I’ve always been a fan of Zombie Horror, ever since I saw George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) as a youngster. I remember getting up after my parents had gone to bed to watch it on the sly. It wasn’t long after that I sought out Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Return of the Living Dead (1985) and even the notorious ‘Video Nasty’ Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979). I think it’s partly my enthusiasm for Zombies that encouraged my ongoing love of the Friday the 13th franchise, Jason Voorhees is the *Ultimate* Zombie. However, had you asked me (prior to Dublin WorldCon 2019) if I would write a Zombie Horror story I’d have replied (and had on a couple of occassions) ‘No, I don’t think I’ve got anything new to add to the genre’. Well, that all changed thanks to Conor Costick at Level Up Publishing so, while we wait for the next update on #RenderedFlesh, let’s take a look at what Zombie Horror means to me and, whilst many examples of the genre are absolute groaners (you see what I did there?) literally and figuratively there are certain things about the zombie horror genre that keep it shambling, inexorably onward in the public awareness.
1. Zombies are gross! When your monsters/antagonists are rotting corpses there’s a great deal of scope, not just for SFX make-up but also for what you can do to them. From Bub (DotD) and Julie Walker (RotLD3) to Tarman (RothLD) and ‘Bicycle Girl’ or ‘Winslow’ (TWD). But, while rotten, ravaged, desiccated and defiled bodies give us the squicks, zombies don’t have to be much more than shambling, pale corpses to give us the willies. Zombies force us to face a number of fears all at once. Mortality for one, the fear of death and what comes after is an ever-present consideration of the Zompocalypse what with all those zombies shambling around to remind you. The fear of loss of identity is another, becoming just another mindless shambling thing. Does the subjects consciousness stare out from behind those dead-eyes, unable to halt the remorseless quest for the warm flesh of the living? Thanks to Bub the answer is a ‘definitely maybe’. And lastly, the visceral fear of being eaten alive. That’s the kicker for me, Primal Fears are a compelling hook to any story and the idea of being dragged down and savaged by teeth has a great deal of scope. Besides the abject horror and violence of being eaten there is the option (just to turn the chill-factor screws real hard) to use very intimate, almost sexual imagery. The grasping hands, the press of bodies, flesh on flesh. It could be a zombie feeding frenzy, could be an orgy and that’s the unsettling part. Using language and phrasing which we unconsciously link to intimate, sexual acts but in a situation which represents one of humanities oldest fears, the fear of teeth in the dark.
2. “They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.” The 1990’s remake of Night of the Living Dead, directed by horror icon Tom Savini (who provided the Make-Up effects for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) was a game-changer for me. It took Romero’s original and stepped up its game with the Candyman himself, Tony Todd as Ben and an outstanding performance from Patricia Tallman as a revitalised Barbera, one who walks the line of loosing her mind and comes out the other side as a certified badass. But, underneath the polish and updates ran the same socio-political commentary that set Romero’s work apart and made him the lead figure in the genre. Much like Science Fiction, Zombie Horror explored the human condition, it puts the characters in an alien situation and explores how they react but, in the case of Romero’s works (and those who follow his example) it’s used as a dark mirror for real-world issues. In Night it’s socio-economic and racial tension, Dawn addresses our dependency on consumerism and Day looks at the conflicts between scientific and social progress and the industrial military complex. Having such powerful subject matter at it’s root is what makes the very best of the genre. Even the Return franchise had the over-arcing plot around Trioxin, the chemical weapon responsible for the zombies, the military’s ongoing efforts to stabilize and weaponize it and, later, to use zombies themselves as mobile weapons platforms for theaters of conflict. Modern films, whether they use the familiar shamblers or the over-clocked ‘Rage’ zombies have continued in this vein. 28 Days/Weeks Later (2002/2007), Rec (for me it *has* to be the original 2007 Spanish version), The Crazies (1973/2010), and The Rezort (2015) all share this underlying commentary aspect. Of course, there’s always room for a guilty pleasure or two, most recently Cooties (2014), and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015) have satisfied the less cerebral appetite for schlock.
3. Nihilism. Dropping a set of characters into an unfolding zombie apocalypse is, most often a story about immediate survival but, in a few instances, we’ve seen directors looking at the ongoing issues of such a state of survival and this has made those examples stand-out in the genre. Most notably Dawn of the Dead and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead take us on extended journey’s in these nightmare worlds to see how people react under the ever-present threat of zombies. In both instances it is established that, one of the biggest threats to safety and security is other people. ‘Fight the Dead, Fear the Living’ is a phrase familiar to most TWD fans. Whether it’s a difference of ideologies or competition over resources, the Biker Gang led by ‘Blades’ (Tom Savini, setting the bar for later roles in his career including ‘Sex Machine’ in Dusk till Dawn 1996, gotta love ‘im) or Negan’s ‘Saviours’, humans by their very unpredictable nature and volatility present a greater threat than the zombie hordes (albeit in smaller measures). It’s important to remember that, these are dramatized events, keyword ‘Drama’. Works of fiction demand conflict, action and, for the audience, that means ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, zombies alone are no-longer enough. Whether humans in an actual zompocalypse would struggle over resources or band together is not a question I can answer with any surety but, in a couple of instances, the deeper enemy has been far more insidious. ‘What is it?’ I hear you cry, it’s Ennui. Locked away in the mall the characters of Dawn find ever more insipid or depraved ways to stave off the boredom of their suddenly pointless existence, for what is the point of existing when simply existing is the point? In every zombie horror survival is the key. ‘You gotta survive’, but why? When the whole of human society (let’s not call it ‘civilization’ ’cause ‘civil’ it ain’t), all the laws, all the roles and regulations are gone, when the arts, cultures and rewards of not being entirely survival oriented are stripped away, why do the characters persist? Initially, of course, it’s to return to that state and, once it becomes clear that the return may not be immediately possible, they go to great lengths to emulate it as best they can. Although not a Zombie Film, the 2002 movie Reign of Fire has a memorable scene where Christian Bale’s character re-enacts Starwars for an audience of enthralled children. I can’t say why but it’s this stubborn refusal to die, the ongoing drive just to exist that I take away and find some comfort in.
So, whether it’s one of the more intellectual examples of the catalog, a ’70’s schlock masterpiece, or a zom-rom-com bringing a few giggles to the undead end-of-days, there are some aspects that are common across the genre and a few that characterise the stand-out leaders of the pack. I hope this gives you and idea of what to expect, and deepens your hunger to sink your teeth into Rendered Flesh when it comes out but, for now, maybe dust-off your favourite zombie-flick or go out there (while staying inside) and discover a new guilty pleasure.