18 November 2010

"Our Town Attacked by Zombies" by Nate Zoebl

The townsfolk are starting to turn...
Photo (c) Nate Zoebl
So far my blog has primarily been about horror fiction. But what about a less familiar realm--horror theater? There's the historical tradition of the Grand Guignol, and more modern offerings, such Shockheaded Peter and Sweeney Todd; but on the whole, horror as a theatrical genre still feels like undiscovered territory.

I am pulling for horror theater's success and would love more shows of this nature to be embraced by the mainstream (as well as the elite, picky veteran Broadway goer); which is why I am tickled to death that I am friends with very creative people who also want this to happen.

The latest contribution to horror theater is Our Town Attacked by Zombies. This is exactly how it sounds... Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Our Town subjected to the onslaught of the current Zombie Apocalypse that has infiltrated popular culture as of late.

Something is terribly wrong in Grover's Corners!
Photo (c) Nate Zoebl
I have been up-and-down with how I feel about this trend. I think it's going the way with other trends right now--one or two of these works have proven to be unexpectedly successful, fun, and entertaining...and then everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon. On the one hand, the "monstrification" or "zombification" of literature can be potentially a ton of fun to read. But so were vampires at one point. And werewolves. And...you get my point.

 In my very first post, I even slammed this trend as becoming tiresome. But as with everything that's popular--if you come across something great, it'll stand out among the rabble. Every trend and cliche will fall back into the blurry mush of everything and you'll remember the one good piece among the dozens that try to do the same thing (poorly). I have to tell you, I found Our Town Attacked by Zombies that enjoyable and memorable. Just hilarious, dramatic, and touching--a blend that's hard to pull off. 

To read more about it, check out the next post, where I interview the playwright!

Works Cited

Our Town. Attacked by Zombies. By Thornton Wilder and Nate Zoebl. Dir. Dan Heaton. Capital University, Columbus, Ohio. Oct. 2010. Performance. Based on a concept by Eric Muller.

Zoebl, Nate. Photographs from Our Town Attacked by Zombies. 2010. Capital University Theatre Department, Columbus.

15 November 2010

"Snow" by Ronald Malfi

The 2012 edition (Dark Fuse).
Here's a great departure from the stereotypical horror monsters that I've touched upon over the last few blogs.Ronald Malfi's Snow is a haunting and exciting piece of horror fiction that grabbed my attention immediately--what a refreshing, strange novel this turned out to be!

As a recap, since the summer I've talked about vampires, zombies and werewolves, all traditional and hyper-popular horror creatures. Then I delved briefly into stranger creatures, such as giant spiders and aliens. Still old-hat, if you ask me. 

But what if the monster is something beautiful? Something deadly? Something from nature?
Oh, how looks can be deceiving, dear readers!

First of all, I love winter time. I live in Ohio and our winters have the habit of not making any sense--it could rain, slush, sleet, turn to ice, melt, change from 20 degrees to 50 degrees with sun, rain again, and freeze again, all within a seven-day span. Since 2008 our winters have gotten out of sync--they seem to occur later than normal, and then when they do, it's a TON of snow, to make up for lost time it seems. But when there is absolutely perfect snowfall--giant, feather-sized flakes, bright evening sky, and air so clean and crisp you get a rush of adrenaline from it--I fall in love and never want to go back inside again.

So I went into reading Snow wondering how something so beautiful as falling snow can be made deadly.

I realize that sounds a bit off. Winter is deadly. Snow is deadly. And the season is dark, long and depressing. So maybe this was a great jumping-off point for a horror novel, to work with this motif. But for whatever reason I didn't start reading this book with that mentality. I was actually expecting something pretty to happen.

Some of Malfi's writing is indeed pretty. In the middle of something horribly violent he infuses it with beauty, and then knocks your socks off with the action: "A mound of snow burst up from the ground [...] showering the night with crystals. A lion's roar shook Kate to the marrow of her bones and she nearly dropped the torch. The snow rose up and towered over them, three stories high, undulating like the segmented body of a worm. A blade of ice protruded from it and reared up--" (148).

Now, wait a minute here--what is this?

