Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why Zombies Suck (And The Entire “Living Dead” Trend Needs to Die For Good)

The undead fad -- fraught with antisocial undercurrents that are a complete slight to the original political subtext of the genre -- has run its course. Is there anything new at all that can be done with the premise, or is it finally time to put the craze six-feet-under?


A couple of nights ago, I watched George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (the director's cut version, of course) for the first time in ages, and something dawned (no pun intended, I promise) upon me while I was watching it: for all intents and purposes, that was the last time anybody did anything at all new with the concept of what zombies represented as social metaphors.

Yeah, yeah, I know all about the Haitian zombie folklore and “I Walked with a Zombie” and all that shit, but zombies -- as pop-cultural fixtures -- really didn’t exist until “Night of the Living Dead” was released in 1968. In hindsight, that film -- considered by many to be the first truly modern horror movie -- really had more in common, structurally, with “To Kill a Mockingbird” than it did “World War Z.” It was a character-driven film, which used the black/white dynamic to draw parallels to an entirely different kind of social plague -- that being, of course, socially permissible and institutionally accepted racism in U.S. culture. The villains in that film weren’t so much brain-munching killing machines as they were the “Good Old Boys” down at the neighborhood general store that said the “n” word a lot and refused to service African-American clients -- in short, “the living dead” in “Night of the Living Dead” was an unorthodox metaphor for racial prejudice, in particular, rural racism (which probably explains why a majority of the movie takes place in a farmhouse, I’m guessing.)

So, flash forward ten years, and “Dawn of the Dead” gets released. This time around, Romero used the zombie motif as a completely different metaphor, this time around turning the living dead into a parable for materialism. A bunch of slobbering, drooling, wholly indistinguishable hordes, shambling down the walkways of a shopping mall, with nary an aim in the world except “keep consuming?” The commentary is so blunt, it almost feels like calling it a “metaphor” is too obvious.


There have been some great zombie movies released in the wake of the original “Dawn of the Dead,” I suppose. Lucio Fulci made some terrific, abstract-expressionistic exploitation flicks in Italy in the late 70s and early 80s,  while Stuart Gordon gave us the seminal “Re-Animator” at the height of Reagan’s America. In 1985, “Return of the Living Dead”  not only kicked off the “fast moving zombie” trope, it more or less become the entire sub-genre template for the better part of two decades, inspiring a wide array of zombie horror comedies that included  international favorites “Dead Alive,” “Bio-Zombie” and “Versus.” (Ever the stickler for genre conventions, I’m leaving out stuff like “The Evil Dead” and “Demons,” by the way, which, in essence, are really more “demonic possession” films than they are traditional “zombie” hootenannies.)

As good as those movies were, however, they really weren’t attempting to make any kind of social commentary with the zombie dynamic. With “Resident Evil”-weaned adolescents reaching movie ticket buying age, it’s perhaps not surprising that we soon saw a glut of zombie-themed movies around the mid- part of the 2000s, which included fare like “28 Days Later” and the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake. The popularity of those films, which recast zombies as more or less rabid animals, lead to an absolutely massive deluge of “zombie” themed properties emerging in virtually every form of popular media, from comic books to video games to television. With stuff like “The Walking Dead” and “Dead Rising” and “Zombieland” becoming cultural touchstones for Generation Y, the “zombie craze” went into full swing around the time of the Great Recession, with college and high school kids buying up all sorts of zombie paraphernalia from Hot Topics and even staging their own “Zombie Walks,” in which parade-goers dress up in tattered clothing and simulate being mutilated and maimed members of the undead and then proceed gum up traffic for a couple of hours.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: since “Zombie-Mania” reached its boiling point around the same time the market crashed, you may be inclined to say that (A) was influenced by (B). That’s an invalid point, however, since “Zombie-Mania” was already frothing within the corpuscles of young America BEFORE the great housing tank of 2006. Instead, this “zombie craze,” which seems to be one of the great cultural identifiers of who and what Generation Y represents, is actually an inversion of the Romero social metaphor; in “NOTLD” and the original “Dawn,” the brainless horde was something you DIDN’T want to be a part of. Today, however? Kids see the hyper-violent, brain-crunching social mass as something cool and worth emulating; in short, they’ve turned the “zombie” concept into something that encourages complete and utter social assimilation instead of using the motif as a way of criticizing the all-encompassing, identity-squelching nature of mass culture, the way Romero did in his first two -- and perhaps not coincidentally, only good -- zombie movies.


