Saturday, 31 December 2011

#34 An Interview with the Zombie of the Year!

It’s been a big year for Chris Writes About the End of the World, not least because it’s the first year it existed. There’ve been quite a few highlights. We’ve been in a zombie movie, interviewed a movie director, taken part in numerous zombie LARPs, managed to get a picture of Hello Bear bassist Tom Harvey’s face photoshopped onto a chimpanzee’s body to the top of his Google results, and we've seen the actual end of the world. Twice.

But the biggest story of the year has to be when, on sending my good friend Hannah Eiseman-Renyard of Whippersnapper Press to report on an event, I inadvertently got her arrested.
Blogging about zombies is only for the hardcore
On the day of the Royal Wedding she and disappointingly small number of people turned up to an event touted as a “Royal Zombie Flashmob”. Since there were only about five of them, they instead decided to have a cup of tea in Starbucks. Their cup of tea was interrupted by four police vans and sixteen police officers who arrested the lot of them for “A potential breach of the peace” and held them for the rest of the wedding, before releasing them without charge.

The story shot all the way around the Internet twice, and eventually lead to her being nominated Zombie of the Year by the Zombie Rights Campaign. Under the circumstances, we thought it was time for us to catch up with the woman who is now introduced only as “Zombie Hannah” when meeting people at parties.
We forgot to ask her for her skincare tips
So, you've been voted Zombie of the year. Can you tell us how this makes you feel about this, preferably while thanking various people, including God, and crying a bit?

Firstly I’d like to thank you, Chickenhawk [Ed. I've no idea what this word means], for putting me in harm’s way, and also John Sears and the Zombie Rights Campaign Blog for bestowing this award. I’d like to thank my fellow arrestees Ludi, Erich and Amy. If it weren’t for the “what can we do now?” chat we had down the pub straight after our release I’m not sure I would’ve had the belief to pursue it properly. Thanks to Mary Hamilton of Zombie LARP for the iPhone interviews she did with us on the day. I’ve had brilliant advice from friends with legal/human rights/protest backgrounds – you know who you are. I’m forever indebted to Green and Black Cross for bringing together wider groups of arrestees from the Royal Wedding so we could launch a group legal action. Also our lawyers Bhatt Murphy have been absolutely brilliant.
Hannah celebrates her new award by eating it and attacking the photographer

It's been over six months since your arrest. How's the arrest affected your life since?

Uh… hmm… well I have a pretty unique surname and I did decide pretty early on that I would put my name to this stuff (because I don’t think I’ve got anything to hide and I knew it would be more likely to be reported if it had a name to it.) However, I’m jobseeking at the moment and it’s a bit weird to know that if a future employer Googles me they can find out that I’ve been arrested in a matter of seconds.

But generally the outcomes of the arrest have been brilliant. With the precrime lawfail I’ve jumped head-first into a lot of protest and activism stuff which I’d never taken such an active part in before. (Y’hear that Met? I am ‘increasingly radicalised’.)
We’ve got permission for a Judicial Review, I’ve become a legal observer (someone on protests who is not part of the protest but there to monitor the police’s actions), and I’m volunteering with NetPol – the Network for Police Monitoring. Um… yeah. The arrest gave me a cause. So that’s been nice.

A lot of my readers are very stupid. Could you explain what a Judicial Review is so that they can understand?

A Judicial Review in English Law is a legal review of a decision made by a body such as a government authority, a local council or *cough* *cough* the Metropolitan Police. It's an investigation which private citizens (or groups of them) can request if they feel their (public law) rights have been violated in some way, and they want a legal examination into the decision which led to their rights being violated.

As the review can go as high up as it needs to; it can be long, costly, and time-consuming. Therefore Judicial Reviews are not that easy to get & you have to jump through a few hoops before it even begins. Lawyers under instruction from the plaintiffs must apply for a Judicial Review within three months of the incident. They must submit all the evidence they have as for why there's grounds for a Judicial Review, and the other side will submit their counter-argument/evidence for why there doesn't need to be an investigation. Then there's a reading of the evidence and a Substantiative Hearing which takes place with a barrister from each side and a judge - and if the judge finds there are grounds for a Judicial Review then permission is granted for one to take place.
I doubt my readers' attention span as well. So here's a picture of  Arnold Schwarzenegger in funny glasses
THEN the Judicial Review actually happens.

This is the stage we're at with the zombie case (now known legally as Hicks & Others): we have been granted permission but the review hasn't started yet.

In our case the Judicial Review is into whether or not there was a policy of pre-emptive arrests across London on the day of the royal wedding. We, the plaintiffs, believe that the fact that we were arrested, having not committed any crimes, in at least four different incidents across London on the one day strongly suggests that there was a London-wide policy of pre-emptive arrests in place. The police claim there wasn't. We don't believe them. The Judicial Review is to see whether there was such a policy and (if it turns out there was one) we hope that a judgement will rule that it was illegal and cannot be done again in the future.

For this reason we would love the case to go through and get sorted out soon (and we get a judgement/ruling) before there are more strikes, demos and the Olympics, but it's a lengthy process.

What's going to happen next? What are you looking to see happen?

Well, the Judicial Review should be concluded sometime next year.

My point of view – apologies for biting the hand that feeds – is that this was never about zombies. It’s about the police and the powers that be increasingly treated legitimate protest like a crime. And I wasn’t even protesting anything on the day – but I am protesting now. (That said – if it hadn’t been something as idiotic/photogenic as zombies I’m not sure we would’ve gotten half the publicity we did.)
Pictured: Photogenic
I think the rights of the living (and the undead) will continue to be curtailed and the laws regarding protest and public order will continue be re-interpreted for the worse until a few test cases come through. I think it’s clear from the occupy movement that the police are working to a brief which is more partisan than just ‘enforce the law’. I’m pretty sure it’ll get worse over the Olympics.

Finally, this is a usual question for the blog, seems kind of bad taste here but... What's your zombie survival plan?

Well, since I am a zombie my survival plan is to eat fresh, exercise, get plenty of sleep, stay away from gunfire, axes and law enforcement. Drink lots of water. Maybe some yoga. Y’know, common sense stuff.

Happy New Year!

Monday, 19 December 2011

#33 A Christmas Zombie LARP Carol

Yes, it's time for yet another Zombie LARP blog! You can read about my previous LARPing adventures  here and here. Also, thanks go to Oliver Facey who took a lot of the photos you see here and Thomas Greenwood, who took our Morris dancer's team photo. You can also read my guest blog What I Learned by Actually Role-Playing at Zombie LARP over at the zombie LARP website.
It was a cold winter night and I was ready for a peaceful night’s sleep. I had put on my Super Ted pyjamas, and had read a bedtime story to Mr Fluffy Duck. The two of us were spooning up, waiting for slumber to take us, when suddenly the windows blew open and I noticed a gaunt and terrifyingly pale figure looming over the foot of my bed.

The figure, a sallow waste of a human being, raised a single, quavering finger towards me and intoned “Christopher! MEND YOUR WAAAAAYS!”

Tom?” I asked, started. “Is that you? The Hello Bear bassist plus regular punching bag and butt monkey for my apocalyptic fiction blog?”

“Indeed, it is I, back from the grave with a terrible warning!” Tom groaned. “Also, I really wish you’d stop introducing me like that. I mean, I thought we were friends dude.”

“You’re not dead. I mean, at all. How did you get into my room?” I asked. “Is this about that photo of you looking like a chimp that I keep trying to get to the top of your Google results?”

This picture.

“Question me not!” Tom boomed. “Tonight you will be visited by three spirits. Mend your ways! Mend your ways! Mend yoooouur waaaaaaays...” he said, drifting back through the curtains.

I sat, alone in the darkness except for Mr Fluffy Duck.

“Are you still behind the curtains?” I asked the darkness.

“No,” said Tom.

I lay back in bed, trying to get some sleep and ignore Tom’s mouth breathing from behind the curtain. And that was when the first ghost visited me...
Later that evening I was woken by a sinister looking black man standing at the foot of my bed.

“I am the Ghost of Zombie Christmas Past!” declared the apparition.

I sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and said, “Really? I mean without even beginning to dissect the phrase “Ghost of Zombie Christmas”- That’s what you decided to go with? Not its origins in vampire myths, or the fear of the great plagues, but plantation owners worries about Haitian Vodou?”

The sinister looking black man said nothing. He simply waved a hand, and the vision began...

Jingle All the Way

By the head of the Friar’s Mall Morris Men
The 34th annual performance of the Friar’s Mall Morris Men was, on balance, not the most successful of our annual performances. The turnout was lower than it had been in previous years, several of our number had unfortunately passed away in the days leading up to the dance, and an attempt by some company called BioFlex to introduce a new holiday had unfortunately the mall had been taken over by a vicious horde of undead cannibals.

