The Road – What is hope for, if not to be taken away?

“If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind” (Hays Code). Though slightly hyperbolic, William Hays, in 1922, seems to have presaged the overwhelming influence that motion pictures now hold within contemporary society; with their widely recognized didactic functions and innate ability to entertain, movies make the perfect medium for reimagining, and often reviving, generally respected works of literature. It must be acknowledged, however, that these film adaptations are exactly that, adaptations: the interpretation of a single person, adapted to a medium which, by nature, resists the transposition of certain ideas. By this definition there are two distinct reasons for directorial deviation from a source text: (1) alterations necessitated, specifically, by the medium and (2) modifications made to better suit the artistic vision of the director. This dynamic is apparent, and can be overtly examined, in John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic reimagining of The Road.

The original text, published by Cormac McCarthy in 2006, tells the harrowing tale of father and son as they traverse an unequivocally bleak, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Over an undefined period of time – assumed to be several months – the pair travel South to avoid “another winter” (McCarthy, 4) in their current location – which, presumably, is somewhat northerly. The perpetual hunt for food, and the accompanying fear of becoming someone else’s food, drives a majority of the narrative; while following ‘The Road’ the duo are presented with a series of obstacles which test their bond as father and son: a relationship through which McCarthy intends to comment on the nature of humanity. The father, who remains nameless throughout, represents the deceased world: a society, much like our own, in which corruption has overwhelmed humanity – leading, presumably, to the dismal state of the land in which they currently reside; the son, contrarily, is depicted as a paragon of innocence: having never experienced the ‘old world’ he represents hope and becomes, essentially, the last disciple of human compassion. The story, though admittedly bleak, ends with a twinkle of hope for humankind; the boy, having blanket-wrapped his father’s corpse, proceeds into the world, prepared for survival but also equipped with an inherent moral compassion – the only doctrine which his old-world mentor was unable to fully inculcate.

This suggestion of hope, though decidedly minimal, is an important component of McCarthy’s narrative; unfortunately it is also a component that Hillcoat’s interpretation seems to neglect. Hillcoat’s sepia toned death-scape is almost as devoid of hope as it is of colour. As stated previously, such a conceptual deviation from the book might be necessitated by the medium itself and not, therefore, indicative of a deliberate, directorial decision and, in the case of The Road, this argument holds some merit. Cormac McCarthy’s narrative is told from the perspective of an omniscient third party, though it is occasionally interspersed with first-person accounts; this, one might argue, leaves Hillcoat – who employs Viggo Mortensen sparingly as a singular first person narrator – at a substantial disadvantage when attempting to replicate McCarthy’s vision. “Indirectly filmable aspects of [McCarthy’s] print text” (Golden, 26) such as “metaphors… and specific word choice” leave Hillcoat, it seems, in a deficit; most directors, for example, would be hard pressed to present the “sun… [as] a grieving mother with a lamp” (McCarthy, 32) without resorting to some seriously obscure cinematic techniques. This argument might carry more weight, if not for the amount of dialogue in McCarthy’s text, and the emotional straightforwardness with which it is spoken; the bleak state of the world and the respective commentary on human nature are both presented carefully in the speech of McCarthy’s characters: an element that is directly transposable to film.

One must assume, then, that Hillcoat’s eradication of hope develops, not out of necessity – the impossible transposition of “indirectly filmable aspects” (Golden, 26) – but out of a personal deviation from, or misinterpretation of, McCarthy’s vision. Hillcoat’s movie, through very distinct modifications, removes the illusive hope found in McCarthy’s novel; instead of commenting, as McCarthy intends, on the ultimately indomitable nature of human compassion, Hillcoat focuses merely on the bleakness – implying a tipping point which, once crossed, signals the inexorable decline of humanity.
Follow hyperlinks for Golden + Hays Code full-texts.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print.

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Text your fears to 1- 800- apocalypse. Stephen King’s “Cell”

Clay found himself thinking of science fiction novels he’d read as a teenager…. In more than a few of them, the world ended. And then the heroes built it back up again. Not without struggles and setbacks, but… they built it back up again. He couldn’t remember anywhere the heroes just stood around in a bedroom looking at a radio…

Feeling like a traitor to something larger than he could understand, he picked up Tom’s ghetto blaster, put it back in the closet, and closed the door. (King, Cell, 131-2)

These are not the actions of a hero. They are instead – King would have us believe –  the actions of “a young man of no particular importance to history” (1): a point made explicitly, on the very first page of Cell: his unnerving, 2006 technological horror. The rationality behind Clay – and many other horror protagonists’ – stunning mediocrity, Aristotle might suggest, lies within the nature of fear itself; while “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear [is evoked when witnessing] the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Aristotle, Poetics). Essentially, the more accessible the character and setting, the more susceptible the reader becomes to subconscious mimicry of the protagonist’s emotions. King, a master storyteller and critic of horror fiction, is astutely aware of this phenomenon. In his Danse Macabre, King describes horror as “an emotion that one grapples with… alone…[,] a combat waged in the secret recesses of the heart” (15); the key to instilling fear in a reader, he suggests, is attaining personal relevancy: “horror does not horrify unless the reader or viewer has been personally touched” (Danse, 15). “Good” (54) horror fiction is capable of drawing the reader into a state of emulated reality, where the fragility of their own existence is exposed in an echo of the protagonist’s sufferings. “Great” (Danse, 54) horror, then, succeeds in expanding upon this base of raw empathy, employing innovative thematic objects with which the reader has never, previously, had to deal: “scar[ing] people with the unknown” (71). These objects, however, cannot stray into myth (54) but must remain as figures of “near reality” (54); the author must balance the “charm of novelty” with “the semblance of truth” (Coleridge, 97) – a step too far in the direction of fantasy, King suggests, will prompt the reader to emotionally detach themselves, “heaving a sigh of relief” (Danse, 71) as they do so.

