Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Why Zombie?

I'd ask you to excuse the lame joke in the title but I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain is an overlooked masterpiece of the dead things trying to eat people genre. Anyway those who know me are aware of this... I'm obsessed with zombies. I use the word obsessed because I cannot say I love zombies, I'd like nothing more than to brutally slaughter all the zombies in existence... of course that requires the existence of zombies, something reality refuses to co-operate with me on. I'm an unashamed geek. It's a label I wear with pride. At the very core of being a geek is obsession, the hardcore Doctor Who fans or Whovians display this by wearing bow-ties, for the history geeks it's the vintage musket over the door and for the Trekkies it's... well we all know about the Trekkies. For those of us who have found our interests firmly focussed on all things post-apocalyptic and flesh-eating it manifests in different ways... my bedroom has a large shelving system constructed from timber and breeze blocks which will double as barricade material when the time comes. Today I got to thinking about why exactly this particular fiction has a hold over popular culture and why it's gripped hold of me so firmly.
It might be the gnarled claws.
The zombie that we know and love/loathe is not the same creature that first shuffled it's way into the popular consciousness, it is instead the end of a long and peculiar journey. Zombies are a mainstay of the Haitian Voodoo tradition, but they were never the slathering monsters that they have grown to be. Whilst both Shelley and Lovecraft can definitely be credited with some of the early work on the re-animation story, the first mention of the zombie proper is in the book The Magic Island by WB Seabrook. Seabrook's book was a sensationalised account of a journey to Haiti. Seabrook was an incredibly interesting chap, he refused to write about what he hadn't experienced so prior to including cannibalistic scenes he actually had a friend at the morgue steal some brain for him so he could taste it. He released a book at a time when the American public was obsessed with Haiti... so much so that they later ended up invading it in that funny way that Americans do every now and again. Alas I've digressed, in short order a play had been produced quickly followed by the classic movie White Zombie, which featured a Bela Lugosi at the peak of his powers. I'm going to meander off here to mention the another early zombie movie I Walked With a Zombie, it's a brilliant piece of film-making and I highly recommend it.
It may not look scary now but the remember in
the 30's it was enough to just show a black guy
The zombie as we know it these days wasn't brought into the public conscious in a big way until the release of George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Without a strong literary legacy to protect it like Frankenstein's Monster, vampires and werewolves the zombie had been free to evolve to reflect the changing fears of the American cinema goer. Gone was the strange and exotic creature and in it's place was a stern metaphor for the modern day issues such as race, consumerism, nuclear war and feminism. It was this zombie that I was first introduced to at the age of ten. After years of negotiations with my mother I had finally got a TV for my bedroom and it with it any notion of the concept of bed-time had fucked-off out the window. As long as there was no light visible around the door, blanket and tape round the frame, and the volume was low enough, even breathing to loudly drowned out the noise, I could stay up late and watch TV. That is how at the age of ten I found myself watching Dawn of the Dead.
I'm not even going to cover the litany of errors
you've made if you ever have this view
Dawn didn't frighten me as much as I suppose it should have. I think it's worth noting that childhood was not a pleasant time for me. My parents had divorced when I was five or six, weird how I'm much clearer on first seeing Dawn than on that detail, formative experiences are where you find them I guess. The divorce had been unpleasant to the point where I still believe my parents hated each other a lot more than they loved me and my brother who were regularly used as pawns in various mind games. I'd taken it on myself to act as a lightning rod in this situation, hoping in some simple way to protect my younger brother. By the time I was ten my brother was firmly enthroned as the favourite and I was free to allow myself to deal with my own feelings. Looking back I can clearly recognise this as when I had my earliest clash with depression. I'm not going to whine on about depression suffice to say that it is a dark, vicious and evil disease. I only mention it to give some idea of where my mind was when the zombies first shuffled in. Dawn showed me a world where every identifiable problem from my life was eliminated. All you needed to survive, nay thrive, were wits, self-reliance and no attachment to the human race, things ten year old me thought he had in spades. The main characters nearly all die but it's easy to see why (getting to attached to the mall, and failing to leave) and easy to plan against (leave the mall). This was a world without restriction, if you want something you can take it, if you don't like somewhere you can just leave and if you were angry you could take it out on something.
Take that, <bullies name redacted as he's actually alright now>
A seed had been planted and I was hungry for more, like a zombie I became single minded and uncommunicative. Mention of my new found passion would risk the removal of the TV and my young age meant that my acquisition of further films was highly limited. Each week I'd grab the TV guide and hunt out anything showing after 9pm that looked remotely promising. I watched some terrible shite, but among them were gems, Night of The Living Dead, Day of The Dead, Evil Dead II (Evil Dead I was banned from British screens at the time), Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, Assault on Precinct 13 (I know there are no zombies but in theme and tone this couldn't be more of a zombie film) and many more. I grew to loathe the undead, huge swarming crowds endlessly consuming all identical and mindless, like people who at this time I also despised because that's what depression does to you. I got the fear of the bite though, that I understood, the idea that something could wander into your brain and shut out lights hit a lot of nerves for a youngster with a family history of Alzheimers, a love of learning and a family history of Alzheimers.
It's staying where it is even if it's gonna' rot from the inside
As I have grown and changed so has the zombie movie... I'm not talking about the running, that doesn't make scientific sense, 28 Days Later is awesome but at no point do zombies appear in the film, rage infected humans and the reanimated dead are not the same thing. Shaun of Dead combined my love of comedy with my love of seeing ghouls get their brains bashed out and even more recently Zombieland finally showed as a zombie film without all the useless idiots. What gives the zombie genre the ability to keep going, other than a healthy dose of the T-Virus, is the fact that they are a blank slate on to which our own fears and beliefs can be projected that is what makes the concept of fighting them so alluring it's much easier than trying to vanquish your actual demons. Also it would kill all the stupid and fat people first.

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