Electron Dance
23May/14Off

The Farfield: Zombies

The Farfield is an occasional series where I write about something other than gaming.

in-the-flesh

The trouble with being alive for such a long time is that you tend to feel like you’ve seen it all before. It doesn’t matter what it is, blah blah been there bought the T-shirt. I think I’ve had my fill of vampires, for example. The last vampire thing that managed to grab me is Buffy and that was five years ago on DVD.

But zombies. Ah, zombies. They never worked for me. I watched a few zombie films when I was younger such as Zombie Flesh Eaters and Return of the Living Dead. At some point I also indulged in some of Romero's work; Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead were entertaining enough but never hooked me. I tried out The Walking Dead show but we parted ways after the first series. I never ran around hungry for brains more hot zombie action.

Except, when I think about it, this is lies.    

Right, The Fades that debuted on BBC3. People said this was about zombies but it’s a bit more nuanced than that and I also felt it was closer to vampire myth, especially as “the Fades” were not mindless munchers – they’re sympathetic antagonists in some ways. What I like about The Fades is that it took time to build up it’s mythology. One of the earliest ideas is that the Fades are spirits who are fail to reach the afterlife – not because it’s their fault, but because something is broken with the system.

I didn't believe the series when it was kept telegraphing "the end of the world" because the story seemed so small... and was caught unawares when the story took on much larger dimensions. I’m not much of a fan of “the chosen one” type stories, as the lead character played by Iain De Caestecker (now in Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) was supposed to be special. And the so-called good guys were called “The Angelics”. Yeesh. It’s perhaps more brutal than it needs to be (the death of a key character in the final episode comes to mind) but I was sad that we’d never get a second series to resolve the cliffhanger: “I told him... you don’t fuck with ascension.”

I need to thank Jim Rossignol for getting me into Simon Spurrier’s Crossed: Wish You Were Here, an ongoing webcomic based on Garth Ennis’ Crossed where an infection – spread by touch and bodily fluid – can turn an individual into a feral “Crossed” within minutes. There is no more civilisation, only the Crossed, driven by violent and sexual impulse. Nonetheless, it’s pretty much the post-apocalyptic zombie setup. I’d find this insufferable on TV as it’s quite bitter and cynical – and some characters like Sofia are plot drivers rather than individuals – but the self-serving protagonist keeps things interesting.

If you want to know whether it’s your sort of thing, here's a hint: the very second page features a dolphin being fucked in the blow hole. That’s an instant reader filter as much as it is an attention-grabber. Flashbacks are used liberally but the story develops at a gentle pace. There are always mysteries being revealed and spun anew in a la Lost and I keep expecting it to run out of steam... but the series is now into its fourth volume. What happened in the military compound? What is the meaning of “clay loan ex time and place”? Why are these Crossed so different? If you're intrigued, start at chapter one.

crossed-wywh

Wait, I also forgot all about those zombie movie comedies I enjoyed: Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead... but I think I like them because they are funny and not because they are about zombies. Charlie Brooker’s mini-series Dead Set (Channel 4), which crosses zombie apocalypse with Big Brother set, was okay. It kept my attention although, in the end, it was just another “bunch of people trapped in compound trying to survive and not kill each other” scenario. Notable for having Davina McCall play herself as a zombie. But Brooker often dances too close to the country of obviousness for me - take a look at the Pop Idol episode of Black Mirror for a classic example of that.

Right now, I’m gripped by the second season of In the Flesh (BBC). This takes the opposite tack: civilisation wins and figures out how to turn zombies back into ordinary people. Now the world is awash with people suffering from “Partially Deceased Syndrome”, returning to friends and families that had previously buried them. The stage is set for a drama about prejudice, because people still regard the “rotters” as potential monsters. The original three-episode run netted writer Dominic Mitchell a BAFTA award.

It's big on world-building, and Mitchell boldly laid some of the seeds of the second series within the first, such as talk of the “Undead Prophet” which was mentioned but hardly explored. I’m not sure I particularly like the turn of events which makes the setting of Roarton “important” in the second series, but it’s compulsive watching regardless.

So there you are. It’s obvious. I hate zombie stuff.

Game Postscript: I wonder if games would work for me as I’ve never played anything zombie-themed, although you might argue that both Half-Life (Valve, 1998) and Dead Space (EA Redwood, 2008) offer up zombies after a fashion and I enjoyed both. But, yup, I’ve never booted up The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013), The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2008-present), Left 4 Dead (Valve, 2008) or any other number of zombified jaunts. But you may recall I did enjoy the twine Zombies and Elephants (Verena Kyratzes, 2014).

