Zombie Children in The Walking Dead

ETA: At the very end of this list, I say out loud: there’s no way there’s going to be a zombie child in the last whatever dozen episodes left until the end of the series. So of course, there was just one in episode 5 of the 11th season, “Out of the Ashes”. Lol, assholes. I’ll add that in later.

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I started trying to enumerate child zombies in movies when I watched the second Resident Evil movie, which has a whole classroom full of zombie kids swarm and then drag off one of the characters. I was so surprised by this: I couldn’t think of many movies that have a single child zombie, let alone a whole freaking classroom full of them. (Since then, I’ve identified two other films with classrooms full of zombie children: Cooties and The Girl With All the Gifts. It only makes sense that pedagogy intersects with zombified children when you think about it.) I started writing a post about undead children in film, but when I hit The Walking Dead, the post started getting unmanageable. So in the interests of sensible essay length, I’ve rounded up the instances of zombie children in The Walking Dead here instead.

I do think it’s notable that there are only a handful of zombie children in the entire 11 year run of The Walking Dead. Certainly, some of this has to do with what a pain in the ass working around the restrictions placed on child actors can be. Imagine a kid has to sit for 2 hours of makeup, how much time is even left in front of the camera? If someone is going to write a zombie child, it’s going to be to a specific purpose, otherwise why deal with the bother. Still feels a little weird there are so few, and none since the 6th season. Below is my list of zombie children we encounter in The Walking Dead, in chronological order.

NB: I have excluded teenagers from this list (which would bring the count up by another maybe 8-10) because I feel like an adolescent is a different thing than a straight up child, both practically and metaphorically. Likewise, I wouldn’t have included any undead babies, but there isn’t a single one in the entire run, so I didn’t have to worry about it. I’ve included two children who die in-narrative but don’t zombify because I think their story intersects with the themes you see with other undead children.

Unnamed child, “Days Gone By”

Though the series ends up having very, very few child zombies in its 11 year run, the very first zombie we encounter in the entire series is a child zombie. The cold open follows a man in a sheriff’s uniform and car pulling up to a highway gas station. (This is Rick Grimes, but we don’t know him yet.) He walks through stalled cars and the detritus of human habitation towards the gas pumps, where there is a sign hanging that says “No Gas.” He hears the patter of footsteps, and bends down to look under one of the cars. Little feet in grimy bunny slippers walk along, and we see a hand come down and pick up a teddy bear. “Little girl,” the man says, over and over, telling her he can help her. She has her back to him, and long blonde hair like the original zombie child, Karen from Night of the Living Dead. When she turns around, it becomes clear she’s dead, her lips torn away to reveal the silver braces on her teeth. She growls and starts towards him; he shoots her into her second death. She lands on her back and the camera cranes up over her now lifeless body in the grass.

There’s definitely an element of shock value to this scene, not in small part because it depicts a severe transgression: thou shalt not murder children on screen. However, I think this whole scene would run very, very differently if the child were anything other than a blonde white girl. Small town cops have a long history of facilitating the lynching of Black children, from Emmett Till, who was 14, to Tamir Rice, who was 12. The fact that Rick had to shoot down a pretty white blonde girl shows you exactly how out of balance the world has become. On the one hand, The Walking Dead does a pretty terrible job of addressing race overtly — for example, Merle Dixon’s racist monologues are so on the nose as to be embarrassing, and only partially redeemed by Michael Rooker’s expert delivery. On the other, in scenes like the first one, they know exactly what their choices mean to an American audience. Oh my god, you killed Karen.

Maybe this is something of a sidebar, but the scene directly after Rick kills the child opens with Rick’s deputy partner Shane delivering what he describes as a sermon on the perfidy of women. He describes his irritation with a woman in his life who apparently doesn’t turn off lights when she leaves the room. (Is this a stereotype of women? I feel like I’ve never heard that before.) He then disquisitions about how this makes her a hypocrite when she becomes upset about global warming. He relates to Rick all the bon mots he would have delivered had he not respected women so much or somesuch. Rick politely refuses to engage, but then seconds later, castigates his wife Lori for criticizing him in front of their kid. “The difference between men and women? I would never say anything that cruel to her, and certainly not in front of Carl.” This is probably outside the purview of this essay, but there is a lot to unpack here i/r/t gender roles, children, etc.

Palmer children, “Torn Apart” webisode

These zombie children are almost a sight gag — they are wearing party hats when they leap out and devour their neighbor — but contextually, there is some commentary on domesticity going on. We are first introduced to them (we can hear them banging upstairs) when a man breaks into his neighbor, Mike Palmer’s house to find a gun. The neighbor appears and threatens the interloper Andrew with a gun, then asks him what he’s looking for. “Guns,” says the man, at which point the neighbor delivers a sneering monologue about how Andrew always looked down on him, but who needs real America’s guns now, eh? Mike also explained that it is his birthday, and he already had to kill his wife, but couldn’t bring himself to shoot the kids. He counts out the bullets — one for the dog, two for the kids, one for me, etc — then turns the gun over to the man, who shoots him. By counting out the bullets like that, Mike implies Andrew should put the kids down as well. We eventually see the kids when Andrew returns to find the neighbor’s car keys. They attack and kill him, meaning he obviously didn’t carry out the neighbor’s dying wish.

Andrew is part of a little domestic melodrama going on next door, which includes him, his ex-wife, their children, and his current wife. Though he and his ex-wife have a chilly peace, he’s overbearing with the kids, shouting them down with little reason. Mom accuses him of being out of touch because he’s a weekend-and-holidays parent. The step-mom dies, reanimates, and tries to murder her step-kids, at which point his ex-wife and the mother of the children puts an ax in her skull, telling the step-mom to “stay away from my family.” All of this is incredibly on the nose. Divorce and remarriage are existential threats to the children. Absent fathers shirk their responsibilities to their own demise.

Honestly though, I don’t want to overstate, because there is a lot of morbid humor in a deadbeat dad getting attacked by birthday-behatted kiddies. In the end, the mom sacrifices herself so her kids can live, and eventually becomes the first zombie Rick Grimes encounters (but the second we see on screen), the so-called bicycle zombie in the park.

Sophia Peletier, “Pretty Much Dead Already”

Carol’s pretty blonde daughter, Sophia, provides all of the motivation for The Walking Dead’s annoying second season. She’s chased off in the first episode by walkers in a herd that passes them by on the highway. The group goes after her, and are taken to Hershel’s farm once Carl, Rick’s 12 year old kid, is shot by accident. (I only mention this because it feels like a parallelism: Rick’s son is imperiled at the same time Carol’s daughter is in missing, making danger to children something of a theme.) Hershel is high-handed and superior through the whole season, delivering sermonettes on the humanity of the walkers and asserting his land rights whenever someone says something that bothers him. I get it, on a level. We’re living through a brutal pandemic, and many, many people are making public health into a private rights issue, which is part of what Hershel is doing here.

In the last third of the season, it is revealed that Hershel has been keeping Sophia (and a whole passel of other walkers) in the barn on the property. Rick even knows that Hershel has been keeping walkers in the barn, and no one thinks to check for Sophia. After Rick and Hershel show up with walkers controlled with dog-catchers’ poles, Shane begins ranting angrily about the profound lack of reality driving both Rick and Hershel’s actions. (One of the more annoying parts of season 2 is that mostly, Shane isn’t wrong.) Shane kills the collared walkers before he knocks the lock off the barn and lets all the walkers out. Rick’s group shoots all the emerging walkers while the people too soft to enact violence — Hershel. Lori, Carl, etc — cower and cry. Once all the walkers are dead, they hear a growl from the barn and an undead Sophia emerges. Carol tries to run to her, but is held in place by Daryl. Rick raises his gun, in a parallel with the first season, and shoots the zombified Sophia.

I know this is the expediencies of television, but I literally do not understand why anyone ever gives Hershel the time of day after this disaster. He kept zombie Sophia in the barn for the entire season, while everyone was worried sick looking for her. He knew they were looking for a girl and couldn’t be arsed to check. (Additionally, because of his insistence that the undead are just sick, his daughter Beth is nearly killed by her zombified mother at the beginning of the next episode.) This is a disastrous lack of reality, and Hershel’s delusions have moved from passively dangerous to actively so. After the barn massacre, Hershel flounces, telling Rick’s group to get off his land, and it’s only after his farm is burnt to the ground that he seems to appreciate Rick (or more specifically, Shane) might have been right.

But it doesn’t take long for show to begin justifying his bullshit. Maybe it’s just American middle class theology, which he often spews: He’s the godamn paterfamilias, the head of the family, and all of his choices are the right ones because he’s the only one with the right to choice in the first place. By the time he dies a season or two hence, he’s the moral mouthpiece and kindly patriarch, which is a pretty appalling choice, if you think about it even a little. He kept a woman’s dead child in a barn, and then told her to get off his land once that was discovered. Fuck Hershel.

Penny Blake, “Say the Word” & “Made to Suffer”

Bucking precedent, Penny Blake, the undead daughter of the 3rd and 4th season antagonist The Governor, is a brown-haired white girl. We first meet Penny in a 3rd season cold open: The Governor is brushing the hair of a girl. We never quite see her face, and can hear a soft wheezing. The girl is quiet until hairbrush snags on her hear, tearing a chunk of hair and skin off her head. Then she starts struggling, and it becomes apparent that she is undead. The Governor restrains her, putting a bag over her head, then cuddles with the struggling, growling walker. He tells her that daddy still loves her, then puts her back in the closet crawlspace with some irritation when she won’t settle. (We get this sequence of events in a later episode, with the added detail that he’s been feeding her human flesh, which is one of my least favorite zombie tropes.)

Much of the third season is spent drawing parallels between Rick and the Governor in regards to their leadership styles, so it’s of note that the next scene after Penny’s introduction is the horrible aftermath of Judith’s birth and Lori’s death. It’s Daryl who steps up to direct the group in what needs to be done, while Rick is first catatonic, then runs off into the prison with an ax, presumably to kill every walker he can find. The Governor obviously lost his daughter, and instead of grieving her death, he keeps her murderous corpse in the walls of the house. (I have this thing about houses as embodiments of the psyche, so that tracks.) Rick lost his wife, and instead of caring for his daughter (or son, come to that), he hauls off on a murderous rampage.

Sidebar: There is also something of a zombie kids fakeout later in the episode, when Daryl and Maggie look for formula in an abandoned nursery school. I fully expected zombie kids to pop out the whole time, but the only thing that did was an opossum. (Which Daryl shoots and then says, “Dinner.” Maggie deadpans, “You’re not putting that in my bag.”) Another setup for a zombie child happens with Daryl, Denise, and Rosita are scavenging in an apothecary in the 6th season episode, “Twice as Far.” Denise finds a zombie with a cast next to a pack and play. She runs a flashlight over the wall, where the word HUSH is written over and over. When the flashlight settles on a stationary tub, a toddler sized shoe sticks out of bloody water. It probably would have made sense for this dead toddler to be a walker, but this scene is already disturbing enough, thanks.

The Governor’s zombie daughter meets her eventual, final demise when Michonne discovers Penny. First she thinks Penny is a live child he’s imprisoned, but when it becomes clear Penny is dead — and honestly, wouldn’t Penny reek — she goes to kill her. The Governor intervenes, begging for mercy. It’s probably the most nakedly emotional we ever see the Governor; he is in real anguish. Michonne kills her anyway, which results in a pretty brutal fight scene, during which his fish tanks full of heads are destroyed as well. I don’t think there’s much deeper going on here, other than the Governor’s ties to his past (and therefore his humanity) have been well and truly severed.

The death of another ersatz daughter — this time the girl Meghan Chamblers — also marks the Governor’s severance from humanity, later in the 4th season. After his first assault on the prison is unsuccessful — and he murders a fair number of the Woodbury residents — he ends up in the wilds alone for a time. Eventually he finds the Chambler family hiding out in an apartment building: two sisters, their father, and one of the sisters’ daughter. After bonding with the child and beginning a relationship with her mother, the Governor begins to amass the power and structure necessary to wage another assault on the prison.

The child ends up being his justification for his ruthless megalomania, while also checking his worst impulses: he can’t be too overtly evil or his found family will bolt. His girlfriend appears with a dead Meghan in her arms — Meghan was killed by a buried walker — just in time to see him hacking Hershel’s head off with Michonne’s sword. His unrestrained violence makes him incapable of keeping a family, which is his overt motive for the violence, in a sort of ouroboros. (Obviously, this is so much window-dressing; the Governor is just a psycho.) Which is kinda interesting, because TWD very often implies the exact opposite: Rick is constantly enacting ethically dodgy violent expedience in the name of community or domestic safety, up to, and including, sneak attacking a rival group as a preemptive strike and murdering people in their beds.

Lizzie and Mika Samuels, “The Grove”

Alright, technically, neither Lizzie nor Mika zombify in the course of the narrative, but the dangers of domesticity and fears of and for children are all over their story. Lizzie and Mika are, again, pretty blonde girls who join the group while they are living in the prison. Lizzie is 12 and either a budding sociopath or emotionally damaged by living through the zombie apocalypse (or why not both?) She has developed dangerous and alarming beliefs about the nature of the undead — that they are her friends, that she can hear them speak, that they are just like the living — which she then acts on in increasingly bloody ways. When she was introduced, she’s naming walkers, and when Carl admonishes her to knock it off, saying they kill people, she retorts that people kill people and they still have names.

After the prison falls, Carol and Tyreese end up on the road together with a little found family of Lizzie, Mika, and baby Judith. After finding a pecan farm with a well-stocked farmhouse, they decide to rest for a bit. It’s a sanctuary and relief from their time alone on the road. Tyreese and Carol discuss maybe staying indefinitely while Lizzie spirals more and more into her delusions. She feeds a downed walker, almost allowing him to bite her; she had a complete meltdown and tantrum when Carol kills a walker whom she was “playing” with. Late in the episode, Tyreese and Carol are horrified to discover Lizzie standing over a dead Mika, bloody knife in her hands. She tells them she’s going to show them that walkers are friendly when her sister reanimates. She also implies she’s going to murder the baby Judith, who is lying on a blanket behind her. Carol and Tyreese talk her down, and Tyreese takes her and Judith inside while Carol does the needful with Mika’s corpse.

