usually means a close confinement of the characters, to limit their options either for finding better companions or for going it alone. Other frames for the character group are usually bolstered by this rule. There are relatively few successful zombie movies that allow characters freedom of association and movement – really the only two I can think of are Zombieland, where the main plot of the movie is establishing a co-dependence between the characters and Shaun of the Dead where the co-dependence of the characters is the source of most of their danger. As it should be.

Rule 3: Characters must have different needs and objectives. These are the kinds of things which are usually dormant in the freedom of the characters’ pre-apocalypse lives, but which become thwartable outlets for the stress caused by the zombies. Shaun of the Dead is one of the best examples of this. The action of the movie is underpinned by a series of enmity triangles. Liz dislikes Ed, but Shaun likes them both. Shaun dislikes Philip, but Mary likes them both. David and Shaun both love Liz, but David has settled for Dianne. These relationships are semi-sustainable in the safety of ordinary life, but the stress from the apocalypse causes them to break down – that is the drama of the film.

It is usually thought that characters must be virtually imprisoned in their environment. That’s a feature of some very good movies, but I think that the confinement is usually just an economical way of trying to ensure you have the other areas covered. Confinement as the primary way of applying stress is applicable in fewer Zombie films than you might think. Of the main zombie canon, really only Night of the Dead has the characters truly confined by the zombie horde. It’s just that the destinations in some other movies are limited in their usefulness – the point hammered home by Snyder in his remake.

The summary of all this is that in the best zombie movies, the characters are bound together while having divergent goals, and the stress of their situation causes increasingly unstable relations amongst the characters. I think any movie which matches these criteria is essentially a zombie movie – they may dress the zombie a bit differently. Ghosts of Mars for example, ticks most of these boxes, and it’s fairly entertaining, though it is not without flaws.

A couple of notable failures occur to me. Resident Evil. The environment is a total threat, so there is no affecting intra-character drama. As a result, the movie becomes an FX-fest, and a tedious one at that. 28 Weeks Later is a showcase of stupidity in terms of zombie planning, and again, fails to develop the characters as threats to themselves, fails to consistently stress the characters, and all the characters are pretty much on the same page. It’s an excellent example of something else: a classical tragedy, with every character’s good intentions perverted. But that makes it sad, not terrifying. 30 Days of Night is virtually a zombie movie: it has most of the signature motifs, but the focus on the mechanics of surviving rather than the dynamic or experience of the characters renders it neither a good zombie movie, a good survival horror, or a worthy vampire flick.

To be continued…

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One Response to Getting the most from Zombie Cinema

  1. Great post. I am reading though you caught me at a bad time for responding.

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