In which I lecture about zombies at the Indian Trails Library

I have a lecture today at 1.30pm in Wheeling, IL, at the Indian Trails Public Library District. Come join us!

Zombies 101

Zombies 101

Grade 6 and up. Zombie Research Society Expert and Columbia College Chicago Professor, Brendan Riley explains everything you need to know about zombies. He explores the history of zombies and the philosophy behind the desire for human brains! Limit 100. Tickets distributed 30 minutes prior to program

In Which I tell Real Simple Magazine about zombies

Real Simple magazine ran a piece on Zombies in this year’s October magazine, and guess who’s quoted in the article?  Thanks to Kate Booth for sending me the pictures.

Real Simple Oct 2015
Real Simple Oct 2015

Real Simple history of zombies
Real Simple history of zombies (click for full size)
Real Simple story closeup
Real Simple story close up

Film review: As Above, So So

As Above So Below PosterAs Above So Below

This film follows a group of renegade explorers as they dive into the Paris catacombs looking for buried Alchemist treasure.  It’s a creepy movie that plays on the extraordinary claustrophobia of underground spaces, and makes excellent use of the first-person camera genre (though it never proposes the means by which the audience came to see this footage).  A few thoughts:

  • I wish screenwriters would look up the name of another Alchemist.  Nicholas Flammel is probably sitting somewhere right now scowling at the way he gets brought up over and over again.
  • The first hour of this ninety-minute movie was great.  It had a growing sense of dread and creepiness that really works well.  The last thirty minutes, not as much.
  • The film’s best points are its great use of the first person cameras.  The limited view we get is excellent, and makes for a frightening experience as we try to understand what the people are seeing behind the person whose camera we’re using.
  • The spiritual component of the film is interesting too — the idea that the movie makes the alchemist’s philosophy a key component of the story is great.  There are some moments that are downright weird, but you come to understand why they happened the way they did.  That said, the film isn’t as precise about the nature of the metaphysical haunting stuff as I’d like it to be.  When they propose a ‘system’ for how things work, it feels to me like they should really work that way.
  • This film reminded me a lot of The Descent, another excellent ‘trapped underground’ movie with an even weirder ending.  (In 2007, here’s what I wrote about The Descent: “A surprisingly enjoyable horror movie that became startlingly LESS scary when the monsters showed up.  Disasterous spelunking and solid character development don’t need hungry Gollums to spice things up.  I haven’t felt such claustrophobia while watching a film since DAS BOOT.”)  Both films figured out how to make being in an enclosed space scary, but didn’t figure out that they could leave out the creepy supernatural stuff.  Being underground is scary enough.

Ultimately, As Above So Below is a fine B movie with a creepy premise and solid execution.  It doesn’t really stick the landing, but you’ll enjoy the fall.

Here’s a trailer you can watch if you want to spoil literally every key plot point.

I always thought IKEA was kinda creepy, OR: Horrorstör – creepy by design

Horrorstor
Horrorstör

Horrorstör
by Grady Hendrix

This remarkable, entertaining horror novel has a simple premise: a haunted IKEA.  It’s not actually the Swedish flat-pack behemoth, of course, but an also-ran called ORSK, a fictional store designed, the narrator asserts, to copy IKEA as closely as possible.  The tale follows Amy, her supervisor Basil, and a couple other employees as they stay late at the store one night to catch the vandals who have been sneaking in at night, breaking merchandise and messing up the place.  Of course, it turns out to be something more horrible.

A few thoughts:

  • The novel builds on the way familiar places can seem frightening when they’re shifted out of their usual place in our minds.  When Amy and friends stay late, the massive store becomes otherworldly, and the gleaming expanse of the showroom shifts into a frightening wasteland of modest furniture.
  • The novel’s design is its most compelling feature — the cover looks like an IKEA catalog, and each chapter starts with a blueprint drawing of an ORSK product with a name like Brooka or Kjërring, and a description consistent with IKEA’s rhetoric.  As the story grows darker, the chapter drawings do too.
  • The supernatural element that arises is pretty well-crafted and thoroughly creepy, and will certainly show up in my subconscious next time we wander out to IKEA.  It’s not the scariest book I’ve ever read, but it’s got a good eerie factor, and solid characters.

