I had become tired of zombies. For a while , zombies were my favourite sci-fi B-movie villain. There had been a string of really good zombie movies, most of them British. 28 Days Later (2002) updated zombies to a modern urban environment and made them scary again. Shaun of the Dead (2004) brought zombies to my manor of North East London and managed to be a movie that was in equal parts genuine horror and hilarious character-based comedy.
Then it all went wrong, with a string of formulaic Hollywood zombie films. Finally there was Zombieland (2009); billed as pastiche of the zombie movie, it lacked either humor or charm. What Zombieland proved was that when a genre reaches the point of being mocked it has completely run out of original ideas.
What makes Zombieland boring where Shaun of the Dead was brilliant was that the latter was a completely serious and scary zombie movie with funny characters. Zombieland aimed far lower, at being a straight comedy, and managed to be not even particularly funny – although Bill Murray did have a great cameo.
For a while, I was tired of zombies and thought that nothing could rekindle my interest. Then three great titles came along, and none of them were films.
First was the Playstation 3 game The Last Of Us released in 2013. Set in a world which has collapsed after a zombie uprising, the story follows Joel, who lost his daughter during in the initial zombie uprising and now lives a cynical, survivalist life. He is given the job of transporting Ellie, a teenage girl who might hold the cure to the zombie inflection, across America. The journey is long and dangerous, they have to face zombies, dangerous survivalists, soldiers and cannibals. During the journey Joel and Ellie bond and Joel is eventually able to reconcile the loss of his daughter.
The Last Of Us succeeded where a lot of zombie movies have failed by having engaging characters. Joel and Ellie have a great dynamic and have a real emotional journey. There is more to their story then just surviving zombies, they have to find a way to live in a world that has collapsed. As an audience, we are frightened when they are threatened because we want them to survive. The story and the writing of The Last Us was much stronger than any film I have seen recently.
Last year, In The Flesh (2013) started on the BBC. It began with only three episodes but managed to be easily the best show of 2013. Earlier this year, a second series with a full six episodes was shown and this cemented the show’s reputation as one of the best on TV right now.
In the Flesh is also set after a zombie uprising but, unlike The Last of Us, civilization defeated the zombies and found a partial cure through regular injections of a new drug. Now the former zombies are being returned to society as PDS (partially deceased syndrome) suffers. The show follows Kieren Walker, who is returned to his family in the small Yorkshire village of Roarton. Kieren faces the prejudice and open hostility of a small community coming to terms with a big change.
In the shows zombies or PDS suffers are clearly a metaphor for the social changes which have gone on in Britain since the 1960s. Part allegory on immigration, part analogy for homosexuality, In the Flesh makes a point about how hard it is for people to accept others who are different, even within their own family. Kieren goes on a painful emotional journey, where he has to deal with the circumstances of his death, the hostility of people he used to call friends, the rise of a new anti-PDS political party, and an undead separatist movement.
In the Flesh is gripping because it has an intelligent point to make, but it also has strong characters and an emotionally-engaging story. We long for Kieren eventually to find someway he can live in peace, despite his difference.
Recently I have finished reading M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts (published June 2014), which is also set in a world after a zombie uprising. As in The Last Of Us, humanity only survives in a few survivalist camps and the rest of the world has been overrun with zombies, or ‘hungries’ as they called in the book. The novel follows Melanie, a girl in a strange school on an army base. In many ways Melanie has a normal life – she loves school, has a crush on her teacher Miss Justineau, and enjoys stories about the Greek myths – but quickly we learn that there is something very unusual about Melanie.
Melanie and the children in her class are caught somewhere between being human and a violent ‘hungry’. They can learn and talk but also have insatiable desire to eat human flesh. She is a part of program to study the hungries to find a cure. When the school is attacked, Melanie, Miss Justineau, the brutish Sergeant Parks, the callous Dr. Caldwell and the green Private Gallagher are thrown out into the dangerous world of hungries and violent survivalists known as junkers. Surviving in the ruins of London relies on them all working together, but as the novel progresses they find it hard to trust each other.
The Girl With All The Gifts is one of those novels which grabs you on page one and whisks you away with a captivating story. Although Melanie is a strange character to be inside the head of, her sense of wonder at the world outside her classroom is completely captivating. The novel has nail-biting tension, beautiful writing and engaging characters. Carey plays with the reader’s sympathy and it is brilliant how he is able to make you fall in love with characters you hated at the beginning of the novel.
All three of these works leave the wider zombie situation unresolved, and instead focus on the characters and their emotional journey. We can relate to them as people searching for friends, love or home in a hostile world, as it is something we have all experienced to a greater or lesser extent. In these three cases, good writing and engaging characters make a great zombie story, just as they make a great story in any other genre.
It is also interesting that none of these stories focus on the initial zombie uprising but instead deal with how people live in a changed world. Stories about zombie uprisings have been done to death, but there is still life in the zombie genre by finding original ways to approach zombie stories. Zombie films may be dead, but my love of zombies lives on in other media.