Screenwriters should always ask "Why?"

One of the toughest nuts for screenwriters and directors to crack is making a story set in a post-apocalyptic world work.

It sounds relatively easy: you start the tale when the landscape is eerily peaceful, and a handful of normal human survivors have decided to wander out into the open because they’re bored, some need companionship, a few have run out of food, or have acclimatized themselves to running around with a shotgun and extra ammo with a new daily goal of some sort.

That’s more or less what happens in The Omega Man (1971), still the best (albeit cheesiest) adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novella (although the first third of the 2007 Will Smith version has potent moments). As the only man left in Los Angeles, Charlton Heston picks whatever car he wants to drive, grabs some gas from an available tank, and heads out, wherever, hunting for infected scumbags that threaten his safety and sanity. If he needs anything along the way – clothes, a new flashlight, a Twinkie – he takes it.

It’s a neat premise: you own the land. You set the rules. You figure out how to live based on new conflicts and needs.

There are three parts to writing a good post-apocalyptic tale:

1) Set up a premise tied to contemporary fears – either currently in the news, or something that’s plausible based on known realistic disasters that could happen if certain global stressors go into overdrive.

2) Keep the focus on a few characters that live in safe haven, wander into a makeshift civilized society, escape from a repressive makeshift society, or are trying to set up their own world order.

3) Introduce a threat that will either come back and bite the heroes in the ass, or maintain a threat that eventually finds a way past the safety buffer established by the survivors, and threatens their new world with total annihilation that may force them to start from scratch again (provided they survive the uber-battle).

Where filmmakers frequently go wrong is after the setup: they make it as far as creating a really neat, bruised world, introduce characters with dramatic potential, and then the writers and directors realize they’ve no idea what to do next because they never had any game plan to begin with.

It’s a devastated world. Now what?

In the case of Zombieland (2009), its creators figured their endpoint would involve a battle in an amusement park.


They mapped out a prolonged battle sequence, and organized some action set-pieces that are funny and kinetic, and finish the film with a sign of hope, plus a tepid but tolerable romantic union.

Next quandary: if the survivors of Zombieland have settled into a safe home near then end of the film’s midpoint, and have no reason to leave, what logical stressor can be introduced so that one half of the characters heads for the amusement park, forcing the other half to follow and save their skins in the pre-determined battle?

There are several scenes early into the film that signal the filmmakers’ poor script construction: a prolonged and contrived driving odyssey (which didn’t work either in the post-nuclear, disaster idiocy Damnation Alley), a montage in a souvenir shop (which DID work in the original Dawn of the Dead, because it captured the group’s boredom in being cooped up in the attic of a shopping mall overrun by zombies), and a slow series of scenes in a mansion where the group become bored long after the audience has reached that stage.

One could argue the filmmakers had too much fun experiencing the neatness in a free-for-all world through their characters, but then there’s the stupidity factor that comes into play: the reason the two sisters leave for the amusement park is to experience some normal fun.

Why does the older sister decide it’s time to head out when her own sense of security has just been augmented by a new romantic interest?

Why leave at night when you can’t see the dangers (zombies) lurking in the dark, but they can see you (bright white folks)?

Why leave for the park at night?


It’s the biggest dramatic blunder in the film, and the only reason Zombieland doesn’t fall flat on its face it because it’s a comedy.

One also senses the filmmakers realized things had become too flippant at the script level, so two moments were added to give the group some gravitas: the lead zombie hunter (Woody Harrelson) reveals exactly what kind of life companion he lost after the world became zombified; and the older sister makes that dopey decision to head out to the park rides with her young sibling because she feels her baby sister needs to remember what it was like being a kid in a normal world (though that may be all irrelevant, since we know from a flashback sequence that the girls earned their keep by conning nerdy guys out of cash, which isn’t normal, but probably read great on the printed script page).

Does the film have any virtues making it worth the inflated theatrical ticket price? Yeah, but only marginally. Zombieland is better-suited for the home video realm, and here’s why.

In tandem with that film’s theme of undread flesh chompers is a review of Dead Snow (2009), the Norwegian horror comedy that similarly manages to succeed due to its comedic and gory content rather than originality. Director Tommy Wirkola really, really, REALLY liked The Evil Dead, and it’s an amusing riff, but had the film been played straight, it’s doubtful its intriguing premise of fast-moving, greedy and vengeance-breathing Nazis would’ve held audience interest.



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