The late Roger Ebert often criticized zombie movies for utilizing the ultimate “video game” villains; a bunch of identity-less, motivation-less, indistinguishable cardboard shooting gallery targets, whom one can endlessly butcher and maim sans remorse because, hey, they’re already dead, and thus, have no feelings to hurt. That definition really suits the modern pop cultural depiction of the zombie to a “T” -- instead of representing ANYTHING at all about society at large, the most these new-wave flesh-eaters stand to represent is, perhaps, one’s own fear of culture absorption, which is made sorta’ moot by Gen Y’s fascination with zombie iconography. If zombies, at best, represent one’s nondescript fears of being in a social system, I’d consider staging a zombie walk -- in which individuals pretend to be completely socially absorbed, nondescript anti-beings, totally indistinguishable from the collective they’re a part of -- to be a really weird way of demonstrating that cultural phobia.

Some say that zombies remain a popular fixture of the Gen Y experience because they represent the lingering auger of death -- you know, us being the generation that grew up on Columbine, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook and all. I’m not really buying that idea, either, because the ongoing zombie fad doesn’t really frame death as something that’s eventful in the slightest. In effect, the zombie trend really circumvents the idea of death completely, with the great hereafter replaced by a lifetime of emotionlessly parading about, chewing on the hippocampi of your former loved ones -- until, of course, some rugged antihero puts a slug through your undead skull and sends you brains flying a half mile from where your eyeballs used to be. There’s really nothing painful about being a zombie, I suppose -- you just chew, and chew, and run around, following your id like a weasel on angel dust. Perhaps that’s the real appeal of the zombie construct for today’s youth -- it allows an individual to say “eff social roles,” and become devil may care hyper-individualist beasts whom answer only to the growling of their own tummies. Beings, utterly driven by nothing but instant gratification -- hard to see how that has any appeal to today’s kids, at all.

As I was saying earlier, there really hasn’t been anything new done with the zombie idea since the late 1970s, unless you want to count the transmogrification of the construct into literal cannon fodder via predominantly shitty multimedia works over the last three and a half decades. Really, the closest pop culture has gotten to anything even remotely resembling a remodeling of the zombie concept was “Pet Semetary,” a movie that attempted -- but largely failed -- to drive a little bit of humanity back into the throbbing, undead heart of the subgenre.

When you really think about it, zombies ought to be the most tragic of all supernatural beings. Who wouldn’t want to see their dead loved ones rise from the grave, for one final embrace, and one final goodbye? The zombie construct takes that premise, and turns it into a grim, animalistic equation -- if you had to save your own ass, would you be willing to re-kill the people you’ve already lost?


Surprisingly, I can’t think of a SINGLE zombie movie released in the last 40 years that’s even thought about going into this territory. Instead of addressing the permanency of death and our fears of the unknown and, most obviously, our inability to fully get over the loss of the deceased, the zombie construct has become nothing more than an effortless placeholder for the viewer’s inert social hostilities, with the undead -- and especially, the emotionless slaughter of the “unfeeling” undead” -- becoming vicarious ways for the individual to get out his or her own frustrations with the collective culture. That being the case, the modern “zombie fad” doesn’t prey upon our instinctual mortal fears (nor or longings or remorse for the departed), but instead offers viewers and gamers a sadistic “fantasy” in which one is transformed into death incarnate, a figure completely justified in blowing away the entire social system out of unabashed self-interest (in which the term “survival” is largely used as an euphemism.) It’s the ultimate NRA wet dream, really, which probably explains why so many gun manufacturers have co-opted the zombie culture for their own marketing purposes.
The zombie construct today is the complete inversion of Romero’s original metaphor; the zombies no longer represent a fear of particular social ideologies (racism, consumerism, etc.) but are instead used as disposable plot devices in stories that pander to an indiscriminate hatred of humanity as a whole. The “zombie apocalypse” is no longer viewed as a negative thing, but instead, something to wish for -- the complete breakdown of society, the dissolution of law and order, and the return to the law of the jungle. If anything, the zombie construct today has moved completely across the political spectrum, eschewing Romero’s progressive social roots for a neo-conservative, anarcho-capitalism leaning. Romero’s zombies were metaphors criticizing social Darwinism, while today’s pop-cultural zombies seem to be endorsing it.


