Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Zombie as Elegy: a review of "Dead Set"

Zombies have been eating at my brain recently.  It all started about a year ago, when I was motivated by my abiding interest in robots to purchase and read Chris Ryall's graphic novel, Zombies vs Robots (fantastic artwork by Ashley Wood...otherwise I don't recommend it).  I began thinking about how robots and zombies operate similarly but differently as Not-Humans.  Both robots and zombies are a means of manufacturing the characteristics we like to identify as uniquely human.  We like to imagine ourselves free-willed, open-minded and compassionate so we project the opposites of those qualities--mindless instinct, prejudice, and cruelty or absence of emotion (qualities of which even humans, especially humans, are capable)--into imagined non-human others.  This sort of formulation won't be new to anyone familiar with the emerging discourses of posthumanism, particular the Derrida-inspired work of Neil Badmington.

Anyway, while I've never considered myself much a fan of the horror genre, Zombies vs Robots took a little bite out of me and now it's infected.  I'm most of the way through a privately-screened Romero retrospective, and additionally I've been consuming loads of other zombie-related media from the past several years.

A few days ago I watched, late into the night, Charlie Brooker's Dead Set, a roughly three-hour mini-series that aired on E4 in the UK in October 2008.  Like most zombie flicks, the plot is dead simple: the production crew of the reality tv series Big Brother is preparing for a live eviction night.  Rambunctious crowds gather outside the BB house/studio in ravenous anticipation of the vote's result.  News reports of ongoing political protests threaten to bump the show from its usual timeslot, but unbeknownst to all the real trouble starts when a driver who is chauffering one house-mate's mother to the studio pulls off the rode to inspect what looks like a car crash and gets zombie-attacked.  To make the story short, the infection makes its way to the studio and converts the crowd.  Nowhere is safe...except inside the Big Brother house, which is fortunately so cut off from the carnage that when Kelly, a lowly member of the production team, enters the house covered in blood and brandishing large shears, the housemates mistake her at first for Big Brother's latest prank before a bitey encounter with one of the zombies gets their minds all right.

The act of taking refuge from zombies in the Big Brother house pretty much exhausts the novelty of the series.  What follows proceeds predictably.  A run for medical supplies.  A reunion between Kelly and her boyfriend, Riq, who's had his own tragic adventure getting to the studio with the help of a lonely, survival-oriented woman.  Ultimately, those taking refuge in the house turn on each other, acting out a parody of the way the real casts of Big Brother act out a parody of real life, and one by one they fall, ostensibly to the zombies, but really to stupidity, selfishness, jealousy, and cowardice.

Romero's influence is present throughout Dead Set, and this is most explicitly announced when Joplin, the cowardly lionizer, explains to Marky why the zombies have begun to amass outside the studio gates: "some primitive instinct....  This was like a temple for them."  Joplin is echoing a line originally spoken by Stephen in Dawn of the Dead (1978) when Francine asks him why the zombies are drawn to the mall:
Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.
Romero doesn't skimp on the thrills and gore, but satire and tragedy are the twin spirits that (re?)animate his films, and I think it's fair to say that, most broadly speaking, what he satirizes is human behaviors conditioned to be automatic...knee-jerk actions committed without first thinking through consequences.  Conversely, Romero regards as a virtue (though not, significantly, as a remedy to habit) the cognitive effort of careful planning.  In other words, the classical analogue to Romero's zombie hordes would be Euripides' Bacchantes.  So drunk they're dead-drunk.

As in Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the recipient of Brooker's satirical barbs in Dead Set is the middle-class.  In Dawn of the Dead Romero focuses on their consumer habits, the more meta-fictional Dead Set is organized around the bourgeois cult of television (confession: I never miss Big Brother in the US, but in my half-hearted defense, the differences between the two shows make the US version much more of  a strategy game and much less of a schadenfruede party...I could say much more but maybe I'll save that for a post in the summer when the show returns).

But there is one detail of Dead Set that, according to one zombie purist, violates the spirit of Romero's undead: Brooker's zombies don't shuffle along, they run.  In a tongue-in-cheek review in The Guardian, Simon Pegg, who wrote and starred in the highly-recommended horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004), criticizes the phenomenon of running zombies, a bastard-innovation that he traces to 2002's 28 Days Later, a film that in his view is not, properly-speaking, a zombie movie because its monsters are merely diseased and not re-animated corpses.  Speed, according to Pegg, violates the essence of the zombie:
As monsters from the id, zombies win out over vampires and werewolves when it comes to the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster. Where their pointy-toothed cousins are all about sex and bestial savagery, the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.  

Although in Brooker's defense I'll note the inability of Brooker's zombies to turn doorknobs or climb low fences, Pegg's criticism is insightful and informed, and (if I may return to my initial comparison of zombies with robots) I think he identifies in this passage one of the most significant differences between these two types of non-human others.  Both robots and zombies occupy a sort of middle category between life and dead or between being and non-being, but whereas robots negatively embody for us the humanity we like to imagine we've been given, zombies negatively embody the humanity we can lose.  One is busy being born; they other's busy dying.  

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