Overall, Horrorstör is a solid creepy novel with an innovative design that fits the novel perfectly.  Worth a read.

21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology

21st Century Dead21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology
Edited by Christopher Golden

Each year, I pick a different anthology of zombie stories to read with my Zombies in Popular Media class.  This year’s collection was pretty good.  A few highlights:

  • “Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-so Horror Story” by Chelsea Cain.  Written with the feel of a classic folk tale, this story captures some of the drudgery of parenting.
  • “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon throbs with a dark melancholy of a ho-hum zombie world, where the undead can be dangerous, but they’re more a nuisance like racoons.
  • Kurt Sutter’s “Tic Boom: A Slice of Love” and John McIlveen’s “A Mother’s Love” play on similar themes with very different writing styles, but both are great twists on the zombie genre.
  • Amber Benson, of Buffy fame, includes a story only tangentially about zombies, but chock-full of interesting twists on the future-dystopian capitalist nightmare.  “Antiparallelogram” isn’t all that great as a zombie story, but as an SF tale, it has some chops.
  • “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski is the best story in the collection, for my money.  It follows a former zombie who has been recovered through a technological intervention of some kind, but who is plagued by the public record of her deeds during her zombie days.

Check out my reviews of previous zombie class story anthologies: 2014- Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!; 2013 – The Best New Zombie Tales; 2012 – The New Dead2011 – The Living Dead 2; 2010 – The Undead: Zombie Anthology; 2009 – The Living Dead

The Thing (2011)

The Thing 2011Having just seen John Carpenter’s original The Thing in January, I sought out the recent prequel, also confusingly titled The Thing.  It’s a weird prequel/remake, with an almost identical story structure to that of the original film.  In the 1982 film, we find out that a Norwegian research station had already been gutted by the monster, as McReady’s trip reveals the horrors that occurred there.  The Thing 2011 tells the tale of that Norwegian station and their travails.  A few thoughts:

  • The film clearly isn’t a remake, as the tale involves different characters and locations, and sets itself up as a prequel.  But its plot is so similar to the original film that it feels like a remake.  As such, it’s good but a bit too derivative to be great.
  • The filmmakers do a great job with the effects, mixing practical monstrosities with CGI to give the film a real, meaty feel.  It works great.  The creature effects in the film admirably continue the tradition of the original.  The best moment will make you re-think helping an injured pal walk by putting his arm around your soldier.
  • It was nice to introduce a couple female characters, including a woman who, in the tradition of Ripley, is no shrinking violet.
  • The acting in the film is great, with stellar paranoia and mania.  I particularly like the Norwegians they used in the film, robust, bold men all.  It was also fun to see Joel Edgerton there.  I was reminded that he played the young Owen Lars in SW Ep 3. ( Can somebody make a list of people who have played characters in both deserts and ice-scapes? )
  • The best part of The Thing 2011 is the “reverse forensics” of the film, the establishment of the moments that create the settings MacReady finds when he visits the Norwegian camp in the John Carpenter movie.  The payoffs that establish the axe in the door or the burned lab are excellent.

The Thing 2011 isn’t great, but it’s a pretty enjoyable follow up to the amazing 1982 original.

I was going to post some pictures from the movie, but it’s damn gross, so here’s a fluffy kitten from Martjin Berendse.

Fluffy Kitten Martjin Berendse

Thoughts on next year’s zombie class

Dead Snow
Dead Snow would fit as Nazi, Fast, Humor, Meta, and Cabin in the Woods

I’m wondering how the course would work if I re-worked it next year as a series of Zombie subgenres (Hollywood, Vodou, Cyborg, Alien-slug, Fast/Virus, Philosophical, Nazi) and we approached the material from that perspective.  This would make the experience of the course way different from what it is now, and give me some variety in film selection and approaches.  Other kinds of zombie films to think about:

  • Cabins in the woods
  • Splatterhorror
  • Meta
  • Humor

I think I will probably re-organize the class under this new structure next year, to get a bit of variety into the experience for myself, and try out a different order of films, etc.  Plus, then we can include the Thing.