It seems, then, that the act of successfully injecting newness into a genre while maintaining the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge, 97) is the “prime directive” (Cell, 206) of effective writing; Stephen King, in his novel Cell, attests to the applicability of this theory. Through his faithful representation of modern society and his repeated allusions to contemporary fiction, King transports the reader into an alternate reality of surprising verisimilitude; having temporarily gained the reader’s faith in his projection, he infuses his world with ideas that, while entirely unique to King, play close enough to existing tropes as to be easily accessible – keeping, intact, the reader’s trust while “scar[ing them] shitless” (Danse, 229).

In 1981 Stephen King released Cujo: a novel concerning the exploits of a rabid Saint Bernard. With over 700 Million household dogs as his allies – a tenth of which reside in America – King struck a blow to the heart of the American family: what hope is left in a world where man must flee his own best friend? As the world develops, however, so must the mirror world of King’s fiction and in an age of “computer nerds” and “googolplex[es]” (204) man, it seems, has found a new best friend: the cell phone. With its incredible prevalence in contemporary society, the cell phone provides the perfect device for King’s latest onslaught against the American sense of security; be it “teenage girls in lowrider jeans” or “women in power suits,” nobody in contemporary society “leave[s] home without their cell phone” (Cell, 5).

Set primarily in the New England states, Stephen King’s Cell, takes place in a world surprisingly similar to our own; despite having taken minimal “geographical liberties” (Cell, Acknowledgments on 450), King presents a detailed replica of American society, lulling the reader with his descriptive factuality and dedicated contemporaneity. The reader trusts that King’s fictional world is a clone of his/her own and allows themself to become situated, complacently, within it. This tacit acceptance of King’s reality is fortified by his adroit use of allusion to contemporary genre-items.

As the novel begins the reader is introduced to Clayton Riddell: “a young man seeking to commemorate” (Cell, 3) having just “sold his first graphic novel – and its sequel, both for an amazing amount of money” (5). By presenting his protagonist as a creator of fiction King affects the reader’s urge to view Clay, himself, as a fictional character; within the first ten pages of his novel, King has introduced uncertainty within the reader: what is and is not fiction? Throughout the novel King’s characters make reference to contemporary works of apocalyptic fiction, at one point likening their situation to a scene from George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (137). By having his characters liken their own predicament to “a horra movie” (312), King raises his story above the conventional realm of fiction. This may be better explained, in terms of classical logic, by the law of non-contradiction; this law states that two contradictory statements may not, at the same time, be true. In order for two things to be compared they must be separate entities: If A is like B, A cannot be B. Therefore, if Clay’s life is similar to a work of fiction it, logically, cannot be a work of fiction; this contradiction leaves the reader with only one possible conclusion: Clay’s struggles must be real – within, of course, the confines of suspended disbelief. By introducing a fictional realm within his own fictional realm, King elevates his primary story to a state of heightened realism which, in combination with his already accessible narrative objects, serves to suppress the reader’s scepticism.

Having, hopefully, assured his readers of their imperative, realistic involvement, King now must fulfil his obligation as a horror-novelist and proceed to “scare[] the crap out of them” (Danse, 72). As king states in his Danse Macabre, the best way to do this is to “open the door and show the audience…  something unusual…  in a very real way;” they, then, have no choice but to “react with horror” (71-2). Zombie related apocalypse-fiction is “unusual” by nature and, for the most part, strives to find a root in reality – whether it be it caused a virus, a disease, a biological attack; unfortunately this is no longer sufficient, in itself, to elicit fear. In recent years, the horror genre has become saturated with zombie fiction; said profusion has enabled contemporary society to identify, within the genre, certain archetypical narrative objects: the unusual has become usual. Thus, any work of zombie fiction that employs, too brazenly, the aforementioned tropes risks placing the reader “in a boring situation” (Danse, 113) – losing their interest and shattering their state of suspended disbelief. In order to be effective then, King suggests, the reader must be “allowed to view these archetypes” (54) in a new light, from a new perspective, though still not exceeding the boundaries of “near reality” (54). King, in his novel Cell, applies this modification process to two of zombie-fictions most venerated archetypes: the scientific explanation and zombies’ lack of reasoned thought.

