Wednesday, August 5, 2009

on the LZM, or Lazy Zombie Movie

Over at Coilhouse, Meredith Yayanos writes a spirited defense of the zombie genre in an era of arguable oversaturation. Certainly you'll never hear me say I'm sick of zombies, and I'm firmly of the opinion that with some ingenuity there's no such thing as an exhausted idea (take that you fucking horse!), but I certainly am sick of the lazy zombie movie. The great strength of the horror film (or really any genre that attracts diehard fandom) can also be its weakness -- if you're gonna make a movie, a horror film is an easy movie to make, and a zombie movie is particularly easy. If you have some friends, dress 'em up in play clothes and throw some facepaint, red dye and corn syrup on 'em and blamo -- zombies! For a good example of how this process can go wrong, read Tenebrous Kate's review of Evilution and Basement Jack. This also means it's incredibly easy to make an ironic zombie movie, where halfassery is considered a benefit (you know, like the kung-fu movie we all made the day after the parents bought a VHS camera), and so the great sea of entertainment is awash in crowds of staggering extras dressed in Goodwill clothes while our protagonists raid the garage and work on clever quips. Because it's easy to do, it's also easy to think you're doing something novel ("It's zombies, sure, but these zombies know how to drive!"). At the end of the day, watching the living dead feast on the brains of ignorant teenagers is certainly more satisfying than the relationship problems of overmoneyed youths or whatever other junk is playing at the multiplex, but I don't think I'm getting on too high a horse to say most viewers are looking for a little more than that. I, of course, blame Joss Whedon, but I digress.

Part of the problem with these films (beyond the unmistakable whiff of mediocrity) relates to something my friend Kia once said about how her numerical system of roaches only has four numbers: zero, one, two, and many. The lazy zombie movie works the same way -- zombies are just zombies, and are basically just there to eat or get killed. Excellent zombie movies know better, and make the effort to make the zombies distinct. Fulci knew this, and Romero at least used to know this, which is one of the reasons Arbogast and Final Girl can make lists of favorite zombies. I'm not making a big discovery by saying that detail is important, but it's particularly important when you're dealing with a familiar genre trope, and a little goes a long way.

Another part of the problem is the lazy zombie movie forgets what makes zombies scary isn't that they eat brains or look disgusting -- they used to be us, regular walking-around people who had shitty jobs and favorite records and weblogs. At the same time, they're not us, they're walking meat, they're a bundle of nervous tics and reflexes and hungers, and I think anyone who has looked into a coffin and wondered how to measure the distance between the living and the dead, between distinct individual personality and "mud that sat up", understands the potential for unsettling/fascinating tension the zombie can have. I was just thinking about Re-Animator after reading this piece at Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, and how what made the walking dead so creepy in that film was how physical the performances of the zombies were, how much they seemed like the spasmolytic jerks of headless chickens as opposed to the generic stagger of too many LZMs. This isn't about suspension of disbelief (I've never bought into that concept, and I don't think it's necessary for a horror film to work) so much as it's about ambiguity, having to work out your own definitions. This sounds kinda overly intellectual, and I don't mean to imply that a zombie movie requires chin-scratching critical appreciation, but for the visceral thrill to function it needs to have some weight behind it. Saying I hate LZMs means I hate zombie movies is like saying I hate the fight scenes in the Charlie's Angels movies so I must hate kung-fu -- it just ain't so, and ultimately what I hate about 'em is how they never really go for it, how they never really follow the idea all the way, how they have to keep reminding the audience that we're just playing, we're not really taking this seriously. Again, I'm not saying anything most people don't already know, but hopefully this will help give some context to my reviews.

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