In which my course “doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it”

The Times of India has joined the “look at all these stupid courses” game with their own collection of summaries, including a bizarre summary of my course (and PERHAPS a course about embalming as well?  It’s weird).  Here’s the relevant text:

Class on zombies
Official course title: Zombies In Popular Media What it means: Slacker heaven Possible career paths: Mortician? Nothing like the undead to liven up a boring year of college. The object of this course is to “foster thoughtful connections between student disciplines and the figure of the zombie” (that just doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it). The syllabus includes movies, books and comics that focus on the undead along with lectures on individuality, xenophobia and capitalism (because, as we all know, zombies are the paradigm of capitalism). And the cynics out there can scoff now, but when the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll wish you’d taken this course instead of algebra. (link)

This text is posted as it appears on the site.  I suspect the bit about the mortician is supposed to be in parenthesis or between dashes, or there should be a period after “heaven.”

Zombies!

Are You Ready for a Zombie Attack?

Today marks the end of the first week of my annual horror j-session class, Zombies in Popular Media.  A few thoughts:

  • This year brings another good mix of students with varying experience in zombie media.  As far as I can tell, though, I have no zombie fanatics.  Most years I’ve had at least one person who’s already seen nearly everything we’re going to watch — not this year.
  • The cold weather has kept things a little subdued — at least on Wednesday it did — a third of the class wasn’t able to lurch in that first day of the cold snap.
  • I’m using a new academic book that’s presenting some different takes on the genre, and a new collection (as always).  But right now, I’m holding to the screening list from last year.  After eight years, it’s been honed to a fine point, so any alterations need to really be better than the thing they’re replacing, and so far I’ve not found any. BOOM.
  • An an indicator of just how broad the genre has gotten, I had NO overlap in the requests for presentation choices this year — everybody had different things they wanted to present on.  Huzzah!
  • Once again, Carnival of Souls provides surprisingly rich fodder for class discussion.  Today is our discussion of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and screening of Dawn of the Dead.  So that will be awesome.

And we lurch into the weekend!

The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the GiftsThe Girl with All the Gifts
by M.R. Carey

It’s hard to be a regular girl in a post-apocalypse world.  But in as much as she can be, Melanie has the same hopes and fears that most children do.  She likes some of her teachers, she dislikes others, she’s interested in Greek Mythology.  It doesn’t make things easier that she’s a zombie. M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts is a compelling, dramatic zombie tale from twenty years after the apocalypse, when humankind is barely clinging to life against the ever-present hungries.  The story begins at a secret military base outside London, where scientists are still trying to understand the fungus that has all but destroyed humanity.  In particular, the people at the base are chasing a mysterious phenomenon, the odd children who live among the ruins of the cities, zombies with fully functional brains.

It’s hard to write much about the book without telling too many plot points, and I really don’t want to spoil it.  Nonetheless, a few thoughts:

  • Melanie’s perspective works very well here.  Like other books that have taken the perspective of the zombie (Zombie, Ohio or Brains), this allows the writer to pursue different aspects of the zombie story.  Carey’s unique idea to make the zombie protagonist a child works perfectly.
  • The zombie plague in this novel is inspired by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the famous zombie ant fungus.  Carey comes up with an detailed and interesting course of growth for the fungus, and describes its interaction with people very well.  Also, the fungus is super-creepy.  Yeesh.
  • The novel moves forward in parts, each showing a distinct shift in the landscape of possibilities open to the characters.  Again, this works very well as an adventure story that also allows us to understand the world of the novel better.
  • The relationship between Melanie and the adults in the story is particularly compelling, as they struggle with their notions of her as a ‘hungry’ versus their notions of her as a little girl (or resistance to the notion that she might be a little girl).
  • The least fleshed out aspect of the story, to my mind, is the nature of the human society.  Carey establishes that we’re many years past the first appearance of the plague — I think twenty, but it could be as few as about ten — and parts of the tale fit that timeline well.  But what little view we get of the human encampments seems far too tenuous and disorganized to reflect long-term sustainability, as would be needed for two decades of survival.

