Content Warning: Massive spoilers follow for the Disney Channel Original Movie franchise “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S.” If you’d like a spoiler-free review of “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3,” released on July 15, 2022, here it is: I thought it was good. Tada! Now go watch your movie and then you can come back.
Last year, I wrote a critical and flawed review of the first two “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S” films. I had become weirdly fixated on the love story between a cheerleader and a zombie from different worlds, and I thought the civilized world should suffer with me. There is a lot that I criticized in the first two films that I still stand by, but I do not think I adequately addressed why I found some of that content objectionable. On the other hand, I think a lot about the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S franchise deserves praise and hopefully justifies my obsession. I want to use this blog as an opportunity to further illustrate what I thought was good and what I think needs more work.
For those unaware, the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S franchise takes place in a cookie-cutter town called Seabrook. Years before the first movie, a terrible nuclear accident had turned a portion of the town into brain-eating zombies. So how did the townsfolk deal with these new monsters? It was simple: a nice combination of segregation and a little tech called the “Z-Band,” to stop the zombies from munch-a-crunching their human neighbors. Is this plot ridiculous? Yes. Is it any more ridiculous than most science fiction movies? If you’ve seen “Zardoz,” you know the answer to that question is “absolutely not.”
The first movie is about a charismatic zombie, Zed, who falls head over heels in love with a cute cheerleader, Addison. They sing a sweet song called “Someday” that is repeated throughout the series. Together, the two work to combat inequality in their small town, which is easier said than done. In “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 2,” we meet the werewolves, the indigenous people of Seabrook. Unfortunately, their storyline is… not good. It is about locating the “moonstone,” aka the source of their werewolf powers, and they need the “Great Alpha” to lead them to this stone. Also, Zed and Addison go to a dance called “Prawn” because the Seabrook mascot is the Mighty Shrimp. I very much enjoyed this play on words.
I was harsh in my initial review for a few reasons. The first one should be somewhat obvious: I’m about three times the age of the average DCOM fan, and there’s a weird stigma against enjoying content created for a younger audience. This is ridiculous, obviously, because people should be able to enjoy whatever they want without fear of judgmental pricks making them feel less-than. A good story is a good story, regardless of the intended audience. My second reason for being so critical is that I am not a fan of the Disney monopoly on entertainment. I especially feel like the Disney corporation puts a tight leash on its creators and prevents them from telling deeper, more impactful storylines. These restrictions are in the name of telling family-friendly entertainment, but I think Disney underestimates the maturity of their audience. Kids are smarter than you think, Disney.
This brings me to my last reason for criticism: the world-building generates more questions than it could ever answer. Seriously. The amount of time I have wasted pondering the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S universe is sickening. Do the zombies only want to eat brains, or will they munch on any part of a human, and the brain is just their favorite? Do they eat other animal brains? How are zombabies made? Can a human and a zombie even have a baby, and would that baby be able to have a family, or would it be like a liger situation? Does the company that created Z-bands have a monopoly on zombie-soothing tech, or are they more like Dexcom and compete with other companies to sell (necessary, life-sustaining) technology to other monsters? Is it an ethical company? Do people ever get accidentally eaten by zombies? How do the zombies feel after accidentally eating someone?
These are just some of the questions I had within the first five minutes of the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S movie. If you knew how many more I had after watching an entire trilogy, plus the bonus content like that dumb Addison’s Moonstone Mystery, it would shock and horrify you. And if you knew me personally, you wouldn’t be shocked, but you would be disappointed and better understand why I failed so many CPA exams. I have accepted that many of my questions will remain unanswered because the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S gods will not deem them worthy. Still, it does bum me out a little that instead of answering the ten million questions their screenplays raise (like do you have to be born a werewolf or can you become one), they just charge forward with introducing an entirely new species.
In my last review, I was skeptical about the quality of the screenplay, given its lousy synopsis:
“In the monster-plagued town of Seabrook, the local high school has three separate cliques: Cheerleaders, Zombies, and Werewolves. When alien tweens arrive to bring peace, they find instead the Earth-like disharmony that begins to infect them.”
In a state of epic grumpiness, I railed against the Disney machine for crimes not yet committed. I assumed the aliens would be deeply underwhelming and “white-haired skinny teenagers in blue clothing and face glitter.” This was unfair of me because the aliens had blue hair and weird little shiny stickers on their faces. Though more importantly, as silly as this plot may sound, it was written with a purpose: throughout life, we will encounter people who are different from us, and we need to adapt. It is appropriate that the aliens would look like people. As much as I would have loved it if the aliens in “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” resembled the Thermians from “Galaxy Quest,” that would not work with the message that this series is trying to share. (And if you’re thirsty for “weird-looking aliens are treated badly by human society,” then just watch “District 9” or “Alien Nation.”)
I no longer think I have the right to criticize Disney for not portraying their zombies, werewolves, and aliens the way I want. To clarify, “the way I want” is as closely adhering to a mythological consensus as possible, so werewolves that can only turn during the full moon and all that jazz. At the end of the day, these “monsters” are fictional and can be anything that the writer wants. There is no historical documentation about brain-eating zombies that I can claim as the ultimate guide (though if you are interested in learning more about zombies within Haitian culture, I suggest reading “The Serpent and the Rainbow” by Wade Davis).
