September 10, 2012

Corey Redekop: On the Subject of Zombies

I’m not sure where the fully-formed idea for Husk came from. I have always loved zombies and knew that I wanted to somehow incorporate my favourite monster into a story. Ever since I caught the original  Night of the Living Dead on late-night television (eyes clenched shut, bowels constricted in terror), I don’t think there’s been a monster that has affected me on such a primal level.( I don’t include the shark from Jaws here, as that beast is more or less real, and in a league all its own.)
(Not, however, the sharks of the sequels, though; as the series ambled on, they lost any semblance of reality and became pretty much just painted logs with fins menacing less and less talented actors. Oh, Sir Michael Caine, I dearly hope you enjoy that house Jaws: The Revenge helped paid for; it’s not every day an actor of your undeniable stature is upstaged by asoggy  papier-mâché fish and the little-remembered teen hero of The Last Starfighter.)
Back to zombies: this was a monster I had never encountered before. Humans beyond death, but as far from vampires as you could get. Creatures devoid of motive, unable to be reasoned with. Just appetite. As the grainy black and white members of the undead lumbered incessantly forward, overwhelming the humans through sheer numbers, I found myself unprepared for my visceral reaction. Part of this was from setting; alone, after midnight, watching a scratchy copy on a flickering television in the dark. There is something lost, I believe, in the rush to ‘clean’ up films for DVDs and BluRays. I appreciate a clean image, but movies such as these cry out for dirt and smudged cells and poor transfers. Something this terrifying should never be clean.
From that point on, I was hooked. I forced myself to peek through my fingers at the remarkable terror that is Dawn of the Dead, and sat through the disappointing social commentary of  Day of the Dead. I forced myself to watch the unnerving and nauseating works of  Lucio Fulci. I goggled in disbelief as the undead actually sprinted in the"Dawn remake, and threw up my arms as they bounced on trampolines in Steve Miner’s misbegotten rethinking of Day. I discovered the immense low-fi pleasures of  The Evil Dead (and Bruce Campbell, of course). I laughed myself silly as a girl I knew in high school did her best to survive being trapped in  Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, one of my top contenders for funniest unintentional comedy ever made, even funnier than Shaun of the Dead or  Fido (as well as being a remarkably awful film). I even paid good money to witness the witless Joe Piscopo battle zombie criminals in Dead Heat.
There’s something pure and unspoiled in the classic Hollywood zombie. They’re horrifying and yet they subtly gain our sympathy because, on some level, they are still us. You battle a zombie, you battle yourself; just look at NOTLD, the humans battling each other with as much ferocity as the zombies outside. They’re the perfect villain on both a physical gut-wrenching horror level and a sub-textual level. Zombies are such empty vessels that they can be made avatars for literally anything. They can represent consumerism, or mob mentality, or political ideology, or sexual repression. A good zombie film will scare and disgust you; a great one will make you think afterward. Sadly, there aren’t many great ones about, with even Romero himself visiting the well a few times too often — Land of the Dead has some great moments, but  Diary of and Survival of are pretty poor (Diary especially).
Yet the inherent problem with the zombie from a character standpoint is that they’re ultimately, well, rather boring. There’s no development possible in a brain-dead skin sack that eats anything in its path. They’re great as mass unthinking evil, not so great as riveting character studies. At best, they are shadows of their former selves, locked in routine. There is a marked lack of personality, something that can only be achieved through maintaining some form of inner monologue.
Now, in regards to your less well-known ‘thinking zombie,’ your cinematic pickings are slim at best: there was Bub in Day of the Dead, he has glimmerings of intelligence, and could manipulate a walkman; Big Daddy in Land of the Dead gradually led an undead revolution; and Fido in Fido becomes a beloved family pet. But even in those instances, it’s still all groans and moans and shuffling and appetite. There is some actual discussion on the morality of the undead in Return of the Living Dead, where two men become infected, die, and still walk about conversing and wondering what the hell is happening to them. But even with this new step in undead evolution (SPOILERS), the full zombie effect soon hits one (resulting in drooling attacks of the cannibalistic nature), and the other cremates himself before he can lose all control.
So if you want to make a zombie your protagonist, particularly in book form, you’re by necessity going to have to make a few concessions to classic monster theory and actually bequeath unto your ghoul a marked increase in personality. You’ll need to tweak the myth at points, bend it at others, and break it completely apart when need be. Otherwise, the book will be nothing but groaning and lurching and eating and more groaning and more lurching. Horrifying for ten minutes. Deadly dull for the rest.
No, if you desire a zombie as a main character, with motivations and personal issues and qualms and questions of morality versus the need for living brunch, you’re going to have to: write a book, because you need the expansiveness of paper to fully delve into psychological ramblings, and do some serious rejiggering on the mythology.
Or at least I did, and I’m hardly the first; check out the spectacular anthology The Living Dead for a cornucopia of talented authors pushing the limits of what zombie literature can be. David Wellington threw some curveballs in his Monster trilogy, Robin Becker kept an innate intelligence functioning behind the decaying brain of her hero in Brains: A Zombie Memoir, and although I haven’t gotten to read it yet, I’ve heard very interesting things about S.G. Browne’s Breathers.
For my own take on it, I wanted to make sure that Sheldon Funk (my zombitagonist, if you will) retained the basic elements of the classic undead; he had to eat people. He could feel conflicted, he could debate the morality, but in the end he needed to feast on the sweet sweet tang of human flesh, or rot away to nothing. A little wish-wash namby-pambiness was fine, but I needed Sheldon to be a monster, albeit a monster you can relate to. Darn it, I wanted the guy to be nice. Without that, there would be no reason to follow his adventures.
So I kept far more aspects of humanity intact after Sheldon’s resurrection, and made him out to be my ‘patient zero,’ my Typhoid Mary of the boneyard. He would wield those certain character traits that any objective observer might classify as ‘ghoulish’ (the biting, the rotting, the possibility of infection, the pesky lack of a heartbeat), but he would still retain the capacity for rational thought and intelligent speech (although the second is far harder than you’d think when your lungs don’t function). People can then react to him either as a man or a demon, as he contains aspects of both.
This is what I call ‘tweaking,’ and what others may call ‘distortion’ or ‘outright wrong.’ But I feel that if a certain bestselling author (fine, Stephanie Meyer) can create a cult around vampires who twinkle in the daytime and werewolves with allergies to shirts, I should be allowed a great deal of latitude with how a reanimated corpse might behave. Personally, rather than admit any ancestry to Twilight’s horribly bland shampires, I feel Sheldon is far more a cousin to Steven Sherril’s sad and lonely Greek monster in the wonderful The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, slaving away through eternity as a short-order cook.
If you do have a problem with my taking of zombie liberties, I can only suggest that, rather than complain, you write your own book on the subject.
That’ll show me.

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