Right now, there is someone out there in the world who will one day write a research paper on this era’s total fascination with zombies. The evolution from what was once a drugged slave, to mindless, shambling, internal organ-eating threats to today’s super fast, enraged “infected” is a long road, and, I’m sure if a deep study were made, an interesting one. The question of why, though, is the truly intriguing aspect.
Let’s face it, zombies, even within the modern broad definition, don’t have a lot to offer beyond being a mindless threat. They are relentless, sure, whether shambling or hurling themselves off wall with abandon. They like to bite, but if no one bite-able is around, they seem to get along just fine. They don’t need to eat, they don’t need to sleep, they don’t need companionship. Personal survival is not a factor (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs cries out for a zombie correlate.) Unlike vampires, who need to feed and who retain their intelligence, zombies are just slugs that breed like rabbits (and, one imagines, a less pleasurable act.)
Just what causes the zombie apocalypse always remains necessarily vague. A cause would imply a solution. Romero hinted at the earth passing through the tail if a comet, but this was only surmise. Escaped viruses seem to be the prime suspects today (though genetically modified food has to be on the horizon.)
Even moreso than vampires and werewolves, zombies defy nature. Why does decay seem to arrest itself at a certain point? Otherwise, they would die off after a week or so and all would be well. Why don’t they bite cows and dogs and cats? Because they don’t need to eat, which means they have no energy source (or receive power from the sun?) Arguments can be made for the infected-type zombies, as in World War Z and 28 Days Later have a primal impulse to spread the virus, but what do the Romero-class zombies get out of it?
Finally, there just isn’t much variation you can give the story. The human characters and their interactions in time of crisis are always the forces. But isn’t that the same thing with most vampire stories, excepting some of the latest incarnations where the vampires are squabbling amongst themselves or trying to integrate into society. The difference is that the battle against a vampire requires a bit more thought, just like in a crime thriller. With zombies, the strategies are, uh, limited: stay out of there way, shoot them in the head. As George Romero says in Night of the Living Dead, “beat ‘em or burn ‘em.”
It’s not a great strategy, given the number of sequels and originals that have followed. Zombies always spread faster than humans can put them down, and all too often, human attempts to squelch the outbreak only manages to spread it faster (Return of the Living Dead being the best example that comes to mind.)
I tried reading the boo, World War Z, and got bored very quickly. It is a great gimmick to present diary entries and interviews with people who lived through the war, but the writing is mediocre t best. Beyond the idea, there was nothing of interest for me within those pages.
The movie World War Z jettisons the book structure and focuses solely on Brad Pitt and family. It is far and away the most epic zombie movie ever made, though all the tropes are here. No one knows what caused the outbreak, it gets out of control very quickly, people have to kill their infected loved ones, there is no escape from the horde.
These are zombies of the infected, super-fast variety. The most powerful scene in the picture (alas, given away in the trailer) is the mountain of bodies that the zombies pile up in order to scale a gigantic wall surrounding a refuge in Israel. The total abandon with which the zombies throw themselves into the pile, and then over the wall is astonishing. The horde that chases Brad Pitt through the streets moves like a wave of water -bodies just couldn’t move that fast that close together. They are a mass. It’s a powerful effect.
The human arc is also pretty standard, though the cast levels it up a couple of notches. And the discovery that Pitt makes that allows humans to turn the tide against the horde is clever enough. From an action standpoint, WWZ delivers a satisfying movie. The tide is turning at the end. (Let’s not forget, though, that things seemed under control at the end of Night of the Living Dead, too.)
From the character standpoint, though, it failed to move me. The Walking Dead has set that bar pretty high, and WWZ doesn’t quite make it. Pitt is separated from his wife during the biggest part of the movie so their concern for one another is conveyed by how many times their cell phone calls go unanswered. Everyone survives for the possible sequel.
World War Z is a very well done version of the same story you’ve seen a thousand times already. The scope of the zombie attacks promised a bit more than they delivered. But I’m still waiting for someone to give me a new twist. That I can sink my teeth into.