Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Zombie-Civilization Inverse Rule

AMC rolled out the premiere of their new zombie horror/drama series "The Walking Dead" last night. Our cable system broadcasts the East coast feed of AMC in HD, so it was on at 7, rather than 10.

There was way too much going on last night to watch this show live. Trick-or-treaters descend on our neighborhood like hordes of hungry locusts. (You know, if some kid in a locust costume came to the door and said "Gimme candy, I'm a hungry, hungry locust!" I for one would give him extra treats for the effort.) We got 141 trick or treaters that night, and at the same time Game 4 of the World Series was on and San Francisco was pitching a shutout. So the wife and I took turns shoveling out mini-Hersheys or watching the game unfold. After we ran out of candy at 8:30 we shut off the lights, caught our breath, and watched "The Walking Dead."

It was worth waiting for. It was quite terrifying and gross, and it hewed close to the baseline, George Romero Living Dead definition of zombie: slow, uncoordinated, but hungry and dangerous in large numbers. Frank Darabont directed the pilot, and he knows how to structure a sense of menace into his scenes: you find yourself scouring the frame looking for places a zombie might enter. I have to give it the ultimate accolade for a horror movie: later on, I had vivid zombie nightmares.

It drew the biggest audience for any original show on AMC so far. I had read several write-ups on the show, mostly quite positive. The New York Times review made a point of comparing zombies to vampires ("Zombies are from Mars, vampires are from Venus.") The Los Angeles Times had an extensive slideshow showing the type, underlying meaning and appeal of zombies and the variations thereof.

It's all mostly excellent analysis (zombies are the ultimate consumers/proletarians; they're symbolic of SARS/The Vietnam War/The Tea Party, etc.) but the analyses seem to concentrate solely on the creatures themselves.

I've always found the most compelling aspect of any zombie movie to be how their rise (often sudden, sometimes not) affects civilization. I believe this aspect is compelling for a lot of zombie-movie aficionados. There is a very important inverse-proportion rule at work in these movies: the more utterly destroyed civilization is, the more terrifying the living dead are. If chaos reigns, the lights don't come on, and there's no TV or radio, you're truly on your own. Humans (at least movie-going humans) are creatures who thrive in the artificial light of the technologically advanced world. In this regard, the living dead are the darkness, spreading chaos one shambling step at a time. This interpretation of zombie movie universes can be charted thus, in steps of increasingly dire circumstances:

Stage 1: Disruption. Things are just starting to turn bad. The lights are still on, and TV shows scenes of panic or urgent public service messages. The zombies are usually still contained to a small area (Night of the Living Dead) and when things start to unravel things get interesting (both versions of Dawn of the Dead and Romero's later films). Zombie comedies tend to keep their universes in Stage 1: that way, the horror can be thrilling without becoming too grim (Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead). There is usually a reason the lights are still on, but sometimes these reasons are lazily ignored (Zombieland: everyone is dead except for power company employees, apparently) or a lantern is hung on it (in Dawn of the Dead a character plainly surmises the mall is powered by nearby nuclear plants).

Stage 2: Widespread Chaos. The lights are off, and everyone is dead. But there are still pockets of ad hoc civilization and order, and the wagons are circled. Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead and 28 Days Later show the world in this state. These enclaves of humanity generally don't last long, which leads to...

Stage 3: Complete Chaos. we're down to individuals trying to survive: no help of any kind is available. "The Walking Dead" and the first half of 28 Days Later feature protagonists utterly alone and clueless. The main character of the "I Am Legend" movies (The Omega Man, I Am Legend) are not only dealing with zombies, they have to battle isolation and guilt over the fact that the creation of the zombies is their own fault.

One very good recent film shows what Stage 3 would look like without zombies: The Road. Some unknown ecological catastrophe has killed everything, and the few individuals left are reduced to scavenging and cannibalism. It's proves the inverse proportion rule: just showing, quite accurately, the struggle to survive in a hostile, chaotic world is terrifying enough without the help of the shuffling undead.


  1. Don't have cable, but I'm thrilled that Darabont went with slow zombies. If you make 'em fast, they might as well not be the undead at all. It might as well be an infestation of cheetahs.

  2. Cannibalism again-- it's fascinating. It sort of provides the logical extension to my harvesting theory. Hmmm.