Monday, 28 February 2011

#8 Braindead: Gore! (Huh!) What Is It Good For?

Hello again. Before you read this blog, a couple of bits of zombie-related news you might enjoy.
Firstly, the good people at Whippersnapper Press have just posted my story of zombies and travel insurance, Recorded For Training Purposes.

The Whippersnapper was also responsible for a rather brilliant evening of poetry and stand up a couple of weeks ago. They plan to repeat this with a Vogon Poetry Slam on the 25th of May in London, to observe the twin geek holidays of Geek Pride Day (marking the anniversary of the release of Star Wars) and Towel Day (commemorating Douglas Adams). Come along to enjoy poetry from the geeky, to the competitively awful. Providing the Earth isn’t destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass in the mean time.

Anyway, now for something a bit more on topic. This contains spoilers, and some really gross bits:

This week we’re going to be taking about Peter Jackson’s Braindead, known as Dead Alive in the States, but we’re not going to use that title because it sounds like it was thought up by Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster.

These days, Peter Jackson is best known for massive, three-hour long CGI-filled epics. However, he started out with nothing but a shoestring budget and an imagination that must have made his parents very concerned as he grew up. It’s a little known fact (little know because I just made it up) that before Peter Jackson was signed on to direct some of Hollywood’s big budget tent pole movies, he was made to sign a contract saying he wouldn’t blow the SFX budget on showing a man being eaten alive by giant, toothy, CGI sphincters.

Nobody tells Peter Jackson what Peter Jackson can’t do.
I have just re-watched Braindead, and it is by far the grossest, goriest zombie movie I have ever seen. I made the foolish mistake of eating lunch beforehand, and I nearly lost it no less than three times.

Now gore is pretty much the stock in trade of the zombie movie. Night of the Living Dead might seem pretty tame by modern standards, but at the time it was incredibly shocking (although this didn’t stop people taking their kids to see it). Whether it’s the classic Death Becomes Her shot in Shaun of the Dead, or Jim gauging out the eyes of one of the soldiers in 28 Days Later, there’s going to be some sort of splatter in whatever zombie movie you happen to be watching.

But when talking about zombie movies in any critical way, the gore tends to get brushed aside (even if it leaves a sticky patch). Night of the Living Dead is about Vietnam, Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism, Shaun of the Dead is about Shaun’s relationship problems. It’s easy to talk about all these films and forget what they actually spend the majority of their special effects budget on.

So, to return to the awesome pun I made in the title of this blog entry- what is gore good for?

Look Mummy! I made a satire!
Well, firstly, as I said last week, zombie movies aren’t just extremely violent- they’re often about violence- and a natural consequence of extreme violence tends to be gore. Personally, I find a bit of gratuitous splatter preferable to the weirdly bloodless gun fights you’d see in old Westerns or Bond movies.

Zombie movies aren’t just about violence though. This might shock you, but if you look at the names of the works that we’ve reviewed so far in this blog, there’s one word that keeps popping up in the title.

Go on, have a look, see if you can spot it...

Figured it out yet?

It’s the word “Dead”. Weird huh? It’s almost like death is somehow a recurring theme in these movies. The zombie, with its slow, clumsy but inevitable approach is a great metaphor for death. We fear becoming zombies because it means a loss of identity, it means becoming a merciless, constantly hungry killing machine and a danger to all those who you once loved. But we also fear it because becoming a zombie means you’ll look really gross.

So on that note, let’s start talking about old people. In Braindead (See? I hadn’t forgotten) the first person to succumb to the bite of the Sumatran Rat Monkey is the mother of Lionel, the main character. Before she starts to crave human flesh it’s made clear she’s already far from a positive influence in Lionel’s life, she’s clingy, possessive and jealous, actively trying to obstruct Lionel’s budding romance.

And once she’s bitten, she actually becomes more vulnerable. Her ability to speak is impaired, her hands become stiff and unresponsive, and her skin has to be literally glued onto her face to stop it peeling off. But just as Shaun and Ed see a zombie and immediately conclude that she must be pissed, when the president of the Women’s institute pays a visit she looks at Lionel’s mother and sees her as someone who’s a bit senile. It’s a parody of old age, and our fear for Lionel isn’t that he’s going to be eaten, but that he’s going to be stuck looking after his zombified mother, old, gross-looking, but basically immortal, at the expense of any chance of a life of his own.

