Horror Aficionados discussion

Why do zombies work better in visual media than in books?

Comments Showing 1-48 of 48 (48 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Oliver (new)

Oliver Clarke (oliverclarke) I've been thinking about this for a while and am not sure that I've arrived at a useful answer so I'd be interested to know what people here think.
Despite the fact that the modern zombie was introduced in 1968 by Romero in Night of the Living Dead it wasn't until 2006 and the publication of World War Z that there was a big, popular zombie novel (and even then I'm not sure it's that popular).
Whilst many of the big names in horror fiction have tried their hands at other "stock" monsters - vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein's monster, etc I'm not sure that any of them have done a zombie story. Whilst there are now lots of zombie novels out there they seem mainly to have been self-published or are at least by writers who've only written zombie fiction. Aside from World War Z the only piece of zombie fiction of real note is The Walking Dead which of course is very visual - I've always considered comic books to be half way between a novel and a movie.
Why is this? Why has mainstream horror fiction not grasped the zombie in the same way that the movie industry has? Does the fact that the big names in horror haven't written zombie stories indicate that they are hard or unsatisfying to write?

I can think of two things about zombies that make them more suited to movies than prose:

1) Gore is hard to write well:
Zombies are all about the gore. In a movie you can show a horrifically decayed zombie and it takes you a second. Similarly the death scenes work in movies because they're very visual. In prose to capture the same amount of gory detail you have to write a lot of words and the reader has to read a lot of words and that can end up feeling (for them) like a bit of a slog. Most importantly the volume of words slows things down. It gets in the way of the story.

2) Zombies are boring:
The very best horror fiction (for me) is about monsters that the reader can in some way sympathise with. It's tragedy. Think The Shining, Frankenstein, etc.
Failing that it's at least about monsters that are complex and interesting. Creatures or people that have some depth to them.
Zombies have none of this. They're entirely one dimensional, a faceless threat that could be replaced with any one of a number of other monsters - giant killer rats, aliens, whatever - anything that hunts in packs will do.
In all of zombie fiction and cinema I can think of only one zombie that had any character at all. The wonderful Bub in Romero's Day of the Dead manages to be sympathetic and actually get the viewer rooting and cheering for him. With that one exception zombies are entirely interchangeable and boring as characters.

I found both of the above to be true when writing my own zombie story Dear Suzanna. I got into writing a long graphic description of the first zombie the protagonist encounters and I enjoyed doing it but it definitely slows things down. So much so that when it came time for the first death I got it over with very quickly. The zombies in that story are all faceless threat with nothing more to them than that. They exist purely to drive the hero on to other actions. In some ways they could easily have been replaced by a flood or a fire or some other natural rather than supernatural threat.

So, zombies are boring. Agree?

message 2: by Randy (new)

Randy Harmelink | 1616 comments I agree with most of what you've said.

But, for me, the stories are NOT about the zombies, any more than stories about the Titanic are about that poor iceberg that was lazily drifting around the North Atlantic, minding its own business.

The best stories are about the survivors, striving to continue to survive. The zombies/whatever are simply a mechanism to get to those stories. In many cases, other survivors actually present more of a threat than the zombies.

By the way, I would argue that the modern zombie story originates with Richard Matheson's novel, I am Legend. But Romero certainly gave it a spin of his own. The real beauty of Matheson's story is who/what is the monster?

To me, it's THAT question that should be examined with any stories about survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

message 3: by Renee (new)

Renee (elenarenee) I actually love zombie books.

I rather like a hero story. I enjoy books where people are forced to find their inner superman.

I get tired of all the Vampire seductions. Every vampire book including Dracula turns into a battle to keep a lover from straying.

Also it seems such a cheat that they can just go into your mind and make you do whatever they want. Zombie stories the only person responsible for the win or loss is you.

message 4: by Dana * (last edited Jun 13, 2012 07:28AM) (new)

Dana * (queenofegypt) | 231 comments IMHO, I disagree with everything you have stated. I do agree with Randy, Zombie stories are about the survivors, not the zombies, at least until recently. While vampire and werewolf stories are about the vampire/werewolf, the zombies story centers around how the non-zombies deal with their struggle to survive. That is what Walking Dead is all about, and virtually all classic zombie tales. Epic struggle for survival is always a good read.
I think there is a plethora of zombie fiction now, more than at any previous time, and not just self published. Thanks to ebooks, self publishing is flooding all genres.
I think zombies stories are almost always better in written form than movies. Because the movie tends to focus on the gore, and not the story. And what is gripping is the story and the non-zombies. Not to say that some kewl zombie action isn't great to watch, but it is a bore after a while. Gotta see what the survivors are up to.
And recently, the zombie story has been turned around to the zombie perspective, much like vampire stories. Breathers: A Zombie's Lament is a good example. And a successful one. another example woudl be The Dishonored Dead: A Zombie Novel

So now, I would argue that the zombie is no longer boring, and the zombie story never was boring. And zombie stories are infinitely more interesting and compelling than zombie movies.