We found ourselves allied with a band of heavily armed survivalists. Now the Friar’s Mall Morris Men have played some pretty tough crowds in our time, but these guys seemed particularly reluctant to be saddled with a people dressed in ribbons and bells who made a habit of shouting “Hey Nonny Nonny!” at inappropriate moments.

Talking amongst ourselves we decided that, despite our best intentions, Morris dancing was not actually ideally suited to a combat situation. All we could do was wait until the right moment, then draw the horde towards us with our highly choreographed pagan fertility rituals.

The plan to nobly sacrifice ourselves to save our fellow men failed however, due to one crucial flaw.

It turns out Morris dancing is fucking badass.




Somehow the four of us made it out alive, and went on to have a very merry Christmas...

As the image wobbled and faded away, I looked up at the Ghost of Zombie Christmas Past and said “I really don’t get the point in that... Why were they Morris dancing at Christmas? Isn’t that more of a May Day thing? I really don’t see what I’m supposed to be learning here. It’s almost as if this is some sort of poorly constructed framing device your using to crowbar in a bunch of Zombie LARP stories...”

But the Ghost of Zombie Christmas Past was already gone.

I tried to return to sleep, but as I turned over in bed I was disturbed by wafting smoke crawling across the room, I coughed and sat up, to see the smoke begin to clear. In the midst of it sat a kindly looking old man with a white beard and a greying ponytail.

“George A. Romero? You’re the Ghost of Zombie Christmas present?”

George nodded sagely.

“But you’ve not made a decent zombie movie since 2005... and haven’t made a truly great one since 1985...”

“You shut up!” George Romero said, and blew of a cloud full of cigar smoke into my face.

Thus begun the second vision...
A Very Corporate Christmas
By the CEO of Organiflex

Organiflex is one of the leading companies in the applications biochemical, genetic, nanotechnological and occult technology in the fields of military, industry, cosmetics and nutrition, matched only by the Bioflex corporation in terms of market penetration and Presidential campaign contributions. Often, our two firms have worked well together.

Following notable outbreaks of so-called “zombie” outbreaks, we collaborated to put forward the case that the best way to avoiding apocalyptic pandemics of undead cannibals is to reduce the restrictive regulations on the industry and let the invisible hand of the market prevent the total collapse of all human civilisation.

That said however, we have often objected to the non-competitive practices BioFlex has engaged with, in terms of the subsidies it has received from several governments and world religions, and have lobbied heavily against them while encouraging prudent investment in Organiflex products.

This approach has seen an impressive payoff, and so I saw fit to reward my top staff with a weekend of corporate team building at the Friar’s Walk Mall. Among my staff was Alina Sandu, my
Resource Utilization Consultant, Matthew Barnes, our Envisioneer, and the new office boy and corporate butt monkey whose name I can’t remember off the top of my head.

This picture won't make it into his google results
No sooner had we arrived at the mall and begun some healthy bonding exercises based around the murder of zombies, when we discovered our long-established rivals, BioFlex, still had a recruitment office operating in the mall.

I took a unilateral decision and decided that the Christmas team-building exercise should experience and paradigm shift into more a hostile takeover exercise. We headed straight over to the recruitment office, carrying a heavy machine gun, and explained how the optimum use of BioFlex resources would be in the realisation of core Organiflex directives.

Unfortunately our utilisation of heavy firepower was disrupted by a band of boy scouts trying to get something called a “pacifism” badge. I explained that Alina had killed boy scouts before, but the scouts were pretty resolute.

As it turned out, there was no need to take out the BioFlex representative, he willingly told us about their project to give over a set of three “White Knights” (products highly derivative of Organiflex’s own “Bright Nite” project) to an apparition known as a “Nightmare” that had taken up residence on the top floor of the Mall.

By Matt Barnes, Organiflex’s “Envisioneer”
"When we've delivered the 'toys', what's to stop these nightmares just eating us?" I asked

"Erm, nothing really."
the recruiter cheerfully told us.

Well at least that was now out in the open.

Taking down the White Knight was actually easier than I'd expected, largely thanks to Alina's fully automatic machine gun which she could barely lift, but couldn't half tear through zombie flesh (for a few seconds at least, before it ran out of ammo). We then confiscated his axe and began dragging him upstairs to the nightmares' lair.

I'd now like to introduce you to the most terrifying monsters I've ever had the pleasure to encounter. They're dressed all in red, have horrible bloody masks on, and they DON'T DO ANYTHING. We arrived with our prize, and they stood there, leaving us alone, and cheerfully beckoning us in through a child-sized gap into the murky playpen. Call me paranoid, but there was no way in a million years I was going to go through that gap.

By the CEO of Organiflex
After surveying the situation and observing the overall emotional climate, it was decided a tactical market withdrawal was the best way forward. By this point many of the undead were beginning to gather and I regret to say my staff didn’t rise as well to this occasion as I would have liked- I was forced to kill three zombies with my own gun. The zombies on the other hand, performed admirably, and I left my business card with one of them.

We continued into the bowels of the mall, but soon found ourselves circling around to the children’s play area where the Nightmares were still in residence.

By Matt Barnes
My next encounter with one came a few minutes later, as I came down the main stairwell and suddenly found myself face-to-face with that familiar smiling mask. After warily circling each other a couple of times, it intoned, "Do you like games? What's your favourite game?"

Too nervous to summon a clever, witty, or indeed any answer, I waited for his next move. He stepped slightly towards me.

"Do you like... RUNNING AND SCREAMING??"

I didn't need any more encouragement than that, and I set off as fast as my little legs could carry me into the main hallway and past several zombies too slow-moving to come near me at this point. Just when I thought it might be safe to check behind me and slow down, I could suddenly hear running footsteps behind me and the cry of "Yay! Running and screaming!"

By the CEO of Organiflex
As Matthew ran screaming into the darkness, I reflected up on the fact that I’d always been a little unsure of him as employee. He didn’t adhere to the dress code as well as I’d have liked, and didn’t really seem to “Feel the win” as I always encouraged my team to do.

I turned to Alina and suggested that OrganiFlex had been in need of some downsizing for a while now. We turned around and calmly walked away in the other direction.

Rather surprisingly we found Matthew alive and well later. I reluctantly rehired him, and we headed back to the BioFlex recruitment centre. I arrived in, I will admit, an aggravated state. I pulled my pistol on the BioFlex employee, asked why he hadn’t warned us just what the Nightmares were like. At this point, I decided the time for collaboration had ended. I took his desk, and providing what I like to think was the calm, confidence-inspiring leadership that has always been my hallmark.

As I surveyed the room, I noticed a certain young go-getter who reminded me of a young me.
By Dave the Plumber (Of The Zombie Shop)
I switched on the camera we use for the drainage an' that and point it at Jimmy.

"How you feelin' about this?" I ask.

He shifts, all agitated like.  "A bit nervous to be honest with you Dave. I've had easier jobs." He looks worried. "To tell you the truth, the blockage in the basement is gonna be a bit of a bugger to clear."

"Too right!" I says, as one of them groaning freaks comes barrelling at us.

We sprint, ending up in a crowd in one the HR geezer's offices.

A posh bloke in a suit trots up and gives me his card.

"I think I like you son,” he told me.

"Alright fella." I tells him. "You need anything sorted; you give Jimmy an' me a shout mate."

All of a sudden things go mental. People runnin' and scream' all over the shop, well messy.

"Jimmy... what we gonna do?" I ask.

Jimmy swings a sawn-off and yells. "We'll give 'em both barrels. Wallop. Sorted!"

"Effing wallop mate." I agree, hefting a crowbar.

"Like you an' me sister last night," adds Jimmy "I heard you mate..." He winks. "I was on yer Mum."

"Cheeky slapper!" I says. "Let's get out of here. Anyone seen Mr Farnell?"

By the CEO of Organiflex
As news that an escape route had opened up spread through the office, people began to flee, including several members of staff I’d thought better of. I realised it was time for me to leave as well, but before I left there was one, crucial task remaining. I turned to the Bioflex representative and asked. “So, we don’t really need you anymore?”

“Well, I don’t know about that...” he prevaricated, as the zombies began to close in on the door of the office.

I drew my pistol and shot him in the stomach, before turning and running. Sadly, in taking the time to eliminate my company’s competition, I had given the zombies too much time to get close. A swipe to my shoulder knocked me to the ground, and the horde enveloped me entirely.

“Wait! Stop!” I cried out, and for a moment, they actually did. I pulled a cigar out of my pocket and popped into my mouth, savouring the taste. “There,” I said, satisfied. “Bring it.”

The image faded as the corporate CEO was ripped apart by slathering monsters, I turned to George A. Romero, confused, and asked, “Was that supposed to be satire?... I mean, it wasn’t exactly subtle was it? It made Land of the Dead look underplayed...