In the first movie, Disney made a bold choice by making its protagonist, Zed, a friendly version of something as objectively terrible as a brain-eating zombie. It made sense that in this weird universe, the writers would continue to make other unorthodox decisions about the portrayal of fictional monsters. I do not agree with all of those choices, and I think moonstone necklaces are stupid, but I shouldn’t criticize something because “that’s not how [INSERT MONSTER HERE] acts.”
Once I stopped worrying and learned to love the zombies, I could go into “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” with measured expectations. I knew that the movie would be a little silly, but I still looked forward to continuing the adventures of Zed and Addison, the cutest couple to come out of the DCOM universe.
I was not disappointed. If anything, I found the entirety of “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” to be an entertaining musical chock-full of banging songs and insightful nuggets of social commentary. At its heart, “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” is about the experiences of immigrants moving to a new nation. The aliens, headed by A-Lan, A-Li, and A-Spen, are making a pit stop on Earth until they can find the coordinates for their new home world. Meanwhile, the residents of Seabrook, especially the werewolves, mistrust these new arrivals. This suspicion is understandable, as the werewolves have an uncomfortable history with settlers in Seabrook.
Tensions between the aliens and the werewolves mount in the musical number “Come On Out,” in which the werewolves realize that the aliens have messed with their precious moonstone and are famished for revenge. In “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 2,” one of the characters would have made a stupid joke, and any dramatic tension in the scene would have dissolved like toilet paper in a hurricane. However, “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” embraces its darker tone and avoids the bad jokes. The “Come On Out,” scene is easily one of the best in the franchise, as the werewolves stalk the streets of Seabrook, hunting down frightened aliens. For the first time since the werewolves appeared in the second movie, I thought, “yeah, those hippie aliens better run.” These werewolves would punish those newcomers for their transgressions, unlike in the previous movie, when they would have just danced at them or something. The actors looked like they were having so much fun playing the bad guys. I felt genuine concern for the aliens. I mean, not really, because this is still a Disney Channel Original Movie. It’s more like the werewolves were threatening like the Jets in “West Side Story” – can you really be scary if you’re pulling off an elaborate dance routine?
Also, whoever wrote the lyric, “Call your mommy-ship,” deserves an Emmy.
Although I’m disappointed that the aliens in the movie did not resemble octopus monsters, I found the story of why they left their planet to be powerful and movie. As the alien trio explains in the movie, their society valued harmony and unity above all else. When an environmental disaster began to destroy their home planet, no one dared dissent from the status quo to save their planet. Our alien friends are initially concerned by the conflict they encounter on Earth. However, part of their journey is realizing that there is such a thing as healthy conflict. As wonderful as harmony can be, it is also important to speak up when something is wrong, even if it causes disharmony. The inability to properly confront and manage conflict can have devastating results. I thought this was a profound lesson to impart in a Disney movie.
While using aliens as a metaphor for immigration is far from a new idea, I still think that “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” did it well while focusing on the original characters we like. I was impressed with Zed’s storyline in this film, and I still think he’s one of the best characters in the franchise. In this movie, Zed has a big goal: becoming the first monster to attend college. Zed is the kind of character who, despite his optimism, carries a lot of responsibility on his undead shoulders. He wants to get into college not just for himself but for all of the monsters in Seabrook. And also to stay with his hot blonde girlfriend, who faced no such barriers getting into college.
Yes, it feels very silly to talk about the barriers faced by the monsters of Seabrook, but the pressure to succeed placed on a first-generation college student is real and worth discussing, monster or not. It’s why the number “Exceptional Zed” is one of my favorites in this movie because Zed expresses authentic feelings of anxiety about his situation. Trying to impress a college interviewer is hard enough without the additional burden of shattering the stained-glass ceiling.
I liked many elements of this movie, but I have to say that a specific stand-out would be Terry Hu’s adorable performance as the alien, A-Spen. The aliens are not used to human emotions, and each one experiences their own range of feelings. A-Lin feels arrogance and the thrill of competition, A-Li feels rage, and sweet little A-Spen is lovesick. First, A-Spen falls in love with Zed (not that Zed is aware of this) and then they fall for Willa, the werewolf. And yes, you read that correctly. “They” fall in love.
Terry Hu is a queer, nonbinary actor who has made history by appearing as the first nonbinary character in a Disney movie. I hope you also noticed that this character is attracted to people of different genders. I was shocked in the best way when I realized that this character was nonbinary and how the narrative clearly supports this character and their crushes. Of course, it helps that A-Spen’s character is kind, charming, and has a smile that lights up a room. Zoit, the non-binary alien tween from “Lloyd in Space,” would be proud.
