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Zombie stories - John C. Kirk

Apr. 6th, 2013

10:28 pm - Zombie stories

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Continuing the blog's zombie theme, I recently watched Warm Bodies at the cinema and In the Flesh on TV. I think they both deserve credit for doing something a bit different with the zombie idea.

Warm Bodies wasn't quite what I'd expected from the trailer. In fact, I stopped watching the trailer part-way through, because I was worried that it would reveal too much. I watched the whole trailer after I saw the film, and I'm glad that I stopped when I did. The first 35 seconds are safe to watch, because that's almost exactly the same as the start of the film. Up to 1m30s is fairly safe. Don't go past 1m55s unless you really want spoilers.

The only bit that actually made me laugh during the film was in the trailer ("Be dead. Too much."), and I've seen something similar before in Shaun of the Dead. There were other bits in the film that made me smile, but it's more of a quiet film than a big comedy. That's ok, but just know what you're getting.

In the Flesh had 3 episodes (1 hour long each). However, I wonder whether it was originally intended to have 6 episodes (like Being Human); if so, that would explain why there's a bit of "mood whiplash" going on. There's one particular situation which is built up as a serious threat, but then when it actually happens it's off-screen and there don't seem to be any real consequences. There's also a sub-plot which doesn't go anywhere, so I'm guessing that they'll expand on that if there's a second series.

Minor spoilers follow for Warm Bodies and huge spoilers follow for In the Flesh. So, if you're planning to watch them, best to do that first and then come back to this later. I'm not sure whether Warm Bodies is still showing in any cinemas, but it will be out on Blu-ray and DVD on 4th June. In the Flesh is available on iPlayer until tomorrow (Sun 7th April). I think it's worth watching despite its flaws, but Narrative Devices advises against it.

The basic plot of Warm Bodies is the romance between a zombie (called "R") and a human (called Julie). I belatedly realised that they were making a parallel with Romeo and Juliet:


(I'm slightly embarrassed that it took me almost an hour to spot this!)

I was wary about having a "pretty zombie", since that seemed to be going into Twilight territory. Similarly, they seemed to be compromising what a zombie is by making him conflicted (and thinking at all). That said, Pratchett has had Mr Slant as a zombie in the Discworld novels for decades (head of the lawyers' guild) and the Marvel Zombies kept their personalities, so it's reasonable for new stories to have their own versions of zombies.

This film is based on a novel by Isaac Marion. I haven't read it, but looking at his blog he's just published a prequel (The New Hunger). At the moment, this is only available as an ebook, sold via Zola books. That's fine, because I now prefer to buy most novels in that format. Unfortunately, the Zola website doesn't (or didn't) work properly, e.g. their forms displayed properly in Firefox 10 but not in IE 9; in fairness it's still in beta, but I'd expect them to do some kind of testing on commonly used browsers. The bigger problem is that they don't have the licence to sell books in the UK. I've now discovered that it's available through Kobo so I'll buy it from there, but the author really isn't helping himself here.

Moving on to In the Flesh, this is set after "The Rising": the humans successfully fought off the "rotters" (zombies), and life has basically returned to normal, rather than everyone wandering around a post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, scientists have also worked out how to cure zombies, so some of them are now moving back into their old communities.

The series basically starts with a former zombie (Kieren Walker) going home. Aside from a few flashbacks to one specific person he attacked, we don't really see anything of The Rising, so we just have to piece together what happened from expository dialogue. I think the writer did a good job here by giving the characters a reason to say these things; it's always tricky to have people telling each other things that they both already know. In particular, the idea seems to be that when the dead rose from the grave, the government told everyone to sit tight and wait for the army to sort it out. However, they wound up having to focus on the cities, so the rural areas were left to fend for themselves, and this particular village (Roarton) founded the HVF (Human Volunteer Force) to fend off the zombies and protect themselves; that inspired other villages to do the same thing.

This village (particularly the HVF) didn't want former zombies coming back to live there. The first episode showed a politician who'd turned up to talk to them, and he came across as extremely ineffectual. The interesting point here is that he's presumably supposed to be right, i.e. we (as viewers) are supposed to support this move rather than agreeing with the militia. In Peter David's book "Writing for Comics" he says: "Your heroes should always find themselves in opposition to something. [..] And those opposing beliefs should be well thought out. It may give you personal satisfaction to present the opposition as boneheads, but what triumph is there for your hero if he overcomes a bunch of lamebrains? How much respect will your reader have for him if the challenges he faced were wafer thin?" So, in this case I assume that it's a deliberate choice to "even the odds" and give us some empathy for the HVF's point of view.

Speaking of empathy, there are a few parallels between the way people with "Partially Deceased Syndrome" are treated and some real world situations. For instance, having "PDS" painted on the side of their house is similar to Jews having to wear a yellow star on their clothing in Nazi Germany. Having segregated areas in a pub is similar to having separate drinking fountains in America for "Whites" and "Colored". And when the PDS folk have to pass as human to avoid being hassled (specifically by wearing make-up and contact lenses), that's similar to gay people hiding their sexuality.

That's fair enough, but it gets a bit tricky when two people with PDS are also gay. Does that break the metaphor? House to Astonish discussed that a while ago in the context of the X-Men, and Spiegelman raised similar concerns in Maus: he had anthropomorphised cats and mice to represent Nazis and Jews, but also had literal mice and cats running around. Personally, I think it's ok, in the same way that you could have ex-zombies from different ethnic groups without confusing the issue.

