There is zero question that the zombie genre has seen a huge spike in subject material over the past three years. Although there has always been a strong cult following since the Romero films, and a constant debate over the fast vs. slow zombie scenario, it hasn't been until recently that everyone is seemingly creating their own hypothetical survival groups and escape plans. Regardless of the fact that all of these plans are dependent on the individual somehow not being one of the 90% of the populace that becomes infected, one thing remains unquestionable; zombies are now mainstream.
This isn't any kind of revelation or breaking news story. Shows like The Walking Dead have brought the shambling mess of rotting flesh and cerebral dietary preferences into the limelight, but, like the vampire trend, it is starting to play itself out. As a zombie fan myself, I look at how pop-culture is marketing this nightmare outcome as a form of entertainment, and where its missteps are in video games, film, and television.
First, let's examine the good. In video games, the best of the zombie franchise has been the Left 4 Dead series. Specifically, the first one. The elements of this game include (but are not limited to) hordes of mindless undead, specialty zombies to create a dynamic gameplay, a simplistic but effective assortment of weapons, amazing lighting and art design, minimalistic narrative, and perhaps the best co-op design I've ever seen in a video game. However, the relationship that the game forces you to create with everyone is what makes this game the best zombie shooter of our time. Let me explain.
You cannot survive in Left 4 Dead by yourself. I cannot emphasize what a gigantic gameplay feature this for the zombie genre. Even the single player is molded around this idea that you have to watch out for your teammates, and they will watch out for you. When the world goes to hell, dependency on others is perhaps the greatest design feature a developer can insert into their intellectual property. Yes, there are some successful titles that don't lean on this idea; such as Dead Rising, but there will never be a moment in the Dead Rising games that will create that feeling of terror and panic when a Tank-type zombie smashes through the front door of a house you're setting up in, or when a Smoker-type lynches one of your teammates from an overhanging balcony as you're trying to push forward.
The main objective seems like it is always to get to the end of the map; to find that safe room to restock your ammo and health, but that objective can change at a moment's notice. Any second, one of your team can be taken out of the scenario or pinned down, and in that instant your main objective has now become "save my friend." These high periods of intensity are paced extremely well with the moments of relaxation, either in the safe-rooms themselves, or in a rising elevator, or even in a small house as you listen to possible help on an old radio. Games like Dark Souls and Alan Wake also use this type of pacing well; which makes for a very engrossing, and emotional (the bounce between fear and relief especially) experience. It's smart, it's clever, and it shows a degree of love and care for the genre in general.
Then we have shows like The Walking Dead. When the show first aired on TV I was excited. Finally, one of my favorite scenarios would finally be getting a series, hopefully in the same dark and surprising narrative of shows like The Shield (which famously killed off what was thought to be a major character in the first episode), Dexter (which played with the viewpoint of hero/villain and the viewers empathy), and The Wire (which played with motive and the things required just to get by depending on your scenario). Despite the success of the graphic novels that preceded it, the show became lacking in many areas. Producers of the show became excited to hear the viewers response over the first shot of that legless zombie that Rick goes back to put out of its misery. The show then began to market itself to that fact and began to focus on the gross-out factor, and not the human element. Any attempt to show the human element came in the form of generic nostalgic dialogue about the world before zombies, and Rick's almost daily gun threats to Norman Reedus about not killing the living. Boring.
The problem here is that the characters became stale, predictable, and uninteresting. When the zombies finally swarmed on their camp there appeared to be about 20 other survivors that we had never seen before that were now specifically used as zombie/plot food. Unlike Game of Thrones; whose characters could be killed off at a moment's notice (an element that creates a real sense of suspense), there are certain characters in this show you are pretty safe in assuming won't die. That element of vulnerability brought upon by the aforementioned Left 4 Dead is gone, and so is the real terror of this horrendous apocalyptic outcome.
As far as film goes, the best of the zombie franchise has to (now) be 28 Days Later. Before you begin hoisting your flag for slow vs. fast, or that the zombies aren't really zombies argument, just take a moment to examine what the film tried to do. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland tried to take the magic out of the undead rising. They tried to create a feeling of terror that was present after such films as Jaws, in that something like zombies could actually happen. Scenes like the one in the church; a supposed safe-zone which had become a nest of runners, and where Naomi Harris kills her partner in survival without hesitation; created the discussed vulnerability that made the film gripping and terrifying. The scary aspects were that the humanity was gone, and the search for it was really what the film was about.
So what is it that zombies need? Brains, obviously. The genre needs a well thought out and cared for look at this metaphoric and blood-soaked genre. Recently, it was announced that Damon Lindelof is going to rewrite some of the areas of the working World War Z scenes that were apparently lacking. Despite my issues with Lost, if there is one thing the show did extremely well was create deep and thought provoking human issues. And, although the plight of the undead might seem to be in the blood and guts approach, isn't it really about the loss of our human condition and how fragile it is? It's about caring for the things that have become valuable to you, but also being aware that you might have to drop them at a moment's notice. It's the balance between fight or flight.