The efficacy of a horror plot depends heavily on the plausibility of its likely occurrence; any scenario expected to induce a fearful response must be scientifically conceivable, if not authentic. Horror fiction writers – more specifically those that deal with zombie narratives – have, for the most part, looked exclusively to the natural sciences for substantiation; biology, certainly, is almost impossible to ignore, as zombies are inherently post-humans, transformed, non-negotiably, in some form of biological process. Most writers, however, in search of authentication, don’t feel the need to stray beyond this: the safety net of Biology – if even to dip a toe into chemistry; King, on the other hand, has vaulted clean over the entire landmass of natural science and landed with an obnoxious splash in a sea of bio-cybernetic computer-science.

“The pulse began at 3:03Pm, eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1st” (Cell, 1) and, within an hour, “Boylston Street” in Boston looks like a scene from “Night of the Living Dead” (30). Clay – a character assumedly well versed in apocalyptic fiction – remains, like the reader, ignorant to the cause of the mayhem; he is unable to draw conclusions from his vast knowledge of biology-based literature because this scenario has never been written: this is new. It is not until Clay meets Jordan, a self-professed “computer geek” (204) of age 12, that he – along with the reader – becomes privy to the scientific explanation. The human brain, Jordan explains, is like an “organic computer” (287) composed of entangled “organic circuitry” (204), “hard drives” (204) with infinite amounts of storage; when the pulse hit, those who had been using a cell phone, had their “brains wiped” (205), all but “a single line of code that cannot be stripped,” “the Prime Directive”: “Madness” (206). If this weren’t scary enough, King also informs us that the pulse, “in addition to stripping people’s brains…, also kicked something on:.. a mutative trigger” (209) that allows the “phone-crazies” (186) access to the “ninety-eight percent of dormant” (209) brain tissue that humans are unable to employ. This incredible acquisition of latent ability allows the zombies to access “psionic abilities like telekinesis and levitation” (Cell, 244) – a far cry from your average zombie. By using computer technology as a framework for zombie fiction King achieves two important things: (1) he injects originality into otherwise dead tropes, providing the reader with an entirely new mental obstacle – instilling fear; (2) he makes the scenario easily accessible to a computer-literate audience, enhancing realism and facilitating the suspension of disbelief.

A third, slightly different, advantage King gleans from his foray into computer science is freedom; having launched boldly into new territory, he enjoys the privilege of solitude. Without fear of comparative fiction, King can deviate more effectively from zombie archetypes rooted in Biology; he can, to a degree, begin to manipulate and manufacture the governing principles of his own new sub-genre.

Customarily, zombies have always been drooling, flesh-eating, sub-humans whose cognitive faculties are reduced to what Jung might call, “blood consciousness” (Cell, 206); filled with rage they become “the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle” (Cell, 206), with no hope for development or rational improvement. As an overworked trope the reader sees this and responds: “’I can deal with that’ (Danse, 71), at least they’re not ‘levitating telepaths with Tourette’s syndrome’ (Cell, 377) who can telekinetically force my suicide ‘in fourteen different languages’ (265). That would be terrifying!” In King’s novel, the “phone-crazies” (186) begin much like the stereotypical zombie: biting at peoples necks with a “convulsive snarl” (9), sending “enormous jets of blood” (10) streaming from the “chewed open carotid artery” (11) – “unless they feel rage they feel nothing” (376). After the initial chapters, however, their behaviour begins to change. Having had their brains wiped, they begin a form of modified “upload cycle” (287); “they[] get[] smarter… because they[] think[] together” (158), they migrate systematically to eat and, shortly thereafter, gain the ability to communicate telepathically (195). Having rooted their transformation in computer science, King allows his zombies the ability to progress, to develop, to evolve; this concept is not only new but unequivocally alarming. Slowly but surely “the phone-crazies” become “the phone-people” (287); “they[] stop[] killing each other, but continue to kill…normals”(197). Though, they never quite attain ‘civilized’ status –primarily due to their inability to “take baths” (388) – the telepaths surpass human cognitive ability and “if left alone, [King concludes,]… might even[] have turned out to be better custodians of the earth” (439) than humans. By portraying the “crazies” (164) as evolutionary beings with distinct cognitive processes, King’s deviates substantially from the genre’s preconceived norms; this deviation, however, falls within the boundaries of his bio-cybernetic near-reality and, as such, provides fear-provoking innovation without jeopardising his readers’ delicate belief.

King, as a master of his genre, handles deftly both the real and the counterfeit, combining the two in an intricately woven, and unnervingly inventive, mirror of reality; his ability to coax the reader into a willing suspension of disbelief allows King the opportunity to not only frighten, but truly horrify. His vivid, yet astoundingly accurate, representation of contemporary society is entirely accessible and allows him to introduce genre-breaking narrative objects. Lulled by King’s decidedly average characters, the reader is forced, subconsciously, to replicate their emotions, existing, for a moment, in a “terrifying… world just beyond the threshold of this one” (Danse, 25).

—————————————————————————————————-

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Web Atomic and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 13 Sept. 2007. Web. 4 Nov. 2008. ‹http://classics.mit.edu/›.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Project Gutenberg Online Book Library.   2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2011. <http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6081&gt;

King, Stephen. Cell. New York: Pocket Star Books, 2006. Text.

            Danse Macabre. New York: Gallery Books, 2010. Text.

