ON LAND OF THE DEAD AND THE CANONICAL ZOMBIE:
Sometimes you just can’t win. It’s becoming apparent that if you make a genre-defining trilogy or album or anything, your subsequent attempts to revisit that material are damned if you offer more of the same, and double-damned if you try to do anything different. It’s patently true of George Lucas – not to mention the Matrix guys, Joseph Heller, Nine Inch Nails, Cubby Broccoli and pretty much everyone except for maybe Shigeru Miyamoto who somehow still manages to pull in the love year after year even though just about the entire planet despises his company by now, and even Shiggy was excommunicated by more than a few irate fanboys when he used the words “cel-shaded” and “Zelda” in the same sentence – and it seems the same fate has befallen George A. Romero.
How dare he! Zombies that think? Zombies that feel emotion? Doesn’t he understand that people like zombies because the only thing zombies feel is the killing reflex? Doesn’t he know that his first movie was only good because it had no political message whatsoever? How dare he?
Now I will admit, Land of the Dead was a disappointment to me. It had a few great moments, and Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo can both damn near save any movie they have a speaking part in, but I really missed the ferocious predatory instinct that George Romero’s early zombie flicks displayed. LotD had serious amounts of well-constructed gore, but somehow it still felt tamer than any zombie movie should. From the pretty-boy hero with his politically correct sidekick, to the happy, sappy ending, it all felt more like a Hollywood tribute to George Romero than an actual Romero movie. I suppose LotD’s biggest problem was that recent years have blessed us with several indecently good zombie movies, and this one suffers by comparison. It’s worth renting, but definitely not the sort of movie one buys and watches again and again.
But I have to say, for all that went wrong with this film, the new zombies weren’t the problem. The thinking, feeling zombies that so many people are upset about, just because they weren’t dumb, directionless, emotionless lurching things. Not only were they not the problem, they weren’t even a new idea. The shambling dead may still rule video games, but the majority of the horror field started a quiet movement to abandon those embarrassingly unscary things over twenty years ago.
I suppose we all still recognise that stereotype as “the” canonical zombie, just like we know the rules for vampires and werewolves. Certainly the first thing that pops into my head when I hear “zombie” is the same stereotype of a mindless reanimated corpse shuffling around and moaning about brains. So I can sort of understand where these complaints are coming from.
But in reality, none of these monsters are exactly traditional, and we should never discount new takes on our favourite horrors just because they “don’t follow the rules.” The rules for the modern vampire were set down in the book Dracula around 1897. Some of them were amalgamations of many different vampire legends. Most of them came straight out of Bram Stoker’s head. The canonical werewolf is an even more modern invention – just about everything we “know” about werewolves was invented in the 1941 film the Wolf Man. And zombies are the newest “traditional” monsters of all. The walking dead actually took their modern form in 1968, in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
The reason they have become so “traditional” is that countless lesser artists copied Romero’s ideas down to the tiniest detail, just like people imitated Dracula and the Wolf Man in earlier days (and still do). The shuffling zombie (sometimes known as “Romero zombies”) has become an icon recognisable to every Western child over the age of six, thanks to thousands of homages, tributes, parodies and plain old ripoffs.
But is it scary? Seriously, has any book or movie featuring Romero zombies scared you for even a second since Romero himself made Dawn of the Dead? I know they don’t scare me. There are only so many times you can watch zombies doing the exact same things they did in Night of the Living Dead before you completely stop giving a damn and start looking over at the Asian Horror section to find out what movies Hollywood will be remaking next year.
So what’s a dedicated horror junkie to do if he really wants to make a zombie movie, but not recycle the same god-damn concept that was more than adequately covered by the time he stopped wearing Underoos? Romero isn’t the first guy to ask this question. Well, for starters you could get rid of that ridiculous shambling walk. Return of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later and the new Dawn of the Dead shook things up by turning their “walking dead” into “running really fast and screaming dead”. This actually works nicely on film, especially since modern audiences tend to get restless at the slightest pause in the action.
But even fast, screaming zombies are still just mindless eating machines with a fiercely limited range of behaviour, so a lot of people have taken a different direction with zombies in recent decades: intelligent, feeling zombies. And horror fans have eaten it up like brains on a stick.
John Varley wrote about intelligent zombies way back in 1984, in Demon. In this book, part of the Gaean Trilogy, the zombies were the toys of a demented Goddess who watched way too many late night creature features. (Gaea also really liked Star Wars more than any Goddess should. No word on what she thought of the prequel trilogy.) They had vague memories of their past lives and were capable of following orders, using weapons and tactics, and delivering long messages through broken teeth and cracked lips. Of course, Demon wasn’t horror but science fiction, but those zombies were pretty delicious.
Peter Jackson’s even more delectable Braindead (1992) featured dozens of odd sorts of zombie, including a zombie rat monkey and a seriously fucked-up, but oddly human, living dead family. Whether we eat human brains or steak and kidney pies, Jackson cheekily seemed to say in passing, we all want pretty much the same kind of family life or unlife. A decade later, Shaun of the Dead went back into horror comedy territory and pointed out that not only are zombies enough like us to still enjoy playing first person shooters, but the majority of living humans are basically indistinguishable from zombies anyway.
And zombies show a lot more than hints of intelligence in recent horror books. In every genre, books are usually ahead of the movies, and the zombies in books like the Rising and Andre Duza’s Dead Bitch Army (both published in 2004) can outsmart just about every human they meat without losing a shred of their scariness. Dead Bitch Army has zombies that are human in everything but the smell and the fact that they can’t be killed (again). The Rising’s zombies don’t just lurch out in groaning mobs to besiege fortified cities. They set traps for humans, crack disgusting jokes and racist witticisms (monsters don’t get much more human than that), and use anti-tank weapons and sniper rifles to destroy a National Guard brigade.
The funny thing is that the Rising has become one of the most celebrated and popular small press horror books of recent years, winning Brian Keene a Stoker and spawning one sequel so far, and will probably be made into a movie, which I predict will suffer harsh criticism from at least a few casual horror fans for “copying” Land of the Dead’s intelligent zombies. Meanwhile, Romero gets slammed for misunderstanding the traditional zombie, since his movie was the first big Hollywood picture to do it.
(NOTE: in case anybody thinks I’m mocking prole here, I’m not. Not spitefully, anyway. And none of what I’ve written is meant to contradict prole’s final rating of the movie. I agree completely: Land of the Dead is indeed a mediocre movie. Every other movie mentioned in this writeup is better, and even Romero’s other early movies weren’t as good as Night of the Living Dead. Even LotD’s cameo by the Shaun of the Dead guys isn’t really what it could have been. Sorry, George. You really are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But it’s your own fault for making Night of the Living Dead first.)