When the Lionel’s zombified mother finally breaks loose and goes on a killing spree it actually drives this point home. In a desperate bid to cover up his mother’s condition, Lionel ends up bringing all her zombified victims back home, feeding them, cleaning them, and keeping them doped up on tranquilisers and as they decompose around him.

Zombies also love Countdown
There’s more to the gore in this movie than Peter Jackson exorcising his fear of having to care for elderly relatives however. One of the earlier and more revolting parts of the film shows Lionel’s mother slowly crushing the rat monkey’s skull beneath her heel after it bites her. Here it’s important that the camera lingers on the rat, sees its eyes bulging out of its skull, and the look of satisfaction on Lionel’s mother’s face. The rat monkey has already been built up as a horrible, unpleasant monster, with a back story involving the slave trade, interspecies rape and black magic. This scene is purpose built to drive home the fact that Lionel’s mother is far worse than any of that.

In Braindead, your innards are Peter Jackson’s paintbrush, and he finds no end of imaginative and bizarre ways to apply it to the canvas. In this movie a dead baby crawls up inside a woman’s skull, sticks his arms out of her ears and rips her face open. In one scene, Lionel is unable to flee from a horde of approaching zombies because the floor is too slippery with blood- he gets to safety using dismembered limbs and heads as stepping stones. At one point he has to fight off being strangled by an animated intestinal tract (Peter Jackson doesn’t give a flat fuck for the Romero Rules), which then somehow manages to appear to begging for mercy before it is vaporised by a lawnmower.

What do you mean it’s not cute?
And while I’m at it, seeing Lionel literally mow down a horde of zombies is one of the most awesome scenes of zombie slaughter in movie history. The gore in the grand, blood-soaked finale of the movie is less a grim parody of human mortality than a piece of gleeful slapstick. Jackson is positively revelling in it.

The trouble is, if you hate gore (Like certain more wussy bloggers I won't name) it’s very hard to look past that first visceral reaction to see how the gore is being used. In Braindead we see gore being used as a metaphor for our fears about old age and mortality, as the basis for a huge, elaborate slapstick routine, leading up to a scene where Peter Jackson shows us that subtext is for pussies by having an old lady literally drags her son back into her foul, rotting womb.

Pictured: Subtlety
So, there’s a lot to be said for becoming desensitised to violence.

Okay, time for the drinking game. Strict interpretations this week, as there were complaints last week that I was being a bit too lenient (Okay, they didn’t spend most of Shaun of the Dead actually in the Winchester, but I still say the Winchester was a big enough character in the story to justify the shot). So this week you only get to drink for mankind being the real monster (Lionel’s uncle and mother are both pretty horrid before they’re zombified), for the zombies being walking dead (One shot) who move slowly (One shot) and then another two drinks for the zombified baby (My favourite character in the whole film).

Now if there’s one complaint often levelled at bloggers who write about zombies (You know who you are!) it’s that it’s easy for us to judge while we’re ensconced safely behind our laptops, but that we never get out in the field and report from where the story is.

Well, to silence the complaining types, next week I will be doing just that, reporting from the front line of the Zombie LARP!

In the meantime, game organiser and award winning journalist Mary Hamilton recently gave a talk alongside the likes of Tim Kring and Graham Lineham at The Story conference. You can read her insights here.

Now get out of here. You sicken me.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

#7 Shaun of the Dead: Why You Think You're Badass

So, let’s talk about Shaun of the Dead, the film that started off the whole zombie renaissance that so many people are getting sick of by now.

Oh, you thought it was 28 Days Later?

Or the general atmosphere of apocalyptic doom and despair that’s been prevalent since 9/11 and the Iraq War.

Well, they might have helped, but the reason that for the last decade nerds have been crafting intricate strategies for the hording of food and the decapitation of their neighbours (especially Neil, because fuck that guy) can be traced back to this film. This is the film that convinced you all that no matter how big a loser you are, the day the dead rise you will metamorphose into a cricket-bat wielding badass.
Some of you have completely lost touch with reality

Shaun of the Dead is different from the other movies we’ve looked at so far. Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later and I Am Legend aren’t just violent stories, but they’re also stories about violence. In one way or another these are stories about how violent people are, and the human cost violence has for the perpetrator as well as the victim. Even Pontypool is littered with references to the war in Afghanistan, and makes a major plot point of the guilt that comes from killing the obligatory kiddy zombie.

