There comes a time in the year when a young man’s thoughts turn to the occult, and the idea of blood sacrifice and feasting on the gooey brains of your enemies becomes even more tempting than usual. But Christmas is still some way away, and Hallowe’en doesn’t exist in England since the death of trick-or-treating. (Many parents are now convinced their children will disintegrate if they’re out of line-of-sight for more than thirty seconds. I blame the Daily Mail.) So I’m just gonna post this now.
I suppose it was the sight of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in my local Waterstone’s that got me thinking about it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against sullying the classics. I’m with Mark Twain on the Jane Austen debate, who put it more delicately than I ever could, when he said “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig (Jane Austen) up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” But it’s depressing to realise that the zombie genre has gotten so bloated, it’s finally burst and spewed its undead entrails into the mainstream.
Jane Austen with zombies? Honestly? Doesn’t that just sound like a washed-up movie exec’s cocaine-fuelled fantasy? Why not bring Jaws back from the dead and have the Ghostbusters hunt down his vengeful spirit at sea? Do we really need another ancient story resuscitated with a new twist?
Judging by the book sales, apparently we do.
The problem is that pretty much every worthwhile take on the zombie theme seems to have been done already. It started for most of us with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Since then we’ve had comedy zombies (Shaun Of The Dead), teen-horror zombies (Return Of The Living Dead), docu-drama style zombie war (World War Z), zombies that kind of aren’t zombies but actually they are (28 Days Later, Hater), zombies doing social satire (Dead Set), and so on and so on. Babylon Fields, a TV series in the US which never made it past the pilot, was an attempt to examine the social effects of the dead coming back to life and not trying to eat everyone. The only thing that has stopped the zombie tale reaching the appalling ubiquity of the current glut of vampire stories is that nobody has worked out a way to make zombies sexy yet. Bits fall off, y’see.
You know what you’re getting with zombies. You know the first third of the book/movie is spent watching the characters work out rules that every living organism on Planet Earth already knows. You get infected if you’re bitten. Detach the head from the spine to kill them. Lure them away with raw meat or loud noise. Zombies are not that hard to deal with, really. Even the fast ones are dumb. All you generally have to do is grab some food, hole up and close the door till they get bored and bugger off.
Instead, drama is mined from the impossible stupidity of the protagonists. They leave the lights on to attract zombies, or unlock zombie-proof doors while storming away from their lover in a hissy fit. They shoot at explosive things at point blank range, or stray close to the windows because they somehow forgot there was a slavering horde of undead lurking outside, just waiting to rip their intestines out of their eye sockets. At some point, someone gets infected by zombie-itis. Instead of shooting them, our merciful heroes will wait till the very last moment, to eke out every last precious second of their existence while the audience marvels at the fragile beauty of life, like watching a butterfly’s wings beating in a frosted glade. After which the character will break out of his or her restraints and take at least two uninfected humans with them on their way to Hell.
Obviously I’m being simplistic – not every zombie tale includes all of the above – but there’s a point here. A zombie in itself just isn’t enough to make a story. Romero’s Dead trilogy, that introduced the wider world to zombies, was great because it had good characters and other drums to bang, about racism, consumerism, the ethics of scientists and the military, and so on. Yes, it had some of the failings I pointed out above, but it was also the first time they’d been done. There are only so many shattering observations on the state of humanity that benefit from the presence of zombies, and those first three movies pretty much covered ’em all.
With the honourable exception of King’s Pet Semetary – which is not really a zombie tale at all, anyway – I can’t think of anything with zombies that isn’t basically copying the template Romero laid down. Shaun of the Dead was a funny take on the mindless drones satirised in Dawn Of The Dead. Dead Set updated it for the Big Brother generation. But they’re still retreads, however well dressed, and the points they make aren’t new. The fast zombies of 28 Days Later were seen as a reinvention of the genre, but they were just the same zombies as before, except they could run fast and they died a little easier. Nothing too groundbreaking there.
Now listen. I love zombies. Bringing dead stuff to life is officially awesome. There’s even a pinch of zombie pirates in the Manes of my own Retribution Falls. But I’m just saying: enough, please. All the bases have been covered. Leave the corpses in their graves. Zombies in space will not add anything the genre (oh, wait… Dead Space…). Victorian zombies will not add anything to genre. Nor will a tale from the zombie’s point of view, about a working-class guy scratching a hard unliving in the mean world of the non-decomposed. The zombie apocalypse has happened enough times now. Enough so that I’m pretty confident I’d do well in it, given the amount of advice I’ve had on the subject. Maybe it’s time to get thinking about a new way to end the world.