Monday, 31 January 2011

#4 Left 4 Dead: How A Videogame Makes You Act Like You're in a Movie

I’m going to start this blog the way I start most things- by talking about Batman. Specifically, Batman: Arkham Asylum, the videogame by Rocksteady Studios. What I really loved about this game was that when you were playing it you felt like Batman. Rather than being a stand run and punch ‘em up where the protagonist happened to be wearing a batman costume, the gameplay has you scoping out enemies, gliding over them dramatically, swooping down and picking them off one by one as if you were being directed by Christopher Nolan. An ingenious use of Batman’s gadgets, “detective vision” and an enemy AI that is that special kind of stupid reserved for evil henchmen, bring you as close to being Batman as you can hope for without watching your parents bleed to death in an alleyway.
Actual game footage
This is actually an astounding achievement. Storytelling in games has come along a pretty much infinite amount since I started playing games and the exposition amounted to “The princess is in another castle”, but something they still very rarely accomplish is getting a player to take on the role of somebody else. Even in games that are admired for their storytelling achievements, such as the Halo or Half-Life series, the protagonist is still a faceless or voiceless cipher for us to project our fantasies onto.
These two are basically the same character
Even in games where the protagonist is well-drawn, all the work of the artists, writers and voice actors can be fucked up by the universal truth that gamers are basically dicks. In Grand Theft Auto IV, the main character is one Niko Bellic.
Niko is a tortured soul who survived an abusive upbringing and the horrors of the Yugoslavian Wars and has now come to the United States to escape his bloody past, however circumstances tragically draw him back into the violent underworld he has tried so hard to free himself from.
Except when I’m playing he also tends to be the sort of person to crash a helicopter into a hot dog stand for shits and giggles. Now Niko is clearly a many faceted human being, but it’s hard to reconcile these two sides of his personality.
Chris, Your Commentary is Insightful and Though Provoking and Incidentally, Your Hair Looks Amazing, but isn’t This Blog Supposed to be About Zombies?
You make an excellent point Sycophantic Voice Inside My Head. So let’s take a look at the Left 4 Dead games, which manage, ingeniously, to manipulate the player into acting like a character from a zombie apocalypse movie.
So Left 4 Dead is a game where you play one of four survivors, fighting your way across a zombie infested wasteland hoping to get to safety.
In the first game the survivors are Bill, a grizzled ‘Nam veteran, Francis, a badass biker who hates things, Zoe, the movie geek, and Louis who most people remember for his upbeat, optimistic attitude.
Now you mention it, she is a girl and he is black. I never noticed that before.
The characters all have distinct, if broadly drawn personalities and quickly worm their way into your affections, but this shouldn’t surprise you coming from the company that introduced us to the Companion Cube (who you killed, you bastard).
As I’ve mentioned before, in most zombie movies the zombies are almost incidental- they are merely an excuse to put a bunch of people who don’t get on together in a room and force them to cooperate. Having such distinctive characters with clashing personalities helps build that kind of atmosphere, but that’s not where the stroke of genius comes from. That comes from making the game cooperative. It won’t be the characters arguing, it will be YOU.
Just How Much Do You Like Your Friends?
As you progress through the game, there will be supplies, such as first aid kits, pain pills and grenades that will come in finite supply, and need to be divided up fairly among your survivors. In the second game this is expanded to include special weapons and ammunition.
What’s more, the game is full of situations which you simply cannot get out of without the help of other players. As well as the regular hordes (fast moving zombies, for those keeping count) there are also a variety of “special” infected. Rather than go through the whole list here, I’ll just give you one example of a special infected, and how it manipulates the player into playing the role of a character in a zombie movie, while also encouraging team play.
You know how in horror movies there is always one self-serving prick who flees for his life leaving everyone else to a horrible death? He usually has slicked back hair and probably wears some sort of suit. What happens to that guy? Every single time? That’s right.
In Left 4 Dead, the same thing happens. If you decide to leg it and leave your pals to die, the moment you’re out of reach of everyone else a special “Hunter” zombie will leap out of the shadows, pin you to the ground and proceed to rip you a new arsehole. If you’re lucky your team mates will come along and kick him off.
If you’re not, they’ll get distracted by something shiny while your entrails are being yanked out, and yet they’ll still have the gall to ask you to plug their band’s website. 
Moral Dilemmas. For Those of us with Consciences. Tom.
There are a lot of games now, such as Bioshock, Fable and Fallout 3, that like to pretend to give you moral dilemmas, but these choices are nearly always black and white- do you save the nun and the band of orphans in her care, or do you hand them over to the evil lava demon because it pays better and is funny?
None of these dilemmas will give you as much pause as when you have the last first aid kit and your friend is limping along with their character constantly grouching that “They don’t think they’ll make it much longer”. Sure, you could heal them- but you’re down to half health yourself and you might need it later. You’ll face the same feeling when, after a mad dash for the finish line you’ve made into the safe room, only to realise you’re on your own and the other three survivors are being swarmed by the undead. Do you go back and help, or simply close the door and wait for the sound of screams to die out? (This dilemma can be harder when your team mates take longer to die.)
That is how you put a gameplayer in a moral dilemma, they are the sorts of dilemmas zombie movies thrive on, and they are far more compelling than the usual “pick an alignment” choose-your-own-adventure choices most games give you. These situations aren’t carefully scripted or staged events put together by the programmers, they arise naturally out the rules of the game and just how much you like the people you’re playing with.
Tell Us A Story
One of the things I love about the zombie apocalypse genre is that it isn’t a genre prone to huge amounts of plotting. More often than not, characters are simply dumped in a room together, surrounded by the undead and left to bounce off one another, and Left 4 Dead is a game that thoroughly embraces this spirit. It has some strongly drawn characters, and while other zombie movies tell the wider story of the apocalypse through TV and radio broadcasts, Left 4 Dead tells its story through the signs posted around the deserted city, the corpses of less fortunate survivors (either ripped in half or carefully covered over by their companions) and the messages scrawled across the walls of the Safe Rooms.

