Et tu, zombie?

August 21, 2010

In light of the recent zombie-related story posted a week back, I thought it might be a good time to look at the concept of the zombie in popular culture. Given the zombie-like devotion to vampires right now, I figure another classic monster category is due for an upswing.

Like so many other classic “monsters,” the “zombie” category in books, movies, etc., has been slowly expanding its definition, perhaps more than any other and especially in the last ten years. What used to be the exclusive territory of the mindless, flesh-eating walking dead has broadened to include a variety of afflictions.

For example, the recent remake of The Crazies generally falls into the zombie category, but the threatening hordes are alive and they don’t eat human flesh. In fact, it seems the “zombification” agent served merely to amplify people’s innermost violent emotions so that the afflicted would pursue revenge fantasies they harbored in life (where it is revealed that high-school principals dream of stabbing their students with a pitchfork).

[Fair Warning: this post contains some adult language and spoilers for several movies, including The Crazies, Shutter Island, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If this warning scares you, read no further.]

I don’t have a problem with this expansion of the category – but I do think we need to start finding new endings for zombie/apocalypse/pandemic stories. Today’s Hollywood writers have only a handful of ending options in their bandoliers, and an astute viewer can see them coming before the movie is half over.

One, end of the world (implied or real) as the threat continues to spread after a failed attempt to contain it. The containment is invariably draconian, usually with a nuclear explosion. The Crazies (and the sad AVP:R) falls into this category. I think The Return of the Living Dead pioneered this type of ending, at least in modern horror cinema, but even for that classic, I don’t consider it a very satisfying final.

Two, some ultimate “fuck you” from an indifferent universe – e.g., the last survivor from a night of zombie raids and carnage gets shot through a window by a bunch of rednecks. (If you don’t know the origin of that ending, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.) The Dawn of the Dead remake used this motif as the survivors reached the “safe island.”

Three, the protagonist(s) emerges on the other side of the immediate conflict to face either a hopeful or hopeless solution. This is really a variation on the first option, done with subtlety in The Birds and the original Dawn of the Dead, but lately it has become much more about cocked guns and swinging dicks with Ghosts of Mars, Doomsday, and (dare I say) Maximum Overdrive.

Fourth, everything gets better. Reserved only for “serious” fare such as Outbreak. “We found the monkey!”

Each one of these endings, in its own way, is overused and predictable. Not that I claim any special abilities, secret knowledge, or superiority in the area of crafting finales. Endings are tough. And the wrong ending can seriously tarnish an otherwise exemplary work (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica), so there’s lots of pressure to get it right.

For example, I liked Shutter Island (the movie) all the way to the end. It was compelling up to the point that we are told all events have been a ridiculous and overly complicated stage play done for the benefit of our wacky protagonist. It threw cold water on the whole drama, where we found we were invested in nothing. (If you want to see this type of ending done right, see Inception. It’s odd to think of Christopher Nolan outdoing Scorcese, but there it is.)

Compare the vague dissatisfaction of Shutter Island to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This one is easily the weakest movie in the series, thanks to a screeching Willie and its pervasive (and borderline racist) notions of paternal colonialism, but aside from Raiders, it has the best ending by a mile. For a movie in the tradition of the serial cliffhangers, does it get any better than the hero stranded on an old footbridge, suspended above a pit of crocodiles, with goons closing in on both sides? That ending is the only reason left to watch this movie more than five times, mainly because the awesome ending makes you forget how lame the rest of the movie is.

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