SALVAGING THE ZOMBIE MOVIE

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

Here is an essay that it hadn't occurred to me until lately that I needed to write. While I have always been a big fan of horror films, I am more keen, verging on the academic, about the literary forms of "pleasing terror," the written word more likely to inspire my typing touch. Movies are for fun, and I don't tend to over analyze them, much less pontificate about them.

That stated, I have lately reached in curious fashion the conclusion that the subset of Creepy Cinema known as the "zombie movie" has in recent years run completely off the rails, approaching the point of not being worth viewing by the dedicated fan of morbidity. In this essay I wish to address this issue, and brazenly attempt to suggest solutions.

I can attempt this because, lately, I had the opportunity to watch (for free!) an overwhelming barrage of such films, the ultimate private showing, offering an incredible assortment spanning years from all over the world. I know a lot more than I used to do, much of this new-found knowledge less than edifying.

Just to be clear, I'm focusing on the wildly popular carnivorous zombie genre, not the increasingly antique line inspired by voodoo tales. You already know what I mean.

The Issue in Personal Perspective

When I wrote that I was a big fan of horror in movies, I meant it. I grew up on TV showings of Universal offerings, at a time when Hammer was still putting theirs out at the theaters. As a young teenager I came across an article that weirdly enticed, putting me on track of a must-see: the Famous Monsters of Filmland review, complete with eerie pictures, of Night of the Living Dead by George Romero. It certainly sounded like my kind of show! A few years afterward I had the opportunity to watch it late night in a real movie house, a non-chain theater out in the wilds of Grapevine, Texas.

Due to some sort of unexplained rights issue (the manager addressed the audience beforehand to squelch grumbling) the film was projected from a 16mm print, which only illuminated the middle of the screen. There was that to foster complaint, and a crudeness of production values new to me then, but in the end none of that mattered. What did was the breath-taking scariness and artful gruesomeness of the movie. I loved it, and I was hooked.

The release of Dawn of the Dead (as a midnight movie in Dallas) was for me a major event in cinematic history, Day of the Dead less so, though the latter thrilled me anyway. These three movies, of course, cemented the framework of the nouveau zombie film. Quite some time later I discovered the Italian wing of this school, indulging in shocking delicacies like Zombie and frightful variants like Nightmare City.

So far, so good. My enjoyment of this stuff dated to a period before it became, shall I say, industrialized? Yet only then came the explosion in movies of the cannibalistic undead. With the years of the Golden Age receding, but interest apparently mounting, one might expect a flowering of unique, individualistic, clever takes on the theme.

That didn't happen. Instead the genre dwindled into an artistic ghetto. Those movies and TV series are being churned out in dizzying succession, but the spark of mad passion is gone. With sorrow I'm reminded of a computer virus run wild, spitting out endless clones of itself to no good purpose. At this juncture, to write "I've seen it all before" constitutes an effrontery of understatement. The majority of these productions either isn't worth watching or proves immediately forgettable.

I don't think it has to be that way. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe it's all simply been done to death, rent into sodden pieces, and there is no more to be said. Well, maybe, but I don't think so. I postulate avenues of freshness that I'm not seeing.

What the Problem Isn't

Before proceeding, one tiresome issue should be mentioned, only to quickly discard. The difficulty doesn't lie in the fact that most of these movies are small budgeted, independent productions. Far from it! Night of the Living Dead is the epitome of such, and some of the acknowledged classics since reside under that umbrella. Amidst justly savage critiques of recent offerings, I find a disturbing, blinkered trend toward sneering at the low budgets of what are fallaciously deemed "B movies." The latter term is tossed about with no understanding of its historical meaning. Sometimes I think it only means, "not a lot of computer effects." This aside, it is seldom the case that these films fail to entertain because their makers lack buckets of cash. The record convincingly establishes how much can be accomplished with little. The artistic menace lies elsewhere.

What Is Happening

Gaze, if you dare, upon the dreary landscape of what has become the typical zombie movie. The heroes tend to be shabby, lower middle class or rock bottom grunge types, distinguished from their undead tormentors by little more than lack of ghoulish makeup. Alternately, the heroes are military or paramilitary goons on rampages of their own. Regardless, they're incredibly foul-mouthed, annoyingly loud, pathetically squalid representatives of humanity, remarkably devoid of personal interest.

