October 3, 2019

How 'Zombieland' Subverts Zombie Tropes in its Storytelling

Zombieland was an instant classic that came in and flipped tired horror tropes into an enthralling and exciting movie that delivered laughs, chills, and a huge box office return. How can you learn from its success? 

It's hard to believe that a decade ago Zombieland graced our screens and flipped the trope of horror on its head to deliver a wholly original and exciting film that added much-needed comedy to a somber landscape. 

At the time, shows like The Walking Dead and movies like Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead were all the rage. People were inundated with zombie content and everyone was trying to get on the bandwagon. 

So what did two screenwriters do? 

They build their own wagon and caused a seismic shift in how Hollywood tackled the genre. 

Today I want to praise Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, talk about why Zombieland is soooo good, and look at some lessons you can apply to your own writing to stand out from the crowd. 

Let's begin. 

How Zombieland Subverts Zombie Tropes in its Storytelling 

A (Very) Brief History of the Zombie Flick

Even though zombies appeared in films as early as the early 1930s (White Zombie), they didn't hit pop culture until George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and the disease spread all over. Still, like any trends in horror, they were replaced by monsters, slashers, and went by the wayside. 

But by the early 2000s, it was time for a comeback with 28 Days Later among other films. 

Creepy zombie material was revamped and hotter than ever. The ghoul had shows on TV, big-budget movies, and everybody and their mother was trashing to cash in in cheap ways. So many Zombie specs were written that no one could stand out from the crowd.

Enter Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. 

They were writers trying to break into TV, but everyone thought their idea should be a movie. Here's what they told Collider about the process: 

Paul Wernick: Absolutely. It started, what? In 2005, summer of 2005 as a spec we wrote. Coming off of reality TV, we wanted to sort of break in at sort of traditionally scripted stuff. And we wrote it as a spec, feeling that the zombie genre had not really been tapped in the TV side. And we sold it to CBS. And went through a little bit of development at CBS, and we did not end up making the pilot. And it sat at Sony TV, who we had been partnered with on the project, for several years. And sort of with the passion of an executive at Sony TV, Chris Parnell, and Gavin Palone, our producer on the project, they sort of presented us the option of sort of turning it into a sort of a back-door pilot, sort of a made-for-TV movie, which we graciously jumped at. And we wrote it what? About two years ago?

Rhett Reese: Yeah.

Paul Wernick: Extended it out from pilot form into movie. Which interestingly, the pilot pretty much stayed the same. The first 60 pages of the movie are pretty much the pilot script, interestingly. And the second 40 pages are pretty much episode two of the pilot script. Right?

Rhett Reese: It’s really true, yeah. We did what we were going to do in episode two and put it in. No, that did change, because Ruben, when he turned it into a movie, wanted it to end really big, so we changed the third act to make it an amusement park and a big fight.

Paul Wernick: It got bigger, surely, over the course of two years that it’s been in development on the movie side.

After living in development hell, the movie came back with a bang, The budget was around $24 million and the movie wound up making $102,391,540 worldwide. That's a massive success. 

So how did the script go from idea to motion picture? 

What made it stand out amongst the rest? 

The screenplay. 

Read the Zombieland script PDF. 

The Tropes of Zombie Movies 

Here's a list of common tropes that happened in movies and tv shows about zombies 

  • The world is a dystopia
  • Rations are scarce
  • Modern society crumbles 
  • You need a group to survive 
  • You never know who you can trust 
  • You have to destroy a zombie's brain 
  • One bite will turn you
  • Zombies move fast/slow depending on the era 

The Rules of Zombieland 

One of the first things that Zombieland did was confront the tropes we had come to know and love in zombie fare and then completely turn them on their heads. The first way the movie did this was...let you in on the joke. 

In a series of very funny set pieces and vignettes, Zombieland tells us how to survive by listing the rules of the world. Its smart use of the code of the characters tells us what kind of movie we're in right away. 

This yanks the rug out from under the audience and tells us we are in the hands of storytellers with a lot of confidence. 

