The Thinking Zombie’s Conundrum

Zombie Thinker by Mark Simms
Zombie Thinker by Mark Simms

I’ve been pondering a philosophical question for a while now, and it appears most relevant in the context of movies like American Zombie, I, Zombie, and Zombies Anonymous.  We discussed it a bit in my New Millennium Studies class today with regard to Frankenstein’s monster.  We also see it in the context of vampire stories in which vampires retain their personalities.  To whit:

What is the moral or ethical obligation of the thinking zombie to the rest of human kind?

Definition: the thinking zombie would be that variety of zombie present in some films that retains its faculties and personality from its previous life.  It must have an awareness of its former self, empathy for people, and an unquenchable hunger for them.

Examples: David Wellington’s Monster trilogy features zombies who remember being alive and know it’s wrong to kill people, but do so anyhow.  Numerous short stories play with this problem as well.  The three films I mention above all feature these dilemmas on screen.

If any of these defining elements are missing, it’s not worth thinking through.  For example, Return of the Living Dead features zombies who remember their former lives but are instantly and insatiably evil.  There’s no need to ponder their ethical obligations since they seem to have no conscience.  By contrast, the man in I, Zombie feels horrible that he’s killing people, but he does so anyway.  In the same way, if non-human meat satisfies the zombie, then the classic vampire solution would work.  So the zombie must hunger for people.

Discussion: I’ve always thought that in cases like the films mentioned above, once a zombie has killed someone and realizes the drive to do so again will be uncontrollable, isn’t the moral choice suicide or self-imprisonment? If we’re defined by our actions and actions and decisions rather than physiognomy, does that definition stop just because we’re undead?

By contrast, does the non-human state of the zombie obviate the morality of humans?  Wellington’s thinking zombies come to understand themselves as superior, so they have no problem killing people.  It’s similar to the attitude of the vampires in the Masquerade series: the humans are cattle for them.  One might also wield the self-preservation argument: zombies by their very nature can only survive by eating humans.  To refuse to do so is to deny their own purpose.  (This presumes a zombie mythology that draws nourishment from the eating, such as Return of the Living Dead or the Wellington Monster novels.)  Finally, like Frankenstein’s monster, one could suggest that zombies are justified in killing people because most people would happily kill them first.  (We’ll save the ethical question of killing zombies who aren’t an immediate threat for another day.)

But most of these films show the zombies struggling with the personal element of it: what kind of person am I that I will take the lives of innocents rather than my own?

In which I am interviewed by a Middle School student

Zombies on the table!
A middle school student conducted an email interview with me about zombies.  My favorite question:

12.Is it possible for zombies to have babies?

A couple movies have included zombie babies, most notably the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD and the mid 90s zombie movie DEAD ALIVE.

In answering some of her questions, I felt a bit strange talking about movies that, by all usual rules of who can watch what, she absolutely should not have seen.  Am I derelict in mentioning Dead Alive to someone who may or may not be 13 years old?  Her full interview and my answers below the break.

Continue reading In which I am interviewed by a Middle School student

I Eat Your Skin

Aka Voodoo Blood Bath

Zombie from I Eat Your Skin
Alas, I Eat Your Skin involves no skin eating by anyone. There are certainly zombies, creepy figures with gnarled skin and wide-open eyes, but they menace, machete, and capture more than eat. And they lurch about in ways much more akin to the Voodoo zombies of White Zombie than Romero’s flesh-eating ghouls.

Cuckolded husband
The film has a goofy camp to it that’s hard not to enjoy. About ten minutes in, I described the film to Jenny as having a kind of “cheerful misogyny.” The main character, Tom Harris, is a lothario romance writer who beds married women and then gleefully dashes away from their cuckolded husbands.  In this scene, for instance, Tom and his publisher Duncan share a manly laugh as they watch the bikini-clad woman Tom had been canoodling with by the pool suffer a literal butt-kicking at her balding, frumpy husband’s hand.  With a symbolism that’s hard to miss, Duncan and Tom watch for another moment and then raise the divider to block out the scene behind them and like that, the trouble he’s caused is left behind.  Ha ha ha.

