Debate: Best Use of Zombies on the Screen

It’s October and time for another thrilling debate. Since this will be our only debate before Halloween we wanted to look at one of October’s favorite genres: zombies. This month’s theme is the best use of Zombie’s onscreen so in lieu of a traditional Friday debate Harrison and I wanted to time this with the Walking Dead season premiere. Harrison will be defending the romantic comedy with zombies, Shaun of the Dead, while I’ll be defending AMC’s the Walking Dead.

Harrison: First off, full disclosure. I’ve seen and read a lot of zombie fiction. But what I realized while deciding on what fiction to defend is that I don’t really like zombies. To me there isn’t enough variety in the genre. Most zombie fiction is about how humans are savages once society beings to break down. Most zombie fiction is about a rag tag group of people (most of which are not the types to prepare for disaster scenarios) who survive through awful experiences. That’s why I decided to pick Shaun of the Dead. It’s a zombie movie that has something to say that bucks the trend of most other zombie movies.

Josh E: I have to admit I’ve thought about that before, but I think there’s something to be said about the consistency of the zombie genre. These movies became popular in turbulent times when we were scared of the dissolution of society and they are resurgent now. What I think most zombie films lack is the essential element of time. The zombie apocalypse is forever and that’s why I think the Walking Dead is the best use of Zombies in television right now and the best use of Zombies on a screen.

Harrison: What I really, really like about SotD is that it’s not about society crumbling. It’s about a guy who could be considered a man-child who learns — because he has to survive the zombie apocalypse — to grow up a little (but not a lot). At the end of the movie he still sneaks away to play video games. This is a movie that uses a zombie outbreak (it’s contained by the end) to tell the story of one guy. I really think the fact that the story is so intimate to one guy and one neighborhood that it takes the zombie genre and does something novel with it.

Josh E: I agree that Shaun of the Dead is about a man learning how to become a man but that could be said about say 28 Days Later. Sure it contains a rag tag group of survivors but it too features a young man (20s-30 maybe) who is forced to grow up and become an adult to survive the end of humanity. However just because something does something that’s already been done doesn’t mean it isn’t good. There’s more nuance in the zombie genre than that. This is where the Walking Dead excels – we aren’t confined to 2 hours, but roughly a dozen hours a season over at least 4 seasons to allow the group of survivors, fight evolve, lose members, and gain members. It’s about the human drama, the inability of characters to communicate which is the root of all human drama.

Harrison: I have to disagree a bit. The serialized format of television has the potential for the best showcase of the zombie apocalypse. Much like the characters, the viewers have an indefinite amount of time to experience this zombie apocalypse. However, I feel that the Walking Dead has squandered much of its potential. Episodes fluctuate between being great pieces of television to having me wonder why I am still investing time watching the series. Many times the show has featured cliched, wooden, and directionless writing. Shifting gears, another thing about SotD that I thought was great is that embraced the parts of zombie fiction that work and lampooned the parts of the genre that have become stale. Zombies bursting through windows to grab a victim is a great trope that is almost always effective and that scene is in the movie.

Josh E: I don’t disagree with your criticisms. It’s not the best television show on right now and it’s not the best zombie IP made. What I’m arguing is that the using the zombies in the serialized format is the best way to enhance the strengths of the genre, which is watching a group of humans crumble psychologically while they’re being chased by flesh eating mobs of humans. It’s all about the semantic argument we’ve put forth.

Harrison: This is true. We seem to be at an impasse with the exact way to interpret this debate. I’m gonna argue that Shaun of the Dead is the best utilitarian use of zombies. In the movie, zombies are what sets off the character of Shaun to mature and take stock in how to live his life. Again, I think serialized storytelling is potentially the best way to tell a zombie story. But what I’ve seen so far in The Walking Dead is not the best.

Josh E: Maybe the best way is to get a firm definition of use.

Harrison: This is dangerous. The definition could swing too far in favor of one’s argument. My initial interpretation of this debate is what is the best way zombies have been used in narrative fiction? In other words, how did zombies contribute to this story?

Josh E: I think the comprehensive definition for best use has three levels: content, narrative, and genre. The Zombies have to enhance or elevate the character of the zombie (content) elevate the story (narrative) or enhance the genre as a whole. In this case I believe that Shaun of the dead use of Zombie’s clearly enhances the narrative. I think the Walking Dead enhances the zombie genre as a whole as well as the narrative of the story.

Harrison: I can work with this definition. I’ll say that Shaun of the Dead loses marks in the category of elevating the character of the zombie. The zombies in the movie are fairly generic. But it’s a mistake to think this movie does not elevate the genre. It’s a meta-movie. One that could not exist without a storied history of past zombie fiction. In my opinion when a movie comes around like SotD, it exists to lampoon and embrace the genre it’s in. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg clearly love zombie movies. Even though the movie makes fun of the genre it comes from a place of love. This type of movie is important because it helps point out tropes and cliches that have become stale. By poking fun at these tropes, it’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “We love these movies, but now it’s time to start changing up the genre.” Lampooning begets innovation.

