I recently finished the video game Dead Rising 2. It was a fantastic combination of good action, creative gameplay, and great story. In fact, it is one of the best zombie based experiences.
In many ways the zombies themselves are secondary to the experience. No one individual zombie is that dangerous, and even in large groups they are not too difficult to deal with. Instead, the truly interesting (and deadly) characters are the surviving humans.
Dead Rising did not invent this idea. The idea of focusing on the people owes its modern origin to the work of George Romero and his Living Dead series. In his films, the deaths of main characters are nearly always caused by their actions and the actions of humans around them. It is human panic, distrust, arrogance, and greed that cause the true suffering.
In this context, the zombies instead serve as a vehicle for social commentary. Dead Rising 2 explores capitalism, fear exploitation, and rights of personhood. The British zombie movie 28 Days Later speaks of desire for control, male ownership of women, and family. Consumerism, complacency, and greed are all contemplated in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead .
In all of these, the interactions between the human survivors add the real value to the experience. Even in media without a strong narrative, it is human interaction that is the key. The “story-less” Left 4 Dead series is shaped by the characters, be it Ellis and his stories or Francis hating everything in sight, along with the implied story of survivors who had walked the path before the players.
Good zombie media is never about the zombies themselves. Focus on the undead along is better served by picking one with more agency, like a vampire. Zombies are best as framing mechanism, allowing the story to focus on what is important: the people.
Update: Here is related theory about zombies and culture, from Chuck Klosterman over at the New York Times.
-That is all.