Overall, The Girl with All the Gifts is a great book, and should be on any zombie fan’s reading list.

 

Annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer Annihilation
by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy about the strange.  The premise is delightfully vague — a zone (in the United States?) has become infested with some sort of invading biology that terraforms the land around it, menaces the people living there, and brings the strange in high doses.  Into this forbidden zone, which the residents of the “Southern Reach” (is that the U.S. South? seems like) call “Area X,” goes a team of four specialists: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a biologist, and a surveyor.  Things go weird quickly.

A few thoughts:

  • This book is mesmerizing and creepy, but it never really grabbed me.  By the last third of the book I was keen to find out what was going on, but my experience of it never amped up the way I like a book to do, especially one focused so much on mystery/ magic/ or horror.
  • The book’s shifting tone is one of the most interesting aspects of this book; it revels in complex category allegiances.  Like many books of fantasy and weirdness, Annihilation challenges our sense of narrative cohesion and the way we understand what’s happening in the tale.
  • The epistolary form works well given the narrative reveals throughout the story, but at the same time it releases one crucial safety valve, which is whether or not the narrator will make it to the end of the tale.  They must.  That said, I like the way suspense and fear get worked into the story through foreshadowing and flashbacks.
  • There were several moments in reading the novel where I thought of LOST and its attendant weirdnesses throughout the island.  But unlike LOST, Annihilation sticks to a single person’s perspective and a single person’s narrative.  This gives Vandermeer a lot more freedom to include story hooks that do not get resolved, as the limited perspective of the narrator necessarily means that not every bump in the night will get investigated.  (As opposed to LOST, which followed many perspectives and thus suggested that we might eventually get everything explained to us.)
  • The fantastical elements of the novel are pretty out there — a strange mix of surreal and bizarre, worthy of Clive Barker or similar fantasists.  I particularly like the use of a lighthouse as a key location in the story, as that particular kind of structure easily serves a variety of allegorical and storytelling purposes, being isolated, liminal, and kinda creepy.  In that way, this book stands as a strong descendant of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, which often turned on groups of people encountering things beyond comprehension, and wrestling with the madness that could follow.

As I read this book, I also couldn’t help but think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a 1979 movie about a forbidden zone in Russia where a mysterious force, or set of forces, has taken over and driven out the rightful residents.  The government in that film has banned any incursions into the place, but the narrator joins a black market coyote who specializes in taking trips into the zone. Both Annihilation and Stalker make use of the eerie state created by modern culture that has been taken over by nature (and by something strange).  They both trade on the tendency of the human mind to imagine things hiding in the dark, watching us, and on our propensity for curiosity.  Most significantly to me, both texts make strange the everyday (like a lighthouse) through some actual weirdness and a liberal dose of well-crafted mood.

Weird snow space Wolf and the pond Stalker movie poster Dudes in a room

Overall, Annihilation is a compelling tale of mystery and terror, a weird fantasy story in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, with a dose of Clive Barker.  Take someone with you when you read it.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I Zombify Myself to Teach About Zombies

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to Skype in to the Crane River Theater company’s zombie run training session to provide a little information for the zombie participants there.  I wasn’t able to do it live, so I sent them a 15 minute video to show instead.  They recently sent me a thank you note and a couple photos of my ‘talk.’  This line of events struck me as amazing and weird:

  • Unable to work out a time for me to attend the event…
  • I was invited to attend digitally but couldn’t make the time they had in mind…
  • So I sent a video of me talking about zombies…
  • Which their participants watched (and, I’m told, enjoyed)…
  • During which their photographer took photos…
  • Printed those photos…
  • And mailed them to me.

It’s awesome.

