Monday, June 24, 2013

Yes Virginia, Zombies DO Run

I was thinking of writing a review of World War Z, but if you're interested you can hear all my (generally positive) thoughts in the forthcoming, very special episode of the Dark Discussions Podcast. Instead, let me address something that's been bugging me for some time now: what a zombie is or is not. Specifically, I'm getting tired of the Zombie Authority telling me exactly what a zombie can and can not do.

Ever since breaking out into the public consciousness a decade or so ago, there have been self-appointed Keepers of the Zombie Faith telling us what does and does not qualify as a zombie and, by association, a zombie story. I first took note of it with the releases of 28 Days Later  and Resident Evil 4, and it continues today. The latest whipping boy is World War Z, which has elicited complaints about zombies running, swarming, climbing and having a hive mind (which they don't in the film, but that's another story. Go listen to the podcast).

1) There is no agreed upon definition of what a zombie is.  Go check a dictionary. You'll get a reference to voodoo zombies, to the popular drink, and some vague definition of people that behave in a mindless way.

2) Zombies aren't zombies. All good zombie nerds already know this - What Romero created were ghouls, the living dead, or, going by NOTLD's original title, "flesh-eaters." He didn't use the term in the film, and didn't use it until years later. The zombie label was slapped on by fans (or perhaps critics) of the film and it stuck. Sadly the Zombie Authority wasn't around back then to declare that "zombies don't eat people" or "zombies don't act independently" or "zombies aren't brought back to life by space radiation."

3) Mythologies Evolve. Everyone knows that a werewolf is created when a poor soul is bitten by one. Except that was never part of the lore until The Wolf Man popularized it. For that matter, most werewolves were wolves, not men with dog masks. The same goes for vampires turning into bats, something that got incorporated into the mythos after vampire bats were discovered in the new world. Before Karloff donned the makeup, Frankenstein's monster not only wasn't mute, he had a vocabulary that would shame most Princeton grads. The point being, none of these things are real. They are all made up, and the rules governing them are too.

4) Even Romero got zombies "wrong". At least according to the Zombie Authorities. Night of the Living Dead gave us fast (if not running) zombies and zombies that used tools. Tool use and learned behavior were further worked into the series with each new installment. Return of the Living Dead, by Romero's NOTLD partner, gave us zombies that not only ran, they talked, they planned, they strategized. Oh and they were the first zombies to ask for "braaaiinns", some 17 years after the modern zombie first appeared. Try making Return today and Russo would get some hefty citations from the ZA.

The modern zombie is a fairly new monster - newer than aliens, newer than kaiju, newer even than killer robots. The zombie genre is busting open wide and, despite the insistence of critics, shows no signs of slowing down. It is a shame that at a time when horror films struggle to find an audience, so many fans are trying to stifle a flourishing genre.

List of Things Zombies Do
Ride horses
Use Tools
Eat anything
Eat only people
Eat only brains
Don't eat
Display emergent behaviors
Mow lawns
Serve dinner
Die from head tauma only
Die from any old trauma
Die from total destruction of body
Die by filling mouth with salt and sewing it closed
Get made by space radiation
Get made by viruses
Get made by government chemicals
Get made by ancient curses
Flash mob
Shop (during a Christmas themed zombie flash mob)
Shoot guns


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