Are we be­com­ing as dumb as the zom­bies on TV?

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - John Rob­son

Man, I’ve had it with all th­ese zom­bies at­tack­ing my tele­vi­sion screen, faster, tougher and more … how shall I put it? Pre­pos­ter­ous.

Per­haps to com­ment on zom­bies at all seems pre­pos­ter­ous. But they are a cul­tural “thing” nowa­days, with big- stu­dio big- ac­tor films and hit TV se­ries. And there’s some­thing wrong with them.

OK, many t hings. For starters, all the ob­scen­ity. Were I to en­counter ac­tual zom­bies I might let salty words slip. But a film like Zom­bieland wouldn’t be any less scary or en­ter­tain­ing with­out the f- es­ti­val from ti­tle shot to cred­its.

The es­ca­lat­ing gore also wor­ries me. We’re so shocked by a so­cial jus­tice stunt of charg­ing white men more for tick­ets that a the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion gets can­celled. (I just wouldn’t have gone.) But let some­one fish a bone from a still-quiv­er­ing corpse, snap it au­di­bly, and plunge slaver­ing in, and we keep snack­ing nois­ily our­selves.

And then there’s the sci­ence. Or con­spic­u­ous lack thereof. When they first stag­gered into our lives in 1968’s Night of the Liv­ing Dead (of ear­lier en­deav­ours, like 1943’s “I Walked with a Zom­bie,” the less said the bet­ter), zom­bies were slow, clumsy and frail, though dan­ger­ous enough to ruin your night if they showed up in large num­bers. Ex­actly as you’d ex­pect if corpses some­how got re­an­i­mated. But by World War Z they seem to be Su­per­men on crack. Why?

Like­wise Zom­bieland’s hideous un­dead are man­i­festly de­cay­ing, reg­u­larly belch­ing vast quan­ti­ties of their own as well as other peo­ple’s bod­ily flu­ids. Yet they don’t fall apart in a few days, so the he­roes must only out­last the ini­tial wave. How’s that meant to work?

It’s not, you may say. Sus­pend dis­be­lief and en­joy the ac­tion. For­mer Ottawa Cit­i­zen col­league Kate Jaimet once quoted her brother about lousy sci- fi sci­ence: “Don’t think about it too hard — they didn’t.” And yes, Woody Har­rel­son is bril­liant in Zom­bieland, de­spite some­one need­ing to wash the script out with strong soap. But even mind­less en­ter­tain­ment shouldn’t be mind­less.

No, re­ally. I’m will­ing to sus­pend dis­be­lief about, say, a bite from a were­wolf mak­ing you one, or “dilithium crys­tals” warp­ing the time- space con­tin­uum. But then I want a plot that hangs to­gether tech­ni­cally.

Given ly­can­thropy as a kind of trag­i­cally in­fec­tious evil, it makes sense that a were­wolf is big, fierce and fe­ro­cious. I don’t even mind An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don adding that it can only be killed by some­one who loves it, pro­vided it then hap­pens. ( Or Re­turn of the Liv­ing Dead giv­ing us the zom­bies’ fix­a­tion on brains with­out which Plants vs. Zom­bies just wouldn’t be the same as what­ever it is.) And if vam­pires could ex­ist, they could per­sist, scarce and coldly ruth­less, while hu­mans are com­mon and juicily clue­less so there’s lots for Drac­ula or Le­s­tat to eat.

By con­trast, Zom­bieland ducks ba­sic ques­tions like: how does the plague reach Europe from Amer­ica? If it starts with a tainted ham­burger, does it then spread through aerosols, saliva or what? Why didn’t peo­ple shoot them? And cru­cially, as in World War Z, once zom­bies have taken over ev­ery­thing, what fu­els their rot­ting corpses or holds them to­gether? I don’t care if it could re­ally work. But I want there to be some idea of how it might.

OK, Franken­stein wasn’t scripted by No­bel Prizewin­ning sci­en­tists ei­ther, the book or 1931 Boris Karloff classic. It is not ob­vi­ous how sewing bits of corpses to­gether then blast­ing them with l i ght­ning could re­an­i­mate the re­sult­ing mess. But if it did hap­pen, the mon­ster might well do what it does. In­clud­ing il­lu­mi­nat­ing le­git­i­mate con­cerns about the un­nat­u­ral feats in­creas­ing sci­en­tific prow­ess might soon per­mit.

Like­wise, 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fath­oms is one of a string of early Cold War clunkers about the per­ils of ar­ro­gant hu­mans get­ting their shaky hands on nu­clear weapons. In­clud­ing “Them,” which I fear I have also seen. They’re bad movies in many re­spects, like di­a­logue, plot, “spe­cial” ef­fects and silly sci­ence. But they clum­sily tackle real is­sues like reck­less above- ground nu­clear tests.

So what’s the excuse for to­day’s zom­bie films? What in cur­rent cul­ture do they ad­dress? Orig­i­nally zom­bies were corpses re­an­i­mated by voodoo as slaves and you feared be­ing one. Zom­bies as un­con­trol­lable men­aces to civ­i­liza­tion, long­ing for any­thing re­sem­bling brains, are a new wrin­kle. Are we con­cerned that we’ve be­come mind­lessly de­struc­tive?

Is that why it’s so dis­qui­et­ing to see them roam­ing point­lessly around malls? And why we keep up­ping the ante with more ath­letic and in­de­struc­tible zom­bies, fouler lan­guage and nu­dity, like kids who slurp caf­feinated en­ergy drinks, can’t sit through cred­its be­fore a movie and de­mand end­less scenes of char­ac­ters scream­ing while sur­viv­ing deathde­fy­ing plunges they’re too stupid to avoid?

Are we be­com­ing zom­bies, too numb for all but the most lurid thrills and too dumb even for pseu­do­science?



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