The women throughout the film get pretty short shrift. The publisher’s wife is seen as a flighty trophy wife (though they have a loving, physical relationship), and the scientist’s daughter isn’t given much to do except be sexy for our hero. One problem that comes up early on is that the natives want to kidnap the daughter to sacrifice her. The film makes explicit the fact that it’s to be a virgin sacrifice, but nobody thinks to suggest that she and Tom just move forward with their plan to boink. Problem solved.

Tom’s dashing daring-do works well when he, his publisher, and his publisher’s wife land on the aptly named “VooDoo island,” where they’re immediately attacked by zombies. There’s some nonsense about native rituals, but in the end it’s about science and curing Cancer.

Voodoo ritual from the opening of I Eat Your Skin
The film features a number of Cinema of Attractions moments focusing on voodoo possession ceremonies that look pretty similar to the documentary footage shot by Maya Daren. Of course, the addition of the machete and the human sacrifice debases the quality of the mimicry, but so be it.

All smiles
My favorite part of the film was the relationship between Coral and Duncan, the loving couple who accompany Tom to the island. Like Nick and Nora from The Thin Man, they enjoy a healthy appetite for one another, and enjoy getting plastered together. They have the best lines and do a great job stealing scenes from Tom et al.

Voodoo Master from I Eat Your Skin
The zombies in this film show a distinct shift from the creepy but unmutilated zombies of I Walked with a Zombie to the rotting corpses in Dawn of the Dead. These figures are deformed and undead, but they move and act like the Voodoo zombies of earlier films. (They also remind me of the Simpsons episode where Homer wears special glasses to pretend that he’s awake during a trial.) They’re led by a mysterious Zombie Master who wears a creepy face bead-veil and hands out machetes.

Dead Strong

Dead Strong

Grace Lee, director of American Zombie, sent me this Dead Strong bracelet after we corresponded a bit via email.  I decided to bust out my mad zombie photoshopping skillz to show it off.

My Dead Girlfriend

My Dead Girlfriend
My Dead Girlfriend

I went into My Dead Girlfriend with pretty low expectations. Having seen lots of indie zombie movies (including a number of excreble Troma films), I wasn’t holding my breath for anything much. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film has a good sense of humor, decent production values (especially a very good sound mix and music track), pretty good acting, and an excellent script. Some thoughts:

  • Balanced production values: Unlike many indie zombie films, whose filmmakers put all their eggs into the special effects basket (c.f. Andreas Schnaas), My Dead Girlfriend takes its time developing enjoyable characters and a setup that stays in touch with the zombie genre but avoids being stereotypical or trite. The only miss here is that the scenes shot in the dark come out a bit too dark or low contrast.
  • Good writing: The standout here, for me, is the script. The tale is touching without being sappy, and is pretty funny, in a low-key way. Instead of going for knock-down physical humor (as with films like Redneck Zombies), the film does a soft sell on its humor. Some of my favorite lines are mentioned below. My biggest complaint about the film is the dubious way Steve gets into the mess in the first place. His failure to call an ambulance when he ran over his girlfriend is nearly inexcusable as far as suspended disbelief goes.
  • Innovative Zombies: The film develops a strange kind of passive zombie, one who will attack but not always. We never really get a clear sense of the rules of zombie-ness (as we shouldn’t, really), but Amy’s relationship with Steve seems to keep her in check. The early sequences in which she gnaws on stuff and moans “Hungry!” while Steve natters about trying to figure out what to do work the best in this regard.

My Dead Girlfriend reminded me of a number of other films with whom it seems to be in conversation:

  • The Living and the Dead, a cute little zombie comic book by Jason. It’s got a love story too, with spreading zombie menace as well. I’ve been meaning to read Fragile as well; that one is about two zombies in love.
  • Zombie Honeymoon explores similar themes and worries, but gorier. The big difference there is that the man infected becomes a zombie slowly enough that he has time to feel it happening.
  • Return of the Living Dead 3 also focuses on the dead-girlfriend plotline. In this one, the girlfriend staves off her hunger with pain, resulting in some horrible sado-masochistic imagery.

Funny lines:
Part of what makes these lines so funny is that the movie doesn’t telegraph them or dwell on them. Half the time the lines don’t even feel like they’re meant to be funny, but when you ponder the shape of the narrative and its tone, it’s clear that this humor is intentional and not accidental.

