Keep calm and shuffle on

Imagine you’re walking home late at night. It’s not a club night. No one is knocking about the streets on the lash. Just you. Your only company is the echoing of your feet and the glow from the street lamps.

And then you hear moaning and the sound of shoes shuffling along the street. Out of a side street you come across a walking, rotting body of human flesh that seems to want to eat your brain. It makes an indeterminable sound. As you walk away in mild disgust, it shambles behind you offering no threat to your safe return home. Not so scary, is it?

However, despite their obvious failings, zombies are still deceptively popular. Type in ‘Zombies’ in Google and you will get 29 million hits. Vampires only get 24 million. Somehow zombies have embedded themselves into popular culture so much that they get referenced far more frequently. For some reason, this vacuous monster appears to resonate more with your average internet user than a blood-lusting vampire. Go figure.

The zombie legend is founded in the belief that sorcerers and voodoo cults created mind-slaves and grew in popularity in 1920s pulp literature, notably through the HP Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction. The first zombie movie didn’t hit cinemas until Victor Halperin’s White Zombie in 1932. This story revolved around an evil magician putting a helpless young woman under his spell to do his bidding. It was with 1936’s Things to Come that the idea of a zombie infection was introduced and in the 50s and 60s the zombie plague became a popularised and central part of the zombie zeitgeist, hitting cult status with George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. However, zombie films haven’t really moved all that far past the archetypal zombie tropes. Inevitably, after seeing hundreds of pathetic survivors meeting their maker, the format has become somewhat tired and repetitive.

The quest for regaining audiences’ attention on zombies has prompted some interesting solutions. A bigger focus on sci-fi has led to the Resident Evil videogames and movies. A leap into comedy has created some fantastic films, most notably Zombieland and the hilarious zom-rom-com, Shaun of the Dead. The recent Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later series have thrown out the old assumption of the slow-moving zombie rejuvenating their rotting flesh with super-human animation.

Literature has also been concerned with reforming the tired zombie narrative. Max Brook’s 2006 novel World War Z is, in my humble opinion, the best conceived zombie novel available in bookshops. The book tells the story of a zombie apocalypse through the accounts of dozens of different characters in a pseudo-documentary style. It is because Brook focuses on the impact of the zombie outbreak on the human psyche that the book is both intelligent and haunting.

TV has been the most zombie-deprived of all creative media. Although its output is often more concerned with human psychological development, and more able to establish the survivors’ psyche over a serial format, there is a prevailing belief that a zombie series is only viable when it has a short run. Any longer and the story starts to wear thin. Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set mini-series, from 2008, is a prime example of a story that sticks to a short format (5 episodes) to avoid risking compromising the quality of the drama.

The fear of stagnancy is clearly not a worry to the producers of AMC’s new hit drama, The Walking Dead. Based on a comic book, The Walking Dead is littered with recognizable zombie stereotypes and the apocalyptic situation is hardly novel, but what is interesting about The Walking Dead is that it takes place after the crazy ‘all guns blazing’ stuff that we would normally see in the movies. This is a story about survival, about people trying to find their loved ones and a place of safety. It’s more concerned with detailing the human condition than it is with composing a story about how the zombies took over the world. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering that it is under the creative helm of Frank Darabont, director of two of the finest movies about the human condition: Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. In the first episode you only see ten minutes of zombies in its 90-minute running time yet the characters are so strong and so well acted that you feel totally drawn into the story. The series demands an emotional investment in the characters and not in the intricacies of the storyline. Its emotional weight is clearly paying off: a second series has been commissioned off the back of the first couple of episodes and audiences are rapt to find out what happens to the rag tag group of misfits caught in a post-civilised world. Showing on FX in the UK, this quality zombie drama is taking over the world one bite at the time. It’s infectious, rollicking good fun and breathes life into the languishing beast of the zombie legend proving, once and for all, that zombies rule.


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