That night, Carol and Tyreese have a heartbroken conversation about what they’re going to do about Lizzie. She clearly can’t be allowed to be around an infant, but she’s also dangerous indirectly: they realize she was the one mutilating animals and feeding the walkers back in the prison, which eventually lead to walkers breaching the fences. (Tyreese also thinks she must have been the one who killed his girlfriend, but of course that was Carol, who has been keeping that from him.) Though I don’t think anyone voices this out loud, they decide she will have to be killed. Carol takes her out, tells her to “look at the flowers” — which was a self-soothing method she and her sister used — and then shoots her in the back of the head.

This is obviously a different Carol than the one who watched Rick kill her zombie daughter back in season two, and a very different Carol to the one who submitted to an abusive husband in season one. She’s a harder, more violently expedient Carol. She was the one back in the prison who was teaching the children survival skills over the objections of parents who wanted to shield them from the violence in the world. Carol believes that her daughter might have lived if she’d known how to wield a knife, which is why she teaches the community kids how to do so. That one of her students then uses those knife skills to kill another child feels like an unfair irony. It almost seems like a narrative punishment that Carol feels compelled to murder a little girl who looks a lot like her own dead daughter.

There is a similar situation in the comics — one where an older sibling kills a younger one — but it is handled very differently. The adults lock up the kid and then spent the night arguing about what should be done. While they are incapacitated by indecision, Carl sneaks into the place the kid is held and kills the kid himself. Comics’ Carl makes the hard choices he believes the older generation is incapable of, and the episode shows the disconnect between the generation being raised in the zombie apocalypse, and the one whose instincts belong to a different world entirely. That sort of generational gloss isn’t in evidence in Lizzie’s story: it’s more about Carol’s role as a parental figure to children. Since the prison, Carol uses violence to protect domesticity. In “The Grove”, that violence finally turns inward, destroying the very thing it was supposed to preserve.

Noah’s brother, “What Happened and What’s Going On”

This the first and only Black child zombie in The Walking Dead’s run. He is one of Noah’s younger twin brothers whom Tyreese encounters and is bitten by when they return to Noah’s gated community. Little backstory: the group encountered Noah while Beth was being held by former Atlanta PD who have taken over a hospital. When he’s sprung from that situation, Noah tells the group that his family lives in a gated neighborhood not far from the hospital — or they did a year before he was incarcerated. When they arrive back at his neighborhood, Noah is horrified to discover the community is overrun. Tyreese tries to comfort him, but Noah runs directly into his old house.

Tyreese follows and ends up in one of Noah’s brothers’ bedrooms, where one of the brothers is disemboweled and dead on the bed. He’s distracted by a photo of the two boys sitting on a porch swing when the other, undead brother attacks and bites him. He reflexively kills the boy, then sinks down with his back to wall and goes into shock. Much of the rest of the episode shows Tyreese hallucinating various dead characters from the show: Beth, Bob, and, notably, the Samuels sisters as friendly voices, the Governor and Martin (one of the Terminus bad guys) as the voice of regret and recrimination.

The Walking Dead doesn’t much go in for overtly symbolic arthouse stylings, but much of this episode, especially anything having to do with Tyreese, is very much in the mode of a dream sequence, down to an atypically impressionistic cold open. Tyreese has been having a crisis of violence for the last while, reluctant to enact the violence that life in the zombie apocalypse seems to require. In his vision, Martin and the Governor keep telling him that his reticence to kill has instead gotten people killed, while Bob espouses a more cheerfully fatalistic philosophy: everything has happened as it should. The girls tell him that “it’s better now”, which I take to mean, it’s ok that we’re dead and that you’re going to die.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of all this, especially with Lizzie Samuels on the side of happy fatalism. The Walking Dead often severely punishes its characters who eschew violence, and this seems like the most symbolically overt example of that. Tyreese doesn’t want to kill, which is what’s necessary to protect the people he loves. As a consequence, he is killed by a reanimated family member, a child and representation of the promise of domesticity.

Unnamed child, “No Way Out”

In this 6th season episode, one in which the city of Alexandria is overrun with walkers, we catch a glimpse of a single child zombie within the horde. It’s possible this lone undead child is the son or nephew of someone on set, like the two zombie children in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead are related to Tom Savini, the effects person. This one zombie child is just part of a mob of walkers, and we know literally nothing else about him. However, given the context, this kid might be more deliberately placed than just crowd scene background. The child Sam sees the zombie child right in the middle of a freakout about the “monsters”, a freakout which ultimately gets him, his older brother, and his mother killed.

Backing up a bit: the Alexandrians have been split up by the invading horde, and Rick and a few others are trapped in Jessie’s house. Jessie is the mother of Sam and Ron, who are about 10 and 16. Sam’s most important on-screen relationship, outside of his immediate family, is with Carol. Sam takes to her early on in her sojourn in Alexandria because she is the source of cookies in her guise as dumb housewife Carol. (Carol’s ability to code-switch, especially in this period, is impressive. She’ll go from ditzy lady to stone cold killer in a second.) But when he follows her into places he’s (and she’s) not supposed to be, what he gets is brutal truths Carol. She clearly doesn’t want to get involved in the life of another child, and she’s constantly trying to run him off while almost reflexively caring for him.

It’s probably also pertinent to mention that both Carol and Jessie have both experienced domestic abuse: Carol in the past, while Jessie’s is ongoing. Carol doesn’t believe she’d still be alive if her abusive husband were as well. She advocates that Jessie’s husband be killed — it’s the only way, in this hard world, to deal with that situation — not in small part because of the effect of the abuse on Sam. After some serious machinations, Rick indeed does kill Sam’s abusive father, which isn’t the thing that puts Sam over the edge. It’s when one of the Wolves breaks into the house and tries to murder his mom (in the kitchen, and in a crazy harrowing fight scene) that he really spirals into his anxiety.

By the 6th season, before the city is overrun, Sam has confined himself to the second floor of the house, unable to function even within the family structure. He leaves food to rot and draws endless pictures of the undead and the dying. “Nothing changes up here,” he tells his mom when she tries to lure him downstairs with cookies. The changelessness of the second floor is broken when Rick carries a bitten and dying Deanna, the community’s leader, up to one of the spare bedrooms. The walls of the city have been breached, and walkers fill the streets. Sam’s mom, Jessie, steps away from their ministrations to Deanna, but she’s harried and barely containing her frustration with Sam’s anxiety. “Just pretend you’re somebody who’s not scared,” she says, and then turns back to the more pressing crisis.

Because here’s the thing: often children hide their crises from their parents out of shame or fear, and at the same time parents are sometimes too caught up with the trouble in front of them to identify and head off the trouble quietly brewing. Jessie knew there was something wrong with Sam, something potentially serious, but there was always more going on around them that required attention, plus his was a quiet, unassuming kind of wrong. Sure, telling Sam he should pretend to be someone else probably isn’t best practices, but by the time the zombies are scratching at the door, she’s out of options.

The group decide to smear themselves in walker guts and slip camouflaged by death through the overrun streets. Sam is terrified, but Jessie talks him into it. They make it all the way to a sheltered clump of trees, where they regroup for their next push through the horde. The minister, Gabriel, is going to take baby Judith to the church, and the rest of the group is headed for the armory. Rick wants to send Sam with Gabriel to the church, but Sam objects: I can do it, he says, entreating his mother to stay with her. Both Jessie and Sam want Sam to be able to handle this so strongly that Jessie capitulates, and everyone head off, hands linked.

But force of will can’t overcome such deep seated anxiety. In the middle of the zombie horde, Sam melts down. He hears Carol in his head telling him the monsters are coming for him, and stops in his tracks. His mother and Rick try to get him to move, come on, Sam, you can do it. When he looks into the zombie horde, he sees a zombie child, about his age, walking within the throng. At this point Sam begins keening, and the zombies close in, surrounding and biting him. In short order, both his mother and older brother are dead. The family is gone in the span of a minute. (Carl manages to get himself shot, again, like when Sophia disappeared.)

The undead child, in this context, ends up being an avatar of Sam’s anxiety. It is his greatest fear made manifest, right before it is truly made manifest. It’s also the ultimate dramatic irony: he was so afraid of become a walker that he did things that made him into a walker. That he hears Carol’s voice when he sees the undead kid ties Carol, again, to the death of a child, though I legitimately do not understand why it’s Carol Sam hears. Sure, ok, she threatened him a season ago, but she’s not why he’s broken from reality. He was abused by his father and was witness to a brutal attack on his mother by a stranger. Of course he’s paralyzed by anxiety. (And I’ve got to say, poor fucking Carol, because they do this again to her when her adopted son dies at the hands of the Whisperers.)

This undead child is the last zombie kid we ever see on The Walking Dead unless, of course, there’s another in the last half of the 11th season, though I doubt that given the further restrictions of Covid on filming. I think it’s interesting that this last zombie kid may or may not be real: he’s more of a psychological manifestation than a concrete actor in the narrative, and pretty subtle for all that. The Walking Dead has done psychological woo dream sequences before — Rick talked to a dead Lori on the guilty-conscience-ma-phone for a whole season, Tyreese hallucinated his dead friends while dying, etc — but they tend to be pretty loud and obvious. Too bad they learned subtlety just in time to never use it again.

ETA: Jasmine and Bobby, “The World Before” & “What We Become”

This one is a little oblique, but bear with me. I rewatched the episodes with Virgil recently because he appears in the last half of the last season, and I couldn’t remember what his deal was. In season 10, he encounters Michonne and some others in a library, where he rescues one of their number from a walker and then runs off. The Oceansiders capture him creeping round trying to steal a boat; he and Michonne have a tense convo; they decide to sail for his island. Once there, they (but mostly Michonne) clear a building of walkers. In the end, they find a room full of hanged walkers, suspended and wheeling their feet uselessly in the air. Virgil comes into the room, picks a shoe off the floor, and replaces it onto the foot of one of the hanged walkers. This is his family, dead and reanimated, hanging from the ceiling. We don’t see what happens, but it’s implied that Michonne puts them down, and then they bury them.

It turns out that Virgil is a nutter, having imprisoned the other members of the island community once he accidentally lead to the deaths of his family. We’re never given the ages of his children, but from dialogue cues, I get the sense the daughter is young, maybe prepubescent. Even less is known about his son. Michonne spends much of the episode hallucinating the road not taken, one where she lets Andrea die and ends up as Negan’s right hand. There’s a way in which this hanged family is also a manifestation of the dangers of getting too hard, too self-interested. There’s something gruesomely ethereal about the way Virgil’s family wheels and sways above the ground, like Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Recall that Dante uses the Roman poet Virgil as his guide through hell in Inferno. Here, another Virgil guides Michonne through horrors.

Unnamed child, “Out of the Ashes”

Whelp, I was wrong about there being no zombie children in the last season of The Walking Dead. The fifth episode, “Out of the Ashes” deals with children a lot, both obliquely and obviously. The cold open is a dream sequence in which Aaron tries to protect his daughter, Gracie, from a number of villains from seasons previous: whisperers, Wolves, walkers, maybe even a Savior or two. (Aaron adopted Gracie after our people, the ostensible good guys, killed her parents in a sneak attack on the Saviors.) The walls are breached, which leads to a discussion about how they don’t have the tools to effectively fix the fence. Aaron & Co head back to Alexandria to scavenge any supplies. There they find assorted Whisperers who have been looting and squatting in the place, which sets Aaron off big time.

Later we see tiny badass Judith training a group of other children how to use swords. She’s distracted by a group of other kids, lead by a boy who must be a little older, taunting a child zombie who has his head stuck through one of the holes in the wall around their community. They’re poking their fingers in the walker’s snapping jaws and pulling out before they get bit. Judith tells them to knock it off, then the older boy knocks her over and tells her she talks too much and that’s why her mother left. Judith pulls a knife and dares him to say that again. He demurs and the group runs off.

There have been a number of scenes with the apocalypse kids interacting this season, and they have mostly been as bad as this one. An episode or so ago, a bunch of tiny badasses, including Judith and Hershel, all sat around playing cards and discussing how their parents don’t want them to worry when they’re out facing near certain death. While I think this is not true to how kids interact, fine. It’s not anywhere near as bad as this mess with Judith and the bully by the fence. Where do these kids come from that they are so cavalier with the walking dead, especially after the walls were breached that very morning, and several community members got killed?

I get that kids can act like immortal, entitled assholes, but this kid absolutely must know the world of hurt in store him both if he got bit, or if any adult found him. That Judith didn’t just cut a bitch instead of threatening to tell Rosita is, frankly, bizarre to me. I know I get down on the show for overuse of violent expedience, but here it is absolutely called for. The stakes are too damn high for nonsense like this to be allowed. Which the show even knows on a level, as that’s what the zombie child more or less symbolizes: he’s what’s going to happen to them if they don’t knock it off, and not just symbolically.

Just to argue with myself a bit: I can see the psychology of why these kids would fuck around with walkers, even while knowing the finding was inevitable. I think a lot of stupid dangerous Tiktok challenges — eating Tide pods, inhaling cinnamon, climbing crates — are the risk-taking behavior of the hopeless. We live in an unstable world, which is burned and parched and buffeted by storm, by plague. Refusing to vaccinate, eating fish cleaner and horse paste, all of these maladaptive performances of “freedom” make climbing up on some crates knowing you’re going to fall look positively benign. At least in that case, the only person hurt is the climber. So, okay, I still think that sequence was badly done — the dialogue — but it probably does capture the cultural moment, such as it is.

Either way, I’m not going to make any more predictions about whether there will be more undead kids on the show.

Around the World with Zombies!

Some time last winter, the incomparable sj and I decided to do a deep dive into zombie movies from all over the world. I have a hobby horse about how egalitarian zombie movies are: They are the soccer of cinema, able to be made on a shoestring and an iPhone. They don’t necessarily require much in the way of acting, and can be shot on abandoned lots and in your nana’s backyard.