There is a lot that I want to criticize about the Disney Company, like its weird monopoly on fairy tales and how its content often feels like it caters to the lowest common denominator. However, for years I have been disappointed by Disney’s unwillingness to offer substantial support to the LGBTQ+ community. It is absurd that a movie like “Beauty and the Beast” would receive credit for its “first gay character” when all the movie did was show LeFou briefly dancing with another man. Other writers have better and more impressive lists of Disney’s unimpressive history with queer characters. This paints an unpleasant picture of a company unwilling to show honest depictions of the human experience or risk alienating its conservative audience. Even though Disney has happily benefited from the work of queer artists, like Howard Ashman and Kenny Ortega, for the longest time, it has been unwilling to meaningfully support this community.
This is all kinds of ridiculous for the simple reason that queer people exist and deserve to have their stories told just like anyone else. But I think it is also sad given the number of people who watched Disney as children and identify as LGBTQ+. I think young children who are beginning to learn about themselves have every right to see that diversity pictured in the content they enjoy. Therefore, I do not consider diversity in media a “wokeness” issue so much as diversity in media should exist because life is diverse. It is not about wokeness or appearing politically correct but being authentic to the lived experiences of human beings.
Terry Hu and the creators of “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” deserve praise for bringing A-Spen’s character to life. I sincerely hope young people watching the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S franchise (and not just creepily older fans like myself) see this character and feel inspired. Likewise, I hope that people who resonate with A-Spen feel seen, and even if people don’t connect personally with the character, then I hope this depiction at least broadens their horizons.
There is a lot that I liked about this movie that I felt highlighted the best of the franchise. The messages in these films are always solid, but there are many other reasons why they’re good movies. The set design continues to be fun, showcasing the best Zombie grunge-trash decor juxtaposed against Seabrook’s sunny planned perfection. The relationship between Addison and Zed is compassionate and mature, as these characters are always supporting each other through life’s difficulties. They are emotionally honest with each other and communicate, unlike 90% of adult relationships. Addison herself is a wonderful character who inspires kindness and understanding in others, and it is easy to understand why other people like her so much. I like that this film also finally offered answers regarding Addison’s identity, even if it wasn’t exactly the route I would have chosen (I was holding out for “she’s a witch,” but maybe the writers thought that would be too obvious).
In all honesty, I am surprised by the harsh response this film received. And by “harsh,” I mean that two media outlets gave nit-picky reviews about the final film that felt somewhat unfair and unwilling to consider the context of these movies. Lena Wilson’s New York Times review unfairly criticized the handling of A-Spen’s character, questioning why aliens would have a gender binary in the first place as if that negates A-Spen’s presence. I have found other reviews to be needlessly critical, as if their personal inability to enjoy the movie makes the themes less salient or the dance numbers less fun. So I’m curious – what did some of these media outlets want from Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3? Did they want “Shawshank Redemption” in Seabrook, where Zed spends 20 years using his Z-band to dig a hole to freedom from Zombie Containment? Or were the aliens just not their thing, and they wanted mermaids instead?
I think some reviewers need to honestly admit if a movie isn’t for them. These negative reviews seem to come from people who did not want to watch “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” in the first place. It is okay to not like a movie and not want to watch it. However, that movie at least needs to be criticized fairly. Or considered within the context of its creators and those limitations. I don’t like Marvel movies, and I don’t think it is my place to criticize them because my opinions will not reflect the intended audience, so I don’t do it. This is a Disney Channel Original Movie, and there were limits on what kind of content was allowed within the movie.
I have no problem criticizing elements of the movie that I think needed more work. For example, I think the character of “Bucky” was underwritten and lacked nuance. The guy spent three movies playing Addison’s racist, self-obsessed cousin and didn’t branch much beyond that. It’s not even confirmed if Bucky shares Addison’s alien heritage, which might have added some much-needed depth to his character. I would have liked to see him grow beyond his initial shallow storyline, but that seems to be a story for another time.
“Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 3” was a fun movie that did a good job wrapping up the open storylines from the series and left our characters in a good place. We know that Seabrook is taking steps to become more inclusive. We know that monsters will be able to go to college and rack-up crippling student debt like the rest of us. And we that new monsters will be accepted with mostly open arms, though there will continue to be barriers to overcome.
There may be no need for a fourth movie, but I think Disney should consider it. There are a lot of stories left to tell in Seabrook. New mythical creatures and monsters could pop up at any time, and prejudice still runs rampant despite the efforts of some high school students. Maybe “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 4,” could feature a coven of Seabrook witches hiding in plain sight. They use their powers to fix an international cheerleading competition (this could be a metaphor for people who uphold the status quo but consider themselves exempt from the rules). Willa and A-Spen will share an epic smooch in this movie or I will burn Disneyland to the ground. And “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 5,” could be about a lonely Chupacabra who just wants to make friends, but the whole goat-sucking thing gets in the way (it is a metaphor for self-destructive behavior). In “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 6,” the Chupacabra and Bucky will finally admit their feelings for one another while engaging in an epic cheerleading battle with unicorn people (it is a metaphor for being honest with yourself). “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S 7,” aka “ZOMBIES IN SPACE BUT FOR REAL THIS TIME,” will have all of the main characters travel to a planet where cheer has been made illegal, and all of the sets and costumes are in shades of grey. It’ll be a metaphor for, I don’t know, conformity or whatever. Unless they plan on hiring me to join the writing staff, I’ll leave the details to them.
I see a lot of potential within this weird little franchise.