NPS – Death and Coffee

The snow was falling outside, though the steaming beverages in front of them radiated enough heat to warm their chill-stiffened fingers; people passing by might’ve noted the four young men –  their faces lit with animation as they discussed, fondly, their memories of Speculative Fiction – if not for a consuming preoccupation with last minute Christmas shopping.

“Man, that class was excellent!” said Nick, banging his fist on the table as if to fortify his point.
“I know” responded Paul wistfully, with languished undertones of nostalgia; “Why does nothing like that ever happen in real life?… boy, what I would give to beat up some dumb zombie. I’d be like Cillian Murphy in that movie… what was it?”
“28 Days Later?” proposed Sam – always the movie guru – “That one was a fuckin’ riot.” He took a sip of his coffee. “You know, if something were to happen, it would be today right.” His eyes rose mischeviously, forming a question, while his mouth remained low over the cup, blowing silently: “they always make these too bloody hot.”
“I suppose you’re right” Nick nodded, “everyone’s been waiting for it… I mean, that’s the reason we’re so hungover, is it not?” He grinned.
“Twenty twelve, the party from hell!”

They laughed – which now John thinks, retrospectively, is ironic.

The sound of their laughter is distorted in his mind, it’s been four days now and any glimpse of happiness seems as foreign as the plague that stole it away. If only they had known what was about to happen, their energies might better have been spent barricading themselves behind the counter, or acquiring a broom, a chair, a weapon… any weapon – instead they sat, expending the last whispers of human merriment over coffee. COFFEE! A groundless social practise: obsolete now, he supposes, for who remains  to converse, to ‘chat’, ‘to shoot the shit’?

He wishes now he hadn’t thought of shit. The room in which he now resides – if you can call it a room – is no larger than a generous closet – a majority of which  is made inhabitable by a vast shelving system. John, In a final statement of human dignity has refrained thus far from voiding his bowels; “don’t shit where you eat” his father had always said, and John – never a figurative thinker – didn’t feel like shitting where he slept either. But this time it was uncontrollable, unsupressable, unignorable! Doubled over he swore profusely, his obscenities ricocheting off the walls, magnified in volume by the confined space; he wonders if they heard him, he wonders if they’re there. “It’s only across the hall” a voice whispers, chiding him, “so close.” But he knows what’s out there, beyond the door, between himself and the bathroom.

“It’s time to nut up or shut up” says Woody Harrelson; John smiles wryly. Of all the movies his mind could’ve picked, why a zombie movie? It’s too close to reality now; no Jesse Eisenberg, no funny rules for survival, no pretty girls with which to have an unlikely romance, no; just John in a closet, desperate for a shit. “But he’s right” John thinks; in all the movies, all the books, what hero was ever caught taking a dump in a closet? It’s a matter of honour. And with that, resolved in his decision, stomach aching, John snaps a broomstick over his knee, letting the brush end drop to the floor. Stake in hand, balls in his throat, John reaches for the handle…

“Time to nut up or shut up.”

5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN.

Linked below is an insightful, if not terrifying, article from one of my favourite sites: Cracked.com.

This article describe 5 zombie-related scenarios (as presented in contemporary film) that are, theoretically possible. While raising your favourite zombie flicks to a level of reality that you neither desired or anticipated, this article provides a few laughs and a handy ZOMBABILITY scale for likely occurence.
5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN.

Bio-Engineering in Spec. Fiction: Atwood Vs. Collins

Recently my blogs have focused, primarily, on the dissection of Apocalyptic film; that said, it seems an appropriate time to return to the other component of Eng 3722: literature. This past summer I read – and thoroughly enjoyed – the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (comprised of, in order: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mocking Jay.). 

The trilogy follows the life of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen and is set in the post-apocalyptic world of Panem – what remains of North America after decades of natural disaster; this world has been divided by the authoritarian capital-based government into 12 districts, each of which specializes in the production/collection of a particular resource. Katniss, unfortunately for her, lives in the impoverished District 12 and – even more unfortunately for her – is morally obliged to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games: a nationwide, bi-annual contest in which two children from each district are selected and pitted against the other 22 in a ‘last-man-standing” fight to the death.

For a more detailed summary of this fantastic trilogy you can go HERE or, instead, read the books – which I highly recommend.

To avoid spoiling the plot I will discuss, instead of plot development, a specific – and somewhat minimal – aspect of the book: biologically engineered creatures; in true comparative fashion, these creatures will be discussed in combination with those presented in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake – the book that inspired me to write this article.

In Oryx and Crake we are presented with a post-apocalyptic world in which Jimmy (Snowman) lives alone with a colony of biologically engineered humanoids; these creatures were engineered by his now-dead-friend Crake: the man, coincidentally, who orchestrated the apocalypse – creating and disseminating a deadly Virus. Crake, however, before the pandemic, was not the only man dabbling in bio-engineering; the world in which Snowman lives is riddled with the genetically altered remains of a multi-billion dollar industry.

Though both books contain these transgenic mutations, the purposes for including them differ. In Oryx and Crake the new species are created for a variety of purposes:
Pigoons: are pigs genetically modified to house human organs and, as such, serve a beneficial purpose.
Rakunks: adorable skunk-raccoon crossbreeds created for keeping as pets.

leg of lamb?... I gatz 8.

