Don’t give me diamonds, don’t give me rubies, give me a kick ass zombie movie with a little comedy on the side. Zombies are the Joseph Campbell end-all of monster myths, our own decrepitude rotted out and frothing for the brains of our neighbors, family, friends and the grocer down the street if he wasn’t already among the undead and gnawing on the innards of his stock boy. Whether you’re a die-hard Romero fan or a contemporary aficionado, there’s a zombie archetype out there for you.
A ZOMBIE PRIMER
If you’re new to zombies, below are a few need-to-know zombie-isms followed by a few classic canon and nuevo works to get you started.
Acting: Don’t even begin to complain about the acting. The actors are playing dead people. Get it? And the other actors are either debuting in their first film ever, or they are trying to survive a bad run in Hollywood. What do you expect? If you get stellar acting in a zombie movie then what you have, aside from a few outliers, is a movie that happens to have zombies in it. As the love for zombie lore grows, however, this ratio appears to be changing.
Setting: The usual obligatory setting is near future, apocalyptic wasteland. It’s part of the premise, the world is dying and so is humanity, and all we can do is feed on the remains of each other. For die-hard fans, apocalypse and zombies are like Thanksgiving and turkey. The turkey just doesn’t look the same on any other day. However, this is not to preclude that apocalypse is the only setting that works well, as we will explore further in the sections below.
Inciting Event: Someone, often the protagonist or head zombie to be, who is yet unaware that zombies have even risen or transformed, must unwittingly stumble into a zombie or have the zombie sneak up on him or her. It’s a common, though not absolute, introduction to zombie action. For some fans, this ‘oops I’ve stumbled into a zombie’ might seem overdone. For others, it is a revered opening, and these latter die-hard fans watch intently trying to figure out exactly when and where that clueless protagonist or first victim will meet his or her first zombie, which leads to the immaculate transformation.
First Bitten: This immaculate transformation — first bitten, like the virgin concieved of child unbeknownst to her — is a common motif in zombie films. The first bitten is attended to with concern — “Here, let’s put a little peroxide on it” — then lain on a couch or bed or given a shoulder or lap to rest until first bitten transforms into a “surprise,” attack zombie, and like a Greek chorus, the savvy zombie audience watches for that inevitable moment. This trope is a familiar tension builder in zombie exposition.
Zombie Tropes: First bitten, “Oops, stumbled into a zombie,” and other tropes are simply a part of the experience for many zombie film cultists. Before deciding which zombie film to watch or book to read, you may want to decide what your preference is on the trope scale. If you are one who enjoys late-night, dress up presentations of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or one who finds b-rated movies entertaining, zombie tropes may not be a deciding factor on whether you’ll enjoy the canon of zombie works. If you abhor tropes of any kind, then research the zombie flick well. The upcoming film, World War Z (novel now available in bookstores), minimizes tropes within the work, so it may be a good gateway experience for those new to zombie lore.
The Monster Myth: In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell suggests that mindlessness servitude to society leads to the post-modern monster archetypes of our time:
Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When Man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute. (8)
Commercialism, trancelike adherences to tradition — zombies reflect that which we are, that which we do not want to see within ourselves and yet many delight in seeing the reflection of this in film and literature. “What a piece of work is man?”
Splatter: There must be gore, intestine pulling, biting of flesh and, of course, hordes of nasty, gashed-up, eyeballs-falling-out-of-their-sockets zombies. Even Zombieland, which was more focused on the band of survivors than their interactions with chomping zombies, still paid tribute to the gore factor in the introduction and conclusion. Splatter can greatly vary depending on sub-genre, so before embarking on a new zombie adventure, you should do your research . . .
(a) Know your splatter preference,
(b) Know the film or book’s sub-genre.
Below are a few zombie break-downs to help get you started. Keep in mind that these can certainly overlap.
The Zombie Comedy: Zombie clichés to the extreme sprinkled with true wit and a love for the genre, and you get genius. When a film can take an audience into such satirical realms as to deliver scene after scene of bone gnawing violence while extracting peals of laughter from the audience, someone is doing their job. Don’t underestimate the power of this sub-genre. It’s often a use of social satire, black comedy and escapism that makes a good zombie comedy.
