I’m actually on vacation this week but I also turned 40 a couple of days ago. Two birthday presents stood out, when my brother and sister-in-law presented me with copies of the Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, both by Max Brooks (aka, Max, son of Mel.) Both are excellently written and they’re both quick reads (I finished WWZ in a couple of days, but as I said, I’m on vacation). Most importantly, they’re fun to read.
Zombies are in right now. And they’ll probably continue to be in for a while because zombies are genuinely creepy monsters. Granted, doomsday fiction is always fun because for most of us it’s actually a relief to imagine a place that’s recognizably here but without the crush of 6.7 billion neighbors and the attendant crime, pollution, and stress that living with them produces. Zombies are particularly democratic beasties for that matter because if you’re breathing, you’re a target. They don’t discriminate except on the basis of "living" or "dead." You’re either with them or against them. (Hmm, that sounds familiar . . .)
I’m not going to say much on the history of the zombie as a movie monster, that’s been done. Actually, if you want a zombie primer, you can go here. You can even go here but something tells me they’re not talking about flesh-eating ghouls per se. I found this site last night while finishing up WWZ and I admit I wasn’t sure I cared for what they had to say in their review section–they didn’t approve of 28 Days Later which I really liked–but their FAQ changed my mind. (You’ll see why about half way down the web page.)
If you’re not a zombie fan yourself, you might be a little disturbed by the nature of some of the arguing that goes on among different fan groups. The director of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, for example, couldn’t seem to keep a certain amount of defensiveness out of his DVD commentary track. "We all know that in real life, zombies don’t run that fast," he says near the beginning, "but it made for a creepier monster and, we thought, a better movie." You hear that sentiment a few times throughout the film. It sounds strange but it’s not unusual. One of the pet peeves that Zombiedefense.org guys had against the Zombie Survival Guide is the enormous amount of "misinformation" the book contains, including equipment lists with far too much stuff and the supposedly incorrect nature of zombies: a virus that Brooks identifies as "Solanum." They conclude that Brooks wants his readers to be loaded down so the zombies will eat them, thus improving his chances for survival. Well, okay.
One thing that I admit always confused me is how it is that every world that seems to have a zombie outbreak (whatever the cause) also seems to be populated exclusively by people who have never seen a zombie movie. I’ve seen one exception to that, a recent SciFi channel original movie called "dead and Deader." It was filled with with jokes that would only make sense to hardened zombie geeks–and Star Wars geeks–and Superman geeks (the lead actor played Superman on Lois and Clark). There’s even a scene that does nothing but pays homage to George Romero (aka, Father of Zombies Films.) At any rate, it’s clear that zombie geeks wrote and directed that movie. Nowhere is this weird effect worse than in the Walking Dead series of graphic novels, which is strange because reading the foreword of the books makes it clear that these are also the works of zombie geeks. At any rate, in the Walking Dead books the characters mean well (or not) but they don’t seem to get it inasmuch as when the dead rise, pretty much all bets as to what constitutes normalcy are off and all rules of polite society go out the window. The basic rule is this–if your spouse or kids get bitten, they’re going to eventually start gnawing on you and not in the cute endearing way that living spouses and children do. Zombie bites hurt like hell and are 100% fatal. If you get bitten, you’ll start doing the same to those around you. The only solution is literally dying before the infection kills you. Which is why zombies make such good monsters–nobody really wants to take a club or shotgun and blow the head off of their family members–at least, nobody you’d want as a family member in the first place. The mental gymnastics that the characters need to go through to adapt to the abrupt change in world view, including an equally abrupt change in the world is what makes these works of fiction fun, or sometimes just frustrating. (Sometimes they’re both.)
Anyway, regardless of how seriously you take your preparations for the upcoming zombie holocaust, Max Brooks knows his zombie subject matter and can tell a good story that’s more than slightly disturbing.