This confidence lets us sit back and enjoy what is to come. 

Thanks to the website Zombieland Rules, we have an aggregated list of rules mentioned in the movie and in interviews with the writers. 

Zombieland Rules from the movie & promotional material

#1 – Cardio
#2 – The Double Tap
#3 – Beware of Bathrooms
#4 – Seatbelts
#5 – ???
#6 – The Skillet*
#7 – Travel Light
#8 – Get A Kickass Partner*
#9 – ???
#10 – ???
#11 – ???
#12 – Bounty Paper Towels*
#13 – ???
#14 – ???
#15 – Bowling Ball*
#16 – ???
#17 – Don’t Be A Hero
#18 – Limber Up
#19 – ???
#20 – ???
#21 – Avoid Strip Clubs*
#22 – When In Doubt, Know Your Way Out
#23 – ???
#24 – ???
#25 – ???
#26 – ???
#27 – ???
#28 – ???
#29 – The Buddy System*
#30 – ???
#31 – Check The Back Seat
#32 – Enjoy The Little Things
#33 – Swiss Army Knife*

*Rules marked with an asterisk are from promotional material and should not yet be considered canon.

The Voiceover of Zombieland 

The next way the movie attacks the tropes is the use of voiceover. In may post-apocalyptic movies, the voiceover is deep and dark. But this one is funny. It clues us in on what's been going on in the character's lives as well as the world. It's cheery, hopefully, and truly sets an unusual tone for a movie with so much blood and gore.  

What can a voiceover add to your project? 

And more important, how can you use it to entertain and keep the audience invested? 

The Plot of Zombieland 

We talk about subverting audience expectations and tropes. This movie does this a lot, but the plot actually follows most zombie-movie tropes. It's about people looking for that ultimate place that's dead-free. 

In our movie, it's a theme park, and the people do talk about knowing it is a myth, but it still matters. 

You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Embrace the tropes that make sense for your story. 

The Characters of Zombieland 

If you read this blog regularly, you know how much emphasis we put on character arcs and character development. The best part of the movie is how they used the typical archetypes of the people you find in these kinds of movies and TV shows. 

With the added comedy into each person's personality, we have some really special protagonists I want to examine. 

Colombus 

In terms of our main character, it's hard to get someone with more inherent goodwill than Columbus. He's our narrator and someone we trust right away. The reason is that we love him, which has a lot to do with his character introduction

We know right away he's someone who needs to find his tribe. He doesn't fit in and we want that for him. 

He also wanted love, but that didn't work out either. 

He's kind of a wimp who can handle his shit, so there's a lot for us nerds to see that resembles ourselves. 

Tallahassee 

Woody Harrelson should have won an Academy Award for this role. If you don't believe that...you're wrong. Here's why this character matters so much: the entire movie's tone rests on his shoulders. 

Sure, he's not the protagonist. Sure, he delivers mostly one-liners. 

But the crux of the emotion of this world rests in him. 

Tallahassee is everything that's fun about Zombieland and everything that is emotionally crushing. We have the story about his dog he lost, which actually winds up being his son. We have his quest for a Twinkie. 

And his love of Bill Murray. 

The character is the badass you see in these movies, but his emotional depth and skepticism build out the tired things we've seen into something special. It's also written very castable. Getting a star like Woody happens because of what's on the page. 

Wichita and Little Rock

I bunched these gals together because they function as a perfect package. These ladies know how to survive on their own but also play into Columbus' need for a community of people who stick together. 

Femme Fatales are common in zombie flicks and Zombieland is no different, but these girls just don't trust anyone because of the way the world is, and together they realize they may not be able to change the outside but they can have something special within the group they make. 

They also have their own mind and own goals. The recurring scenes with them stealing cars and guns always makes me laugh because these guys are schooled into thinking these ladies may need them. 

Subverting expectations based on what they are used to in the movie only to have the characters in their own movies dupe them. I love those meta-narratives. 

What's next? Learn TV and Film Genres

Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes. 

Click to examine deeper!      

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