Here's the problem ...
I'm not a huge movie nerd. I mean, I love movies, but I try to remember they're just entertainment. That's why I swore long ago to never let a bad movie fill me with all-consuming, day-ruining rage. Well, aside from Transformers 4, obviously.
That should go without saying.
At the same time, art means the world to me. There are movies I'd put on the level of great novels or drama: they say something about who we are and where we're going. ... And we're headed for major trouble, because if nothing changes, our most culturally important movie genre will get Winchestered, double-tapped, and finally put out of its misery by our rightful collective disinterest. And you know which genre I'm talking about:
Because titles are the only thing you read.
Here's the problem ...
The Walter Reade Organization
"Now I'm no zombie conservative," I say, dusting off the Strom Thurmond jokes in my attic. I really don't have any problem with teaching zombie evolution as a narrative option. Make them fast! Make them kind of not zombies! Make them love The Three Stooges as much as I do! Whatever helps me see brainpan-scatter is fair game. But I am a stickler about one thing from the zombie genre's perfect fundamental beginnings.
Which makes me a zombie ... constitutionalist?
Whatever liberties you're taking with zombie canon are A-OK, as long as you tell a zombie story. Those are the only horror stories I've ever been interested in, because other "scary" movies tend to be a hot load of supernatural bullshit (with certain chain saw-wielding exceptions). Why watch mortal, crappy-bodied human beings face off against the spawn of Satan or mystical, psychosexual fiends? If humanity loses that battle, it's not surprising, and when screenwriters let humanity win, I end up fixated on the colossal brainfartery required for the monsters to blow it, rather than whatever feeling those movies are supposed to give me.
Probably this feeling, in an H-E-double-hockey-sticks setting.
But zombie stories get me every time. Why? Because they're a story where our monster plays like a societal problem. Zombies are an insistent and dramatically useful malevolent force you can plan against. If you're facing the Lipstick-Face Demon in your attic, borrow their Avon crap, and kiss your ass goodbye. But if you're facing a corrupted mob of fellow PTA members operating in ways that can be scientifically studied like a sociological phenomenon? Time to grab some guns and potable water, and find out if your personal politics are compatible with the real world.
Zombie Plan Step 17: brain the dad from Modern Family.
I can't defend any non-pilot episode of The Walking Dead, but damned if their third season poster tagline doesn't sum up what makes zombie movies worthwhile. Fight the dead, fear the living, and find out what makes society work and what's killing it in the process. George A. Romero formatted the whole genre that way: an implacable zombie epidemic pushes the surviving members of society to face their racism or consumerism or municipal governing corruption, and they either survive by fixing it or die instructively.
Zombie Plan Step 18: recognize that Mr. Dunphy's braining is an object lesson.
That format has become so clear and iconic, it got its Mel Brooks-level parody with Shaun of the Dead way back in '04 ... which puts us a full decade past the point of "we can do these tropes explanation-free because audiences know them cold." And then look at the straight-faced zombie movies we have now: Zombie Twilight, made to explore the fascinating world of ... Twilight's market share? A second "zombies-but-they're-Nazis" movie featuring Martin Starr as Lampshade-Hanging Guy. And then there's gay goth, zombie-movie-actor zombies, Korean high school baseball zombies, zombies at a swim meet for Japanese high school girls ...
jerry portelli/iStock/Getty Images
Making zombies the second-putridest guys there.
What are all these movies adding up to? What are they trying to say? Unconventional zombie movies are fine, but wackadoo bullshit like Zombi 2 and the zombie-fights-shark scene used to be an outlier.
The best motherfucking outlier.
Nowadays, pointless nonsense is all that new zombie moviemakers seem to think is left to say. Maybe they don't think they can top the past. Maybe it's because the competition can sell "zombies but they're French soccer players" as VOD, and new moviemakers have to out-goofy that. Or maybe they're catering to our never-stronger demand for distractions, which you can blame on the fact that ...
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Cultural pessimism has us convinced we can't fix a damn thing in society, and cultural fragmentation has us further convinced everything needs fixing. If you don't believe me, test that theory out in your own mind by picking five or so hot-button wedge issues in your society.
For example, gay drones.
Odds are good that with a couple of those, you think your society's mostly getting it right and must never backslide into a different, benighted policy. And then you probably think the state of things re: those other issues is your culture's lowest shame -- fixable if not for the horde of incomprehensible jerks ruining everything.
"Why is he gay? Why is he violent? WHY ISN'T HE SINGLE?????"
I guarantee you hundreds of thousands of people, all of whom have a different sampling error than you do, have a neatly opposed set of viewpoints on every issue you thought of ... which means everybody's terrified a lot of things are wrong, and nothing can fix that, so we just kind of settle for a muddled, societal middle road. Because if we, say, let everyone marry anyone, certain people would decide it's the Left Behind times and detonate their rapture bunkers and whatnot. Or if we satisfy those people and outlaw male eye contact, the rest of us will scream "theocracy" and "bigotry" and "Terence, Terence, why won't you look at me, Terence?"