Shaun of the Dead gives a couple of nods to these themes, in the creepy look on Ed’s face after he’s smashed someone’s skull in with an ash tray, in that most of the improvised weapons and projectiles the characters use- records, swing-balls, and boxes of assorted throwing objects, turn out to be a bit shit and in that someone who spends hours of his life shooting down people in Timesplitters 2 will actually turn out to be a bit crap when he gets his hands on a rifle. But that isn’t Shaun of the Dead’s primary concern. Shaun of the Dead is a story about an aimless twenty-something struggling to grow up and get over his hangover. I can’t imagine why I like it so much.

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s script is littered with foreshadowing and throwbacks, and one of these is that the entire plot of the movie is summed up with the drunken Shaun’s to-do list scrawled across the fridge:

Not long before, Ed also describes the plot of the whole movie in the form of a plan for a pub crawl:

“A Bloody Mary first thing, (the zombie they kill in the garden is called Mary) a bite at the King's Head, (Shaun’s stepdad getting bitten), couple at The Little Princess, (fetching Liz), stagger back here (the Winchester) and bang... back at the bar for shots. (Getting the rifle).”

The characters see the whole outbreak in terms of their everyday lives, relationships and trips to the pub, never even thinking about the larger political, philosophical and theological aspects of the zombie (not quite) apocalypse. When they flick through the TV channels and get nothing but blank, the response is a rather glib “There’s never anything on is there?” rather than wondering if we’ll see the lights turn on again in our lifetime.

I’ve already talked about the way zombie apocalypses have of narrowing the action down to an extremely small stage, then giving us hints and tips about the larger story through radio broadcasts and background action. The first part of Shaun of the Dead is littered with this. We see military trucks moving around in the background, people passing out at the bus stop, half-glimpsed headlines, a man eating a pigeon, a guy face down on his own steering wheel, and none of it is referred to by the characters directly. Shaun even manages to walk right to the corner shop and back through smashed up cars and scattered zombies without noticing that anything is wrong (incidentally, I’ve been to that corner shop, and they do a great strawberry Cornetto).

Edgar Wright has already gone on record as saying that this was partly inspired by his own discovery of the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK.

He’d missed the news for a couple of days, then turned the telly on to see mountains of burning cows. But it could just as easily be anything in the news. The movie came out while I was in uni and the Iraq War was getting into full swing, and my memories of that time are made up of sitting in the Union Bar, chatting about the usual bollocks students talk about, but with this constant background hum on the TV screens of tanks moving through deserts, reports of car bombs going off, and over-excited reporters in blurry, pixellated footage. Shaun of the Dead slots neatly into the Romero canon because like his films, these are characters at the periphery of the world-changing events. But unlike Romero’s characters, even as the world is falling apart these characters are still driven by the same pre-apocalyptic concerns- Shaun’s rivalry with his step-dad, his toxic friendship with Ed, and his attempts to win Liz back.

The real question at the end of the film isn’t about the aftermath of this huge, world changing cataclysm. Globally, the worst consequence of the apocalypse seems to be the return of It’s A Knockout.

Although in all fairness, I would totally watch this
The more dramatically important question at the end of the film is whether or not Shaun has moved on at all. In Simon Pegg’s memoir (which I’ve been reading to better to learn his ways so that I may eventually kill him and steal his life) he mentions that it’s left deliberately ambiguous whether Liz knows that Ed is being kept chained up in the garden shed (something else foreshadowed at the start of the film). If she doesn’t know, then Shaun hasn’t really changed and the idyllic post-zombie existence they’re enjoying may not last all that long. If she does, then she’s complicit in allowing him to carry on as he did before. Either way, Shaun remains the same person even in face of the zombie invasion, the petty tendencies and the bravery in the face of danger were equally a part of him all along. I believe that the fact that he remains the same ineffectual schlub even when he’s kicking zombie arse is a big part of the reason why this film is so popular, and why more geeks have a plan for the zombie apocalypse than a plan to escape their home in the event of a house fire.*

Right, let’s get to Winchester and line up some shots. The characters spend most of the story under siege in a pub (take a shot). We could argue over whether mankind is the real monster, but from the opening credits onwards the parallels between your average Londoner and your average zombie are made abundantly clear, and the characters spend plenty of time pointing guns, broken glass and bottle-openers at one another, so take a shot. Ed cries out “We’re coming to get you Barbara!” so take another two shots. These are proper old school zombies, who are dead, move slowly and can only be killed by a shot to the brain, so take four shots for that. We don’t know if the naturally dead rise, but given Pegg and Wright’s reverence for the Romero rules, I feel safe ordering a couple of shots for that as well. There is a kiddy zombie, so two shots for that. And while the word zombie is mentioned numerous times, character’s are explicitly told not to, so you can have one shot for that.