Crane River Theater Zombie Run Training Session crane-river-theater02-web

Also, it occurs to me that I’ve enabled some digital zombification of myself.  The organizers can take my video and use it in future runs, or distribute it, or do whatever.  I suppose nominally they’re limited by copyright law, but I didn’t do much to secure any rights to the video.  In my essay “The E-Dead,” I argued that part of the confluence of the zombie genre and the Internet comes in our fear of being out of control of ourselves.  As we make and distribute digital artifacts, we all experience the artist’s dilemma more and more (the artist’s dilemma being that you cannot control your work once you release it into the world).  And that experience of being controlled by other people feels an awful lot like being a voodoo zombie.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Juan of the Dead – Zombies Cubano

Juan of the DeadJuan of the Dead is a Cuban zombie movie in the long tradition of the humorous horror film.  Most directly, it reflects Shaun of the Dead in its narrative, but with a distinct Cuban flavor.  Juan and his friends find themselves among the only sensible people surviving in Havanna after the zombie outbreak begins.  So naturally, they start a business clearing zombies out of peoples’ homes.  As things continue to get worse throughout the city, the group decides they need to move on, giving them one more race through the city they need to survive.  A few thoughts:

  • One of the best things about watching movies made in another country is seeing where the slippage in language and humor creates gaps.  In Juan of the Dead, the humor occasionally misses, with lines that are probably funny in Cuba becoming meaningless here, either through the subtitling or through references outside our sphere of knowledge.
  • But a lot of the humor comes from the protagonists’ extreme pragmatism.  Unlike many zombie movies, where the heroes happily go out of their way to help people, Juan of the Dead finds the main characters occasionally killing living people, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, but never really with regret.  At one point, a man in a wheelchair is trying to get away from the zombies, and two of the heroes run to help him, their arms full of cases of liquor.  When they come back, they’re pushing the wheelchair with the cases of liquor on the seat.  When Juan looks at them funny, one says “He died.  We took the wheelchair.”  Then the other mutters, “Not necessarily in that order.”  It plays off funny, but really dark.
  • The biggest disconnect for me is the regular use of homophobic epithets in the film.  While the characters seem happy to accept a transvestite as part of their group, they also regularly bandy about homophobic slurs in the way that some British folk use the “c” word.  Knowing that Latin American cultures have a different attitude toward homosexuality doesn’t make these jokes any less discomfiting to me.
  • Juan of the Dead pays a lot of homage to other zombie films, obviously to Shaun of the Dead with Juan’s boat paddle, and to Dead Alive, with the priest who shouts “I kick ass for the Lord.”
  • I love the way the Cuban philosophy and daily life translates into the film.  The characters’ experiences under communism and the difficulties with the economic life of Cuba come out in the way they talk about what’s going on.  They refer to the zombies as ‘dissidents.’  It’s perhaps my favorite thing about the movie.

Juan and his friends

Overall, Juan of the Dead is an enjoyable middle-of-the-road zombie movie.  It has some neat moments, and it’s pretty funny at times.  The best part of it, though, is the thing that brought it to my attention and probably yours — its roots in the Cuban culture and the way it reflects how people living in that particular corner of the world might think about zombies if they ever show up.

The Grand Hotel – a spooky place to stay

The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore

The Grand Hotel
by Scott Kenemore

*Full disclosure: Scott Kenemore and I have been on convention panels together and he has visited my class several times to speak about his work on zombies.*

The Grand Hotel is a ghost story anthology with a wraparound tale that contextualizes the eleven stories in the context of a creepy old hotel and its unusual residents.  Our narrator is a wizened desk clerk whose relationship with the hotel gets more and more complex as the story progresses.  The stories told by the residents exist on a continuum between a little eerie and downright horrifying.  Kenemore does a great job fashioning authentic voices for each narrator, and in bringing to life the diverse settings these stories inhabit.

