My short story Paris When It Sizzles is included in the volume Zombie Apocalypse! Fightback which will be published in the UK by Robinson in October, 2012. Other contributing writers include Neil Gaiman, Christopher Fowler, Sarah Pinborough, Guy Adams and Paul McAuley, so I’m in very illustrious company. Zombie Apocalypse! Fightback is the sequel to Zombie Apocalypse!, both of which were created, coordinated and edited by Stephen Jones.
People keep telling me they’re fed up with zombies, but I’m a slow writer, OK? Anyhow, the first book was excellent, and this sequel looks as though it will be every bit as good, and I bet you’ve never read a zombie story set in Paris before – though if you’re a zombie completist you might have seen the 2009 French zombie movie La Horde, set in the Paris banlieue, which I reviewed in French for the website TOUT CA. (It’s not my mother-tongue, so please pardon my French.) Here’s the opening paragraph:
Le zombie, selon Time magazine, est le monstre officiel de la recession. Plus l’économie diminue, plus les films de zombie à petit budget se multiplient. Pas étonnant – le maquillage n’est pas cher et les histoires sont faciles à écrire. Les zombies veulent bouffer les vivants; les vivants, forcément, ne veulent pas étre bouffés. Et ça y est!
And here’s an article about zombies I wrote for the Guardian in 2009. Some of the references may have dated, but not those last three paragraphs…
“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Hell must be filling up, because that tagline to the 1978 movie Dawn of the Dead now seems eerily prescient. Zombies have long been a popular feature of geek pursuits such as horror movies, computer games and manga, but lately the walking dead have been multiplying, diversifying, mutating – and now they’re breaking into the mainstream.
They’ve already invaded the language; we talk about zombie banks, zombie computers, zombie dot-coms. “Zombie walks”, a phenomenom first documented in 2003, attract thousands of participants who meet up in public places and shuffle around in zombie make-up, for charity. And they’re rampaging through popular culture, especially cinema. Following hot on the heels of the zombie-geek getting his own back in Tormented, British zombie horror-comedy Doghouse is unleashed on 12 June, and brace yourself for Woody Harrelson in Zombieland, Nazi zombies in Dead Snow, French zombies in Mutants and a film version of Max Brooks’ bestselling World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, currently being prepped by Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster. Michael Jackson has sold rights to his Thriller video (made back in 1983, when he still needed make-up to play a zombie) to a company planning to turn it into a Broadway musical. Nor is English literature immune: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, “The Classic Regency Romance – now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!” is storming the bestseller lists. Nothing, it seems, can stop what Time magazine has called, “The Official Monster of the Recesssion.”
This fascination with zombies may seem perplexing to the uninitiated. Whereas vampires are the aristocrats in the world of the walking dead, zombies are the lumpen proletariat. Both vampires and zombies have an infectious bite, but there the resemblance ends. Vampires want to sink their fangs into your neck, but zombies aren’t so discriminating; they simply want to rip chunks out of whichever part of your anatomy is nearest. Vampires are sexy, but even necrophiles would be hard-pushed to find zombies attractive; they have poor fashion sense, awful personal hygiene and they’re not pretty. You can’t converse with them, because they’re braindead. And yet here they are, overrunning the zeitgeist by sheer force of numbers and an obstinate refusal to lie down and play dead.
The zombie, of course, has its roots in the Afro-Caribbean religion of vaudou, or voodoo, most famously in Haiti, where the word was first used to describe someone in a trancelike state controlled by sorcery or drugs, often for use as cheap labour. In the earliest zombie movies, the creatures are physically powerful but mindless slaves hypnotised into doing the bidding of an unscrupulous controller. In White Zombie (1932), Bela Lugosi puts a young American woman into a zombie trance for his own nefarious purposes, while I Walked with a Zombie (1943) transposes the plot of Jane Eyre to the West Indies – which just goes to show that 19th century Eng Lit underwent a zombie makeover long before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came along.
Zombies were still being used as the cheap labour of Haitian lore in the 1966 Hammer film Plague of the Zombies, where they’re put to work in a Cornish tin-mine. But only two years later, they were dragged out of the exotic setting of the costume movie and reinvented as the flesh-ripping creature we know and love today. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a low budget black and white horror movie in which a small group of humans is besieged in an isolated farmhouse by the living dead, who attack and eat anyone they can lay their hands on. The z-word is never used and Haitians don’t even enter into it; it is implied, though never confirmed, that the corpses have been reanimated by a crashed satellite, but this is not important. What is important is that these zombies are not controlled by a master. They act on instinct, and that instinct is to eat human flesh. They are legion, and they keep on coming, an implacable force of nature and walking apocalypse, albeit a slow-moving one. As one observer says, “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.” The only way to stop one is to destroy the brain.
At the end of the 1960s, while films like Easy Rider were turning Hollywood film-making on its head, Night of the Living Dead delivered the coup de grâce to the comfort zone of the traditional horror movie, undercutting established clichés of the genre with a ruthlessness that is still terrifying. While the film passed virtually unnoticed by mainstream movie critics, its reputation spread by word-of-mouth, its take-no-prisoners approach shaking up audiences already unsettled by student revolt, political upheaval, assassination and escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, which the film evoked with its scenes of trigger-happy posses shooting down zombies and torching the remains.
