The Odd Blog

And when our cubs grow / We'll show you what war is good for

Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!

Posted by That Other Mike on 25/06/2008

I watch a lot of zombie movies. I like them, and the genre dovetails nicely with my like of vampire and other monster movies.

I think my fascination with these films is predicated on the fact that they represent the human race gone wrong; humanity perverted. They show the loss of what we commonly consider most essentially human — self-control and self-awareness. Leaving aside arguments about tool making and the like, what differentiates humans from most other animals is our self-awareness; we are among the few creatures which are self-aware.

There is an evidentiary basis for supposing that certain other beings, such as chimpanzees, certain dolphins and elephants are self-aware, but this is pretty recent stuff. Pretty much for as long as we’ve known how to ask the question, we thought we were alone in being sapient.

My usual gauge, then, for what is human, is the ability to think and Chimps with Gunsreason to some degree, and that, I think, is what makes zombie movies such a fascinating and ultimately disturbing genre to me:they play on my sense of what defines humanity, because they show what would be outwardly human by appearance rendered non-human by the absence of sapience and the abandonment of usual human behaviour.

The same thing applies to monster movies, whether subtle, as in the case of Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula, or blatant, as is the case with Blade.

Subtlety isn’t often a worry for most monster movies (particularly the zombie variety) as many of you will realise, but it does exist in some of them: look at Romero’s Dead series, for example, which I have been (re-)watching recently (yes, all of them!). The original classic, Night of The Living Dead is a satire on the Vietnam War and its effects on the society which engendered it and the returning soldiers (it is also accidentally public domain, and I just ache to remake it); Dawn of the Dead, its 1978 sequel, is so well-known as a satire on the consumer culture which Urrrrrrrrrrrrdominates America that to talk about it here would be absolutely redundant; and Day of the Dead, the weakest of the “original” trilogy, sends up the military mindset and explores (somewhat unsuccessfully, if we’re honest) the idea that humanity’s greatest enemy is itself, which is itself a recurring theme in monster movies (look at the non-human monster flicks of the 50s, for example; although their main concern was not humanity’s being perverted but being destroyed by its own hubris, the point remains).

Just a short note on these three – I call them the original trilogy mainly because that’s how George Romero has often referred to them. Conceptually, too, they have the feel of a trilogy with a smooth progression of linked events, whereas Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead feel like they could be stand-alone films: they don’t really reference the previous three, and they don’t seem overly satirical. They also show significant differences in zombie behaviour and attributes. Hey, these things matter!

There’ll always be a special place in my heart for Romero’s Dead series; I think they’re true classics which will stand the test of time as commentary on the changing nature of society in the late 20th Century.

The Slaughter On the opposite end of the scale from Romero’s deftly crafted satires on politics and society, we have such films as The Slaughter, which is basically pure dross. The plot basically runs that for some hundreds of years, a bunch of witches have made sacrifices on the site of what becomes a farmhouse. Some backstory in the form of a woman who lives there in the 50s and kills her kid under the influence of the soul of the wicked witch follows, then the main plot kicks in: some college students who work at house clearing are hired to clean the place out for the millionaire developer, who for some reason comes to oversee the process with his assistant. Mysterious deaths then ensue, and the evil witch at the heart of it all raises up the kids as zombies, everyone dies, and the end of the world ensues. Notable in no respect, it’s almost worth watching for the laughable plot, dreadful acting and crummy special effects; sort of a masterclass in how not to make a good horror film. Its website claims that it’s tongue in cheek, and I can sort of see that, about half way through; but it seems more as if the people making it suddenly realised that they were engaged in some really crap film-making and decided to just run with it.

Resident Evil film posterSomewhere in between this silly effort and Romero lie the Resident Evil films. I recently watched the latest instalment of the trilogy, Resident Evil: Extinction. The films are a bit uneven, really; while they’re definitely and obviously an attempt to cash in on the success of the games and are necessarily restricted in their scope and creativity, they’re not that bad.

Films adapted from games have frequently been pretty awful — for examples, you only have to look at Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Doom. Others have merely been mediocre, like Wing Commander, and some, like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, have actually been relatively competent, if not stellar, examples of their respective genres.

This is not to say that there’s nothing wrong with them as movies. They’re pretty flat in terms of characterisation; Milla Jovovic is a good singer and competent actress, but in Alice there really isn’t much character for her to get to grips with, and while Angelina Jolie isn’t going to be winning any Oscars, she is a decent actress and can handle a range of roles, but she certainly wasn’t stretched by Tomb Raider.

The films also suffer from a certain flatness of plot, which I think is a sign of the limited scope imposed by a pre-existing narrative structure; adapting someone else’s work necessarily entails less imagination than a completely new creation, and the world of the games themselves is very tightly-focused. This in itself prevents character development, too, because it militates against the need for exposition: the background of the story is already pretty familiar to the watcher, so it becomes less necessary to explain things, and modern exposition is primarily driven by characters’ thoughts and actions, necessitating their development. And so it goes around and around: the characters don’t need to be developed because the background is there, meaning the plot stays static, meaning the characters don’t need to be developed… Plot and character growth are sacrificed for action, which isn’t the same thing at all.

