What is Scary?: Zombies
Not all zombie movies are scary. In a way, zombies are fundamentally not scary. They are slow, uncoordinated, and mindless; in other words, easy to run away from, easy to fight, and you don’t have to worry about outsmarting them. Not even the filmmakers take them all that seriously in many cases, offering the movies purely as vehicles for creative kills and cheap-looking dismemberment gags. (Any movie featuring strangulation via entrails is cool by me. Bonus points for a character strangled by his own entrails.)
But zombies can be frightening for a lot of obvious reasons: many of us are still squeamish about death, dead bodies, and putrefaction. The undead also trigger our fears of disease, pandemic, chaos, and apocalypse. However, what really freaks me out in a good zombie film is the “Uncanny valley” factor.
Quick primer: The word “uncanny” refers to a concept loosely defined as “the opposite of familiar” (or the German word “unheimlich”). The term “Uncanny Valley” was coined in reference to robots and how they fit on a spectrum of human-like qualities. The theory is that we find comfort and familiarity in robots that have a certain amount of human traits (body shape, limbs, facial features), up until the point where it looks too life-like. Because we can sense that this life-like machine is still something less than human, the disparity triggers our fear and revulsion. The robot is familiar in form, yet at the same time completely alien to us.
The concept of Uncanny Valley applies to zombies quite easily: as much as they look like us, they are not us. Not anymore. The horror factor is even higher if the zombie used to be your wife, mother, boyfriend, or child, because the degree of familiarity heightens the disconnect between who they were before and what they have become.
Zombie movies play on the same fears as movies about madmen (nobody home, nothing to reason with) and ghosts (used to be human). We can empathize with our fellow living humans who are sound of mind, but when the dead rise, vacant of their former personalities, all bets are off.
Further note: there’s some controversy among horror nerds about what is considered a “true” zombie. Many people cite Romero’s rules: zombies are truly dead, show little to no evidence of brain activity, and move slowly. Additionally, in Romero’s films, people can reanimate after death, regardless of whether they were bitten or infected by another zombie. However, I believe the concept of infection is at the heart of zombie mythology; this means I’m willing to include films like 28 Days Later and [REC] in the subgenre, despite the fact that these are really plague stories, with infected people who are technically alive, somewhat conscious, and extremely spry.
A smattering of zombie movies that are interesting:
[REC] is a tense, tight Spanish film about a television reporter and her cameraman who get trapped in an apartment building during a deadly outbreak. This movie has one of the most terrifying endings I’ve ever seen. The American adaptation, Quarantine, just doesn’t have the same punch, even though it’s essentially a shot-by-shot remake. [REC] 2 is a decently scary follow-up, and even Quarantine 2 (not actually a remake of [REC] 2, weirdly) is a pretty good time, albeit in a different way.
Nazi zombies. I shouldn’t have to say anything else, but this is an enjoyable Norwegian film that doubles as a “cabin in the woods” type story about a group of students who go on a skiing trip and get picked off one-by-one. Entrail and toilet humor abounds.
Rammbock: Berlin Undead
This German zom-rom-com (sort of like Shaun of the Dead) is short – barely an hour long – and fun. Not too groundbreaking, but solid and entertaining.
Shaun of the Dead
Duh. The gold standard for horror comedy, because it works as commentary on zombie tropes while making use of them successfully.
This movie didn’t really work for me as it did for others, but the premise is interesting: the zombie plague is spread through language, and a radio DJ finds himself at the center of the maelstrom. Action is scarce, since most of the film takes place inside the radio station, but the atmosphere is creepy and the situation intriguing.
I had a hard time including this one because it’s pretty nasty and, depending on your tolerance for disturbing shit, thoroughly reprehensible. Two teenage boys stumble upon a zombie woman tied up in an old mental hospital and have to decide what to do about her. To say that what follows is kinky gives kinkiness a bad name. The movie is fascinating in a trainwreck kind of way, and it either comments on misogyny or revels in it. Also, I’m glad that Noah Segan (Looper), who has been effectively douchy in indie films like this and Brick, is finally getting more mainstream attention.
Finally, I continue to defend the remake of Dawn of the Dead.