Friday, November 2, 2012

“You Shoot Zombies Where Now?” or Do We Need a New Paradigm?

The zombie genre in film, as we know it today, is now 43 years old (thanks to Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead).  Scientists estimate the number of zombie movies since 1968 at roughly 71,286,492.  It is statistically likely that three more will be made before you finish reading this article.  This then, begs the question, “Why don't the folks in zombie films know what a god damned zombie is?!”

Now I'm not going to pretend that I have seen every zombie film.  Many of you out there may be just as qualified on the subject, if not more so.  There could be some straight-to-video, big box, halfway decent zombie movie out there where the second the dead start coming back with a case of the munchies everyone just instinctively knows to plug them right between the eyes.  There could be dozens of movies where all people are well-informed on zombie dispatching methodology.  But there has yet to be a single one to have captured the imagination of the public...or even the rather hefty zombie nerd cabal.
The rather hefty zombie nerd cabal.  To be fair, the author looks just like this...

The modern vampire movie admittedly has something of a head start on zombie flicks.  But in that time, there have been several dalliances with aware characters handling nosferatu.  While people might be a bit slow to catch on, once it's been established that vampires are involved, people seem to know all the 'rules'.  And there're lots of them!  There are so many rules regarding vampires, that characters in movies will even fight over which ones are the correct ones (as in the vastly underrated From Dusk 'Til Dawn) or fall victim to believing some of the more agreed-upon rules, as in Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck (you know, “Oy vey! Have you got the wrong vampire.”)

When you think about it, the vampire expert is just as central to a vampire story oftentimes as the bloodsuckers themselves.  Reaching all the way back from the Bram Stoker original, there is a sizable vein of Van Helsing-type characters who will appear if only to inform everyone else of what to do and what not to do.
What not to do: Get bitten.

We certainly don't see much of that in zombie films.  The corollary may be the scientist figure that will conclude after half the population have become undead cannibals that these people may in fact, just possibly, might not be living people anymore.  At that point some revelation often comes in the form of a rough how-to in zombie killing. 

And the funniest thing about this all?  The guide to how to best quickly and definitively kill a zombie is an awful lot like how to best quickly and definitively kill a regular person.  Want to kill somebody real quick?  Shoot them in the head!  Want to make sure that someone doesn't recover? Burn them till there's nothing left!  We're not talking neurosurgery here.

The closest we've come to anyone actually knowing ahead of time what to do with a zombie is the farcical and hilarious Shaun of the Dead.  But even then, it took an overrun town and a whole record collection to understand what was truly going on.  You could try to argue that movies like Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead had resident zombie experts.  But, and this is a big but, those movies take place in a world where people ran around clueless for two movies before that.  Nobody ever sees it coming, and nobody ever accepts it even in the face of irrefutable evidence.
Nothing to see here. Things couldn't be more normal...

One of the many things that make zombies so captivating and terrifying can also be one of the most overdone and cliché devices in all of zombie movies.  You know what I'm talking about, when a character will watch their beloved boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/bartender/softball coach get bitten, spew gore from every conceivable orifice, go limp and die, only to come back up with that fogged-over thousand-yard-stare and inhuman gurgling snarl.  And what does the character do when watching their brutally maimed loved one creep towards them hungrily like a fat person towards a Krispy Kreme?  Why, they run right into the zombie's arms; and when those arms start digging into flesh, all the character can muster is, “Why are you doing this?  It's me, Johnny So-And-So!”  Even if I didn't know what a zombie was, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be looking to embrace my mom if I just saw her get chewed up by a skeletal corpse to the point where she looked like a run-over squirrel.

And so we come to the point where it's fair to ask: “Do we need a new paradigm?”  Do we need a zombie expert to hear one report of suburban cannibalism before he or she successfully forewarns anybody willing to listen?  I would argue yes.  And I would also argue no.  Over 40 years into the genre, I think it's safe to write characters that exist in a world where zombie fiction or lore exists prior to the latest radioactive accident/spellbook read/grave disturbed/Voodoo curse.  But, then again, 71,286,495 zombie movies now exist... and yet, we're still watching... and we're still amused.

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