Food of the Dead

Zombies get back to the basics in two new cable series.

Dead Set, left, and The Walking Dead, right

The banquet is back.

A curious amnesia seems to have made its way into studies of the living dead in the first decade of the 21st century. No doubt this has been a period of rapid progress in zombie research: A bumper crop of movies and books have explored the dynamics of fast-moving ghouls, tactical responses to undead outbreaks, state-of-the-art revenant virology, even the question of whether a defibrillator to the head will kill a zombie. (It won’t.) But for all that, the field’s core discovery—its Copernican realignment from the 1960s—was nearly forgotten: Zombies need to chow down on raw human flesh.

I realize that few will concur in my opinion that recent films such as Zombieland, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead  were not bloody enough. But none of these movies featured what Romero calls “the banquet,” the scene wherein flesh-eating zombies, having won control of the battlefield, eat with relish the inner organs of the living. True zombiephiles won’t be satisfied with a few fingers or a severed lower leg. We want ribcages ripped apart, strings of intestines devoured by hungry freaks, characters we have gotten to know over the course of the movie being quartered into steaming pieces by the hunched, hungry hordes.

So it’s encouraging that while theatrical movies are on a starvation diet, television has become a welcoming host for the zombie banquet. Two new series, both premiering this week, return dismemberment and disemboweling to their proper place at the center of undead studies.

Neither of the new shows is natural banquet material. IFC’s Dead Set, a self-referential horror comedy set within the U.K. version of the reality show Big Brother, takes place in the fast-zombieverse, where there’s never much time for feasting.  Yet it lifts key elements from Romero’s early work (especially 1985’s Day of the Dead, the finest achievement of special makeup effects visionary Tom Savini) to deliver satisfying eviscerations. The heavily promoted The Walking Dead, an adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s eponymous comic book, opens on Halloween in AMC’s Sunday 10 p.m. Emmy-bait position. Writer-director-executive producer Frank Darabont ( The Shawshank Redemption) constructs it in a polished, old-Hollywood style. But by hiring Greg Nicotero, the current master of practical effects, as a consulting producer, he ensures a full course of gut-munching.

Of the two, The Walking Dead more effectively combines flesh-eating with advanced research. If you have wondered about the possibility of coating yourself with blood and innards to fool the zombies’ acute sense of smell (which is itself a mystery since it’s been established in other films that zombies do not breathe), you will get your answer here. These walking dead are ravenous enough that in the absence of human flesh they will devour a horse—and it’s indicative of the bounty of our times that this is the second film this year to feature an equine banquet scene. (In Survival of the Dead, Romero’s sixth entry in the genre, the eating of horsemeat is treated as a potential breakthrough: At least they’re eating something other than us.) Beyond that smattering of details, though, the first few episodes of The Walking Dead don’t break much new ground. For its part, Dead Set offers some mordant commentary on voyeur culture, but when it comes to zombie biology and culture, it shows a similar tendency to stick with the known facts.

In case you’ve been shambling mindlessly since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead retired the voodoo zombie and unleashed the modern flesh-eater in 1968, those facts are: Everybody who dies reanimates. Fluid exchange with a zombie is fatal within hours. The undead eat the flesh of the living, messily. The only way to put a zombie down for good is to shoot it in the head or destroy the brain in some other way. There is no supernatural component to the revenants—they’re just dead flesh, and dangerous. And there are always more zombies.

While there’s been some tweaking at the margins (28 Days Later and its sequel, for example, are technically thought experiments in post-Ebola contagion rather than zombie films), these rules have proved remarkably durable. At this point, the Romero zombie is as firmly established a movie monster as the Bela Lugosi-style vampire, the Boris Karloff Frankenstein or the Lon Chaney Wolf Man. And yet none of the characters in a living-dead movie ever seem to know what’s going on. (In both of the new TV shows, the zombie fundamentals are explained out loud and at length.) The genre is probably due for a Scream-style meta-movie in which the characters are hip to the genre’s conventions—though it’s not clear if knowing the rules would be any help once the zombiepocalypse got under way.

The zombie genre has always been fairly political as well, and enraptured fans are forever searching for deeper meanings that might justify our interest in watching the cannibal feast. At this point it should be clear that there are no larger sociological truths in zombie trends. Zombie holocausts are popular during booms, during busts, in peacetime and wartime, before, during, and after natural disasters, and at all other times.

