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December 19, 2004

The Zombie Renaissance

In the past couple of years, three superior-to-superb zombie films have been released: 28 Days Later, the equal-if-not-superior-to-the-original remake of Dawn of the Dead, and just out on DVD, maybe the best zombie movie ever made, Shaun of the Dead, which works not only as a comedy, not only as a loving spoof -- or rather homage -- to the best zombie films before it, but also works pretty well as a legitimate pure-zombie-survival picture.

If you haven't seen Shaun of the Dead, rent it immediately. It's great. The opening scenes do a great job of establishing character -- something that zombie films actually do a pretty good job of, overall, for reasons I'll explore later -- and providing great laughs. The early scenes rely upon the old-but-still-robust trick of the "audience superior" position -- that is, the audience knows more than the characters do, and the result is either tension (in a thriller) or giggles (in a comedy).

As Shaun goes through his boring daily routine, he keeps hearing snippets on the news about crashed sattelites and strange attacks by people who seem to be dead, but none of this registers, as he's far too busy to keep up with the news. Good laughs come as a newscaster is about to deliver some information the audience has heard in a dozen other zombie movies, but Shaun just changes the channel before hearing the critical information.

And so he goes through his hapless, pathetic life, only vaguely aware that the world is about to come to an end.

And then it gets even funnier.

What is it about zombie movies that make them so good? Take any genre on horror film, and I'll bet dimes to donuts that zombie flicks have the highest ratio of quality to crap of any of them. Sure, there are lots of awful zombie movies, but there are a lot more awful slasher movies and vampire movies and especially werewolf movies (quick-- name three good werewolf movies off the top of your head).

Zombie flicks approach a .500 batting average-- far above any other genre of horror. Is there any other sort of horror movie where you can go into a theater and say, "There's about a 50% chance this is a legitimately good, well-crafted movie"? I don't think so.

Why do they tend to be so good? How do they continue to delight and surprise while working, by and large, within the same basic and narrow parameters established by George Romero's Night of the Living Dead? I think it's a combination of several factors.

1. Zombies are, essentially, uninteresting monsters. They're scary monsters, to be sure -- make-up effects that realistically simulate the ravages of post-mortem degeneration make them the most gruesome of creatures -- but they're not terribly interesting. They're simple, they're undifferentiated, they're a mob of shambling idiots without personality or charisma.

And this is the strength of the zombie film. Because the monsters themselves aren't compelling as characters, the zombie film forces the writers and directors to put the emphasis on the really interesting stuff in any movie-- actual human characters and human interaction.

Dracula is, I suppose, compelling as a character, but directors become so enamored of his Gothic anti-hero angst there's little room to make the human characters anything more than ciphers and cliches. (Fright Night is a good vampire movie that has human characters more interesting than the monster.) Dracula is effectively a Gothic horror superhero, and vampire films are infected with the childlike power-fantasy tropes of superhero comic books.

Now, most good monsters remain memorable because they serve as metaphors for the human condition -- vampires, sexual obsession and sexual danger; werewolves, the animalistic murderous rage that lurks within all of us; Frankenstein, a similar capacity for violence borne not of rage but of moral innocence or, perhaps, moral insanity.

But still, all that is just metaphor. We may see elements of the human condition in Dracula, but only elements. It's hard to glean much about the human state from his transformation into a pack of rats.

In zombie films, the zombies do also serve as metaphors -- often brilliant ones, about the unthinking violence of the mob, unquestioned conformism, the drudge-heavy routines of our everyday lives, and, famously, rampant consumerism (both literal and metaphorical).

But the focus isn't on zombies-as-metaphors-for-the-human-condition. In zombie pictures, the focus is actually on humans, humans dealing with stress and violence, and humans dealing with each other. The most interesting conflicts in zombie films tend not to come between human and zombie, but between human and human.

This is true of the best horror films of course. Whatever your favorite horror picture is, the moments you remember the most-- and quote the most -- are the parts between people, not the conflicts with the monsters. Sure, Sigorney Weaver's power-loader fight with the alien queen was great stuff, but it's Hudson's "Game over, man! Game over!" that sticks most in the mind. The shark in Jaws was okay, but everyone talks about Quint scratching his fingernails on the blackboard, "Show me the way to go home," the scar-competition, and Quint's chilling description of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Imagine Jaws filmed more like a Dracula movie, with all the emphasis on the shark itself-- not a very intereting movie.

And in my favorite horror movie -- The Thing -- yes, the part with the head-scuttling thing was great, but the best parts involved the panicked and paranoid human characters arguing who ought to have access to the weapons.

