Zombie Apocalypse

Sunday, October 30, 2011
With NaNoWriMo only two days away, I've been spending some time perusing the forums. It's always interesting to see where people are from, how old they are, how many times they've done NaNo, and what they are planning on writing for their novel.

A big plot this year appears to be Zombie Apocalypse. The first time I saw it, I thought, "Huh. Weird, but definitely a NaNo type novel." People tend to do crazy things in NaNo novels. It's all about typing 50,000 words in one month and there's a large contingent that will do anything to reach that goal. Including writing whacko stories about a Zombie Apocalypse. When I saw Zombie Apocalypse popping up more and more frequently, I figured out it must be some kind of pop culture reference that I wasn't familiar with.

One of the disadvantages of growing older is that you stop paying attention to pop culture and miss a lot of these references. The demographic that goes to movies and watches television is the 18 to 35 group. This turns into a feedback loop situation. Since it's the 18-35 year olds who are consuming media, the creators of that media focus on making movies and TV shows and video games that appeal to that age group. Generally this means that those who have started receiving solicitations from AARP on a regular basis don't like those movies, TV shows, or video games and do something else. Like read or tune in to PBS or TCM or go to symphony concerts.

Last night, after watching the PBR World Finals from Las Vegas (Hey! It's research. My novel takes place on a dude ranch, so I have to study cowboys, right?), I was scrolling through the channel guide and found that SyFy was just starting to show a movie called (you guessed it) "Zombie Apocalypse". This was just too serendipitous to pass up.

It didn't take me long to think "Roger Corman". Roger Corman is the king of sci fi/horror B movies. He started directing and producing these low-budget films in the 50s and 60s and, amazingly enough, continues even today, producing three films in 2010. These films have such classic titles as "Monster from the Ocean Floor", "Swamp Women", "Attack of the Crab Monsters", and, of course, "The Undead".

"Zombie Apocalypse" continues this fine tradition. The plot is minimal. A plague has turned most of the population into zombies and a small band of heroes is trying to reach a sanctuary on Catalina Island, fighting off zombies all along the way. The zombies are laughable, walking stiff-legged with shoulders angled, faces scarred and smeared with blood. Their heads burst in fine special effects sprays of blood when smashed with a bat. I'm sure many unemployed actors were glad for the chance to earn a week's rent by staggering around the set of this made-for-TV movie.

This morning I started thinking about how this same story has been done in so very many different ways. That's another consequence of NaNo. I've been reading "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder and following Alexandra Sokoloff's blog on plotting like a screenwriter to guide me in working out the plot for my NaNo novel. Both Blake Snyder and Alex Sokoloff discuss the basic plots and name movies the exemplify them. They suggest watching these movies to see the standard structure of a screenplay. So you could also say that watching "Zombie Apocalypse" was research.

But back to how this particular plot has been done before. I tend to think of this plot as The End of the World. Maybe it's because I grew up during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war seemed imminent for years, but this plot appeals to me. The world is ending, but it's possible for some humans to survive with will and pluck.

Most recently, "I Am Legend" did this same basic plot, but in a much more artistic and serious way. In this variant, Will Smith played a government researcher who was one of the few survivors. He was trying to find the cure for the plague that had turned most of the human race into monsters.

Then I thought of "Red Dawn". Although there are no plague-ridden monsters in this film, we do have a small group of survivors battling the evil humans. In this case, it's the Communists. I suppose you could look at it as philosophy as plague. The high school students are trying to survive after an invasion. Eventually they, too, begin a trek to find the safe haven where the forces of good have based themselves to try to defeat the forces of evil.

Now, all of the above movies take place on Earth, but "Serenity", the feature film Joss Whedon made to wrap up the threads of the television series "Firefly", is the same story told in a future era where man has colonized another solar system. Instead of Zombies or Communists, we have Reavers. And, as the master of "the same but different", Joss Whedon has his characters not running away to a sanctuary, but running toward the source of the evil.

There are arguments on how many basic plots there are, but whether you think there are seven or twenty or thirty-six, the truth is that there are a limited number. However, there appear to be an infinite number of stories that can be told using them. Here's to all the WriMos creating those stories this month.

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