The Zombie Gore-Fest: Romero is probably the most well-known director of this sub-genre complete with gratuitous bleeding, organ ripping, and lovely shades of brain matter. If you’re not a splatter fan or b-rated fan, if you’re a viewer who does not understand the aficion shared by this cult club, don’t ask what the hullabaloo is about. We’re not giving out free memberships. We’ll not attempt to sway you, and we don’t particularly care if you understand. So go home and watch your “A List” movies. We won’t miss you, and we probably would have just thrown popcorn at you anyway.
The Zombie Philosophical: This one will attempt to give zombies cerebral capabilities. Fans are split over this and can become quite irate in their viewpoints, but while a thinking zombie may offend die-hard American classicists, remember that Haitian zombies, corporeal beings, predate Romero and so the corporeal undead with cerebral capability has history within the overarching genre.
Historic Zombies: These include the Haitian zombies, corporeal beings who have imbibed a concotion powder that includes extract from a pufferfish. The powder makes the victims heartbeat undetectable. This sub-genre also includes the earlier supernatural Voodoo zombies, animated corpses brought back to serve their masters. These zombies originated in South Africa and traveled through the Caribbean circuit then up through New Orleans and Hollywood.
The Zombie Virus: Ah! Humanity poisons the environment or gene pool. Then humanity eats itself into extinction. The undead virus is a growing fashion among both filmmakers and authors. It opens the setting for something less than apocalyptic, something potentially salvageable by scientific method. That’s a powerful premise.
A TASTE OF ZOMBIE
Below is just a smattering of zombie works to get you started. Classic zombie-ists may cringe because a few underground and appreciated works are not on this list, but I beg their patience. This is, after all, a primer, meant to tempt the virgin zombie-ist, and so I’ve tried to choose works that are readily accessible, gateway pleasures. Look for the dancing zombie, acting and splatter, indicators.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero
Pay homage. You must. This black and white classic gives rise to not only bad acting and on screen flesh eating but also a Vietnam era script where a black man is the hero until, lone behold, a posse of rednecks come and shoot him “mistaking” him for a zombie. Social satire and zombies, always a hit. Although this film is certainly not the first in its sub-genre — other films such as White Zombie came before it — it is arguably groundbreaking. Romero updated the screenplay and produced the remake of Night of the Living Dead in 1990, directed by Tom Savini. Rating: R
Splatter: (But it gets a three dancing zombies for B&W, bone chewing “splatter” in its day.)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Directed by George A. Romero
In Dawn of the Dead, Romero takes commercialism and gore to a satirically absurd level and fans love him for it. After releasing a few unsuccessful films in the box office, Romero gained back his position as the reigning king of the zombies or “grandfather of the zombie” with Dawn of the Dead. Interesting to note: the 2004 remake of this film did not involve Romero and veered from the original mindless, slow walking zombies of his films. Romero also directed the 1985 Day of the Dead, another cult favorite, though it did not do as well in the box office. Most recent is Romero’s Land of the Dead. Rating: R
Michael Jackson/Directed by John Landis
Yes, it’s a music video l’undead with the King of Pop. For those who witnessed the day that MTV first aired and then the day that dancing zombies graced daylight television, I need say no more. Particularly creepy is Jackson’s come on lines in the introduction. Rating: PG
Night of the Comet (1984)
Directed by Thom Eberhardt
B-rated eighties movie, that adults who grew up with spiked hair and jelly shoes, will never forget. Obligatory teenaged sex, valley girls kicking zombie butt, apocalyptic setting. Rating: PG-13
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Directed by Dan O’Bannon
“Brains! . . . More Brains!” If you think you’re a zombie expert, yet haven’t seen this cult flick, you must atone. Gratuitous nudity, toxic waste, “The Trioxin Theme” Horror Punk, zombies and even zombie discourse on:
“Why do you eat people?”
“Not people, brains,” says the skull with upper torso and wiggling spine.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Directed by Wes Craven
An ethnobotanist goes to Haiti and meets a revolution, a beautiful woman and a Vodou [Voodoo] man. After having his scrotum nailed to a chair (ouch!) and being framed for murder, ethnobotanist is turned into a “zombie.” Rating: R
Splatter: (The nail through the scrotum has to get something.)
