So, there I was, bumming around the American Conservative, seeing if there was anything there interesting enough to flame, and I stumbled on Noah Millman bitching about zombie films (WARNING: mild spoiler for Walking Dead's third season premiere; there are no spoilers whatsoever in my post below).
Now, obviously, I applaud anyone with passionate views on what does and doesn't work in horror films, and I likewise endorse ludicrous nitpicking, but there has to be a limit somewhere.
If proof were still needed that the whole “zombie virus” trope was a catastrophic mistake, there it is.Catastrophic? Really? Overdone, I'll grant you. But let's keep some perspective here.
Millman's basic argument here is that zombie films are supposed to be about the horror of our loved ones dying but remaining with us, a chilling memento mori that hungers for our flesh, and that this effect is lessened when one starts thinking about the method through which this return is enacted and maintained.
(He's also arguing, presumably because he's writing in American Conservative, that this is a common flaw of contemporary genre films, which since his arguments apply just as well to Night of the Living Dead as they do to The Walking Dead seems further proof that a lot of self-proclaimed conservative thought simply lies at the intersection of pessimism and poor memory. That's a side issue today, though.)
There are two things here that need to be considered separately: the memento mori aspect, and the idea that people you once recognised and even loved have turned against you and will make you one of them.
The first aspect is interesting because of course it applies to not just horror films, but plenty of other supernatural films as well. Pretty much every ghost story ever written includes this idea somewhere in it. In fact, if one wanted an extraordinarily fast and loose definition of what separates a supernatural ghost story from a horror ghost story, it's merely whether the spirits of the (not quite) departed have hostile intent.
Whether such stories can lead to one focusing on the how rather than the why is an interesting question. The vast majority of the time, I think people can just shrug their shoulders and say "Whatever; ghosts can do weird stuff". There's this shared understanding that the motivations and actions of those with one foot out the door of existence can't be precisely understood or thought through logically. There are exceptions, of course. Gothika is a slightly underrated film, I think, but I had big trouble with the idea that ghosts can possess and control people, but still need to leave clues as to what they want the people they're periodically possessing to do. That's just internal inconsistency, though. Basically, ghosts get to do what they want.
Most of the time, anyway. The problem we can get into with ghost stories is the same as the problem we can get into with zombies: once you try and slap on some half-arsed scientific explanation, the whole thing falls apart, because now asking why is perfectly reasonable. This, I think, is what's buried under Millman's objections, actually. The problem doesn't lie in the fact that zombies don't make any sense, but in the idea that they could make sense.
Take 28 Days Later, for example. That's a film that essentially asks us to believe that people who become psychotic killers with no instinct to do anything other than kill can survive for eight weeks before they starve to death. We never see them eat anything, or more importantly drink anything, and their metabolisms seem to be super-charged. How can they possibly keep going for two months in that condition?
Now, there are ways to get around this; the most obvious being that those virus-addled chimps that started the whole thing off wouldn't have been much good to David Schneider if they were dying of thirst every few days, so the virus was altered to compensate somehow. That's obviously ridiculously hand-wavey and tacked on, and Millman's argument that thinking about this sort of stuff lessens the overall impact is well taken.
That's not an inherent problem in the zombie virus genre, though, not if one uses the word "virus" as analogy rather than literal description. You can just set the zombie up the same way as the restless spirit; a supernatural force that does its thing for reasons beyond your ken. Romero himself understood this, I think; after an early mis-step in which he implied spaceborne radiation might be responsible in Night..., he took great pains in Day of the Dead to argue that the scientists searching for a "cure" were wasting their time, and that John's explanation that it's the will of God works no less well for what is going on.
Other recent films have taken the same tack. The quite excellent Dawn of the Dead remake puts no effort whatsoever into identifying a cause. Neither does the admitted parody Sean of the Dead, other than getting in a brief dig at 28 Days Later and it's "bull-" explanation (one might argue that two people who just spent months writing a self-described "love letter" to a director who initially blamed zombies on space rays from Venus might be more forgiving, but...). Millman's problem, to the extent it exists, is buried in execution, not concept.
And all of that is before we return to the second aspect of the zombie film; the idea that the "other" is coming for you, and that you will be "other" sooner or later too. Unlike the first aspect, this is not about literal death so much as the loss of self, which is an important distinction because it means the ur-text here is not a ghost story, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Much ink has been spilled over that film's apparent political commentary (which seems abundantly clear, but which was always denied by the director and the author of the novel upon which it was based), but what's interesting for our purposes is the consideration of what exactly the film is implying about Communism. Is it suggesting that those people who seem the same as everyone else but are actually dirty Commies are willing converts, or simply brainwashed?
People have made both cases, but I tend to favour the former. The process by which the aliens themselves work is after all not brainwashing, but replacement, and the paranoid idea that these people are all around us and we can't tell lends itself more to the idea that we're surrounded by spies, rather than people snatched from their homes and re-wired, a process which would require an awful lot of willing enemy agents in the first place.
Mainly, though, I think the first option makes the most sense because the second; the idea that Communists somehow have the capacity to brainwash their enemies into becoming like them (a trope that began as early as the final days of the Korean War and still existed at least as late as 2000, with Red Alert 2 containing special Red Army units that could seize the minds of American troops and force them to attack their countrymen) is a far better fit when applied to the zombie film. It's not just that the zombie is a reminder of one's mortality. It's something worse than that; it's the idea that the removal of one's self does not necessarily mean your body will stop walking, or that those you love can process their loss and move on. There's also the mirror of this of course, which is the fear that your loved ones will not just die, but transformed into active agents against you. It is one thing to be forever reminded of your wife's death. It is quite another to have her trying to rip your throat out.
In short, then, there is much more going on here than Millman credits, and his main objection is based on a flawed understanding of the genre as a whole. His secondary complaint, namely that we over-identify with the survivors in these films and therefore fail to focus sufficiently on the violent, crawling death that surrounds them, seems pretty shaky as well, but I've gone on enough for one post, so I'll leave that one unexplored for now.