Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Subject The First: Zombies

So I keep hearing about these blog things. On the Internets. In coffee shops. At the discotech (didn't you know? I am PREMIUM DANCER at discotech).

Here is my blog.

My first subject: ZOMBIES.

It's safe to assume we've all seen Dawn of the Dead and most of us genuinely accept that it is probably the most unique and overall greatest zombie movie we have (or ever will ever) seen. My grandmother might not agree, but she doesn't watch movies like that. That is a generation after her that started this whole spiral into gory madness, when the Hitchcocks of the world were replaced by Romero/Savini/Raimi/Argento(s). But Dawn of the Dead is the best, and if you disagree, that's fine... there are plenty to choose from, so I'm looking at the obvious one, which also happens to be my personal favorite. Hollywood can try its best, with television or films or CGI or marketing that convinces you otherwise, but DOTD is fantastic for a host of reasons, one of which I will address below.

Anecdote: I recently read somebody post something on Facebook that said: "Zombie stories are written by people that don't know how to write." I bit my tongue, and ignored it. If I'd had a few beers, I might have ripped that person a new one, but I didn't. But I completely disagree. This person had obviously never read or watched a GOOD zombie story. I admit, a lot of zombie stuff out there is tepid at best, but that's because of the Hollywoodization of the phenomenon. The dipshits in the 3 piece suits and the slicked back Patrick Bateman hair, you know- the Studio Guys. They don't "get it". I read recently that they were developing a television show for the WB or some crap like that, and the pitch was, "It's like Twilight, but instead of vampires, it has zombies!" Somebody stick a 6 shooter in my nostril and pull the trigger. Those people don't get it either. Right out of the gate, they don't understand storytelling. It's not a formula.

To explain why Dawn of the Dead is the best of the lot and the WHY behind that, we need only examine the remake. What were the differences? Other than the obvious: 1.) newer 2.) prettier looking- both people and film stock 3.) the setting is a more modern mall. But beyond that, the biggest difference is the treatment of the zombies. In the remake, the zombies RUN. The zombies become something closer to a velociraptor from Jurassic Park, not the drooling dolts from the original. They essentially become "scarier", as viewed through our modern glasses. I don't consider intimidation scary, though. They are more aggressive, more intimidating, more everything. This is why it doesn't work as well as the original.

But WHY?

Because they are slow... docile... useless on an individual level, only en masse can they do damage, much like American citizens... When they are fast- FLASHY, let's call it- it distracts us from the entire purpose of this venture: THE SURVIVORS. The zombies, in the remake, completely attempt to steal the show from the survivors. They fail. Luckily, it's still a great remake, in my opinion. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it didn't have the uneasiness of the original, for that very reason.

Zombie and monster tales, in general, are about the survivors, not the beasts. The beasts are a prop that we tell human stories with. They are a crutch by which our characters either rise or fall or get their faces chewed off. The zombies are supposed to be background noise, a catalyst to the plot, not the end-all-be-all of the plot.

That's what Romero understood (well, not anymore- the last couple of Dead movies he did were just not very interesting). The zombies can't speak, so by default they aren't nefarious (like a Hannibal Lecter). They are mean (no different than an animal is mean) and like to eat brains, but they don't have evil intentions. So that eliminates that angle. And without that angle, the story wouldn't be that different from a thriller with people stuck in an isolated location, surrounded by wolves. The wolves and zombies are interchangeable because who cares about them? I cannot RELATE to them. What I relate to is the survival instincts and reactions of those who are left behind, to deal with the wolves scratching at their door, to rebuild their lives and accept that, "OK, I guess this is the new normal. Let's do this thing. What kind of life do we want to create for ourselves now? <struggle ensues>"

Zombie and monster tales need characterization. Strong characters. Weak characters. Flip-floppers between those two extremes. Your zombie story needs to have the guy next door, the one who is always cooking kielbasa and stinking up your whole house if your forgot to close the windows. It also needs that potential pedophile that lives on the other side of the street, the one that you wanna punch in the teeth for even talking to your kids. Your story needs characters that people know from their own lives, people that can disgust or invigorate or inspire or demoralize your reader. Only then will your reader feel as though they're IN the story. That they can smell the dead zombie flesh. That their heart is racing. This applies to any sub-genre of horror, but zombies and monsters in particular. If your Bad Guy can't even speak, then you can't depend on them to carry your twisted tale. They can only rip off so many limbs before the reader gets bored.

Look at Fulci's wonderful "Zombie" (AKA "Zombi 2") from 1979. Yeah, the one with the zombie fighting a shark... which seems to have been picked up by mass media 30 plus years later. I actually saw that referenced in a television commercial. This random Italian zombie movie from the year I was born was suddenly hip again. Because it resonates with people, because the zombie isn't nearly as menacing... well, as long as you don't have fins and gills. They are those slow-moving dumbbells that will only capture and eat you if they A.) overpower you with sheer numbers or B.) you're in a wheelchair C.) have broken your leg or D.) have tiny midget legs that can't stride as far per pace.

Flashy zombies will kill your story. It can't be mechanical. Zombie bangs at door. Zombie gets through the door. Zombie grabs the main character's mom. Zombie rips her arm off. Zombie eat's mom's brains. That isn't interesting writing, not to me at least. I want to know about the mom, even the silly inane stuff (what kind of childhood did she have... what kind of mother is she to her son?... how far will she go to protect him from the zombie hoard?)

Maybe I'm full of it. Or maybe I'm right. I guess I'm just a sucker for interesting characters. Not that I don't like seeing a zombie rip somebody's head off and suckle on the bottom side of it. I do! But if you can make me feel something, anything, for the characters... then you won me over as a reader.


  1. After finding out "Dome" is based on a Simpson cartoon...I am a little disappointed at "horror" writers in general.
    With the exception of my nephew Ive seen way to little originality.
    As for Zombies ...they are by far the best creature and hell we all might be eaten by one some be nice to the Zombies and maybe they'll eat you

  2. I wish there was a program that would allow me to adopt a zombie. I'd tie it up to a tree in the backyard so that the kids in the neighborhood will stay off my lawn. I'd feed it cats, because I can't stand cats. I'd also feed it the bad kids... hmmmm story brewing.

  3. Ya know Eric; I think that’s why I generally do not enjoy zombie stories. There are some that stand out that I really liked Perkins 14, Mulberry Street, the 28 films and The Signal but for the most part zombie stories are pretty much the same. I’d rather know about the survivors and I can do without all the mindless blood, gore, and stupid characters doing stupid things despite the fact they should know better.