Spoat/Gider: a goat-spider mix used to produce high tensile fibres for bulletproof vests etc.
Wolvogs: wolf-dog combo that look like adorable puppies, intended to draw unsuspecting victims in before viciously chewing them apart like a wolf.

In fact, chimeras have been created to serve almost all human purposes; for the purposes of this comparison, however, the Wolvogs – created by CorpSeCorps to serve malicious/protective purposes – are one of the only creatures that might, unobtrusively, be seen running around in Collins’ trilogy.

In The Hunger Games trilogy the creatures – referred to as muttations – are engineered, by the Capitol, for unanimously malicious purposes. There are no “beneficial” creations:

Jabberjays: are genetically engineered birds who listen out for anti-capitol sentiments among the masses, and reproduce them within the Capitol for the purposes of prosecution.

Wolf-Muttations: are reincarnated versions of their dead competitors (in wolf form) introduced, specifically, to kill Katniss and Peeta.

Tracker Jackers: are deadly wasps that were made by the Capitol whose stings raise large puss-filled lumps on their victims; their venom (engineered to target fear in a victim’s brain and alter their memories) causes hallucinations that can drive people to madness. More than a few stings will kill a person.

There are various uses for biologically engineered creatures within contemporary fiction and the works of Collins and Atwood provide an opportunity to examine more than a few of them! The days of wolvogs and spoat/giders aren’t far away; until then, however, we’ll have to be satisfied with Lygers.

Also, for further reading… SPIDER GOATS ARE REAL!!

Stake land – A Review

In my pursuit of new and unusual speculative fiction I came across Jim Mickle’s 2010 Stake Land: an imaginative, if not spellbinding, presentation of post-apocalyptic America.

Nice skull-on-a-stick... Bro.

In a genre predominated by Zombie apocalypses, Stake Land provides a refreshing deviation into the realm of Vamps. The story follows Martin, an innocent young boy who, after witnessing the grizzly slaughter of his parents and baby sibling, is taken under the wing of Mister: a vamp-slaying, Mickey Rourke-looking badass of unknown origin, whose prime directive seems to be killing things with utmost composure. Mister, having appeared fortuitously at Martins family home – and displaying an uncharacteristic level of compassion, that never again resurfaces – spirits him across the country, teaching him the laws of the ‘land’ and the finesse of his art.

The unlikely pair traverse the U.S. with the ultimate goal of reaching Canada: the New Eden, a supposedly vamp-free zone (and we all know how that works out ref. Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later). On this journey they face numerous challenges, of which the easy to kill, buffy-esque vamps seem to pose the least; more dangerous perhaps are the Brotherhood: a new-world religious sect who, calling this “God’s judgement,” provide the vamps with human sacrifices in order to save themselves. This development is one of the few aspects of the movie that seems somewhat original. The population of America now lives in corrugated iron compounds reminiscent of Waterworld in which people trade for supplies with Vampire Teeth; the nomadic pair, however, avoid these for the most part and stick to the good ol’ countryside.

Other cliches fulwilled by steakland include the improbable romance with a lone-female-survivor, the death of their only black companion, and the unlikely teacher-student dynamic.

All in all Stake Land was an enjoyable watch, though somewhat unoriginal; the characters are sufficiently fleshed out and the plot is surprisingly entertaining, leaving only the action to somewhat disappoint. I give Stake Land a 7/10.

Let’s Pretend – Shaun of the Walking Dead

As described in my blog on Reuben Fleischer’s Zombieland, there exist, within zombie-themed apocalyptic media, certain tropes that seem to pervade most modern genre- interpretations. Some examples include: the quest across the country to find a (probably dead) loved one; the brief moments of levity where killing zombies turn into a fun game; waking up in a hotel room etc. These tropes are often used by contemporary satirists – such as Fleischer – as points for humour: their inherent ridiculousness being presented, hopefully evoking laughter from a well-versed audience member. Having recently re-watched season 1 of AMC`s The Walking Dead I thought it appropriate to present, in detail, one such trope and, its respective lampooning within Edgar Wright`s 2004 Shaun of the Dead:

PRETENDING TO BE A ZOMBIE.

                Episode two of the first season – aptly named “Guts” – begins with Rick trapped In a tank, surrounded by ‘walkers.’ Fortunately for him, however, his radio immediately erupts with the voice of an as-of-yet unnamed Asian teenager who, in true, comic book fashion assists him in a daring escape. The young lad – who we soon find is named Glenn – guides rick into a safe-house; once inside we meet  the remainder of Glenn’s band of misfit survivors including, but not limited to, a white-supremacist drug addict and his “dark-meat” counterpart: T-Dawg. We soon learn that this band has come from a camp outside of the city but are unable to return for lack of a vehicle; fortunately Rick, having immediately assumed control of the group, devises a daring scheme to remedy this deficiency. With Glenn in tow, Rick smothers himself with festering zombie guts and walks out into the street – the plan being that the zombie entrails will mask their human-stank… Of course, they weren’t counting on rain.

... Thank God you brought that axe.

