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.