This thing is the mysterious, weird monster of Snow. From the very opening I thought we were dealing with zombies, and was ready to forget the book past page three (even though I have to admit, this is one of the more attention-grabbing prologues I've read in a while, especially from the reading material for my Horror class at Seton Hill) because I have been getting sick of them. (My apologies to the subject of my next post!)

There aren't really zombies in this book. It's a bit more than that. Zombies become a product of the actual monster of the book...which are these weird alien, inter-dimensional otherworldly creatures that inhabit/manipulate the snow to infiltrate the Midwest (they hit a bunch of cities, like 27 of them!) and corrupt the bodies of human beings. It's back with the traditional parasitic host thing which is so popular in horror and science fiction. When these things latch on to people, they are able to indulge in what they really want to do, which is cannibalize each other. Or burrow into your shoulder blades and use you as a finger puppet, if it's not all that hungry yet.

Interestingly enough, the monsters of Snow are unable to use children to feed, so they just cruelly disfigure them. The faceless kids reminded me of the scene in Terry Gilliam's Brothers Grimm where the little girl (I think her name was Sasha?) gets some weird goo on her face, and when she goes to wipe it off, she wipes her face off and looks pretty creepy, her voice reduced to muffled whimpering (since she doesn't have a mouth anymore). And then she is eaten alive by a possessed horse...? It's been a while since I've seen this film so I might be confusing a few things at once. And I tried very valiantly to find a screen shot of this scene, to no avail.  Anyway, I did find it to be weird and freaky to have faceless children running around in Snow. Yecch.

Let's go back to the idea of the snow creatures rendering their human hosts into flesh-eating zombie-like people. I was wondering if maybe there was a little too much monster going on in here, but then I thought about it...are the snow monsters kind of like a variation of the Wendigo, in a way?

The Wendigo (and this is spelled various ways) is a creature from Algonquin myth. Essentially it's a monstrous, demonic spirit that possesses you...and a common trait is that it is a cannibalistic demon. On top of that, it's always associated with northern country (mountains, desolate locations), famine, starvation, and of course...SNOW.

My first encounter with the Wendigo myth was from reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark when I was in elementary school. In that version I believe it was two hunters camping out in the wilderness in the snow, and the Wendigo was this spirit that drove them crazy...like running in the snow barefoot until your feet burned up and you screamed and vanished, or were overtaken by the Wendigo itself. But there are many variations of this theme, and they all usually align with ideas of the cold snow and cannibalism.

My mind kind of flits in roundabout ways and I like to find the old connections to myth and folklore, even in modern horror. The monster in Snow is new, and something I've never really read before, but I like to try and find origins in everything.  They say that there's nothing new in literature (or film, or music, or art) anymore when it comes to ideas...just new ways to relate them. I'd say Snow certainly takes some of what we've already known and seen and brings it together in a really unique way.

Work Cited

 Malfi, Ronald. Snow. 1st ed. New York: Dorchester, 2010. Print.

"The Wolfman" by Jonathon Maberry

The 2010 edition cover. Source.
So far, I've read original novels about horror monsters and also discussed some great and weird creatures from sci-fi horror. Next stop: movie-tie ins and novelizations, via Jonathan Maberry's The Wolfman.

The film and novel focus on the Talbot family of Blackmoor, England. Lawrence Talbot, who left England for America to become a renowned actor, has returned to Blackmoor upon news of the death of his brother (mayhap the werewolf hath killed him).

His brother's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe, quickly becomes a love interest for Lawrence while Sir John Talbot reunites with his son and old secrets reveal themselves. On top of that, Inspector Aberline (yes, Frederick Abberline of the Scotland Yard--the real inspector of the Jack the Ripper case) is also in town to investigate the strange and grisly murders in Blackmoor. Sounds interesting, yes? I thought so, which is why I saw the movie in the theatre when it premiered.

Before we jump in to the werewolves, however, let's talk about idea of "novelizing" films. A lot of times, audiences will see movies based on their beloved books, because it can truly be a joy to watch your favorite characters come to life before your eyes...Of course, only when it's done well (and that can be a separate post entirely). But what about reading your favorite film?

As a kid in middle school and high school, I had no problem picking up film novelizations. The primary reason for this was that I walked away from the film with a lot of questions. This isn't always a bad thing. Artists want their audiences to think about their work long after they've heard it, viewed it, or read it. But sometimes I would walk away from films and pick up the novelization to clarify what occurred onscreen because the movie was simply a mess.

