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The Zed Word: Zombie Talk

by on October 31, 2010
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This week, anthropology major and zombie fiction fan, Evan Dossey joins Sam Watermeier to talk about zombie films in honor of the upcoming premiere of the new television series, “The Walking Dead.”

Sam: Zombies have stomped their way through film and literature. Now, they’re conquering a new medium — television. Based on the popular graphic novels, AMC’s new series, “The Walking Dead” premieres tonight (Oct. 31) at 10/9c. But we’ll get to that later. In honor of this premiere, let’s first take a look back at the origins of the zombie genre and its impact on pop culture. Zombies have been present in cinema for a long time, but filmmaker George A. Romero is responsible for etching them into our collective subconscious. He established them as both harbingers of doom and vehicles for social commentary.

Now, Evan, how have these films changed the culture since then and why have they endured?

Evan: Remember when we sat on the reunion panels for “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” back at the Famous Monsters of Filmland convention in July? There was the emphasis on Romero’s lack of foresight regarding the attractiveness of his “Ghouls” beyond the film he was making.

And of course there was — he just wanted to make his own “I Am Legend.” “Night of the Living Dead” is, essentially, the novel “I Am Legend” with multiple people. It’s a siege fantasy, a war movie, an ultimate “Us Vs. Them” scenario where Us is individuality and Them is a mindless, conforming horde. They’re usually set in the apocalypse to allow for the deterioration of standard cultural taboos. So I wouldn’t say they’ve changed culture, so much as gained prominence due to the premise’s inexpensive adaptability and very basic counter-morality.

Enough about why zombie films are so popular — there’s enough of that going around. Anyone interested should check out “Zombiemania,” available on Netflix Instant Stream; it’s a pretty decent rundown.

So, Sam, I challenge you, right now, to name three zombie films you think are the tip-top of what the genre has to offer.

Sam: Well, the first one that springs to mind is “28 Days Later.” I love the you-are-there immediacy of the camerawork and how it grounds the story in gritty reality. It’s also a great example of gothic horror, a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. It’s like “Night of the Living Dead” whereas “28 Weeks Later” is like “Dawn of the Dead,” exploring more fantastical elements and delving into action.

Evan: I’m fond of “28 Days” — not so much “Weeks,” which I think serves as the epitome of a wasted ‘large-scale’ sequel, unlike Dawn or, most appropriately, “Aliens,” which upped the cast and amount of faceless threats in a more comparable degree.

“Days” manages to partially eschew the classic siege formula in favor of a “survival against the environment” plot. It’s about finding safe-haven during the apocalypse, not so much being besieged once it’s found, and I’m personally more interested in that form of story.

Sam: Interesting. So you prefer when zombies are on the periphery of story rather than at the center? Now that I think about it, the most effective zombie films do seem to be the ones that use zombies as a catalyst for the characters to address their inner conflicts. Although it is a comedy, “Shaun of the Dead” has some surprisingly effective dramatic moments in which the characters have moments of catharsis or revelation under the stress of the dangerous situations.

Evan: “Shaun” is one of the gems of zombie fiction in general. Funny, smart, and affecting. As to your question, it’s sort of common law that focus on character overrides focus on environment in the most effective stories…which brings to mind films which humanize the Zombie, such as “Day” and “Land” of the dead, or the contemporary cult classic “Fido.”

I have mixed feelings on the first two — “Day” is somewhat under appreciated atmospherically, while “Land’s” social commentary on class warfare sort of raises an otherwise average entry in the genre.

Although “Land” plays the “humanized zombie” straight, “Fido” is very much in the satirical vein of “Shaun.” What do you think of the humanized zombie?

Sam: I think zombies, for the most part, have always been reflections of us. In the original “Dawn of the Dead,” they mirror consumers. In “Land,” like you mentioned, they are the oppressed. So, when the living characters fight them, they are really battling parts of themselves, their own inner demons. I don’t know if that completely answers your question.

Evan: Actually, your point makes this a good time to bring ourselves around to “The Walking Dead.” In issue #24 of the series — which shouldn’t be for a few seasons television-wise — the central character makes the proclamation “We ARE the Walking Dead.” It’s another borrowing from Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” which had the same conclusion as you’ve just voiced: that the monster is, really, resultant of human foibles magnified in the absence of culture.

To clarify: what I find interesting about “Day,” “Land,” and “Fido” is that the zombie characters are given names and personalities — effectively removing them from the “swarm” that is otherwise their character. Do you think the zombie genre loses something when this occurs?

Sam: Giving them names and personalities enhances the point that the zombies are us, so I’d initially say it helps the genre. However, I can see how it would also make the point too obvious to some viewers. At the same time, “the swarm” might seem too inhuman, so it’s a difficult question. At the end of the day, though, I’d say the humanization helps the genre.

“The Walking Dead” sounds really interesting based on what you’ve said. Television is the last medium for zombies to conquer, where will they go from here?

Evan: I don’t see it as where they might go, though it’s possible we’ll see more zombie-based television shows if “The Walking Dead” is as much of a hit as anticipated. Zombies have an enormous presence in video games, and the same aspect of the fantasy you see there was, I think, translated extremely well in “Zombieland,” where Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Flint and Gwen Stacey murdered hordes of the undead in entertaining fashion without angsting much over their situation. I think there’s an opportunity for that sort of story to run alongside a show like “The Walking Dead,” which is definitely more angst than action.

Sam: Well, I can’t wait to see how the show turns out. Hopefully, it will keep the zombie genre alive (pun intended).