The true cost of the zombie holocaust
But the real stories in Left 4 Dead are the ones the players make themselves, the anecdotes of close escapes and horrific deaths. One of the scariest games I ever played (and more than once have we finished a late night zombie-killing session and decided we needed to watch some cartoons before bed) didn’t feature hordes of zombies or even that much violence. Instead, it was when me and another player were stuck standing completely still for an age while a Tank (kind of like a zombified Incredible Hulk) ran round in circles in the room beneath us. Think the T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park but without Jeff Golblum’s calming influence.
If you want to read more about emergent story-telling (in the context of killing zombies, of course) I heartily recommend this article.
In the mean time, we should tally up the drinking game scores. So, the end of each level in Left 4 Dead ends with you under siege in some manner of building (One shot) waiting to be rescued. When the survivors finally get picked up by the military at the end of the first game, this happens so it’s fair to say the rescuers are both incompetent and more dangerous than the zombies (Two shots).. When you do come across the army they call the zombies “Whiskey Deltas” for “Walking Dead” so it’s fair to say they are the walking dead (One Shot) although they also run and can be killed by shooting them pretty much anywhere. Oh, and is mankind the real monster? Does mankind include Tom? (One shot)
It’s occurred to me that of the last four blogs, three of them have featured running zombies, so next week we’re going to be looking at a slightly more traditional zombie apocalypse, for those of us who want to live like kings in the post-apocalyptic wasteland without all that jogging.

