I kind of missed an opportunity here in that it’s only been a couple of weeks since the last Guest Geek post. Given today’s topic, if I’d waited a few months, I could have said that this feature is rising from the dead, which would fit in perfectly with guest Cain S. Latrani’s topic.
But that would’ve meant making you all wait far too long to read this awesome post. So why make you wait any longer? Read on, but hold onto your brains…
Fantastic Zombies And Where To Find Them
In 1968, director George A. Romero introduced the world to a new kind of monster with Night Of The Living Dead, and the world has never been able to get enough of zombies since. They stand apart from other classic movie monsters in a lot of unique ways. Vampires, such as Dracula, can be reasoned with, to a point, and are often still motivated by relatable desires. Werewolves are only really a threat a few nights a month. Mummies tend to not be a problem, provided you don’t wake them up from their nap.
Zombies are different. They can’t be reasoned with. They never sleep. They never tire. They only want one thing. To devour. Unlike every other creature that lives in pop culture, they alone are like a force of nature, a natural disaster. There’s a reason we only ever see them, for the most part, in connection with the term apocalypse. Once they enter the scene, it’s pretty much the end. What’s worse, there’s only one way to stop them, and it means getting up close and personal more often than not. After all, once the apocalypse happens, ammunition tends to be in short supply.
Every since they shambled their way onto the silver screen almost 50 years ago, there have been attempts to recapture and redefine these most monstrous of monsters. From schlocky Z-films such as Zombie Strippers to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the focus has always been on finding a new way to look at what is, more or less, the perfect horror creature. Even Mr. Romero himself has struggled to find inventive ways to offer up what is essentially his own classic.
While television programs such as The Walking Dead has garnered world wide acclaim, for reasons that elude this writer, feature films such as World War Z have shown just how hard it is to put a new spin on a monster that is, for better or worse, too simple to really do much with. This has long been both the zombies strongest asset, and biggest weakness.
Romero’s initial metaphor for the zombie was a pointed criticism of rampant consumerism, a critique that remains as valid today as it was in 1968, but the zombie itself was always too elegant a creature to remain solely a warning. Despite the many attempts made, including by this author, to cast them in a new light, many are claiming the zombie to be tired, overexposed, dated, or just plain boring.
So, the question then arises, how do you do something new with zombie fiction?
The answer, surprisingly enough, is that you really don’t.
One thing The Walking Dead gets right is to take the focus off the zombies themselves, and put it on the survivors of the apocalypse. How effectively the writers of the show manage that is up to individual taste, but they are at least shooting in the right direction. Others have hit on the same idea, with far greater degrees of success.
Japanese anime series Gakkou Gurashi, or School Live in English, takes a similar approach as The Walking Dead by making the story about the survivors. It goes a step further, even, by all but removing the zombies from the story, having them only make brief appearances, and even then, using camera angles, focus, and lighting to keep them mostly out of sight.
What’s a zombie series then, without the zombies? Pretty damn intense. Dealing in themes of isolation, despair, hopelessness, survivors guilt, and mental trauma, School Live has turned out to be the sleeper hit of the anime season, all by keeping the focus firmly on the characters, and the ways they cope with the horror around them.
The four characters of the series, all high school students, deal in their own individual ways, while having to rely on each other, whether they want to or not. Kurumi only allows herself to see the zombies as smoke shrouded things, faceless monstrosities, using a shovel to take them down when she must. When that illusion slips, she freezes. Yuki, however, has completely rejected the entire thing, living in a delusion where the zombies never appeared, her only safety net an imaginary version of the teacher who gave her life to save them directing her away from danger. Much like Kurumi, when her delusion is infringed on, she freezes up.
Exploring the themes of fear and the way the characters deal with it is central to the story, with the zombies being used as little more than an external threat to give context. In doing this, rather than redefining a classic monster, the show has changed how we view the survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Instead of using the grizzled, dirty, grim Hero Figure, they have made it real, relatable, and believable. They have done something new.
Inspired by a manga of the same name, written by Norimitsu Kaihō and illustrated by Sadoru Chiba, School Live represents a fundamental shift in how we look at zombie fiction. Not through the eyes of gun toting super badass characters, but through our own. How each of us would react to, or in some cases, be incapable of dealing with the new reality.
I’m not gonna lie to you guys. I’d be more like School Live‘s Miki, hiding in the storage room of a mall for as long as I could, than I would be Rick Grimes, who shouts his way through the apocalypse. Even if it does draw zombies.
I’ll also freely admit that my own zombie fiction, already slated for publication by the by, tends to focus more on the gun toting heroic figure. I can recognize the problems, but not always the solutions. Even if I spend as much of the story dealing with the psychological ramifications as I do the action scenes, there’s no denying that the fighting part of zombie fiction is still a draw for many.
Which leaves us to wonder what comes next? If there really is no new way to present the zombie, leaving us with only new ways to deal with the survivors, how long before that, too, has been exhausted? What will be the next approach to presenting the most perfect of all monsters, or must they take a bow from our collective conscious for a time, to slumber, then return, more ravenous than ever?
Cain S. Latrani