IMHO, and thanks for opening the discussion!!

message 5: by Oliver (new)

Oliver Clarke (oliverclarke) Thanks for the replies. There have been some interesting points raised. I totally agree about good zombie stories being survivor's tales and I suppose I hadn't thought that all the way through to the zombies being quite deliberately blank as monsters.
It's certainly given me food for thought and made me think about reading (and maybe writing) some more zombie fiction.

message 6: by Randy (new)

Randy Harmelink | 1616 comments Renee wrote: "I rather like a hero story. I enjoy books where people are forced to find their inner superman."

Well put. When I look at my current three favorite zombie apocalypse series, that theme runs through all three.

And I just finished a book that was well written and had a good story, but I never really enjoyed it because of the lack of that "inner superman" coming to the surface.

We know a zombie apocalypse can bring out the worst in people. But who wants to read those stories? We want to see those people get what's comin' to 'em. :)

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

I would highly recommend anyone that thinks zombies are cool only in the movies to read the incredible Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry. It might change your mind.

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

here it is : Dead of Night A Zombie Novel by Jonathan Maberry

message 9: by Joel (new)

Joel (joelarnold) | 23 comments Another thing that makes zombies interesting imo is that there's the possibility that a loved one - mother, father, son, daughter, spouse - might turn into a zombie, and the survivor then has to deal with that loss, possibly even being forced to kill their loved one, like in 'Sean of the Dead'.

message 10: by Scott (new)

Scott Baker | 148 comments Don't forget Maberry's Rot and Ruin.

message 11: by Karen (new)

Karen | 52 comments Mathieu wrote: "I would highly recommend anyone that thinks zombies are cool only in the movies to read the incredible Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry. It might change your mind."
I've read this book and I agree, Totally blew my mind. Not your typical zombie story.

message 12: by Kat (new)

Kat (kat2011) | 68 comments I haven't read many zombie books, only like 2-3 maybe, and I've enjoyed them more then movie zombies. However, I LOVE zombies in video games! Maybe I'm weird. I just finished Plague Town and I loved that. Its more of a Zombie/Buffy The Vampire Slayer Mix.

Personally I love seeing Zombies. So the visual of the state of their bodies is obviously more interesting to SEE then read about.

But yeah, I'm not a big fan of Zombie movies other then the original & remake of Night of the Living Dead as well as the first two Return of the Living Dead movies, and the Resident Evil GAMES.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

I liked Dead of night more than Rot And Ruin mostly because its a classic zombie tale with a modern twist and the characters are pretty cool. And it's not YA. But really, anything Maberry is good. I liked a lot Rot and Ruin and the sequel Dust and Decay.

message 14: by Brandon (new)

Brandon Hale (brandon_hale) | 45 comments Related trivia here (and my apologies if someone has mentioned this and I missed it)...

Romero's Night of the Living Dead was inspired by a book: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson.

It's interesting because - in that book - they're vampires, not zombies, but all the elements of the modern "zombie apocalypse" is represented in the book (which is pretty different from the Wil Smith movie).

Great book, I'd recommend it to anybody.

In regards to your question, I think it boils down to the fact that the modern zombie was brought to the mainstream by cinema (Romero) so that's where it really evolved.

I Am Legend was the grandfather of the modern zombie, but Night of the Living Dead is where the concept was hand-delivered to the mainstream public. Since the popularity came from a visual medium, I think that's where most of the evolution continued.

But books are catching up. There are definitely some gems out there.

message 15: by Harold (new)

Harold (haroldhanson) | 1 comments I too never thought that zombies could be brought to us in book form. Zombies being based in gore. That was until The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (ironically Mel Brooks' son). Though it was more satire I started thinking more and more about it and came to the same conclusion others have posted, that it is more about the survival story than it is about the satire. If you want a good comparison of a survivalist story and zombie story try Dead City by Joe McKinney and then compare it to a story about an EMP going off in the United States in One Second After by William R. Forstchen. I think that zombie books add that certain sort of "natural" danger that isn't present in pure survivalist books. How much more fun would it have been if in Lord of the Flies if Simon came back to life as the monster?