Monday, 24 January 2011

#3 Pontypool: Orally Transmitted Disease

So, we’ve looked at the film that set out the rules for all the zombie movies to follow. We’ve found a zombie movie in denial and pointed out that yeah, it’s playing by the same rules as everyone else. Today we’re going to look at a film that’s well within the territory of the zombie movie, but does something completely original with the zombie apocalypse idea. Oh, and there will probably be some spoilers here, but hopefully not too much.
Okay, so we’ve already established that zombie movies tend not to focus on the big picture. They’re rarely interested in Frodo and his friends journeying to Mount Doom- they’re more likely to focus on the story of some anonymous Middle Earth peasant who gets his farm fucked over by orcs but never finds out why.
The majority of zombie films like to lock their main characters up in a room together, only giving them hints of the wider story through radio and TV broadcasts.
A Second Hand Apocalypse
Even the adventures of our main characters are often relayed to us second hand: In Night of the Living Dead we hear Ben tell us in detail about a gasoline truck he saw being chased down by a horde of zombies. In 28 Days Later Mark describes how he lost his family when Paddington Station was overrun. Telling us these stories second-hand does important scene-setting work. If it’s set in the early days of the outbreak, it helps give the impression that we are only seeing a fragment of a larger national or global narrative, set in the aftermath, it lets us know that we missed the party- that the war for survival happened long before the opening credits rolled, and we lost.
So it’s actually surprising it took this long for someone to think of telling the story of what happens in one of these radio stations, with the apocalypse relayed to us entirely second hand as the world finally goes to hell. Oh, we see a bit of it in Dawn of the Dead, as the TV station struggles to stay on the air while the city burns, but only long enough for our main characters to realise everything’s going to shit and decide to make a run for it.
With Pontypool we find out what happens to the characters who don’t make a run for it. Set in the small, snowbound Canadian town of Pontypool (That the setting is Canadian will prove important later) this film follows washed out shock jock Grant Mazzy, his put-upon producer Sydney Briar, and “technical cowboy” Laurel-Ann Drummond.
One of the first things we find out is- at the radio station Ben, Barbra and co were listening to, desperately hoping for an answer to the crisis, the announcers had no more idea what was going on than the poor folk stranded in the farmhouses, shopping malls and the Winchester Pub.
For the first half of the film, we only hear fragmentary reports, a doctor’s office getting mobbed by what looks like a protest or riot, a BBC journalist asking if the rioting and military roadblocks are the result of separatist terrorists, and the DJ isn’t convinced it’s not all some War of the Worlds style radio hoax. Anybody who’s seen a zombie movie will recognise the signs, but you won’t see a zombie directly until over 50 minutes into the film, and it’ll be over an hour before the horde appears.
Everything else we hear from listeners calling in, from the pilot of the radio station’s traffic chopper (which is actually a car parked on a hill) and from the news wire. It’s a claustrophobic, doom-laden film and if that was all there was to this movie it would still be a great addition to the genre. But that isn’t what makes this film stand out.
It’s the nature of the infection. This epidemic isn’t brought about by a crashed Venusian space probe, or by some sort of hyper-rabies. In Pontypool the infection is spread by words- specifically, the understanding of words.
Despite the sprinty/not undead nature of the zombies, these zombies are much closer to the Romero zombies of old, because they are as much objects of sympathy as fear. When we see an infected person hurling herself at the glass of the recording booth until the glass is smeared with her blood, we’re not frightened she’ll break in, we just don’t want to see her killing herself. When the military come in and begin putting down the infected, Mazzy’s outraged cry is that “You’re just killing scared people- it’s what you always do.” There’s none of the usual self-justification that “he’s not the person he was” when a zombie gets killed. We see the terror in their eyes as they lose their ability to speak, and when they finally turn to violence it’s almost understandable.
Everybody’s Heard About The Word
There is a theory that in the event of a Rage virus style zombie outbreak, it would go something like this:

I would watch this movie.