  • Steve finds Amy’s witchcraft books and pages through them to find the bits that will help him bring her back to life: “Let’s see…. Here we go: Raising the Dead. Should be pretty straightforward.”
  • “Aw Honey, don’t eat the shower curtain. My mother gave that to me.”
  • “Hey!” Steve shouts as he leans away from Amy’s gaping maw. “No eating me!”

American Zombie

American Zombie documents the “high functioning” zombie subculture living in Los Angeles. Part satire, part social commentary, part character study, the film amuses with its low key horror construct and meticulous attention to the mockumentary model.

Ivan the zombie clerk
Ivan the zombie clerk

The film follows several zombies as they “live” in the city. Ivan, a convenience store clerk, is the most amusing, while Judy and Lisa fill the movie with a sort of lame pathos. These characters most directly channel the kinds of lovable losers at the heart of the great Christopher Guest mockumentaries.

Joel interests me the most, though. The leader of the Zombie Advocacy Group (Z.A.G.), he works for zombie rights, campaigning against “zombie slave labor” in skeezy downtown factories, and leading marches with slogans like “We’re here. We’re Dead. Get used to it.” It’s through Joel that the film takes its biggest swipes at modern culture. There’s little difference between his advocacy for zombies and similar efforts on behalf of sweatshop workers or illegal immigrants. In fact, the entire plight of the zombie population in the film maps most closely onto the problem of illegal immigrants, something highlighted by the interview with the city census guy, who suggests that this is a growing population that needs our help, and our “social services.”

The documentary look also touches on elements of the zombie life that would be an issue when you have “high functioning” zombies: body care (keeping worms out, for example), maintaining property without legal status (such as renting an apartment). Through Judy, we see the challenges of trying to pass as human.

The film minimizes the shock value of the zombies. Each has her/his own pallid color, but they also live in apartments, eat food, and generally pass as human. We get glimpses of the appalling circumstances that led to their zombification, and the few talking head pieces with scientists support the story being told in the film. But the overall effect is to enhance the realism of the film. The subtle touch with makeup and fake blood does much more to make the film believable than did the over-the-top makeup in Dead and Deader or Day of the Dead 2008.

Zombies Against War
Zombies Against War

As the film progresses, the stories are haunted by a sinister undercurrent. A few mysterious elements keep popping up, prodded by one of the filmmakers and left unmolested by the other (but still included in the film). These culminate in the “live dead” festival that the filmmakers attend and find things to be less innocent than their early interviews made it seem.

The overall effect of the film is much like the low key mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman or A Mighty Wind. The low narrative arc progresses nicely and the story has a soft and satisfying end. I’m pretty keen on this movie, and I suspect it will grow on me in the coming days and weeks, rather than fading away as so many films do. It takes an unusual premise and runs with it admirably.


Run, boy, run!

A pretty solid b-movie. The development of the characters and the setup work pretty well, the film follows the usual pattern of people getting trapped together, zombies attacking, etc. The stock characters are all there and work like they’re supposed to.

In some ways, the film feels like it was just cobbled together from other zombie scripts, but what good B movie doesn’t feel that way? I noted several of the similarities in my live notes.

There are a lot of people in the movie that look like other people:

  • the CEO looks like Gary Cole; his assistant kinda like Fred Savage.
    That's not Gary Cole, nor Fred Savage
  • the creepy scientist Carter looks a bit like Jimmy Fallon.
    That's not Jimmy Fallon
  • the boss of the crew reminds me of a Ghostbusters -era Ernie Hudson. Not in looks so much, but in attitude and style.
    That's not Ernie Hudson.
  • one of the loggers looks like Steven King with an hilarious beard.
    That's not Steven King.

The film set up two threads that were never picked up again.  First, at one point in the middle of the film, just after Luke has gone missing, we get a first-person zombie cam shot.  I immediately imagined that Luke would become a super zombie and we’d be able to track his progress as he hunted the creepy scientist, much like John Leguizamo in Land of the Dead, or Roger in Dawn of the Dead, or the dad in 28 Weeks Later.

The other thread that starts but never goes anywhere is the attack in the lab, in which one of the lab assistants accidentally infects himself with the zombie goo.  He kills his buddy and then later we see a police crew there taking crime scene photos.  But what happened to the zombies?  I expected the film to end with the girl finding her way to civilization only to find zombies everywhere, ala every zombie movie ever made.

My liveblogging adventure below the fold.

Continue reading Severed