"Is it because I keep spelling it T-E-R-E-N-C-E?"
And what's worse than our disagreements (and what's magnifying them) is that we're sure our only problem-fixing apparatus is broken. If Congress doesn't work, and capitalism is robbing us blind, maybe Western, free-ish market democracy doesn't work. But if we re-elect that democracy's leaders every chance we get, and we don't have any better social arrangements in mind, and our favorite new levers of change like Occupy-ing and the Internet and hashtivism don't accomplish anything ... well, shit. Are we really out of ideas?
Are we, Next Page of This Column?
I'd say the answer to the question "Are we out of ideas?" is, at best, "Maybe." And then I'd ask this question: what do you know about submarines?
"I know so much, I've got Wi-Fi right now."
Most of the specifics of the modern submarine sprung from the mind of Simon "Even My Name's Wet" Lake. That is, the execution of those specifics came from Lake. Lake's big-picture inspiration for submersible craft came from kooky Jules Verne adventures, where characters saw the impossible happen with and without opium.
"Or do I think I have Wi-Fi because all those hits from the Gandalf pipe kicked in?"
Science fiction also birthed science fact to bring us tech like rockets (Robert Goddard via H.G. Wells), Tasers, (Jack Cover feat. Tom Swift YA adventures), and cell phones (Martin Cooper and the Star Trek clan). Futurist Brian David Johnson calls that process "science fiction prototyping," probably because you can't get a job as a futurist by coining "self-induced techboners."
"Somebody figured out how to nuclear-power these? Well my periscope's up."
Zombie fiction can work the same way. It's basically science fiction already, just instead of (or in addition to) future technology changing our lives, it has got future biocatastrophe turning us into Earth/space's rough-and-tumble badasses. And biocatastrophe is the perfect sandbox for SF-prototyping new social models. The good news is that's still happening in zombie fiction. The bad news is it's only happening in the books. The best example is World War Z, which SF-prototyped everything from an answer to most every problem of modern times (TL;DNR: a stronger sense of old-school community can go a long way) to the ultimate zombie-killin' implement.
THEY LEFT THAT OUT OF THE MOVIE???????
But World War Z, the film I certainly grant them is named that, didn't give Brad Pitt a shaolin spade. It also didn't present a 10th of the voices, concepts, or thought-provoking events of the book, AND I KNOW, movies can't be as complicated as my precious nerdbibles.
Still, World War Z and Zone One and The Reapers Are the Angels are tales about something. If you give us real characters facing a (presented as) real zombie problem, your story can't not have meaning. And then if you turn those meaningful stories into new movies, maybe you keep hitting on truths about humanity that only the shambling dead can bring out (and that happens even when you play most of your zombie story for comedy). But if you're making What If Zombies Were Strippers Lolllllll": THE MOVIE, it's probably because some jerk aced you out on a classier sight gag like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies & Bullshit Snark.
Although if they work this into it, all is forgiven.
Yet when World War Z got adapted by movie producers with every intention of making it great, who at least kind of nailed it with Moneyball, Hollywood still gave us a bloodless, pointless string of Brad Pitt international flights instead of a story. Why are we so apathetic we can't make head-smashing mean something? Why are gags and time-wasting the only zombie movies left? Do we even want to see these zombies die anymore?
If I may spread another question & answer across entries, I'd say no. We're no longer hoping to blow the dead Glasgow kisses. And it's because we now identify with the zombies as much as the living.
We are all dead Beast from X-Men.
At this point we live like regular folks with zombified tendencies, as certain movies and articles argue convincingly. We're a bunch of Dawn of the Dead's mall drifters and Netflix binge-sitters, sitting through highway delays so colossal, somebody's probably getting eaten up there ahead of us out of pure boredom.
Kyle Monk/Blend Images/Getty Images
"It's either cannibalism or more Marc Maron, so ..."
What's our big societal accomplishment these days? Pressuring the NFL into suspending Ray Rice longer? Pressuring Hollywood into giving us our lady Ghostbusters? Pressuring Betty White into hosting SNL? All of those things are good, and all of those things were the result of our heroic ... clicking.
These days, every one of us is changing the world! As long as a sluggish horde of other people are in lockstep with us. And all of us tweet about it. And it's not a big change, like holding Wall Street accountable or getting one-fifth of all human beings the clean water they need to live. As long as it's a minor pop cultural achievement, like a Saved by the Bell cast reunion or whatever, we can be the change we kind of sort of want to open in a new tab.
Yes! We can see that online!
And honestly, I'm not even too bummed out by that. Not yet, at least. Because if anything, our undead mob is good at entertaining itself. And maybe it'll start to demand better entertainment from the artists making today's zombie epics. Because if it does, and one of those USC grads sees a way out of this brain-dead spiral, maybe that can lead us to the first great and galvanizing zombie movie in a long, long time.
It's fine. I'll wait.
For more monster madness, check out 6 Popular Monsters Myths (That Prove Humanity Is Doomed) and 6 Things That Never Make Sense About Zombie Movies.
Agree with Alex? Click the Facebook 'share' button below.
How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.