Ginger Nuts of Horror
I remembered looking at the timer on the VCR, it said just over fifteen minutes had elapsed. Fifteen. In that time, my eight year old eyes had witnessed a man’s head being blown clean off with a shotgun, a strange bluey-grey man who I thought was going to hug someone, instead decide to rip a chunk out of a woman’s throat. In a few minutes more, I’d see one of those weird people get the top of their head cut off with a rotor blade.
Dawn of the Dead was awe inspiring, it had things in a film I had never seen before, it wasn’t until Peter said the Z word two thirds of the way through that I even knew what these things were called. They seemed weird, how can something that moves so slowly, with no real obvious superpower manage to take over the world?
A zombie to me will always be slow and stupid, they’re the reanimated dead, the operative word here is dead. Peter famously said ‘When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’. Walk. Not run.
This is the whole allure of zombies, you look at them and go “Ha, there is no way on this earth, this dumb, slow bastard is going to….ARGGHHH, whilst I was mocking this one, a whole mob of them snuck up on me and are now nibbling on my gall bladder.”
Like the Terminator, they just do not stop, they don’t know fear, they don’t offer mercy or feel pain, all they want is to rip their broken fingernails through your skin and rend you limb from limb, hopefully tucking into your still warm organs before their pals do. That’s what DotD showed the eight year old me, individually you can handle them, but en masse they are a blue-grey sea of grabbing, near invincible, impending ruin.
It’s this that I wanted to capture when I wrote Class Three, classic zombies, it’s right at the beginning of the outbreak, but still this surge of shambling undead is just overwhelming. One scene in a pub pits the living versus the dead, for every one they manage to despatch, their numbers continue to swell from inside and out, until the inevitable, bloody conclusion.
It’s that feeling of hopelessness, of all-pervading doom that captivated me, as I got older, I sought out as many zombie films, books and comics that I could get my hands on. But I always compared them back to that sacred tablet of the undead, Romero’s piece de resistance, his masterpiece.
I love talking to people about it, however, I find a familiar pattern in the conversation that follows;
THEM: Hey, you like zombies don’t you? Have you seen Dawn of the Dead?
ME: Wow, you watched Dawn of the Dead? What did you think? What’s your favourite bit? Wait one cotton-picking minute, which one?
THEM: Eh? The one in the shopping mall, duh.
ME: *audible sigh, strains of clenched jaw and barely suppressed rage* Okay, let’s make this easier, did the zombies run or walk?
THEM: Run, why would they walk?
It’s about this point I exhale sharply, listen to them go on about how cool the zombies were, especially how scary it was that they ran, and how much it was like their other favourite zombie film, 28 Days Later.
Inside I’ve now moved to DefCon One, certain that if I were a cartoon character, steam would be coming out of my ears, the inevitable sentence forms in my mouth;
“Zombies don’t run, and 28 Days Later, as good as it is, IS NOT A FUCKING ZOMBIE FILM.”
Romero made the classic, modern zombie, he didn’t invent them of course, but he did create the thing that has taken over TV, films, books, comics and video games. Romero did that, he set them up with DotD’s excellent predecessor Night of the Living Dead, which I watched after and whilst I enjoyed it, it didn’t pique my interest as much.
For instance DotD had two of the heroes die and come back as one of ‘them’, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Roger getting bitten and slowly deteriorating was bad, but he turns, sticks his head over the blanket and gets shot. It was when Flyboy got killed and came back as a zombie that got me.
Here you have a main character who you’ve been rooting for, for the best part of two hours, he’s a bit of a dick, but you still want him to live, especially after the biker attack. The frantic last moments in that elevator, you’re hoping he can get back to Peter and get out of there.
You see him struggle and throw the zombies out of the lift, you can see he’s in a bad way though, the elevator doors shut. You wait. The doors open and there he is, dead.
But to make it worse, with his human weapon hanging idly in his necrotic hand, you see him betray his friends by leading the horde to the false wall and break in (did he really chomp his way in?). He forms the vanguard, busts open the door, and then closes it behind him, Peter and Francine face to face with their one time friend, the other zombies forgotten about, waiting outside. Peter has to administer another injection of lead to his mates head and then the horde bust in.
