Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Zombies Eat My Brains

Zombies bore me. I've been trying to think just why The Walking Dead left me feeling so meh, whether it's the over-exposure of the trope or what. For sure, I was less than bowled over by the whole notion of an HBO zombie show, where others seemed to be getting awfully excited about it, so maybe it's just the overkill of shit like Pride and Prejudice With Zombies that's put me into a "get the fuck over this over-used trope already" attitude. But I dunno. There's more to it, I think, a reason why the endless iterations feel just so tired.

I do think there's been cool stuff done with the shambling beasties, I should add. The first two Romero movies are classics, for sure, Shaun of the Dead is awesome, and 28 Days Later was real edge-of-the-seat stuff, I thought; but the more the zombie apocalypse gets dug up and set shambling towards us yet again, the more I find myself... shrugging. Like, whatevers. My mind drifts to maggots, wondering just how long before bluebottle larvae simply devour the undead hordes. I think of army troops with daisy cutters -- hell, even a few grenades could take that mob down to a minimal threat. Kneecappings and decapitations -- it can't be that hard to immobilise th motherfuckers. Hell, I even wonder if you could immunise yourself by eating zombie flesh -- cause hey, it's like "man bites dog," yanno? Zombie eats man. Boooooooring! Man eats zombie? Now there's a story.

But I think it might be the logical narrative form that just brings the Law of Diminishing Returns into play here. Like, once the zombie apocalypse kicks off, ye've got a few scenes of your protagonists discovering that, holy shit, a zombie apocalypse has kicked off! Then what? You've basically got two scenarios, it seems, the siege and the sortie, which leads to, like, three structures in the combination thereof:

  1. Siege (with sprinkles of sortie)
  2. Sortie (with sprinkles of siege)
  3. The Combo Special (a siege/sortie blend)

In option 1, your protagonists find somewhere to hole up, and... well, that's it; the zombie horde surrounds them, and the whole story is about holding Fort Apache: The Brains. The purest siege story, I'd say, is the one-nighter, the "hold out till the dawn" story -- pure because it's constricted in time as well as space. Like a locked-room drama, it can achieve a real intensity from its disparate characters cooped up together, fighting back-to-back (and among themselves, natch.) In non-zombie fiction, your prime exemplar is Assault on Precinct 13; in zombie fiction, it's Night of the Living Dead. Note, there is a sortie here -- the attempt to get the truck -- but in option 1 such attempts just lead to retreat and retrenchment. And scaling up to an extended siege a la Dawn of the Dead... not sure if I'd say this weakens the narrative per se but it sets up a lower burn of tensions than the crucible of the one-nighter; you're substituting an all-out onslaught with brief moments of respite for a settled-in-behind-the-barricades war of attrition with sudden moments of panic when shit goes tits-up.

In option 2, your protagonists have a hint of a haven, and they decide to head for it; the zombie horde owns the perilous terrain they must travel across in order to get there, and the whole story is about reaching sanctuary. The whole narrative is a sortie, really, with just the odd pit-stop siege now and then. Outside zombie fiction, you might look at The Warriors as a good example. Inside zombie fiction, the two best examples of this, seems to me, are Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, both notably layering in additional narrative idioms -- the rom-com and the road movie -- rather as if that narrative isn't quite interesting enough in itself. Maybe it isn't. I mean, your story is basically a trudge through the wasteland interspersed with "oh noes, we walked into some zombies" or "oh noes, we stopped and some zombies found us." Other notable examples more in this vein seem to up the tension by cheating on the zombies, making them fast and alert rather than dumb and slow -- c.f. 28 Days Later and Resident Evil. Can't help feeling like maybe they have to, cause otherwise it'd be like Saving Private Ryan only the Germans are all retarded monkeys armed only with bayonets. Oh, and they're wearing blindfolds and earmuffs. And asleep.

And what the hell else do you have more than that, other than narratives which blend the siege and the sortie in more equal measures? Oh noes, it's a zombie apocalypse; let's hole up somewhere safe. Oh noes, the zombies got in; let's try and find somewhere safe. Oh noes, we ran into some zombies in our attempt to get somewhere safe; let's kill them and/or run away. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. I guess my point is that these narrative building blocks are so simple and tropic that we're dealing with set pieces, and if you've pulled off the set piece well once, what do you do?

