How Should A Zombie Story End?

Compiling the epilogue to Dead Heat on my train journey back from Cornwall today, it occurred to me just how few well-known zombie stories – in film particularly – finish on a high, or at least with some sort of conclusion where the zombie apocalypse ends – or perhaps my zombie education is simply lacking? Let me summarise some of the most famous mainstream examples.

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Films

Night of the Living Dead. 1968 – A group of rednecks kill black protagonist despite seemingly knowing he was not undead. Rednecks try to reclaim the world from the undead. Ending to 1990 version is similar but Ben (this time played by horror icon Tony Todd) is a zombie. Babylon 5’s Patricia Tallman stars.

Dawn of the Dead. 1978 – our protagonists escape to the roof of the shopping centre and escape using a helicopter. 2004 – the daring escape takes us to Milwaukee Harbour where the group take Steve’s boar to an uninhabited island on Lake Michigan, but it too is zombie infested.

Day of the Dead – another daring escape in the 1985 version. The 2008 version sees the zombie outbreak contained in the small town and the protagonists escape.

Shaun of the Dead – the zombies are killed, well most of them, and the rest are put to work in the service industry, including Ed whom Shaun locks in his shed so the two can continue playing video games.

Zombieland – our heroes make a daring escape. The resolution is a happy one here but only for the characters as they find contentment as a “family” in the post-apocalyptic world.

Resident Evil – each of these finish on a cliffhanger leading to the next film. If the final one ever gets released (present release date “sometime in 2015”), it may actually have a happy ending.

The Cabin in the Woods – very unconventional film that takes a dozen tropes and turn them on their head while honouring those same tropes. Finishes on a very unexpected ending.

Cockneys Vs Zombies – one of the best horror-comedies since Shaun of the Dead finishes on an east-end of London over-run by zombies, and another daring escape along the River Thames while Alan Ford hollers “Oi, zombies… get the f*ck out of my East End!”

World War Z – the most recent zombie film based on a best-selling novel sees our protagonists develop a vaccine that can protect us against the zombie virus. Criticised for the incredulity, it does at least try to do something few others have attempted.

Novels

Dead Rising / City of the Dead – disappointing duology that promised to be the best zombie books ever. Everybody dies, basically, but are happy because they don’t become zombies in a world where everything is dying.

World War Z – I’m including this again because though this too finishes with a positive and upbeat ending, it is quite different from the ending of the film. This is more a book about a war, how an enemy presents a new paradigm and how civilisation adapts to the changing nature of war. Perhaps a metaphor for how wars are rarely fought between countries these days and more between ideologies of insurgents.

Zombie Apocalypse! – A very British take on a zombie war told in the form of tweets, police reports, newspaper headlines etc. Two books released with one still due to be published to finish off the trilogy, a total victory is likely.

What this list shows is that the number of potential endings to zombie stories is limited. It seems to be a rare thing that the zombie apocalypse is brought to an end where the zombies are eliminated and everyone lives happily. Even with a happy ending (such as Zombieland) zombies still rule the world. I’m giving nothing away about the end of Dead Heat, so you’ll have to wait and see but do you expect, or would you prefer an ending where the apocalypse is brought to an end and the remnants of humanity attempt to rebuild society?

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8 thoughts on “How Should A Zombie Story End?

  1. I guess it depends on the zombie apocalypse. A virus may be defeated, the populace inoculated, the corpses burned, but if Hell is full and so the dead just can’t die then there can be no happy ending short of a second coming, and even then…

      1. Easily done if it’s an Isolated incident due to an eldritch power, mutagenic chemical spill, disturbed plague pit/notorious medieval witch grave, then the survivors have the additional issue that they will never, ever, be believed…
        But not so hard to do after a global Z-day event.
        “The thing about an apocalypse is whatever follows it has to be post-apocalyptic… ” – and if that tautology isn’t already a quote I’m calling it mine 😉

  2. Agh, maybe this is a too Disney ending, but I’d love that the human race wasn’t extinct after the zombie apocalypse! If there’s two or three humans there’s no hope, so I wish Earth could be restored slowly…

  3. I’m getting fed up of all the pessimism and dystopian visions. I really want a story where humans rebuild a new society and everything isn’t perfect but it’s a brand new kind of life and that’s just the way it is. No going back

    1. You’re right, and I think the stories above with a “happy ending” are only happy for the characters involved.

      I’ve now written the epilogue and been quite mindful of just how much misery there is to most endings of zombie literature.

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