Mr Moth on why modern zombies are rubbish.
‘And you wonder why
When your heart has died
That your feet go stumbling on’
– Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight, ‘Stumbling On’
I think we’re all fairly au fait with the rules of a zombie outbreak, aren’t we? I’ll rehearse them, just in case. First of all – you get bit, you’re gone. Might not be a fatal bite, but it’ll kill you anyway. Something in the saliva, maybe? It’s never specified, but whatever. The first rule of Bite Club is: you do not talk about Bite Club. If you’re in a group and a zombie took a nibble, don’t say anything. It’ll make the surprise of your transformation all the more exciting. They’d just kill you if they knew, anyway, ‘for your sake’. And how would they kill you? Rule two: remove the head or destroy the brain. I don’t know any zombie that wouldn’t work on. It’s quite effective on non-zombies, too, so be careful. Rule three: zombies will be quite easy to eliminate mano-a-zombo, but in greater numbers will take you down, no survivors. Oh, yeah, zombie movies are pretty fucking bleak, my friend. If you do live, you’ll do so knowing that you’re just delaying the inevitable; which brings me to the fourth and final rule: zombies are easy to outpace, so just run away and you’ll be cool. For a while.
That’s the terror of the zombie, for me (and I hope I’m not alone in this). They’re not nippy; they don’t chase you down at top speed. They are slow, relentless and implacable. They have all the time in the world, they can just keep coming. Eventually you will have to pause: to sleep, to eat. Not them. And they outnumber you by some margin. The zombie threat is not, classically, one of jumps and starts or of high-speed pursuit (though those fleeing from the undead often run, and an unexpected zombie behind a door or under a bed will always cause the audience to flinch in surprise), so why have we wandered that way in recent years?
Maybe we are to blame, the audience. We want more and more zombies (because, have I said this? zombies are cool), and that means those making the films have to keep them interesting, and give themselves an edge. Something distinct. Hey, this zombie can run. Oh, wow, that makes them a much more powerful threat, like when Daleks learned to climb stairs. The old trick of just, you know, running away a bit no longer works.
So… when did zombies start running? OK, you can answer this. Was it
a) Dawn of the Dead (2004)
b) 28 Days Later (2002)
c) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The answer, of course, is c. In fact the very first zombie in the film which created the genre (we can comfortably ignore voodoo zombies as lame) runs after the terrified semi-protagonist Barbara as she flees to the now-clichéd abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Actual running! And it uses tools: it tries to smash the car window with a rock. However, as Romero subsequently ignores these two traits and gives us ghoul upon shambling ghoul who can do nothing but stumble stiffly around and is baffled by tools, so can we. Indeed, while Night created the genre his masterpiece remains Dawn of the Dead (1978), a film so perfect it defined zombie films for decades to come and spawned god knows how many imitators. Let’s say a billion. And the zombies in Dawn of the Dead? They shuffle, they shamble, they lurch. They do not run.
It’s not just running zombies that I have trouble with, though. They’re just a symptom; an old genre squeezed into an ill-fitting suit will show bulges. The real question is – why are zombies so popular? Why have we saturated the market this way? It hasn’t always been like this. Zombie films used to be niche, something created either by crazy European (usually Italian) filmmakers to showcase their expansive personal weirdness or by grindhouse Americans to keep the Living Dead flame alive. They weren’t a mainstream concern.
Something tipped the balance, somewhere. Was it a generation, weaned on John Landis and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, starting to make their own films? Was it the World Wide Web bringing a multicultural Zombie Rainbow Nation together at last? Or was it just that the zombie film’s time had come, that it tapped into something deep about the fears of our era? There are, after all, seven billion people on the planet right now. We are outnumbering ourselves, chewing through our own resources and, eventually, perhaps we will chew through each other. The rich devour the poor metaphorically, and if there’s one thing the zombie movie does well it’s empower the masses to rise up and devour the upper class, quite literally (cf. Dawn of the Dead, with the group of living humans safely aloof from the crowd in the upper rooms of the plebeian shopping mall).