It was weird to spend time following a zombie, and especially one that you as an audience have sided with, to now have the proverbial boot on the other foot as he leads his new dead friends to dinner. This is another theme I wanted to explore in Class Three, a plotline centred around a zombie. Colin done this pretty well recently, but I wanted to expand on it.
I wanted to get across a bit of background as to the person he was, not loads, enough to show that he’s a decent guy. He gets killed and comes back as the very thing that you read throughout the book attacking and killing people. Amongst the tales of people surviving, you experience what a zombie is going through, but due to the setup, in the end, you (hopefully) kinda end up rooting for him.
Some films become the benchmark for whole genres, the setting within which the narrative is set becomes permanently entwined with the subject. Ask anyone, regardless of their level of affinity for horror films where a zombie film should be based, and they’ll say a shopping mall, Dawn of the Dead did that, and then some.
One character which stood out to me was Dr Millard Rausch. Throughout the film, Romero uses these little ‘Prophets of Doom’, Dr Foster right at the beginning in the TV Studio where Francine works. This bloke is basically telling people what they have to do to survive, but is shouted down, belittled and threatened.
The eternal struggle of science versus religion, the same situation plays out again later, as Dr Rausch, a more forceful scientist, the man has an eyepatch for god sake, so he must be more serious, again echoes the earlier sentiments. That in order to get control of the situation, people have to approach it with logic, not emotion, and that is ultimately why the zombies will prevail, ‘These creatures are nothing but pure, motorised instinct’.
The same can be said about the preacher too, who Peter and Roger run into when they first meet in the basement of the tenement building, ‘Now, you do what you will. You are stronger than us. But soon, I think they be stronger than you. When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing... or lose the war’. These three figures are dropped in to point at the ills more bluntly than some of the more subtle hints that Romero uses in the film.
Little things like Peter, Roger, Steve and Francine all wearing the same clothes, until the last zombie in the mall has been killed. After that, it’s the first time you see Peter wearing something other than that blue police jumpsuit. Romero shows you the group killing the zombies when their lives are threatened, but doesn’t show a single one being killed when they go through and basically ethnically cleanse the mall (yes they’re zombies, but still).
As they sink back into a false sense of normality, they stand on the balcony looking down, all dressed in their new finery, plundered from the commercial paradise they have annexed by force, sound familiar? And then, when the bikers turn up, it’s back into their original clothing, the trappings of normality cast aside once more for their uniform of war.
The lasting impression I got whilst watching DotD, was the suffocating claustrophobia you feel in the film. So little of it is shot outside, at the beginning, the outdoor scenes are at night-time, the shots of them in the helicopter are full-framed, it’s only the sprawling countryside with the rednecks in their element that is presented without boundaries.
The characters swap one prison for another, from the tenement building/TV studio to the helicopter and then to the mall itself. Even when they land to refuel, Flyboy and Francine go inside a hanger whilst Peter is in the office.
Look at the early shots inside the mall, they’re either in a generator room crammed with pipes, stuck inside a department store or in the attic room, you feel as if you’re trapped in there with them, the zombies pawing at the glass, inches away from your face.
I read recently that originally, Romero wrote the ending so that Peter shot himself and Francine killed herself by sticking her head into the helicopter rotor blades. His wife convinced him that this was too depressing an ending, so we got the pretty vague open-ended one where they both fly into the (suddenly) bright morning sky.
For me, the time I first saw Peter climb the ladder and get into the helicopter, something inside me had changed, forever. Sometimes though, when those people are looking at me, spouting on about how great running zombies are in the remake, I imagine them on the Monroeville mall roof and sticking their head up and into those whirring blades of death.
About me guff.
I live in the majestic county of Wiltshire in Southern England, with my wife Debbie and our two furry faced fellows called Rafa and Pepe. We are often caught prowling around the vegetation at the base of railway lines, foraging for small reptiles to feed on and dock leaves to quell the savage nettle burn.
Class Three is my debut novel, my homage not just to Romero, but to many things in popular culture that have squished me into the malformed collection of matter that exists in the same plane of existence as you. I’m currently fermenting ideas in my brain for the first book in the follow-up trilogy.
Class Three Amazon Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1502402505