Operating within the approved apocalyptic setting, they confront the basic hellish entities whose attributes seldom vary. Those creatures are ugly, corroded or chewed up, they dine on human flesh, and a shot to the head puts them down. Bear in mind that last point: it's more sure than a stake through a vampire's heart.

Considered from the standpoint of art, what we get is a plethora of clumsy camera work, wretched characterization, and weak plotting. These, of course, may constitute the bane of the cheap horror movie in general, but the issues seem endemic in the realm of the living dead. Let's take them one at a time:

1. Most of these films simply look crummy, because of lousy camera work as sinister as the nastiness portrayed. They regularly deliver a barren choice of two options, these being stodgy home movie style video--the kind of thing folks produce nowadays on their cell phones--or hectic cases of cinematic jitters, culminating in the atrocious methodology sneeringly termed "shaky cam." Examples of considered, thoughtful camera usage are terrifyingly rare.

2. It has apparently become the rule that characters must be as uninteresting and as unsympathetic as possible, for reasons undivulged. I suspect the culprit is unimaginative screen-writing. It's amazing how many of the key roles in these things are presented as low class, vulgar creeps, ranging from the merely obnoxious to outright degenerate, people for whom this critic feels no significant connection. If I don't care who's being gobbled, I probably don't care for much else.

3. There's a sameness to the plots of this stuff transcending the form. I mean something deeper than slow vs. fast zombies, an irrelevancy to me; also discounted are the often gratuitous explanations cooked up to justify the "outbreak." Again, I get the impression of fettered imagination, and just bad writing. For instance, destroying the brain is always the answer? We're not dealing with an age-old tradition here, nor would it matter if we were. The traditions of werewolves and vampires, as presented in their now lengthy history of books and movies, offer a lot more leeway for story-tellers. I certainly don't get from them the same wearying sense of stale deja vu.

Note, it can't be argued that these problems stem in any way from the little guys failing to follow the lead of the big boys. Just to be clear, some of these tendencies have arisen directly from too faithful adherence to ideas and techniques derived from major productions. The ever more boring "supremacy of the gun" comes straight from George Romero, whose heroes all pack automatic weapons by the time of Day of the Dead. He also fashioned the blueprint of ear-stunning dialogue, which has become painfully ubiquitous since. An expensive television series like The Walking Dead continues to offer the same grungy, martial air, reveling in playing with military toys rather than generating horror.

Combine these negative facets with unswerving rigidity and the result is garbage cinema. Ow, that hurts, yet that's why so much of this product has been consigned to an artistic slum, an inner circle of Hades reserved to the forgettable and the best forgotten.

I don't think it has to be that way.

What I Would Wish to See

Well, this is kind of tough, for while this ought to be the intellectual core of the essay, so much of my gut response is, "something else." That aside, I've been mulling over possibilities, spinning them in my mind, imagining alternative avenues that might lead to intriguing destinations. Here are a bunch of random points to ponder, in no particular order:

1. Emphasize traditional style horror. Zombie movies, including some of the best, rapidly swerved toward science fiction, incorporating token explanations related to viruses, radiation, drugs, and so forth. That's not wrong, rather unnecessarily limiting. A few, such as the Blind Dead series, have pushed far into purely supernatural territory, and enormous untapped potential remains. The voodoo angle lies fallow, ripe for sowing. Let's see more angry dead, vengeful dead, cursed, wronged . . . evil! After all, evil still sells, and united with cut and rip cannibalism can't be beat.

2. Rebel against triteness. Drop the bullet in the brain gimmick, or cleverly modify it, or replace it with other splatter sports. How about burning by fire, or destruction by acid, weird potions or spells? Vampires can be eliminated or suppressed in many ways, so why not other forms of the living dead? Give us variety.