Maybe it’s just that zombie films used to be great, so of course they would come back, just like their starring attractions. Consider one of the finest scenes of any zombie film – indeed, of any film ever. It occurs in Lucio Fulci’s seminal Zombie Flesh Eaters (confusingly called Zombi 2 in some territories, cashing in on Dawn of the Dead, which was called Zombi and… oh, forget it), in which Ramon Bravo – a shark trainer dressed as a zombie – fought a shark. In that short sequence, the zombie movie was lifted to a great height, and also began its long fall. Paradoxically, maybe it’s the sheer outrageous brilliance of the scene which, in a small way, is responsible for the death of the zombie movie: as if everyone is chasing that elusive shark-wrestling high, with predictably diminishing returns. One zombie’s fight with a shark is the moment of the genre jumping it.
You can’t move around the internet now without someone quacking on about zombies, like they are pirates or ninjas or robots or robot ninja pirates. Videogames are packed end to end with quivering, semi-animate flesh. Resident Evil was the first to give gamers the opportunity to remove the heads or destroy the brains of the undead and now the shelves at Game groan with groaners. Though even the Resident Evil franchise, perhaps aware of the devalued nature of its rotting antagonists, has shuffled back from the edge and, starting with Resident Evil 4, has been pitting players against straight up monsters.
Even TV is in on the act now. The Walking Dead, which started its second series on FX a few weeks ago, is the mainstream face of zombie culture. When the budget requirements for filling the screen with shambling hordes of the undead in deserted cities are taken into account, it seems surprising that The Walking Dead Season Two was even commissioned. Even more surprising given that the first season descended into virtually zombie-free, soapy shrillness by the end of its meagre six-episode run. I began keeping a tally of zombies per episode. Once, there were only two zombies in a whole show. Two! Unbelievable. I wonder how the zombies felt about this – you can’t be a horde of two. It’s just embarrassing.
It was a welcome sight, then, when a veritable troop of ghouls wandered out (slowly, mind – The Walking Dead only has its zombies run in short, controlled bursts) from behind a caravan to shuffle menacingly past the survivors in the first of the new series. After Rick (Egg off of This Life) had produced a long and wearying recap of the first series to his probably-dead chum via radio, I was braced for a whole bunch of talky shit, but nope. My zombie clicker was going steadily for a good twenty minutes. The near-wordless sequence with the living hiding from the dead under abandoned cars was beautifully done, an audacious opener for a series looking to regain its mojo.
Couldn’t last, of course, and by the end of the episode it was back to the flatly-realised group dynamic, and Rick (Egg off of This Life) soliloquising yet again, this time to a statue of Jesus instead of his friend, Exposition McPlotdevice, but still.
The zombie levels have continued fair in following episodes, which gives some hope for the rest of the run, especially as we are assured that it gets better once serial Stephen King-dullifier Frank Darabont gets booted from the showrunner’s chair.
The issue as it stands is that I just don’t care enough about these people to waste this much time listening to their, frankly, tedious problems. And when those problems are A PLAGUE OF THE UNDEAD WANTING TO DIVEST THEM OF THEIR GUTS AND EAT THEIR FACES OFF and they STILL come off as tedious? Man, then everyone’s got problems. I’m going to continue to watch, though, because I have loyalty to the genre and because, well, sometimes you have to keep on, you know? You’ve got to keep going, even though it hurts inside every day. You’ve got to survive; keep hoping, keep moving, believe. We will find someone out there. And so forth.
And that’s why I’ll continue to play Dead Rising; why I’ll check out each increasingly-poor iteration of Romero’s ‘…of the Dead’ sequence; why I’m looking forward to World War Z, and why I’ll even carry on with The Walking Dead. Because one day the world will lose interest in zombies and I want to be in that small band of surviving fans; stumbling through the post-popularity wasteland, arguing amongst ourselves, dwindling in numbers every day until, eventually, we too lose interest and start watching subtitled films about valiant struggles with autism or ‘coming to terms’ with stuff. A sort of living death, in other words.