While “NOTLD” is largely seen as the most racially-charged of Romero’s zombie movies, I think “Dawn of the Dead” actually nails out a more iron-tight thesis on class prejudices. Recall the opening scenes of the film, with the racist police officer shooting up Puerto Ricans? And how about the scene where a bunch of flannel-jacket sporting, beer-chugging “Good Old Boys” ran around shooting zombies like skeet practice? Or how about the grand finale, where the bikers invade the mall and just start slaying zombies left and right? There was actually a moment in that film where the “survivors” of the film looked out at the chaos they had created, and you actually felt sorry for the undead. That sort of empathy is something you’ll NEVER see in a modern zombie movie, where the undead are literal clay pigeons, which HAVE to be killed before they kill you. Don’t sympathize with “the other,” the modern zombie culture message is; in that, not only is the subgenre basely individualistic, it’s seems to be promoting autarkist fascism as virtue.

Beyond the sociopolitical stuff,  perhaps the greatest slight against the zombie construct is that it’s just so boring nowadays -- easily-killable monsters, with virtually no personalities, that have no motivations outside of some instinctual skeleton key the script writer probably spent five or ten seconds thinking up. Whether they shamble or sprint, are used for suspense or comedy, or are created by viruses or some supernatural force, the genre has completely exhausted itself, to the point where zombies are hardly considered cutting edge or novel anymore. Saving the genre at this point would require a radical shift in how the zombie construct is envisioned -- in short, the zombies have to come to REPRESENT something again. Why not turn the zombies into metaphors for the homeless (and how much we don’t give a shit about them), or metaphors for substance addiction, or metaphors the mentally fragmented? Instead of making zombie movies about humans in the midst of zombie plagues, why not make a movie about a single zombie in the midst of humanity? If someone rose from the dead, don’t you think modern science would want to explore that instead of shoot it? Wouldn’t CNN cover it around-the-clock? Wouldn’t it make politicians and religious leaders freak the hell out? How would the world react to a reality where death WASN’T the final resting place we thought it was? Or how about a movie about a family trying to cope with the return of someone they KNEW for sure was dead and buried? Instead of zombies as objects of homicidal fury, why not turn them into incredibly fragile beings, severely retarded things that are just facsimiles of those you used to love? Your grandpa is back from the dead, but he’s a drooling, stinky mongoloid that can’t grasp language and has no recollection of who you are -- to me, that’s a story that’s infinitely more interesting (and effective) than Big Budget Zombie Apocalypse Let’s Shoot The Hell Out Of Everything Bullshit Extravaganza Part 3.

There’s a lot of potential life left in the zombie genre, but unfortunately, no one out there seems to be willing to step outside the pro-Apocalypse, anti-social order trappings that have come to personify the very genre and do something different with the construct. And until someone out there decides to do a complete reinvention of the concept -- in essence, a radical re-envisioning akin to how Romero transformed the Haitian zombie into the modern living dead -- perhaps its for the best if we finally put this done-to-death gimmick to rest.

2 comments:

  1. Amen. What are we, 8 year olds?

    Came here to say that zombies, witches, vampires, aliens & all other mythical creatures SUCK. It's been done to death and stopped being scary around the time I quit believing in the Easter Bunny.

    You want to be innovative and original? Write a solid script that doesn't require gimmicks like excessive special effects or a trending pop culture craze to get butts in the seats.

    Also, special effects do not a great movie make. Just the opposite. When a show/movie is heavy on the CGI, you can be sure it's done to make up for a lack of substance. This goes for action, Sci-Fi and any other genre. How braindead is the movie-going public anyway? Only a simpleton could suspend his disbelief for 2 1/2 hours as monsters destroy humanity with virtually no logical storyline or character development.

    (World War Z, I'm talking to you).

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  2. Go to a book store, find a copy of volume 1 of The Walking Dead and read the fore word author' note about why he likes zombies. It's the best explanation I ever read and far better than this sociopolitical crap you're claiming inspired zombies, which no one in real life cares about. The Purge offers the same sociopolitical crap about homeless veterans. Do yourself a favor, you don't even have to buy the book, read that author's note cause I'm not going to spell it out for you.

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