George Romero blew another puff of cigar smoke into my face, and disappeared in a sulk.

I stood, alone in my room, waiting for the final ghost to appear. When nothing happened I climbed into bed... when suddenly a Rage infected zombie leapt through the curtains and ran at me. I jumped from the bed and legged it down the landing, the running zombie hot on my tail, only just making it as far as my apartment building’s lift, as the door shut on the zombies greasy, gore stained fingers, the third and final vision began...

The (slightly less than) 12 Deaths of Christmas
As I watched I saw many a heroic demise as an evil looking creature stalked the halls of Friar’s Walk Mall. I tall, dark figure, dressed in black and white and carrying knifes as long as your arm. Bullets simply bounced off him as if they were made of foam, many a poor soul died at his blades.

I myself on two occasions was so overcome by fear that I fled my own team mates to hide in silence in the dark corners of the mall, praying for the creature to pass. Meanwhile, elsewhere there were players in the dark for an entirely different reason...

By Matt Barnes
I had a special event for this run - when I (inevitably) died, I was to come back to life with my eyes gouged out and completely unable to see. Tying a blindfold around my head for verisimilitude, I crept through one of the dark corridors, hoping the first thing I came across was still alive.

As luck would have it, he was, and I clung onto his arm. "Don't worry, I'll guide you through", the disembodied voice assured me. He led me along a bit, and I could tell from the light coming through by blindfold that we must be moving back out into the main hallway.

"Sorry about this", the man mumbled to me under his breath.

"Sorry about what?" I was about to ask, when he shoved me forwards, shouted "Everyone eat him, he's blind!" and ran off into the distance.

As it happened, I miraculously stumbled all the way into a safe room, and in the hope of finding a slightly more reliable guide, asked "is there anyone alive in here?"

There was a few seconds of silence, and then a very emphatic:


"Not us."

"Definitely no-one alive round here."

I didn't survive that run. Can't think why.

By Tarnia Mears
“Well, Father Flexmas doesn't have any concept of good or bad, you see,” chirped the Bioflex employee, “just sort of, alive or dead.”

That's how it started, really. Twelve of us crowded into a small office, demanding to know the whereabouts of the nearest escape route from a man who - given the apocalyptic circumstances - seemed remarkably unperturbed. As it turns out, the exit was not only being blocked by a growing mass of shambling walking dead, but also by the nest of Father Flexmas, Bioflex's latest experimental psychopath. He'd set up camp by the main doors and, whilst he lived, we were trapped. To kill him, we were told, we would have to trick him into eating silver tinsel. Black is his favourite, but were we to mix it with enough silver, he would become poisoned and die.

We searched the complex. One piece of silver tinsel found its way to Flexmas' lair, but we needed more. After nearly an hour of searching, all we had to show for it was a string of black. “If you give that to Father Flexmas,” someone had told me previously, “he will spare your life.”

“If Father Flexmas kills you while you have it,” someone else told me, “he will destroy your soul.”

I don't know who was with me when we left the basement. I had the black tinsel in one hand and led the group into the dim light of the first floor. Father Flexmas was waiting. A tall, round, masked man wearing black robes and a bloody apron, dual-wielding butchers knives. The party split, screaming, and the only thing I could do was throw the black tinsel at his feet. He stopped. “Ah ha ha HA!” He picked it up, and began to walk away in the direction of the main exit – in the direction of his lair.

“We need to kill him, we need to kill him now.” No-one heard me. They were all running in the opposite direction. I might have followed, had I not then seen, leaving C&A, a zombie grasping two long strands of silver tinsel. I beat the creature to the floor and tugged the tinsel from its arms. There were more of them behind me. A White Knight joined them. I was alone. I dodged its axe and hit it back with a hammer, which gave me enough time to sprint towards the still-retreating Flexmas. Near his nest, littered with Christmas lights, was another ball of silver tinsel, a remnant of some other brave soul who didn't quite make it. I picked it up and began to yell. Father Flexmas had reached his nest, but before he could turn around, I grabbed him by the neck, and forced the wads of tinsel down his throat.

“EAT IT, FLEXMAS,” I screamed, “EAT IT!”

He struggled, and wailed – a terrifying, echoing sound – but soon, he was silent. The zombies were upon me, then. I tried to fight, but the White Knight was back, and I knew then that I was finished.

Still, I had done it. I had killed Father Flexmas. When I fell, I landed on his corpse. The tannoy was playing Silent Night as my eyes closed for the final time. Sleep, in heavenly peace... rest in heavenly peace.

I watched as Tarnia lay dying on the floor of the mall. Then, miraculously, I was back in bed again.

“It was all a dream!” I shouted gleefully jumping out of bed. “I’ve learned some sort of non-specific moral! I will change my ways!”

I ran to the window, throwing the curtains open, ready to give Christmas spirit everywhere. The Norwich skyline was burning, and screams could be heard as people ran through the street before being torn apart by half decomposed monsters. I went back to bed.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

#32 Z-Rated: Zombie Proof Your Home

As regular readers will know, at the beginning of last month I went to the much publicised Zombosium at the University of Winchester, where I gave a talk about the ways Hotel Rwanda resembles a zombie movie that wasn’t in bad taste at all. As anybody who had to endure my company for the two months previous to that knows, I recently had to move out of my house conveniently placed between a gun shop and a shop full of tinned food. As I’ve shown in previous blogs, the majority of apocalypse-proof-housing on the market is prohibitively priced, but fortunately, while at the Zombosium I met Roger Cooper, a freelance architectural designer, and Jordan J. Lloyd, a PhD architecture researcher.

This pair recently entered the 2011 Zombie Safe House Competition and at the Zombosium they unveiled the fruits of their labours. You can see their plans for yourselves here. After giving their presentation, they were interviewed by a visiting journalist from The Sun, but I think it’s fair to say that the definitive interview, featuring questions that have been described as making Paxman “drop a bullock”, is below this paragraph. Featuring not only some ingenious ways to defend your home with flat pack furniture, Jordan and Roger also explained how the Big Society could impact our zombie apocalypse survival strategies, as well as how to fuel your car on dead zombies.

1. So, firstly, so we know where we stand: ANSD sufferers, or zombies. Judging by your materials, your strategy is designed to deal with 28 Days Later/Left 4 Dead style infected rather than the actual living dead? If ANSD sufferers are actually reanimated corpses of the “destroy the brain or remove the head” variety, aren’t strategies such as electrocuting them or setting them alight extremely risky? Burning zombies in particular would be extremely dangerous to have wandering around your street.

One of the first things we actually talked about when considering the project was the evolution of the zombie protagonist. I wouldn't say we were hardcore zombie fans, but we'd both seen enough media representations of zombies to understand that around the 90's they evolved from these slow, shuffling hordes of the undead to incredibly dangerous post human cadavers whose thirst for both brain and human flesh was only matched by their rage and intensity.

Assuming that ANSD sufferers will only be 'put down' by compromising the brain function, then we have to be imaginative about how we can do this, as one of the central tenants of our scheme was that citizens around the world for the most part do not benefit from the Second Amendment which allows them to carry firearms. When you have to engage the undead without guns like you see in the movies, then you exponentially increase the risk of getting infected as it usually involves hand to hand combat. Our mitigation measures like electrocution or burning through reconfiguration of household systems will affect brain function. Let's put it this way, if someone is set on fire long enough, chances are brain function will cease because there is permanent burn damage. Without knowing for sure, we're at best killing them (again) outright en masse, or at least slowing them down. How is a zombie possibly going to eat your brains out when their jaws have burned clean off?

The electro flooded street requires heavy use of water, which could otherwise be used to sustain pod occupants. Therefore this defence mechanism is intended for use only during an extreme zombie horde attack, as a final one off means of buying some extra time to allow a final air lift evacuation to occur. In such an evacuation the leftover water in water butts would no longer be required and could be dumped onto the street and any fire risk generated would no longer be a threat to human safety.

2. Could you give us a rough summary of your zombie survival strategy for those of my readers who are too lazy to click on links?

Sure. Basically we're doomed. Mathematical models of a zombie contagion conclude that the spread of infection will far exceed any organised resistance, unless aggressive counter tactics are employed. In the United Kingdom (and indeed most countries in the world), citizens do not have the benefit of the Second Amendment to carry firearms like our American cousins; resulting in a much lower survival rate for untainted humans.

Popular media portrayals of the Zombie Apocalypse show frightened individuals aimlessly heading for an unknown destination, accruing a gang of other frightened individuals fighting their way out of unfamiliar environments, usually ending in military intervention once most of the protagonists are (un)dead; with any survivors being relocated to a centralised military run facility to re-populate the Earth when the contagion has run its course.

