Zombie book or film clichés, or what not to do when writing a zombie apocalyptic novel

bring it on

We’ve all read about them or seen them, here’s some of the worst clichés to ever use in a book or film.


Shelter, Malls, Schools, office buildings

Everyone heads to the mall or Wal-Mart immediately after finding out there is a zombie outbreak. Why? Its very likely, in fact extremely likely that everyone else within a 100 mile radius will do the same thing. Only they won’t be heading there to take shelter, they’ll be heading there to take what they can off the shelves.



Structurally, a Wal-Mart or a shopping mall is not a good choice to seek shelter in. Most Wal-Marts are made of cinder block or foundation block construction. Anyone could take a full size car or pickup and ram it through the wall thereby destroying what you thought was a solid perimeter between you and the dead heads outside. What if the shoppers at the Wal-Mart are already infected when you arrive? You think Black Friday is bad. This is a very overused cliché that is almost always inserted to instill a sense of drama. The film, World War Z had a scene that took place in a large retail establishment. As stated, a very tired cliché.

Take shelter in a mall? This idea has formulated since the original Dawn of the Dead. Its a very bad idea. Most malls have several points of entry not including anchor stores that may have their own exterior entrances. Unless you have a very large force, heavily armed and practiced at shutting down a facility the size of any large mall, forget it. Taking shelter in a shopping mall during a zombie apocalypse is not a viable option.




Taking shelter in a school or other building with fences around it. Looking at the structural integrity of the basic chain link fence that might surround a school, its just not strong enough to support the massive numbers of undead that will be pressing against it. If you’re lucky, the fence might hold for a couple of hours. Then you have the undead right at the walls with you inside. Don’t forget taking shelter inside an office building or skyscraper ala Land of the Dead. That means you have to climb up and down the stairs with your supplies because there won’t be any power, most likely while trying to avoid zombies.


Basic Services

The power stays on for some reason. How many times does a power outage occur during ‘normal’ times? With that in mind, do you really think that the power grid will remain active for days, weeks, or months following something like a zombie apocalypse? The US power grid is extremely fragile and requires constant maintenance to keep it operating. But somehow, in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, the power stays on.

ice no power

Basic utilities. This means water, sewer and electricity. While it was touched upon in the above statement about power, what about water? No one ever grabs water filtration supplies when foraging.

katadyn water filter

When the power goes out so does the water. Yet, in many novels and films, the water stays flowing just like the power remains on. There has never been a mention of toilets still working. When the power goes out so does the sewage treatment plants and that means that no water to flush makes using a toilet after a zombie outbreak quite sporty.

nasty toilet


Firearms , Melee weapons, and those convenient Guns Stores


Everyone’s an expert with firearms. In every film, and in most of the novels about a zombie outbreak, every character some how becomes a master marksman when handed a firearm. They can pop undead heads with ease and reload without fumbling. Yeah, that’s going to happen. Just hand that dude a shotgun and he’s hitting the X ring every time. This is one of the worst clichés ever. Most of us who are familiar with firearms know that you need to get used to the weapon and in almost every single case, zero the weapon so that you actually hit where you’re aiming. Nowhere in any of the films or books is this ever addressed.

chainsaws attached to a kayak paddle

Finding weapons at a gun store. This is an overused cliché in both film and print. How is it possible that a gun store isn’t already looted or that a character somehow has all the time in the world to try to get past the security gates, the bars on the window, and the locks on the doors and then finds out that the store hasn’t been looted, the owner is not inside waiting to ventilate them for breaking in or that they can somehow find all that they’re looking for and plenty of ammunition too. Not going to happen. Don’t let your project be like the remake of Day of the Dead. That direct to video film had the characters stumble across a gun store and come up with full automatic weapons and ammunition. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

concept artC Martin with SR25

Unlimited ammunition. How’s that work?

glock c mag firing


Melee weapons that never get dropped or broken during a fight with a zombie. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.