I actually saw The Wolfman when it first came out on Valentine's Day 2010. How romantic!! I was excited to see it because I think Benicio del Toro is an interesting actor and casting choice...and my favorite thing to watch in werewolf movies is the transformation scene, hands down. I knew going into it that some of transformation would be CGI but I also knew that Rick Baker designed the special werewolf makeup, and I find his work impressive. There was a lot for me to look forward to.

Once all was said and done, I walked out of the movie theatre still turning over in my mind everything I saw. There was so much going on this movie! I wasn't always sure of the film's tone or genre which meant I didn't understand what the movie was trying to be. The acting was great, the soundtrack was great, and the film looked beautiful.  But there were moments where the story needed clarification, and the storytelling method was questionable at times. This may be why the film garnered mixed reviews. (Movie fans, what did you think of the film?)

I didn't have any idea that a novelization of this film existed until it was listed as required reading for my Horror Genre class at Seton Hill University. Of course, we have been reading about horror monsters for this class, but I also know that we are thinking of the business of writing as well. Writing novelizations and movie tie-ins is a great way to boost income as a writer, so this was something to consider as I read through The Wolfman for class (as you know, writers in general don't make money).  I was looking forward to diving into the novelization in hopes of some clarification, further character development, and backstory. Film can only do so much with this...writers do much more with it, in my opinion.

There was no way for me to read this novel without thinking of the movie and automatically comparing the two. Maberry did an admirable job summoning a clearer, detailed story out of the screenplay.  If I wanted to know more about the characters, if I wanted to get inside the minds of the characters, Maberry's work provided. Lawrence Talbot, the man behind the monster, is the most intriguing character of the story because he has to be. Because writing is a medium that allows for closer glimpses at a man's character,  Lawrence Talbot of the novel seemed far more conflicted, guilty, remorseful, impassioned, and angry than the Lawrence Talbot of the film. Which is too bad for del Toro, because I know he's an actor capable of conveying all of it.

When I compare writing and filmmaking, it seems that the film is more plot (read: event)-driven while writing is more character-driven.  Maberry's novel does allow for closer examinations of the characters, and it also plays with symbolism. I'll go into details later below about the imagery of the moon, but let's play with the wolf image. 

When I think of wolves, I primarily think of violent predators with insatiable appetites. Hover over that word, appetite. When dealing with wolves, especially literary wolves, there's always more than one kind of appetite. Think back to Little Red Riding Hood...the earlier version was much dirtier.

I was hoping there'd be a bit more sex and physical/animal attraction in The Wolfman, given the many images we can derive from the mythic wolf and its symbols. Surprisingly, the movie didn't dwell on the sexual imagery (which tends to be abnormal for horror). The most overt sexual image in the movie is a glimpse of a partially nude Emily Blunt in one of Lawrence's extended dream sequences.  I wonder if the filmmakers were playing with the idea of Tantalus--the prize being always just out of our reach. If Lawrence was never meant to express sexual and romantic feelings toward Gwen, then it makes more sense that we do not get to see it, either.

Maberry, on the other hand, does explore sexuality in the novelization of The Wolfman. In the very same dream sequence that Lawrence Talbot has in Lambeth Asylum, his vision of Gwen is far more interactive and physical. In the movie, it's the promise of nudity in candlelight. In the book, Gwen and Lawrence actually have sex, in that uncontrollable, animalistic, passionate sort of way.  I like this better because we can understand there's far more of a struggle between the human and animal that dwells within Lawrence Talbot, and that the struggle is certainly multi-faceted.

Let's take a look at the character that is Gwen Conliffe, since we are talking about desire and sexuality in The Wolfman. It's clear in every aspect that she is the damsel in distress, the love interest, and the heroine. In the film, we don't see as much of her as I would have liked to, and I don't just mean in the sense of objet du désir. In the novel, she's made more important and a far more active presence, but Maberry still keeps her role in check. She has more substance in the novel, but she never wanders too far off the beaten path as the damsel and love interest.