So our solution to the idea of a zombie apocalypse is not a ‘one-off’ mobile fortress, but rather a socio-economic strategy, culturally embedded in our social psyche in the way we know best: the cult of consumerism. Rather than create a ‘zombie-proof house’, it is instead proposed to zombie-proof your own home in the event of a zombie apocalypse. The proposal approaches designing a zombie proof house from a perspective which assumes a future of everyday (albeit unwanted) co-existence with the undead. Z-Rated: Zombie-proof your own home projects a typical suburban London based strategy for adapting ordinary Londoners homes for protection against the marauding zombie threat.

If establishing the prime objective of the zombie-proof house is to increase one’s chances of survival, this approach has a number of pragmatic advantages:

• Good defence is based on familiarity, and no place on Earth is better known than your own home;

• Strengthens communities;

• The familiarity of the home will help frightened untainted citizens adjust to their new-found unwanted co-existence with the undead;

• Should our current communications infrastructure break down (i.e, phone, Internet), any untainted close family, friends and neighbours will instinctively head towards a trusted home;

• With forward planning, neighbourhoods can become zombie-proof, creating a safe, self-sufficient haven where life carries on relatively normally until military intervention;

• When military intervention arrives, zombie proof houses/neighbourhoods become stage points for a military counter-strike over a decentralised network;

• Creates a resilient system where the human survival rate becomes much higher and is based on existing community clustering and co operation

• Big Society in action.

A government response to a zombie contagion considers a strategy without the options of an antigen or vaccination. Integrated into Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision for the ‘Big Society’, a parliamentary response is prematurely distributed online, and runs as the main headline in a popular free London newspaper. It describes a strategy using Big Society rhetoric: building communities, decentralised power and localism. In short- getting the proles to pay for everything themselves, in the perfect union of the public and private sectors.

One quarter of the UK’s housing stock are tightly knit terrace typologies, clustering in cities and industrialised market towns, representing a significant part of the population. Demand for housing in London and the south east of England is high and growing each year. Z-Rated: Zombie-proof your own home locates itself within an already present demand for new space in the city. The strategy’s biggest intervention introduces a string of building regulation approved loft extensions that litter the roof-scape of London, typically providing an extra bedroom and bathroom for an expanding family or space for a new tenant, until such a time it is needed to provide genuine civil defence. An opportunity exists using the combined flat roof-scape of loft extensions to provide a secondary elevated street/battlement protected from the zombie threat at ground level, allowing citizens to engage in a variety of mixed programmes from leisure to food growing - at a comfortable distance away from the undead.

Like ordinary streets, the secondary street is envisaged to provide numerous programmes including:

• Elevated walkway/battlement;

• ANSDiesel & solar powered street flood lighting;

• Zip wire as a low tech means of crossing the street quickly to other terraces;

• Space to grow food (continuous productive urban landscapes);

• Seating and street furniture;

• Means of emergency escape and supply deliveries - helipad;

• Elevated surveillance of immediate vicinity

When the crisis is too big for emergency services to handle, in order to provide the volume of extensions that might be required nationwide, a public/private sector initiative is initiated using army and sponsored RAF air transport facilities to rapidly deploy prefabricated loft extension units produced at pre-existing commercial production facilities. The same mechanism provides a quick extraction if the elevated street is compromised: the lofts cleanly cut away from the existing house when airlifted by air transport and redelivered to a designated safe zone.

A popular international home products retailer is a key commercial partner, being the only company that has suitable worldwide production facilities, understanding of the commercially marketable home, with a suitable track record of high quality design and manufacturing.
They look so cheerful now that everyone they know is dead
3. Why did you decide to take this approach?

We were keen to explore a design response which consciously explores and addresses our current social, political, economic and environmental condition in relation to the zombie safe house housing typology. In order to reflect this desire we chose to use a newspaper as our presentation format.

Nothing is free of consequence and that is certainly true of design in particular. I've been fortunate to develop my design process in an environment that emphasises social awareness and the consequences of what your design brings to the table. The concept itself was really borne out of considering the effects of ANSD and the constraints it would bring on society, then you start asking the right questions. How fast is the rate of infection? How can we best defend ourselves with no access to guns? How can we get on with our lives if our emergency services were compromised? Really, the idea of a 'zombie proof house' at its heart is simply about making sure you survive, but at the same time it immediately conjures up an overwhelming sense of isolation. The thing is, when you look at the course of human history, nothing significant, least of all survival, ever got done in isolation. When you strip away the convenience of the modern world, all that is left is the instinct to survive and have enough food, water and shelter to live another day. Which means you have to band up with your neighbours. And there lies the inherent success of the scheme on a fundamental level. When you band with your neighbours and your communities (or just other survivors), 'zombie proof' streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities contract and expand naturally based on what resources and ingenuity you have at your disposal. I feel it would be a natural consequence of what would happen in real life if (when) the zombie apocalypse happens.

Let's imagine for a moment that this happened. What would you really do? Run towards the nearest centralised military facility? Of course not, you wouldn't even know where it was. I guess at this point people would be going through a Kübler-Ross stages of death mentality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But before that, people will head home. Why? Because it's familiar. It's safe. You know your own home better than anywhere. You know if you can't get hold of your loved ones or your friends, if they had any sense they would gravitate towards your home. So there is the basis for the rest of the strategy, it's a process that begins with accepting that most people will instinctively head home. All the rest is about emphasising this basic point and mitigating the inherent dangers of zombies invading your streets.

Then there is another fundamental question. If this seemed like a fairly logical approach, how on earth would you fund this? We're still in the turmoil of a large economic recession that's showing no signs of letting up, and so the vast majority of people simply wouldn't have the capital to be able to afford a zombie proof house. It can't just be a 'only the rich get to survive' mentality. The scheme is about quick wins. This idea you can buy some ready to use 'z-rated' items that double up as weapons or defence at affordable prices. Assuming a future with the undead would be taken as normal, then there is this absurd sense of reality in it because we're essentially appealing to the cult of consumerism, which like it or not, everyone is familiar with it.

Obviously, although we treated this as a serious design exercise, a lot of it, particularly the presentation format is very tongue in cheek. We were very pleased when we found an electronic version of the Metro (a popular free paper distributed in the UK's cities), and spent a bit of time researching newspaper graphics and made sure we matched the typefaces, headlines and colours matched. Even the tone of the articles had to match the kind of thing you would read in these popular newspapers. Roger and I had a great deal of fun with the adverts, but it also worked as a graphic device to show off aspects of the scheme that would have only come across in 'architectural drawings' or a text description. I think when you look at things like the smartphone insurance application on the corner of the back page, there is this implication that although that shit has hit the fan, companies would still be making a quick buck out of your misery - but when you put this glossy veneer over it in the form of an advert, you sort of gloss over how crass it really is.
Civilisation as we know it is at an end, but our TV is MASSIVE
4. You suggest that a well-known Scandinavian furniture store may be best equipped to provide the components for your survival pods. Whenever I’ve purchased furniture from a well-known Scandinavian furniture store there always ends up being a piece missing. Won’t that be a particularly serious problem in this case?

The pods are largely prefabricated off site to ensure their zombie proof integrity (Z-Rating). On site, they are delivered airlift by helicopter and IEAK's delivery team who ensure the final customisation of the product and a snug fit into the loft.

There's actually two different flavours to the IKEA/IEAK premise. The first as Jordan said is the survival pod being pre-fabricated to ensure its defence integrity, but the idea of z-rated products has more to do with the hundreds of other products suppliers like IKEA actually provides. For space reasons, I don't think this particular strand came off as effectively as we hoped, but it's a fairly reasonable assumption in the interests of profit, large companies would happily make modifications to their existing products to turn them into defences or potential weapons. Not to mention the amazing IKEA hacking community on the web on websites like or Life Hacker. Funnily enough, IKEA actually do provide spares. I know this because I have just moved flats and as a result have purchased some new furniture from IKEA. They will include one or two extra screws, fixings etc.

With regard to the pod, it was actually a logical extension to the idea of Z-Rated products. Just like you can buy a 99p plate, you can also spend £999 on wardrobes. Why not spend £9999 on part of an 'all-in-one' living survival pod? One thing that made me laugh when we were putting together the pod advert was just how ridiculous the price tag was. We're so used to seeing reasonable or even cheap prices (usually slashed) on IKEA adverts, putting a few extra zeros so it nearly ran off the page just looked absurd.

The pod though was interesting because we were developing this conclusion of the Z-Rated products with this idea of building regulations. As both of us come from an architecture background, we are both very aware of the UK's stringent planning guidelines which have in theory been designed to mitigate the worst excesses of development (arguably with very limited success). The Approved Documents for building regulations basically cover everything from fire escapes to how wide a corridor should be, or the incline of a ramp for wheelchair users. When you're dealing with potentially large changes to the structure of your existing property or land, like putting in a survival pod, even in absurd scenarios like the zombie apocalypse, there would be no doubt that the Government and Health & Safety would find some way of introducing some bureaucracy into it. In fairness, there are already guidelines to cover what you need to do for a loft conversion for example, and the pods were an extension of that.

