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.
This should go without saying, but SPOILERS!
Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later isn’t just one of my favorite scary movies; it’s also one of my favorite films, full stop. When Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wanders through the deserted streets of London, the effect is chilling and beautiful whether it’s my first or fifteenth viewing. The threat of the “rage virus” and the snarling hordes of infected people feels big and real, while the digital video and lived-in performances give the film an indie restraint that belies its apocalyptic subject matter. Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Christopher Eccleston are fantastic in their respective roles.
Some people complain, though, that the movie falls apart in its third act when the survivors finally arrive at the military outpost near Manchester only to find a handful of crazed soldiers and their queasily charismatic leader (Eccleston). Detractors argue that the movie shoehorns in political commentary with a trite message that reads like “Who’s the real monster here?” Does 28 Days Later muddy the water by throwing a human threat, the deranged inhabitants of the military camp, into a landscape already populated by raving, mindless flesh-eaters? I understand these criticisms because the movie raises several murky issues of morality that it doesn’t seem ready to solve in a definitive way. For me, though, the final sequence (in which Jim goes cuckoo, allows the soldiers to become infected, and slaughters them one by one) is consistent with one of the themes the movie has established: humanity isn’t just “people killing people,” as the major says – in extreme circumstances, the intentions behind our violent actions do make a difference. The movie teases moral ambiguity on the surface, but I’d say it draws a fairly clear line in the sand about who is naughty or nice, and it does so by showing the attitudes each group (Jim’s group vs. military) has toward the infected.
Our heroes, Selena, Jim, and Hannah, take no pleasure in killing. They understand that they are killing sick, living people, rather than faceless ghouls; but that sentiment can’t get in the way of survival. Selena tells Jim that she would hack him to death “in a heartbeat” if he ever gets infected. It’s not personal, just survival. In most “zombie” movies, the undead are treated with contempt, as if they were enemies with real agency rather than just walking corpses, and the heroes often gloat when they take the zombie down. This makes some sense in the context of a true zombie film, because the “enemy” is already dehumanized. But the kills in 28 Days Later are treated as self-defense; Selena reacts to her attacks with shocking violence but she never gloats.
Jim, most of all, is sensitive to the humanity of his adversaries, far gone though they might be. In the beginning of the film, he says, “Sorry, Father,” somewhat comically, after striking an infected priest who attempts to attack him. Jim later kills an infected child in the diner and is clearly disturbed by what he has done. No matter how monstrous or aggressive these people have become in their illness, Jim still sees them as people who no longer have control over their actions. This sensitivity could be explained by his comatose state during the outbreak, making him a newcomer still adjusting to this nightmare world, but the film seems keen to establish Jim as a fundamentally decent and empathetic man.
Contrast this against the attitude of the solders who treat killing the infected as a kind of game. Tucked safely away in their country manor with guns, food, walls, and barbed wire, they don’t need to kill to survive. Jim is sickened when he sees the soldiers’ glee over using the infected as target practice and their laughter at watching them get blown up in the landmines. At first their reaction seems natural to me as a viewer, because this is how I’m used to seeing survivors of the zombie apocalypse react – with a coping mechanism that finds humor or entertainment in the grim situation, or relieving stress by harming the people/things that terrify us. But it’s clear from Jim and Selena’s revulsion that there is something darker behind the men’s enjoyment, a lack of empathy and a sick pleasure in dehumanizing the enemy. Does this mean that Selena, Jim, and Hannah are righteous, compared to the soldiers? When Jim reaches his breaking point near the end and slaughters the soldiers wholesale, is he justified in his actions?
It’s never entirely clear if the film is inviting us to join Jim in his judgment on the men or if we have to judge him, too, for his barbarity. Are we meant to remember the general’s pronouncement that the infection changed nothing, that all you have, ultimately, is “people killing people”? The film wants us to ask whether Jim is really any different than the infected, or if he is really any different from the warped and depraved soldiers, but I call a bit of bullshit on that. Jim dispatches solders and infected both without discrimination because they are equally dangerous threats that have to be put down. The soldiers are pathetic by the time they meet their end, panicked, hunted, spreading infection, and they are clear objects of pity despite their previous distasteful actions. Yet still, neither Jim nor Selena gloat over their deaths. Maybe Hannah, a little bit — but she is a teenaged girl, after all. Personally, I’ve never taken issue with the film’s morality. The ending seems consistent with the rest of the film, since the characters do what they have to in order to survive.
So, the film represents three kinds of people. In the first group you have the infected who, through no fault of their own, have become slaves to their destructive instincts and no longer control their own actions. In the second, you have the fundamentally decent people who kill because they have to but choose to retain their human characteristics: warmth, empathy, and familial connection. And finally, there are people who have the capacity to choose good over evil, but give in to their more primitive and dangerous desires. On the surface the three groups might look the same, especially when they’re soaked in blood, but it matters what’s in their hearts and minds. That’s actually kind of sentimental, if you think about it. (Danny Boyle, you big softie)
Final thought. One very interesting moral sticking point is this: the infected are killed because they don’t have control over their actions, while the soldiers are killed because they do. What should one take from that?