what we talk about when we talk about the living dead

I saw Diary of the Dead the other day, George Romero’s latest installment in shuffling undead horror. For most folk this kind of movie is an opportunity to watch something else, but I always look forward another one of Romero’s jaunts into the fun-filled world of shuffling, moaning dead people looking for a bite of living tissue. The best part of Romero can be the subtext, chewy as brains, in which the undead stand in for the sorry lot of us, shopping and consuming and stumbling our way through life. He did it best in his first two zombie films (Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead), in which our bad behaviour is held up to theirs. The implicit message is: they’re a bunch of undead creatures with a mindless desire for human flesh – what’s your excuse?

Diary makes the mistake of bringing the subtext to the fore and turning it into a self-recriminating, self-loathing, overly knowing artifact that treats the possible end of humanity with a shrug and the rhetorical question that closes the film: Are we worth saving? You tell me. And when I say artifact, I mean that the movie is so wrapped in a layer of self-referential muck that it turns into its own making-of featurette, a DVD extra that somehow rose up and devoured the original. It’s a zombie film that’s a film zombie.

Here’s how it goes. A group of film students in the woods is making a mummy film portentously called “The Death of Death” when they receive news that something … weird … has happened in the outside world. The crew packs up and tries to head home in a world that has suddenly turned into a wasteland of flaming cars, empty hospitals, and smelly mumbly dead folk. Jason, the director, ceases work on his project and takes up his camera in the service of reality. He starts making a video diary, which mostly consists of pestering the other members of the film crew with on-camera questions. Unsurprisingly, they can’t stand him. Even his girlfriend looks like she’d rather be making out with a zombie.*

When things get living dead-y, as they do, Jason finds that he can’t put down the camera, even when his friends are facing imminent consumption. Between attacks there is much discussion about the morality of holding up a camera to the world in the service of awesome website hits and ‘truth’. Whatever, you know, that is. It’s all so clever, and although there are times when the winking and nudging turns into genuinely thought-provoking moments, Diary of the Dead never comes off as more than a few well-trodden ideas and a lot of terrible acting.

No matter how clever Romero may be, though, he doesn’t break the unwritten rule of zombie films, which is: no one may know in advance what a zombie is. Zombies are entirely absent from the cultural background of the film’s fictional universe. As far as I know, no character, in any zombie film I’ve seen, points at a zombie and says, Hey, that’s a zombie. Zombies are real. Let’s retreat to a safe distance. Instead, they approach the shambling monsters and get bitten for their troubles. Romero acknowledges this absence by starting off his film with a student production of a mummy film. Clearly, mummies – monsters so old-fashioned and campy that they’re impossible to take seriously – are meant to occupy the same cultural space in the film that zombies do in our world.

Compare this strange ignorance with vampires. In almost all vampire films and television shows, someone sees a vampire and says Omigod It’s A Vampire Aaarrrghh etc. Then an obligatory scene places these particular vampires within the framework of vampire myth - what kills them, where they hang out, their feelings about mirrors and so on. The emergence of the monster from a body of myth into reality domesticates the monster somewhat, brings it closer to the sphere of human desires. You can engage with it on an individual level. On one level, that’s what seven seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer were about: Getting To Know Your Vampire.**

Zombies are tough to engage with. They're walking death, incomprehensibility incarnated, a horrific affront to our understanding of what a dead body is supposed to do (namely, not get up and come after you). Any familiarity with the phenomenon, even as a story, lessens the impact and robs us of an essential feature of the genre: the characters' ugly realization that the zombie is not a living thing. The vampire is domesticated by its placement within the vampire myth, but the zombie is only domesticated by killing it. Or in the case of Shaun of the Dead, by chaining it up in the garden shed and playing videogames with it.

I lost my original point somewhere. Did I mention that Romero’s new zombie flick is really lousy? Yeah, that was a painful 95 minutes.

***

*Actually, she looks like she regrets the botched eyebrow lift. It makes her look like a Bell’s palsy victim.

**On the other hand, the spin-off series Angel could be described as How To Make A Decent Living When You’re Dead.