King of the Set: Zombies

For no particular reason I’ve grouped a bunch of movies I’ve seen fairly recently (all in the last year, most in the last few months) into sets of three. Here’s the first set. Zombies!

I watched 3 zombie films recently:

  • Day of the Dead (2008 remake)
  • Diary of the Dead (George Romero)
  • 30 Days of Night

Diary of the Dead

Diary of the Dead was just okay. The idea of this movie is that it’s Cloverfield with zombies (Cloverfield, if you’ll recall, was Blair Witch Project with Godzilla). As with Cloverfield, this is going to be an extremely difficult conceit to pull off believably. The conceit is updated somewhat cleverly with the idea that the raw footage has been edited and produced in order to be as scary as possible. Also, there are two cameras that sometimes record each other, and there are montage intermissions and monologues by the documentary’s producer. George Romero wants to make the movie about the impossibility of neutral observation and the desire to record events in order to insulate yourself from true horror. The recurring phrase in the movie is “If it’s not caught on camera, it didn’t happen,” and there’s an idea that guns and cameras both “shoot” people. Anyway, George Romero is a very hamfisted director, and so the final result can’t be completely satisfying, especially the very last stupid scene. I liked this movie so much better than Land of the Dead, though, which felt like it was an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (not a good thing in this case).

Day of the Dead (2008)

Day of the dead was a nothing film; I thought it would be an entertaining remake of the original Day of the Dead, since the remake of Dawn of the Dead was pretty good. They even tried to dupe me into thinking that Ving Rhames was somehow playing his character from Dawn of the Dead. He’s not that guy and he dies early on. This was a dumb movie because people would turn into zombies through an extremely fake-looking and over-the-top CG transformation and then they were “fast zombies” (in Diary of the Dead a character complains about the fast zombies unleashed by 28 Days Later, something like “they’re the resurrected dead! They lurch!”1 ). There were a couple somewhat decent scenes, but overall this movie was made just to take my $12.

King of the Set: 30 Days of Night

Waitaminute! 30 Days of Night isn’t a zombie film! Oh, but it is. In fact, it is by far the best zombie film I’ve ever seen. Let me explain. You see, zombie films in my book aren’t necessarily about zombies, if zombies are narrowly defined as “the living undead”. The zombies in 28 Days Later don’t meet this standard, nor do the zombies in I am Legend (in both, the zombies are “the living unwell”). However, both are clearly zombie films. Also, the presence of “the living undead” doesn’t necessarily make for a zombie film (for example, see the truly shitty The Killing Box, about lame supernatural zombies and the American Civil War). Finally, it could be argued that Hotel Rwanda is a zombie film, because zombie films are at heart about the small group defending against a dehumanized and murderous mob.

Thus, the biggest problem with saying that 30 Days of Night is a zombie film is that the danger comes from outside the community, not that the monsters are vampires. I took this as a creative twist on the genre, though. The general form of the zombie film is: the collapse of normal society by “zombie” epidemic; the creation of the ad hoc social unit (usually a multicultural “family”); the defense against the zombies, either successful or unsuccessful, depending on how dysfunctional the social unit is. Other sub-motifs are: competing social units (usually military ones) can be monstrous too, and, the attempt to wall yourself in will ultimately fail, usually because of human weakness or folly.

What I liked about 30 Days of Night was that the typical middle action of the zombie film gets derailed by the ferocity of the initial vampire attack (really quite scary). Instead of manning the barricades and getting whittled down, or assembling impromptu weapons which prove insufficient, the handful of survivors go and hide in an attic for a couple weeks. It’s clear that they don’t stand a chance against the vampires. There’s even a scene where Josh Hartnett burns one of the vampires with a sun lamp, and you think they’ll learn to fight back now, but the vampires just go and shut off the generator. Another thing that subverts the typical zombie film story is that the vampires are very animalistic and it’s unclear how intelligent they are. The vampires look and sound like birds or rats and their cruelty seems to be due to a total lack of connection with humans (the leader does give us some creepy vampire philosophy in what sounds like Russian, e.g, “They [the humans] believe the most ridiculous things”, but mostly the vampires screech and hiss at each other). What’s scary about this is that the vampires’ intelligence doesn’t mean that they are in a moral relationship with the humans, because they appear to belong to a different, perhaps superior, species.

30 Days is also extremely stylish. It’s based on a graphic novel, and on the second viewing I realized that most of the shots are static, like: shot of someone’s face; shot of the room; shot of something in someone’s hand. As with 300, it seems to have benefited from being well-storyboarded. The acting is good, too. This is a great horror movie, but also an interesting, well-made movie in its own right.

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  1. A note about fast zombies: fast zombies seem to be the product of the disappointment over the failure of a peaceful world order to arise after the end of the Cold War. In George Romero’s original movies the slow zombies are representative of ideological squares, consumer drones and other mechanical, mindless types (this is why military types and racist Good Old Boys are considered to be equivalent to the zombies in the movies). The Rage zombies in 28 Days Later represent a more total social disruption that has a fast, explosive quality, like the Rwanda genocide (Jared Diamond suggests it may have been as much a grab for neighbors’ land as about anything else) or massive terrorist attacks (this is more explicit in 28 Weeks Later, where the American military is “just as bad” as the zombies). Fast zombies are about a kind of epidemic of social distrust based on pressurized social conditions (food scarcity, war, immigration) that has a tendency to explode and wipe out the liberal social gains. Or something. [back]
  2. Movies are $1 from the Redbox vending machine at the grocery store [back]