Monday, March 22, 2010

Is there such a thing as a 'better' zombie?

Those who have a love for certain things like to obsess about the little details OF that thing at times. I must admit I'm one of them. Some things I enjoy are horror films and novels, and one of the most potent sub-genres of horror (especially in films) has been stories with zombies. You know. People back from the dead with attitudes that make Oscar the Grouch look like Emily Post, decaying every second after they've climbed through the earth from their graves, and with that very special jones for eating the flesh of the living. "When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth." Zombies aren't just the ultimate agents of death, looking to take as many lives as possible and worse, infect them with the never-quite-explained virus to make the living join the undead ranks...such monsters are as much a metaphor for Death itself as the unstoppable serial killers of cinematic legend like Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers.

I've loved zombie yarns since Roger Corman's classic "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), even though I'd fire a blast of double-ought from a shotgun into the face of any undead that might appear for real and have me as a midnight snack. That would never happen in reality, naturally. I hope! Although "Night of the Living Dead" set the standard rules all zombie films followed since, I'll be the first to admit that some of those rules required some explanation. The undead only go after living or just-killed flesh? How long can the bastards shamble around, anyway? And why does destroying their brains -- preferably from long-range with a bullet -- put them down like a stake in a vampire's heart? Their brain cells have to be dead already! I did put a little logic to zombie lore in my short story, "Mother's Day". (Which you'll also find here in my blog. Shameless self-promotion done!) I placed a more definitive cause to the effect of a possible undead plague, and exactly why such creatures like living human flesh so much. Hey, would YOU wanna take a bite out of rotting flesh? Zombies sure wouldn't, and there you are! But unless there's a supernatural element to the story that keeps dead flesh well-preserved, logic can only go so far in stories about the undead. For one thing, if there were a zombie apocalypse, it would be pretty damn short considering that necrosis is a fact of both life and death. Given enough time, a zombie would dessicate into a heap of goo and bones...if the living could hold out in shelters and defend themselves long enough, the problem would literally take care of itself.

Some have done their best to redefine zombies -- or, well, make them scarier as time has passed horror stories, though, especially in films. It started small with 1985's "Return of the Living Dead" in which some of the undead -- those recently taken from life only to, er, 'wake up' to a more animalistic existence and prey on the living -- as not quite being as slow and decrepid as a rotting zombie that just broke from the graveyard dirt. Yep, zombies as fast as a human, and that is scary as hell. Zack Snyder took that same tactic portraying the newly-zombified in his remake of the classic "Dawn of the Dead" in fact, as time passed in the narrative, the undead looked worse and got slower as decay set in and their muscles, joints and more fell to rot along with the rest of their bodies. But it was filmmaker Danny Boyle who honestly DID redefine what it meant to be an animalistic flesh-eater.

In "28 Days Later", Boyle took prevailing concerns of a future pandemic and combined it with the tropes of zombie films. The result? The 'undead' of his horror epic weren't dead at all: they were normal (is there such a thing?) everyday people who got infected by a bloodborne virus of pure, total rage. Think about that, and what happens to a normal person who gets infected by a bite. One moment you're okay, and the next you feel like your blood is literally burning and everything you are, your very identity, what makes you you is eradicated and replaced by a rage that makes you as pleasant as a tiger infected with rabies. All that is left in the mind is pure animal drive...the very worst parts of that drive, in fact. It's the demolition of society, morality, and civilization itself by the ultimate of the uncivilized. Those aren't zombies that hunt in packs at night looking for the living to feast on...they're wolves with zero conscience, and those who have still have logic and soul in them can feel sorry for the infected, but they'd better stay the HELL behind barricaded doors and armed for bear or one of those packs will find and batter, rend, and yes, even eat them alive. "28 Days Later" not only provided much-needed food for thought about viruses but rewrote the rules for zombie films even though again, technically, it ain't a film about the undead. It can be called a zombie film, though, since those subjected to the Rage Virus are no different from zombies...except they're alive and their primal drive makes them what I like to call fast-movers.

As a gamer, I've seen both kinds of zombies in video games. In games from "Resident Evil" to "Dead Rising", the undead are indeed that, brought back to life by genetic engineering or other mysterious ways. Other games have followed the example of Danny Boyle, like "Left 4 Dead" and its sequel, where the survivors must fight off the animalistically infected by tooth, claw, and shotgun. And pills! :D (Those who know and love "Left 4 Dead" will understand that last bit of humor!)

But is there such a thing as a 'better' zombie as time continues to pass? At the heart of the religion and the mythology most know of voodoo and zombies in real life, they are those brought back from the dead to act as servants of the living. In our popular culture, from books to movies to games, the undead serve only their own primal, savage hunger at the expense of those still alive. There has even been a sea change to what actually makes a zombie, all to make that kind of monster more frightening, as the more supernatural and shambling flesh-eaters seem to be giving way to a trend to create the fast-moving infected of a terrible plague that could burn the civilized world down. Which kind do I prefer? Whether they make me think or not, as long as the zombies are scary, fans like me won't get enough of them and the heroes who try to keep themselves from becoming snacks to monstrous appetites!

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