Then we thought about not just installation, but also using Chinook helicopters as a device to extract pods away quickly in the event of a zombie takeover, so relocation can be immediate. So we designed some anchors and hooks to attach to the helicopters, but we would also use the same anchors to plug in other things like the lighting and zip wire rig. Part of an effective defence involves an elevated condition, and then it led onto this idea of your street potentially being compromised, especially in the early days, but your elevated street being completely safe. When you have this wide avenue spanning all your neighbours and your street, then it's going to be a fairly obvious thing to start growing your food or sunbathe or let your kids play on the roof area. I think my favourite part about the pods is just how complete they are - a lot of work went into condensing basic living amenities into a very small space - a bit like those capsule hotels or the YOTEL chain. In a way, the pod was probably the most literal aspect of the judge’s agenda we addressed as they are in themselves 'zombie-proof houses', but its effectiveness is limited when you don't consider the much wider socio-economic strategy we developed. When you analyse the spatial interior of one, you will find everything you need to live a modern lifestyle in it, which can then expand depending on how many more people you want to accommodate or how wide your house is between your neighbours if you live on a terraced street for example. Then of course, if you wanted to really take the communal living thing to the extreme, why not combine pods together so you can have several families or friends co-exist in a giant pod? People are very versatile and can adapt to any condition.
The best part is, I'm pretty sure IKEA really do have helicopters like that.
5. Your strategy is very much grounded in the ideals of the “Big Society” as put forward by the Conservative party. Part of this strategy includes financing the construction and installation of survival pods through special loans, which would be terminated should the holder of the loan be eaten by zombies. Doesn’t this create a serious risk that, based on their perceived ability to survive the coming zombie apocalypse, some families may be seen as “subprime”, resulting in banks attempting to off-load the debts of less-likely-to-survive families onto one another? The last thing we need is another financial collapse in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

The pod system has been designed so the rate of survival increases as the number of people daisy chain pods together increases - therefore the individual (and his or her ability to defend her/himself) is less important than the number of people linking together in the pod community. It creates a scenario where individual financial wealth is less important than community spirit.

Let's be clear about the Big Society thing - in a way the proposal is a very tongue-in-cheek embodiment of the idea of the Big Society, but this is just as much a commentary on where we are right now as a society as it is about its survival. The 'People's Protection Fund' as you summarised in your question would be exactly the kind of thing that the Government would use as a vehicle to get this whole scheme off the ground. It's not like it's without historical precedent. When a country wants to finance its wars, it offers war bonds to its citizens so when the war is over and when the economy has stabilised, it will pay the amount back. The sub-prime aspect is interesting, because if you look back far enough, one could argue the whole recession started because sub-prime mortgages increased substantially in the years preceding 2008 before shit really hit the fan. When you are a mortgage company handing out mortgages to people with questionable credit histories based on a perception that a. your regulators have relaxed the rules, and b. you want in on the profit derived from an increasingly hyper-inflated housing market, then somewhere along the way, it's all going to come falling down. I'm referring to the US market primarily, but the UK isn't far behind. A friend of mine illustrated that if the price of a chicken was to match the same exponential inflation of property over the last decade, then a chicken would cost about £47 - ridiculous isn't it, but so is the credit based banking system because it is based on a perception, and now we have to live in a world where the majority of people will suffer because a small minority of people thought it would be a good idea to not think about the consequences of some terrible investments. To be honest, would another financial collapse be all that more tragic when you're trying to not get eaten? I don't really have an answer for a perceived preference in who the People's Protection Fund would be awarded to, because the zombie apocalypse would inherently change the rules of the game - like any major global conflict, attitudes shift considerably, and the zombie apocalypse isn't about resource control or territorial expansion; nor is it an ideological battle. It's about survival.

6. On a similar note, as our national infrastructure collapses under the pressure of the ensuing zombie horde, your plan proposes we fall back on a more decentralised system, generating the power in our own homes through methods that include breaking down slaughtered zombie corpses into bio-fuel. I mentioned this at the zombosium, but isn’t this setting people up for a fall? Sure, initially there will be hordes of zombies littering the streets, but, if your plans actually work, zombies will not be a renewable source of fuel. Eventually, don’t you run the risk of us hitting “Peak zombie”?

Yes this is true. However zombie generated fuel is seen as a means to help battle against the zombie threat, not to replace existing fuel sources or true renewables. A post peak zombie scenario would imply the zombie threat is on the decline and therefore we would no longer require the extra fuel source.
The downside is you will need an absolute shit-load of Dettol before you can use that for chopping vegetables again
You make a great point. However, consider this. If you read academic papers on the spread of ANSD infection, it concludes it would happen very fast indeed, so you're essentially left with not a lot of humans, and a lot of zombies. A decentralised, or should I say hyper localised energy production wouldn't produce anywhere near the volume of bio-diesel commercial practices such as crop farming or algae farming would generate, nor would we be consuming anywhere near as much fuel as a pre-apocalypse society would either. We'd have to do some serious calculations on how much fuel zombies would actually generate, but I'm guessing it would be a pretty good rate of return for a considerable period of time.

I think it's worth actually explaining how the bio-diesel production from zombies actually works, because people are thinking how absurd the concept is, and something that really annoyed me about some of the other entries is that there was no discernible explanation on how they would derive fuel from zombies. Just like everything else we proposed, we take real ideas or things and just slightly stretch them into a new context and the bio-diesel thing is no different. The zombies themselves don't actually produce the bio-diesel, they provide the feedstock for its production. The idea is you would grind up the zombies organic matter and spread it as a substrate (along things like garden clippings, food waste and sawdust) in a container. You then add the vegetative part of fungi, known as mycelium, onto the substrate. The mycelium is amazing in itself - it cleans up contaminants, breaks down complex hydrocarbons and lignins, purifies water, and least of all, they sprout mushrooms you can then pick and eat! It's the reason why the earth isn't covered in 200 ft high dead organic matter, because mycelium is an integral part of the decaying process. So you have this mycelium and this rotting substrate. Then you add some yeast and a few other active ingredients to the fungal sugars that occur naturally as part of the process, let it ferment and voila, you have an ethanol that's no different from the bio-diesel you use in vehicles. Paul Stamets, the mycologist who pioneered the technique claims you can produce 3.5 litres of fuel from 48 kg's of organic matter. Now considering the average zombie would weigh just under twice that, it's a reasonable assumption you can produce about 5 litres of fuels per zombie you process. You can drive a car about 40 miles with one zombie's worth of bio-diesel or a lot more depending on how good your fuel economy is. A 5KW diesel generator would use up about 5 litres per hour, which is enough to power your home for a small period of time. Thankfully though, unlike other fossil-fuel based processes, this time the feedstock comes to you - all you have to do is kill it (again), collect and process it. Now I'm pretty sure most inner city neighbourhoods won't have any trouble acquiring a fair amount of fresh fuel sources every day! I'd estimate 'Peak Zombie' wouldn't happen for a long time and is entirely dependent on how successful the scheme is on a national level, and let's face it, if you're running out of fuel source then that's a good thing, right?

7. Do you think connecting up the survival pods is a wise move? In most movies it’s not the zombies who break the siege- it’s either a foolish mistake, or infighting among the survivors that lets them in. Surely the more people you bring into you network of survival pods, the more potential weak links you are adding to the chain?

Every pod has its own secure access. Whilst the pods could have been isolated, connecting gives many extra functions a space to occur, e.g. a further means of escape to a local elevated helipad, space for food growth, a surveillance platform. Most importantly the spaces created encourage individuals to work together as a community, where the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.

There are two hatches in the pod. One at the bottom where you would be coming up from the floor below, then an additional hatch directly above it that leads to the elevated street level. This controlled access requires a ladder. Now, even with hyper-dangerous '28 Days Later' zombies, I think even they would have a hard time breaking into your home, going up at least one floor, then negotiating a small ladder, trying to unlock a hatch, climbing through a pod, then doing it again to get to the elevated street.

We're not saying that the system is entirely fool-proof. On paper, it looks pretty tight but you raise this concern about the human condition. Human behaviour is anything but logical. Whether or not it's bikers assaulting the mall or Kevin Eldon's character in Dead Set literally opening the gate, somewhere along the line your system will be compromised. I happen to actually study resilient systems as my main line of research and one characteristic of resilience is this idea that when compromised an isolated part of the system can still operate and adapt under new circumstances. One of the more morbid considerations of small pods daisy chained together is that even if one pod was compromised, all the others are independently sealed. Saying that mind, the idea of seeing your neighbours getting eaten might appeal to some. After all, we're providing a suggestion in how to radically increase the rate of human survival against zombies, people fighting themselves is a whole other discussion!