Wait a second though… I’ve seen this before! Back in 2004, Edgar Wright released what is still one of my favourite movies Shaun of the Dead. This hilarious zom-com earns its popularity by lampooning every last zombie trick in the book, then filling in the rest with relentless shots at contemporary pop-culture. By far one of the funniest scenes, however, depicts Dianne – Shaun’s amateur actress companion – teaching the group how to act like zombies; having completed their lesson the misguided troop blaze a trail across the street, effectively deceiving the drooling masses, and arriving successfully at their safe-house: the local pub.

These two incidences are an effective demonstration of the trope-satire dynamic. Once an element of fiction becomes too overworked within a given genre – ie: once the audience members are entirely comfortable with it – it becomes susceptible to parody. The audience, expecting ‘the usual’ is surprised by a comedic re-interpretation of something they ‘thought they knew’ – allowing them to enjoy it afresh. Pretending to be dead is but one example of a widely popular practise.

Zombieland – Enjoy The Little Things

Be it our cognitive capacities or our increased social proclivity, there is something about being human that seems to elevate and separate us from our mammalian cohabiters; even the most cursory glance at man’s literary past would attest to the prevalence, and his general approval, of this distinction.  It seems ironic then – given our gift of thought, our head-start to survival – the inordinate amount of time we spend collectively contemplating death. It has always been a popular diversion of man to speculate upon the possible circumstances of his own demise; authors, poets and directors alike compete to achieve the most evocative, scientifically plausible vision of the apocalypse – engaging, but never appeasing, our morbid curiosities. It is this human fascination with death that continues to drive the production of apocalyptic literature. The genre, however, despite its inherent versatility has, as of late, been inexplicably dominated by a single subgenre; modern media has been overrun, as it were, by zombies, and the associated tales of their prospective meals. Zombie-fiction’s recent popularity has enabled contemporary society to identify within it archetypical narrative objects and, as with anything pervasive in pop-culture, has opened itself up to the jabs of satire and parody.

Perhaps the epitome of contemporary zombie-parody, Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland intends wholly to capture and exploit the archetypical elements of zombie-fiction – and under a broader scope apocalyptic fiction as a whole. Using a cast of misfit survivors, identified solely by their destinations/places of origin, Fleischer addresses, ironically, the global and social consequences of a zombie pandemic. In a mock-scientific tone Fleischer echoes the great apocalyptic writers, attempting to scientifically legitimate the “plague of the 21st century” (Fleischer, 00:18:32) and predict the stages of its progression. Having created the necessary backdrop for his drama, Fleischer narrows focus and begins to dissect the human aspects of his imagined situation; the building blocks of an apocalyptic narrative – the characters’ processes of acceptance, their methods of coping, their links to the past and their aspirations for the future – are introduced and examined, mirroring his predecessors’ successful narrative sequences, while introducing sufficient irony to provoke a comic response. It is this, Fleischer’s combination of praise and scorn, his ability to adopt yet mock the quintessential elements of zombie-fiction that makes Zombieland so effective, both as a parody and as a story in its own right.

The efficacy of serious apocalyptic fiction depends heavily on the plausibility of its likely occurrence; whether it be the RAGE virus contracted from monkeys or an electromagnetic pulse transmitted through cell phones, the cause of the outbreak must be scientifically conceivable, if not authentic. In Fleischer’s film the pandemic is based on Mad Cow Disease (See picture): a well established scenario, easily accessible to a contemporary western audience; when “patient zero t[akes] a bite of a contaminated burger at a Gas N’ Gulp” (00:05:06), “mad cow bec[omes] mad person bec[omes] mad zombie” (Fleischer, 00:18:40).

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE): “a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle that causes a spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cord... The disease may be most easily transmitted to human beings by eating food contaminated with the brain, spinal cord or digestive tract of infected carcasses” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy)."

The scientific authenticity of this scenario is ironically subverted by the matter -of-fact tone in which the explanation is given; this, in turn, somewhat undermines the traditional necessity for scientific believability. Fleischer’s mock-scientific attitude is later perpetuated by the comical way in which the virus progresses; “when the virus struck, for obvious reasons,” the narrator explains, “the first ones to go were the fatties” (Fleischer, 00:01:33). This conclusion is perfectly logical, and draws upon Darwinian notions of natural selection: overweight people generally have a reduced running – or, more specifically, zombie outrunning – speed; the prediction’s scientific merit is undermined again, however, by Fleischer’s comedic use of the word “fatties” in combination with the slow motion belly-bounce – at which the audience has, via mass media, been previously conditioned to laugh. Drawing continuously on western society’s preconditioned comedy responses Fleischer continues to satirise his predecessors’ reverence for scientific justification. The following scene presents a man being attacked whilst on the toilet: “when [hes] at [his] most vulnerable” (Fleischer, 00:02:18). The biological process of defecation is a necessary action, and assumedly a risky one in a zombie-rich environment; it is, therefore, an inherently funny situation, both logically sound and scientifically based. Fleischer, through use of irony and intrinsically comical elements attempts to undermine apocalyptic literature’s characteristic overemphasis on scientific credibility.