While this is true of post-apocalit in general, zombie movies are also incredibly local affairs, once the lights go out and the phones stop working. People either bunker up with their neighbors in a crisis situation which is bound to show the societal fractures in sharp relief, or head out onto the road, contemplating the blood-soaked landscape as it spools by. I tend to be real irritated with the American D-grade zombie movie — all that American exceptionalism, gendered violence, and authoritarianism sets my back — but I’m not as familiar with other countries’ stupid national ideals. Largely, these films were made (or became available to an American audience) in the last 5 years — I’m not trying to catalog all foreign zombie movies, but more hit the ones being made now, which speak to more current national hopes and fears. This is why I’ve included Peninsula, but not its predecessor, Train to Busan: more recent, more better.

So in the interests of international inquiry, let’s go around the world with zombies!

Canada/Mi’gmaq First Nation

Blood Quantum

Alright, teeechnically we watched this before we’d formally decided to go around the world with zombies, but it is nonetheless a) from not-America and b) completely flipping awesome. As far as I’m aware, Blood Quantum is the first Native zombie film ever made, and it’s absolutely perfect. It hit a lot of themes about colonialism that I wanted from Betaal — an (East) Indian series that features locals/aboriginal people against the ghosts of British imperialism — but Betaal ended up squandering its premise. Which is not to say that Blood Quantum isn’t uniquely, perfectly attuned to the concerns of Native America, instead of some generic colonialism theme.

Blood Quantum is set on the fictional Red Crow Mi’gmaq Reserve in Canada. It opens with a Native fisherman trying to gut salmon that refuse to stay dead, an image that becomes a little more freighted with meaning if you know the backstory of the decades of both legal and literal violence surrounding Mi’gmaw fishing rights. The film then follows Tribal policeman (and the fisherman’s son), Traylor, as he navigates his way through both the beginning of the zombie apocalypse and pretty messy family drama. Both of his sons end up in jail “on the other side of the line” (i.e. white people jail), and he leaves them to cool it while he deals with events peripheral to the oncoming zombie apocalypse. His sons are very clearly set up as oppositional but entwined: Lysol was the son Traylor had too young and too fucked up; Joseph clearly had a more stable home, but almost idolizes Lysol and his tough luck posturing.

After this establishing opening, the movie jumps to the future several months later. Native Americans are immune to the zombie virus — though they are not immune to getting torn apart by zombified white people — so they’ve cut the bridges to the reserve and are riding out the zombie apocalypse the best they can. They are taking in non-zombie non-Natives, but that’s hugely problematic: white people are being dicks, as usual, attempting to recolonize the reserves now that their already colonized land is a shitshow. Traylor’s two sons come into increasing conflict: Lysol doesn’t want to take in any more white people, while Joseph and his pregnant white girlfriend keep bringing home survivors. The inevitable bloodbath is gleefully gory, and while the ending doesn’t go full nihilism, it’s still pretty damn grim.

(And not that this has anything to do with anything, but there are a ton of Native actors in this film who were also in the Twilight series. When I was a lass, you could play 6 Degrees of Separation of Native America with the late 80s movie Powwow Highway; basically every working Native actor was in that. Probably the next movie to perform this function was the 1998 film Smoke Signals. So it’s funny to see fucking Twilight kind of functioning that same way with the new generation. I can entirely see Blood Quantum being this kind of movie going forward, which is perfect.)

French Canada

Ravenous

I’ve now watched Ravenous (or Les Affamés, in the original French, if you prefer) twice, and while I really really enjoyed it both times, I also think I’m missing something entirely in the film. Ravenous is more the road trip kind of zombie film, where it moves around a locale taking the pulse of the community in extremity. The locale here is a remote village in northern Quebec. I think the film is talking very specifically to and about a French Canadian audience. Given that I know basically nothing about French Canadian culture, the types and tropes are often illegible. That said, Ravenous is musing and odd, with striking, beautiful landscapes and a downbeat ambiance. Much of the action takes place as a group of survivors make their way through the countryside, and I was earnestly impressed the way the filmmakers managed to make wide open spaces, like fields or a stretch of highway, feel claustrophobic. The zombies are also powerful strange: they group together building these strange towers of domestic items — chairs, appliances, a desk — the purpose of which is never explained. Also, dolls where you pull the string on their backs and they cry are totally horrible.

Straight Up France

The Night Eats the World

The Night Eats the World has a set up reminiscent of the German zombie movie Rammbock: Berlin Undead, which I have not included on this list because that was made more than 10 years ago. In both, a guy tries to return the artefacts of their relationship to a now ex-girlfriend. In The Night Eats the World, the dude shows up while the girlfriend is having a pretty epic party. She understandably brushes him off in the middle of said rager, and he retreats to a quiet bedroom to sulk. When he wakes up, the apartment is empty, disheveled, and with blood smears on the walls. He does eventually find the ex-girlfriend, now zombified, and barricades himself in her apartment to wait out the zombie apocalypse.

The Night Eats the World is incredibly musing and introspective for a zombie movie. What little action there is is mostly seen from a distance, and the most (sort of) human interaction the guy engages in is with a zombie trapped in a barred garden entrance. When I first watched this movie, I thought it was a little boring, but I watched it again a couple months into the epidemic. Whoo boy, did it hit different. The way the main character manages his isolation and low key terror felt uncomfortably familiar. The Night Eats the World definitely captured the mood swings, melancholy, and anger of quarantine, and the ways we can both hunger for human contact and viscerally fear it. Yeesh.

Belgium

Yummy

This Dutch & English language film follows a woman, her mother and boyfriend to a sketchy Eastern European cosmetic surgery clinic. The young woman (who is stacked, yo) wants a breast reduction, and her kinda trashy mom is there for a smorgasbord of cosmetic treatments, including, ahem, anal bleaching. I kinda don’t need to say more than “sketchy Eastern European cosmetic surgery clinic”; the zombie outbreak is basically inevitable. I was fully expecting a dumb but fun time — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but Yummy ended up being a cut above. For one, the cinematography is absolutely freaking gorgeous, and that’s not something I’m used to seeing in American zombie films. (I think the landscape picture road trip kind of zombie movie can be prettily shot, but even those can go the 28 Days Later shitty digital video route.)

A lot about Yummy ended up being legitimately surprising. I’m pretty resigned to the whole gamut of shitty gender roles in zombie narratives: sexism, toxic masculinity, sexual violence, &c. For example, the otherwise beautifully shot, well acted, and introspective zombie movie, It Stains the Sands Red, is almost fatally marred by a lovingly documented and wholly unnecessary rape scene midway through. Given the nexus of bullshit you can find, semiotically speaking, surrounding plastic surgery, I really expected Yummy to perform a lot of said bullshit. They regularly subverted my low expectations, which might sound like the damns of faint praise, but I really don’t mean it that way. That was legit well done. The filmmakers also came up with a whole fake language, called Balkanese, that the clinic workers speak to keep it from being tied too specifically to any given country. Which, that’s so awesome. Although Yummy is pretty high on the splatter/gore scale, which is unsurprising given the setting, the scene that legit made me cringe was when someone gets their fingers crushed by a manhole cover. That was horrifying. Plus one all around.

Austria

Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies

Now this horror-comedy set in the Austrian Alps WAS dumb but fun. Lederhosen Zombies is deliberately campy, and occasionally delivers the kind of gloriously silly gore that only the unserious can deliver. There are, for example, zombie deer. The film opens with a bunch of professional snowboarders (or somesuch) yelling woo and doing their thing. Also the owners of the ski chalet fuck around and find out with some sort of chemical in the snow machine. This is an incredibly rompy movie, with set pieces that are evenly split between honestly inventive and the dreary usual. Like, the leads kill so many zombies with their snowboards because Chekhovian snowboard. I was amused and bored in equal measures, but full points for all the Austrian national costumes, sight gags, and silliness.

Germany

Sky Sharks

I just, everything about this movie sounds right up my alley. There are zombie Nazis riding on flying sharks, just as a premise, and it only gets sillier from there. The production value is high, and there are even character actors I heart, like Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, in key roles throughout the movie. There’s at least one extremely well-done animated sequence (maybe two?). Unfortunately, the plot, such as it is, is so disjointed that who even knows what the stakes are, why anything matters, or what even is going on. In addition to the plotlines involving Nazi Germany experimenting on sharks and/or zombies, there was also a subplot with the Vietnam War (and zombies and maybe sharks?) which I legit didn’t grok. In true B-movie style, there are several grindhouse style sex scenes which end in huge boobies covered in blood. I suspect mood might have a lot to do with my irritation with this movie, as I had serious playback issues the entire time. As it stands, much of it felt pandering or impressed with itself, too busy trying to one-up itself that it forgot to build any kind of through-line, either emotionally or narratively speaking. That said, I can see a situation when I was all on deck for Sky Sharks, and it’s possible with another viewing I’ll change my mind. I don’t want to warn anyone off, because Sky Sharks is so weird it deserves a viewing by any undead enthusiast. Maybe it’ll work for you.

Israel

JeruZalem

JeruZalem is pretty questionable as a zombie movie, because the monsters herein aren’t very zombie-like, but I’m including it as a contrasting edge case. The movie follows two Jewish American girls, Rachel and Sarah, on their trip to Israel. They had planned to stay in Tel Aviv, but after discussion with a fellow traveler called Kevin, they head instead to Jerusalem. Probably not a huge surprise that a creature feature set in Jerusalem, a city vitally important to the three major Abrahamic religions, would lean into religious mythology. (I just learned that Baháʼí is also Abrahamic, which is neat.) Rachel and Sarah bop around Jerusalem, hanging out with the Muslim hostel owners, flirting with Israeli solders, sightseeing, clubbing, etc. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and repentance, the girls are startled by an explosion and fighter jets flying over the city. (The film keeps referring to as Yom Kippur as “judgment day”, which is technically correct but maybe a little histrionic — I see what you’re doing there.) They first assume a terrorist attack, but when the dead start rising and attacking people, it becomes clear this is sectarian violence of a much more biblical kind. They then race to get the hell out of Jerusalem (literally! har har) before the gates close and they are trapped in the walled city.

The principles in JeruZalem do refer to the creatures therein as zombies or the undead, and there are a couple zombie-like attributes: the affliction is transmitted by bite, and the turned then turn on the living in mobs. But they also have freaking wings, and, in one expository video from 30 years before, appear to be able to be exorcized from the host. Zombie narratives are by and large secular affairs, even despite the occasional invocation of religious idiom. (Like the line from Dawn of the Dead: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead walk the earth,” or the graffiti scrawled in 28 Days Later: “Repent, the end is extremely fucking nigh.”) Zombie narratives tend to be stories of the end of modernity, not a biblical or metaphysical end, but then JeruZalem is, kind of neither? Honestly, I’m not precisely sure what the take-home of the film is. There is some discussion of Jerusalem syndrome in the film, which is when visitors to the holy land become convinced they are either messianic or biblical figures. Jerusalem syndrome affects members of all faiths; for instance, David Koresh had it. It would be possible, given what happens to Sarah in the end, to read the movie as an allegory for how American Jews are sometimes radicalized by return to Israel. I don’t know, maybe not. Either way, the zombie-like creatures in JeruZalem are doing something decidedly different, metaphorically speaking, than your traditional Romero zombie.

New Zealand

Last of the Living

This ridiculously low budget zombie movie follows three dudebros as they bop around the zombie apocalypse. After a beginning which finds them “bantering” in a mansion, I was real worried I would seriously fucking hate these guys, but they end up not as awful as anticipated. (Though still objectively dorks.) With a budget this small, the film has to rely more on dialogue than zombie thrills, which is a problem for two reasons: the actors suck, and the script is reheated leftovers. Which is not to say I didn’t end up laughing at both the intended and unintended comedy. The sequence in the record store was legitimately funny (which in turn shouts out to the band who wrote the theme song — God save us all.) Extra points for a pretty seriously nihilist ending — usually this kind of scrappy garage project can’t bear to give its dudebros anything but the happiest of endings.

Last of the Living kind of reminded me of this terrible zombie movie my aunt was in, called I Am a Middle Aged Zombie Too. Shot entirely on location in Washburn, WI, it features an all-local cast and some hilariously awesome Wisconsin accents. But, legit, I wouldn’t like the movie half so much if my Aunt Kristen weren’t in it as a zombie who gets killed by some Rad Hat ladies; it’s just too dumb and local. Which is kind of my thesis for why zombie movies are so great, so I’m being a little contradictory here. Oh well. 

South Korea

Peninsula

Peninsula was styled as Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula when it was released in the States, as Americans might be too dumb to understand a sequel that doesn’t have any character continuity with its predecessor. Set some time past the events of Train to Busan, the people who have escaped the zombie apocalypse on the Korean peninsula are now a people in exile and diaspora. The opening sequence follows Marine Captain Jung-Seok and his family — a sister, brother-in-law, and nephew — as they race through the countryside. They end up abandoning another family to the zombies, but make it onto a ship out of Korea. When a shipmate zombifies, Jung-Seok is forced to bolt his sister and nephew in a room full of zombifying passengers. The brother-in-law, Chul-min, survives to remind him of his shame forever. We then check in with him & Chul-min in Hong Kong several years later, following them through negotiations with gangsters to head back to Korea, basically to commit a heist. (Which, that kind of sounds like Army of the Dead a little, now that I think of it.)

As per all heist narratives, everything goes to shit once they get hold of the truck full of money, and the crew is either scattered or killed. The family Jung-Seok abandoned turns out to be still alive. A Warriors-style gang self styled as a militia unit captures Chul-min, which is where my least favorite part of this otherwise entertaining film takes place. The militia has one of those zombie cage-match situations, and I am so bone-tired of that trope. I just feel like it’s something like narratively lazy, playing out a meaningless spectacle full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. Once past this irritating sequence, Peninsula gains both plot and emotional momentum, and that ending is an absolute edge-of-the-seat nail-biter with very real stakes.

