Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and a closer look at zombies in fiction.

It’s extremely unlikely that there exists a single person on this planet who hasn’t heard the word ‘zombie’ or seen a movie that features the living dead. We can thank (or curse, depending on your stance on the matter) the late, great George A. Romero for turning what was then an obscure subgenre of horror into one of the biggest film categories to ever exist. According to this list on Ranker, there were more than 400 zombie movies being streamed on Amazon Prime and Netflix Instant at the time of writing, and I’m confident there are quite a few missing as well. But, looking through this long list, one would be hard-pressed to find movies that are objectively good. Sure, there are some outliers like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, but the majority is just C-movie schlock that somehow slipped through the cracks and added to the slow yet steady decline of a genre that was already suffering from untimely erosion in terms of raw quality.

Shaun of the Dead was the first movie to signal both the emancipation and death of zombie cinema. Its story beats closely mirror those of other movies in the genre, but unlike them it rarely takes itself seriously. Shaun is a loser and a bit of an idiot. None of that changes throughout the course of the movie. His plan is to quite literally have a pint in his favorite pub and wait for the whole mess to blow over. It’s not elaborate, it’s not heroic, hell, it’s not even reasonable. It gets most members of his group killed, but even that doesn’t make Shaun reconsider. There are dramatic moments, and they work very well because, in the midst of all the madness and hilarity, these rare minutes of somber clarity catch the viewer by surprise. But they’re just that – moments, minutes. The whole movie is just 100 minutes of satirization and dismantling of genre tropes and cliches. It’s almost ironic that Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is cited today as possibly the greatest zombie movie ever created, when its whole point was to show how ridiculous the genre was and how easy it was for someone with actual talent and film making flair to come in and trample all the low-brow efforts that came before.

Then came Zombieland in 2009. While Shaun of the Dead was, like the rest of the movies in the Cornetto trilogy, Edgar Wright’s take on a tired genre, Zombieland seemed more like an effort to reinvigorate this particular dead horse. If I was only allowed but one word with which to describe this movie, that word would ‘fun’. It’s a lighthearted play on action movies in general, but instead of making fun of their relative simplicity, it takes the ridiculousness even further and uses it to create a story that is genuinely amusing. The characters are likable and witty, the dialogue and banter between them is engaging, with some neat reference sprinkled in to reward the more observant fans. Bill Murray’s cameo is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and possibly one of Bill’s best performances to date. The atmosphere switches effortlessly between optimism and melancholy, never lingering too long on either. The editing is crisp (if at some points too heavy-handed and distracting), the action is well shot and rather imaginative, with zombies being killed by all manner of items, such as banjos, pliers and even falling pianos. We’ve seen countless zombie movies try to be cerebral and deep, but none of them succeed because the people behind them have no idea how to achieve anything meaningful. George A. Romero was the first and last to successfully use the zombie as a vehicle for social commentary. The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit TV show, came close to being philosophical at times during its first two seasons, but then Frank Darabont was ousted and the role of director was given to a makeup artist who hasn’t the slightest clue about how to create a coherent, engaging narrative. Zombieland is the anti-thesis to all of this. It is, at its core, a movie that aims to entertain, while still successfully weaving in some more serious elements.

Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland failed to change the genre’s direction. Zombie movies are still fairly common, good ones are still a rare and valuable commodity. Train to Busan is the only recent one I can name off the top of my head, and it isn’t even a Western production.

But there is one movie in particular that has, over the past few years, made me appreciate just how mediocre the genre is, despite the incredible potential that it has. Brad Pitt’s World War Z is a bland, unbalanced and horribly paced mess that shambles its way to the finish line, carried only by Brad’s acting ability and its high budget action sequences that offer some degree of satisfaction. All of this in and of itself is not particularly bad, plenty of movies like this one get released every year and make huge sums at the box office, but what is particularly infuriating about WWZ is that the book this movie is supposed to be based on is one of the best pieces of zombie fiction ever created. It’s a series of interviews with various people from around the world, with occupations ranging from marines on a Chinese nuclear submarine to bodyguards of Hollywood celebrities. All of these people are survivors, meaning they made it through the outbreak of the zombie virus, and they recount their stories to the interviewer, a man working for the UN. The stories reveal the changes that the world went through during the crisis – religious, political, social, environmental, psychological. Does this sound anything like Brad’s movie? Not at all, because all the studio needed was a name that would sound well and make it easier to bank on the zombie craze.

