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.
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.
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.
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.