Oooh, I know, let's have a bigger horde of zombies overrun the makeshift barricades of our ragtag handful of ill-equipped survivors! OK, so then the next time we can... uh... have an even bigger horde of zombies overrun the makeshift barricades of our ragtag handful of ill-equipped survivors! And then... get this... we have a medium-sized horde of zombies overrun the makeshift barricades of our ragtag handful of ill-equipped survivors! Just to spice things up a little. Trust me; it'll be awesome. Why do the zombies overrun the position? Well, I was thinking that in Siege Scene A it's because of the zombies' sheer strength of numbers, plus one of the protagonists does something stupid, and in Siege Scene B it's because one of the protagonists does something stupid, plus the zombies' sheer strength of numbers means -- what's that? What do you mean, "the same fucking thing"?

So, yeah, about that siege. Have we holed up in an abandoned house already? OK, how about an abandoned shopping mall? OK, how about an abandoned government facility / army base? OK, how about an abandoned department store? OK, how about an abandoned tank? OK, how about a retirement home? OK, how about a forest clearing with no defensive perimeter whatsoever?! It'll be really awesome and -- no, wait, you're right, that is kinda retarded.

OK then, scratch that. We'll just keep our protagonists moving until they, like, turn a corner and there's some zombies. Or they go into an abandoned house to restock supplies and there's some zombies. Or they go into an abandoned shopping mall to restock supplies and there's some zombies. Or they go into an abandoned department store to restock supplies and there's some zombies. Or they go into an abandoned police station, or an abandoned hospital, or, hey, how about they go into an abandoned government facility / army base and there's some zombies? Anyway, the point is, they turn a corner somewhere and there's some zombies!

Or, you know, they could turn a corner and there aren't any zombies! I mean, we could find something else entirely to spark conflict in the narrative, seeing as our key threat isn't actually much of a threat until you're pretty much in its face, shouting, "Look! Fresh brains!" But that seems like an extreme measure when there's soooooo many different ways to have protagonists turn a corner and find, like, OMG, there's some zombies! Sure, as far back as Day of the Dead, Romero pretty much made the shambly critters a background plot device and founded the whole narrative on human conflicts, but that movie's just whacky. So no, sieges and sorties, that's what we want.

Can't see how that would ever get old.

So yeah, I'm just not seeing a whole lot of mileage in this monster in and of itself. I'm sorta baffled as to why there was such a buzz over The Walking Dead in the first place. A coma victim wakes to find himself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, you say? Sets out to find his wife and son, you say? Let me take a wild stab in the dark and guess that the narrative's going to consist of said protagonist and whatever survivors he encounters being holed up in siege situations which will eventually get overrun by zombies (when they're not out on sorties, that is) and sorties where they turn corners and there's some zombies (when they're not holed up in siege situations, that is.)


Now if they were to, say, bring back Merril in Season Two as a zombie with just enough shreds of his old identity to hold one hell of a grudge (like Bud in Day of the Dead, yanno,) and maybe a chainsaw strapped to his stump for extra yucks... now then I might think it was going somewhere interesting.



Blogger Kate on the couch said...

The only really interesting zombie narrative I've come across in recent years is Mas Brooks' World War Z, which is a fictional oral history of a worldwide zombie war. Brooks doesn't even really need the zombies, they're just a devise to explore the effects of a massive global crisis on governments, armies, institutions, and individuals.

11:04 pm  
Blogger Abigail Nussbaum said...

The reason that The Walking Dead was so highly anticipated was its pedigree - both the channel (AMC, not HBO, previously responsible for Mad Men and Breaking Bad), the original comic, which is apparently well-regarded, and the talent behind the show, mostly Frank Darabont. More broadly, though, this is one of the stages in a popular trope's lifecycle. Once stories about zombies/superheroes/vampires/whatever become ubiquitous and start shading into overexposure, people start looking for the Good, Literary zombie/superhero/vampire story, the one that transcends the trope and makes it respectable. When really, those have come and gone - Buffy, The Incredibles, 28 Days Later. They're what starts the trend, not its culmination.

The show itself, I thought, had its moments, but was so clearly grasping for a sense of the story it wanted to tell - something more than the siege/sortie plots you outline - that it never settled into a sense of itself.

8:11 am  
Blogger Eric M. Edwards said...