I feel this is a case of ‘I’m not mad, I’m disappointed’. There is an incredible deal of potential not only in zombie movies, but in the apocalyptic genre in general. There’s so much room to explore deep themes, to create immersive and interesting environments a la Mad Max: Fury Road, to introduce the viewer to characters that aren’t your run of the mill Mary Sue or Mary Stu. And I believe there’s still hope for that. With David Fincher directing the sequel to World War Z (which is rumored to be a reboot, rather than a continuation of the first movie’s story) and Zombieland 2 in the works, maybe it’s finally time for the apocalypse to become interesting again.

 

 

The World’s End and the quest for meaning.

Edgar Wright has the unique ability of creating movies that are consistently fun, as well as funny. Almost every single element of his movies is crafted in a way that is rewarding to the viewer – the editing, the plot and dialogue, the acting, the background. All of it comes together to create an experience that holds the attention like few other pieces of media can. Wright relentlessly tackles genre convention, turning each one of his movies into a queer mix of homage to and parody of the good old days. But most importantly he’s demonstrated, much like his good friend Quentin Tarantino, that movies can be both entertaining and engaging, both intellectually and artistically.

The World’s End is a stark example of Wright’s ability to weave some surprisingly profound questions and commentary into a movie that, on the surface, is all about a group of childhood buddies getting back together after many years apart. This essay will only touch on one of them, as the themes are fairly broad and lend themselves to long-winded speculation and discussion (e.g free will and what it means to be human).

In the very beginning of The World’s End (henceforth referred to as TWE for the sake of brevity), we see a group of five friends in a small town. Every group of rowdy school kids needs a leader, and this one’s is Gary King – an arrogant braggadocio with a penchant for disrupting civil order. Gary leads his merry band into trouble of all sorts, the culmination of  the boys’ folly being The Golden Mile, a pub crawl through the quaint town of Newton Haven. The opening sequence ends with Gary and two of his friends, Andy and Steven, sitting atop a hill overlooking their hometown after the unsuccessful pub crawl. Gary, who narrates the flashback, says that it was then he knew that nothing in his life would ever beat that moment.

The rest of the movie is a direct consequence of Gary’s inability to move on. He leaves Newton Haven like all the rest of his friends, but he never really escapes it mentally. Andy, Steven, Peter and Oliver (all bearing second names like Chamberlain and Knightley, to underscore Gary King’s influence and stature earlier on in their lives) become successful businessmen. They settle down and adjust to the ‘real world’, to adulthood. Gary does no such thing – he remains the same old person, even down to the clothes he wears. He drinks excessively, swears like a sailor and, most jarringly of all, continues to act like an awkward teenager.

The viewer is left under the impression that Gary is just an infantile bum who can’t kick it in the real world throughout most of the move. Some subtle hints make it obvious that he has some sort of mental problem, but it isn’t until the climax that we truly realize what Gary’s issue is.

“It never got better, Andy. It never
got better than that night. It was
supposed to be the beginning of my
life. All that promise and fucking
optimism. That feeling that we
could take on the whole universe.
It was a big lie. NOTHING HAPPENED!”

Gary’s philosophy throughout the movie is fairly straightforward – he just wants to have a good time. This line, though, lays bare the essence of his problems, and shows exactly what it is that he lacks in life: fulfillment, purpose, meaning.