28 Days Later (2002)
Directed by Danny Boyle
The “virus” spreads through London, and it turns people into raging lunatics. The ones who aren’t turned, ban together as transient survivors, go it alone in hiding or live in collective fortifications where brutality rivals that of the zombies. Socially explorative, this film renewed the zombie genre giving it a broader appeal and a new, more scientific face. Rating: R
Resident Evil (2002)
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Followed by several sequels, this film did not gather stellar reviews; however, it is enjoyed by a sub-section of pop-culture zombie fans who like the idea of critical-thinking, survival scenarios and a hard core female zombie assassin. This film also has a gathering of video game enthusiasts. Rating: R
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Directed by Edgar Wright
British comedy and love story all in one. This film is arguably the new favorite among zombie comedy lovers. If you like Monty Python, you’ll love this jolly good romp through zombie-fied London as the underdog protagonist and his dumpy best mate try to save a group of unlikely survivors. The scenes are playful, well-executed and show a true love for zombie classicism. Rating: R
Directed by Andrew Currie
Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, this Canadian comedy features domesticated zombies persecuted by their masters into slavelike servitude. The zombies wear Pavlovian collars to keep their hunger for flesh in check. When “Fido’s” collar malfunctions, trouble erupts in the Fifties setting suburbia. Rating: R
I Am Legend (2007)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Last scientist standing in Manhattan faces off against zombie-like humans. Neither the book by Richard Matheson nor the film are true zombie stories; however, they have found their way into the hearts of many zombie fans, some not. Still, Will Smith is fun to watch. Rating: PG-13
Seventh Moon (2008)
Direction by Eduardo Sánchez
According to a Chinese myth — rooted in folk religion then adopted by Buddhists and Taoists — during the seventh lunar moon on the fifteenth day, heaven, hell and the living share space on earth and ghosts are free to roam villages, towns, and honeymooners on holiday in China. Shown at the Florida Film Festival, this work has gathered varied reviews — cold shoulders from the splatter fans to high appreciation from suspense lovers. This film opens with the Ghost Festival and drunk honeymooners bumbling about. It soon turns to a dark drive in the Chinese countryside where the honeymooning couple fall prey to zombie-like demons looking for their sacrifices. More interesting than the zombies is the interaction between the honeymooners — Melissa, American, and Yul, Chinese American — and how they navigate through the terror-filled night and the culture barriers they share. Not having much experience with Chinese zombies prior, this film has tempted my interest in this sub-genre.
Dead Snow (2009)
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Shown at the Sundance Film Festival, this is already a cult favorite. This Norwegian comedy zombie film features Nazi zombies. What would any genre be without at least one Nazi film? A group of medical students go on Easter holiday, vacationing at a cabin in the snowy wild — sound familiar? Yes, okay, it does — when they are descended upon by the undead Gestapo. Now it gets interesting. Not Rated
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Woody Harrelson, a lust for Twinkies and zombies. Need there be more? Anyone who’s looking for an Oscar level performance . . . come on? Really? It’s a zombie action comedy. Have fun. This one is a silly, more than zombie ride through the land of boy meets girl and Natural Born Killers framed in good ol’-fashioned zombie chomping. Add a dash of post-modern, experimental styling and you get continuity and a flashy, pop-culture structure. This zombie flick is not a serious satire of death and mindless commercialism. It’s meant to make you forget about the long commute to and from work or the neighbor’s annoying dog that won’t stop barking. Kick back and relax. Rating: R
World War Z (Coming, hopefully, in 2010)
Directed by Marc Forster
I know it’s not out yet, but the book was so damn good, that it must be on the list. Must. And the author, Max Brooks (yes, that’s Mel Brooks’ son), should have enough pull in Hollywood to make sure the screenplay and film are true to the book, even though reportedly he has none. Nah, he’s Mel Brooks’ kid; somebody’s pulling something.
Written in an anthropological, case study style, this book quite literally had me looking carefully around corners and under the garage door for a few evenings. Gossip around the neighborhood is that I was hoarding bottled water and measuring window to 2×4 ratios, but no one has been able to confirm that with documented evidence.
I encourage you to read the novel while waiting for the film, and if you like the written zombie word, you may want to check out The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen. You may enjoy a few classic zombie stories such as Herbert West—Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Death of Halpin Frayser” by Ambrose Bierce, Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston and even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Though not zombie per se, Frankenstein set the stage for many modern and post-modern zombie archetypes.
And so, my zombie chums, I send you off to broaden your pallets, and if you haven’t found your one true zombie yet, don’t fret, it is out there, waiting around the corner, behind a door, outside the fence with nothing but the taste of your brains on its mind. Be patient, zombie lovin’ finds us all in due time.