Zack’s Zombie Survival Guide:
Ch. 2 – Equipment
9 May 2021
This is Part Two of a five part series anticipating the premiere of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead on Netflix.
II.A. Demonstration of Need
No one would suggest that we must view 600 x 2 hours of runtime to appreciate the lore of the quintessential zombie film. The path has been trod many times before by our betters and lessers. However, few to no guides of zombie films offer a single reliable method of determining the quality of the work. Some treat the genre of the undead as if they were any other film, either creating a ranking based upon box office receipts or number of views1 (neither a reliable methodology, as the merit and measure of PewDiePie might warrant), or they describe factors–solid acting, make-up, CGI quality–that might also be applied to any other genre of movie. Still other ranking systems out there simply describe “our favorites,” offering no criteria at all2, or become so specifically inflexible with their criteria (“must have a double-tap of an infamous celebrity zombie”) as to be meaninglessly biased.
What has yet to be developed is a zombie-specific set of criteria which determine the quality of a literary event, a tragic absence in our culture, which this manual seeks to rectify.
II.B Conditions of the Kit
It was probably Aristotle who suggested that the best definitions have both the “necessary” and “sufficient” terms; so too must our criteria toolkit for evaluating quality zombie films. We have already established some of the literary meanings which lie beneath the flaking skin of the monster itself (See Chapter 1: Identification). And, as we ultimately wish to employ this kit
against in viewing Zack Snyder’s upcoming Army of the Dead, we might dip into his earlier facsimile work, Dawn of the Dead 2004 and its worthy predecessor.
II.C. The Equipment:
- No Violation of Fundamental Zombie Archetypes
- The Meaningful Enhancement of Lore and/or the Foregrounding of Story Related to It
- The Zombies Reflect a Contemporary Anxiety
- Plausible Physics; Plausible Psychology
II.C.1 No Violation of Fundamental Zombie Archetypes
When does a zombie cease to be a zombie? Recognition of the monster must remain fundamental to the viewing experience. We are able to consider zombie half-dogs and butterflies (Return of the Living Dead), deer (Train to Busan), and even tigers so long as they exist under the same conditions and meanings of zombies in general. I imagine the same might be true of a zombie finger (Evil Dead), a zombie human head or zombie cat (Re-Animator), or even a zombie dust bunny (a collection of skin, hair, spiderwebs, and mites). But the fundamental concept must remain: the re-animation of something which was formerly alive by some unnatural means; the largely non-volitional intent of that soulless reanimation to eat us; the banal emptiness and absence of mental capacity; the potential contagion of such a reanimation, that this could become our own fate.
The moment a film or story violates these fundamental tenets of zombie-dom, it disqualifies itself of this name of horror: it becomes something else, mayhap worthy of our reflection, but not as a zombie film. Consider, for instance, the re-animation that takes place in The Thing (a worthy and thoughtful alien monster film) or the resurrection of the dead into a vampiric state (where in the case of Robert Pattinson, it is worthy neither as a zombie film or one of our consideration on any count).
“The zombie lore itself should mirror or grow the characters we meet. If it does not, the film becomes two hours in the sfx slaughterhouse.“
II.C.2. The Meaningful Enhancement of Lore and/or the Foregrounding of Story Related to It
Paddington 2 not withstanding, retreads of old ideas may sometimes make good movie business, but rarely do they win our admiration. What makes a good film is always what has made one: a solid story, great actors and directors, a visual imagery that supports the drama before it. Consider the staying story-power of a Dr. Zhivago or Field of Dreams or Lawrence of Arabia without their settings; consider 2001: A Space Odyssey without Kubrick (that would be 2010) or Jaws without Spielberg (um, all the others); consider Mean Girls without the mean girls (II), Legally Blonde without Witherspoon (II), or Cinderella without Cinderella (II: what you see is a stand-in wannabe).