8. Of the other designs in the zombie-proof home competition, which were your personal favourites?

Vanquisher, Gantry Stronghold and Vagabond.

Yeah I really liked Vagabond, the eventual winner and I'm pleased it won as it was completely different from last year's winner. The idea of a mobile 'back packed' survival pod is very compelling and is infinitely more affordable and accessible than some of the things we were suggesting. I particularly liked the mirrored 'armadillo' shell which acted as a brilliant camouflage. That being said, there are some limitations to a truly mobile system, because you are trading genuine defence with mobility, which is great for your short term survival, but after a while, people would naturally want to settle and fortify as the novelty of constantly moving around would eventually get at people.

The Gantry Stronghold was also very well considered, but highly location specific which in my opinion made it a specialised option for a lucky few people. Funnily enough, I actually liked the basic idea behind the Zombie + Termite. It assumed that humanity would inhabit giant termite mounds that floated in the air on hydrogen generated by termites digesting zombie remains. That said, I think the entrants may need to recalculate a. how large their floating fortresses need to be, and b. how much hydrogen the termites would produce as the calculations in the entry were looking at a 100% hydrogen generation efficiency, which simply isn't the case otherwise we would already be in a hydrogen based economy based powered by termites!

9. With the financial climate the way it is, many of us cannot afford to buy our own homes, living in rented accommodation that we don’t have either the necessary permission or the financial resources to modify. What zombie-proofing advice would you give to those of us unable to buy a fortified, bio-fuelled, entirely self-contained habitat to add onto our homes?

Answer - start with a modified Expedit bookcase spike pit and go from there.
A book case, some sharpened table legs and BAM, you're ready to go.
Ian Conrich made a brilliant point at the Zombosium about this and in a way it's the one major design flaw of the entire scheme. To answer Ian's question in more detail, I think a number of points should be addressed. Firstly, many people do own their own homes, and in an extreme circumstance such as the zombie apocalypse, there is no doubt at all many homeowners would gladly reinvest their kids university funds or their pensions in order to live. Secondly, we projected the scheme as a Government led initiative, and I'm sure more qualified professionals can make a better judgment on how to finance full out pods to provide from economically disadvantaged or renting tenants. In part, that's what the People's Protection Fund was intended to imply, but as with many initiatives, people can easily pick holes in it which was kind of the point - present some sort of glossy financial package that would literally save your life but then find out it's all a sham. One of the big drivers of development in the UK over the last decade has been PFI (Private Finance Initiatives) schemes popularised when Labour was in power. In essence, it creates a public-private sector partnerships (PPP's) that allow private investors to help the Government to build things like schools and hospitals and other large capital public services. The upshot is of course, that the private sector operates the service as a higher cost. It's a completely profit driven agenda, one of course that is struggling in particular when the credit based economy is crashing down all around us. Z-Rated is a reflection on the power of consumption, and is intended to have mass appeal on a number of levels, so as stated earlier, the Z-Rated scheme from a product point of view assumes the pod as an end result in a long chain of goods determined by value. As Roger says, spend £80 on a book shelf cum spike pit, or at the very least, buy yourself a kitchen knife for a tenner!

Thanks both of you for your answers.

You can see Roger and Jordan’s plans in full here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

#31 Pandemonium- Stories of the Apocalypse

Well, this is a special day for the blog. More special than our first interview with someone who works in the field. More special even than the time we inadvertently got somebody arrested. Today Chris Writes About the End of the World achieves the dream every blog has when it starts out into the world- the dream of getting a review copy. Because what is the Internet about, if not criticising entertainment that you haven’t paid for?

The book I received to review was the e-book Pandemonium- Stories of the Apocalypse, an anthology of apocalyptic fiction inspired by the paintings of John Martin which are currently on display at the Tate Britain. In the 19th century John Martin was to painting what Roland Emmerich is to movies that- that is, he painted vast, dramatic, often apocalyptic images that were incredibly popular with the general public but which the critics of the time considered beneath them. His work was quoted as an inspiration by Ray Harryhausen, and Derek Riggs, who created the album covers for Iron Maiden. Looking at the images he painted, it’s not hard to see why. It’s not an exaggeration to say that standing a few feet away from a two by three metre canvas he painted is every bit as breathtaking as watching a Manhattan get blown up again on a cinema screen, and if he was born in another time it’s easy to see him designing heavy metal album covers or the green screen backdrops for a blockbuster with the budget of a small country.

It’s not hard to see how these pictures could make good story fuel.

Now, one of the things I enjoy about reading anthologies, especially anthologies by multiple writers, is that it is one of the few times in this day and age when you can jump into a story knowing nothing about it. When you start a story you may recognise the name of the author, you may glean something from the title, but there’s no blurb, and not many websites jumping up and down to try and give away the plot. For this reason, while normally I really don’t mind spraying spoilers all over the place, this time I’m going to avoid going into detail about the individual stories in the anthology, and where I do refer to specifics I’m not going to tell you the title of the story. That way, you have to go into this book every bit as blind as I did.

Instead, we’re going to talk about the anthology as whole- what common ideas emerge from the mess of different writers throwing their brains into the same bowl, how the book works as a discussion (admittedly, a discussion where everybody talks without hearing what anyone else is saying, but that’s not too different from most of the discussions I go into anyway).

First off, Pandemonium- Stories of the Apocalypse, is a great book for reading first thing in the morning. You could also enjoy it as a lunchtime read, or maybe a bed time story to curl up with as it’s pitch dark outside and the clock is approaching midnight. Just don’t read it on a late winter afternoon as the sky turns red and heavy clouds the colour of bruises drift across it. Do that and this book will leave you just a little bit jittery and not quite sure whether you’re living in a nightmare or not.
View from my bedroom window. Yesterday. (The Great Day of His Wrath, John Martin, Tate)
John Martin tended to paint Biblical epics and scenes of Book of Revelations style apocalyptic devastation, plus a few scenes inspired by Biblical fanfic like Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. So it’s not all that surprising that many of the stories in Pandemonium have a pretty heady fire and brimstone flavour going. Many of them deal directly with the Biblical apocalypse, but even the ones that don’t make heavy use of a paint box of horned demons and lakes of fire.

Regular readers will know that I have taken to politely ribbing Christian ideas about the apocalypse once, or twice, or... okay, it happens a lot. But regardless of how hilarious I find it to talk about raptured souls getting sucked into jet engines (the idea of most things getting sucked into jet engines is pretty hilarious to me. I’m a simple soul.) the book of Revelation and its various fan fiction spin-offs have created a rich seam for story tellers.

The stories in Pandemonium exploit this seam for all it’s worth, and what’s interesting is how many of them approach it from a similar angle- to the point where a couple of the stories could be set in the same universe. The perspective several of the writers take is to peak behind the stage curtains of Heaven and Hell and look at the angels and demons for whom the coming apocalypse is just a job with all the usual workplace worries. The old fashioned themes of sin and redemption run right through these stories, and often we’ll see it’s the demons being redeemed and the angels doing the sinning. A couple of the writers look like they may have taken a leaf or two from Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens, but since, as I have explained before, all writers are thieving bastards, and neither Pratchett nor Gaiman has been shy about picking from the best that went before them, this isn’t really a tick against them. And as with Pratchett and Gaiman, the jokes in these stories are often there to get your guard down before they deliver the emotional dragon punch.

While these stories are quick to subvert and criticise this version of the apocalypse, it would be too easy to say that they are anti-religious. One of my favourite stories in the anthology (again, not going to tell you the name, you’ll have to find it yourself) features a character who represents all the best things about Christianity, and a God who is a different matter entirely.
Incidentally, this is what happens if you're a gay. (Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)
The mechanics of the apocalypse is just one theme running through the anthology however. These writers were asked to submit stories over August this year, and several of them, looking for inspiration, just turned on the news. One of the stories is explicitly set in the aftermath of the London riots, but there are others that feature apocalypses populated by feral youths, social media and, tellingly, quite a few out-of-touch middle class characters desperately clinging to normality as the world tears apart around them.

Which brings us to the third theme running through this book, and this can be seen in pretty much every story in here- if not every bit of apocalypse fiction out there. In some of these stories there’s no Biblical fight between Heaven and Hell, no uprooting of the world by an alienated and disenfranchised under class. In some of these stories the world just goes to Hell (literally- to varying degrees). Ordinary people are going about their ordinary lives one minute, and the next minute the sky looks wrong, the city is the wrong shape, the ground isn’t as reliable as they thought it was.