#Alive

I’ve gone back and forth whether to include this South Korean film, because, best I can tell, both this and an American film called #Alone were developed from the same script at roughly the same time. #Alive’s release is a less than half a year before #Alone, which I assume means they both had to be in production at the same time, though admittedly Covid-19 played havoc with the 2020 release schedule, among other things. The set up isn’t dissimilar to the The Night Eats the World, in the sense that the focus is on an individual isolated in an apartment due to a zombie plague. The key difference in both movies is that the main character continues to be connected through the Internet to the rest of humanity, at least until the power goes out.

The Korean adaption more clearly emphasizes the isolation and despair of its lead, the way doomscrolling stands in, poorly and imperfectly, for actual human interaction, both lifeline to the lonely and impediment to real connection. #Alive also is much nuanced in the way it uses media — the ways we construct a version of ourselves for public consumption, and how we consume other people’s closely cropped identities in turn. The lead papers over the windows to avoid the horrors outside, an then invites them right back in through the computer screen. While these same overt actions happen in #Alone, I just didn’t feel the same freight of meaning, I think partially because the lead in #Alone is a Taylor Lautner type who spends an inordinate amount of time with his shirt off. There are ravening zombies, dude, maybe cover some of that bitable skin. The Korean version also deemphasizes the romantic element of the lead’s interaction with the neighbor, which causes unnecessary drag on the momentum in #Alone.

I think #Alive is much more successful that #Alone, but there’s one sequence I prefer in the American version. In #Alone, Donald Sutherland lends his regretful gravitas to a zombie trope found in both films: the grieving relative feeding live people to a zombified family member. I find this trope incredibly distasteful, but Sutherland does elevate the proceedings somewhat. Additionally, the zombies in #Alone are often repeating the same things over and over, and the characters theorize this is because some part of them is still aware, but they are driven by their violent compulsions. In the scene with Sutherland and his now-zombified wife, she’s both begging them to kill her and trying desperately to attack them, and it’s pretty gutting. I don’t remember the zombies in #Alone doing this, though it’s possible that’s due to the limitations of subtitles. That detail notwithstanding, #Alive still seems more relevant to our Zoom-mediated realities & life in lockdown, and coherent in its storytelling.

Philippines

Block Z

Much as I love zombie movies, they don’t all that often catch me right in the feels. I go into them at a reserve, emotionally speaking, because I know that few, if any, of the characters are going to make it out alive. Block Z managed to break through my arms-length emotional stance, and did it while delivering some seriously harrowing thrills. It’s honestly one of the best traditional zombie movies I’ve seen in the last while. The movie opens with a father dropping off his daughter to her med school rotations. (This is the titular Block Z — it’s a wing of the hospital.) Their relationship is strained after the death of her mother, &c. There, she plays nurse to a bitten woman with a small daughter. The mother dies, she comforts the girl, taking her away from the death. Then the mother reanimates and begins to attack the nursing staff and other patients. From there, the zombie plague spreads through the hospital and out into the city.

The opening has a compacted sequence of establishing relationships with the med student’s colleagues, teachers, and patients, and it’s pretty impressive how many relationships they sketch in such a short period of time. A lot of the plot of Block Z is melodramatic (in a good way!): fathers disconnected from daughters, children grieving mothers, rich assholes lording their wealth over others, cops and colleagues, friends and enemies, all fighting their way through a situation they aren’t prepared for. The zombies are the Eastern kind, with jerky, almost insectile movements, screaming, and fast. I find them much more alarming than the Western kind: slow, stupid, and moaning. Several times, people sacrifice themselves for others, and it never feels cheap or exploitive. Once, a child throws herself at her zombie mother, and it’s heartbreaking. Block Z knew exactly where to get me. Good job.

Malaysia

KL Zombi

This was pitched to me as Malaysian Shaun of the Dead, which is accurate on some level. There are several sequences where the half-assed “hero” of this film, a guy called Skinny, kind of bops around the zombie apocalypse completely oblivious to the zombies all around him: he delivers food and snatches the money from a zombie’s hand through a gate; he plays field hockey with zombified teammates not understanding that their attempts to tackle him have a more dangerous purpose. Really more a series of vignettes than a full-on narrative, KL Zombi — the KL stands for Kuala Lumpur — vacillates between funny and tiresome. For example, there’s a sort of Shaklee salesman slash televangelist called Bro Khalid who factors in one of the side-plots, and everything having to do with him was aces. The third act gets especially tiresome — there’s the zombified son of a cop and a bullshit ethical dilemma surrounding him — but then some ointment made by Bro Khalid ends up de-zombifying people. Which, I get why a comedy would seek to make everything ok in the end, but that kinda ruined all the stakes? In addition to not making sense? The sexual politics are often questionable, especially in the opening and closing sections, though thankfully it’s just the garden variety chauvinist kind, not the sexual assault kind, a thing I see far too often in zombie movies. KL Zombi is not essential viewing, but it definitely had the feeling of a passion project with a group of people super into it. That goes pretty far for me.

Japan

One Cut of the Dead

At this point, I’m going to try to get One Cut of the Dead onto every zombie roundup I do: It is suuuuuch a good movie. Unfortunately, this movie has such a massive conceptual spoiler at the first act turn that I can barely say anything at all about it. While a film crew is filming a zombie movie, they are attacked by real zombies. The opening 30 minutes or so are done in one single, continuous take, which is all the more impressive for how much ground they cover. This isn’t Wallace Shawn and André having dinner in a fixed location. I recently watched George Romero’s fifth zombie movie, Diary of the Dead, which has a similar set up: college students making a horror movie start living one. Much as I love Romero, Diary of the Dead really suffers in comparison, though I do acknowledge that horror and horror-comedy are different animals. Romero’s social commentary feels like a Boomery indictment of internet culture which fundamentally misunderstands how that works, and the delivery is dreary and leaden. One Cut’s milieu is the film industry, and it’s an affectionate sendup of the types and tropes one encounters as a journeyman in the industry, in addition to being just a whole lot of fun. I can’t recommend it enough.

Review: Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith

I feel like every time I turn around, some nickel-plated idiot announces that the zombie genre is dead, har har. And while I don’t have a lot of time for this notion, I will grudgingly admit that we’re definitely out of the flurry of excellent zombie narratives that were published about a decade ago. Every time has its monster, and I think the zombie in the Obama years largely stood in for some pretty nasty undemocratic and racist stuff seething under the surface. I want to be clear that when I say this, I am not smearing all zombie narratives of this time period as right wing agitprop or whatever — that would be stupid and reductive.

But there are also certain inescapable through-lines to this era of zombie narrative. So many zombie narratives of the early 21st century position a white dude, often with a military or police background, and his capacity for targeted violence as the savior of domesticity and the world. World War Z (movie version), Walking Dead (both versions), Zombieland, etc. (Zombieland especially hasn’t held up so great: the character Cleveland, played by Mark Zuckerberg, ends up reading as an incel, and his murder of his hot neighbor after describing what a bitch she is for not noticing him is, as the saying goes, problematic.) It’s the old line: “You’ll be begging me to use my guns when the mob comes,” where the mob is generally coded as not-white, not-us, the ultimate dehumanized them.

Obviously, there are a lot of zombie narratives from this period which invert or subvert this trope. Take something like 28 Days Later, which turns the white military savior into anything but, the Mister Kurtz of his own sterile fiefdom. But 28 Days Later, no matter what it does with the trope, is still in dialogue with it. It’s just kind of baked into the premise: a small group end up having to organize their society balancing individual autonomy with group safety, in the most extreme environment possible. This era of the zombie narrative tended to pit the Spartan encampment against the Athenian mob, and violent expedience was the name of the game.

Since Trump’s election, Brexit, and most certainly since the Time of Covid, these tropes have become confused and messy, the coherence of the metaphor rotten. It’s just not mapping right anymore. Observe this, from a viral photo of Covid-deniers storming the Michigan capitol:

[Image description: A photo taken from inside a building looking out through windows. Several people press against the glass, most with their mouths open mid-shout. American flags, a red Trump hat, and the Guy Fawkes mask are visible. The image is captioned “World War Q”.]

Here we have a mob ostensibly fighting for personal freedom. The party of law and order tacitly condones the attack on the capitol and the murder of a policeman, if not explicitly. Authoritarianism rides to power on populism. This is ultimately what many zombie novels were presaging, but we’ve lost our taste for the fictional meat of it. I don’t know what the next monster will be, but zombies aren’t quite the zeitgeist anymore.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith. When I came across it in the Netgalley catalog, it struck me how long it’s been since I read a zombie novel. I think probably the last was Last Ones Left Alive, a musing, elegiac novel set in Ireland. (Oh, I also reread World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, and that book was so accurate in its depiction of the societal and governmental responses to a global pandemic it ended up kind of hurting my feelings. ‘Sure didn’t get a laugh out of it like when I re-watched Contagion, boy howdy. ) I’ve been watching tons of zombie movies still — their low budgets all but ensure zombie movies will be cranked out forever — but the publication of zombie novels seems to be thinning.

It’s clear from the description that Spec Ops Z is more on the hardware nerd side, a kind of military sf that’s constructed like WW2 band of brothers movies starring John Wayne. In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t particularly my bag, but I can be up for a bit of rowdy. True to form, Spec Ops Z is fast paced — except for a beginning which drags — and includes the kind of mayhem and gore I prefer in my zombie smash and grabs. The action isn’t always clearly blocked, but mostly it’s credible. Maybe most importantly, Smith doesn’t slip into pretentious philosophizing about the Nature of Man and Probably Evil Too, something I tend to find in these soldierly stories.

Spec Ops Z follows a group of Soviet Spetsnaz commandos from their posting in Afghanistan to a secret mission in NYC. It’s set in 1989 (if I remember correctly), when the Soviets were in the Afghani quagmire, not the US. (The Soviet-Afghan conflict is often called the Soviet Union’s Vietnam War, fwiw.) The members of the team all have pilot-style nicknames — Gulag, Mongol, Princess, etc — which I found somewhat precious: they were all walking around labeled with their single character trait. I couldn’t decide if this was lazy or brilliant, because it’s not like I’m reading this sort of thing for the articles, and I didn’t have to try to keep straight a dozen people with similar-sounding Russian names and patronymics. I’m leaning toward brilliant.

I was perked up at this beginning part because I actually was in the USSR in 1991, just a few months before the August coup attempt which lead to Yeltsin’s rise. Spec Ops Z appears to be a mild alt-history, in that a hard line KGB guy has deposed the reformist Gorbachev in the very recent past of the novel. As a consequence, relations are much shittier with the rest of the world. (Like, I kind of can’t imagine what might have happened if they had a hard-liner in when Reagan delivered his evil empire Star Wars nonsense. They were apparently pretty close to first striking us at that point as it was.)

The Spetsnaz team are pulled from combat in Afghanistan and sent on a secret-even-to-them mission to NY, where they set off a bioagent in Grand Central Station, one that turns everyone into zombies. Most of the team are killed, but miraculously reanimate with their reasoning intact, though the gnawing hunger to savage the living is always present. The pov character theorizes that this is because they’re all so hardened and have such great discipline and iron will from being Spetznaz soldiers. This I thought was the kind of self-aggrandizing BS a commando unit would tell themselves, so didn’t credit it overmuch. Unfortunately, later, when another character reanimates, it’s made clear this is the actual in-world reason, which, whoo boy.

The Spetsnaz are pretty pissed they ended up unwittingly bringing about the end of the world — the US retaliated with nukes, so there’s that to worry about too — and decide to go back to the USSR and revenge murder all the people involved, if they are not already shambling corpses. From then on it’s set pieces — through NY, onto a ship, etc — and largely what one expects from this sort of thing. What I really want to talk about happens in the last quarter of the novel, and therefore constitutes a spoiler according to most people. Fair warned.

SPOILERS BELOW

Like seriously I’m not kidding.

Not even a little.

When the Spetsnaz arrive in England, they come across a bunch of people dressed in Nazi uniforms. This is seriously fucking upsetting for most of the team — the leader grew up in Stalingrad during the Siege (which was fucking horrible), and others had their brushes with Nazis. It’s sometimes hard to remember now, but the USSR, the UK, and the US were all on the same side of WWII; what the hell are Nazis doing on British soil?

Turns out, these Nazis are a bunch of reenactors who started cosplaying a little too hard once the zombie apocalypse happened. They’ve set up their own little Reich in Zombieton-on-Wye, complete with a Joy Division (not just a band name) and cage matches between brown people and zombies. (I am completely tired by the zombie cage match trope, but it’s not lingered on overmuch, more’s the better.) (Also, I was fully expecting to have to grit my way through some sadistically detailed description of sexual assault, but Smith doesn’t go there, to his credit.)

I don’t think such a thing could happen in England in 1989, the scars of the War being what they were. Maybe in the States where we didn’t have to deal with the Blitz and … all the rest of it. But I legitimately don’t mean to nitpick plausibility here. For one, it’s a book about physics-defying cannibal corpses; I think I can allow a little latitude in the British national character. (Which, also, I’m not British, so.) This book was not written by someone living in 1989, and it is not being read by people in 1989 (barring time travel or whatnot.) Not even a month ago, Americans wearing the signs and emblems of both Nazis and Confederates stormed the capitol of the United States of America. Seeing Nazi cosplayers pop up in zombie fiction is pretty relevant to our times, considerably moreso when you consider that the Russians unleashed the zombie plague in both the US and UK in the book. What is zombiism but the ultimate DDOS attack?

I have occasionally been accused of overthinking pulp fiction, and it’s possible that’s what I’m doing here. However, I get the impression that Smith is really not messing around with his historical research. Much of it was spent being a total nerd about 1980s era Soviet & American weaponry — the firearms and armaments all lovingly described and detailed — but for sure he also has a detailed alt-history of the USSR. He goes so far as to name the hard-liner in charge of the country, and I suspect if my Soviet history were better, I could point to when exactly the timeline diverges. So I’ll assume Smith isn’t just writing pulp nonsense with no meaning, themes, or goals. It’s set when it is, with these specific people as protagonist, for a reason.