Children are usually raised to believe that anything and everything is within their reach as long as they work hard enough for it. This is not necessarily the parent’s fault, rather a consequence of a young kid’s innate gullibility. It’s only natural that someone as inexperienced as a child or a teenager would be left under the impression that the world is their playground, that it’s a ‘monkey see, monkey get’ sort of existence. Why wouldn’t it be? A child does not understand the mechanisms of the world’s they’ve only relatively recently been born into. Nevertheless, these mechanisms exist and they slowly take their toll on the young mind, chipping away at its dreams and hammering in the idea of a more grounded way of life. It works in most cases, but there are, as always, outliers. Gary King is one of them. The freedom of his youth is as sweet as nectar. The taste lingers on his tongue, much fainter than it was initially, but just about there, just about strong enough to remind Gary of the life he’s grown out of, the life he lost. His friends are gone, his influence is non-existent in his new home far from Newton Haven. But instead of letting his old life fade into obscurity and live on as a fond memory in his head, he desperately holds on to that semblance of normality that he associates with his teenage years. But a berry that is edible in the summer could turn out to be poisonous in the winter – alcohol, once a way for him to enjoy the company of his friends even more, becomes an end in itself; his behavior lands him in a mental ward. This is what hedonism led him to – a life of regret and disappointment. Gary’s life was devoted to his friends, to partying, to having a good time while he could. But that’s not a solution to the core problem – existence itself.

I shan’t pretend to know any more about the essence of life than anyone else. Why are we here, what is our place, our purpose? Is the meaning contained in the act of living itself? All questions that arise at one point or another. It is the individual’s duty, to himself first and foremost, to find an answer that suits him. Evading the questions altogether is a perfectly valid response. After all, why should one concern himself with that, when the ultimate truth is ultimately unobtainable? But some remain thirsty – for knowledge, for meaning, for a reason. Gary wants a reason to live, he needs one. The idea of an empty Universe, cold and inhospitable, has crept into his mind, whether he knew it consciously or not.

Freedom is a term that is thrown around around the world in relation to pretty much any topic imaginable. To be free is to be human, to be free is to be alive. But are we free? Is it possible for someone in the modern world to be truly free? How can man be free if he has to work 60 hours a week to sustain himself and his family? How can he be free if borders restrict his access to certain parts of the world, if laws are imposed upon him by people far away from him, people he’ll never meet, never converse with? Gary prided himself on being a free spirit. A teenager who could have a few pints with his mates then go into the disabled’s bathroom in the very same pub and have sex with one of his classmates. All Newton Haven knew the name Gary King. But what happens when the King comes out of his castle and walks among the commoners dressed like them? The respect is gone, the love is gone. The freedom is gone, a fleeting shadow of its former self, an empty term that lacks its punch in a world that, sadly, cannot function like a fairy tale. Gary’s idea of life is shattered. His purpose, his pursuit of a good time, is impossible. All this is brilliantly summed up in another line from the climax in the World’s End pub, when Andy sees Gary’s wrist bandages and badge from the mental ward:

“I got help. You know what help was?
Help was a lot of people, sitting
in a circle talking about how bad
things had got. That is not my idea
of a good time.”

“They told me when to go to bed,
Andy. Me, Gary fucking King!”

Andy, Oliver, Peter, Steven, they all adapted, accepted the facts of life and pursued the traditional trajectory of individual development. Gary couldn’t, he wouldn’t. His meaning was his freedom. That’s why he seems so happy after the first big fight in the toilet – everyone in the town is a blank, it’s practically a free-for-all. He feels the old blood coursing through his veins, compelling him to act, to live. The scenario is new, but the concept is old – man leaves his comfort zone (meaning the mundane and banal) and ventures off into unknown territories to rediscover himself. Gary’s trip is at first mental, but later becomes physical after the end of modern civilization. A real-world example of this would be Christopher McCandless, who ran away from his cushy middle class life in the pursuit of fulfillment. His tale ends tragically, but one must hope that he found whatever he was searching for.