Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jaws is Not a Halloween Movie

"We need a Halloween movie."


"No, Jaws is a winter movie."

"You mean summer?"

"No, watch it when it can't ruin swimming for you."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Are Zombie Stories Always Disasters?

Yesterday I finished John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, and I wanted to call it the most creative zombie story since Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Except Handling the Undead was published the year before Brooks’s novel, and I simply took a while finding it. They’re opposed books, because World War Z is the best at what zombies always are, those rotting hordes of the apocalypse. Handling the Undead makes you question why they’re always that.

At this point, Zombie might as well be a genre. It’s apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, usually gory, stories of survival and moral ambiguity. Humans turn out to be the ultimate evil more regularly than in The Twilight Zone. Every year people proclaim zombies must be done, but The Walking Dead only gets bigger ratings, and more videogames and indie authors produce the rotting hordes. I haven’t fatigued of the zombie, which is the unusual promise that the world we live in will be transformed into a fantasy playground. But I do wonder about it becoming so conventional.

Early on, Handling the Undead de-fangs the zombie apocalypse by showing the police and military immediately rolling in against dangerous ones, while are others are so weak (they’ve been decomposing, for God’s sake) that their families can overtake and even keep them. It’s so matter-of-fact, both from the accounts of survivors and the newspaper-like chapters that fill us in on the world’s reactions, that it wholly disarms the fantasy of the undead toppling everything.

What they topple is the catharsis of death. A mother grieving over a dead son now has something even more inexplicable in her house. She doesn’t know if he’ll recover, if he remembers her, if she can feed or help him. She yearns to, and we read with hands over our mouths, hoping he won’t bite her the next time she leans in.

It’s not a story of headshots and desperate amputations. It made me wonder about Warm Bodies, which I couldn’t stand, but also didn’t give a chance to. YA Romance is so far from my wheelhouse that I didn’t consider it as a property changing the zombie and the story of zombieism. Handling the Undead got more leeway, both because its author wrote Let the Right One In, and because it was about the pathos of the sting of death being removed, which was more novel. Even Shaun of the Dead is really the same old zombie story, but with very funny handling. Part of its appeal is it talked about zombies the way our generation had been doing for years. It wasn’t this disruptive.

Eventually the zombie apocalypse gets so familiar that this happens.
Handling the Undead breaks some explicit and some unspoken rules about zombies. That’s what we all do now, right? You want them to run, you want the bite to be an instant change, etc. For Lindqvist, the undead don’t immediately go after flesh, and he plays on your expectation of this brilliantly, as you’re fearing for mourners who get too close. They seemingly respond to the emotional states of those around them (this is going to start the flesh-eating, isn’t it?).

More pregnant are the unspoken rules it breaks, for instance: zombies no longer spawn like hordes of videogame enemies whenever convenient. I love The Walking Dead comic, but both the comic and show get silly with the number of zombies that show up miles from any source of food or civilization, like they’re smelling the plot. You need that unspoken rule if you’re going to tell an action story. Handling the Undead, though, is about the emotional effects on loved ones of the recently returned.

It’s when you tamper with those “rules” that are actually contrived conventions that audiences can wonder why all those other stories act alike. There’s drama in a mass of zombies banging on the hero’s door when he’s only got two bullets left, but there’s a rarer drama in a devastated grandfather researching what medical equipment might keep his returned grandson alive, and the knowledge that if he can sustain the boy, he’ll have to flee the city to keep him safe from the government.

The disruption underlies what excites me most in all Speculative Fiction. We’ve seen so many cynical zombie stories that we know where most of it will go, that the old world will die and any non-protagonists will probably form negative groups, like cults and corrupt military pockets. But when you take a creature that is typically the engine of global disaster, and instead apply it to the internal life of specific people who don’t even get the reprieve of oppressive social orders disappearing, it can become something else. The humanity of it is unyielding, ironically, because it can’t die anymore.
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