In Maberry's Wolfman, Lawrence desires her (and reminds him of his mother a little bit), and then Sir John, his father, yearns for her also: "Sir John's covetous lust for Gwen had led to Ben's death and to the damnation that now faced Lawrence this night" (321). Whoa! This was not in the film, and it's an interesting twist. This also gives the reader more motivation to dislike Sir John's character as well as add to the father-son conflict. By making Gwen similar to Sir John's wife and Lawrence's mother, you've added an extra layer to her character as well.

The dynamic between Lawrence, Gwen, and Sir John is at the core of the film. This is the main conflict that runs concurrently with the overarching conflict of man (reason) versus beast (passion). It's only fitting that in the film ends with Gwen voicing this problem: "It is said there is no sin in killing a beast, only in killing a man. But where does one begin and the other end?"

This leads into the recurrent motif found in werewolf fiction, movies, and popular culture...the moment of truth.  The heroine is determined to have the beast realize that part of him is still human. In that five-second-moment where the monster realizes this, he's killed. I suppose the true vulnerability lies in the moment you start to question yourself, which would explain why the wolf can never move fast enough to save the man.

The novelization builds on the moment of truth with its ending:
The Wolfman looked at her and for a moment all traces of hate and hunger were gone from its face. Gwen's heart lifted. She knew that he was still in there. Beneath the surface of this impossible thing, Lawrence Talbot still existed. She raised her hand to touch his face. [...] The Wolfman turned his head slowly back toward her, and when Gwen looked into his eyes there was not the slightest trace of Lawrence Talbot. What remained, what she saw, was only the beast (338-339).

Work Cited

 Maberry, Jonathan. The Wolfman. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2010. Print.

10 November 2010

John Carpenter's "The Thing"

The Thing-2008 Blu-Ray
The 2008 Blu-Ray edition. Source
Here's another sci-fi horror film I watched for the first time recently. The Thing dates from 1982  and is a pretty impressive horror flick, given the detailed set designs, effect shots, out-there make-up and creature design. 

The basic gist: scientists at a research station in Antarctica are plagued by an alien monster that unfortunate Norwegian scientists (on a separate base further away) unleashed from the ice. What's scary about The Thing is that it can assume the identity of its victim, so you can't exactly tell it apart from humans or that cute Alaskan malamute that showed up at the base one day....

Let's talk about the creature that is The Thing. I know in my last post, reflecting on H.R. Giger's creature designs, that the Alien monsters leave me wondering, "What the hell was that thing?" John Carpenter's The Thing leaves me wondering, "WTF?" This is not a bad WTF. It's just that, like Alien, I've never seen a sci-fi horror monster like this before.

The creatures of Alien were disturbing because they were dark, absolutely inhuman and unrecognizable, weirdly sexual, bio-mechanical looking things. The Thing could be considered unrecognizable since it's an amalgamation of creatures it has tried to copy...but in The Thing I can at least recognize which part is the dog, which part is the human, which are the spider-like legs, and which is the leftover spaghetti noodle dinner (ha!). What you can't recognize is The Thing itself, because it's hidden behind all of those other things. That's pretty scary.

The movie is heavy on the gross factor. Every time I saw the creature take a victim, or leave a corpse of itself behind, I just wanted to scream, "Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!" The Thing tries to mimic life by synthesizing it; most of the time for the duration of the film it looks like The Thing hopped into a blender of raw meat, pasta, puppies, and people--very gooey, very bloody, very messy, and a giant ball of absurdity. I would've laughed hysterically at the creature if ti wasn't so disgusting! 

When people think of horror, they tend to think only of what frightens them. If we think of the very literal meaning of the word horror, it encompasses not only the sensation of fear, but revulsion, shock, and disgust. The Thing didn't scare me, but it definitely grossed me out, so it would fall under the definition of horror by that mark. What scares me more (and this applies pretty much to all horror for me) is not the thing or event itself, but the idea of what it is, what it means.  The Thing is a body-snatcher (body-masher, heh!) and therefore something unrecognizable and almost undetectable once it has assumed the form it wishes to.

The Thing-Dog Monster
Screenshot of the 1982 film (Source).
What makes The Thing a successful film is that it does not rely on just the monster. Body-snatching and assuming identities (in that lovely parasite-host way) is no doubt going to bring about heavy paranoia, and John Carpenter definitely focuses on this to generate additional thrills. I really liked that I couldn't always tell if Kurt Russell was the hero or villain. I enjoyed seeing everyone turn on each other and unravel, and the scenes where Kurt Russell has tied the remaining survivors together and to their chairs in order to test their blood--this is great stuff. 

