It’s Halloween and why not have a post about shambling, walking corpses that feed on the living? Or angry, adrenaline’d infected that attack the healthy? Or things that kind of fall into that category of scary? Zombies and quasi-Zombies.
Recently on Facebook, one of my friends commented that they were so bored with zombies, that zombies weren’t interesting. I understand there’s a certain amount of Zombie Saturation Syndrome going on right now, but I think stories featuring elements of the relentless, indefatigable, cannibalistic undead aren’t necessarily played out.
And since I enjoy talking about zombies, I thought I’d put finger to keyboard and do just that.
What Do People Mean When They Say Zombie?
The classical zombie, the voodoo zombie, isn’t quite the flesh eating monster we associate today. If you watch some of the few black-and-white zombie classics of the 30s (way before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) a zombie was a mindless servant of a zombie master, either raised from the dead to serve in physical labor, or still alive but someone whose will had been squashed. Practically what we would consider a flesh-and-blood robot.
Those stories aren’t that interesting to me.
(By the way, my experience with zombies in entertainment is pretty limited to movies and shows here in the United States. I totally understand that to have something considered definitive, I’d have to include Italian cinema which has all the crazy zombie classics. So to all you Italian zombie film buffs: you are way cooler than I am.)
Once we got to Night of the Living Dead (in my limited perspective) the archetypal zombie survival horror story came into being. Shambling dead creatures who focus in on living prey to feed on.
Recently, there’s been a lot more of the “fast zombie” type of creatures, who are sometimes dead/sometimes still living but infected with a virus that fires them up with adrenaline and rage. These are the critters in 28 Days, or I Am Legend (the movie: a pale and lame thing when compared to the excellent Richard Matheson book) and World War Z (the movie: a different version than the Max Brooks book, but I like it in its own right.)
Fast, Slow, and Other Adjectives
The different types of zombies above kind of describe the two flavors of zombie movies that you might see. Slow zombies make for more of a survival-focused movie (we’re in a house, or a shopping mall, and we just need to keep the zombies out and figure how to keep ourselves alive) or an action-focused movie (Shoot them! Shoot them! Run run run run run run run! Oh, look, a CURE…)
Inside of these two types of zombie movies (slow or fast), there are other types of common traits that may or may not be there. You can have a lot of variety in your zombies.
- The zombies are the animated dead, or the zombies are alive but infected
- The zombies are slow and shamble, or the zombies are fast fast fast
- The zombies might require a particular way to kill them (the dead kind usually need a head shot, preferably double-tapped), or they might not.
- The zombies are usually aggressive by default, or they might not be (like in the old old zombie movies where the zombie is generally neutral, but can be aggressive under orders.)
- The zombies are sometimes controlled in some way, either by another entity or by a super-zombie (some kind of more intelligent zombie, or bigger zombie, or whatever.)
- The zombies attack to reproduce (either explicitly like in the cinematic World War Z, or as a by-product of being infected or other universal rule (like in The Walking Dead, where death == rising as a zombie.)
- The zombies have no consciousness, relying on an animal-like instinct. Some super-zombies have more on the ball. In general, they can’t be negotiated with since they don’t have the capacity to evaluate decisions. (Again, some super-zombies rise to the occasion.)
- One zombie is dangerous, but usually handled straightforwardly unless the environment is particularly in its favor. A horde of zombies is always a problem.
- They often have the instinct to determine prey from fellow zombies. (Not as true in Zombieland. A famous exception.)
That list can go on and on, so I think that you can get a lot of variety out of the stories.
And sometimes, you might be watching a movie that doesn’t seem overtly like a zombie movie or TV show, but might as well be.
Famous Zombies (or Quasi-Zombies) of Science Fiction
A fave horror movie of mine, Alien (and the more action-y Aliens) checked off many zombie archetypal elements.
- Attacks to reproduce (well, to use a human as a host to either lay an egg or otherwise make more critters. Aliens relied on an egg-laying queen, whereas the original Alien movie (the full cut and novella, not the theatrical version) had the egg/face-hugger but also another way. The alien that hatched out of sad-eyed John Hurt’s chest eventually cocooned the Nostromo’s captain and was using him as a food source for more larval aliens.
- They fall into the fast variety.
- Hard to kill, but hazardous to kill because of the acid blood. This makes a single alien dangerous in the confines of a spaceship. This made the first movie into a horror movie since wild action to kill the alien was not possible.
- The alien seems to behave on instinct, but the queen in Aliens had more capacity to make decisions (when Ripley forced the queen to keep her warrior drones at bay when observing the vulnerability of her eggs being threatened with a flame thrower.)
- A horde of aliens will overwhelm. Period.
This analogy, like many analogies, is flawed.
- The alien is neither dead nor infected. It’s kind of not that big a deal, since it’s a form of life that is totally bizarre.
- More importantly, the alien is only vaguely humanoid. It’s not a reanimated human. It could never be mistaken for human. So we lose out on the “What’s that dude want? I better go see…” aspect, or the “I can’t kill Mom! Maybe we can cure her…” aspect.
In many ways as alien as the Aliens, but also are human enough where we can relate to them. To feel the loss of a friend (or a Captain.) Let’s see how they match up on the zombie list.
- Aggressive, although in a rather clinical way.