Given that this is a retitled reprint of a novel first published in 2017, there’s no way it’s directly addressing the Capitol Insurrection, but the rise of militant white supremacy has very much been a thing in this here age of Trumpism. But because of its placement at the very end of the novel, and the relative ease by which the ersatz Nazis are dispatched, I do kind of wonder what that sequence is trying to say. The Soviets riding in to save the British (and their America captives) from both the zombie plague they themselves unleashed AND white supremacy is also a little odd, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I started this essay blathering about how zombies fit into a certain Obama-era ethos — before Brexit, before Trump — both anticipating and, in some cases, justifying both Trumpism and the Brexiteers. Just cut the bridges and retreat to your island in order to keep the shambling horde from overrunning those who really matter. I think Spec Ops Z ends up kinda perfectly encapsulating the ambivalent and shifting sense of meaning in zombie tropes in an America where violent white supremacy is ascendant. I’m not sure what exactly to take out of Spec Ops Z, but that could be said about every single aspect of my life at the moment: we’re all groping our ways forward.

So. An enjoyable novel with enough gory set pieces to keep me reading, and also deliberate enough to allow me to sharpen some of my favorite pet theories on it. Класс.

I got my copy from Netgalley. Spec Ops Z goes on sale February 2.

An Incomplete List of Zombie Television Series I Have Enjoyed.

8 Zombie Series Worth a Looksee

Note: I wrote and published this a while ago — September to be exact — but due to some shenanigans involving backups or something, several posts were lost, in addition to all pictures on the site. So that’s a bummer. But that’s why this might seem familiar.

A couple few months back I wrote a thing about the oddball zombie movies I have have enjoyed, which got me thinking about zombie television series. There were a bunch of things I wanted to include, but they weren’t movies, and I didn’t want the list to burgeon too much. So here I am now with all the zombie series that I half-wanted to include but couldn’t!

Like the movie list, the series included hail from all over the globe. I’ve deliberately excluded well known network/cable stuff like iZombie or The Walking Dead. This is my rodeo and I will do what I want, but more importantly, I’m talking about the oddballs that maybe the average non-zombie-obsessed freak might be interested in.

Canada

Black Summer

I went back and forth about this one, because as a spin-off of sorts, maybe I should include its source material, Z-Nation. Z-Nation is an avowedly z-punk take on the zombie apocalypse, both pulpy and melodramatic in turns. Its old school Dr Who-style micro-budget forced its writers and designers into bottle episodes and off-camera horrors in ways I thought enhanced the series, but then its whole aesthetic was so deliberately goofy that who even knows. Black Summer has a similar low-budget shitty-digital-video feel, but it’s not really campy at all. You wouldn’t find, say, a z-nado, a zom-baby, or zombie strippers like you do in Z-Nation. This is hardcore First Night storytelling, staged in those first weeks when the dead begin to rise.

Z-Nation never exactly stressed me out because its environment was too fictional, if you’ll excuse my vagueness, but Black Summer did, and often. The series opens with a nuclear family packing up to run. There are sirens in the distance, and as they make their way through suburbia, people pour out of their tick-tack McMansions into the street like a river. They come to a military checkpoint, the daughter is loaded onto a transport vehicle, and the father is discovered to be bitten and ejected. The mother follows the father back into the neighborhood as her child is removed, screaming, in the custody of the military. There are other plotlines too — a Black man in the custody of the police; a deaf man and a Korean woman; even a zombie who reanimates in the street.

The thing that makes Black Summer so arresting is how suburban everything is, how normal, in the pejorative sense of the word. The world Black Summer inhabits hasn’t been broken down and overrun. The lights still work and the windows are unbroken. The automatic doors at the grocery slide open when you walk towards them. The opening episodes have Roshoman-style overlapping narratives which I thought were a cut above ur usual zombie fare, but could read as precious in the wrong mood. I enjoyed how different Black Summer was from the series it spun off from, but I can entirely see how partisans of one wouldn’t like the other. They’re very different kinds of pulp: one leans into the silly and melodramatic, while the other relies on a gritty shitty digital video aesthetic.

Freakish

I fully admit that Freakish isn’t great — maybe isn’t even good — but it definitely hit some sort of sweet spot for me involving teen melodrama and the zombie apocalypse. (I <3 teen drama 4evah.) I really loved the YA novel This is Not a Test because of its use of the tropes of teen fiction in the extremity of the end of the world. I love how it makes manifest how dire everything is in adolescence. It makes the emotional landscape manifest.

Anyway, Freakish follows something like a half dozen teens trapped in the school when the local chemical plant melts down (or whatever), filling the town with a cloud of chemicals that turns them into something like zombies. One of the kids seems to know more about the spill than he should. Several have secrets both banal and deadly, and there’s a love triangle or two. They while away their time playing grownup and failing just as horribly as actual grownups. In short, it’s the Breakfast Club with teeth. And Canadian accents.

England

Dead Set

I watched Dead Set ages ago, after it premiered in England, but well before it was easily available in the States. I got a bootleg copy from a much cooler friend, and then mailed (like literally through the Post Office mailed) the DVDs around to a list of people. This I’m sure dates the fuck out of this. Dead Set is a limited series — only five episodes — about the zombie apocalypse taking place around the set of the British reality tv show Big Brother, a place which at first blush seems like the perfect place to ride out the end of the world. It starts, like all Last Night stories do, with the usual melodrama and personality conflicts of both the crew and the staff of Big Brother. (This is made even more verisimilitude with the inclusion of several Big Brother “personalities” in the series: everything from former Big Brother house residents to a marquee host.) (It also features a tiny baby Riz Ahmed.)

The following paragraph is riddled with spoilers, so beware, spoiler averse.

I was just absolutely floored by the end of Dead Set, which saw basically the entire cast zombified or otherwise dead, up to and including the ostensible heroine. I kind of can’t think of another series like this, that’s just like, fuck it, kill everyone, let’s just wholeheartedly embrace the nihilism inherent in any zombie narrative. Usually someone survives to make you feel good about the human race or whatever. The way Dead Set uses spectacle and violence to deny the viewer catharsis is pretty freaking cool, all told.

In the Flesh

In the Flesh takes place after the zombie menace has been contained, and everything is slowly grudgingly returning to a new normal that is anything but. The series follows one of the those afflicted with Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) — oh how I love the penchant for zombie neologism — in his reintroduction to his small, mean, Northern English town. The zombies in this alt-history were beaten back and rounded up. Government scientists found a cocktail of drugs, to be injected daily, which would keep the feral zombie-state at bay. Kieran is sent home with makeup to cover his pallid skin, contact lenses for his dead eyes, and scheduled injections to keep him from murdering everyone around him.

Complicating Kieran’s reentry into society — I mean, in addition to his guilt over the killings, which he remembers with perfect clarity, and his clearly undead state — is that his small town was a locus for the living’s mile by mile reclamation of a landscape teeming with the feral dead. So he’s coming home to a populace who are something like bigots — if not outright bigots — with something like an acquired disability or communicable disease. It’s … not great.

The thinking and reasoning zombie is very much a thing, in literature at least, and occasionally the films made of those books: The Girl with All the Gifts, Warm Bodies, even the execrable Patient Zero with a wasted Stanley Tucci. But I can’t think of an example (short of The Returned, a French series I’ll address down-list that is a serious edge case even for inclusion on a zombie list) that shows the living and the dead interacting this intimately on a day to day basis. The traumas of zombie narratives tend to be ongoing, at least for the living. In the Flesh plays with this, showcasing social recovery which relies on re-traumatizing an entire class of people. Like you do.

Brazil

Reality Z

Reality Z is weird, and I’m including it not because I thought it was great or anything, but more because of its oddball nature. It’s wholeheartedly and avowedly a remake of the British Dead Set, which I raved about previously. Dead Set was five episodes; Reality Z is ten. The first five episodes of Reality Z are almost shot-for-shot recreations of the source material, from antagonistic normality to nihilistic finality, with just enough new establishing source material to connect the next plot arc. The next five episodes follow another group of survivors to their doom, complete with a similar-but-different rationale for the group’s inevitable breakdown.

I suspect there’s a lot of this series I’m not getting because I’m not Brazilian, and not particularly up on Brazilian politics and culture. Many of the characters feel trope-y, but I can’t quite read the tropes and what Reality Z might be doing with them. (And when I say they feel trope-y: this is not meant as a slag. Genre fiction deals in tropes, and the myriad ways writers animate and reanimate those tropes drives the genre.) There’s a corrupt politician and his corrupt policeman and handler, a political dissident, a cast off corporate drone and her beleaguered son. They reclaim the reality tv house depopulated at the end of the Dead Set arc, and are in turn joined by a whole new set of randos and types.

It’s … pretty messy, and probably not in a good way. Dead Set was stiletto-thin, in and out before you noticed the cut and then damn. Remaking Dead Set and then appending a whole other Dead Set inspired arc onto it seems like a weird choice. Why not just go with the final five episodes as its own rumination slash exploration of the whole decadent consumerist spectacle of reality television and its attendant cruelties? Which is not to say that the new characters and character arcs are bad or uninteresting, just that maybe the creators should have had more faith in their story, and let it stand on its own. And while I’m bitching just a little, I did have a good time watching this, and it’s definitely worth a watch as a companion to Dead Set if nothing else.

France

The Returned

It’s somewhere between disingenuous and faux-naïve to put this series on a zombie list, yet still I do it! The undead in The Returned are fully alive, turning up months, years, decades completely unchanged from the moment of their deaths in a small French town on the Swiss border. Their returns are small, explosive events, detonating whole families, but quietly and secretly: A teenager, unknowing of her death, and now several years younger than her once identical twin; the husband of a woman now remarried after raising up their child alone; a preternatural child with no living family taken in by a self-contained and scarred woman. These people all deal with the resurrections of loved ones with the quiet hissing conversation of the totally freaked out, reintegrating imperfectly into lives that have, as they say, moved on.

The Returned reminds me strongly of early Twin Peaks: moody and Gothic, claustrophobic and blue-lit. (The Returned isn’t as grotesque as Twin Peaks, nor as funny, which is probably related.) The fundamental relationship between the two is grief, both public and private. The way The Returned deals with the grief caused by the loss is opposed to the average zombie narrative. There’s no expedient violence, no frenetic action as death drives the living to their inevitable fates. Instead it stews, uncomfortably, in the small moments of lived lives. It makes no pronouncements. Even the clergy demurs as to the advisability of the resurrection of the body — “I’m not sure it would be a good thing”

India

Betaal

I fully admit that Betaal is something of a mess. It starts with such promise — something like mercenaries (maybe police, maybe military, maybe Blackwater) are tasked with relocating a native population “for their own good”, and accidentally awake the literal hungry ghosts of colonialism. Which is a completely awesome set-up for a series, and I loved all the metaphorics by 2 by 4 that they hammered home. Police are a colonial force; imperial forces use rule of law to exploit both resources and people. The first couple episodes use their zombies as a metaphor for colonialism, and I am 100% here for it. But then the story diffuses into subplots and confusing machinations pretty hard, its metaphors stuck in the mud and spinning.

I did enjoy much of the staging and scares. The zombies aren’t full-on K- or J-horror chitinous nightmares — they can still talk and reason in certain limited circumstances, making them all the worse — and the directors take full advantage of the filmed-in-dark-o-vision aesthetic of the series. It is a often effective way to cover for a microbudget and I did jump and squeal at multiple points. At others it was just like, what even is going on here? Obfuscation by dark (or just off camera) relies on the eventual reveal, and that was sometimes not so great.

That said, the series ultimately misses the mark, getting too bound up in personal bullshit to be really effective. Like, it’s neat they started out with zombie-as-colonialism as the central metaphor, but then someone flinched as to actually committing to that as the spine of the series. By the end, I was like, how can I possibly make meaning out of this mess? Which is totally fine, if disappointing: not everything has to have meaning, it’s just real nice when it does. I understand how my expectations are unreasonable.

South Korea

Kingdom

I feel like one of the reasons I ultimately stuck with A Song of Ice and Fire for four and a half books was its opening, which allows the reader to catch a glimpse of the zombie menace just beyond the Wall. Ned Stark executes a man for desertion because that man nearly got killed by some zombies and then ran the fuck away from that, boy howdy. It’s been an age since I read Game of Thrones, but I’m pretty sure the zombies don’t appear meaningfully again until maybe book two? And even then? Again, that is fine! Not everything has to be about zombies.

However, if you’re jonesing for a medievalish court intrigue saga but this time with zombies, look no further than The Kingdom! Set in Korea’s Joseon period, the series follows the grown son of the king’s concubine and presumptive heir to the throne who is beset by his father’s much younger pregnant wife (who will ostensibly deliver the true heir, should the issue be male), her powerful burgher family, and zombies, not necessarily in that order.

We learn right quick that the king has zombified, but the queen’s powerful family is covering that up so they can get that baby born and cement their power through the throne. (Which I thought was kinda interesting because that’s not precisely how primogeniture works in the West. The queen would deliver a monarch irrespective of gender, and even after the king died. But then there’s also no official recognition of the children of concubines, and Westerners don’t use the term the same way anyway, so.)

The crown prince is well out of his depth, on the run with a good naturedly corrupt courtier-type as they picaresque their way through the Korean countryside. Bae Doona (who I really enjoy) does a turn as a beleaguered nurse who puts the pieces together as to how the zombie plague works and largely single-handedly saves the bacon of, like, everyone. Unfortunately, she’s mostly carried along the narrative like luggage, and isn’t given enough actual story work. But the hats alone are worth the price of admission, so don’t credit my grousing overmuch.

Honorable Mentions

There are a number of series I’ve only had the time to catch a few episodes of, for one reason or another, so’is I can’t say if they’re worth or watch or not.

New ZealandThe Dead Lands. The opening of The Dead Lands is both jarring and comfortable. It takes place in the “long ago and far away” space of the fairy tale, but with what are recognizably modern zombies. The situation in Maori myth set in a lush New Zealand setting doesn’t hurt either. But at only one episode, I kind of can’t say what was going on? A demi-god pisses off actual gods and … zombies? Maybe? I did very much dig the mythic setting, which stands in sharp contrast with most zombie narratives which feature the decay of modernity, if not outright ruin porn.

CaliforniaThe Santa Clarita Diet. Only caught the first two or three, and I have no idea why I never continued. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant have a snappy, wholesome chemistry, which is tested when Barrymore’s character wakes up one day hungering for human flesh. It’s the kind of comedy where early lightness promises to deepen, especially given the sometimes bleak-yet-technicolor jokes of the earliest episodes.