But the living dead remain excellent carriers of existential meaning and vehicles for social satire. Romero, whose politics fall somewhere between new left and punk, continues to mine his personal genre for anti-authoritarian nuggets, and the more talented of his followers do the same. Dead Set may lose some of its punch from the waning of Big Brother as a cultural touchstone. (I wasn’t even aware it was still on the air in the United States, and the U.K. version was canceled earlier this year.) And some of its gags are as decrepit as a month-old corpse. (“You look shorter in person,” a star-struck cop tells a reality star after nearly mistaking him for a ghoul.) But it earns points for relentless pessimism and a grim dedication to place and setting. In zombie war, geography is destiny.

The Walking Dead is plot-driven and anything but arch. Any overt satire is muted in favor of emotional power. Having seen countless iterations of the scene where one character must confront his or her reanimated loved one, I was surprised to find myself moved by a sequence in which a boy is driven to blubbering near-catatonia from watching his zombie mother loiter outside the front door, trying to get in night after night.

Any new living dead entertainment must take account of the rapid advances in zombie science that have occurred in the last 10 years or so. Max Brooks’ World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide codified zombie-fighting physics and tactics. In a recent issue of the hipster journal n+1, Mark McGurl compared the recent popularity of suave, attractive, withholding, physically robust vampires with the simultaneous rise of decaying, grotesque, needy, enfeebled zombies, and stumbled on a great hidden-in-plain-sight discovery: Vampires are stars; zombies are fans. Edgar Wright’s 2004 Shaun of the Dead successfully combined zombies and romantic comedy. For my money, the most intelligent zombie film of the last decade was Robin Campillo’s 2004 Les Revenants (released as They Came Back  in the United States), which, by positing a bloodless, mundane mass resurrection, highlighted the buried question of zombie cinema: How do we let go of the dead?

But at the same time, a certain artlessness has crept into the genre. While zombies have gained mainstream acceptance, they have come dangerously close to becoming simple laughingstocks, drained of their open-ended metaphorical richness. Recent zombie pictures—Zombieland being the most popular example—tend to devolve into flashy first-person shooters, with the limited novelty of shooting mindless people in the head as the main attraction.

Romero, resurgent after a long quiet period, has been happy to engage in this arms race, but with an interest in exploring the futility of violence through formally ambitious movies. Land of the Dead (2005) features classically beautiful images—most memorably, a nation of zombies rising out of the night-black Monongahela River to attack Pittsburgh. His most recent, Survival of the Dead, closes with a shot of two zombies—remembering only that they were enemies in life—trying to kill each other with pistols that are out of bullets. This kind of stuff—solemn, crude and obvious by the standards of well-made cinema—dares to undermine genre expectations, and fans have hated it. (None of Romero’s recent pictures did big business, though experience suggests their reputations will improve with time.)

The banquet in all its silly grotesquerie has always been the key to the genre’s seriousness, not only because it shows that the dead must win but because it is where the zombie movie really luxuriates in physical dread and frailty. In recent years, the banquet has been undermined by the rise of the fast-moving zombie. First appearing in Dan O’Bannon’s execrable 1985 Return of the Living Dead, the newly  invigorated undead have recently blossomed in an atmosphere of hyperkinetic editing that allows filmmakers to cheat the angles shamelessly. (Boyle and Snyder should have been jailed for the improbable-to-impossible action in 28 Days Later and the Dawn remake.) With the action going by so fast, you never get to settle in and dine. As Romero, who explored the handheld-camera universe in 2006’s Diary of the Dead, puts it in a commentary track, “If you’re shooting a film objective camera … when the zombies are feasting, you can go in and feast yourself. You can stretch it out for five minutes, go in for close-ups, all that.”

Dead Set and The Walking Dead present different approaches to the fast zombie problem. Dead Set’s creatures run so quickly and with such excellent form that they lose any connection to the zombie’s unheimlich essence.  But the show has an admirable fidelity to the tactical realities of the situation it creates, and when the time for cannibalism arrives, it doesn’t flinch. There’s even a doughy and unlikable TV producer character who serves as both the chef and the main course.

The Walking Dead, on the other hand, splits the fast/slow difference. Its zombies spend long periods in shuffling dormancy, then become desperately physical as they get hungry or agitated. This makes them not unlike the rest of us and opens the possibility of even finer dining in future episodes.

It would be ironic if basic cable TV, which remains so squeamish on sexual matters but so tolerant of violence, became the medium for the kind of cannibal holocausts that used to be found only in unrated grindhouse gut-munchers. But it would still be welcome. Fans of the banquet have been going hungry long enough.

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