An Amateur’s Field Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Has anyone else noticed the newish zombie trend slowly permeating through our books, movies, and television? Perhaps, this is just a backlash from the fatigue we all have from sexy teenage vampires. My interest in zombies has never been particularly high, but I can’t help but notice some of the more recent offerings. These aren’t your run of the mill Romero zombie tales.

I am no expert (hence the amateur status given to this post), but I thought I would share my run-ins that have bucked my previously held opinion of zombie fare.* The creators have tried to upend the standard lore of zombies and produce something new. For me, it all began with The Returned, a recent French television series.

zombies - 1They aren’t mumbling, half-wits motivated solely for brains. No, the revenants of this small French town return as if nothing has happened even though some have been deceased for decades. They want to return to their normal lives, but with every new episode, stranger behavior and occurrences unfold. There are clearly secrets buried within the living, too. The Returned is a television adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back (French: Les Revenants), which seethes with the uncanny and eerie. This slow burning film makes you feel completely off-kilter. The returned are not quite what the living expected and the business of what to do with this sudden inflation of undeceased residents is a perplexing burden. Let’s not mention all of the not sleeping and midnight meetups by the undead who seem to be planning something. Both of these zombie servings offer a different picture, which include complex emotions and simmering questions.

zombies - 2

It’s often noted that the 2002 British thriller, 28 Days Later, was the zombie film that reignited interest in the living dead. It took me ages to finally see it (due to my aforementioned disinterest in zombies), but when I did, I was impressed. It definitely was akin to those 1968 zombies, but it did do something different–the zombies were not slow walking  groaners. They were fast and strong making the post-apocalypse landscape even more terrifying. But we’ve moved on a little from these serious creepfests…

The genre has seen its own comedic interpretations with the fantastic Shaun of the Dead (that bar scene with Queen playing always gets me) or the slapstick horror of the New Zealand zombie flick, Black Sheep, which centers around the genetically mutated sheep that have secretly been created on the outskirts of a family farm by scientists looking to birth savage carnivores instead of docile grazers. Has anyone else seen this? I feel like I’m the only one. Shall I tempt you with the trailer? Also, we cannot forget Zombieland, a film that sees gun-toting Woody Harrelson driven to find a Twinkie in a zombie-filled world.

But this new zombie is flashing its teeth in writing as well. Isaac Marion’s debut novel, Warm Bodies, is narrated by R who isn’t your mamma’s zombie. Marion is writing from a zombie point of view–something which often is not a feature. R spends his days very slowly walking around a former airport with his other zombie cohorts in post-apocalyptic Seattle. He is bored, can’t remember his name, and on a recent hunt for brains, he meets Julie, a member of the living. R has a deep inner monologue and can relive memories of those whose brains he’s devoured. As the book goes on, R starts to become more human-like. He can string more than a couple of syllables together and his body movements are less restricted. Warm Bodies has been labelled a zombie romance, which it is, but it was also enjoyable to read as a new take on the zombie genre. There is also a 2013 film adaptation that is fun to watch as R goes through his zombie existential crisis.

Of course, there is horror maestro Joe Hill’s short story, “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead.” Honestly, I was skeptical at first because the entire story is written in a succession of Tweets by a teenage girl on a road trip with her family, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a real joyride. The 140 character Oulipian constraint makes for some side-splitting moments. The whole time, the girl is tweeting her family’s car ride even when they make a wrong turn leading them to the Circus of the Dead–a circus manned by zombie entertainment. Even when her own brother is turned, she can’t help but be surly and she remains tweeting till the very undead end.

TYME2WASTE He’s not very good at being a zombie. He isn’t even trying to walk slow. He’s really going after the ringmistress. 9:04 PM – 2 Mar from Tweetie

zombies 3

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

Zombie stories and resurrections have been around for centuries. The mindless brain-centric menace can trace its roots to West Africa and Haiti where many myths and stories shape our present day zombie. The mainstreaming of the word began in the late 1920s and exploded with the release of the 1932 Bela Lugosi picture, White Zombie, based on William Seabrook’s book (note: his Wikipedia page states, “[W]as an American Lost Generation occultistexplorer, traveller, cannibal, and journalist.” Maybe, one of the best entry openings on the site?).  