The Mentally Challenged (not the special education kind)

how to survive a zombie apoc inside a ball

There’s always an idiot in the group. Put this into perspective. If you’ve ever watched Gilligan’s Island you have to ask why didn’t the other castaways didn’t just exile Gilligan or eliminate him. Seriously, every time they had a chance to leave the island, Gilligan would mess it up. The same thing applies to a zombie outbreak. There’s always someone in the group who will open that door, turn on that light, walk out into the woods to do something stupid or call out when they hear a noise in a house they are foraging. In the real world, if that happens, most of us would probably say, ‘sucks to be them’ and move on without that kind of idiotic baggage.

The infected person who hides their bite. Why? Why does this have to  even be an issue? Most of us know that you get bit, you get infected. For some reason, screen writers and authors think this is always a good plot device.

Its not.

The learning curve. This is a zombie outbreak people. The learning curve would have to be really sharp and short. Even in that event, once the survivors find some kind of shelter, they all seem to have no problem going to sleep. How is that possible? OK, I can see the adrenaline bleed off but your mind will still be replaying the events you just lived through. Unlikely anyone will just drop off to sleep right away or sleep through the night. And apparently no one understands the concept of posting a watch while the others try to sleep. Hello, zombies. One of the few creatures that will literally seek you out.

The unconvinced. These are the people that are tossed into a film or book and never understand what’s happening. If you’ve ever seen The Mist, you know what I’m talking about. Thomas Jane’s neighbor, Andre Braugher, just can’t grasp that there’s some shit in the mist that is looking to eat his ass. The same thing happens in almost every single zombie novel or film. I like to call these characters zombie fodder. Every book has at least one and every film always has them.


Raiders, Bandits, Criminal Gangs

Within days of the outbreak, there’s some kind of roving raider band already raping, robbing, and roving the wasteland. Really? While its possible that some biker gangs might have been out in the desert at their meth labs when the outbreak happened, what are the odds that they’ll be able to get their shit together and understand the concept of a zombie outbreak? There always seems to be some kind of organized criminal band that makes an appearance in any film or novel. This harkens back yet again to the original Dawn of the Dead when that ragtag biker gang, erroneously referred to as a ‘Professional Army’ arrived at the mall. This is a thoroughly overused cliché in almost every film and novel.


The Government Response

The government has a plan and will save the day. Who seriously thinks that will happen? Look at how long it takes for FEMA to deploy then rethink that concept. FEMA is now under the Department of Homeland Security. During a zombie outbreak, DHS would be taking more time investigating the preppers who have more than 5 days of food in their homes and are prepared to deal with a zombie outbreak, as domestic terrorists than deploying FEMA teams to the affected areas. Does anyone really think that the government has a plan or can respond to a nationwide zombie outbreak? They can’t even respond to a basic disaster in a timely manner.


If you’re one of those people who think the government has all the equipment, supplies, and skilled professionals just waiting in the wings to deploy, please return to your fantasy world of unicorns and elves.


Decomposition and the laws of Physics


Rotting flesh immediately following infection. How is that even possible? Decomposition won’t kick in that fast unless you live in a swamp. How could an infected person almost immediately have flesh dropping off their bodies? It would take days if not a full week before that started becoming noticeable. That’s another issue that isn’t normally addressed, the whole dead person walking but no one notices they’re really dead unless there’s flesh falling off of them. That would be perfect camouflage for the initial stages of the outbreak. The infected would look relatively normal unless they were blood stained, chasing after you or eating on someone’s thigh bone like a KFC special.

Zombies that somehow have the strength to rip you apart. They’re dead and decomposing, where does that strength come from? Were they exposed to gamma radiation? If that’s the case, then there will be large, green zombies totally hulking out. While that would be kind of cool to see, it would be a total nightmare for those trying to survive it. Imagine a Hulk zombie. Its been done in the Marvel Zombies series and that wasn’t a pretty sight. The whole decomposing zombies with the ability to bite off parts of your body and tear apart a healthy individual, is never explained and has become a very tried, true, and overused cliché.


