Written by Jonathan Wojcik

DECEMBER 5: Whatever Happened to Zombies?

   Believe it or not, there was once a time when being one of the living dead could still mean something horrific. Something bizarre, hideous, impossible and nightmarish. Something terrifying in great numbers, yes, but equally terrifying alone. A vast category of vile, oozing, mutilated monsters clawing and dragging their way from the grave in search of warm, juicy meat. All the firepower in the world wasn't always enough to put them back in the ground. They were creepy just being, whether they could run or shuffle. They weren't constrained by scientific logic, and they weren't always limited to the human form. They were real zombies. A zombie's zombies. Zombies like The Tarman. Let's talk about that first.

   This slimy shambler from 1985's Return of the Living Dead is commonly cited as one of the greatest cinematic zombies of all time, and it's easy to see why. The Tarman is so horrendously putrid, so eerily performed that his fame overshadows even a topless punk chick zombie in the same film. It's easy to forget there's even a real person behind all that dribbling muck, but we're really only seeing the talent of Allan Trautman under a couple inches of latex. It's those lurching, marionette-like movements that really make the performance, truly communicating that this is something that should not be up and moving around, but here it is, doing exactly that, with blackened flesh dangling in long, slimy strands off its gleaming bones.

   From the same film, this cute half-zombie (moldy dead boob warning, if you're at work) is another classic, little more than a hand puppet and still as convincing as ever. Why wouldn't it be? We don't expect something dead to move at all, let alone move exactly like a living thing. A film zombie only looks creepier with a limited range of motion. Elsewhere in Return, we would even see the effects of undeath on nearly bare skeletons, severed limbs, bisected dogs and a butterfly collection.

   1988's otherwise less eventful Dead Heat further explored the possibilities of the living impaired with one of the single coolest, yet little known horror scenes of the era - an entire butchershop squirming to life, from whole plucked chickens to what appears to be a leaping liver. The rest of the film features more conventional, humanoid zombies, but if that's because they poured too much of the budget into this scene alone, they made the right choice.

   Similarly grisly ghouls populated 1992's Dead Alive or Braindead by Peter Jackson, including one of my personal favorite cinematic undead, an oozing ambulatory pile of entrails. Though not quite as unstoppable as Return's cadavers, these zombies could at least keep kicking until practically liquefied, taking on only more bizarre and hideous forms as they sustained damage. We even see the horrendous (but later hilarious) results of zombie reproduction, and a nauseating final boss of a beast that I won't spoil for those who've yet to see this one.

   I could go on, but let's get back on track: zombies are stagnating, and not in the way that would actually look cool. The living dead can take a staggering array of possible forms. Forms that shouldn't be alive, but still move, against all reason, in twisted mockery of the natural order, and it doesn't take much more than a puppet to pull off that image in a believable, unnerving fashion. Why, then, in this modern world of flashy CG and multi-million-dollar effects, are so many film zombies indistinguishable from roving gangs of wounded drunks? Even some video games are guilty of the same old uninspired shufflers; pasty grey, a little bloody if we're lucky, fully fleshed and often running around like healthy, energetic living things.

   Recently, Ubisoft was developing a video game that promised what could have been a lovely homage to films like Gremlins and Critters. Just look at that cute little shit! Who doesn't want to play a game where adorable baby-size lizard people gnaw people's flesh off? Finally, something new and different in survival horror!

   ...Except no. Killer Freaks from Outer Space was eventually reworked into "ZombieU," the diminutive reptilian murderers replaced with more cut-and-paste, crowd-pandering, vanilla undead. Who keeps buying this stuff?

   If you're going to keep dumping truckloads of zombies on us, at least have the decency to make them frightening. These real mummies are more distressing to look at than even some of the best zombies in my recollection, and don't even need any digital enhancement. Imagine these things moving even a little. Even just like stick puppets. If that wouldn't disturb you a hell of a lot more than the usual pack of snarling "walkers" or "infected" then you're probably already dead. Possibly because one of these eyeless mummies painlessly opened you up while you were sleeping and tried to replace its missing organs with yours. Now you're one of them, and when you're finished reading this, you'll go looking for a new set of entrails yourself. It happens.