But a virus spread by words? Well let me make my point in the most painful way possible: The Game.
For those of lucky enough not to know what that means, and are therefore not swearing out loud and trying to punch your computer monitor in the face click here. I’m sorry, there’s no going back.
In a wider sense, words behave virally all the time, the infection stands as a metaphor for memes, ideas, religion, you name it. But purely in the terms of the film, it also presents a host of unique problems. Certain words are infected- but how do you find out which ones are infected. If you find which words are infected, how can you communicate that to anyone else?
This is where it becomes important that this film is set in Canada. The military that moves in to put down the outbreak (and who turn out to not be much help- don’t worry, we’ll tally up the shots at the end of the blog) is explicitly stated to be the French Canadian military. When the radio station’s broadcast is interrupted by an announcement in French, telling people to avoid terms of endearment, baby talk and “rhetorical discourse” it also warns people to avoid the English language, and asks that listeners not translate the message. To contain the disease, there is an attempt to actually quarantine the English language.
But we’re never in any doubt about how effective this strategy will be. If there is an effective way to contain an idea I haven’t heard of it (So, you know, well done!) and this is a film fascinated by language and ideas and the way they propagate. When zombie movies show you anything of life before the outbreak, it will usually be a shortcut to whatever themes it wants to explore. 28 Days Later starts with stock footage of riots and wars and the everyday violence humans inflict on one another regardless of any “virus”.
Shaun of the Dead opens with shots of people lumbering about their everyday lives, doing the same tasks over and over, looking like zombies. Pontypool starts out with Mazzy’s producer telling him that his attempt to spread the truth in a small town is pointless because “Gossip is way ahead of you”. The film opens on a monologue from Mazzy, talking about the meanings and etymologies of words, repeating them until they lose all meaning.
Zombie movies never being afraid to stick their subtext up on a fifty foot high billboard, we see plenty of examples of the kind of dangerous, viral ideas they are talking about. From the dangerous inflammatory rumours of booby trapped marijuana farms Mazzy is spreading at the start of the film, to the singers of a Lawrence of Arabia musical that come to perform in the studio, and feature a black-faced actor playing Osama Bin-Laden.
Pictured: Satire
Perhaps the lesson of this film is that some of the worst things humanity can produce are simply spread by words, and it forces the audience to ask itself- have you heard the word?
Right, let’s bring out the drinking game shall we? (Yes: You just lost The Game again)
Our characters spend most of the story under siege in a radio station (one shot) where the French-Canadian military coming to contain the situation are incompetent, and more dangerous than the zombies (two shots) because mankind is the real monster (one shot) also, there is a kiddy zombie (two shots) and nobody ever calls them zombies (one shot).
Next week I’m going to be writing about the Left 4 Dead games, and also Batman.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

#2 28 Days Later: Measure of a Zombie

This blog will contain spoilers for the movie 28 Days Later. Also, Romeo and Juliet die at the end.
Is 28 Days Later a zombie movie? This has been a subject of much debate among people who care about this sort of thing. So I’ve decided that now I’ve got a blog, I can end this argument once and for all, because nothing puts an end to a controversy like somebody writing a blog.
Well, let’s start by going right to the source- Danny Boyle, who directed the movie. He’s gone on record to say: “I keep saying, ‘It's not a zombie movie, everyone. It's not a zombie movie!'… They're infected. They're not zombies."
Other masters of the genre agree. Simon Pegg, writer and start of Shaun of the Dead and that zombie-themed episode of Spaced has chimed in describing 28 Days Later asan excellent film misconstrued by the media as a zombie flick” but which actually features “rabid propagators of a virus known as "rage".”
A lot of zombie purists will agree. The argument is that the Infected sprint about like Olympic Athletes desperate to get to the loo and they aren’t dead. If we go by the definition of zombie listed in our zombie drinking game rules, your throat will go dry.
I’m Right- Everyone Else is Wrong
The reason I’m calling on such high authorities as the director of the film, and famed zombie nut Simon Pegg, is that I want to make it absolutely clear what calibre of people I am more right than.
28 Days Later is a zombie movie, and the infected are zombies. Deal with it.
Don’t get me wrong, like many geeks one of the few things that brings me more pleasure than sci-fi and fantasy, is getting really anal about sci-fi and fantasy. If you ever want to see what I look like when I’m really irritated, describe the Daleks as “The robots that fight Doctor Who” (The Daleks are the mutated aliens in armoured travel machines who fight the Doctor). Distinctions like that are important because they change the story. It matters whether the baddies are creatures who used to be like us, or machines made by someone like us.
But in 28 Days Later, while the infected are clearly different from George Romero’s creations, the story DNA is right there. Let’s start with the drinking game shall we?
Our merry band of survivors spend the last third of the film with some soldiers who are under siege in an old country home(One shot) where it turns out, that the people they have gone to for rescue are more dangerous than the... ahem, “infected” (One shot) because it turns out mankind is the real monster (One shot). On their way to find rescue, our hero, Jim, has to kill a kiddy... ahem, “infected” (Two shots).
In fact, it’s worth pointing out that the scene with the kiddy infected is almost beat-for-beat identical to a scene in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The survivors stop to refuel; one of them stupidly wanders off on his own into the building, and is forced to kill a murderous child (or two). (To be fair to Danny Boyle, he has admitted thatThere are certain things in that we did that I didn't even realize were complete steals from Romero.”)
Still, the novel I Am Legend will lead you to drink quite a few shots under the drinking game rules as well, possibly more, since the monsters Robert Neville is fighting off are technically dead, but they are explicitly vampires. One of the texts Alex Garland and Danny Boyle openly admit to nicking from for this movie was Day of the Triffids, which will also see you downing a few shots, but even I’m not going to make the case for walking plants as zombies.
"Fools! Don't you realise? If we combined out powers, this wretched planet could be ours!"
So I’m going to have a make a better case if I’m going to crush all Internet debate on this subject forever (and I will settle for nothing less).
Spread the Love
Under the movie’s own terms, there are certain things that don’t really make sense for people who are just supposed to be really, really angry and bleeding a lot. If I was that pissed off I’d probably by laying into anything that moved, but several times during the film, the Infected don’t seem to have the much interest in attacking one another. When an enraged horde of Infected chase the survivors’ taxi until it’s out of reach, the hyper-violent, super-testosteroned nut boxes don’t immediately start kicking the shit out of each other. Instead, they give up running, and just watch the taxi slide out of view.