Richard Matheson didn't leave the zombie (or really vampire) theme to just "I am Legend" but he also had "Dance of the Dead" where the characters could sneak off to a dive bar to watch the taboo dance of the recently risen.

message 16: by Justin (new)

Justin (justinbienvenue) | 2788 comments Zombies are one of those topics that "it is what it is" you can change a little bit here and there but Zombie stories all tend to be the same because their isn't much you can do with them. If there is a Zombie there isn't much one can do that someone else has not in a story about them. No matter how many times they are written about you can't escape the cliche of repetitiveness nature that are Zombies. Flesh Eating, body parts falling, slowly walking this is how we know them and while today's zombie has picked up an extra step or two there's still that lust for flesh and walking around completely baffled and incoherent.
Now maybe if someone wrote about a genetically mutated Zombie with feelings and awareness who fights for the good instead of evil and flesh then maybe then the concept of one would change but I think Zombies are exactly how we have made them..stiff as a bored and just like their urge for flesh and brains is a readers urge to read about them

message 17: by Bandit (new)

Bandit (lecturatoro) | 8224 comments in response to the last paragraph, there is Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

message 18: by Philip (new)

Philip Hemplow | 31 comments With regard to 'zombies are boring', the problem is that usually zombies are used as an alternative to having a story. The Romero films are interesting because they use zombies as metaphors, as ways to comment on people and society. Other writers use them as a challenge to be faced by their protagonists, which is also fine. If a zombie book or film is boring though, it's not particularly because zombies are boring but because the actual story being told is boring. The characters and their stories are frequently so dull and unoriginal that even a plague of flesh-eating corpses can't save them. Zombies shouldn't be the basis of a story, the human characters should be.

message 19: by Justin (new)

Justin (justinbienvenue) | 2788 comments Bandit wrote: "in response to the last paragraph, there is Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion"

Hmm..okay so someone has wrote about a Zombie with feelings which is good to see if only more people would decide to do this rather than go the the mere obvious.

message 20: by Bandit (new)

Bandit (lecturatoro) | 8224 comments there is also Zombie, Ohio by Scott Kenemore

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

I like my zombies to be classic Romero zombies. Also, to those that said so, Zombies are not about gore. If you think so, maybe I get why you don't like zombie books.

To fans of superheroes there is also a book about a small bunch of superheroes defending survivors of a zombie apocalypse against regular zombies and supervilain zombies. You might be interested in it.


message 22: by John (last edited Jun 20, 2012 04:06PM) (new)

John Karr (karr) | 38 comments I think only the slow mindless zombies can be boring. There's much to read and write about when they can think and move with real purpose. I Am Legend reads well, though you wouldn't recognize it up against the most recent movie version.

This past weekend I was lucky enough not to have a book that I wanted to risk the incidental water and sands of the beach, and the Barnes and Noble's Bargain Books had a hardback of a collection of zombie tales called The Monster Book of Zombies, which seems the same as The Mammoth Book of Zombies  by Stephen Jones , only perhaps it's a different publisher.

I immediately read Karl Edward Wagner's tale, Sticks, as I'd never even heard of it before. A huge fan of his, I decided to purchase it simply because his story was part of the collection.

Now I'm at the beginning, reading Clive Barker's story where the zombie is an actress.


message 23: by Renee (new)

Renee (elenarenee) I just read the Clive Barker story in an anthology called The Walking Dead. It is a fun story with a nice twist at the end. Does you anthology include the one by Dan Simmons about the teacher? That is one of the best zombie stories I have read in ages. I don't have the book here but it was published by night shade. I can get you the title of the Simmons when I go home if you want.

message 24: by John (new)

John Karr (karr) | 38 comments Renee wrote: "I just read the Clive Barker story in an anthology called The Walking Dead. It is a fun story with a nice twist at the end. Does you anthology include the one by Dan Simmons about the teacher? That..."

No story by Dan Simmons in this collection, unfortunately. Sounds like a good one.

message 25: by Renee (new)

Renee (elenarenee) It is one of the best zombie stories I have ever read. (I tend to read a lot of them)

Its called This Year's Class Picture. It won 5 awards including the Bran Stoker.