Vehicles and their apparent availability

Every vehicle you find will have the keys in them and enough gas to get away. Think again. Do you normally leave the keys in your car when you park it at work or at home? Would you leave the keys in your car if you had to abandon it? If you abandoned your vehicle, there was a reason, either mechanical or you ran out of gas. But, that’s never the case in any film or book. Enough said.


Hygiene and Sanitation

Cleanliness. With exception to one scene in Zombieland, most books and films rarely discuss hygiene unless they’re spraying off the blood soaked hero. There is never any discussion about soap and water or cleaning up after doing something. Think about this, one little jab, from a knife while you’re trying to make fire sticks for the campfire or from sharp glass while you’re entering or leaving a building and you could get an infection and be dead within weeks. Do I need to mention washing hands after going to the bathroom? E-coli anyone? In the series, The Walking Dead, when the group was still at the camp/quarry site, where did they establish a latrine and how was it kept separate from the rest of the camp? Did they really boil the water? Did they wash their hands before and after cleaning fish and after they used the alleged latrine? Wash your hands, germs have killed millions of people throughout history. Zombies aren’t the only threat.


The God Complex characters, Sex and Repopulation



These are the people who once they find some kind of safe shelter begin pushing the other survivors to start having sex which leads to pregnancy so that they can repopulate the world. Hold that thought. Sure, a little sex in a book or film is exciting but take a step back and think this through. The survivors have just ran their ass off, they are physically exhausted, fought off hordes of the undead, finally found some place potentially safe, haven’t had the time to clean up or get some decent food, yet, someone thinks this is a great time to start knocking boots? PTSD anyone? In all likelihood, the characters just saw their loved ones, friends, and neighbors get chewed up and spit out by zombies. They’re literally at their wits end. Physically and emotionally drained, undernourished, potentially dehydrated, but for some reason, this is the most opportune time to have sex. Performance issues come into play as their minds replay all they’ve been through. And what if a pregnancy does occur? Post apocalyptic world populated by zombies, not likely you’re going to find too many prenatal vitamins or an OB/GYN when the time comes. How about moving fast with a 6-8 month pregnant woman? Don’t forget, its usually a small group of survivors so the gene pool is very limited. The females in the group are expected to do what exactly? Hold a lottery? Draw straws? Try to get pregnant by every male in the group? Yeah, that’s going to work. To prevent inbreeding and other issues, the smallest group that could conceivably repopulate would have to be at least 1500. Just not going to happen.


The Root Cause for the outbreak and smart dead heads


Some screen writers and authors can pull off a somewhat realistic real-world cause for a zombie outbreak. But, there are others that rely on the seriously overused and really pathetic totally clichéd causes. Space aliens, returning deep space probes, infected astronauts, cryogenically frozen aliens thawed out, space spores, asteroids, etc. You name it, its been done. If you aren’t able to come up with something that works, leave it alone.

Then there’s the ‘smart’ zombies. See the whole decomposition issue previously stated. How does something decomposing evolve? Not going to happen. That’s like saying road kill evolves. In a way, it might. First road kill becomes road kill. Then it starts to bloat from internal gases as the decomp sets in. Then it pops and flattens out. There’s evolution right there, fat to flat.

Smart, cognizant zombies don’t work unless you leave out the whole reanimation of the dead issue which is kind of the whole core element of why they’re referred to as ‘zombies’.

zombie outbreak zone


These are just a few overused and extremely tiresome clichés. There’s plenty more. Feel free to add more.



3 thoughts on “Zombie book or film clichés, or what not to do when writing a zombie apocalyptic novel

  1. To each their own. I love some of the concepts listed here no matter how common they might be. I love seeing them done again and again in various ways. That’s the whole fun of the genre for me!

  2. For the point on Decomposition, it is possible for a zombie to rip apart human flesh and stuff similar to that, as there have been multiple studies indicating the limit we have in our strengths is generally focused on our brain disallowing us hurting ourselves through over exertion. So a zombie would not have the brains limitations and as such would likely be able to rip apart quite a few things.

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