A decade later, Romero elaborated on his themes in the slightly less grim Dawn of the Dead, a colour sequel in which zombies stagger around an out-of-town shopping-mall where four human survivors are holed up. “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” one character wonders out loud, to which another replies, “It’s a kind of instinct, memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” Yes, these zombies are the ultimate consumers in the ultimate consumer society. Which is ironic considering that, 30 years later, they are being used in advertising campaigns to sell backpacks, energy drinks and mobile phones. Maybe the marketeers are finally admitting that shopping is a braindead activity.
Dawn of the Dead opened the zombie floodgates. Italian director Lucio Fulci upped Romero’s gore content, though played down the social satire, with a clutch of zombie splatterfests, including two unofficial sequels to Dawn of the Dead. As the edginess of 1970s horror cinema gave way to 1980s teen-oriented slasher movies and parody, zombies were played for laughs in films like Re-animator, Return of the Living Dead and Evil Dead II, in which the splatter is so excessive it turns into slapstick.
As zombie films have proliferated, new variations on accepted undead comportment have been triggering heated debate among aficionados. Some horror fans prefer the fast-moving zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead to Romero’s shambling undead. Others question whether the zombies in Boyle’s film or the TV mini-series Dead Set should be classified as zombies at all, since technically they’re not dead, but infected by a virus. But while fast-moving flesh-eaters can be terrifying on a visceral level (imagine being pursued by zombies running as fast as Usain Bolt) they lack the creeping unease and metaphorical heft engendered by Romero’s slow-moving rabble.
And Romero has remained the Zombie King; to date he has made five Living Dead movies (with another on the way), with each one adding new wrinkles to the mythology, or offering social commentary more pertinent than anything to be found in the average “serious” drama. In Day of the Dead (1985) he floated the idea that maybe the faceless crowd isn’t so faceless after all, that it could be comprised of individuals like “Bub”, a laboratory zombie who proves receptive to music and the novels of Stephen King. In Land of the Dead (2005) Romero’s zombies have evolved even further to exhibit signs of social organisation and memories of pre-mortem existence. Led by an unusually intelligent blue-collar zombie called Big Daddy, they march on a heavily-fortified compound called Fiddler’s Green where surviving humans live in luxury, having turned their backs on the problems of the outside world.
Not all zombie movies are as politically relevant as Romero’s, though in 2005 Joe Dante revived the spirit of Dead of Night (an underrated but little-seen 1974 movie, directed by Bob Clark, in which a casualty of the Vietnam war comes home as a zombie) with Homecoming, his satirical episode of the Masters of Horror TV series in which American soldiers, killed in Iraq, come back as the living dead to vote the hawks out of office. Meanwhile, latterday zom-coms such as Fido, starring Billy Connolly as a boy’s “pet” zombie, have been advancing the notion that zombies can be domesticated, even loveable, and Shaun of the Dead shows they’re capable of playing computer games. Zombies, like Dracula and the Frankenstein monster before them, are steadily being tamed, Disneyfied, made suitable for children. Almost.
Because zombies, perhaps even more than vampires, are symbols of so many of today’s subconscious fears. Zombies stand for any section of society that can be easily depersonalised for social or political reasons. They represent the great unwashed, that fearsome underclass of knife-wielding hoodies certain newspapers are always warning us about. Or they’re metaphors for poverty, influxes of immigrants or refugees who (we’re told) will steal our housing and jobs. They could be gangs of feral children, football hooligans or those anonymous sufferers of swine-flu, at first kept at a safe distance but spreading infection ever closer to home to threaten us and our communities. Or they could be increasingly unmanageable numbers of old people putting a drain on the economy; in the arty French movie Revenants (aka They Came Back), the resurrected dead don’t eat the living, but they do create a bureaucratic nightmare, resisting reintegration into polite society and wandering around like people with Alzheimer’s.
At their most basic level, zombies are anarchy, threatening to upset the established order. Whereas a decade or so ago this might have seemed undesirable, now we’re not so sure, because the established order hasn’t been doing us any favours lately. In fact, its representatives have taken refuge in their own version of Fiddler’s Green, where they have been leading a life of hedonism, paid for by the sweat of our labours. If we’ve somehow come full circle to the idea of zombies as expendable cheap labour, we’re now having to face the fact that the cheap labour is us. Whereas zombies might once have been a metaphor for the dreaded underclass, the recession is a reminder that we are that underclass, those faceless masses that need to be contained and controlled lest they break into Fiddler’s Green and take bites out of the bankers and politicians.
Take another look at the video footage of the G20 demonstrations, which shows crowds of people herded, clubbed and beaten back by heavily-armoured police. The establishment is treating people like the zombies in Romero’s films – as a faceless mass, less than human, a tide of contagion to be stemmed at all cost. They are no longer just a memento mori that looks a lot like us. They are us. We are all the zombies now.