The heroine is a Spinster School teacher trying to survive during a zombie Apocolypse.

I am haunting the Barnes and Nobles in the area searching for The monster book of Zombies. LOL What can I say Zombies are my favorite monster read.

message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

It's off the night shade book The Living Dead.

I have not read that book though. I bought The New Dead but it's the only anthology I own and even that own I have not gotten around to reading it.

Kind of in a sci-fi mood as of late.

message 27: by Justin (new)

Justin (justinbienvenue) | 2788 comments Also another reason Zombies have picked up interest, In the possibility of a Zombie Apocalypse later this year..people wanna be prepared lol. We can't all call Woody Harrelson to come bail us out!

message 28: by Bandit (new)

Bandit (lecturatoro) | 8224 comments Mathieu wrote: "I have not read that book though. I bought The New Dead but it's the only anthology I own and even that own I have not gotten around to reading it.

The New Dead is an amazing anthology

message 29: by Michael (new)

Michael Brookes (technohippy) I think World War Z is an excellent book about zombies, or rather the survivors (a point already made in this thread).

message 30: by James (new)

James Everington | 66 comments I've been thinking about zombie fiction too recently. I've become very disenchanted with it of late; I wanted to write some stories that addressed those concerns:


p.s. from the comments here I'm sure some if you will disagree with me; not posting to be arsey, just my take on it

message 31: by Char (new)

Char  | 13891 comments Mod
Justin wrote: "Bandit wrote: "in response to the last paragraph, there is Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion"

Hmm..okay so someone has wrote about a Zombie with feelings which is good to see if only more people would decid..."

Justin, Maberry's Dead of Night does have chapters from the main zombie's POV. It was excellent.

message 32: by [deleted user] (new)

I've just started reading Zombie books, and to be honest think it's just as good if not better than watching the movies. I'm big on inner-conflict and the like. You get more of the story this way. Besides, most new zombie movies are overrated and awful.

message 33: by Marty (new)

Marty Shaw (MartyShaw) | 14 comments Like many others have shared, I believe a good zombie story is more about the survivors than the zombies themselves, which might be the reason the genre hasn't appeared to take off like some of the other supernatural creatures.

I say appeared because great zombie fiction is out there; it's just not claiming the spotlight like some of the other beasties out there. Vampires and werewolves have become heroes and love interests, but that's a hard spin with a decaying body. I read Warm Bodies but it just didn't appeal to me.

There's at least one series out there that has a zombie main character but I can't remember the title. The MC is a girl that continues to look alive as long as she gets a steady supply of brains. I'll have to hit Google to see if I can find it.

message 34: by Frank (new)

Frank (njmetal) | 10 comments I think with the saturation of zombie stories in the genre nowadays, even focusing on the survivors is not the key to a good zombie story. The survivors story has been done a million different ways from a million different angles. World War Z should have been the final say from that school (with perhaps a select few others).

That is not to say that zombie fiction is dead. There are still many more creative ways to tackle it. Things like SG Brown's BREATHERS comes to mind. The plots have to be new and unique. It has to be something we haven't seen before. It's tricky but it is being done. Look to the small and indie publishers for fresh takes (thought you will have to dig through a ton of regurgitated Romero there too.)

I also feel like maybe we could BACK to some deep history of the zombies. Before they were a byproduct of some government/genetic/medical thing gone wrong, they were monsters brought back from the dead by Haitian/Creole witch doctors. That type of thing. Maybe we can dip back into that well. Perhaps it's not longer dried up.

That's my take. Zombie fiction isn't dead. Zombie movies/TV aren't necessarily better. They have to reinvent in all forms of the medium. Evolve or perish!

message 35: by Oliver (new)

Oliver Clarke (oliverclarke) NJMetal wrote: "I think with the saturation of zombie stories in the genre nowadays, even focusing on the survivors is not the key to a good zombie story. The survivors story has been done a million different ways..."
That's an interesting point. It might be good to see someone do a take on the pre-Romero style zombie. Wes Craven did a fairly good job in the movie The Serpent and the Rainbow but I'd love to see a more modern take on it. There's a lot of potential there for a story that has something interesting to say about race and culture as well as being a good horror story.

message 36: by Tressa (last edited Aug 16, 2012 07:42AM) (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Good insight, NJ. And Breathers: A Zombie's Lament is a poignant but hilarious book. All zombie fans should read it.

message 37: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth (trishwilsonelizabethblack) | 38 comments I figure zombie stories must be about the survivors precisely because the zombies themselves are so deadly dull. The survivors give the reader/viewer something interesting to read/watch.