- Attacks to reproduce. The TV show originally had them reproduce by taking humans (well, one human, Jean-Luc Picard) and performing surgery on them. That was extremely cool, and made a ton of sense. Once Star Trek: First Contact happened, the Borg became unfortunately more unbelievable with the ability to inject nanoprobes into subjects and borgify them. I probably would have preferred if the Borg had commandeered an Enterprise replicator and started fabricating Borg parts and had a process to turn someone into a Borg. Sadly, I was not invited to writing sessions with Braga and Moore. Which is probably for the best.
- Kind of mindless. Well, it’s complicated. TV-wise, an individual Borg was directed by the ill-defined Collective. They could be separated from the Collective and some autonomous thought could happen. In the movie, the Borg Collective seemed to actually be directed by a Borg Queen, who seemed rather individualistic. We’ll call that a super-zombie or a master type unit. But the individual drones, under the Collective’s guidance were not receptive to interaction or negotiation. Just relentless in their objectives.
- Hard to kill. Unless it was plot convenient. Based on the ability to shoot them dead with Tommy guns or chop them up with a Klingon blade, you’d think Starfleet would include some kinetic and bladed weapon training for dealing with Borg boarding parties. Nope, they just keep relying on the tired alternating phaser frequency tactic. Sigh. Hard to kill.
- Not fast. Not really slow shambling, but not fast.
- One Borg was kind of dangerous, but not always directed to be hostile. Sometimes a unit was in the zone doing some menial task. So they were kind of like old school voodoo zombies in that regard. A bunch of Borg were a big danger. Especially if all you had in your combat toolbox was a phaser.
Again, not a perfect analogue.
- They aren’t dead, although “infected” is hard to rule out, with those stupid nanoprobe dealies.
- It’s hard to get the grips on the Hive mind being analogous to animal instinct. Unless we’re talking insect-like behavior.
- You can come back from being a Borg. Rarely in zombie stories can you come back from being a zombie.
What’s the point in all this? Well, I wanted to point out to my friend who was bored with zombies… sometimes the zombies can be weirder than expected. Like Aliens. Like Cyborgs.
Invasion of the Body Snatcher people could also qualify, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for you, dear reader.
Dealing with Zombies Like Humans. Also, Cthulhu.
Another buddy of mine is no fan of zombie stories, in any way. “Zombies make no sense thermodynamically,” he’d declare. Well, no shit, dude. In general, dead people walking around is all kinds of impossible. We don’t have to use big words.
One of his big issues was at the end of the first season of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
[SPOILER ALERT FOR THE WALKING DEAD, SEASON ONE]
At the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, a researcher demonstrates some facts about the process where living humans become the walking dead. There’s some viral vector and it’s a fatal situation. And minutes after death, the brain kickstarts as a flesh-hungry walking corpse.
This really pissed my friend off. That any explanation of the process was presented. Since zombies make no sense, having anything scientific about them was ludicrous. Because, if you are going to use science then you’d have to come to the conclusion that zombies are thermodynamically impossible.
In his opinion, it would be better if the people on the show pursued no understanding whatsoever and that way they’d avoid any cognitive dissonance or whatever.
No no no. It doesn’t matter if zombies don’t make sense, it makes less sense for people who are trying to survive a zombie outbreak not to at least try to explain it in some way. And it’s totally cool if humans never figure it out. Because it just might defy explanation by science.
For all we know, ancient Cthulhu in the sunken city has awoken and before he comes to the surface to lay waste or play poker with Azathoth or whatever, he’s engineered a zombie apocalypse. Just for laughs.
The ultimate cause might not matter, but the immediate behavior and obvious infectiousness of the zombie-syndrome should be consistent and observable. I expect humans to try to figure it out. Otherwise they’d be acting no more human than the zombies.
And the Point of All This Is???
Alright, I started this post talking about a friend who stated that she was bored with zombies. That they are not scary. That might be true for her, and I wouldn’t want to try and convince her otherwise.
But I think that my friend is missing the thematic heart of a zombie survival horror story (or an alien survival story where the aliens might as well be zombies.) It’s how the humans behave, how they cooperate, and how they betray one another that makes the story interesting. Zombies are just impersonal enough, relentless, and I don’t know, “environmental” enough that the story focus hinges almost entirely on the humans. (Warm Bodies would be the exception to that statement.)
The requirement that human behavior be the foundation and framework for the story is the reason that I prefer my zombies slow and shambling. There’s more time for the humans in the story to be able to react, to try to out-think the zombies, to prepare, and to deal with the fellow survivors in a more complicated and interesting fashion. If there is a vulnerability that the zombies can exploit, it’s usually the result of the bad behavior or lack of planning on the survivors’ part. I prefer tragedy over pathos.
With the fast zombies, it’s hard for the humans to make a meaningful mistake or have complicated relationships. It’s all RUN RUN RUN SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT OH NO MY FACE! Action movies are good fun, but they are rarely deep or all that memorable.
I’m looking at you, I AM LEGEND. (Also known as I AM TOTALLY MISSING THE MAJORLY COOL ELEMENT OF THE BOOK.)
So if you are bored with zombies, either the characters are the ones shambling and brainless, or the plot is.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
The images are mostly from The Walking Dead, Star Trek, Alien, 28 Days (I think), and well, I don’t know where I found that I ❤ Zombies image. It’s not mine.
I make no claim to any of the artwork obviously, but I do make some claim to the text of this posting. So there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2013 Some Rights Reserved