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  1. I personally love them, though I think they can be deceptive. They help build interestingly looking setups that can disappoint if you don’t have anything to fill them with. Les Revenants was a big let-down for me, for example (you didn’t mention Les Revenants, shame on you).

  2. David, I watched and hated Les Revenants. The characters spent so much time avoiding obvious questions to eke the plot out that I started shouting at the screen. Parts of it were good but, overall, drove me completely mad.

  3. Oh man, you totally have to play–

    Only kidding.

    Don’t forget The Returned, although that’s still in Lost Lindelofian ‘will it or won’t it disappear up its own arse’ limbo. And are they really zombies? What about 28 Days Later? I’ve been proper binging out on The Walking Dead TV series recently and been thoroughly enjoying it. Would love to give the games a whirl though. Still.

    I was thinking recently about the best zombie games and aside from L4D, I don’t think I’ve played that many. I liked Sarah Northway’s Rebuild on Android. I liked the melee in Dead Island but the characters were pretty terrible and the special abilities were ridiculous. The zombies themselves were unnerving though; slow and quiet, like the best zombies. Don’t forget Thief’s zombies either! I’ve got State of Decay installed and hoping I can start that soon. Dead State looks interesting. The Last of Us was much better than I expected and I liked the real-world grounding behind the infection. Never played Dead Rising. DayZ (the mod) was fun when I managed to get in game and avoid the bugs. (What is this, an alien game? Bugs. Bugs everywhere.)

    Simon Pegg wrote a great article on the zombie mythos around the time Dead Set was aired, partly critiquing it. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/nov/04/television-simon-pegg-dead-set

    I had a feeling that Crossed was the thing with the blow-hole. I never looked into it, but I never forgot it!

  4. Oops, didn’t refresh page before my post. Ninja’ed.

  5. I’ve got really tired of zombies. (I guess that’s not unusual, though.)

    But yes, you’re right – when done right they can be great. I mean, something which was dead is alive-but-not-alive. That’s a really powerful, primal story right there. It looks like The Fades really went with that and ran with it. But they’ve been dropped into so many bits of pop culture, especially games because they’re the perfect AI enemy.

    I find it quite interesting how these pop culture supernatural enemies – vampires, zombies, maybe werewolves though that’s not my area – constantly straddle the sublime and the pulpy. Dracula and Frankenstein are some of the most important novels of the 19th century – they’ve got culture’s stamp of authority on them and are required reading for a lot of uni courses or A-levels. So you’d think that this cheap, “oh I don’t know what to write, wait I know zombies” thing is recent.

    Except the very first vampire story, “The Vampyre”, is a terrible, schlocky mess that’s actually worse than any other vampire film, comic or story I’ve EVER READ. It’s hilarious. Another vampire story, Carmilla, I haven’t read in full but seems to be a thin excuse for some gore plus girl-on-girl action (although the action is somewhat muted by today’s standards – just heaving bosoms and light kisses – because it was published in 1872 goodness gracious). And one of my favourite zombie stories is “Herbert West, Reanimator”, by Lovecraft – one of the most terrifying fictional concepts (a scientist bringing the dead to life, often his friends) written by one of the giants of 20th century horror, and yet, and yet – it’s so, so pulpy. It goes over the top, there’s so much melodrama, it’s beyond silly. What’s especially fun is that I have no idea if Lovecraft took it seriously or not – it could have been written as a rather earnest, ultra-serious piece that just goes too far, or it could be a send-up.

    Hm. I guess for me, zombies and vampires have to be either deeply compelling, or self-consciously terrible, and anything in between is just uninteresting.

  6. ‘Zombie’ films and TV I have liked in recent years: The Crazies, In the Flesh, They Came Back, Pontypool (which I think is the film that The Returned is based on, or something? I don’t know, I liked They Came Back when I saw it in… ’08?). Agree about Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

    I rate The Crazies highly because of its intense unpredictability as the situation escalates; on first watch there is a genuine sense that anyone could be afflicted. In zombie drama this is ordinarily wholly obvious. I rate Pontypool for some similar reasons, but greatly because I think its ideas, which remind me a little of David Langford’s “basilisks”, are both original and terrifying.

    I think In the Flesh is absolutely fantastic with its characters… well, more so in the first series, less so now that individuals like the local MP (hiding in a closet in the local church, lol) have showed up. But there’s still more ambiguity and depth and convincing human conflict in there than most drama manages.