Using Antarctica as your setting also helps up the ante on paranoia and tension. There's nowhere you can run--if you aren't cooped up on the base you're outside freezing to death. You can't get any more desolate and isolated than Antarctica and its ferocious winter! And as the numbers of scientists dwindle, all you have left is yourself and everyone else. If you know you aren't the monster, then that leaves everyone else to doubt and accuse. It's very easy to understand why each of the men on base turned against each other.

Even better? The depressing non-ending ending. There's nothing like leaving a film still feeling a little paranoid, still doubting whether or not the Thing is gone, and which human is real and which one isn't. Keith David and Kurt Russell are the last men standing, and you have substantial reasons to doubt both of them. The characters have a substantial reason to doubt each other as well--they can't account for each other's whereabouts or what happened when they separated from each other. By this point the base is blown up, and the two are sitting with their weapons, "Waiting to see what happens."  

Work Cited

The Thing. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Kurt Russell, Keith David. Universal Pictures, 1982. DVD.

08 November 2010

Ridley Scott's "Alien"

Alien-2011 Blu-Ray
The 2011 Blu-Ray edition. Source
Can you believe this film came out in 1979 and it wasn't until recently that I actually sat down and watched it in its entirety?  I always put off seeing it because of a horrific childhood memory of the scene where the baby alien explodes out of John Hurt's chest. I had to have been seven or eight years old, and I walked in on a family member watching it...right at that exact moment, and wham, scarred for life. Even though I had many chances to watch the film all the way through, I only ever caught it in snippets on AMC, and usually around the exact same scene.

I'm glad I finally watched Alien. It's a great visionary piece of sci-fi horror. The film is a slow-burn, and great at building up tension and establishing a sense of isolation and dread from its excellent pacing.

But to me, much of the horror comes from the nightmarish, weirdly sexual conceptual designs by H. R. Giger, and he rightfully won an Academy Award for this work (The Editing Room hilariously goes into detail about all the sex in the Abridged Alien script). No creature, planet, or spaceship design can compare to his artwork for these films...they truly embody the idea of "alien," otherworldly, non-human life. I can't recognize any sort of human-like quality in these creatures, they are so complex, so foreign (OK, maybe they have the right amount of limbs and can walk upright, but that's about it).

Ian Holm's character in Alien, Ash (the Science officer), describes them as being perfectly evolved creatures. To me, the notion that the Alien is a creature embodying perfect evolution is disturbing. Maybe it's because as a race, humans are inherently narcissistic; maybe it's because I can remember going to church when I was little and learning that man was created in God's own image...but to me, when I think of a perfectly evolved creature, I can only think of it in relation to how it has evolved from man. We've placed ourselves at the top for a wide variety of reasons (intelligence, emotionality, the ability to speak, a deeper awareness of consciousness, the capacity to love, etc), so if there was the chance for nature to perfect something, wouldn't it be a more perfect version of us?  This is why Alien is so troubling for me--I just can't see anything human in the aliens at all!

This has made my brain go in a different direction. I was going to tell you how I found the Face-Hugger to be incredibly terrifying and blah blah blah but now I want to examine this idea of the Aliens, Ash, and "perfect evolution."  Ash says that the Alien is perfectly evolved. I say that this is scary because they clearly don't have a piece of humanity in them, and that shouldn't something perfectly evolved come from humans? Isn't Ash an example of a perfectly evolved human (an android)?

We don't know what Ash is for the majority of the movie. He's the Science officer aboard the ship, is relatively quiet, matter-of-fact, and knows the rules of protocol. When the crew awakens waaaay off their original course, and receive a signal from a nearby planet, Ash is quick to remind the crew that they are required by their corporation (an energy/mining/refinery company) to investigate it or else they forfeit pay. At this point in time, Ash seems like a boring, by-the-rules officer.

Then John Hurt's character is attacked by a face-hugging alien. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) doesn't want to allow him on the ship or into the medical bay, citing the rules that he and the officers with him must be quarantined for 24 hrs.