However, the two surviving characters are rescued by the army, who turn out not to be either insane or evil, so that is the one shot you’re not allowed to take this week.

How’s that for a slice of fried gold?

*Not an actual statistic. Someone should do the research on this.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Bonus Blog- The Dead Island Trailer: Why Killing Children Is Awesome

So, the trailer for the new game Dead Island has been released. Personally, I love it, it’s a great little three minute zombie movie that is both terrifying and sad.
Watch it here:
It’s already started to kick off some controversy, even from those who are normally the first to defend against moral guardians. The writer of this blog found it uncomfortable viewing, saying that “personally I just can't get away from the fact that I'm uncomfortable watching a graphic depiction of the horrific final moments of the life of a young girl.”
Well, good. Watching a little girl dying a horrible and violent death isn’t supposed to be punch-the-air “Fuck yes!” entertainment. The writer concedes: “Yes, perhaps that's because I'm a dad and have a beautiful daughter.” I don’t have a kid, so I can only take a poorly educated guess at how that affects your perception of the world. Similar motives have been given for Steven Spielberg’s decision to replace the guns with walkie-talkies in E.T.
Walkie-Talkies THAT SHOOT LASERS. I assume.
It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as being prudish Mary Whitehouse style stuff. But I think to answer this needs a more robust defence than that. Zombie apocalypse fiction is steeped in violence, and if we get our entertainment from watching bloody death on a mass scale, it’s worth, on occasion, asking what it’s actually for.
Firstly, as anyone who’s been playing the Chris Writes About The End of The World Drinking Game knows, kiddy zombies are not exactly a rarity in the genre. The premise of the zombie apocalypse is that your friends and loved ones are turned into the threat, and seeing some cute adorable little kid running (because even in Romero movies, kid actors never seem to get the hang of lurching) towards you with murder in its eyes is a great shorthand to get that point across.
However, context is everything. It’s one thing to see a zombie kid get killed as part of a longer narrative, with consequences for the characters. It’s another to see it as the entire subject of a film, particularly one as short as this. So the question is, does the trailer manage to justify its child murder?
Well, as you may have noticed, the trailer is played in backwards. I’m not trying to play the Happy Titanic argument here (Where if you rewind James Cameron’s Titanic it has a happy ending), but the order in which you tell a story is every bit as important as the story itself.
The classic example for this is Memento, where most of the scenes are played out in reverse chronological order, intercut with flashbacks that play out in chronological order, until at the end of the film the two storylines meet in the middle where it turns out that $£*()$£*()”$*()£$*£)$(*. In the trailer, the same thing happens. We get the reversed storyline of the corpse magically leaping up through the magically mending window and latching onto her father’s neck, intercut with flashbacks to the frightened little girl running down a hotel corridor.
In Memento, when the backward and forward moving narratives meet, it brings us to the most important part of the film. In the Dead Island trailer, when the backward and forward moving narratives meet, it is on the image of a father reaching out to his child. When we see that image, we know it won’t end well. But that’s not the point, the point is, the video takes a scene of bloody, terrifying violence, then gives the scene context, showing that the survivors are actually fighting for something.
You can see the trailer in chronological order here.
In this version, the story is a straight forward tale of a little girl running away from zombies, then dying horribly. It’s pretty bleak, but it doesn’t carry the same punch as the trailer seen the way it was originally intended.
In the blog link at the beginning of this post, Ben Parfitt argues that the trailer “uses an image of a dead girl and images of her dying to create an emotional bond with a product.”
Well, yes. It does. Although I have to say I find it far less distasteful and manipulative than Paul Whitehouse remaking The Sixth Sense for Aviva.
What this advert does is tell a story, to advertise a game that will also tell a story. Personally I find it refreshing to see a videogame advert that presents violence as anything other than totally awesomeIf the videogame that it’s advertising manages to resemble the tone of this trailer at all, it’s going to be a very special game indeed.
We’ll return to our regular posting schedule on Monday, when I’ll be writing about a romantic comedy. No prizes for guessing which one.