But story reigns and always has. Characters well-developed and struggling with their own issues are suddenly caught up a situation that directly works to complicate and clarify their human struggle (Costner as Ray Kinsella is haunted by his failed father and own need to build a legacy and has an Iowa cornfield dream of Joe Jackson; Scheider as Sheriff Brody is a distanced but principled father whose actions–like a modern Ibsen play–work only to further alienate his neighbors from him: he risks his life and reputation despite human ignorance; and Cindy as Cindy, who would be merely angsty if she were not nearly indentured). In the case of a zombie film, the zombie lore itself should mirror or grow the characters we meet. If it does not, the film becomes two hours in the sfx slaughterhouse.
And so the best zombie films contribute to or enhance the lore, give us some new aspect of the Horde to consider, and then that change–far from merely existing as curiosity–feeds the primary storyline. The potential of a line like [eating brains] “makes the pain go away” (Return of the Living Dead) is a shift in the lore, offering zombies a slight motivation and also a dimension of zombie as sufferer. But the film–arguably just a fun parody romp–fails to seize on this idea in any meaningful way; instead the slaughter merely continues. In Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, the zombie directly mirrors the Other in the form of Ben, in 1968 a rarely cast African-American protagonist. While we admire and hope for Ben to survive the growing zombie unrest (not like Harry Cooper whose paranoia edges right up against racism), we also know that there are posses of white men with guns hunting the zombies through the countryside where they will be shot and burned. Ben largely makes all the right choices in surviving the apocalypse, navigates the white domestic politics he finds himself in, and yet finds himself shot all the same, his body thrown on the zombie fires, a case of “mistaken identity,” to be sure. . . .
In Romero’s later Dawn of the Dead, the zombies ape the meanings of their lives by “shopping” at a mall; a vestigial behavior impulse remains in them. But after critiquing that instinct as pathetic, the heroes gorge themselves on mall luxuries and foil themselves by becoming overconfident on their perceived wealth and power; add to this some unearned machismo (“It’s ours,” repeats “Flyboy” Steve just before his territoriality gets him zombied) and the male characters are tragically hollow even without their zombie backdrop.
II.C.3. The Zombies Reflect a Contemporary Anxiety
Possibly overlapping the lore and story criterion, the best films reveal the zombie as a reflection of our own social angst. As in Night of the Living Dead, the zombie threat as often reveals our own social or psychological dysfunctions as it does a simple monster. Distinctly without personality, the hollowness of the zombie longs to be filled with some parallel meaning, something I explored further in Part 1. Romero’s zombies in NofLD are rumored in the film to be created through manmade radiation (and in the Cold War 1960s, this is a plausible fear). Without some meaningful parallel implied, the zombie (and its film) become just about as empty as any horror film could be, signifier without signified.
In this way for its audiences, the zombie horror is our own personal horror, displaced onto our own fates, denying us even the peace of death. ParaNorman warns us against judgments based on fear; Ojuju pushes hard on the political deprivations of Nigeria; 28 Days Later and Train to Busan provoke our fear of pandemics. Each of these, though, has another story to tell of its characters beyond this social allegory.
II.C.4. Plausible Physics; Plausible Psychology
To be sure, zombies are biological impossibility. Yet there are some dimensions of story (especially in sf and fantasy) where the suspension of disbelief is merited. Once a universe has offered its literary conceit and postulates a zombie threat, we can broker no further violations. I will accept that a zombie apocalypse exists, but not that undead human flesh can suddenly withstand a few rounds with a 357. I will roll with reanimation or reactivation, even with clustering behavior, but not World War Z’s rotting bodies that also run over 40 mph without food and build mountains with endoskeletons. Once surmised, the zombie physics (and corpses) must hold together. (Dubious on a smaller scale, for instance, that across its 10 seasons, The Walking Dead zombies rot away and yet their soft and fragile eyes remain intact for them to see their prey. And we must save lengthy arguments about heat and cold damage, insect infestations, and the inability to heal for another time (Dietle).)
Peter Derk offers a distinction between plausibility, believability, and probability. If everything that happens in a film is probable, then there is little in the way of suspense or surprise. If what we see is barely believable (but far from likely), we’ve set quite a low bar for ourselves. The goal is plausibility, the possibility (with the right combination of elements assembled) that an event could occur.