   Even doctors and scientists routinely craft more haunting revenants than anything stuttering around on electronic screens these days - in some cases before the invention of film. These infant carcasses are the work of Honoré Fragonard, an eighteenth century professor of anatomy who turned to the art world when his "mad" methods cost him his academic career. His preservation technique remains somewhat of a mystery, as do the whereabouts of most of his subjects. Right here we have a more fascinating, unsettling scenario than the average "zombie apocalypse," and they didn't even have to start walking around. Yet.

   The traveling Body Worlds exhibit further demonstrates the awesome array of beautiful and alien forms hidden away in the anatomy of the deceased. Here, we have an entire human head, split apart to display the many layers of tissue and bone concealing our brains. You see a winged shape too, don't you? You're already picturing this peeled face flapping like a wet, meaty moth in the dark, eager to fold shut around your cranium, crack open your skull and slurp out its contents. No? Well, now you are.

   If zombies feed on the flesh of the living, and the living become zombies by getting bitten, then it should stand to reason that a lot of zombies would look closer to this guy than the dirt-smeared hobos entertainment keeps insisting we fear. What happened to dangling eyeballs? To trailing intestines? To half-gnawed faces and moldy, gangrenous flesh?

   Even worse than their lackluster aesthetics, one zombie scenario after another continues to reinforce an arbitrary set of "rules" agreed upon by the genre's self-described "purists," especially the old "aim for the head" mantra. You know what else dies when you shoot the brain or sever the head? Everybody. That's why the aforementioned Return of the Living Dead made a major point of dismissing what was already a tiresome cliché in 1985.

   In the video game world, it was more or less the Resident Evil franchise which brought zombies back into vogue, but even they knew when to quit. Mere zombies were only ever a taste of the stranger horrors to come as each game progressed, and more recent installments have all but abandoned the traditional undead in favor of ancient, almost Lovecraftian brain parasites (like the Plagas, above), deep sea freaks and insectoid hybrids. Meanwhile, the Resident Evil film adaptations give us mostly zombies, bigger zombies, kind of weird zombies, more zombies, and dog zombies. Way, way back in 2004, when for some reason I watched the second film in theaters, I was relieved to at least see some Lickers, and still vividly recall the utterly confused "what the hell is THAT?" from an obvious newbie to the Resident Evil universe. That's what every monster movie should make someone say.

   Much of this bland, repetitive homogenization can be blamed, as with many things in our popular culture, squarely on the people who just keep throwing money at the same old, same old, again and again. The people to whom the zombie apocalypse has practically become the Geek second coming. People who no longer appreciate zombies as objects of horror themselves, but as target practice for their own violent power fantasies, which is unfortunately part of why they keep looking less and less like bona-fide monsters. People crave violence, and violence against other people - or things that look as close as possible to other people - seems to satisfy our very ugliest, deeply rooted instincts. Over the past few years, we've witnessed the birth of an entire subculture devoted to the hypothetical "survival" of a zombie outbreak. A subculture that wishes eagerly for the real thing to finally happen, just so they can finally aim their big-boy toys at moving, flesh and blood humanoid targets. Therein lies the single biggest problem with the modern zombie: it's no longer as frightening as its own fans. No monster deserves such an indignity.

   I realize I've been all over the place here, from lamenting lackluster creature design to criticizing the very psychology of our culture, but my disappointments with zombie-driven entertainment are just that broad and plentiful, multiplying every year with every dozen rehashes of the same movie, the same video game, the same novel. Fortunately, for every dozen indistinguishable z-days tumbling out of the pop culture machine, someone makes at least some attempt to breathe a little fresh unlife into the genre. Paranorman ruthlessly skewered the aforementioned fandom, among other things, in a sweet and sincere manner with some beautiful artistic direction. The film Warm Bodies shows some promise and so does the upcoming game The Last of Us. Resident Evil, as we discussed, has already grown past the traditional zombie and sought more imaginative sources of horror, and I still genuinely love the direction writer David Wellington took his Monster Island trilogy back in 2005. The Zombie Apocalypse may be beating its dead horse for years to come, but when the horse beats back, it beats back hard.