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.

unfortunate sequels

Solyaris 2 – Years after Chris Kelvin lands, another group of astronauts arrives at the watery planet that gives dreams a human shape. This time they set up shop and dream of a tourist paradise with great sport fishing and a raw bar right on the beach. One morning Jimmy Buffet shows up. And then another. And another. They try to weed out the Jimmy Buffet population by drowning, shooting, burning, whatever they can manage, but they can’t stop the Buffet onslaught. Eventually a tribunal is convened to find out just who has been dreaming constantly of Jimmy Buffet and unwittingly calling him forth. The rule of law breaks down utterly when one of the tribunal members turns out to be Jimmy Buffet. Late night abductions and rumors of torture haunt the long sunlit afternoons. The tourism industry crumbles. Eventually the astronauts desert the planet, leaving behind thousands of Jimmy Buffets. They immediately found the nation of Margaritaville and walk into the sea.

Mulholland Drive 2: Erotic HüskerDü – A surreal dream sequence in which Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts have sex for two straight hours. One camera setup, a couple of curtains and some slinky faux Egyptian outfits that look like old costumes from a Burton-Taylor epic. Occasionally you can hear David Lynch saying “Move your hair out of the way” and “Oh yeah, that’s really hot”. At the very end, Naomi Watts wakes up, turns to Harring and says, “Let’s have even more sex in the waking world”. Then they throw pies at each other naked.

King Kong 2: Even Konger - A group of Depression-era filmmakers travel to an uncharted island where they find Peter Jackson, naked and blistered with sunburn, rolling around in mud and filth. He implores the ingenue to “scratch my back, it’s soooo itchy,” whereupon she screams and runs off into the jungle. The crew finds her shattered body at the bottom of a ravine a few days later.

Weekend at Bernie’s X: Bernie Beyond - Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman reprise their roles for this whacked-out comedy in deep orbit! Two astronauts (McCarthy and Silverman) find their crewmate Bernie (Terry Kiser) dead in his seat after liftoff. Unfortunately, a film crew has accompanied them on the voyage for an interactive live broadcast for President’s Day celebrations. The hapless astronauts are forced to wire up their dead crewmate’s suit and make him go about the business of life in space for the ever-present cameras. Tensions mount when a crisis occurs and Bernie is the only one qualified to fix the problem! The spacewalk sequence where they make Bernie dance to “Space Cowboy” on the hull exterior is just, oh, it’s fucking hilarious.

The Ptarmigan - This is not a sequel. It’s a ptarmigan.

Mission Impossible 4: The Decruisifier - The opening sequence starts with Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt being fed into a gigantic machine of cast iron and terrible blades, a Victorian nightmare of limb-devouring ferocity. As Cruise talks on his cell phone, a conveyor belt moves him smoothly into the spiky teeth of a rotating drum. Cruise is flattened, punched, pulped, pasteurized and poured into a sealed drum. The drum of Cruise-pulp is then strapped to the entire supply of the world’s nuclear armaments and shot into space, where it detonates with a blast so ferocious that the unlucky masses who witness the event are rendered colour-blind. Ving Rhames turns to the camera and declares “He’s never, never, never coming back. We will now find somebody else to keep this franchise going”. High fives all round.

Grumpy Old Babies - A prequel to the Grumpy Old Men series, this movie features two infants in the Matthau-Lemmon roles. Witty voice-overs from Bruce Willis and Roseanne Barr supply endless moments of cutesy hilarity, although the breast feeding jokes wear thin after a while. And it’s never explained how a movie about a brother and sister relates to a franchise about two old men with a lifelong love-hate relationship. John Travolta and Kirstie Alley star as the troubled but loving parents. Most surprising is the sight of Kirstie Alley, who looks 100 pounds lighter and fourteen years younger.

St. Elmo’s Fire 2 - Oh my God. Is that Ally Sheedy? What the – has she been homeless and shooting up for the last twenty years? What is this movie about? These people are old. There better not be any David Foster music this time around. Ah crap, there it is. Who wants to see a bunch of broken-down actors who used to be popular? Except for Rob Lowe, who I think was laminated around 1990. When that plastic coating splits he’s just going to flop out all over the place.

The Senate Subcommittee Hearing Proceedings of the Dead - George A. Romero continues to hone his skills as a political commentator in this installment of the popular and always topical “Dead” movies. In this thinking man’s gorefest, the General Accounting Office (GAO) notes troubling irregularities in certain subcontractor charges related to the zombie internment camps. A preliminary investigation leads nowhere in particular for three years, until a hearing is called in which leading members of the zombie community call the living to account for their systematic mistreatment. Members of the panel praise the main spokeszombie for being “articulate”. A surprisingly in-depth report comes out condemning the entire system of zombie containment, calling it “nothing more than a pork barrel scheme to enrich the friends and associates of Washington insiders at the expense of the walking dead,” but attention is diverted by the sudden announcement of the We’re Going To Go Live In Space And Leave This Shit Hole To The Zombies And The Rest Of You Act of 2012.