Had dinner Friday night l'etoile, here in Charlottesville. (Yes, I had the sweetmeats. Yum....lamb balls). Since Loren Lomasky was paying, we all did serious work in terms of wine and food. (Thanks Loren! And, to be fair, your "work" was more serious than any of ours. Well done, grabbing the full wine bottle from the waiter's hand and hugging to yourself, so it became, as you shrieked, "Mine! My baby. Mine.")
Anyway, at dinner we had the sort of excellent analytic conversation that often happens when you get academics and terrific wine together. I happened to be sitting across from Garrett Fagan, a truly capital fellow, a classicist from Ireland, now at Penn State. Kudos also to Ben P and Rachana K, though I won't "out" them completely.
Here is the question: what makes for a great zombie movie? What are the classes of zombie movies, and how are they distinguished from other similar, but non-zombie, movies? Dr. Fagan was clearly the smartest person at the table, since his knowledge of zombies revealed a deeply troubled mind, but the classification scheme we all came up with is important enough to share.
1. Most movies where baddie status is irrevocably conferred by being bitten by a baddie are NOT zombie movies. Obviously, this is true for vampire and werewolf movies (if a vampire bites you, you become a vampire, not a zombie), but it is even true for "almost zombie" movies like "28 Days Later." The point is that 28 Days Later, though a scary movie where the baddies all want to bite the remaining people, is simply not a zombie movie. Nonetheless, any true zombie movies must have biting-baddies. Necessary but not sufficient. That's the conclusion of the assembled worthies.
2. All true zombie movies require putrefaction, and severe mutilation of the zombie bodies. The advantage of this, in addition to be being visually horrifying, is that it introduces idiosyncratic locomotion and gestures. One zombie might be pulling himself along, because his legs are gone. Another limps and shuffles in a rotation way, because all the flesh is gone from one leg, and the opposite shoulder has been torn off, so that he has trouble keeping balance. Further character differentiation occurs because, though putrefaction occurs at a constant rate, the start time for putrefaction is the "death" of the human the zombie used to be. Thus, some zombies are relatively fresh and only slightly sour-smelling. Others are truly rotten, with pieces falling off just because the worms have crawled in, the worms have crawled out, the worms have played pinochle in his snout.
3. In all true zombie movies, the zombies are slow. No, don't argue, you are wrong. ZOMBIES. ARE. SLOW. There are scary, putrid sickness-acquired-by- biting-afflicted things in movies that are not zombies, because they are fast. Saying "I like fast zombies" is like saying "Zima is my favorite beer." Now, you are welcome to like Zima.^1 But Zima is not beer. Our table-jury was split on the question of whether slow thinking was sufficient. Garrett and I held out for the pure "slow means slow!" position, based on #2 above. How could something with no flesh below the knee be fast? Please. And, of course, since my authority is limited on these questions of...well, authority, I appeal to a real authority, none other than Simon Pegg, of "Shaun of the Dead" fame, who wrote this.
4. In the best zombie movies (and, yes, Day of the Dead, the 1985 Romero version, is THE best zombie movie, and if you don't think so you are likely not enough of a zombie fan to have read this far in the first place) actually teach you something about zombies.
a. What do they want? (they want to bite and eat human flesh)
b. Will other kinds of flesh satisfy, or at least distract them? (no. dead animals, pieces of dead humans, or even live animals will not distract zombies in the least. They want living human flesh, and they are drawn irresistably, though slowly, to human flesh.)
c. Does human flesh somehow sustain, or strengthen, zombies? In the strictest sense, no. Zombies do not digest, or derive satisfaction, or even really notice, human flesh. Zombies simply MUST draw close and bite. That's how they roll. Or shuffle.
5. Edged weapons, rocks, even physical blows....all of these are NOT part of the true zombie arsenal, though many of these will be used by the doomed human defenders. A real zombie movie is absolutely obliged to restrict its horror to exactly one kind of attack: overwhelming (in fact, limitless) numbers of slow-moving, silent, putrefying zombies shuffle toward the victim. The victim kills thousands, using every weapon, garden shears, or table leg that is close to hand. But ultimately the victim is overwhelmed, and is consumed or becomes a zombie (either outcome, after a spirited discussion at table, was deemed acceptable.)
An excellent review of some more serious literature on zombie movies here.
FURTHER READING, for newbies:
Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, by Annalee Newitz, Durham: Duke University Press, 183 pages, $21.95
Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, by Jamie Russell, Surrey: FAB Press, 309 pages, $29.95
The Dominion of the Dead, by Robert Pogue Harrison, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 159 pages, $14
World War Z, by Max Brooks, New York: Random House, $14.95
Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks, New York: Random House, $17.00 (to be published in early October!)
LAGNIAPPE: Red Dawn is NOT a zombie movie. It is one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies ever made, and it was Patrick Swayze's second movie (1 was "Outsiders"). But the band of renegade teenagers are MUCH too stupid to be real zombies. And zombies cannot shout, "WOLVERINES!" (WOW! Jennifer Grey, or "Baby" from Dirty Dancing, was also in Red Dawn. I did not know that...And, yes, Dirty Dancing WAS in fact a zombie movie.)
^1: I lied. No, you aren't.
UPDATE: Thanks to the commenter for pointing out I am an idiot, and linked Zima when I said "Day of the Dead." But, I submit that "Zimaroll" has considerable potential, now that "Rickrolling" is such a tired cliche. (No, I will not link a Rickroll)
UPDATE II: This, in commments, from Alex Zarley: An excellent new zombie movie, although it is in Greek (doesnt really take anything away from movie because dialogue isnt that essential in them), is to kako (the evil). The sequel, Evil in the time of heroes, a zombie movie that takes place in ancient greece starring billy zane, is due for release in Greece October 1. Alex: You are SO RIGHT! So, watch for To Kako II.