Monday, 14 February 2011

#6 I Am Legend: Writing About Monsters

Yes, I made it back from London. It was a close run thing. In the tube stations it was hard to tell who was human and who was zombie, so I just swung my cricket bat at anything that moved until I made it to the exits. Ended up holing up in a pub called the Camden Head, where, as luck would have it, they were holding an evening of poetry, comedy and spoken word entertainment (I assume because the TV was no longer broadcasting). I won’t bore you with the details of my perilous trek back to Norwich, where somehow civilisation is managing to continue pretty much unaffected. All I’ll say is that on the coach trip I was able to enjoy rereading the excellent novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. It’s a novel about the last human being, fortified in his own home, desperately fighting off hordes of vampires.
So, spoiler alert. No, seriously, spoiler alert. If you have any plans whatsoever to read this book, do it before reading this article because I am going to give away the ending, and it’s of the Planet of the Apes is Earth/Bruce Willis is a ghost order of spoilers. The book is only 160 pages long, you could easily finish it in a weekend, so go away and come back when you’ve read it. You’ll thank me.
I’m sure some of you are saying “Chris, don’t worry about it! I’ve already seen the film starring Will Smith!” and to those people I shall politely suggest that you read the book anyway, while quietly damning the creators of that film to the circle of hell reserved for People Who Completely Miss The Point.
Go read the book. I’ll wait.
Have you read it yet? Good. No, it’s okay, no need to thank me. Yes, I’m sure Will Smith is very sorry too.
So, I’ll be honest, this is going to be a hard one to blog. There’s a tonne of things I want to talk about with this book: The way it sets up a whole genre and subverts it at the same time, the difference between Horror Fiction and Science Fiction and how zombie fiction in general, and I Am Legend especially, nestle in the crack between the two, why there are some books you really ought to read twice.
Let’s start by talking about horror and science fiction, because nothing is as worthwhile as arguing about genre definitions. Someone (I can’t remember exactly who and Google is letting me down) once described Night of the Living Dead as a science fiction movie disguised as a horror movie. I’ve already mentioned that George A. Romero nicked the idea for Night of the Living Dead from this novel and the sci-fi passing as horror quote applies just as well to this book. The monsters are vampires with pointy teeth who come by night to suck your blood, but have a dread fear of garlic and the cross (or Torah if it’s a Jew vampire), they are creatures straight out of the Bram Stoker tradition.
Yes. Once again the Atheists have doomed us all.
But Robert Neville, now that there is no one left to make fun of his name, systematically goes through everything we know about the vampire, the sucking blood, the aversion to sunlight, even the magically turning to dust when staked, and finds rational explanations with a microscope and a supply of text books.
I could totally become a self-taught bacteriologist if everyone else would just die!
My argument for I Am Legend as sci-fi in horror clothing comes from elsewhere though (although the chapters devoted to describing bacilli and spores certainly help- it’s better than it sounds). In his musing on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King describe the horror genre as a “Republican in a three-button suit”. Sure, the conservative has a werewolf-life second identity, scratch the skin and there’s a monster underneath, but really, the monster is there to show us what a monster isn’t. Horror shows us strange and terrible things to that we know what normal is, and it’s not a huge coincidence that most of the time those strange terrible things happen to be about sex.
I would argue, probably with a pint in my hand and at a volume slightly above what the other pub goers are comfortable with, that science fiction does the opposite of this. From Star Trek, to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to my own book that I’ve just remembered I haven’t plugged for several weeks, science fiction is a genre that tells you that your definitions of right and wrong are an arbitrary line in the sand, your universal truths are provincial custom and your sense of what’s important comes mostly from a lack of perspective.
