Collins’ Crypt: Zombie Movies, Stop Pretending We Haven’t Seen Any Zombie Movies

We know the rules, already.

Thanks in no small part to Horror Movie A Day-ing, I am pretty tired of zombie comedies (aka zom-coms), particularly the ones that were clearly influenced by Shaun of the Dead, as they often accomplished nothing but reinforcement of how talented Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are and how much effort they put into their screenplays. Some managed to strike a chord; I had a lot of fun with Zombieland in theaters (was a bit bored when I watched again on Blu-ray, however), and I was quite charmed with this year's Warm Bodies, but most are just forgettable at best.

And after a while that extended to the genre itself; it was just as often that I'd see a clear ripoff of one of George Romero's Dead films, where they'd do the single location and lots of fighting among the humans, but completely miss the point of whatever film they were aping, resulting in an empty shell of a movie. The game Left 4 Dead also had an influence in some recent Z-flicks; I've seen 3-4 where the characters (for lack of a better word) spent the entire movie run n' gunning from empty store to church to trainyard, seeking some sort of promised rescue, trading quality for quantity as such films didn't lack for action, but never once gave you anyone to care about or even an actual storyline.

In short, it's a genre that stubbornly refuses to expand much beyond its initial concept - you can still see Romero's fingerprints on just about every one you see. However, the main thing that drives me nuts about many of these movies (I watched 194 zombie movies for HMAD, for the record - and Shaun was not among them) is that there's almost always a part of the movie where it becomes clear that the characters had never seen a zombie movie before. You would think by now - 45 years after Night of the Living Dead created the zombie as we know it (as opposed to the former, voodoo based, usually non-flesh-eating kind) - that watching characters "figure out" that they need to be shot in the head to be stopped or realize that a bite would cause them to turn would be a waste of time, but alas, time and time again I'd have to endure a lot of trial and error, weighing down a movie that wasn't great to begin with. I mean, granted vampires have been around longer, but even in the older films there wasn't usually a scene where a character was shocked to discover that sunlight made for an effective weapon against them. It's just understood after a while, and I think we've long since passed the point where zombie movies should follow suit.

And that is part of why I enjoyed Cockneys vs Zombies so much, even on a second viewing (I first saw it for last year's Fantastic Fest; I revisited again this week thanks to the new Blu-ray). Sure, the characters were engaging, which automatically put it above at least half of the ones I've watched, but the thing that really drew me in was that it wasted no time whatsoever on the "mystery" of what they were dealing with - the characters just understood. Within seconds of their first encounter with a zombie (which they also instantly identify as such), someone says "You got to shoot them in the head - everyone knows that!" and I actually applauded. Even Shaun, where the characters KNEW what zombies were ("you can't say the zed-word!"), they still needed to figure out that a headshot was necessary. As Cockneys' screenwriter James Moran explains on his (quite good) commentary track, he sees that sort of fumbling about as a complete waste of time - and he's 100% right.

In fact I've felt this way for quite a while now, but the success of The Walking Dead, for better or worse, has made zombies more mainstream than ever, and therefore I think it's safe to say that they've reached vampire (or werewolf) levels of infamy. Moran also points out that the trick behind these traditional rules is to futz with them a bit, adding something that can be added to the lore for others to use, and that's where we should be with zombie movies. We've all seen vampire movies where crucifixes and/or holy water don't work as expected, and even a few where they could go out in the daylight, but so far the zombie rules have always been the same: if you're bit you turn (unless they cut off the limb in time; see: Hershel), and only a bullet to the brain will take them down. That's a pretty limited set of rules, if you ask me - if anything it would make more sense to constantly remind movie viewers of how vampires work, as there are a ton of rules by now that movies occasionally ignore without mentioning. For example, in Dracula AD 1972, a vampire (not Drac himself) is trapped by running water - a rule that almost never comes up (even in that series!). I can actually count on one hand all of the (161) vampire movies I watched for HMAD that implemented this rule, and NONE of them actually had a character say "Vampires can't cross running water" or whatever - we were just expected to know it.

So why, after hundreds of zombie movies, do we still have to endure scenes where characters waste dozens of rounds trying to shoot them in the chest before a headshot finally clues them in? Or worse, having a character get bitten without anyone suspecting that he might turn? There have been a few exceptions to the headshot rule (usually in comedic entries like Return of the Living Dead, or Chillerama's clever "Shoot them in the other head" idea), but I can't think of a single one where a bite wouldn't infect you - even in the "non-zombie" (sigh) 28 Days Later, a bite would be enough to infect a victim. Yet time after time, I see some variation of the following conversation:

Hero: "You OK?"
Recently Bitten Character: "Yeah, one of those things bit me! What an asshole!"
Hero: "OK, let's move!"
(30 minutes later)
Recently Bitten Character: *spins around, growling and clearly undead*
Hero: "Oh shit, he's one of them!"

Any movie that DOESN'T deal with this automatically saves 30-60 seconds of screentime that can be used on something more interesting - not to mention will result in a lot less eye-rolling from the audience, who will be silently (or not) screaming "Shoot him, he's going to turn!"

Another thing about Cockneys that I appreciated, somewhat ironically, was the rather low body count. Of the 15 or so named characters in the film, I think 10 of them are still alive at the film's end, which might be a record for ANY zombie film (not counting kiddie fare like Paranorman). Even when a character is seemingly done for, there's a triumphant return, allowing the film to end with a bit of hope and optimism - a huge difference from most zombie flicks, where despair seems to be the order of the day. Some even twist the knife more than necessary; I recently saw an awful one called The Demented where the final two characters get on the helicopter to be rescued, only for it to be revealed as a dream scene - the two characters actually get horribly devoured as the chopper flies away. So not only did the movie suck anyway, it ended on a note that was basically a "fuck you" to the audience. Not that grim endings are bad as a whole, but they need to feel earned or pointed - this was just meanspirited for no reason. Unlike most sub-genres, there usually isn't any "stopping" the threat by the end of a zombie movie - the undead still roam, the world as we know it likely to end - so there has to be SOME sort of victory on a personal level. Otherwise why bother? Even Day of the Dead (one of the bleakest zombie movies ever) has that much.

Hopefully, more filmmakers will follow this route, honoring the traditions while still giving us something fresh and fun. The less time you spend on things that we already know - and that have been created by others - the more time you have to put your own stamp on this increasingly populated but limited-by-design sub-genre. I don't really care about the fast vs. slow debate (I prefer the latter, but the former isn't a turn off), but I feel with dozens (hundreds?) of films in the past decade that there should be more new ways to mix things up, and the only way to do that is to start by trusting that the audience already knows the basics.

P.S. And PLEASE, for the love of God, stop ripping off Rhodes' death from Day of the Dead. Give me 30 straight minutes of rule-explaining before another guy buried under the floor screams as his skeleton-less fake torso is ripped apart.