Daybreak: On paper, this series seemed like it was tailor-made for my proclivities: kinda Gen-X self-aware and self-referential, with a teen movie aesthetic which I usually eat up with a spoon. (I mean, Matthew Broderick plays the high school principal in flashbacks, come on.) I adore the completely bullshit “groups one finds in a lunchroom” cataloguing sequence that takes place in teen movies (see the one in 10 Things I Hate About You for example), and Daybreak takes this all a step further, turning them into post-apocalyptical gangs reminiscent of The Warriors.

Reader, I hated it. I couldn’t make it more than 3 episodes in. Maybe it was the mean-spiritedness, maybe the sub-Broderick douchebag-cum-hero, maybe it was just a bad potato. I fully think it might work for others though! A weird way of ending a roundup of zombie series I enjoyed, but there you are.

Some Nattering about I Am a Hero

I Am a Hero is based on the manga of the same name about a manga artist’s assistant and all around schlub, Hideo. I only really caught the first couple installments of the manga (there’s more than a dozen collected volumes, and at least three spin-offs), but it seemed that there were diminishing returns on the series. The opening, which takes place in the slowly gathering beginning of the outbreak, has a real intimate view of the zombie apocalypse. Hideo is just some jerk with no special knowledge, and his disaffection and depression keep him from really noticing the unsettling events occurring all around him. He delivers some nice sermonettes about how manga is the pinnacle of Japanese society and its greatest cultural export, which, in addition to being clumsily meta, might even be true.

These early sections were pretty enjoyable, but as the manga ranged out of whatever town Hideo was in (maybe Hiroshima?), I got more and more irritated with Hideo and his bullshit girl problems. I mean, it’s fine to have girl problems in the zombie apocalypse, it’s just the gender stuff in I Am a Hero that started really making me twitchy. Not that any of that is surprising in a certain kind of manga! Or comics in general! Or, come to think of it, zombie narratives in the first place! I have a huge hobby horse I like to get up and ride about the role of male violence in creating and maintaining domesticity in zombie fictions, but that is not the topic for today.

The film adaptation of I Am a Hero has the same episodic nature, but definitely smooths over some of the more pulp-sensible parts of the manga. The teen half-zombie girl Hideo befriends doesn’t end up part of a wtf zombie hive mind, more’s the better. The community he and the girl find is pretty messed up, but not openly practicing sexual slavery, like it is in the manga — thank god, because I fucking hate that trope. All in all, the movie improves on some aspects of manga, and there’s some fun scenes in there (like an absolutely harrowing one with Hideo’s zombified girlfriend, my God.)

The real reason to check it out (if you’re an American) is how weirdly it deals with its solitary firearm, Hideo’s shotgun. Japan and the United States have polar opposite attitudes about firearms of any kind: heavy regulation in Japan, plus no marked martial tradition involving firearms; virtual ubiquity in America, plus firearms are irrevocably bound to the national identity. Hideo gets real twitchy when his girlfriend throws him and his shotgun out of the house, but she doesn’t throw out the licence. He has these flights of fancy about using the weapon (and other things, often to very comedic ends) but the shotgun is largely talismanic, a term Hideo uses himself. He resists ever firing it for the entire film, even when beset by zombies or people.

It is literally a Chekhovian gun, so it is finally used, at utmost need, in a completely silly end sequence. He’s got like a hundred shells, and kills roughly one million zombies. Moreover, that shotgun was handled by someone who had no idea how one works, and no one around him could direct him correctly. And look, I know that the zombie fictions do not thrive on true realism, even in the more drama-y outings: Rick Grimes simply cannot make that many head shots, etc etc. I’m not suggesting this makes the sequence bad, or not worth watching. It’s actually one of the funnest in the movie.

But something about this sequence is fetishistic, but not fetishistic the way an American do it. In transporting zombie pulp (which originates in the States) to another culture, certain common motifs of the genre inevitably hitch a ride. Gun violence is bog standard in American zombie fiction, but not often found, in either art or life, in Japan. I Am a Hero addresses this trope in a typically Japanese manner. I think it’s really cool to see that sort of localization, to borrow a phrase from translation, a window into another culture.

I Hope the Smoking Man’s in This One: Every Sigh, The End

Do you remember, back in the day, when the X Files was young and not stupid, and the absolute thrill you would get out of the paranoid conspiracy and narrative sleight of hand? The clock was ticking, loudly, on the end of the millennium, the Y2K bug was creating hysterics in op-ed pieces everywhere, and the dot-com bubble was foaming its way to Bethlehem to burst. (Sorry, I know it’s cheap to mis-quote Yeats here, but I can’t help it.) The actual turn of the millennium was something of a collective sigh, when the planes didn’t fall out of the sky or the reactors didn’t melt down.

I remember lolling in a hotel room on the afternoon of Dec 31, 1999, watching footage of the celebrations in Australia and Myanmar, having the non-chemically induced sense of vertigo when you realize that the date as we have constructed it, globally, begins in a specific place, and then sweeps inexorably over the earth. If, for some ridiculous reason, something did go wrong on the Date Line, the rest of us would just have to sit and watch as the day crawled toward us. (Before you freak out: yes, I know that stuff like international airlines are oriented to GMT, but I’m on the other side of that, and the world revolves around me, ‘kay?)

So the millennium came and went, and we swept up the confetti, folded up our cargo pants – seriously, I have wacky theory about how all of the late-90s paramilitary fashion was some sort of collective sartorial acting out of our apocalyptic anxieties – and then went back to work. (See also: Hummers.) Then came 9/11, and the other shoe dropped hard and indisputably. It was the end of the world as we knew it. I remember watching a shitty made-for-tv movie called Y2K in November of 1999, and howling with laughter while Ken Olin, in the world’s longest sweater, raced to, I don’t know, find his kid and stop a nuclear melt-down, intercut with the worst CGI in the world of planes dropping like stones once the date caught up with them. Fly, pilot, fly! But you can’t outrun time! Muhahahaha! But then the planes did fall out of the sky. Worse still, they didn’t fall, but were flown out, with malevolent agency.

In many ways, Every Sigh, The End by Jason Hornsby is a period piece about the turn of the millennium, but one that could only be written after the hard historical fact of 9/11. I think I’m about the age of the author, so all of the post-college melt-down, the Xer almost-resignation towards generational uselessness, the keg-stands, band t-shirts & cheerless stoner depravity rang true. The plot has a wigged-out, origami-like feel that evokes the best of the late 90s paranoid fantasies (again, before they got stupid): X-Files, Matrix, Dark Skies. Only this time without the sweet outfits, sense of purpose, meaning, or human affection.

Zombie stories, are on some level, about the way narcissism veers uncomfortably to nihilism, and this doesn’t veer so much as drive headlong, with motherfucking agency. I don’t mean to imply that Hornsby on the side of the terrorists – hi FBI – but there’s some smart commentary in here about tragedy and voyeurism; the ways in which death & degradation are used as a spectacle solely for the purpose of personal catharsis of the protagonist/viewer-by-proxy.

This sucks, of course, compromised by the dangerous vanity that the suffering of others is an extension of personal ego, and therefore other people are unreal. The idea of conspiracy is so satisfying precisely because it confirms that we are so important that it takes an entire shadowy government agency to thwart our inherent awesomeness. (Hi FBI!) Hornsby charts these uneasy themes with an understanding towards the genre conventions that goes deeper than the usual fast v. slow, space rays v. viruses, bothersome physics of the worst of the genre.

BUT there are some things I didn’t dig, like the fact that every instance of the word end is in bold, or when anyone sighs it’s accompanied by some variation of the phrase “a horribly unoriginal gesture”. Okay, I get it, put the mallet away. The opening section is tedious, with way too much banter, floundering, and essays about genre. There are good reasons for the way this plays out, really, better than most: We’re meant to submerge ourselves in the douchebag ennui of the protag – called Holden by his girlfriend, natch – but I felt kind of pruny and overheated by the time I got out of the hot tub and into the blood bath.

And my most shallow complaint: this has the most vomitous cover, truly awful. The publishers should be ashamed of themselves for putting a book this good in a cover that crappy.

The Big Bite: Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

This was originally written in July 2011

I was talking with my husband the other day about Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon, and kind of jokingly saying it was the first alt-history. Ragnarok is this really specific telling of the last days of the Norse Gods, a catalog of who will kill whom and how. It’s understood to be told in the future tense, something that hasn’t happened yet, but will, with exactness and finality. He was like, but isn’t that prophesy, like Revelations? I admit my knowledge of Revelations is a little crappy, but I don’t think that Ragnarok is quite the same. It’s less a story of what we humans should watch out for, so we can head to the underground bunker or whatever we’re supposed to do when the End Times are upon us. It’s not a manual, or a guide. It’s just a story about the inevitability of when certain kinds of personalities – large, inhuman or metahuman personalities – come into conflict with one another. It’s a chess game, not a chess guide. History, even history of the future, isn’t so much not to be repeated as embraced as the stories are told.

So, when I was in high school, I had this great assignment where I had to do a research paper about some public happening that went down in the year I was born. I was born in 1974, so I duly went to the microfiche and scrolled through the local headlines. Those older than me will shake their heads, but I was like, OMFG I CAN’T HANDLE ANY MORE WATERGATE. It was too much, too complicated, even though it was the thing that defined the year, and years on either side: the growing scandal, the series of indictments and resignations, the pardon – oh, the pardon. Fodder for a thousand research papers, a thousand books and movies. Certainly more than I could handle in 5-7 double-spaced pages.

So, I found Patty Hearst. Patty was an heiress of the Hearst newspaper empire – William Randolph Hearst being the subject (mostly, though the protagonist was an aggregate of several personalities) of Citizen Kane. She was abducted out of her apartment by a post-Helter Skelter cult called the SLA – the Symbionese Liberation Army. (I still have no idea why that name, and I can’t really remember their goals, which were a stew of 70s revolutionary cliches and “free love”, which was code for cult leader gets to bang whomever he wants.) (Also, she was at home that night with her upper class douchebag fiancée, a guy whose name was Stephen Weed, I shit you not. Pynchon couldn’t have named him better.)

Anyway, after a several months of rape, imprisonment, and a good dose of Stockholm Syndrome, Patty helped rob a Hearst bank with the SLA. Oh, the pregnant symbolism! I don’t remember all the details, but press releases were issued proclaiming her new cult name of Tania – still with the Pynchonian names. Public opinion was wildly against her. How dare she turn against her robber baron family money? Being raped and terrorized was not really credited in understanding her motivations. Again, I don’t remember all the details, but it turned into months – maybe years? – of the SLA playing cat-and-mouse with law enforcement, ending in a Waco-style shoot-out with fire and the death of most of the cult. Not Patty though. Somehow she survived.

So Patty is a fascinating American character. She later renounced all her SLA stuff, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from getting convicted of armed robbery. Her sentence was later commuted by Carter, who probably found the defense’s argument compelling about how she had no live ammo, and that most of the SLA guns in the robbery were trained on her, not the bank officials, and the fact that she’d been abducted, brutalized and raped into these actions. (Like me; I admit my bias.) She’s later been a regular fixture in John Waters films — including one where a woman is abducted into a film cult bent on bringing down the military-entertainment complex — seriously, Pynchon is like the patron saint of American history.

So, point being — and seriously, I have one — even history is an alternate history. There’s the stuff that screams from the headlines day after day, then there’s the stuff that goes down on the sidelines, which is no less meaningful, in terms of national identity and symbolism. I talked with my folks a lot about this project – in fact, I’m pretty sure one of them pointed me toward the Hearst story in the first place – and it was fascinating to hear them talk about the paranoia of the time, the sense of the end of it all. Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1969, and it was this perfect encapsulation of the times, written in horror. Kennedy may have been shot down in ’63, but it wasn’t until the murder and assassinations of the late 60s — Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King — that we understood that our post-War dream of enforced middle class domesticity was tearing at the seams, letting out blood into a colonial conflict that, strangely, only Nixon could end, even while he shat all over executive privilege and the Presidency. (And, I have no patience with all of the mealy-mouthed talk of him being “controversial” when he died a few years back. Only if you find treason controversial, and not criminal.)

So. Alternate history. Here we are again in America, at the end of it all. Maybe we’re always at the end of it all. Maybe the millenarian instinct is in our DNA, in our constitution, and I totally mean that as a double entente. The 2nd Amendment is a hedge against the [zombie] apocalypse, something I always think about when I consider my neighbors from two doors down, who are avowed gun nuts with a racist caricature of Obama hanging in their window. I’d be over their begging for guns in heartbeat if zombies descended on my city, and it’s amusing as all get out to me that I’ve even considered the possibility. Cuz I have, American that I am.

At the opening of Saving Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory. John is found at the side of the road by an Iowan family. His mother is dead, and he is an undead, bubbling infant. It’s the late 60s, and in this mildly alternate beginning, the zombie uprising in Pennsylvania that is chronicled in Romero’s “documentary” is fact. Though this is a slightly histrionic comparison, the terror of the Twin Towers had been located 50 years earlier, so America was building its Gauntanimos and security state apparatuses 50 years earlier, to work against the undead threat. (Though we’re always building against a threat. We’ve always seen our threats as twinned — coming from within and without — fear of the Soviets and the Red Scare; Al Qaeda as well as that home-grown shoe-bombing idiot. Heck, lots of Americans think the Twin Towers was the result of the CIA, not Bin Laden, as we work against ourselves or something. I’m not really interested in getting into a big thing about this, I just want to point out that we have this headline narrative, and then a whispered narrative, whatever the truth may be.) John, or Stony as he comes to be known, is a zombie anomaly — zomnomaly? see, I am shit for portmanteau, unlike Mike who coined the term ‘zombildugsroman’ for this book — he grows from zombie infant into zombie boy, and then, as most of the story is concerned with, into zombie man.