Fleischer, however, does not limit his ironic siege to a single overworked element; instead, he systematically deconstructs a multitude of apocalyptic archetypes. After attacking the overbearingly scientific style in which apocalyptic authors have traditionally written, Fleischer redirects his focus to situational and character based trends. There comes a time in any given zombie-movie, at which the protagonist’s – usually very average – daily life is rudely interrupted by his/her first zombie; after this encounter  the protagonist will generally do four things, in no particular order: they will rationalize what they’re seeing, react to the situation, realize what is actually happening and adapt to their new circumstance. This scene, traditionally, is thoroughly unnerving because it signifies the finite, fragile nature of our existence; the viewer relates himself directly to the ordinary protagonist and is terrified by the ease with which normality is shattered. In Fleischer’s Zombieland, however, normality is shattered prior, even, to the zombie attack; Columbus, our protagonist, a self-proclaimed loner, whose chief desire in life is to “find a girl and fall in love” (Fleischer, 00:13:42) is shown comforting his panicked, yet “insanely hot,” neighbour: 406. She explains, over mountain dew, that, prior to her abrupt arrival, she’d been chased by a “homeless man” who, “tried to bite[her]” (00:15:15); after rationalizing his rude, hungry outburst as a side-effect of “drugs,” she falls asleep in his arms and our lonely protagonist appears to be “living the dream” (Fleischer, 00:16:15). He awakes, however, to a hungry, drooling night mare; his girl transformed into a “fucked up little monster” (00:02:50), his perfect night into a “total shitstorm” (00:01:20). This comedic, overly-drastic juxtaposition successfully satirises the traditionally shocking first encounter, evoking a giggle while effectively preserving the structure; this air of mock-calamity is then echoed in Columbus’ reaction. After allowing himself, comically, to be chased, screaming, around the apartment he justifies her ferocity with the classic line “you’re just sick” (00:18:16); upon realizing that 406 is not “just sick” he adapts to the situation, breaks her leg and kills her with a toilet bowl cover – apologising ironically as he does so. Fleischer, through his use of character, juxtaposition and direct allusion, succeeds in undermining the traditional shock-value of first encounters while maintaining the narrative structure. The ungainly protagonist, first rationalises then, reacts and adapts to his unfolding situation, preserving zombie-fiction’s archetypical sequence of events; in Fleischer’s film, however, the audience is eased, more so than thrown, into the zombie-filled, apocalyptic world.

Having cast their characters into this world, perpetually seeking sanctuary from the bleeding, biting hordes, zombie-fiction writers must now strive, for the sake of plot, to keep their protagonists alive – or at least help them cope. Conventionally, any given protagonist is imbued with an innate characteristic that allows them to survive, if not deal with their new environment; traditionally these unfortunates can be separated into thinkers, fighters, team-workers, drinkers and assholes – granted, some survival techniques are more effective than others. Fleischer, well versed in the zombie-arts, is astutely aware of these apocalyptic stock characters and employs them strategically within his own work. Columbus, the nerd-hero, satisfies the need for a lonely, overbearingly cautious intellectual; though he “may seem like an unlikely candidate for survival, with all [his] phobias and irritable bowel syndrome” (Fleischer, 00:05:20) he “ha[s] the advantage of not having any close friends or family” (00:05:30). This notion of the loner appears frequently in apocalyptic fiction: someone who “avoid[s] people like zombies, even before the [are] zombies” (00:07:09); in George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Ish finds solace in his lack of desire for social interaction. “In the old days such things were a handicap to a man[,] now…, they were actually a great advantage” (Stewart, 39); this notion is emphasised, in Zombieland, by the aforementioned attack of 406: “the first time [Columbus] let[s] a girl into [his] life… she tries to eat [him]” (Fleischer, 00:17:51). This scene, aside from confirming the efficacy of loneliness, provides the initial motivation for Columbus’ rules: an overt manifestation of his intelligent, analytical outlook on survival. Throughout the movie – most notably at 00:07:00 – his rules prove an extraordinarily effective tool for survival: his intelligence saves his life. Fleischer, by infusing these rules with humorous pop-culture references and ironic allusions to contemporary society, mocks and undermines the plastic, stock nature of the intelligent survivor figure. Almost as prolific a figure as the thinker, the killer is imperative to both plot progression and ratings; as such, Fleischer cannot avoid his inclusion.

Enter Tallahassee, Columbus’ first companion. Tallahassee, having lost his son Buck, has “nothing left to lose” (00:57:36) and “sets the standard for not to be fucked with” (00:22:00); the obligatory fighter-type fellow, “who looks like Yosemite Sam” (00:31:40), is characterized entirely by his innate ability to “beat wholesale ass” (00:43:19). This practical ability, a staple component of the modern zombie film, is necessarily overworked by apocalyptic writers and, as such, is ironically subverted by Fleischer. By having Tallahassee kill zombies consecutively with a banjo, a softball bat and a pair of garden shears – not out of necessity but for amusement – Fleischer hyperbolises, to the point of disbelief, his killing capacity; the ironic handling of his gruesome talent is emphasised by his continual pursuit of “zombie kill of the week” (00:27:30, 00:41:55): an imaginary title, awarded for the week’s most theatrical act of zombie destruction. The necessity of the fighter figure is undermined by the triviality with which Fleischer presents him; he includes Tallahassee out of necessity, but ironically strays from the fighter’s archetypical demeanour. Brought together by circumstance, Columbus and Tallahassee travel the country ensemble in pursuit of their respective goals. Though not naturally team players, their combined individual merits stand them in good stead; that is, until their car is stolen by the sisters: Wichita and Little Rock.