I proffer that zombies became more than just the living dead with Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. We can argue that the creatures are really more like vampires, but this is my blog, so I win. They’re zombies. In his 1954 novel, Matheson popularized the notion of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unknown contagion. This is really a must-read even outside of the zombie wheelhouse. (Let’s all just agree to forgo the recent film adaptation for the sole reason that the filmmakers totally throw out the idea of what “I am Legend” means in the book). Matheson’s excellent book won’t be the last to elicit a dwindling world where war, disease, and other man-made epidemics will be our downfall.

Newer zombies are regularly shown as staying awake all night long. Their inability to sleep and their weary-eyed restlessness is often highlighted. Even in Karen Russell’s new novella, Sleep Donation, which is not strictly a zombie piece, compares the insomniacs to zombies. They are rendered insane by the sleeplessness and an epidemic is raging through the world. A cause is not given, but it is obviously a metaphor for society’s anxieties (also, commenting on the fact that with every progressing day, we are less likely to pull ourselves away from our various screen devices that have been show to interfere with sleep).

Even in the horror-comedy schlock fest, Jennifer’s Body, a bit of commentary is going on. Although, Jennifer is not explicitly labeled a zombie (more a demon), she comes back to life to wreak havoc on the high school boys who objectified her. It is a ridiculous and absurd film that is pretty great and it tries to tap into the portrayal of women in slasher flicks (the execution can be questioned at times, but still admirable, for lack of a better word). Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “As a movie about a flesh-eating cheerleader, it’s better than it has to be.” It is a suitable addition to a genre that is already highly saturated with male voices.

zombies - 4

Supernatural works are often stand-ins for society’s very real fears and worries. Letting go and grief seem to be apparent themes in The Returned and They Came Back, and we are seeing it again in the new US television series Resurrection (based on the 2012 novel, The Returned, which has nothing to do with the two French works, but also deals with long-dead people returning to a small town. Read the Slate article to clear everything up). Also, in all three, the revenants are unable to sleep, denoting them as the other and keeping from the very human function that visits us every night. I have not read Jason Mott’s novel, but I’m curious if anyone else has an opinion on it.

Our new zombies are often having existential crises. They keep their heads high and ruminate on their fates. Sometimes the world is destroyed by a disease, but many times this is not the case. R doesn’t remember how he lost his sense of self. Did this new, distracted world just think itself into zombieism? Many iterations don’t sleep. They can be found walking aimlessly and unblinking with plenty of time to think. They seem harmless at first, but when more come, the true monster shows its face. They might not always be guttural, fleshy cannibalistic heaps anymore. As readers and watchers of these new zombies, we often become enthralled by this different approach to the genre. The stories are evolving with our own present world, for the good and the bad. Our anxieties are being manifested in post-apocalyptic worlds filled with modern creatures. No matter what, though, zombies are always a human creation. They are mutating and overcoming us until we must send in Brad Pitt to rid of us of our World War Z.

Now, I am off to watch Cockneys vs. Zombies to add to my zombie arsenal. Do you have any to add? They are certainly plenty of zombie films, but are there any more works of fiction that are just begging to be read? Does anyone else notice that many vampire books are written by women, but zombies seem to be the playing field of men?


* Sorry Walking Dead fans. From the one random episode I watched last year, this series solidified my previous held disinterest in Zombies and their ability to bore with me the main focus being on walking back and forth slowly.

Appendix

1. Images [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
2. Zombies are such a trend now that there are zombie-themed apps, including a jogging “adventure,” called Zombies, Run!
3.  A short list of zombie films starring Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.
4. Many thanks to Helen for recommending the television series The ReturnedThe TV series airs on Sundance Channel and can also be binge watched (recommended) on Netflix. They Came Back can be watched for free in its entirety on Hulu. Although, I recommend finding the DVD for the extra “making of” documentary.
5. Never utter these words during a zombie apocalypse.

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6 comments

  1. What a fascinating overview! I’m forwarding this with its suggestions to my son, who has long held an interest in zombie movies. Thank you for making me look cool!

  2. Are you familiar with Lloyd Aexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” series? (YA adventure/fantasy before there was such a thing as YA). Book Two (“The Black Cauldron”) features zombies of a sort – dead men are placed in the black cauldron and are reborn as undead warriors who must do the bidding of the evil Arawn…

    1. No, I haven’t (except for The Black Cauldron, which I believe was made into an animated movie?), but you had me at: reborn as undead warriors who must do the bidding of the evil Arawn.

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