They were bitten by a chimpanzee infected with the half-arsed virus
When the infected soldiers are charging round the mansion at the end, looking to spread the love, two of them meet and instead of biting each other’s faces off, they stand around, sniffing the air and looking for someone less gore-splattered to attack.
This doesn’t make sense under the movie’s premise that these people are all just really pissed off, but it does make sense in the framework of the zombie movie, where the zombies’ behaviour is all geared towards making other people into zombies.
I would argue that this, more than anything else, is the most useful definition of a zombie: Something that used to be human, that as had all traces of intelligence and humanity permanently wiped away, and is now driven to spread this condition to others.
Simon Pegg’s argument for the Romero zombie as the only “real” zombie is that zombies “personify our deepest fear: death”. Except they also personify consumerism, or in Shaun of the Dead, couch potato culture, or the mob mentality. Over the years vampires have come to represent our fear of sex, the corrupt aristocracy, drug addiction, and being creepy glitter-saturated stalkers with promise-keeper rings. But regardless of whether they turn into bats or have a fetish for leather, whether they’re soulless demons or the victims of some sort of bloodsucking-based STD, we all know a vampire when we see one.
Zombies can be just as flexible, and it’s worth remembering that the original definition of a zombie has nothing to do with Romero’s creeping hordes. Traditionally, a proper zombie is an individual raised from the dead by Vodou witch doctors using a special type of cucumber, and is interested less in eating human flesh than serving his master.
Meanwhile, in Night of the Living Dead, you won’t once hear the word “Zombie”. In fact, that’s it. I’m adding it to the list.
Does anyone actually call the psychopathic, bloodthirsty hordes “zombies”? If no, take two shots.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

#1 Night of the Living Dead: And the drinking game rules

Okay, first things first: SPOILER ALERT. I’m going to spoil the heck out of this film. The plot, how it ends, who dies and when, everything. Then, just to show I’m not fucking around, I’m going to spoil the endings of Citizen Kane, and the classic Real Ghostbusters cartoon “Ghostbuster of the Year”.

Read on at your own risk.

It’s pretty hard to say anything about Night of the Living Dead that hasn’t already been said. That’s what happens when a film kicks off a whole genre. But just take a second to realise how different the world would be without this movie.