But Ash overrides her, breaks the rules and potentially endangers their lives by allowing them to return in. We learn over the course of the film (as the Alien is born, grows, and hunts the crew on the ship) that Ash just isn't to be trusted. 

Ripley later discovers from the ship computer "Mother" that Ash has been ordered to retrieve the Alien, and the crew is "expendable." Ash walks in on Ripley as she makes this discovery. The two scuffle, and when Ash almost succeeds in killing Ripley (shoving a rolled-up magazine down her throat to choke her) the crew beats him down with a fire extinguisher and decapitates him...revealing that Ash is a robot.

Ash-Alien
Screenshot from the 1979 film (Source).

What is a robot...or more specifically, an android? It's a robot designed to be human, but in ways surpass a human by being more intelligent, unable to age, unable to grow tired or wear down, etc. So Ash is an example of an evolved human in this regard, since he is a human being "perfected."

It's interesting to me that Ash is the one to note that the Alien has evolved perfectly. Does Ash envy the Alien? He certainly admires it, you can clearly hear it in his voice when he describes it to Ripley and the others. Even though Ash, as an android, can be considered a better version of human, he is still obviously fallible, since he is decapitated and electrocuted. He is also controllable (no real free will)--by the corporation who has ordered him/programmed him to bring back the life form at all costs (he is pretty creepy when he turns on Ripley), and by his crew mates when he is briefly reanimated to give them all the information he knows about the Alien. Ash is not a good guy, even though he expresses sympathy to the rest of his crew, who he deems unable to defeat the Alien. Ash's lack of true humanity (his sympathy rings hollow to me) makes him a monster, and arguably the second major Alien in the film.

There's an awesome Wikipedia article on the character, where I found two items worthy of note--it mentions Asimov's Laws of Robotics and then mention Ash's "Otherness."  I remember from I, Robot that robots are not supposed to harm humans because it is contrary to their programming...so this would make Ash an outsider to other robots, who follow the three laws. Wikipedia also mentions that critic/author Nicholas Mirzoeff compares Ash to the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, noting that the scariest monsters are the ones like us.

I can see where he is coming from--the monster is like us, so it's harder for us to tell whether or not he is a monster at all, or if they are normal and we are the monster, etc. That can be genuinely scary. But Ash wasn't scary. He was indeed a monster. He was menacing, and cold, and calculated, and his "death" scene was very disturbing, but because he was humanoid I still felt a bit of sympathy for him. He was programmed to be the way he was. He admired the Alien because it was perfection and no doubt something that could not be controlled...Ash expressed sympathy but he can't really "feel" like humans do because he isn't human. He's stuck being what he is.

The Alien...the alien is the true terror of this film. I can't recognize what it is at all. It's animal, insect, humanoid, androgynous, sexual, asexual, predatory, everything! I search for something familiar in it to understand what it is, but it is so genuinely different from anything else I have seen that I'm at a loss. If you can't recognize what something is, how can you understand it to defeat it? Even when the crew questions Ash about the species, they don't get "real" answers about it to kill it. Ripley destroys the Alien through a combination of luck, happenstance, and quick thinking, not by understanding the true nature of the beast. Even after the film's resolution, I thought to myself, "What the hell was that thing?"  I'm still trying to figure it out. The fear of the unknown is a very powerful thing.

Work Cited

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.

04 November 2010

"World War Z" by Max Brooks

World War Z-2007
The 2007 Paperback edition. Source
Max Brooks' World War Z is a slick tome composed of transcripts from interviews conducted for the United Nations Postwar Commission. Brooks' work includes the voices of many who were affected by the Zombie War, from soldiers, bureaucrats, health officials, pharmaceutical reps, scientists, all the way down to the everyday Joe that is you and me. With very little interruption from the interviewer, the reader gets to "hear" firsthand accounts of the war from every point of view; hence the book's subtitle, An Oral History of the Zombie War.

And let me just blurt this out: World War Z isn't really about zombies at all. Of course, there are some horrific moments with zombies in them, but the novel doesn't have as many zombie scenes in it as you would expect it to, because the fact of the matter is the book is about humans. Brooks' novel is clearly well-researched and brimming with information that makes it culturally relevant for today (this truly is global social commentary)...but I have to oversimplify this for a moment.