Strip away the lurid premise of zombie films, and you often have, at their heart, a fairly serious examination of human characters and human flaws and the violence humans wreak upon each other when animated by anger, greed, jealousy, or simple panic.

2. The human characters in zombie films are also, essentially, uninteresting-- at least as far as conventional Hollywood melodrama defines interesting. Zombie movies are both horror movies and disaster/survival movies. The cataclysm isn't a natural disaster, as in The Poseidon Adventure or Volcano, but it's a disaster just the same -- zombie movies are supernatural disaster movies.

The typical disaster movie writes characters around their career and skill-set. The main character is an expert rock-climber, or he's a super-smart geologist who predicted this eruption months ago (but no one would listen to him, because he's a scientific loose-cannon maverick), or he's a world-famous climatologist, or the world's very best fireman specializing in high-rise conflagrations.

Smart, skilled people are of course interesting people in real life. But in movies, they tend to be a bit cliched and two-dimensional. We hear so much about how smart and omnicompetent they are -- and how they were right all along while others were so wrong -- that their actual humanity tends to be underwritten.

Zombie movies tend not to feature super-scientists who just whip up anti-zombie elixers in their basement lab. They tend to be everymen schlubs-- television salesmen tend to be an overrepresented profession -- with limited "interesting" skills at all. Sure, there's often a cop who's pretty good with a shotgun, maybe some SWAT guys who know their way around an M-16, and occasionally a thief who can pick locks, but they tend not to be the central heroes, and in any event their skills aren't exceptional. They're not common skills, but they're the sort of skills that lots of people in your neighborhood have.

Again, as the emphasis on skills and talents and genius is de-emphasized, the characters in zombie movies tend to be defined by their core human attributes. Who's brave? Who's panicky? Who's an outright coward?

And of course-- who thinks he should be the leader, and who actually has some skill at leadership. And the politics and power-struggles that flow from that.

3. A naturalistic style of writing and direction. Eschewing the tropes of the typical heroic, or superheroic, Hollywood picture, zombie pictures tend to be naturalistic, even slice-of-life affairs. There are few big melodramatic moments, few realizations that, say, a talented but cocky fighter pilot must get over his father-complex in order to be the winner of the Top Gun class.

This all seems to come directly from Romero's original picture, which is less a Hollywood picture than a European one in its preference for understated drama and quiet moments over Big Ephiphanies and Heroic Transformations.

And that quieter, more realistic tone tends to make zombie movies -- as lurid and as ridiculous a premise as the re-animated dead may be -- more credible than most moster films.

4. Low Budget, Huge Canvas. Zombie movies get bonus points for pluck and moxie because, despite their low budgets, they tend to posit the biggest horror scenario of all-- a world destroyed by supernatural forces.

Bigger-budget films tend to involve a haunted house, a deserted island, a village sealed off from intercourse with the rest of the world -- small worlds into which the supernatural intrudes.

Romero, once again, decided that his pitiful budget shouldn't keep him from just destroying the whole damn world. He wouldn't just have a zombie outbreak in a small Pittsburg suburb -- no, that's where the action takes place, but via news reports we understand that it's the same all over, and that entire world is ending. He couldn't show that, of course, but he didn't really need to. If a newscaster comes on and says "San Fransisco is overrun," well then, so be it.

And this trick partly relies upon the naturalistic tone of these movies -- after all, realistically, people get their disaster news not from first-hand witnessing of the events -- not by globe-hopping via the Concorde or Air Force One to each major disaster scene -- but from the radio and from the television.

Signs used this trick to good effect, of course. One of the biggest damn scares in the whole movie came from some low-res video footage of a Mexican birthday party in which an alien is just barely glimpsed in background. The shot cost peanuts to film, but it was far more effective than a $100,000 CGI shot showing monsters in all their glory. The realism of the manner of conveyance -- just seeing crap on television -- makes it all seem more credible, and therefore more scary.

There are other reasons for the quality of zombie pictures, of course. Zombies are just fun; Romero called them "blue collar monsters," unlike, say, the dissipated metrosexual aristocrats that all vampires seem to be, and perhaps that's part of their charm. They're Wal-Mart terrors, red-state horrors.

And it's cute that most zombie films never quite get around to explaining why all of this insanity happened. There are often theories, but usually no definitive explanations. Horror is supposed to induce a feeling of disquiet, and leaving questions about the reasons for the moral chaos just witnessed tends to keep that disquiet alive, whereas a nice little "And here's what happened" explanation would tend to remove it.

But at any rate. I don't know if independent film-makers can top the recent three great entries in the zombie genre, but based on past performance, I'm willing to give pretty much any zombie movie at this point a look.

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posted by Ace at 03:53 PM

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