Without this movie, Plants Vs Zombies would be a garden simulator, Rob Zombie would probably be called Rob Vampire or something, and the modern classic, Zombieland, would look like this:
It's a dark and terrifying world
 There were zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, sure, but without that one movie, the zombie would be at best a C-list monster, maybe on a par with Egyptian mummies in our nightmares. That’s right: The only zombie films of the last fifteen years would have featured only one zombie, fighting Brendon Fraser.

But let’s forget for a moment this film's many, many imitators and to focus on what made this film so spectacular. Firstly, it’s a very small film. It’s a film about a zombie apocalypse (admittedly, a rather small one that only covers the “eastern third” of the United States) and it’s implied through TV and Radio broadcasts that somewhere President Bill Pullman is arguing with a gruff army chief and Professor Jeff Goldblum over the best way to combat the uprising, but we don’t get to see that.

Instead, we see the disaster from perspective of a few ordinary people trying to get by. If this was a movie about the Battle of Britain the characters wouldn’t be pilots, they’d be on the ground, hiding in shelters and listening to the noise outside, without really a clue what was happening. We don’t see the Venus space probe crash, spreading zombie radiation all over the place. The first we hear that something’s wrong is a report on the radio- that is promptly turned off because Barbra and Johnny have things to do.

This is a film about ordinary people becoming killers. The make-up on the zombies occasionally gives them flaky looking skin, or the occasional injury, but on the whole a mob of the zombies in this film looks like a mob of pretty much anyone else. They’re scary because they look like us.
Not like this
But the zombies (Should I call them ghouls? Nah, screw it. They’re zombies) aren’t the only people who turn into killers. At the start of the film, it’s safe to say none of the characters seem to come from a military background, or have any kind of violent past. Yet soon they’re shooting, lobbing Molotov cocktails and bludgeoning the zombies (and occasionally one another) to death.

If you’ve come to zombie films through ploughing through the hordes in Left 4 Dead, or watching the slapstick violence of Zombieland, the violence in this film might actually shock you. The first time we see Ben kill a zombie, it’s not a swift blow to the head to destroy the brain. Instead he sits atop the zombie going at it repeatedly with a tire iron, and it looks like hard work. The next zombie he kills, we see him actually struggling to pull the tire iron out his victim’s skull when the job is done. There are no quick videogame deaths in the movie. When Helen is attacked by her zombie daughter, stabbed to death with a cement trowel, George Romero thinks “Why not linger here a while?” and the stabbing goes on for an age, with Helen’s screams heard throughout.

And at the end of the day, the zombies are not the biggest threat in this movie. They’re an excuse plot, a reason to lock up these people together. Most of the deaths in this film are entirely avoidable (particularly Tom and Judy who, let’s face it, die in what looks like a freak gasoline fight accident) but are brought about because Ben and Harry can’t decide who gets to play alpha male.

Of this films many, many rip-offs and imitators, the most successful clue into that element of the film. The most successful zombie films are all variations on the “characters stuck in a lift” formula, with the lift replaced with any building surrounded by zombies. The reason the dead rise is something you only have to give lip service to. The hope of humanity against the rising horde is irrelevant (although it has to be said, out of all the zombie films, Night of the Living Dead probably gives humanity the best odds by the time the credits roll). It’s all about putting people who hate each other in a situation where they have to work together.

Now, I promised you some drinking game rules yesterday, so here they are. For future blogs, please following the drinking instructions every time one of these is the case, because nothing says “Good Times!” like drinking alone while you read something on the Internet. For the record, for Night of the Living Dead you have to drink for each and every one of these:
Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? (One shot)
Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent (One shot) or more dangerous than the zombies? (One shot)
Is mankind the real monster? (One shot)
Has anybody said “They’re coming to get you Barbra!” (Two shots)
Are the zombies walking dead (One Shot) who move slowly (One shot) and can only be killed by destroying the brain? (Head shot)
Kiddy zombies? (Two shots)
Do the dead rise regardless of whether they were “infected”? (Two shots)

Finally, in both Citizen Kane and the Real Ghostbusters cartoon “Ghostbuster of the Year” it turned out at the end that Rosebud was the name of his sledge.

