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The Zombie Revolution Will Not be Televised…

I watched Quarantine with my aunt, uncle and brother last night. It was fairly okay – it did pretty much exactly what it promised on the tin, nothing more nothing less – but it was undermined by a fine third that revealed to us (and the characters) the reason for said outbreak. The reason wasn’t particularly smart or original – it was really exactly what you’d expect, which isn’t what you’re looking for in the final twenty minutes of a horror film. It got me thinking, are these horror films scarier the less we know about the beasts lurking in the darkness?

Hangovers were worse than usual at the office Christmas Party - no one could remember where they parked...

Hangovers were worse than usual at the office Christmas Party - no one could remember where they parked...

You could legitimately make the case that using archetypes like zombies or vampires or the wolfman all involve letting the audience in on a great deal of the scare. Vampires thirst for blood and are afraid of sunlight (in most incarnations), the wolf man transforms in moonlight and can be stopped by silver bullets, zombies hunger for brains and lurch menacingly while spreading infection through their bites. That’s true and a fair point to make, but these are often just ways of informing us of the movie’s threat – we know vampires are super strong, so there’s no point trying to wrestle with one, we know zombies move in packs so any defense will likely prove futile as more show up, we know the wolf can’t be killed by normal bullets, so stop wasting your time.

I’m talking about knowing the reasons why these things are happening – beyond “he was bitten by a werewolf so he becomes a werewolf” or similar. I’m talking about where the vampires or werewolves come from. It is rarely dealt with on film with these two creatures (though Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula gave us a tragic origin for Vlad, one of its many mistakes), but seems particularly common when it comes to zombies. Apparently we can accept that vampires have always existed secretly, but zombies require some sort of logical explanation.

It wasn’t always the case – the original Night of the Living Dead was a sterling example. The film series posits any number of possible causes, from a falling space probe to judgement day to the flooding over of hell itself – but it never settles on one. Shaun of the Dead (albeit a spoof, it is a well-made one) similarly has our protagonists too preoccupied with staying alive to worry over silly questions like that (though a subtle homage is made to the space probe explanation). Max Brooks’ World War Z (which is being slowly adapted into a film as we speak) similarly never explains the cause of the plague originating in China – there are zombies on a riverbed from the start.

I blame Richard Matheson and his book I Am Legend. It’s a great read, very clever. The book tried the then novel approach of studying its monsters zombies/vampires as laboratory specimens. It pseudo-scientifically explored the possible explanations for various facets of the creatures’ existence. It was a new way to look at these originally mythical creatures, somehow moving them to a shared overlap of the science fiction and horror genres where they remain today.

Perhaps it is because the zombie is one of the more recent additions to the modern cadre of horror monsters (yes, the notion has its roots in Afro-Carribbean culture, but it was really given its current form by George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead in 1968) that it has been tied so strongly to this new-age pseudo-science. It’s bizarre how movies featuring them seem to latch to the notion of a virus or infection rather than a more supernatural explanation. We are often given an origin story for that virus (a rabies variant developed by British researchers in 28 Days Later or a rabies variant created by a splinter member of a doomsday cult in Quarantine). All credit to the original Spanish film [rec] which tries to tie it to a supernatural cause, with the Vatican (!) trying to isolate the viral cause of demonic possession.

Looking for a quick bite...

Looking for a quick bite...

I know what the point of these is – it’s a crude way of warning about the dangers of human scientific advancement. These are the first real monsters to emerge since the development of the atom bomb, science’s first true ‘monster’ (“I am become death – the destroyer of worlds” just about sums it up, even though it was never said). Sure, Frankenstein’s monster posed a similar warning, but this is a whole different ball game. The splitting of the atom made a huge mark on public consciousness, as people faced the reality of an apocalypse of their own making. This was crudely expressed in the B-movies of the time (where radiation produced giant ants in Them!, for example), and we can see the same fear in typical zombie apocalypse movies – particularly in the era of chemical and biological weapons.

I can appreciate it, but I don’t have to liek it. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like the idea of not knowing everything about what’s hunting me through the darkness. It makes the fear so much more palpable – there’s nothing like the fear of the unknown. At the best (like in 28 Days Later or I Am Legend) this explanation is stuck on to the front, briefly, so it doesn’t interrupt the tension later on. At worse, like in Quartantine, it forms a part of the climax – a twist or crucial reveal. Except it’s never as horrible as what the audience imagines it could be. No matter what you reveal, you’ll disappoint someone.

The creatures that lurk in the darkness are scary by their nature. Zombies in particular represent the loss of personal identity in a growing collective consciousness. The idea of one’s brain (or self) being consumed by the masses and the body left an empty shell functioning on habit without independent thought. That’s pretty scary social commentary right there, and it forms the backbone of some of the better works within the genre.

I quite like zombie movies – there’s something about those dwellers of the uncanny vally that just makes the skin crawl, because there’s no malice there, no evil. At their best, they scare me to death. I know there’s never going to be a zombie apocalypse, but if there were I doubt I’ll get a handy announcement on my television during it telling me that it was the work of some mad scientist in Drogheda. And it’ll be all the more terrifying for it – because I won’t get answers.

I’ll get zombies.

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2 Responses

  1. […] One of the earliest and best known examples comes from The Day The Earth Stood Still, where an alien species warns us to be wary our destructive capacities. It was a fairly bold political statement to make at the height of the Cold War and – though it doesn’t have quite the same effect in our modern day and age – it had quite the impact. The remake attempted to update the cautionary tale to warn us about the environmental costs of our actions, but whereas the original was daring the remake was just stale. And boring. That too. Cautionary tales seem to be the core of the preachiness within science fiction, in fairness, constantly granting us views of the impacts of various potential courses of action. The show The Outer Limits was built on this style of story-telling. There have been fables about genetic engineering (Gattaca) and consumer-based media (The Truman Show). Nuclear holocaust was a particularly potent theme decades ago (Planet of the Apes, Mad Max), but it seems to have somewhat faded of late. One could even see the entire zombie subgenre as a cautionary tale on the necessary limits of scientific advancement. […]

  2. […] (in their current form) are a relatively young monster. I’ve been over the history (and the reason why I like them unexplained) before, but it’s worth reiterating that they are perhaps the most enduring monster to be almost […]

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