Is it possible to make a serious zombie movie?

AUGUST 30TH, 2016 — POST 239

Birth. Movies. Death. yesterday reported on the latest in the development saga for a Zombieland sequel. A movie that has been in the works in one way or another since the first movie, Zombieland 2 is being worked on by writer and producer team responsible for the original and last year’s Deadpool: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Nothing stands a sequel in as good a position as having the original team on board and with Woody Harrelson set to reprise his Zombieland role, there still seems plenty of runway left on the comedy/thriller zombie movie.

Picking up on a lot of what was put down with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland brought the comedy-driven zombie movie to the U.S. and was part of the zombie renaissance of the 2000s which included 28 Days Later and Planet Terror, eventuating in the wildly adored FX series The Walking Dead. But comedy-driven zombie movies are not exactly a recent phenomenon. The zombie comedy has its heritage in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films of the 1980s. Since then, even those that aren’t overtly comedic like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland still retain a tinge of the camp, of silliness at the whole idea of a brain-thirsty population of undead.

For a sub-genre that is so well-worn, is there room left to see it taken seriously, to be the site of earnest drama? The Walking Dead has largely retained its dramatic weight by not really being about zombies at all. The series is renowned for mining the fact that the greatest threats to our characters come from those within the party, the zombies just filling in the “catastrophic disaster” background noise of the series. Part of this surely has to do with the fact that zombies as a monster type aren’t that interesting: they walk slow, disabled by taking out the head, and anyone they bite becomes one. Alex Garland, screenwriter of 28 Days Later notably had to turn the typically slow-walking zombies into runners to increase the potency of the zombie as a threat.

The predictable essence of a zombie can be contrasted with vampires, another monster that has seen recent craze, resulting in the soap-operatic Twilight series. But we’ve seen far more variety in vampire movies than in zombie movies because the monster has a lot more going on. Blade can’t exist as a zombie movie: there’s no precedent (or arguably possibility) for a “half-blood” zombie in the way that the character of Blade is. More than anything, the variety of vampires that exist onscreen can be attributed to the fact that they are in most cases functioning characters. Vampires talk, make plans, and apart from the whole undead thing, possibility of shape-shifting, and lust for blood seem pretty human. As such, they can serve a more nuanced dramatic weight than just being a monstrous threat.

The Twilight-esque Warm Bodies tried to do this with zombies too. Instead of a mindless horde, we actually start to care about one zombie in particular and the romantic relationship he embarks on with a human. But the main global conflict remains us against the zombie horde. Again, the conceit of zombie existence seems to resist the possibility of novel takes. For zombies to exist, we have to be at (or close to) the end of the world. In turn, zombies invariably become the most pressing global threat because they’re very suddenly everywhere. The lack of freedom the zombie setup affords implicitly seems to force any upending or pushing against it to be done with a knowing wink, with comedy.

There’s no question that Zombieland 2 will too be a comedy. And it might just be the case that that’s all a zombie movie can really be anymore.

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