The rest of the undead are bitten breathers, who, after a nasty, murderous incubation period of 48 hours or so, wherein they bite and kill like we have all seen on tv, they resolve into people who are not dissimilar from the ones the were when they were breathing. Some forget themselves, having their memories wiped by death. Some don’t. Stony moves from his claustrophobic but largely idyllic childhood on the plains of the Midwest into a graduation of the larger, undead community. The undead play cat-and-mouse with the Feds, reluctantly, not so much a cult as a folk group of the damaged, with their own folk myths and legends, political factions, schismatic religions, and personalities. As their numbers dwindle through attrition and active attacks, they ponder the Big Bite, a Ragnarök of starting the zombie apocalypse so that their number will replenish, and they can stop living in fear of the living. As the living live in fear of the dead.

I don’t even know how not to be all spoiler about this, but certain things are inevitable. You can’t write a zombie story without that sense of the End Times, it just matters whether you think the End Times are about warning or historical understanding. This story is about Patty Hearst, not Watergate, even though those things are twinned, bubbling out of the same cultural stew. Like Patty, Stony’s story is personal, personal enough that I can remember her stupid fiancé’s name when I have no idea the name of Spiro Agnew’s wife. (Hell, even Nixon’s. What was it? Francine? Imelda?) Patty’s story is fascinating because of all the familial symbolism, even while it intersects with Presidents and filmmakers, Patty an abducted lighting rod for a bunch of symbolism about class, privilege, politics, religion and on and on. Stony is a bit of the same, sorta, a simple Midwestern boy but for the fact that he doesn’t breathe, caught up in the times. Stony is a reluctant protagonist, like we all are reluctant protagonists, and the mythology, the explanations he lays out in this novel have the exciting frission of a good retcon. Not the kind that sucks, and restarts everything wiping out the past, but the kind that takes the past into account, and writes its exegesis. There’s a lot here for a zombie nerd to love, a catalog of genre ticks made sensible. And sensibility is this book’s heart.

Zombies are irrational, unscientific. Dead is dead. My husband always tries to placate my zombie freak-outs with the utterance, “But…physics,” but which he means that zombies violate the rules of physics and can’t exist. This book takes but…physics seriously, building an alt-history predicated on the impossible, relying on an alt-physics of will and psychology, coming down to a End Times of inevitability which is or is not inevitable, but happen[s/ed] anyway, based on the rules of the future tense, the future tense of all national stories. I don’t want to make this story sound mythic, though there is discussion of how the personal narrative transmutes into folk legend. It’s complicated and personal, much more so than the headlines might suggest, so much sadder than Revelations, so much quieter than Ragnarok. Damn fine.

P.S. I often write myself out of saying stuff like this, because it doesn’t fit in the standard 5-paragraph essay, but there’s a lot here that’s funny as shit, but slyly, like an undead character based on Col. Sanders, and a random aside about the undead mascots who schill for various products, like the Sinclair dinosaur. Charlie the Tuna wants you to eat his dead flesh ahahahahaha. Gross. Clever.

Just Regular Terrible: Red Hill by Jamie McGuire

So, I’m going to admit right off the bat that I only read Red Hill because I hate Jamie McGuire’s writing. When I was researching zombie novels for this other thing, I discovered she had written a zombie novel. So, seriously, how can I be expected to stay away? I just had to see how bad she failed at something I love. Turns out, her zombie novel is just the regular kind of terrible, not the fancy kind with raisins. I’d honestly hoped for more schadenfreude. Alas.

Red Hill is purportedly a zombie romance (in the sense that there is romance amongst humans during the zombie apocalypse, not zombies fucking, to be clear.) The first 60% is taken up with three point of view characters — Nathan, Scarlet, and Miranda — as they bop around through the zombie apocalypse. The last 40% is where the “romance” takes place, with an entirely unconvincing love triangle. The other couple has third act turn that is such a drearily pedestrian romance trope that it was actually alarming to see it deployed during the zombie apocalypse. Don’t you fuckers have priorities? 

No, is the answer. The answer is always no.

Scarlet is a pretty typical McGuire heroine, in that she’s a malignant narcissist, self-involved in such a way to be dangerous to any and all empathetic characters around her. She’s going the throw you under the bus whether it’s necessary or not — she just likes to watch the tires roll over skulls. From the very very beginning of the zombie apocalypse — which starts while she’s working as a nurse, I might add — she helps absolutely no one. She watches dispassionately as someone she knows dies, and then takes his keys. Whelp, I guess he won’t be needing these anymore! She’s the worst.

Miranda is also the worst, but I actually feel a little bad for her. McGuire has set Miranda up to be the fall guy in a morality tale about sluts and how they get what’s coming to them. Felt downright Victorian, honestly, but with well fewer classical allusions. (Indeed, none at all.) 

The third point of view character is Nathan, a man who plays weary parent because his bitch wife spends all her time on the internet. Weirdly, there were points when I honestly and truly liked Nathan and how he was characterized. His daughter Zoe has some kind of sensory integration disorder (I recognized it because my son was like this as a toddler), and the ways he worries and managed her felt real. Too bad about all the hateful shit he said about his wife, who even he admitted was suffering from depression. I guess people with clinical depression should just walk it off? Whatever. I might almost argue that McGuire should stick to stories only with dudes in them, because the weird hatred expressed for women just taints everything. But then for sure even a dudes-only narrative written by McGuire would be choked with toxic masculinity and hateful gender essentialism, so that’s not a real fix. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do McGuire’s characters hate women though, even (and maybe especially) the ones who are women.

Just as an aside, my favorite moment in the novel is when Nathan gets a letter from his wife and then complains she could never get your/you’re right. Immediately, there was a grammar error in the text. I’m completely ok with certain errors, like the kind that were invented by 19th C language assholes. Split infinitives, sentences ending in prepositions: that’s all fine. What’s not fine is using someone’s grammar as a measure of their worth. One of my besties from middle school cannot be relied on to use the correct iteration of their/they’re/there, but this makes her neither stupid nor unworthy as a person. I cannot spell for shit, and this doesn’t meaningfully detract from my criticism of this here mean-spirited, uncharitable novel. So when I go to slag some typos in the text, I don’t intend it as an ad hominem attack, to whit: this novel is bad because a proofreader didn’t catch x error. Instead, I’m slagging Nathan’s grammar fascism in a text riddled with errors. He’s supposed to read as righteous, but considering the context, he just comes off as a dick.

Anyway, alas, mostly this book was just boring, not scary, and not convincing. I said this before in a review about zombie romance, but it’s true here too: love is just another word for no one left to kill. It’s honestly frightening, but not the way the writer intends. 

An Incomplete List of Oddball Zombie Movies I’ve Enjoyed

I finally caught the companion film to South Korea’s Train to Busan, the animated Seoul Station. It wasn’t nearly as affecting as its live action antecedent, but I completely appreciated how Seoul Station went in unexpected directions, and focused on relationships not normally detailed in either zombie movies or, like, regular cinema. This got me thinking about more obscure zombie movies I have known and loved, stuff that either goes straight to video, or only hits a theater or two in LA or New York. Many of these movies hail from other countries and cultures, which lends grist to my pet theory about zombie movies being largely about national character, much more so than other monsters.

The vast majority of zombie movies, high or low budget (but mostly low budget), are produced in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for this: the US produces many more films, in general, than the rest of the West. Also, the United States (and Pennsylvania more specifically) is where the modern zombie was created in Romero’s game-changer, The Night of the Living Dead. I know there were zombie films before this, but Romero so utterly changed the landscape that they’re as different as chalk and cheese. In the same tradition, yes, but it’s like comparing the ghouls in the 1932 film Vampyr to modern vampires: similar in name only.

The ways zombie fictions ruminate on class, race, consumerism, and the nuclear family was set within an American film tradition, and not always or often in a good way. So much of the long tail of American zombie movies — the sort of thing found in deep dives into “if you like this, then” on your streaming platform of choice — is fucking trash. Americans can’t help but America, cinematically speaking, so the instinct to fascism, spectacle as unearned catharsis, and violence as morality pervades a lot of American zombie movies, regardless of budget. TL;DR: many American zombie movies are Libertarian (if not outright fascist) garbage fires, with a sideline in diseased gender roles. (This is somewhat ironic, given how Romero’s zombie films were always brutal social commentary against exactly that.)

Apocalypses in general are local affairs, once the lights dim and the communication systems blink out. The world narrows to the distance you can travel on foot — at least once the gas runs out, and you leave the car behind — the skyline streaked with the smudges of burning urbanity. But zombie narratives go a step further, reanimating strangers, neighbors, family, and friends in the subtle tweaks and twists of national character gone feral: slow or fast, cunning or mindless, diurnal or nocturnal, contagious or endemic. These monsters show what we become in the 24 hours and three meals from the end of it all.

Warning: possible spoilers in the film descriptions.

USA:

Maggie

What makes Maggie notable in the context of American zombie movies, a film that collects together Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, and Joely Richardson, is its taunt, Gothic rumination on the parent-child bond. It opens with Arnold traveling into a disease-ravaged LA to collect his daughter, Maggie. She’s infected with a zombie-ish plague, half-dying and half-alive in some overrun city hospital. All the small cues tell you she left because they were estranged — hard to say whether it was the normal estrangement that finds children growing into adults, or a deeper one. When they return home to the family farm, it’s clear it’s both: she’s a normal teenager fed up with her Boomer father, and then also he’s got a new wife and small children who have supplanted her in some ways. I have some autobiographical reasons for why this resonated hard. Anyway. 

Maggie muses in a sometimes overly self-serious way about coming home. Maggie, the character, does a retrospective of her adolescent relationships — complete with teen party with a bonfire on the beach — just short years, or long months, after she leaves home. When her step-mom leaves with her half-siblings, it leaves her alone in the house with a dad who can’t even begin to understand, but is turning himself inside out trying. The ways they never quite connect, right up to the bitter end, are shattering, the kind of thing that set me sobbing, an outsized emotional response to what is largely an understated and grayed out emotional landscape. This the best, most finely detailed work Schwarzenegger has put to film in his latter day career. 

UK:

The Girl with All the Gifts

When I first learned they changed the race of Miss Justineau, the living teacher of an undead classroom in The Girl with All the Gifts, from black to white, I was worried. In the novel by M.R. Carey (aka Mike Carey, for all you Hellblazer heads), Miss Justineau was black, and the undead child who cleaves to her white. The film reverses this, and it actually works really well, almost better in places. Making Helen Justineau a non-malignant version of the Nice White Lady ministering to children whose humanity is completely denied, and who are black [same/same] says something very different from the reverse, especially with how it shakes out in the end. (And unrelated aside: it’s notable to me how many of the films on this list started life — or undeath muahaha — on the page, and how successful their adaptation. Not everything is World War Z: The Less Said the Better.)

The Girl With All the Gifts is one of a teeny tiny trend of fungalpunk horror, of which maybe the most successful was the Area X trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Carey’s story found inspiration in the nightmarish real world story of zombie ants infected by a fungus which drove them to uncharacteristic behavior, after which the fungus would fruit out of their ant heads. The images of ants with fungi protruding from their head carapaces legitimately freaks me out, and I don’t necessarily empathize with insects all that often. The film hews closely to the plot of the novel, a road trippy rumination on a ruined Britain. The girl who plays Melanie is wonderful, playing her smitten child with a sense of resigned sobriety that gives her an out-sized presence. Glenn Close delivers a quietly seething version of the amoral scientist, which is an interesting twist on a trope that tends to oily bombast (e.g. Stanley Tucci in The Core, which is hands down the best version of this ever put to film.) I love both iterations.

Canada:

Ravenous (or Les Affamés)

Sometimes I find the cultural context of specific foreign films so baffling as to render the “meaning” — insofar as that’s a thing — quite opaque. The French-Canadian Les Affamés falls into this category for me, but in a still strangely satisfying kind of way. Much of Ravenous falls into the mode of the zombie road trip, stopping occasionally to eavesdrop on the dead and their inscrutable machinations, or to enact the living’s more visceral conflicts. (And the dead in Les Affamés are truly strange, piling up teetering obelisks of domestic stuff in a clearing in the woods, or here, or there.) There’s this old saw for writers that “dialogue is action” and that almost reductive aphorism maps onto zombie narratives in this weird way. The drama in Ravenous is all in its dialogue and tense standoffs between survivors; the zombie attacks are almost a relief.

Pontypool

The source material for the film Pontypool, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, is both typical and an exemplar of his work. Burgess excels at either elevating pulp to high art, or elevating high art to pulp — because he somehow manages to write deeply philosophical works using absolutely sick imagery, while not prioritizing either. (See also: The Life and Death of Schneider Wrack by Nate Crowley.) This is not an easy thing to do! In fact, I can only think of a couple writers who successfully use the vernacular of both highfalutin literature and pulp styling without denigrating either.

Anyway! Point being: Pontypool is somewhat loosely adapted from the source novel, and in the very best ways. I can’t imagine a film version that somehow cut that impossible middle distance between high and low art that the book does; this will not translate to the screen. Instead the film is a taunt, almost stagy locked-room drama which focuses tight on a couple few characters. Some aspects of the film have become quaint — the whole concept of a “shock jock” has been superseded by media twisted into propaganda by authoritarianism — which takes a little sting out of the proceedings. It’s still an excellent film.

Denmark:

What We Become (or Sorgenfri)

Many of these movies — at least before they are translated into English — have locations in their titles, like the aforementioned Train to Busan. The Danish zombie film Sorgenfri — named after a Copenhagen suburb — was retitled in English What We Become. Sorgenfri means “free of sorrow”, in an almost obnoxious irony, but we will give writers some latitude to be obnoxious when place names are this on-the-nose. I fully expect places like Minneapolis suburb Eden Prairie to become hellish pit stops on the way to apocalypse because come on.

Anyway, What We Become makes full use of its suburban locale, which I don’t necessarily see all that often, Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding. There’s some hot-neighbor-next-door, community-cookout action before the infection locks the suburb down. Each McMansion is swathed with plastic, (almost like in the quick-and-dirty Spanish film series [rec] — more on this later), and if they try to push back against the impersonal authorities in their gas masks and machine guns, quick and brutal violence ensues. If this was an American film, I’d accuse it of 2A essentialism: we need guns to fight teh gumment!!!! But … it’s Danish, so that can’t be what it’s about. Or … not entirely anyway.

