The basic action in both movies is that the hero must survive a world where zombies have taken over. In a bad movie, this would involve the hero and other characters constantly running into more and more zombies so the whole story revolves around killing zombies in different settings and different ways. This is the path to boredom, bad cliches, and a bad movie. When you focus solely on action, the action eventually gets repetitive and dull no matter how over the top the action might get. Just watch a bad movie like “Terminator Genisys” or Jupiter Ascending” to see how all action creates a boring movie.
Where both “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” excel is that the movie really isn’t about surviving a zombie apocalypse after all. The action involving zombies is really just a path to telling the real story. In “Shaun of the Dead,” the real story is that the hero is repairing his relationships with the people around him starting with his friend, his girlfriend, his mother and his step dad. Fighting off the zombies just gives the hero a way to get closer to the people in his life and repair his relationship with them before it’s too late.
In “Zombieland,” the hero is a loner who never really had a family and never really had a girl. The first hot girl he ever had turned out to become a zombie and try to kill him. Then by being a loner, he manages to survive the zombie apocalypse.
Along the way, he meets other characters who parallel his own story. First he meets a redneck who enjoys killing zombies. Later he finds out that this redneck had a son who he loved but the zombies killed his son. That explains his zest for killing zombies and shows how he had a family that he had lost. Another character the hero meets are two sisters who are determined to take care of each other and will lie, cheat, and steal to do it. In the process, they refuse to trust others.
All of these characters are flawed in the same way that the hero is; they either lost a loved one or they’re trying to protect a loved one. Eventually the hero and the other characters realize that they all need each other. The redneck may have lost a son, but now he has the hero to care for as well. The two sisters learn to trust the hero while the hero learns to reach out and help others. In the end, he finally achieves his goal, which is to be part of a family.
Both “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” are loaded with action about killing zombies, but without the story behind each hero’s quest, all the action of zombies would be meaningless. Both movies are funny and great examples of solid story telling because they actually have a goal for the hero to achieve and the hero changes emotionally in the end. In bad movies, the hero remains emotionally the same as the beginning as in the end. No change equals a boring movie. Emotional change equals a satisfying movie. Action is always secondary.
When describing most movies, the emphasis is usually on the action. No one describes “Shaun of the Dead” or “Zombieland” as a story about repairing relationships or finding a family. Yet that’s really what the story is all about. Most people would describe both movies by focusing on the action, which is about surviving a zombie apocalypse, yet that’s not really what the movie is about.
In your own screenplays, you’ll likely tell people the summary or pitch of your story by focusing solely on the action. The action can appeal to people, but it can never be the whole story. The real story is always the emotional change the hero undergoes from beginning to end.
Identify the action of your story that will grab someone’s interest. Then make sure you have an interesting emotional story to tell as well.