I also disagree that gore is hard to write. It might be hard to write well, but it's not hard to write. I'm in the middle of an Edward Lee novel right now, and he can be pretty gross.

message 38: by David (new)

David jones | 38 comments I think that the Benny Imura series is a really great series about zombies. That being said, I think that great zombie fiction is about the survivors of the catastrophe that created the zombies. But a lot of that stuff is overdone and really, really cliched. Even though it may be good to read, the reader who also like something a bit more unique that involves zombies leading back the Jonathan Maberry and the Benny Imura series.

message 39: by Scott (new)

Scott Nicholson (scottnicholson) | 97 comments Well, the truth is that most zombie movies are simply awful. But it's like bad sex. Even when it's bad, it's good.

message 40: by Ben (new)

Ben Barrett | 34 comments What about Stephen King's Cell? I haven't read it, but I hear it's a great zombie story.


message 41: by Nicole (new)

Nicole | 7 comments I agree that zombies are a lot more effective when in the visual media. However, there is one zombie book that I read on my kindle that I thought was good. I do not know if there are any in the group that have read it but I thought the whole approach was very interesting and I was quite shocked at the fact that I enjoyed a Zombie book. I am a great fan of the Zombie movie genre but never read a zombie book before but will now try others. Zombie Fallout Mark Tufo is the book I read if anyone is interested.

message 42: by [deleted user] (new)

Scott Nicholson wrote: "Well, the truth is that most zombie movies are simply awful. But it's like bad sex. Even when it's bad, it's good."

Lmao. I approve of this message. :D

message 43: by Matt (new)

Matt Drabble | 9 comments Here's a thought, where do all the fully functioning zombies come from, all we ever witness are protagonists being ripped to shreds and eaten. Where are the zombies intelligent enough to just bite a victim once in order to turn them?

message 44: by George (new)

George Parker (gwptalking) Enjoyed this thread. Thank you for the "Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry" tip.

message 45: by J. (new)

J. | 2 comments Going back to one of the OP's points, that zombies can be easily replaced with other monsters, there's a couple of things I'd like to suggest are unique to zombies:

1) There's the existential dread the victims face, whether they consciously process it or not, that the things trying to kill them were once people as well and have been reduced to shambling mindless predators. Depending on the rules of the particular zombie story, there's also the dread of knowing they'll reanimate themselves after dying.

2) There's the irony that the human mouth isn't really designed as a hunting tool. A monster with huge jaws (or even a more mundane threat like a rabid dog) has a mouth that's meant for killing prey quickly; ours are more adapted to eating things that we've already killed some other way. So the fact of being eaten by a zombie would be much less of a clean death than being eaten by something like a werewolf, kind of like if you were trying to stab someone to death with a dinner fork.

message 46: by Badseedgirl (new)

Badseedgirl | 596 comments There are some very well written novels with a zombie theme, The Reapers are the Angels and Raising Stony Mayhall immediately comes to mind.
But it is true that there are really only two basic zombie tropes, be they in books or movies; one and the more classic zombie trope, is the mindless killing machines that are a catalyst for the action of the survivors who are the main focal point of the story. In these stories, zombies are used to move characters around the board, and the most dangerous thing encountered is not always the walking dead. The other and "newer" type of story arch is the "thinking" zombie. In this case, there is usually an internal zombiologue, where the reader is shown the struggle to maintain or retrieve the zombies lost humanity.
They can both be well written, although my own personal preference is for the more classic zombie trope. The biggest problem is that Zombies took on a sort of "hip" resurgence and the market became flooded with mediocre product in both print and cinema.
There are excellent written zombie stories out there, but it takes wallowing through a ton of dreck to get to the gold in this case.

message 47: by Zain (new)

Zain | 65 comments I love, love, love zombies! Especially reading about them. To me reading about them is more horrific than watching them. Some of the movies do such a terrible job with the makeup, that they look so fake and it’s just so hard to suspend my disbelief.

I have read a lot of good zombie books and have seen a lot of bad zombie movies. Naw! I’ll take reading about them over a movie, anytime.

message 48: by Elenap (new)

Elenap | 10 comments I think that for me zombie stories are more about the people surviving then the Zombies. I like that people battle for survival. I do admit I prefer the humans to win over the zombies

back to top