Aim for the head: Thoughts on the zompocalypse

Occasionally—very occasionally—my cynical opinion of film audiences is challenged by the box office success of a movie whose success I wholly endorse. Last weekend the horror-comedy Zombieland topped the box office charts and though I was expecting that usual feeling of critical vindication what I felt instead was a bizarre sense of guilt. But you liked Zombieland I told myself. Surely its success must represent a validation of your opinion and by divergence your sense of self. What’s the point of being a film reviewer if not for that? Well little asshole who lives in my brain I’ll tell you. Zombieland is a great movie. It’s clever funny and violent. Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson are both kind of adorable. It has no pretenses to being anything than what it is and what it is is a fun tight little genre movie with a great sense of humour about itself. What’s not to like?

The short answer is “the zombies.” The long answer is that its success will only perpetuate the “zombie genre” pop-culture resurgence that’s been going on since Zack Snyder proved the undead still had a few dollars left to be squeezed from them in 2004 . Since then we’ve seen all sorts of riffs on the genre—some good most bad—in every medium from videogames to film to comic books.

What’s interesting about the zombie—at least the zombie as we know him today—is that he’s a character that owes his existence almost entirely to cinema. 1932’s White Zombie —generally conceded as the zombie’s first appearance on celluloid—was pretty true to the creature’s origins in voodoo myth. In the film there’s a plantation in Haiti run with the help of the cheap zombie labour provided by witch doctor Bela Lugosi and at the outset the plantation’s owner lures young couple Madge Bellamy and John Harron away from safe sound New York so that he might seduce and/or zombify the ravishing (by 1932 film standards) Bellamy away from her chiseled-jaw paramour. Zombie Bellamy doesn’t behave anything like the brain-craving undead we’re used to. She’s submissive passive and a generally pathetic figure. Jesse Eisenberg would have to be really mean to belt her in the head with the top bit of his toilet as he does to one of the female zombies who appears early in Zombieland .

Lugosi’s zombie potion might have been a metaphor for institutionalized racism but then again it might have just been a pre-Rohypnol plot device. The contemporary zombie was effectively invented by George A. Romero and John A. Russo for 1968’s Night of the Living Dead . Night ‘s protagonists hid from zombies in a farmhouse all night and while there were some hints of Romero’s later penchant for campy gore and ham-fisted social commentary the iconic undead didn’t really appear in earnest until that film’s sequel the seminal Dawn of the Dead .

Dawn extended Night ’s zompocalypse out of small town America and onto a global scale trapping a small group of survivors in a shopping mall as the shambling horde pawed at them with helpless longing through glass windows. Romero’s controlling idea was that the mindless bloodthirsty undead really weren’t much different than the mindless consumers that already populated the shopping mall—the key difference being that it was warm flesh they were pursuing with thoughtless abandon rather than trinkets and bobbles. Despite the prominent position Romero’s subtext often occupies in the discussion of his movies it’s probably fair to say that the film’s success is due more to his gift for cultivating tension and perfectly metered dramatic pacing than his social observations. Still Dawn ’s social commentary has been an obligatory part of nearly every zombie film since.

Not so much the monsters themselves but rather the notion of a zompocalypse as an event taps into a number of common often subconscious fears of a contemporary first-world society—explaining I think why the Romeroesque Zombie Movie is primarily a Western phenomenon. This might also go some way to explaining the resurgence. Now more than ever people are having trouble believing their governments would be capable of handling any sort of large-scale catastrophe and tensions in the Middle East and North Korea suggest that a large-scale catastrophe is more likely to occur now than it has since blood was running similarly hot in Europe throughout the ‘30s. The zompocalypse is also weary of our dwindling intelligence and increasing arrogance as a culture. A study by the American Society of Microbiology showed that in 2006 only 58 per cent of males who claimed to wash their hands after using the washroom actually did (ladies you’re slightly cleaner). In a throwaway gag from Zombieland Eisenberg quips that the pandemic was started by someone eating an undercooked cheeseburger at a Stop-and-Go. Why why oh God why America are your people even offered the option of rare ground beef? We all understand you’re the land of libertine freedom but I’m just saying—I’m pretty sure that shit isn’t in the constitution.

Believe it or not all of this started as what was supposed to be a couple quick paragraphs introducing a list of my top five favourite and top five least favourite pieces of popular culture to result from the zombie revival (resurrection?). So without further ado here they are:

Top five best things to come from the latest pop-culture obsession with zombies:

5) Sean of the Dead Sean has it all really. It’s a funny smart script that manages to poke fun at all the right elements of zombie movies while at the same time being a pretty decent zombie movie in-and-of-itself. Mostly though Sean’s success allowed Edgar Wright and co. to make Hot Fuzz an even smarter funnier send-up of action films that at the same time managed to be one of the best action movies of that year.

4) Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remak e – Say what you want about Zack Snyder. Call him an adolescent. Call him sexist. It’s probably all true. But the fact remains that he’s still a hell of a filmmaker with a natural ability for building tension and shot composition that even George Romero can’t match. Sure Snyder’s Dawn played down parts of the original’s social commentary but if you haven’t already picked up on it that was always a part of Romero’s movies that I felt had to be suffered instead of enjoyed. Most of all however Snyder gave us the Fast Zombie—a smart efficient way of emphasizing one of the monster’s (arguably more interesting) symbolic characteristics as an embodiment of humanity’s capacity for violence.

3) Zombieland – Though I’ve already expressed my mixed feelings about Zombieland ’s role within the larger context of the resurgence there’s no denying that it’s one of the most enjoyable zombie movies of recent memory. Like a zombie film equivalent of the Dandy Warhols Zombieland intentionally eschews any sort of meaning or broader relevance in favour of just having a good time. But the intentional avoidance of a message can be a message too. Sure society is in shambles. But what has it done for you lately anyway?

2) Left 4 Dead – Easily the best zombie-themed videogame ever made Valve Software’s Left 4 Dead is a four-player co-op (or eight player versus) online experience that tasks four survivors of the zompocalypse with cutting a swathe through hordes of the undead using teamwork strategy and bullets. So so many bullets. Frightening funny and exhilarating all at once Left 4 Dead is one of the best multiplayer games available on any platform.

1) Pontypool – Though I’ve tended to reward fun over thoughtfulness with this list Bruce McDonald’s low-fi zombie (sort of) thriller is a rare film that understands what it’s like to be both. Set entirely within a small Canadian radio station Pontypool takes the subtext of zombieism in a totally different direction than any other film using a bizarre zombie-like event to explore metaphysical themes rather than social ones. If you haven’t seen Pontypool rent it immediately without reading anything else about it. You really don’t want its surprises ruined.

Top Five Worst things to come from the zombie resurgence:

5) Dead Rising – This could easily be on the above list depending on whether you’re asking me about it conceptually or after recently attempting a playthrough. Dead Rising might just be the greatest videogame ever conceived. Trapping you in a Dawn-esque shopping mall with literally thousands of zombies it allows you to fight them with pretty much anything you can find lying around. Unfortunately this conceit is ruined by one of the most obtuse save systems ever devised and some truly truly awful writing.

4) Land of the Dead/Diary of the Dead – Watching new Romero movies gives me the same feeling I get when visiting an old folks’ home. It’s weird and sad. The visuals and production design of his universe has been updated nicely but his writing is stuck in the seventies—and not in a good Serpico sort of way either. Though I thought that Diary specifically had some really clever aesthetics going for it even inspired camera work can’t obfuscate both films’ depressingly broad stereotypes and incessant use of dialogue (and in some cases monologue) to illustrate theme. If these weren’t Romero films I probably would have assumed they were Romero parody.

3) The Walking Dead – This one I realize I’m probably alone on. I’ve gone off a little on Robert Kirkman’s award winning comic book series in the past but this list provides a good example for me to illustrate exactly what irks me about the book. Like Land and Diary The Walking Dead has beautiful contemporary visuals and schlocky dated storytelling. It should be obvious to anyone who glances casually at the book as it sits on the rack that the title isn’t referencing the zombies but the survivors who are doomed to live in a hopeless dead world. This should be obvious because this is not a new idea. In fact it was one of Romero’s earliest and one of his best. And still this doesn’t stop Kirkman from expounding on it with an eye-rolling two-page monologue at the end of the fourth arc.

2) Every sketch comedy late night talk show internet video and sit com to use “Thriller” as a punchline – Seriously that’s the best you can do?

1) The sudden spate of teen-centric vampire fiction – Though zombies and vampires have long occupied very different positions in popular culture the neo-Gothic Anne Rice revival spurred by Twilight and its heathen ilk seem to represent the closing of the gap. In fact I’ll argue that since the zombie was un-birthed almost entirely by mass media his recent resurgence may have had a significant influence on audiences’ appetite for stories about monsters-as-metaphors. But instead of social maladies or human frailty vampires seem only to represent a frustratingly regressive mode of teen sexuality. Oh and angst. The vampires of today are practically composed of emo kid tears.

Though to be fair Edward it totally dreamy.