The Zombie Thing
Since it’s the season for horror writing (though I think true Zombie aficionados are always alert and wary for the possibility of an undead uprising, regardless of the time of year) I thought it’d be a good time to talk about a tidal wave of a trend in fiction. I’m guessing if you’re any sort of Zombie fan, you’ve read The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z by Max Brooks. These two books, so well researched and cleverly assembled helped to make the concept of a species-ending epidemic or plague, very real, bringing them close to home at the same time, viewing such terrific events from a cool and clinical perspective. This perspective added a level of plausibility that the genre had lacked before. Max Brooks two books are clear, concise, informative and not the blood-spattered, hysterical screaming gore fests many of us have come to associate with the genre.
But if we jump back a little further, I want to say 2002, there’s a film written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle that I think not only revitalized the genre, but sent it spiraling off into new directions in both literature and cinema. 28 Days Later is the tale of a virus outbreak that spreads rapidly from person to person, causing not cannibalistic hunger as we’ve come to expect from zombies, but simple, unchecked rage. This infection forces a loss of reason and freewill upon its victims, essentially turning them into mindless killers (zombies.)So far, we’re not seeing major differences in the plot; same disease vector, same results, panicked civilization, trains are no longer on time, et cetera. Then it hits you right in the face: these zombies can run. Now only can they run, but they’re fast!
This simple change in an otherwise clichéd monster’s behavior not only made them actually frightening again, but increased the plausibility of the whole event, not to mention revitalizing a dead (heh) sub-genre of horror. Zombies create the perfect union of post-apocalyptic settings.
Opportunities for characters are limitless. For example, how would survivors behave knowing there were no consequences for their actions? Without law and order, who decides right and wrong? Perhaps more to the point, who is stop those who choose to do wrong? This setting provides for limitless exploration of ethics and morality plays. As long as your internal cosmology is consistent, your plausibility remains high and the fictional elements are not even doubted.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is a good example of this. The situation is internally consistent – the laws of physics and the cause-effect pattern of the zombie infection is consistent. In situations where there is doubt, the writers take special care to place just enough exposition dialogue to allow the audience to follow along – this is done in what that seems internally consistent with the logic process of the character. So, when the lines are spoken, it’s more like they’re thinking aloud or mumbling to themselves. Very nice technique.
If a writer took some of these processes, these techniques and incorporate them into their own work, the results could be amazing. Something trite and dusty becomes at once fresh and new. I read a short story in an anthology called Season of Rot, there were a few zombies with glowing green eyes. This signified that they were intelligent hunters, almost like a leader-caste among the undead; an uncommon variation, if not entirely original. This twist nonetheless made the story different. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
One more thing I want to point out to would be zombie writers – the story is not about zombies. It never has been. The story has always been about the survivors. The human element in a world where the most reliable and basic fact of existence has become incomprehensible. This epic level change in reality is nothing but sheer, raw story potential. In the original Night of the Living Dead, the template for just about every other horror movie made since is established: a band of survivors overcomes internal conflicts in an attempt to simply stay alive. In most cases, they lose what they were desperately trying to protect (their lives, one another, et cetera). Night of the Living Dead focuses on the people trapped in the farm-house. They slowly reveal their own histories through necessary, not extraneous exposition. This next part should go without saying, but since we’re here and you’re still reading it’s prudent to mention that the back stories of these characters are not the stories of secret agents or assassins or super-heroes. They’re just people. In most cases, these quite flawed people are struggling to overcome their own inadequacies, their own fears and grief in a very hostile environment. There is no reason for zombie films to be flat or trite. There is no reason not to crank up the drama, the visceral human experience to eleven.