Monday, 10 January 2011

On Thieving Bastards

Writers: What a bunch of thieving bastards. From Shakespeare to Dan Brown, they love nothing more than taking someone else’s idea and passing it off as their own work. It’s like candy to them, candy that until recently belonged to a baby.
And among these thieving bastards, you’ll find no one more thieving and bastardly than the writers of science fiction and fantasy. They just love to steal! One of the biggest franchises in the genre only exists because George Lucas couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon, so decided to blatantly rip it off instead, and the rest aren’t any better. Every alien invasion, time travel story, robot apocalypse, every scientist killed by his own creation, every group of hard as nails space marines in power armour, the truth is, if you’re a science fiction writer who is not blatantly and unashamedly ripping off the hundreds of other science fiction writers who came before you, you’re probably from the mid-to-late 19th century.
You didn't invent this George Lucas!
But even in this hive of scum and villainy that we call a genre, there is a group of kleptomaniacs that go beyond the pale. These are the writers that other writers should watch their wallets around. I’m talking of course, about the writers in the zombie apocalypse genre.
There are some in the genre that don’t even bother writing their own books. It’s not unknown for writers to simply cram the zombies into someone else’s existing book- even when it obviously isn’t needed and there’s no point in doing so and really, seriously, why would you do that?
As for the rest of them, every single piece of the work in the genre owes its existence to one film: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And we’re not just talking about the zombies, we’re talking themes, plot structure, characters, individual scenes. Hell, due to a legal loophole some people just flat out remake the movie without buying the rights.
And George A. Romero, father of the genre, originator of everything we think of as a zombie (despite the fact the word “zombie” is never spoken in the film), he is in no position to complain, as he freely admits to stealing the “last survivors fighting off hordes of fleshing-eating, living-dead once-humans” idea off Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. (Although we have to assume Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood was another influence)
But then, Richard Matheson’s monsters were actually vampires, using rules ripped pretty much wholesale from Dracula, by Bram Stoker, who in turn happily pillaged centuries of European folklore and took the idea of an aristocratic vampire from John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which, fun fact, was written on the same summer holiday that Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein’s monster.
Phew. So, by now you probably understand the sheer level of the theft that exists in the zombie apocalypse genre, although writers like to dress it up with words like “influence” or “homage”, it all comes down to the moment of reading or watching something cool and deciding “That looks fun, I’ll have that.”
I know, because I am a writer (Plug Book Here) and right now I’m in the process of writing a story about a kind of zombie apocalypse. Over the years I’ve devoured all kinds of fiction set during the zombie apocalypse (not to mention a few other kinds of apocalypse) in books, movies, videogames and TV shows. Like all the other writers before me, if I see anything fun in these I’ll nick it and use it for my own purposes.
The question is, with a genre so enthusiastic about cannibalism in every sense, is there anything new to say? After all, most of these stories don’t use the premise of the zombie apocalypse- they follow exactly the same plot beats (SPOILERS: A bunch of people who don’t like each other hole up in a building and argue until they’re ripped apart by the undead).
That is my excuse for writing this blog. Every week I’m going to be taking a piece of post apocalyptic fiction, it could be a book, movie, TV show, it could be old, it could be brand new, and I’m going to see what’s new about it. What does this do that nobody else has done before, and sometimes, how does it change the way that we look at all the stuff that comes before it?
I’m not going to stick strictly to the Romero style zombie apocalypse. I’m going to be making the case that Rage infected people count as zombies, so suck it up, and even if there is nothing gore splattered, murderous and moving in hordes, I’ll be taking a look at anything where bedraggled survivors walk abandoned streets looking for shotgun ammo and tinned food.
Oh, and I am going to be sticking to writing about the things I love. This sucks if you are the Resident Evil movies or the third act of the I Am Legend movie, and I wish I could say I was sorry for that.
Tomorrow I’m going to kick off this blog properly, starting off with Night of the Living Dead. I’ll also be laying down the rules for a new drinking game.