Friday, July 29, 2011

On the Creation of Zombies

My first zombie movie experience came when I was but a wee lad of 10 or so years. A classic, Night of the Living Dead [1968], which I watched on a visit to my aunts and uncle in Philadelphia. It scared me shitless. Me and my sibs didn't want to go into the darkness up the stairs to brush our teeth afterward even.

I saw a Redbox at Walmart yesterday (which was blue, because it was in a Walmart. Go figure.) My eye immediately went to one of the New Releases: [REC] 2 [2009]. It's a sequel to [REC] [2007]. Both of these Spanish horror films have received high praise and (of course) spawned a Hollywood remake, entitled Quarantine [2009] along with an original Hollywood sequel, Quarantine 2: Terminal [2011]. Sadly, I haven't had the chance to watch the originals and I've only seen the first Quarantine, but that one was great. Really!! I will admit that since I hadn't seen the Spanish version I didn't get to fire from the high ground (hehehe) but as a stand-alone film, I liked it.

Anyway, so seeing [REC] 2 made me think about how the things featured in the film aren't classic undead zombies, yet, that movie is undeniably a zombie film. I like to call these pseudo-zombies. A slew of recent films came to mind: I Am Legend [2007], the 28 Days Later [2002] series and the Resident Evil [2002] series (those zombies were actually undead though). In all of these films the 'zombies' came to be due to a virus or some other product of genetic engineering. In contrast, guess what caused the dead to rise from their graves in Night of the Living Dead? A space probe returning to Earth explodes in the upper atmosphere, spreading radioactive contaminant.

Most people today would not so easily believe that radiation could cause the dead to rise. Radiation simply doesn't do that, and everyone knows it. Back in 1968 though, radiation was kinda new. Mainstream understanding hadn't advanced to the point where your average person had heard of things like fusion and fission, and fewer still would have known the difference. People assigned 'radiation' and nuclear-anything with a kind of mystical power and were afraid. These days the cold war is over, 'nuclear deterrent' isn't much of a buzzword anymore. Guess what scientific breakthrough started making headlines? Genetic engineering, weaponized viruses and such. Though even that isn't making headlines so much. What's making headlines? Hmm, *scrounge scrounge* Ah, a white woman may or may not have killed her baby? Truly, news worthy of national attention.

You remember how Spiderman originally got his powers? A radioactive spider bit him. That's ridiculous, and I hope you all know that. But, if you watched the recent movie, Spiderman [2002], did you pay attention to how they tweaked his origin story? That lab had "15 genetically enhanced super-spiders".

OOOOOOH LOOK AT THAT DNA STRAND ooga booga booga! And so you get the modern day version of your undead zombie: a ravenous, feral humanoid. Except for the Resident Evil franchise, most zombies aren't undead no more. The buzzword of choice: INFECTED.

I take it as a very reassuring fact that a good portion of contemporary audiences want intelligent entertainment (or at least some intelligence in their entertainment). We get our doses of medicine, chemistry, and mathematics from some of the most popular TV shows today. Accordingly, zombies, even actually dead ones like in Resident Evil, have needed to spruce up the mechanics behind the transformation. Resident Evil [2002] explained it away thusly: the T-Virus provides an electrical jolt to the brain which restores the barest of mental facilities: motor function and the need to feed. Then you get 28 Days Later: the Rage virus causes people to become enraged and pumps them full of adrenaline. I Am Legend: a man-made virus kills off 90% of the population and changes a large portion of the rest into hungry, aggressive gray-skinned humanoids with extremely high metabolism.

Things have come a long way from mysterious radioactive contaminant, eh?