At first glance zombies, and the vampires of I Am Legend, seem like the perfect horror villain. There’s a reason why they’re such popular enemies in videogames, and it’s not just that zombies don’t need that much in the way of AI (Turns out, they do). It’s that, even more so than Nazis and aliens, you can mow down hundreds of zombies without hesitation or remorse. In virtually every zombie movie, including the ones we’ve looked at so far, hesitation to smash in zombie brains is seen as at best, not understanding the gravity of the situation, and at worst dangerously irresponsible.
I Am Legend is no different. He spends the first few chapters of the book sharpening stakes to hunt the sleeping vamps by day while they sleep.  By the end of the book hunting for Cortman, one of the more persistent vampires, is Neville’s “relaxing hobby”. The necessity of killing off the vampires is never questioned, although at one point early on, when Neville is still experimenting to work out the “rules” for these vampires, he reluctantly asks himself why he always does his tests on women. Because when you’re the last living human being there’s nobody to stop you being a creepmeister.
Then he meets Ruth, another survivor (Or Is She?) and suddenly after three years Neville lives in a world where there are opinions other than his own. One of things that shocks him most about this girl (Who he absolutely does not want to sleep with at all, no sirree) is her response to his clinical and emotionless descriptions of killing the vampires. He’s surprised when she describes it as horrible, but dismisses it like a true zombie survivalist with “One gets used to these things”. He’s incredulous when he finally brings himself to ask “Do you think I’m wrong?”
Of course (and I’m saying of course because you followed my warning at the beginning of this blog, and read the book, and so this entry will hold no surprises for you) it turns out that the vampires aren’t quite the soulless stake-fodder they’ve been made out to be. While the reanimated dead are fair game, Neville has also been killing living people who have been infected by, but not yet succumbed, to the vampire disease. To those infected survivors it Neville who is the nightmarish monster, coming like a vampire and taking them as they sleep through the day. So, like the vampire, Robert Neville becomes legend.
Oh? You thought it was because he blew himself up with a hand grenade? Well, that’s poetic too... I guess...
At the climax of the book, as the infected survivors slaughter the vampires as they fight their way to Neville’s house, Neville sees them through the eyes of a monster. He is appalled by the casual brutality and violence they inflict on the vampires, and is heartbroken when they finally kill Ben Cortman. But Ruth reminds him, “Did you ever see your face when you killed?”
This is what makes I Am Legend a science fiction novel, rather than a horror. In science fiction, when the horde of monsters finally get hold of you, they crowd around and shout “Look! There’s the monster!” When the toothy, many eyed abomination comes face to face with you, it says “You look gross.”
I Am Legend is a subversion and a commentary of the horror fiction that came before it, and in even more effective commentary on the genre it inspired. But for what it’s worth, I think this novel’s sympathy for the monster is something that has passed right through the DNA of the zombie apocalypse. Romero made his movie after reading I Am Legend as a book where: “There’s this global change and there’s one guy holding out saying, wait a minute, I’m still a human. He’s wrong. Go ahead. Join them.” Through all Romero’s movies, and his many imitators, you’ll find at least a little sympathy for the zombie, and see the survivors becoming something a little bit less than human.
It’s Valentine’s Day, so eat a heart-shaped liqueur chocolate for each of these. Because nothing says romance like gorging yourself while reading something on the Internet.
The characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building, eat a chocolate. The people coming to rescue you are more dangerous than the zombies? Well, they’re not really coming to rescue you- eat a chocolate.  Mankind is definitely the real monster, eat a chocolate, hell, take two. The zombies are walking dead (One chocolate) but that’s the only Romero rules chocolate you get for obvious reasons. Oh, and the monsters are never referred to as zombies, on account of how they’re vampires, so take two chocolates for that.
Until next week, you’re ALL legend.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

