What with Halloween just passing and the premier of the new 'The Walking Dead' series on AMC, zombies have been on my mind a lot recently. And fair warning- this post doesn't have a lot to do with Star Wars- except in a fairly oblique kind of way (that you'll see later).
My fascination with zombies didn't begin until my adult life- and rather late into that, in fact. I attribute part of this to the fact that as a kid I was a a chicken when it came to scary movies. In fact, I still am. For most of my life, I had only an oblique knowledge of zombies based upon popular culture stereotypes ("Brains! BRAINS!"). The first zombie movie I ever saw was probably 'Night of the Comet'... and that 80's monstrosity probably doesn't even qualify. It wasn't until I finally watched Romero's Night of the Living Dead that I got my first exposure to a 'real' zombie movie.
What struck me most about this movie was the scope of it. On the one hand, you had the typical scenario of a small group of people in a remote area menaced by monsters. But on the other, the news reports in the film showed that this wasn't just an isolated incidence. It was happening everywhere. Though the end of the movie had the "good guys" showing up to put down the menace, there was an unresolved feeling to the whole thing that was unsettling. It was a first inkling as to what would become a new genre: The Zombie Apocalypse.
In relatively short order I delved into other zombie movies: Dawn of the Dead (original and remake), Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead. I tried the "Return of the Dead" series, but gah. Way too campy and gory for gores sake. Oddly enough, it is these parody movies that give rise to the whole "Brains!" stereotype- something that is absent from the Romero films entirely. 28 Days later is another great zombie movie (though with a different source of the zombie plague). I won't say the same for 28 Weeks later. That was just terrible. The latest great zombie movie (in my opinion) was Zombieland- which was a comedy and a parody, but charmingly so rather than trashily so. The 'Resident Evil' series also falls into this mold, but despite its great visuals and budgets, it just feels.. stupid.
In any case, between those movies, the Walking Dead Comics (which I obliquely follow) and Max Brooks' 'World War Z', I would now count myself as a real zombie fan. The idea of the Zombie Apocalypse is a powerful and frightening one. It makes for great storytelling (or rather, it CAN make for that). Unfortunately, almost every zombie movie seems to be retelling the same story. What's the story? That humans are selfish, self-destructive things who, when the chips are down, will turn on each other and become even worse 'monsters' than the zombies themselves. Not only do I find this story boring (after having seen it in movie after movie), I also think that it does not ring entirely true.
Human beings are communal by nature. We live in communities. In our primitive, tribal origins, we did so for many reasons, not the least of which being protection. But also, community allows you to do much more than you could by yourself. We do so even today. What are 'countries', if not large communities formed for mutual protection from other communities. While it is true that modern society does tend to focus on the individual a lot more than it used to, I don't think that the communal instinct is even remotely being 'bred out of us'.
Most zombie movies contend that humans resort to their 'base instincts' when faced by danger and horror. This can lead to brutality, cruelty, random acts of violence- all the worst things of our instinctual side. But on the other hand, I think people forget that community is also part of our instinctive behavior. Think about it. When faced with danger, is your first instinct to run off somewhere and be alone? No, it is to get with friends and family- or hell, ANYone. Yes. I agree. Humans have animal instincts because we are, deep down, animals. But being an animal is not synonymous with being selfishly evil. And yet, in most zombie movies, that's all we see, people trampling over each other to survive at the expense of everyone but themselves. While I am certain that WOULD be the case in a lot of dangerous situations (look at Hurricane Katrina, for instance), I also think that phase would 'wear off' in a lot of people once the immediate danger had passed. When you get past 'fight or flight', most people would want the security (however fragile) of a community of some sort.
THAT is what ticks me off about most zombie flicks. There is almost always the cliche 'selfish guy (or gal)' who screws everyone else over. I'm not saying it wouldn't happen. It probably would. I am saying that I think its getting to be a tired plot point. As is the whole 'humanity is the worse monster'. Yes. People are capable of doing horrible things to each other. They are also capable of doing selfless and caring things and of accomplishing great feats together. I think that is what I liked most about World War Z. Here we see humans at their worst and their best. It rang true to me- and felt more 'real' than any zombie plot I'd experienced to this point. It didn't rely on the "We are so terrible, we deserve this" diatribe that is getting so tedious. It was a horrible event, people did horrible things during it, but people also came together to overcome it. Of course, there is also the chance that a bad person may come to lead a 'community'- and that is a truly terrifying thought (and one explored in many zombie flicks: The military in Day of the Dead and 28 Days later, and the 'Governor' in The Walking Dead come to mind).
Yeah. I know. I sound like a hopeless optimist, and maybe I am. But I also think that real history has proven my point for me. There are many examples of horrible things happening- natural disasters, for instance. And people DO come together (even if it is 'eventually') to get through those times.
I do realize it is difficult to make an optimistic Zombie movie. It would probably flop. But I would really like to see some story other than the typical "Humanity deserves what it gets".