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A&E Opinion: Zombie films need a boost in story artistry

Zombie movies have become a joke. The ravenous undead are no longer terrifying. Now they’re stupid, shambling mannequins on which laughable premises are thrust.

Zombies are supposed to be the face of Armageddon. But in the greatest zombie films, the undead are only a tool that brings diverse personalities together. The true horror lies in those personalities clashing and bringing about their own downfall.

The undead hordes are the ever-present threat that keep otherwise fractious individuals together. If it weren’t for imminent danger, the characters would’ve never met.

In that situation, both the audience and the characters are lulled into a sense of security. When that air of safety dissipates, the true horror takes hold.

The audience finds that these human characters represent the monoliths of society — racists, fascists, imperialists, individualists, isolationists — and each fiercely stick to their ideologies.

The climax of “Night of the Living Dead” features the protagonist choosing between his unrepentant individualism and the good of the group.

In contrast, the climax of “28 Days Later” involves the protagonist setting out to save his loved ones, which even means putting his life in danger.

But each scenario adheres to a concise character arc that has helped define both of these works as classics.

Films like “Bloodlust Zombies,” “Mutant Vampire Zombies From the Hood!,” “Zombie Strippers” and “Bong of the Dead” lack the basic tenets of writing and character development.

They are gimmicks with “plots” and characters built around them, whose sole purpose is to be laughed at.

These films represent the downfall of the socially conscious zombie. They were somehow funded and released, and will sadly live on as classics of trash cinema.

But these aren’t classics like “The Evil Dead” or “Shaun of the Dead” are classics. They’re classics in the way that “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” and “Frankenhooker” are classics.

Even recent films like “World War Z” have already failed. It’s going for quantity over quality. It assumes viewers are purely reactionary monsters that live to be stimulated.

Sometimes that demographic description isn’t far off. But on the whole, moviegoers know when they’ve been ripped off — and American horror has been doing so for years.

But I’m hopeful about the upcoming “Warm Bodies.” It’s a spin on the established undead condition (mindless and shambling) not seen since “Day of the Dead,” and if it’s done right, it will be the first innovative take on the genre since “Fido.”

Of course, bad movies have existed since the medium was invented. But in any given genre, there are films that defy the odds and become iconic.

There hasn’t been a truly great zombie film in years. The greatest zombie movie to come out in the past decade is actually a video game.

Telltale Games’ “The Walking Dead” tore my heart out and buried it. I’ve never felt more connected to any characters in a story, let alone a horror narrative, in my life. During the entire final scene, I bawled like I haven’t in ages.

If the zombie movies in question came anywhere near the quality of “The Walking Dead,” mainstream zombie horror would’ve evolved well past “World War Z” by now.

The silver lining of this cloud is that artists do, and always will, have the capability to make beautiful stories in the context of horror. And without trash cinema, there would be nothing to compare great cinema against.

But that doesn’t make the entire “Zombies” subsection of Netflix any more forgivable.

Filmmakers and moviegoers alike must encourage the production of evocative and cathartic zombie-movie-art. Take extra time to seek out the under-appreciated gems like “Deadgirl,” and don’t settle for anything like “Bong of the Dead.” We deserve better from our undead entertainment.

Written by Jacob Holley-Kline