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.
It’s October, which means I’ve been watching horror movies almost non-stop for the last three weeks. In fact, I think my Netflix account is starting to judge me a little, each day coming closer to the conclusion that I’m a psychopath. Everyone’s familiar with horror tropes by now, but those genre conventions are brought into even sharper relief when you watch movies back to back to back. I’ve put together a few suggested double features based on the noticeable parallels.
The “She’s a Real Sweet Girl” Double Feature: May and Audition
The female leads in both films are shy, sweet, soft spoken, and endearingly off-kilter. But you’d better run like hell, because they have a penchant for dismemberment.
The “Location, Location, Location” Double Feature: Session 9 and The Descent
The Danvers State Mental Hospital in Session 9 and the caverns in The Descent are both monsters in their own right, even before the spooky shit starts to happen. The characters, already damaged by personal trauma, begin to unravel in claustrophobic spaces. The Descent throws in literal monsters for good measure, but both films have a haunted, melancholy atmosphere that would have been frightening enough without things that go bump in the night.
The “You’re Not From Around Here” Double Feature: Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man
Donald Sutherland and Edward Woodward both search frantically for a lost little girl (one dead, the other imaginary) in unfamiliar places (Venice/Summerisle). Stymied at every turn by creepy old ladies and local authorities, they struggle to take power into their own hands. Little do they know that a mysterious plot is tightening its noose around them. See also: Antichrist vs. Don’t Look Now. Explicit married sex. Death of a child. Restorative vacation turned destructive.
The “Let’s Go to the Mall” Double Feature: Return of the Living Dead and Night of the Comet
Teenagers! 80s Music! 80s Fashion! Talking Zombies! The government ruins everything! See also: Dawn of the Dead.
The “My Girlfriend is a Corpse” Double Feature: Deadgirl and Make-Out with Violence
Make-Out with Violence is a much sweeter and more subdued film, but both are twisted coming of age tales about teenage boys and their friendships. Plus an undead girl tied to the bed. Deadgirl seems to be about impotence (or misogyny, or something), while Make-Out with Violence is more about coping with grief, but both films are creepy parables about playing house with a girl too zonked to even participate in the relationship. See also: Doghouse vs. Deadgirl, on the zombie chauvinism front. Alternately, Lake Mungo vs. Make-Out with Violence, from the “ghosts and zombies are a metaphor for not letting go of loved ones” angle.
The “Shit’s All Freaky” Double Feature: Poltergeist and Insidious
Haunted houses. Creepy children. Malevolent spirits. Objects that move around by themselves. Alternate dimensions. Psychics and hapless ghost hunters. Insidious even features a subtle homage to Poltergeist when one of the embattled ghost hunters soothes his bruises with a steak to the face. Sadly, the steak does not crawl across the table. See also: House of the Devil, another straight-faced modern film with a loving callback to spooky 80s movies.
The “Vampires Are So 2010” Double Feature: Cronos and Thirst
Two directors known for daring and originality: Guillermo Del Toro and Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy). Two takes on vampire mythology so radical that the classic creatures of the night are barely even recognizable.
Here are the other movies I’ve watched in the last few weeks, even though I couldn’t quite pair them up for an effective double feature:
Dario Argento’s Inferno (probably best with any other Argento film, especially Suspiria)
Peeping Tom (pair with another moody classic, like Eyes Without a Face, Diabolique, or something by Hitchcock)
Them (suggested with atmospheric European thrillers, like The Vanishing or another home invasion story, The Strangers.)
October isn’t over yet. More to come.