It’s this book’s ability to instil that fear in you that is the reason you shouldn’t read this between three and five pm on a winter’s day...

Friday, 11 November 2011

Breaking News: The Starbucks Zombies Rise Again!

Regular readers of our blog will remember how, on the day of the Royal Wedding, two of our intrepid reporters were arrested for, well, sitting in Starbucks while wearing zombie make-up. There was a small protest in response to this, but that's just the beginning of the Starbucks Zombies response to what was, basically a very, very stupid arrest. Here is a press release written by our intrepid Hannah Eiseman-Renyard (or "Zombie Hannah" as apparently people who are introduced to her now know her.)

Judicial Review of Pre-emptive Royal Wedding Arrests

Fifteen people who were arrested preemptively on the day of the Royal Wedding have been granted permission to challenge their arrests by way of Judicial Review. The claimants, who were arrested from different locations across central London, had not committed any crimes. Those arrested included people on their way to peaceful protests, as well as people the police merely suspected of being on their way to protests. None of the claimants were charged and all were released almost as soon as the public celebrations had finished.

“It is our view that the treatment of our clients was unlawful under common law and was in breach of their fundamental rights under the European Court of Human Rights articles 5, 8, 10 and 11” said a spokesperson from Bhatt Murphy. “The apparent existence of an underlying policy that resulted in those arrests is a matter of considerable concern with implications for all those engaged in peaceful dissent or protest.”

Those arrested include members of the ‘Charing Cross 10’ who were on their way to a republican street party, the ‘Starbucks Zombies’ who were arrested from an Oxford Street branch of Starbucks for wearing zombie fancy dress, and a man who was simply walking in London and was stopped and arrested by plainclothes officers because he was a ‘known activist’. The arrests have been dubbed ‘precrime’ in many circles.

The arrests, all said to be to prevent anticipated breach of the peace, are part of a trend on the part of Metropolitan Police of using increasingly heavy-handed tactics against peaceful protestors, which manifested itself most recently in the threat to use rubber bullets against students protesting against the rise in tuition fees. Such tactics create a ‘chilling effect’ which dissuades others from protesting in the future.

The use of such tactics, which on the day of the royal wedding appear to have gone so far as to include a policy of carrying out preemptive arrests in order to intercept and prevent public protest and other dissent, raises questions of constitutional significance with regard to the role of policing in a democracy.  The grant of permission for a Judicial Review means that those tactics will now be subject to the full scrutiny of the High Court in a 5 day hearing some time next year.

Bhatt Murphy is a leading civil liberties firm which specialises in police misconduct, prisoners’ rights, deaths in custody and immigration detention.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

#30 Hotel Rwanda: What Are We Afraid Of?

Site updates have been a bit patch for the last couple of months, mainly because circumstances forced me to move from my conveniently placed zombie fortress and I'm now having to secure a whole new building. However, now that everything's to my satisfaction, we're going to be seeing updates much more regularly here from now on, and I've got some great stuff lined up for this month alone. Starting with this blog entry.

A couple of days before Halloween I travelled down to the University of Winchester (so called because they have a rifle above the Student Union bar, I assume) for their first Zombosium (for those wondering, yes, the plural is Zombosia). It was an interesting day that involved studies of the zombie survival strategy debate on Mumsnet,  examinations of The WalkingDead and Dead Set, and some great theories about ways to zombie-proof people’s homes. While there, I gave the following talk on a subject I've been working up to writing about on the blog for a while.

What are we Afraid of?: Hotel Rwanda as a Zombie Movie
I’m going to start off with a couple of things that ought to go without saying, but I’ll say them anyway. Firstly- It is not the intention of this talk to be in any way flippant about the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Secondly- The focus of this talk is the movie Hotel Rwanda, not the events it was based on. I am going to argue that in terms of its plot structure and themes, the movie has a lot in common with movies in the zombie apocalypse genre. Fans of science fiction and horror like to say that our genres of choice deal with the big issues. If that’s the case, I think it’s worth comparing the way a historical biopic and a sub-genre of horror movie approach the same themes.

The Genocide
Before we get onto that however, I think it’s important to remind ourselves just what the historical events were that the movie was based on. Over 100 days in 1994 between half a million and a million people were massacred.  The targets of the massacre were the Tutsi people, an ethnic group that had been given positions of power during Belgian colonial times because the colonialists believed that they had more Caucasian features. During the genocide rape was systematically used as a weapon and men, women and children were murdered with machetes.

While this was happening, in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali Paul Rusesabagina of the Hôtel des Mille Collines was able to shelter 1,268 Tutsis, including his family, by bribing the militia and army with money and alcohol.

It’s Paul Rusesabagina’s story that is told in the film Hotel Rwanda. However, no matter how truthful director Terry George wanted to be in telling this story, it was a necessity to change some details. Multiple real life people were combined to create composite characters. Events that took place over a number of days instead happened in a single scene, rough edges were smoothed. Because he was telling a true story dramatically, the tools available to Terry George were the same tools available to any fictional film maker.

So what we’re going to do now is go through the movie, look at those tools, and see how the same tools are used in zombie movies.

Everything is Normal
The opening act of Hotel Rwanda establishes our characters and the world they live in. We see Paul talking to businessmen and running his hotel. We see the pleasant suburban neighbourhood he lives in, the kids that play there and how he spends time with his friends and family.

You’ll see similar scenes at the start of a bunch of zombie movies. Night of the Living Dead opens up with a brother and sister bickering on their way to drop off flowers at their father’s grave. The opening act of Shaun of the Dead introduces us to Shaun’s relationship problems and his dead end job. The 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake shows a nurse finishing her shift, going back to the suburb where she lives, chatting to her neighbour’s daughter and spending time with her husband.

The purpose of these scenes in a zombie movie is pretty straight forward. They exist to establish the main characters as people we can identify with. They have jobs and relationships and lives not that different from yours. The implication is loud and clear- these people are you. This could happen to you.

Likewise, on the commentary to Hotel Rwanda, Terry George says that he “Wanted to show they had a very Western lifestyle not unlike Europe and America".

Apart from the Problems in the Background
In Hotel Rwanda, while these scenes of domestic bliss are taking place, we can still see trouble brewing. A large part of this comes through news on the television and radio. The movie opens with radio propaganda from George Rutaganda saying why he hates to Tutsis. During the opening scenes we overhear news broadcasters talking about the Rwandan President’s involvement in peace talks.

Then in the background we see other details. While Paul is buying food and drink for the hotel, a crate tips over revealing it’s full of machetes. A neighbour is mysteriously dragged away by the army. Roads are mysteriously empty. Paul’s brother-in-law comes to him begging him to leave the country, and even while Paul is reassuring him that everything will be fine, there’s a power cut.

Again, we can see this reflected in a lot of zombie movies.

The first clue that things might be wrong in Night of the Living Dead is a news report about a crashed space probe from Venus, which the brother and sister promptly switch off without listening to. The Dawn of the Dead remake’s opening scenes have a background filled with mysteriously ill patients suffering bite wounds, news broadcasts that are almost immediately switched over to music stations, and “emergency bulletins” appearing on muted tellies.

Perhaps there’s no better example of this trope than Shaun of the Dead. The opening scenes of Shaun of the Dead are filled with half glimpsed headlines containing words like “mutilated remains” “GM crops blamed” and “Super-flu scares public”. A story about a space probe returning to Earth is heard on a passing radio, and the scenery is full of background hints such as sick people falling over in the street, ambulances and army trucks dashing about and a couple outside the pub who appear to be making out, right until one of their heads falls off.

The purpose of these scenes again, is pretty self evident. It’s that old saying about boiling a frog, gently ramping up the danger level so that our protagonists don’t notice it until it’s too late, while also firmly rooting a story that is about a small group of people in a much larger event.

Then Things Go Horribly Wrong
So, it’s at this point in the film that things start to really go bad. The president is assassinated. Tutsis from around the neighbourhood arrive at Paul’s house, begging for help. Soldiers turn up at the house, loading everybody into a van and driving them through the city. As they drive through Kigali, we see just how bad things have become. We see front gardens littered with corpses, people running around the streets with machetes, shouting and screaming and attacking other people. It really doesn’t take that much of a leap at all to see how these scenes resemble the scenes in a zombie movie. It’s a portrait of a society that’s fallen apart.

But for the sake of argument, we can see these scenes mirrored in the same zombie films we’ve been looking at already. When Ana runs out of the house to escape her zombie husband in the Dawn of the Dead remake, we see the city burning, people running and screaming through the streets, an ambulance ploughing someone down as it speeds past. In Shaun of the Dead, when they finally leave to pick up Shaun’s mum we see parks full of zombies and body bags struggling in the backs of crashed ambulances.

These scenes are crucial for setting the scene, because before long each of these films goes onto the next stage of the plot, which is the siege.