3. Historical outbreaks. Zombies don't always have to run amok in the "now." I can conceive of endless films set, say, in the medieval era, the age of witches and priests, sorcerers and knights. Contemplate the cursed villages, the secrets torn from forbidden manuscripts, the blasphemies that inspire the dead to riot. That's a single temporal locale. One may propose all sorts of historical scenarios. A private fantasy: Universal Studios spectaculars of yesteryear, only instead of vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein's monster, we get carnivorous undead ghouls! What a diverting package that would have made.

4. Buy a tripod. By which is meant, don't cut corners on cinematography. Please, make it look good, raise the level of technique to at least that of basic competence. Call it a peeve, but no one can convert me into a fan of wobbly or shaky imagery, which too often masks lack of content. I've seen some stabs at superior or novel ideas crushed by rotten movie making. It doesn't cost more to use a camera well.

5. Compose a fresh and solid story. Talk about cutting corners: how many times have I stared at a screen in disappointment, spitefully asking, "Did somebody get paid to write this stuff?" I'll bet the answer is commonly, "No." I fear that much dialogue is ad-libbed, which sounds lame and amateurish. Give me shrieks of terror, but don't waste characters on interminable shouting matches and spewing of verbal crudity. I desire an assortment of juicy roles, from many walks of life, delineated by speech and mannerisms. And what about those scripts? There are too many cases in which I doubt there was one. Don't "wing" something as critical as the composition of the story. If it's junk, the movie is likely to fail. The tale needn't be entirely logical (some of my favorite horror movies don't make much sense), but it must pass muster relative to suspension of disbelief, and the constituent parts should come together to drive the whole forward. Take the time, work on the script, ram concepts head on and sort out the best. Oh God, does it make a difference.

My Modest Attempts

Just to prove that I'm not all mouthy bellyaching, let me point out that, while I haven't produced any movies, I do have a couple of stories in my oeuvre that do employ the zombie theme without slavishly adhering to the typical rules. "The Report of Colonel Lantham" (published in Gone with the Dirt) recounts a freakish event hailing from 1863, during the height of the Civil War. The battlefield dead arise to attack the living boys of gray and blue, and armed as they are with teeth and fingernails, these undead don't need guns, nor are standard issue weapons much use against them. "Nightmares in the Castle Titana" is a medieval adventure starring my recurrent anti-hero, the wizard Jacob Bleek. This time around, he gets mixed up with an obsessed nobleman dabbling in monstrous sorcery. The ancestors of this fellow destroyed a degenerate cult of cannibal mages, and now, through his foolishly wielded arcane arts, he's brought them back to seek loathsome vengeance. You know what kind.

Tales of this sort readily translate to film. Expense isn't an issue; fancy sets aren't necessary, even for historicals, so long as the story grips with savage talons. Forget the castle, which I admit are rather rare in Arizona, where I'm based. Build the script instead around an old church, an abandoned railroad depot, a prehistoric Indian ruin. Hey, I'm giving myself ideas. Whether or not somebody films them, I ought to write them!

Final Praise

To end on a positive note, I should list some movies of this sub-genre that continue to entertain me with repeat viewings. It's unfortunate that they all date back a ways, a realization which led to the writing of this essay. Also, I don't include any remakes--I never do--even though a few of them are halfway decent; nor any parodies, none of which have moved me.

George Romero's original trio ranks high. All provide ghastly pleasure. In many respects I still prefer the first, Night of the Living Dead, which has such a fresh feel to it, unencumbered by continuity expectations.

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things is a wild and crazy knock-off that works. Not only does it have the dangerous undead, but a powerful supernatural basis.

The Italian explosion of derivative zombie films of the late '70s and early '80s produced several that deliver me blood-drenched joy. I'll watch any day such feverish classics as Zombie or The Beyond, although the latter employs the head-shot business for no internal reason whatever. Nightmare City, the maddest romp of all, succeeds because it never lets up, never stops to gasp for breath, a rollercoaster ride that even overcomes the oddball climax. I actually have fun with second tier stuff like Hell of the Living Dead, unpolished though it is. Despite what some perceive as innate faults, the Italians brought the right spirit to the subject.

Perhaps my complaints stem from the fact that I haven't seen much thematic development since those days. I've argued that it can be done. I've indicated a few ways how, and surely there are more. Now, somebody just needs to get out there and do it!


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