These issues aside, though, I don’t think anyone was ever likely to mistake Resident Evil and Tomb Raider for anything but what they were: enjoyable trash, romps which didn’t pretend to be about anything but the action. Let’s face it – sometimes asskickery is fun just by itself, and the Resident Evil franchise has asskickery in spades.

Resident Evil: Extinction is the third and likely final part of the series. Following the release of the T-virus into the outside world at the end of Resident Evil, and its spread during Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Extinction shows the world dying as the T-virus kills not only human beings but all life on Earth, leaving it overrun by zombies.

Umbrella CorporationThe Umbrella Corporation is still trying to manipulate the virus, although in this film, its chief aim seems to be the “domestication” of the zombies into a docile workforce which it can use to… Well, I don’t know quite what, exactly, as the world’s economy seems to have dissolved along with civilisation. Their other efforts seem to include undoing the effects of the T-virus by using cloned copies of Alice in the hope that they will imitate her and be immune to its effects.

The film follows Alice as she wanders through the desert of what was America, finally coming across a band of survivors who roam from place to place to avoid being attacked by zombies. She is finally tracked down by, Dr Sam Isaacs, Umbrella Corporation’s top scientist, who becomes infected by the T-virus while attempting to capture Alice. She finds their hide-out, where the scientist has overdosed on antivirus and mutated into a hideous monster, which she must kill. It ends with her promising to come and kill the remaining members of the board of the Umbrella Corporation – along with the vast army of clones Dr Isaacs has created for his testing.

As I said before, taken as it is, the film isn’t too awful. It’s an action film with lots of zombie killing and other asskickery. The plot’s a bit limp, but as I said, that’s kind of expected. As long as you don’t go in expecting Citizen Kane, you’ll probably have a decent time watching it.

I have two more films to mention, and then I’ll leave you alone for a bit. This essay has already gone on for far too long, and this level of interest in zombies is probably unhealthy.

Dawn of the Dead, as I mentioned earlier, was Romero’s 1978 satire on consumerism. It departs quite strongly from Night of the Living Dead, in that Romero demonstrates a sense of humour, rather continuing than the unremittingly dark tone of the previous film. Night also always leave me a little choked up at the end, if I’m honest; Ben went through all of that hardship and horror to make it through the night, striving so hard to survive, and he gets shot by a redneck. Now that’s dramatic irony for you, and that right there should tell you that there’s more to the film than just flesh-eating zombies.

Anyway. Dawn of the Dead was remade in the form of a stand-alone film in 2004, starring a number of people much prettier than the cast of the 1978 film. The remake lacks the humour of the original; doesn’t seem to be at all satirical in nature (despite the shared setting of a mall) and is played more as a “straight” horror; the cast is much increased, resulting in a general feel of even the main characters being a little underdeveloped, while supporting characters are, to be blunt, tacked on. The zombies are also a bit different: in the original, they were (suitably) shambling creatures which needed to be present in large numbers to present a danger, which to my mind only emphasises their non-human nature. In the remake, they’re screeching and fast, more reminiscent of the infected in 28 Days Later. Which is fine, I guess, but I think it fails to dehumanise them sufficiently, and detracts from the essential horror of dead things coming back to life; they’re dead, they should move in a shambling and incorrect way that jars with us because it’s just not right. They shouldn’t be athletes.

This may be nitpicking on my part. As a stand-alone film, Dawn of the Dead works pretty well; better than most Hollywood Horror, although that may be damning it with faint praise.

The 2007 remake of Day of the Dead is rather dreadful. It is similar to the original only in name and the presence of an obedient zombie. Its plot, briefly, focuses on an outbreak of a terrible virus in a remote American town which transforms its victims into slavering beasts (once again, think 28 Days Later) with an appetite for flesh. The Army is sent in to blockade the town, and a soldier and her brother, plus sundry others, must survive the night without being nommed by zombies which aren’t really zombies.

The acting is competent at best, the special effects done on the cheap, and there is a secret government conspiracy with a hidden bunker. All in all, it’s apparent that the remake deserves its straight to video status. I wouldn’t recommend it, not one bit, unless you’re in the mood for schlock.

And finally, we reach the end of the zombie fest. The flesh is all eaten, the bodies have been burned and we’re about to be shot in the head by an ignorant redneck.

I think it’s worth reiterating at this point that zombie films aren’t just about the walking corpses, although they do make things interesting.

No, zombie films are often all about metaphor and substitution. The living dead can stand in for our fears and represent what’s going wrong with our society: they are war, or inhumanity, or a rampant consumer culture. They allow us to externalise these things and make them manageable; they can be shown defeated or victorious without a real commitment or loss on our part.

It is for this reason that they are valuable: they represent a way to overcome and address our fears.

Oh, and it’s from It’s The End of the World As We Know it (and I Feel Fine) by REM, in case you were wondering.

Current Music:

The Man Comes Around: American IV by Johnny Cash

Electric Samurai: the Noble Savage by Tomoyasu Hotei


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