A few thoughts:

  • The eleven stories vary in the creepiness and terror they offer, but generally as the story goes along they get more eerie.  My favorites are the tales of the Chef in the abandoned Scotch castle, the Vicar in the old English manor, and the psychiatrist narrating her patient’s case.
  • As always, Kenemore’s style is light and quick, but hefty enough that it doesn’t feel superfluous.  The supernatural elements in the novel are applied with a light touch, allowing the gothic atmosphere of the stories to make the scenes work, rather than just horrific narrative elements as one might find in Clive Barker short stories, for example.
  • The Grand Hotel reflects a positive approach to self-discovery and growth.  One of the themes throughout the novel is the value of telling stories, particularly about one’s own life, to learn and grow.  As a writer, Kenemore consistently uses his fiction to “think through” cultural and social issues within the context of popular genres.  The Grand Hotel advocates for a positive approach to self-discovery work, be it individual, or in a talking-therapy kind of way.
  • One of Kenemore’s best attributes as a writer is the way his stories inhabit their locales so skilfully.  In a novel where he has to construct a dozen locations in a hotel plus nearly another dozen locations for the stories to take place, Kenemore does a fantastic job building realistic worlds for the residents’ stories.  I particularly liked the story about the space mission, which one might think shouldn’t belong in the book, but which fits in quite nicely.
  • I’ve got two minor complaints about the book.  First, with the exception of one character who interacts with the desk clerk, most of the tourists are necessarily abstract.  This keeps the focus on the hotel’s residence, but it also makes the tour seem a bit more staged.  I wonder how it would have worked if we’d known more about the members of the tour.  Second, the novel too strongly telegraphs its conclusion.  Kenemore certainly doesn’t intend for the end of the novel to be a surprise, but elements of the story still act like it was intended to be one.  This is, however, a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent book.

Overall, The Grand Hotel is a great spooky story anthology with a solid wraparound tale that provides a unity of purpose that’s quite satisfying.  It isn’t quite as satisfying, for me, as the Zombie State trilogy, but still definitely worth a read. (See also: Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; and Zombie, Indiana).

 

The Zombies of Mora Tau – not quite the worst zombie movie…

Zombies of Mora TauThere’s a moment in the short-lived show The Middleman where Natalie Morales’ protagonist argues with her love interest that Zombies of Mora Tau is the worst zombie film ever made, and a great palette-cleanser between viewings of good zombie movies.  First, I’d suggest that you don’t need a palette-cleanser between zombie movies, as the aftertaste of one usually makes the next better (Eww!).  Second, and more importantly, it’s not the worst zombie movie ever made.  But it’s pretty bad.

We follow a crew of intrepid diamond hunters who have gone to Mora Tau to dive for a famed lost chest of diamonds which, they learn later, are guarded by the ship’s crew, animated but not rotting, and not particularly dangerous though menacing.  A few thoughts:

  • Like White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, this film begins with outsiders coming to a remote tropical place where the locals know about zombies and the outsiders ignore them to their peril.
  • Unlike most zombie movies of the era, the Mora Tau zombies are a horde of greed zombies, awakened to protect a hoard of diamonds they stole from an African temple.
  • These zombies sleep in a tomb, and rise simultaneously like vampires only at night.  It would be creepy if it weren’t so campy.
  • Our intrepid heroes discover that the zombies are afraid of fire, so they use that to protect themselves.  But oddly, they don’t try to kill the zombies with either fire or dismemberment.  They shoot them once or twice and decide the zombies are unkillable.
  • The close-up scenes in the diving sequences are hilariously bad cut-aways to an obvious prop of a man standing in a diving helmet against a blue background, rather than the diver in situ.

Zombies of Mora Tau is probably worth watching for the completist, but there are so many other movies to enjoy, I don’t think it’s worth watching otherwise.  A few that will scratch a similar itch:

  • The King of the Zombies – slightly silly zombies in a tropical setting
  • Dead Snow – greed zombies being much more menacing
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon – the terror of unknown depths and diving
  • I Walked with a Zombie – Family drama with a background of old timey zombies
  • I Eat Your Skin – a similar dashing hero, with a little more comedy and some cheerful misogyny.

As for the worst zombie movie ever made, I’d still put Johnny Sunshine or The Dead Hate the Living in that slot.