The Siege
In Hotel Rwanda the story really begins once the characters are inside the Hôtel des Mille Collines. More than anything else, Hotel Rwanda is the story of how Tutsi refugees are kept safe inside that hotel.

More than anything else, this is something Hotel Rwanda has in common with the vast majority of zombie movies. Whether it’s the pub in Shaun of the Dead, the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead, the mall in either Dawn of the Dead movie, the Big Brother House in Dead Set, the radio station in Pontypool, the stately home in the final act of 28 Days Later or the campsite in the first series of The Walking Dead, the pattern is the same.

Most zombie apocalypse movies work by first establishing a vast, world shattering catastrophe and then narrowing the action to a single group of people at a single location.

The Apocalypse will be Televised
Of course, while the characters in Hotel Rwanda spend much of the film restricted to the grounds of the hotel, we are still given a picture of the world beyond the hotel’s walls. We see footage from news crews that have been out there, depicting the slaughter. We hear stories from aid workers and refugees who come to the hotel after Paul and his family have arrived there.

The techniques used here are techniques used all over the place in zombie movies. George Romero likes his gore, but some of the most horrifying things that happen in Night of the Living Dead are things that we hear about, not things we see. One of the creepiest scenes in that movie is when Ben tells the story of a flaming truck he saw barrelling down the road, with attacking ghouls all over it. The fights between the characters are often over who has control of the radio or the television, which becomes a lifeline that the survivors use to find out about the extent of the outbreak of dead cannibals. The same is true of both Dawn of the Dead films, and in Shaun of the Dead, we know the problem is widespread because by the time they get to the pub none of the TV channels are broadcasting.

Nobody’s Coming to Help You
The refugees hiding in the hotel place there hope in the international community to intervene. Paul’s hope is that all he needs to do is hold out long enough for military intervention. His hope proves to be unfounded- the white guests at the hotel are evacuated, the UN pulls out.

A reporter responds to Paul’s hope that footage of the massacre will drive people to action by telling him “I think if people see this footage, they'll say Oh, my God, that's horrible. And then they'll go on eating their dinners.” Eventually Paul tells the refugees “There will be no rescue, no intervention for us. We can only save ourselves.”

Zombie movies are quick to demonstrate that the protagonists can expect no help from anyone in authority. In Night of the Living Dead, news broadcasts feature lists of refugee camps where people will be safe. In the original Dawn of the Dead it’s pointed out that those same lists are out of date and people are going to their deaths.

In the Dawn of the Dead remake, attempts to get attention from passing military helicopters are in vain, and the constant news footage only serves to emphasise how little the government knows about what’s actually going on, and in 28 Days Later a military outpost that claims it has the “answer to infection” turns out to be run by a madman.

The Siege Breaks
Now a siege narrative can only end one way- with the siege being broken. Every zombie movie that uses the siege narrative ends with their defences being broken down, the hordes coming in, and if the characters are lucky they will make their escape by helicopter, pub trapdoor or homemade heavily armoured van.

While the siege of the hotel in Hotel Rwanda is less literal than in the movies we’ve been talking about so far- using bribes and political influence as defences rather than boarded up windows and shotguns, this film ends the same way, and during the mass exodus of the hotel the only visible difference between the attacking militia and the hordes in 28 Days Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake is that these people have machetes. They aren’t individual characters, they are a mass.

So what?
Having been through the similarities between Hotel Rwanda and films such as 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and Shaun of the Dead, the next big question is “So what?”
I’m not going to argue that Terry George deliberately copied a bunch of tropes from zombie movies to tell this story. I think this film resembles a zombie movie because it’s preying on the same fears.

A lot of people have talked about what zombies represent. They have been used as stand-ins for our fear of mortality, consumerism, our love of celebrity or couch potato culture. But before a zombie is any of those things, it is preying on a fear that is far more straight-forward and literal. They prey on the fear that ordinary people such as your friends, your local shopkeeper or your neighbours, could turn into homicidal maniacs.

On the commentary to the film, when he is asked if he realised the scale of the massacres at the beginning of the genocide, the real Paul said, "No at that time I didn't realise. I knew it was happening in Kigali but I never thought my neighbour back home in the village where I came from could kill his neighbour."

It’s no secret that George Romero had the Vietnam War on his mind when he was making Night of the Living Dead. In that war clean-cut American college kids were sent off to another country, and found themselves having to do horrendous and unspeakable things. Then Romero released a movie where the threat was that ordinary people were turning into killers.

Over the last ten years we’ve seen more zombie movies released than ever before. During that period our biggest fears haven’t been that we will be invaded- that foreign troops will walk through our streets or bombs will drop out of the sky. What we’ve been afraid of is that someone down the street from us- a doctor, or a student, or a teenager who’s been hanging with the wrong crowds or reading the wrong websites, will try and kill us on our way to work. Most of the comparisons I have made with Hotel Rwanda could also be made with 2006 film Right at Your Door, about a man holing himself up in his house after a dirty bomb is set off.

I believe that the reason the zombies have entered the popular consciousness in a way that slasher movies or alien invasions haven’t, is that the images we see in zombie movies could easily be from the news. You look at events in Katrina, or Haiti, or even our London riots and it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of imagination to picture zombies running through those streets.

The Fear and the Fantasy
But there’s another side to this, and here is where things get disturbing- because we aren’t just afraid of a zombie apocalypse. We fantasise about it. There are countless books, magazine articles and websites about how you can survive the zombie apocalypse. The Centre for Disease Control in the US even tried to cash in on this with a blog using zombie survival plans as a jumping off point to talk about disaster preparedness- and it was so popular that it crashed the site.

In the movies, alongside the horror there’s a big dose of wish fulfilment. The Dawn of the Dead films, 28 Days Later and Night of the Comet all feature scenes of the survivors happily running through shops taking whatever they like. Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland both feature protagonists who have trouble dealing with the pre-apocalypse world, but who turn into action heroes when the zombies attack.

A big part of that fantasy, and a reason why zombies continue to be popular foes in videogames, is that more than terrorists, or Nazis or even invading aliens, zombies are creatures who you can murder wholesale without a shred of remorse.

I don’t think I even need to name a film where a character is told to shoot someone they knew who has become a zombie because “it’s not them anymore”. I’d be more interested in hearing if anyone knows of a zombie film where this doesn’t happen. Anybody who shows reluctance to kill zombies in a zombie apocalypse movie is portrayed as at best naive, and at worst dangerous.
Put simply, part of the fantasy of the zombie apocalypse is the ability to kill without any legal or moral consequences. I’m not saying this a bastion of moral superiority- at time of writing I have killed 45,022 zombies in Left 4 Dead- the equivalent of the population of Winchester- and it was a hoot.

Coming back to Hotel Rwanda, when the real Paul was discussing the way Tutsis were treated he said it was “dehumanising, like [they were] insects of no value". We see this all the way through the film. The Tutsis are constantly referred to as “cockroaches”. The Hutus are able to do what they do because, like the survivors in a zombie movie, they cease to see the people they are killing as in any way human.

One of the reasons I like zombie movies, and why I’ve kept following the genre for so long, is that so many zombie apocalypse stories don’t ignore these implications- they directly address them. In 28 Days Later the villain says at one point, “This is what I've seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that.”

I’ve already said that Night of the Living Dead is a movie about ordinary people becoming killers. It’s worth revisiting that and pointing out that the ghouls are not the only ordinary people who become killers in that film- the survivors do as well.

And that film was a direct take off the Vampire apocalypse novel I Am Legend, where the protagonist spends the book killing inhuman monsters only to discover at the end that they see him as the inhuman monster.

Before I finish I want to point out one major difference between Hotel Rwanda and all the other films we’ve been looking at.  That difference is gore. In Hotel Rwanda the violence is seen in the imaginations of the viewers, and in an interview Paul has said of the film that “a lot of it is less violent than real life."

The reason for this, the director says, is that “Physically close to a million people were macheted or bludgeoned death and I didn't think I could get close to the horror of this.” At one point he even looked into using actual journalistic footage of the genocide, but decided against it because it would “it would have turned the film into some sort of weird snuff movie".

Zombie movies don’t face such restrictions, because, crucially, the events of those films never happened. In the films I’ve been talking about we see eyes gauged out, decomposed skulls, heads removed, people literally torn apart and their guts spilling out as it happens. There’s the occasional discretion shot, but more often than not the camera will linger, forcing us to look directly at the consequences of stabbing, shooting or bludgeoning someone.

Sometimes maybe the gore in these movies is just splatter, but personally I think there’s more to it than that. I think these films are able to do things that films like Hotel Rwanda can’t. In the context of fiction we have an opportunity see just how terrible violent death is up close.

At their very best, zombie movies aren’t just violent films, they are films about violence.