What is a zombie, exactly? A zombie is a corruption of man...a human rendered devoid of humanity. A zombie is a primal, basic example of this. Humans value life; a zombie is without life. Humans value the idea of control; a zombie cannot control itself or be controlled. Human appetite (literal, metaphorical) can be sated, but not the zombie's. If you strip away reason, creativity, accountability, guilt, empathy (etc) from a human, you are left with impulse, instinct, preservation, rote repetition, and a total lack of consciousness--notable characteristics of the zombie. If we go past the literal examination of the zombie infestation and what that means for humans, we can see Brooks emphasizes the dehumanizing aspects of the war (and the business of it) itself.

I'm going to cite the interview with Maria Zhuganova as a great "chapter" that illustrates this notion of dehumanization. The purpose of this interview is to understand what led to an ugly episode known as the Decimation. Zhuganova was stationed in North Ossetia, Alania when the Decimation occurred. North Ossetia is in the Caucasus region and the land is dotted with forests, the northern tip touches the Stavropol Plain, and then even if you have to get far out of the countryside and pass through the nearby republics and states, eventually you'll discover that you are surrounded by water on either side. The point I'm getting at--ISOLATION!

Zhuganova is stationed at North Ossetia as a peacekeeper; her fellow soldiers and the military police are there to keep an eye on the area, which is known for ethnic tension. Quickly everyone becomes distracted by the news of "rabid animals and rabid men" but because they are so isolated, they don't know that it's officially the Great Panic or that the rabid are in fact zombies.

When the military combs the towns for the infected, Zhuganova is horrified to see that children are among them: "There was a tiny figure, another little girl, staggering across the mud towards us..." (78). A civilian whom Zhuganova calls Rat Face, who has obviously seen the zombies before, notifies the Lieutenant of the approaching child. The Lieutenant orders Petrenko, a sharp-shooter in the platoon, to fire and kill her. And here's the test!!
  •  How do you know the girl is a zombie? She's staggering, and Rat Face is whispering something to you, and you saw another little girl run from her, terrified. But how do you know she's a zombie for certain?
  •  Before you allow the little girl to get any closer to you, you tell your sharp shooter to kill her (but no one knows exactly what's going on with the child yet). Are you really thinking about anything when you tell your gunman to do this? Are you fully aware of the consequences of your actions?
Are you still human? Did you order the death of an innocent girl, who may or may not be afflicted (through no fault of her own)? Did you order another man to do the dirty work for you, and in turn make him a murderer? What kind of person are you?

Rat Face (a CIVILIAN!) apparently has enough pull that he can manipulate the soldiers and officers around him: "Rat Face was always there, in the shadows, listening, watching, whispering into the ears of our officers" (78). Since when does the military take orders from civilians? And yet they succumb to Rat Face. The Lieutenant orders Petrenko to shoot the girl as soon as Rat Face tells him to (we don't hear the words, but it's understood). The Lieutenant therefore has obeyed Rat Face without question. What does that make him? To a certain degree, a zombie.

Is Petrenko a zombie? Petrenko, described as a "skinny little runt, not the bravest or the smallest" chooses humanity. He feels sympathy for the child. He feels an inward moral struggle about the actions of killing the child. He is ruled by emotion, he feels conflict. What does he do? He disobeys his orders. But he doesn't do this simply by lowering his weapon. He makes a very strong statement: "No, sir." Petrenko wanted to keep his humanity, and he succeeded, but not without a price (the Military Police takes Petrenko away and we don't hear of him).

It's not so lucky for everyone else. Zhuganova's friend Arkady, a machine gunner, bursts into the infirmary dragging an old woman with a bag on her head by the chain link leash she is wearing. He is screaming at the officials around him that there won't be any more civilian shootings, because "This is what they have us breaking our backs to find!" (80). You'd think for a minute that Arkady would be a "good guy" because he protests the civilian shootings, protects Zhuganova as if she was his sister, and is able to clearly distinguish a zombie from a human. The old woman he plucked out from nowhere has all the telltale signs: moaning, overall gray color of the skin and eyes, black pus, uncontrolled hunger, lack of reaction to being stabbed, etc.