In episode 1, a key plot point was that Kieren had to stay hidden inside his house. In theory, he should be safe to walk around in public, but in practice some people might ignore that law and attack him. Towards the end of the episode, the HVF got a tip-off that there was a PDS sufferer in his street, although this actually turned out to be one of his neighbours. I saw that coming, but one aspect of it did surprise me: when Kieren's parents took him inside, the curtains were twitching in the house opposite, and one of the neighbours saw him. It turned out that she also had PDS, so that's why she was indoors. The HVF dragged her out into the street, forced her to take out her contact lenses, then the leader (Bill) shot her in the head. Throughout all this, her husband was begging them to let her go, but they ignored him.

I think that was quite a powerful scene, but it doesn't really fit in with what came later in the series. Firstly, why didn't Ken (the husband/widower) report Bill to the police? He had nothing to lose at that point, and when the Military Police turned up on Bill's doorstep for a different reason he virtually admitted it to them. (Paraphrasing from memory: "So, you've come to put the shackles on me, have you? I did what needed to be done!") Even if Ken was willing to let it drop, I'd hope that the authorities are keeping some kind of tabs on all the PDS sufferers, if only to make sure that they're taking their medication regularly rather than turning feral again.

Secondly, episode 2 showed Kieren sneaking out of his house so that he could roam around in public. Some people recognised him (from his funeral) and deduced that he had PDS. This information got back to the HVF, so when Jem (Kieren's sister) turned up to go on duty with them a couple of the other members told her that Bill had kicked her out. Now, it certainly makes sense that he would do that, rather than sympathising with her conflicting loyalties. However, I would have actually liked to see his reaction rather than hearing about it second hand. ("Show, don't tell" and all that.) Ideally, that would have made a good conversation between Bill and Jem, but failing that I'd have settled for a conversation between Bill and whoever told him the news. Also, once he did know about it, he seemed to be remarkably laid back about it, i.e. he didn't immediately run around and try to kill Kieren; in fact, he was even willing to let Kieren ride in his car. Later on (in episode 3) he did want to kill Kieren, so that comes back to the "mood whiplash" that I mentioned.

Another PDS character who pops up is Amy. She's a bit more of an activist than Kieren, and she decides to stop using her make-up and contact lenses. When one of the HVF guys sees her like that, he attacks her inside her house and smears lipstick all around her jaw. The attack itself was (deliberately) unpleasant to watch, but it didn't really make sense. That guy seemed like the most reasonable member of the militia, so it's odd that he would be the one to attack her. If he was going to attack her then what was his motivation? Before Bill shot Ken's wife, he told her to take out her contact lenses, the idea being that he wanted her to look like a monster rather than pretending to be human. I think the opposite point of view would be similar to people who ask for trigger warnings on certain content, i.e. "You're bringing up bad memories for people when you walk around like that, so you need to cover yourself up and look respectable." (Typing that now, it also suggests an aspect of "It's your own fault for dressing like that.") I don't necessarily agree with either of those views, but they are at least logically consistent. However, when he smeared the lipstick around, I assume that this was supposed to resemble blood. So, he's effectively saying "I don't want you looking like a zombie, you should look like a normal person. Here, let me make it even more obvious that you're a zombie." That just seems odd.

After that attack, Amy left the village. One of the PDS sufferers ("The Undead Prophet") had his own website; Kieren and Amy had both looked at it, as had another PDS person who stopped taking his medication. However, we never heard any more about it, so we'll have to wait for the (hypothetical) series 2 to get a resolution on that subplot.

Having picked at a few flaws, I now need to mention the best part of the series. In episode 3 there was a support group for the relatives of PDS sufferers. The idea here was that they could be completely honest with each other, because everything they discussed would be confidential. In that context, Kieren's mother said that she sometimes felt angry with him; someone else said that she initially felt afraid of her son. This fits in with some things I've heard from carers in the real world: they sometimes resent their relatives, then feel guilty about that resentment. That scene was extremely well done, and I think it justifies the rest of the series.

One thing that both stories have in common is that they're explicitly set in a world where people are familiar with zombies in fiction (e.g. George Romero's films). This issue came up at Narrative Devices a while ago, because The Walking Dead treated zombies as a completely new idea. I can see why it's useful to make the fictional world more similar to our own, so that it's easier to identify with the characters. Also, if this is a "day 1" story where the characters are encountering zombies for the first time, it will speed things up if the characters immediately recognise what they're dealing with. However, these stories are set in a world where zombies have been around for a long time (months, if not years) so the characters don't need to explain what's going on.

Also, I'm quite happy to accept the premise that there really were vampires and werewolves roaming around a few hundred years ago, and that they formed the basis of various fictional stories. However, zombie stories (in their current format) are all fairly recent, and the whole point of these stories is that the characters are dealing with a horde rather than a solitary foe (e.g. Dracula). So it wouldn't really make sense for there to be a real zombie outbreak that had inspired the fiction without anyone knowing about it. This then raises the question: "Gosh, isn't it an amazing coincidence that we're now facing real monsters which closely resemble fictional characters?"

Looking at In the Flesh in particular, they always refer to "rotters" and I don't think they ever use the Z-word, so they didn't benefit from familiar terminology. The only real benefit they got from referring to films was to establish the ground rules, i.e. that these zombies don't infect people by biting them. It sounds as if there was some specific event which only affected people who'd already died (and presumably ignored the ones who'd already decomposed too far). One of the militia guys got bitten at the end of episode 2, and then he spent most of episode 3 in a quarantine cage. (I think the writer made this point deliberately vague: either the other militia guys didn't believe Kieren when he said that bites were harmless or they were just using it as an excuse to get revenge for a personal grudge.) However, this again creates more problems. Why did they have that cage in the first place? During The Rising, I assume that they were killing zombies on sight rather than herding them into a cage. Alternately, if they used that cage to quarantine other people who'd been bitten then they should know by now that it's unnecessary. I think that the real (meta) reason was to put that character in a situation where he'd be able to identify with the ex-zombies: that's a good idea, but it didn't really work.

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