    What frustrates me to hell about In The Flesh is firstly its contrivance, and secondly the moments where its general attitude toward convincing and deep characters tips over the edge into absurdity. E.g. the opening scene of the second series: obvious parallel with terrorism is obvious, does not function terribly well either within the established fiction or as snapshot of convincing characters. E.g. where wotsername, the young teen girl (I am *awful* with TV names), runs off into the woods in just such a direction at just such a time to commit just such an act that the episode can end on a moment that is tragic and ironic.

    It is a measure of how much respect I often have for In The Flesh that I groan “oh, fuck right off” at the screen so much whilst watching it. It can do better.

    (P.S. obligatory shout-out for The Return of the Living Dead, a fantastic old zombie film with japes and punks.)

  7. I always figured “Herbert West, Re-Animator” was funny on purpose, though maybe that’s just excessive cynicism. But did anything else Lovecraft wrote ever have that episodic structure? I like J.S. LeFanu of “Carmilla”… he tends to write at a slow pace throughout, though (read “Uncle Silas” if you want something real slow, where in fact the atmosphere is much better than the payoff).

    To some extent I was going to say that zombies are like pirates now, all “BRAAIIINNS” and lurching so that you have to seriously reimagine them to lift them out of joke territory, but I guess vampires have been cuddly since Count von Count on Sesame Street at least? Though it still seems to me that you can play vampires straight-up these days. Is there any trope that hasn’t gone all jokey? Werewolves?

  8. @Shaun: Do you mean the modern release of The Crazies or the original? I didn’t like the new one though I can’t exactly remember why.

    All I know of werewolves in games is the scene in Vampire: Bloodlines and of course a recent favourite of mine: Sang-Froid: Tale of Werewolves. Both were pretty damn nerve-racking. Oh, there was a werewolf game on the Spectrum that my brother and I used to play… ah! Werewolves of London!

    http://youtu.be/RTqxRPfB_MU

    I saw a strange zombie film recently called Warm Bodies and that was very different because it followed the story of one of the zombies. Worth a watch if you’re a bit jaded with the zombie ‘vehicle’. I don’t like to call it a genre because it’s more of a vehicle to carry something else, a device: a cheap AI (as James points out above), cannon fodder or scare, or a pressure cooker to throw humanity into. If all you’ve got is zombies then you’re missing something.

  9. Resident Evil 4 was probably the best zombie game. Pity that none of the more recent RE games improved on it.

  10. Did you see Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Men)? That was pretty good, as far as I can remember, and a weird one, with Rupert Everett (in Italian!) playing a caretaker having to kill back his residents (he didn’t want to lose his business, what kind of caretaker are you if the dead can’t rest in peace?) Quite funny, surreal, and with some philosophical musings that were actually well-thought. Probably one of the best zombie movie, but then again I saw it some time ago in my zombie phase, when anything with some head-bashing and canibalism was good by default, so I’m not so sure anymore.

  11. @Gregg: I do want to have a go at State of Decay after Max did his piece on it over on Tap. I had a read of that Simon Pegg piece and it seems like he doesn’t like fast zombies! Well, he’s got a point, I guess. I watched 28 Days Later and it was… okay. It just didn’t grab me, like most zombie movies. I watched Diary of the Dead a couple of months ago and same thing: yeah, it’s okay, but I’m not going say WOOO GO WATCH THIS EVERYBODY. A lot of zombie stuff has just never touch any nerves for me.

    @James: I am amused by your “gore plus girl-on-girl action” – how things, uh, don’t change? But “Herbert West, Reanimator”, now that’s reminded me I just rewatched the film with Jeffrey Combs a week or two ago. I still enjoyed it, even though the “helpless female victim” trope seems so out of time now. Funny I can accept black and white movies with that kind of characterisation but once we get into colour, I can’t bear it. Wikipedia suggests this on Lovecraft’s original:

    Lovecraft claimed to be unhappy with the work, writing it only because he was being paid five dollars for each installment. Moreover, he disliked the requirement that each installment end with a cliffhanger, which was unlike his normal style. He also had to begin each installment with a recap of the previous episode. The book Science Fiction-The Early Years calls “Herbert West–Reanimator” “wretched work”. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi claims that “Herbert West–Reanimator” is “universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work.”

    @Shaun: Christ, it sounds like there are a lot more zombie films than I knew about. I haven’t seen Return of the Living Dead since I saw it… decades ago. It would be great to see it again. It’s the film where the BRAINNNS trope came from, right?

    I know what you mean about In The Flesh. There are plenty of issues with the new series, occasionally forcing its characters into what the plot demands. Like you say, though, there’s still a strong core there. I love the “PDS GIVE BACK” scheme. (You know, if there was such opposition to mixing PDS sufferers into the population, surely no government would’ve been able to pull this off. Permanent incarceration seems more likely given the setup of In the Flesh. I try not to think about this.)