As we demand a plausible set of circumstances for our zombies, then, so too must the characters themselves respond to the threat with some plausible and understandable response to trauma. Dawn of the Dead’s Frannie passes through an attack trauma to emerge as a stronger fighter; Peter agonizes over the “killing” he must do; his partner Roger’s frenzied overconfidence is part of his denial of the world; Stephen flirts constantly with issues of manhood and competence. In the background scientists call for “logical” responses while the masses exhibit trauma-induced emotional judgments. In Train to Busan, the bond between Jong-il and sister In-gil stretches incredibly into a despair which unleashes the Horde against the remaining survivors; Yong-guk is forced to attack his own baseball team who have become Infected, and so he is frozen in apprehension; this denial of the reality unfolding will ultimately end him. All of these responses are plausible as tragic consequences to the unthinkable: hyper-competence is not; self-sacrifice is rarely. Alice in the Resident Evil series is acceptable only when we understand that she is not truly human; reading the Necronomicon aloud in Evil Dead is senseless when every warning says not to; the biker gang in Dawn of the Dead (1978) is inexplicably madcap (zombies vs pies and seltzer water). Such characters and characterizations defy the essential conceit of the film and thus tend to ruin the experience.
To some extent, my criteria hold true across all film genres. We all want to accept a film’s premises and expect it to maintain coherence from there on. We need films to remain faithful to the conventions and symbols which have built its culture. We need movies that speak to our own psyches, and those where the character stories find dramatic echoes in their settings and backgrounds. And, despite Hollywood’s protests for more CGI explosions and exposed skin, we are sated by story. The only sex/nudity in Dawn of the Dead (1978) is one silent still-scene of impotency; in the 2004 remake, Zack Snyder’s first sex scene is four minutes into the film. I stopped counting the static-filled fast-cuts and number of explosions, signs that its creator knows his storyline cannot sustain viewer interest.
Often, especially in horror films, we are willing to overlook poor acting, poor effects, a low budget: we do so every time we praise a zombie film like REC or Re-animator, Dawn of the Dead (1978) or Last Man on Earth. But each of these films largely fits the criteria here. The experience helps us confront our own anxieties as much as offers a horror thrill. The experience itself is apocalypse. This is not to say the large budget blockbusters are all bad; but we have too many cases where budgets fail the measure of quality or become substitutes for it. And Zack Snyder has a lot of money for his films (Mendelson).
- 1 Rotten Tomatoes, Newsweek, Shortlist
- 2 Indiewire, Collider, Looper, Paste Magazine, Yardbarker, The Guardian, NME, Esquire
“Battery, The (2012) – IMDb.” IMDb, 4 June 2013, imdb.com/title/tt2272350/.
Dawn of the Dead. Directed by George A. Romero, Dawn Associates, 1978.
—. Directed by Zack Snyder, Metropolitan Filmexport, 2004.
Derk, Peter. “The 8 Keys To A Good Heist Story.” LitReactor, litreactor.com/columns/the-8-keys-to-a-good-heist-story.
Dietle, David. “7 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Outbreak Would Fail (Quickly).” Cracked.Com, 1 Jan. 2010, cracked.com/article_18683_7-scientific-reasons-zombie-outbreak-would-fail-quickly.html.
Mendelson, Scott. “Zack Snyder’s ‘Army Of The Dead’ Could Determine The Post-Pandemic Future For Netflix Movies In Theaters.” Forbes, 14 Apr. 2021, forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2021/04/13/zack-snyder-netfix-army-of-the-dead-could-determine-if-theres-a-post-pandemic-place-for-streaming-movies-in-theaters/?sh=4cc6c6b97e38.
Return of the Living Dead, The. Directed by Dan O’Bannon, Hemdale Film Corporation, 1985.
Ser, Agne. “Train to Busan – Digging into Fears and Wounds of South Korea.” The Asian Cinema Blog, 29 Apr. 2019, theasiancinemablog.com/cinema-of-south-korea/train-to-busan-digging-into-fears-and-wounds-of-south-korea/.
Train to Busan. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, Next Entertainment World, 2016.
“The Walking Dead – IMDB.” IMDB, Accessed 5 May 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1520211/.