Much as Americans like to paint Denmark as some sort of socialist utopia (and don’t get me wrong: America’s fucked), there’s the same cultural, social, and economic stresses like any other part of the EU. I have Danish cousins, and the amount of chauvinism I’ve seen expressed about, say, Turkish immigrants is notable. And that’s not even getting into what they say about straight up Muslims, Turks or no. What We Become taps into a very (white) middle class, very (white) suburban fear of intrusion by the other, and also the fear that the other is already there, hidden within. These kind of insular communities are always predicated on fear: on the other, on themselves — what have you got, I’m afraid of it. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero murdered what should be the romantic survivors, in addition to the nuclear family. What We Become lets some of its characters survive, but only after putting you through some brutal familial self-annihilation.

France:

The Horde (or La Horde)

When I first saw The Horde not much after its 2010 release date, I thought to myself, there is going to be a real and bloody reckoning in France about how the treatment of France’s immigrant population. I knew just a very little about the French attempts to legislate the bodies of Muslim women — for their own good, natch — and it was years before the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But the bloody spectacle on display in The Horde was enough to make me prognosticate doom. Pulp fiction tends to tap into the societal hindbrain, and The Horde was doing that in the goriest, most bloody way possible.

The Horde follows a group of corrupt French police on a vendetta into what reads to me like the projects — low income housing that warehouses the poor and undesirable (same/same). There’s some back story about some drug dealer or whatever killing a cop, but none of this really matters. The fight is between two rival gangs, one of which wears badges and speaks “good French”, and the other have accents and dark skin. There’s a racist old codger (I think maybe even a veteran, but it’s been a while) and a couple other residents to round out the group. The combatants end up trapped in a old apartment building while the horde presses against doors and windows. And of course, several end up bitten, turning at the worst possible moment.

The Horde‘s zombies are faster than Romero zombies, and often a lot fresher, the blood still red and the zombie vigorously intact. As we approach the endgame, one of the cops is given a lovingly detailed last stand, and even more intimate horrific death: standing on the top of a car in a basement parking lot, he shoots and hacks until he’s overwhelmed by hundreds of zombies, and boy howdy do they not pan away. I know this was shot later, but the framing of this sequence reminds me of the season three ender of Game of Thrones, which found Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfing a horde of anonymous browns. It’s notable to me that the image of a white lady receiving adoration for liberating brown people and a white guy heroically hacking at a mob until he’s overwhelmed are shot virtually identically. I’m sure something like The Pedagogy of the Oppressed has something to say about this, but it’s been some years since my theory-reading days.

The Night Eats the World (or La nuit a dévoré le monde)

The Night Eats the World begins with a musician dude, Sam, coming to his ex-girlfriend’s flat to retrieve some cassette tapes he left after the breakup. The sequence at the party with its byplay and character development between the people marked as protagonist and the inevitably disposable partygoers reminds me of the opening to Cloverfield (and, weirdly, the Netflix series Russian Doll.) Sam crashes out; when he awakes, there’s blood on the walls and everyone is either gone or a zombie.

The Night Eats the World is light on zombie kill thrills, if you’re into that sort of thing, much more focused on Sam’s solitary existence and worsening metal state as he holes up in his ex-girlfriend’s for months. The film manages to find some unexplored corners in the zombie apocalypse: this portrait of fearful loneliness in a teeming city. When I first saw The Night Eats the World, I have to say it didn’t affect me much. My enjoyment was largely intellectual: oh, huh, this is almost a silent film; who even does that? But almost two weeks into my family deciding to shelter in place, the detailing of Sam’s mental state as he rattles around the same couple hundred square feet and considers the death just outside the door: well, this is suddenly, horribly relevant.

Germany:

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Like The Night Eats the World, Rammbock opens with a dude going to his ex’s apartment to transfer some stuff, and also maybe sorta to rekindle their relationship. She’s not there, but two plumbers are; when a zombie outbreak overtakes the neighborhood, ex-boyfriend and the plumber’s apprentice ride out the zombie apocalypse in the apartment. With other monsters, writers can get a little schematic. This is especially true with vampires. You often see complex list of rules about what a vampire can and cannot do, and then, of course, inevitably how to break those rules. (The most recent Dracula limited series, first from the BBC and now on Netflix, exemplifies this sort of thing.)

Zombies, though, they don’t tend to go this way. The rules are simple: a person dies, they reanimate, then they hunger for the flesh of the living. Oh, I suppose there are some other conditions that may or may not come to bear: does killing the brain kill the zombie? are we all infected or is it contagious through a bite? fast or slow? But these are more set-dressing than, like, necessary for the storytelling. Rammbock‘s zombies, by contrast, are photosensitive, a detail it takes the principles some time to work out. Then when they do, they work towards exploiting this detail in order to save their own lives. Rammock is, again, maybe not the most exciting zombie film ever made, but the location, relationships, and the weird taxonomy of zombies make it worthwhile.

Spain:

[REC]

This scrappy Spanish found footage horror film was so successful it spawned a movie series and an English language remake (which was retitled as Quarantine.) (The Spanish series has diminishing returns: the second relocates to an airport, which is fine, while the third goes eschatological in a way I did not appreciate at all. Oh, and there’s apparently a fourth I never saw, REC 3: Apocalypse which is by the filmmaker of the first two, but not the third, which is promising. ) REC follows a Bridget Jonesy reporter on a ridealong with some firefighters. They head out to a call in an old apartment building with six or eight units. One of the residents has gone murderously feral; they contain her, but not before one of their number is bit; when they panic-run to the exit it turns out the building’s on some sort of horrible lockdown.

The film ends up being a locked room horror show as various people get infected and infect others. There’s also apparently a plot where it turns out the authorities are evil, but who even cares. It’s obvious they were evil when they locked an entire apartment in to die. Again, this film had certain meanings back when I watched it whenever, but in the middle of a global pandemic, things read a little differently. The willingness to sacrifice first responders stands out, as does the bickering in the doomed apartment building about the motives of those that locked them in. That the outbreak is legible, with known origins and therefore, potentially, a cure is another fun aspect of fiction. It turns out that real life is much more bleak, which is saying something, given the end of REC.

Japan:

One Cut of the Dead

Frankly, One Cut of the Dead is the best godamn zombedy produced since Shaun of the Dead, and in some ways it exceeds Edgar Wright’s most excellent film. Filmed on a budget of $25,000 (JFC), the film relies on what could be a gimmick, but ends up being just a beautifully written script. The first half hour or so of the movie is one continuous take, telling the story of a low budget zombie movie lorded over by a tyrannical director which is then attacked by real zombies. (Not dissimilar in setup to Romero’s 5th outing into his formative zombieverse, Diary of the Dead, but that reads pretty Boomer-y these days.) After this impressive feat of film-making is a crazy bananas twist that had me all-capsing to my viewing partner, the indomitable sj, for at least the next half hour. It’s just … the whole thing is so well done it makes me tear up a little.

The trouble with talking about One Cut of the Dead is the several spoilers in serial that happen in the second act. All that aside, I can say that the shifts in tone in One Cut are masterful, running from comedy to terror and back again without even a blink.

Review: Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

I think it’s generally true — though of course there are exceptions — that mystery novels tend to be about a city. The murder is a wound on the body politic, a blister where something imperfect about the social system rubs. The detectives then move through the various socioeconomic layers of the community, and often find submerged and surprising connections between this sub-culture and that, between families, between the powerful and the powerless. The city can be a small town, or a farming community, or a section of a larger metropolis, but mysteries move through a tight geography, the social layers stirred up like blood in water. The old saw is that the personal is political, and the mystery turns this inside out, in the very oldest senses of the words.

The apocalyptic novel, by contrast, tends to be about something bigger than a city: the nation, or, if that schema is too vague and high-level, the region or country. (I mean this last not to mean nation, but more broad area: north country, back country.) The Road is a Western. The Reapers are the Angels and This Dark Earth are both Southern Gothics. Station Eleven details my Northern Midwest. Parable of the Sower moves through California, and also Black America, a region that is not defined by geography, but nonetheless exists. There are dozens of apocalypses that detail that vast region of America — both the cityest of American cities, and a whole microcosm unto itself — New York: the elegiac Zone One, the chilly millennial Severance, the trash poetry of Monster Island. The writer destroys everything they know, and then sets to scrying the bones, throwing them down to see the immutable characteristics in the cant of ash. The apocalypse strips everything down to essentials: Rick Grimes clings imperfectly to his notions of family and the constabulary; Candace Chen hides behind a camera documenting it all for an Internet that’s blinking out; Mark Spitz relies on the law of averages; some found religions; for others, the play’s the thing. Each acts out their most basic instinct, culturally speaking, as they do the needful of water and food and safety.

One of the most pervasive modes of the apocalyptic novel is that of the road trip: if you’re going to get the pulse of the country, you have to cover some ground. During the road trip, the protagonist finds all the signposts marred and twisted, the roads empty and menacing, snarled with cars, overgrown, rotting. During the road trip, the destination is an illusion; worse, in the apocalypse, so is the road. It is here we first meet Orpen of Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive: rolling a wheelbarrow through a quietly destroyed Ireland, with a dog called Danger at her side. (This name is occasionally unintentionally comedic.) One of her more uncomfortable parents — her Mam’s Maeve — is in the wheelbarrow, shaking out with sweats and so silent you mistake her for dead. Maybe Orpen talks to her like a superego, like Job’s unhelpful friends in his blackest hour. But she’s not dead: Maeve has been bitten, about to turn into one of the skrake Orpen has been trained to kill her whole life. Orpen holds onto her childhood by keeping Maeve alive; when Maeve turns, something like Orpen’s childhood will have to die.

When I read The Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, it seemed to me that when the Irish kill their homeland, the result in fiction is more autopsy than spectacle, a long landscape pan instead of a detonation. Ní Dhuibhne nukes Ireland to a hard nuclear crust, and then lays out the debris with a cold hand. (Lord, but her main character is chilly.) The cataclysm in Last Ones Left Alive is similarly remote in time from the events unspooling, and much of the novel is spent detailing an Ireland in a green dishevelment. The events of the novel move forward and back in time from Orpen and her wheelbarrow, moving from her upbringing on the secluded island of Slanbeg off the west coast of Ireland, out onto the mainland and into Orpen’s matriculation. Though there are some interactions with the skrake — zombies in everything but name — it seemed notable to me how quiet this novel was for a zombie novel. In her youth, Orpen — named after the Irish painter best known for his depictions of WWI soldiers — often ditches her mothers to scratch about in the ephemera of that lost world in their island enclave. (She’s especially take by the graffiti and old newspapers referencing the Banshee: a fighting troupe comprised of women only.) Orpen has been raised in a safe kind of danger, drilled fairly mercilessly (especially by Maeve) but still protected from the real dangers of her world. There are no skrake on Slanbeg.

On the mainland, Orpen is pushing east toward the semi-mythical Phoenix City, where maybe her Mam and Maeve were from. (She doesn’t know much more than that; Mam and Maeve were always very closed mouth about where they were from, and why they left. She’s not Maeve’s biological child either way, and both Orpen’s parents drill her in the dangers of men.) She’s got the hyper-vigilance of the traumatized, spooking at every movement and worrying about the sound of the barrow’s squeaking wheel despite her enclosed upbringing. It’s an interesting mix: her safe upbringing that is nonetheless steeped in so much terror that she exhibits the earmarks of post-traumatic stress.

This reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s coinage of PASD — pronounced past — post-apocalyptic stress disorder. This neologism made me smile when I encountered it in Zone One — how clever — but I’m beginning to think it might be a real thing. Last week my son asked me to come out for a “porch talk” — he does this because he can find me smoking and I’m captive — and he burst into tears about the burning Amazon rain forests, the burning arctic, the geologically fast moving apocalypse we can find on the planet right now. I’m not going to be able to grow up and have children, he said to me, as he wept. I tried to soothe him, but I don’t like lying too much: There’s no reason it’s going to be “okay”, that blandest of reassurances, and the global environmental situation is well out of my control. I’d almost welcome just having to drill him in how to kill a reanimated corpse, because that is a concrete and discrete problem in the world: Either you kill or you die, but you don’t linger on in a worsening world, watching your possibilities narrow to ugly survival.

I was always irritated by religious fictions that brought down the conflict between good and evil into a fist fight. (I’m slagging, here, on C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.) It always seemed like a cop out, even though I get the structural satisfaction of just punching evil into the floor. I’m a huge fan of punching Nazis — they fucking deserve it — but no country defeats them by individuals punching them one at a time. But I’m beginning to get why, beyond mere narrative catharsis, we write the apocalypse this way: half a generation past the panic, in a regrowing world swallowing up the vestiges of modernity.

The apocalyptic novel is about a country, not a city. In a city, your interactions with strangers might be colored by ties of consanguinity. I know I play the Name Game whenever I meet someone in Duluth, and though I wasn’t even raised here — my father was — it only takes minutes to find a connection. But the in the country, this won’t work. You’re going to rely on the broader cultural playbook between strangers, the one full up with the subtle gestures only the acculturated will understand. (Of course, those gestures are still going to fail as often as not. The Ireland she was raised in was right there off the coast, but she has never quite lived there. ) So yeah, it’s a fistfight, the kind we find between Orpen and people she finds on the road. It can come down to a fistfight once all the other fights have been lost. There’s something almost comforting about pushing past the world where children despair of a future bleaker than their past into one where everyday survival is a victory.

Davis-Goff is maybe a little too light in her allusions to the larger Ireland Orpen is moving though and into. I wasn’t quite clear how exactly the Banshees fit with both Maeve and Mam, and the ersatz family she encounters on the road. Is Phoenix City a Handmaid’s Tale style nightmare, or its opposite in sensibilities, if not particulars? But whatever, this is fine. Last Ones Left Alive is a credible sounding of the Irish apocalypse. It’s nowhere near as brutal as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s, but then that’s an impossible standard. The horror of Last Ones Left Alive ends up being a comfort; Orpen abides, like Ireland always has, and in Ireland’s particular way.