These two characters represent the archetypical team-workers and, as such, the final target of Fleischer’s trilateral attack on stock characters. Traditionally in apocalyptic fiction, team-players have used their combined ability to achieve security en masse: mutually assured survival. Fleischer, however, in his perpetual struggle to subvert the tradition, portrays the sisters as cut-throat separatists with trust issues. While working together on a familial level, the sisters harbour no interest in the preservation of their fellow humans, justifying grand theft auto with the aphorism: “better you make the mistake of trusting us, than us make the mistake of trusting you” (00:26:05). They pursue ruthlessly their individual goal, allowing companionship only when it serves as means to their desired end. By presenting them in this fashion Fleischer submits an ironic commentary on the generic nature of the archetype; the third wave of a systematic assault on stock characters, exposing the overworked elements of his predecessors’ fiction. He uses a familiar structure to introduce and develop unconventional characters: a technique echoed in his treatment of plot.

Much like their innate ability to survive, zombie-fiction tradition suggests that each character should also harbour a physical link to the past; a pursuit of “something… [that] remind[s] [the character] of a time not so long ago when things were simple and not so fucking chaotic” (00:21:17). For Columbus this is his family – or a family, a group of people of which he can feel a part; for the sisters this is “Pacific Playland,” a place where they can re-attain their childhood innocence and ability to trust; for Tallahassee, who has “nothing left” (00:57:36) to live for, this something is a Twinkie. “It[‘s] as if he [gets] a taste of that comforting childhood treat the world [will] become innocent again and everything [will] return to normal” (00:21:17). In this instance, however, instead of subverting this notion and ironically discrediting its merit, Fleischer embraces it; he treats the attainment of these goals rather seriously – including the Twinkie, which by nature is not a serious object. By doing this, the sombre nature of his quest narrative is highlighted against the sea of mockery in which it swims; thus causing the quest’s conclusion to be more poignant. During the final scene each character’s respective goal is achieved and the movie – in direct contradiction of zombie tradition – ends with hope; in doing this, Fleischer fulfils his requirement to comedy mandate for a happy ending, while simultaneously undermining the zombie genre’s most sacred practice.

Fleischer’s Zombieland, while being a successful movie in its own right, provides a unique commentary on the overworked thematic elements of zombie-fiction; he simultaneously celebrates and discredits the genre’s worth, using its archetypical narrative structure to present a comically altered version of its expected contents. His movie, subtly infused with wit, charm and a slew of contemporary pop-culture references, appeals to his audience’s familiarity with zombie-fiction; it provides a delightful alternative to traditional apocalyptic imagery, making it difficult not to “enjoy the little things” (00:31:46).

Stewart, George. Earth Abides. New York: Del Ray Books, 2006. Text.

Zombieland. Dir. Ruben Fleischer. Perf. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone. Columbia pictures, 2009. DVD.

George R. Stewart and the Thinking Man

Since the beginning of human existence there has been a line drawn, to varying extents, separating man and nature; this phenomenon – and accompanying discussions of its relative merit – has occurred steadily in literature since man has been able to document his thoughts. For the most part this separation is based either upon man’s superior intelligence or his impressive social capacities (needs?). Upon reading George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides it seems that not one, but both of these concepts play a part in man’s elevated hierarchical stature.

          Stewart recognises, not necessarily our intelligence but, our ability to create knowledge, as the central pillar of our existence; he also suggests that this ability is rendered useless, or is suppressed unless employed in a social setting. Man alone can think, man collectively can produce and store knowledge.

                Upon waking up alone, and discovering the extent of his predicament, Ish’s first instinct (like so many of our post-apocalyptic heroes. Ex: 28 Days Later) is to return to the family home: social comfort zone. Upon finding the home abandoned he, despite being a self proclaimed loner, departs on a – first local then – nationwide quest to find companionship. Not, presumably, so they can play 2 player x-box games but because he understands subconsciously that his ability to think is amplified when surrounded by like-minded individuals. This distinction between like-minded individuals and ANY individuals is exemplified by his cursory attempts at socialising with a variety of “unsatisfactory” candidates; that is of course until he finds Em.

Em becomes the match to Ish’s latent flammability; as a very bright individual Ish was able to survive quite easily, upon re-discovering social stability his thoughts leap from survival to progression. Ish’s focus switches from intelligence to the creation, stockpiling and preservation of knowledge.

It is with this knowledge that he attempts to educate a growing mass of people: his new society. He does not realise, however, that this new society, by necessity, is not the same as his old one; that, therefore, his preserved (advanced) knowledge does not apply to this burgeoning community.

The book ends, somewhat hopefully, leaving the reader with the knowledge that mankind, as a whole, will survive. A community has been formed and, as such, knowledge can be formed, adapted and expanded; though they begin at a state of reduced advancement (bows and arrows etc.) their social situation will allow them to one day re-attain said state and, potentially, surpass it.

Man alone is smart and dies, man together makes knowledge and survives.