#5 The Walking Dead: You Say Generic Like It’s A Bad Thing

Those of you who’ve been following the blog so far will have come to expect my regular Monday updates. However, it just so happens that this Monday I am going to be in London, and in the event of a zombie apocalypse, those of us in a capital city will be the first to get chowed down by the undead. So I’m posting this early, so that my messy and untimely demise won’t deprive you of my zombie-related thoughts.
If I'm not back in time for next week's blog, come and rescue me
So, this will be my fifth blog, sixth if you count my introductory rant about writers, and their tendency towards thieving bastardry. So, care to take a guess how many zombie apocalypses we’ve looked at in that time?
Well, I’ve done a quick count, and it turns out, none, zero, also, zilch.
No, this isn’t because three of the previous four blogs have featured running zombies- we already had that argument. The zombie thing isn’t in question here. It’s the apocalypse part.
Night of the Living Dead’s zombie outbreak only affected a third of the United Stated. In 28 Days Later, the virus barely got off the British Isles. By the end of Pontypool the infection had only just escaped the eponymous town, and in Left 4 Dead 2 a map shows that there is still a sizeable portion of the United States untouched by necrotic, blood smeared hand.
So clearly it’s time to stop fucking about and starting about a real, honest-to-god Zombie smack down on the entire human race. Ladies and gentlemen, The Walking Dead. Here be spoilers.
Playing It Straight
The Walking Dead is a TV series, based on a comic series, about the zombie apocalypse. And it plays the tropes of the zombie apocalypse straight, absolutely straight. These are zombies straight from the Romero mould. They’re slow, they’re dead, they can only be killed with a headshot and (I had to google this, because the TV series hasn’t made it clear yet) if you die, for whatever reason, you’ll come back as one of them.
There is no clever subversion here, no twist on the rules of the genre. The first couple of episodes play out like the plot of well-made, but pretty formulaic zombie movie. The thing that sets The Walking Dead apart from its peers, is that it’s the zombie movie that never ends. Most zombie movies end with either everyone dying, or with the few surviving characters travelling into the horizon (where, most probably, they will die). But The Walking Dead sticks with those characters, because everytime they go over that horizon, there's another zombie movie waiting to happen. Despite its insistence on playing strictly by the rules laid down by the stories that came before it, The Walking Dead still manages throw some new elements into the mix, while reminding us of what we love about the old ones.
The TV series is very, very pretty. I’d go so far as to say the zombie apocalypse has never looked this good- the zombie make up, the abandoned city streets look better than any zombie movie I’ve seen.
It stars Andrew Lincoln, who you may remember as the likeable-but-useless one in This Life, or the likeable-but-useless one in Teachers. So no prizes for guessing who he’s playing here.
Pictured: The foppish, upper class buffoon from House
Yes, American TV is playing its new favourite game, taking British actors and casting them as American bad asses.
Except Rick Grimes, Andrew Lincoln’s zombie-killing Sherriff, isn’t really a bad ass in the traditional sense, he’s actually something remarkably rare in the zombie genre. He’s a genuinely decent human being. He cares deeply about his family, but is also willing to risk his life to save a stranger who helped him out once, or even the racist psychopath who he feels responsible for.
One of the things the creators of zombie fiction love almost as much as the sweet, sweet thrill of plagiarising each other’s work, is painting human beings as complete bastards who, on the whole, probably deserve to have their dead rise up and devour them.
It’s easy to see why. Writing selfish pricks is a whole lot more fun than writing decent, upstanding folk, and even the good guys are more entertaining when they do the right thing only after exhausting every possible alternative. It makes it easier to create that most precious of storytelling fuels, conflict, and it’s a short cut to making your story seem deep- “See? Are we any better than the zombies? I don’t need to shoot you in the head because I’ve just blown your mind!
Grimes however, is brave, competent, and in short, exactly the sort of person you’d want running your post-apocalyptic survivalist compound.
Assuming that Bruce Campbell isn't available, naturally
Of course, not all the characters are the paragon of virtue that Grimes is, our aforementioned crazy racist being a prime example, but as a rule the characters in this series work together to solve their problems, resolve their differences through discussion and compromise and only occasionally beating the shit out of a guy who abuses his wife.

The characters don’t just talk, they plan. Every zombie-based problem the characters face is usually followed by a discussion of strategy and the creation of a plan, and it’s usually a pretty good plan.
This isn’t a subversion or even a new addition to the zombie apocalypse story. One of the things I love about the genre is that the characters in a zombie movie, on average, tend to be smarter than the characters in most other horror movies. In Night of the Living Dead, when Ben and Harry get into their dick measuring argument over whether to stay in the house or the cellar, both of them actually have pretty good points, they have strategies that have actually been thought out. Even in Shaun of the Dead, the characters think through their survival strategy, even if that strategy is “Go to the pub”.
Maybe it’s because the stupid ones are the first people to get eaten during a zombie apocalypse, or maybe it’s that the slow moving zombie give us more time to think things through rather than blindly running into a dead end while wearing a white negligee. The fact is, if you’re watching a zombie movie you’re far less likely to get a characters deciding to split up for no other reason than that it lets them get picked off one by one.
For the drinking game rules this week you better not by driving anywhere. Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? Depends, if we’re talking the whole series, no, but several episodes are shaped that way. Take a shot. Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent or more dangerous than the zombies? I don’t want to give too much away, but take a shot. The zombies are walking dead (the clue is in the name) move slowly, can only be killed by destroying the brain and rise regardless of the course of dead. Take four shots. Then two more for the kiddy zombie in the pilot episode. And while the word zombie doesn't remain unspoken, people tend to call them "walkers" instead, so what they hell, take another two shots. But you know what, this week, I don’t think mankind IS the real monster. Doesn't that make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
Assuming I make it back from the capital alive, I will see you next week.