Zombies have their problems, the deceased know, but The Walking Dead's biggest hurtle is not the tired state of its shambling titular monsters but the lifeless writing which drags AMCs cast behind it like a flogged horse.

I'm an aficionado of the ambulatory corpse genre, though I've come to recognize what most draws me is the particular flavour of the individual cast adrift in a burned out world, picking through the rubble, rooting about for shells and tinned food. It could be a world filled with super-mutants or hungry packs of starving yorkshire terriers - the zombies are just particularly piquant extras.

And I've come to believe you need to have some very keen writing ironically enough, to enliven the living dead. Otherwise they're just rotting corpses, whose presence is continually eating holes in the thinness of the plot. Without the spark of good ideas they simply lie there and moulder.

Why indeed do they not simply go the way of all flesh? Some authors have aired the technique of making whatever virus or animating force an animus to other living things, so the normal bacteria and animal and insectile life that break down decaying matter can not thrive. But then why are the recently dead rotting at all? It is hard to find the right balance which doesn't open up a fresh can of worms.

They don't make for plausible opponents unless exactly the right conditions are in place, nor does it often seem likely that they'd overrun the world as extensively as they inevitably do. Mostly mindless, frequently slow and terminally clumsy, they in truth make poor antagonists unless expertly handled like a good axe.

Watching characters gorily splattered with gallons of zombie ichor who soldier on, and yet quiver and transform as result of the smallest nibble from their undead foes, the mind is wrenched from its thin suspension of belief. Again, unless authors weave in very specific clauses such as some sort of super zombie venom contained in the saliva of the zombie hordes but not in their sluggish blood (or try their best to follow the logical consequences of a blood borne disease coming in contact with their characters such as in 28 Days Later) - fresh holes open up in the plausibility like skeins of rotten gauze punctured by a shotgun's blast.

AMC's The Walking Dead, while only with one short season under its tightened belt, suffers all of the above. Few explanations are on hand to salve the uneasy mind, dull, familiar plot lines made from old intestinal ropes, are measured out, flatlining characters who show little development or originality, sieges, sorties and close to the bone escapes, and one shambolic plot device unleashed on us after another. It sounds like fun, but it results in a rather dull plod. There is much waiting, but fatally little tension.

I've not read the source material so it could be possible that some of this dragging gait is due to the problems of compressing even a comic series into a smaller number of cinematic episodes. Graphic novels do not always result in richness on the flickering screen. It may also be the fault of the television series' writers, for in particular, the writing feels threadbare throughout, consistently falling down each time the stakes are raised, its movements uneven and ill-coordinated.

At the end of the first series I'm left wondering where the terror, where the humour might have fled? The characters strike me as rather a humourless lot. And while death is literally grinning back all around them, they themselves seem only occasionally terrified by their dire situation. I'm not sure that there's a hopeful outcome here - not even a satisfyingly grim one.

Is AMC's series dead on its feet, or just gathering it putrid breath for a more rich and strange transformation in its second season? I'd like to think the latter but experience tells me otherwise.


12:48 pm  
Blogger Paul Owens said...

I'm surprised that you exclude "Day of the Dead" from being a Romero classic, for me it's the most unsettling zombie movie of all. Anyway, I too have problems believing that shuffling zombies would lead to the Apocalypse quite as quickly as The Walking Dead suggests (28 Day Later and the Snyder remake of "Dawn..." get around this of course with their running monsters). Romero's Trilogy probably gets the timeline right, there's 10 years between the initial outbreak in "Night of the Living Dead" and the end of civilisation depicted in "Dawn of the Dead". I would suggest that it's in this missing decade where there might be some life left in the Zombie trope. The ten years where things start to fall apart and where people start living in denial and living with the dead.

2:43 pm  
Blogger Maija said...

I don't know if you're familiar with this movie, but it certainly has a different take on the zombie trope:

3:14 pm  
Blogger Roland said...

I laughed so hard while reading this post, it's so true ^_^

Two points however:

1. If you enjoyed Shawn of the Dead, you NEED to see Zombieland. I am pretty sure you'll appreciate it.

2. I haven't read them personally, but there are now TWO zombie books set in the Star Wars universe. The first is called Death Troopers, and the second I don't remember the name of. I am not touching those without getting paid for it, but I'd be delighted to read your opinion of at least one of them...

4:44 am  

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