    @matt: Surely someone has done joke werewolves. Wait, Twilight.

    @sylvain: Nope, that’s a new one on me. (scribble scribble scribble)

  12. Oh, there’s An American Werewolf in London/etc. — that’s in the Shaun of the Dead mode, right, jokey but also plenty splattery? I don’t know, the only exposure I have to it is that there’s this bit of the “sequel” with Julie Delpy that I, er, happen to have seen. A few times. But what I was thinking is that right now zombies are a joke by default. The tipping point was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies wasn’t it. And in that Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot trochee storm werewolves never seem to come up, though it might just be that no one cares.

  13. That’s true, Werewolf in London is a black comedy. It’s definitely worth a watch from what I remember. I haven’t seen The Howling but I’m getting that on PVR this week.

    I must admit I’m less excited by werewolves than I used to be. Watched Dog Soldiers and didn’t do much for me. A lot of horror films are like that though, so it may not be the subject matter. Regardless, I have a habit of sitting down in front of horror films as a sort of guilty pleasure, even if they’re absolute rubbish.

    Some additional memories… I am watching Helix at the moment which is sorta zombie series but pretty much shite. Ronald Moore is attached to it as well which is just depressing. But still watching…

    Also I hear [rec] is a pretty good zombie type film but I’ve not seen it.

  14. I wasn’t that fussed on Dog Soldiers either, which I forgot about. Heh.

    [rec]’s not bad — it’s worth seeing for reasons I won’t go into!

    World War Brad was pretty awful but I did like the zombie hordes resembling a kind of mass or liquid, piling up, spilling over and through things.

    Let The Right One In, anyone?

  15. I just asked my wife what her reaction to Let the Right One had been in and she said “heulthghthllll!” Somehow it seems like we wind up going to a lot of super-bloody movies even though that’s not really our taste.

    What the hell do they do when it’s sunny twenty hours a day, though?

  16. Gregg, so I guess you said you loved the zombie cgi on WWZ. I enjoyed Let The Right One In, especially the circular implication of the ending.

    What do they do during the day? That reminds me of 40 Days of Night which in due Matt would not like the splatterfest aspect of, but it is an interesting siege-type scenario with vampires. Plenty of tension, although I’m sure it’s not everyone’s cup of blood tea. I guess I have enjoyed a vampire thang since Buffy so once again I have committed lies to page.

  17. It’s not so much the day thing — it’s that the plot seems to be helped along by the fact that it’s winter in Sweden and the sun isn’t shining much. But half the time in Sweden it isn’t winter!

  18. Dog Soldiers isn’t up to much, but the director’s follow-up – The Descent – is a really excellent horror film. Definitely in my top ten of all time.

    The first [rec] is good, for sure, though I’ve heard mixed opinions – tending towards the negative – about its US remake(s).

  19. I didn’t think the CG was that well done but I liked what it was trying to do. I’ve never seen anything treat zombies like, as I say, a liquid of sorts that flows. I found that really compelling in the same way I did that Trackmania 1K project II video from years back.

    I don’t remember that element about the ending of Let The Right One In…! Derp. Perhaps it’s time to watch it again! 30 Days of Night I enjoyed for a spell, at least for the siege/survival aspect of it, but it left me cold overall. I’m still a sucker for Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula though.

    The Descent was a great film, and one I watched on my own at the pictures!

    You should all watch Trollhunter, not every day a film comes along about trolls, never mind a great one.

  20. Shaun, I’ve seen The Descent. If seemed pretty well made but somehow didn’t quite work for me. Did you like the sequel? I haven’t seen that.

    Gregg, the end of Let The Right One In suggests that (spoilers??) that her previous “caretaker” fell into his role in exactly the same way. The start tells you how this is going to end.

    I have seen Trollhunter and I can also recommend this film!

  21. The sequel is decent, but it doesn’t have the great all-female cast and characters that the first boasts, and exhibits a few of the horror film motifs that its predecessor takes pains to avoid. I was less keen on its conclusion, too.

    On the other hand, I have a soft spot for Neil Marshall. I even liked Doomsday to some degree (the Mad Max references really tickled me if nothing else).

    Trollhunter is indeed excellent.

  22. Wait I just remembered True Blood. I enjoyed the first series but was worried that the rules of the universe were not going to stay constant – I liked the story working within clearly defined constraints in a similar way to In the Flesh. But then we had… Shape shifting, whatever Michelle Forbes was (did I remember the name right?) and it just became some magical drama where anything could happen for plot convenience. (you didn’t drink his blood did you? Etc)

    I walked away after series two and never went back.


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