But is Arkady a human or a zombie? He transforms rather quickly. He initially stabs the old woman seven or eight times, shouting hysterically to his audience of bystanders and officials. The first stab with the knife, right in the heart, was more demonstrative--she's undead, and everybody needs to know the enemy. As all crime dramas tell you, multiple stab wounds = crimes of passion. Heat of the moment, without thought or awareness, uncontrollable. Arkady stabbed the old woman several times. At this point, I would call it blood lust. Even if it's towards a creature you don't understand or like or find evil, when you stab something that many times and with so much unhinged violence, you're just not a person anymore. And is blood lust really that far away from a zombie's lust for brains, or flesh?

 Zombie Stock Art COPYRIGHTED
Going Scary Zombie (c) by Bronya. Source
What immediately occurs came as no surprise to me. Arkady turned into a metaphorical zombie, so literally was bound to happen sooner or later. The old lady bites him when he stops paying attention, and wham! Infected. Arkady retaliates by smashing her head in with his boots. But we don't see Arkady physically turn into a zombie. After he kills the old woman, he keeps riling up the crowd, demanding they should be free to go home, that they have rights, and then Arkady gets shot in the eye and killed.

What happened here? Arkady turned into a "zombie." His words and ideas "infected" the people around him to generate a mob of people shouting with him to be freed. The "mob" is now a horde, and to prevent further "infection" they had to stifle it, kill it, defeat it. Arkady was the first to go, since he was the one who planted the virus and caused the army unit to rebel. He had to be killed because he was infected with the idea to protest, and technically, when the old woman bit him, be became infected with the zombie virus.

But the rest of the unit that protested with him--these people weren't physically bit or infected; they were overtaken by ideals and feelings. A new commanding officer is sent to the unit for punishment, and they are punished on the same grounds for which they rebelled. "You spoiled children think democracy is a God-given right. You expect it, you demand it! Well, now you're going to get your chance to practice it" (82). The soldiers are divided into groups of ten, and they voted on who would be executed next for their role in the revolt. Once the victim is selected for punishment, his fellow soldier kills him by smashing his head in with a rock.

What happened here? They're all zombies, every last one of them. They've killed ceaselessly, and in the same, repetitive fashion (choose victim, then kill him, choose, then kill). They kill their fellow soldiers by stoning them to death (specifically the head and face mentioned. How do you kill a zombie? Get the head!). Did the soldiers ever think about what they have done? There's a good question. Zhuganova never tells the interviewer the agonizing process of how they voted to murder their compatriots. We don't hear of a moral struggle, or even a vague stab at logic, when they chose their own friends to die. We don't hear of how Zhuganova felt when she stones her friend Baburin to death (in the face! Yikes!), only that she did it: "Brilliance. Sheer fucking brilliance. [...] We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn't. We went right along with it" (83). Going right along with it--accepting their fate without protest, in total obedience... sounds like zombies.

And yet here's where it gets tricky. I've mentioned above several times that zombies lack consciousness and a sense of accountability for their actions. Zhuganova goes on to tell us, "We all made a conscious choice and because that choice carried such a high price, I don't think anyone ever wanted to make another one again. [...] From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say 'They told me to do it! It's their fault, not mine.' The freedom, God help us, to say 'I was only following orders'" (83).

Zhuganova is now human again, and it's easy to return to your humanity now that the worst for her, and World War Z itself, has ended. She has claimed her role in the Decimation: "We all made a conscious choice." But I don't know how conscious her unit's decision-making was during the actual events. We aren't given all the details, and hindsight is 20/20. It's a lot easier to look back on the past and say, "I was a monster," instead of looking at yourself in the present and saying it.

I think the unit made no conscious decision whatsoever to murder their own people. I think they let survival instinct take over. I think they were motivated by the base need of every human, which is to preserve your own life. I think the brains shut down for these soldiers when they voted and killed over and over again...you'd have to, in order to survive! They gave into a primal part of themselves, and turned their humanity off to perform these horrible deeds....so they became zombies. It's just the perfect added touch that they all denied their role in it by "just following orders, sir."

This book isn't for everyone. I found myself struggling with parts of the multiple voices and characters. The book is a challenge, and was hard for me to read, but I'm glad I read it. World War Z makes some important claims about humanity. And yes, when the zombies do show up, it's pretty creepy. 

Work Cited

 Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York: Crown, 2006. Print.