Josh E: I would disagree. I don’t think Shaun of the Dead does anything to elevate the zombie film genre. Instead I think what it truly did was elevate the genre of romantic comedies. I think it’s a mistake to see Shaun of the Dead as a zombie movie but rather a “romantic comedy with zombies” like the poster reads.

Harrison: Of course Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy. But I think it’s too dismissive to completely disregard the zombies in the movie as meaningful to the genre. Isn’t it possible that the filmmakers felt that infusing zombies with a romantic comedy would be a good way to contribute to the genre. Perhaps they realized there wasn’t anything terribly novel to say within the genre and that’s why the mashed it up with a romcom. It’s beyond clear to me that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have a deep appreciation to zombies. Maybe they thought the best way to contribute to the genre was to frame it in a different light.

Josh E: I think that they proved that zombies can be funny. I’m not a believer in the idea that parodies are helpful to the genre. I don’t think Scream helped slasher films and I don’t think Shaun of the Dead helped Zombie films. The Walking Dead has done multiple things to help the zombie genre: fit’s mainstreamed it utilizes the perfect medium for telling the zombie story, and it revives several tropes from the Romero zombie world.

Harrison: Interesting. I do think Scream helped the slasher genre but that’s a debate for another time. The Walking Dead is wildly, wildly popular. I tend to think of it more as the culmination of a half decade’s worth of resurgence efforts starting with 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake.

Josh E: This debate, unlike most (if not all) of our others isn’t about the best film/tv show. This is about the use of a group of characters/genre/conventions for storytelling purposes. I believe that the Walking Dead is the best use of zombies for three reasons. It is the perfect medium for a movie about the zombie apocalypse, allowing us to see something we’ve never seen before (with the one exception being Romero’s dead films) the prolonged drama of the end of the world due to a zombie outbreak. Two it revived one of the best and most forgotten tropes of Romero’s zombie films SPOILER AHEAD the idea that the people become zombies after they die, even if not bitten or scratched. Third this show has made the genre mainstream which allows more zombie films to be made and more interesting takes on zombie films to come.

Harrison: I’ve defended Shaun of the Dead chiefly for one reason: it has separated itself from the pack of other zombie fiction. In my opinion the zombie genre never really moved past the groundwork George A. Romero put forth in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Just about every zombie fiction since then has utilized aspects, themes, and content from those two movies. SotD, however, shrunk the focus down from humanity to one human. Its story is about a man who finally learns to mature. It just took a zombie outbreak to get him there. It certainly helps that Shaun of the Dead also functions as a love letter to the genre from the filmmakers. But the movie’s strengths lie in the fact that they subverted traditional ways to go about telling a zombie story.

What do you think is the best use of zombies on the screen? Comment below!

-Josh E. and Harrison

One thought on “Debate: Best Use of Zombies on the Screen

  1. As a roommate of one of the master debaters and well a “Zombie” (I have always said I do not care what the creature, the outbreak, the crisis, anytime you must survive) genre, I believe it is my duty to offer my two cents.

    First let me point out that I will save the readers and frame the argument using Josh’s definition of “Use” from the get go while addressing both arguments individually. So here it goes.

    Harrison: I very much appreciate you defending Shaun of the Dead, as I personally find it hilarious and fun, however I cannot find you more wrong. Let’s evaluate shall we?

    SotD incorporates four aspects in movies that sell tickets despite content. That is too say you could have a story about a talking teddy bear and make money if all aspects are present (oh wait that happened). #1. You provide humor. SotD is clearly hysterical – as it is in essence a satire on the state of society while using zombies as a means to extract those ideals. #2. Romance. Clearly it has been pointed out it is a Romcom above all else. #3. British accents. Americans love a British accent and would literally watch paint dry for three hours if Sean Connery was narrating it. #4. A crisis that addresses the human condition, clearly a zombie apocalypse and having to find your one true love speaks to the human condition. The mere fact that all four are present eliminates the “use” of zombies as relevant. It was a money grab. This, movie while I agree is one giant wet dream sent to zombie fiction by the creators, it does not elevate the genre as a whole. It instead belittles it for its short comings while not expanding on its weaknesses. Disagree? Let me give you a more objective evaluating system; let’s break it down with grades.

    1. The Zombies have to enhance or elevate the character of the zombie (content): F. We leaves SotD thinking, Zombies are dumb and easily defeated.

    2. Elevate the story (narrative): B. While the entire framework of the movie is around Zombies; one could interchange any disaster and achieve the same effect. With that being said zombies are an entertaining choice.

    3. Enhance the genre as a whole: C. Though SotD did in fact give us Zombieland as a comedic look at Zombies it more enhanced action/comedies as a genre vs. Zombie fiction.

    Overall: C-

    Josh: I am convinced that if they put a show on AMC about under water basket weaving you would watch it. With that being said, working with in the framework of SotD vs. The Walking Dead I will have to concede you are correct. I will not concede that you are correct in choosing TWD as the best use of Zombies on screen however. Before you get uptight and run home cursing my name let me explain.

    Firstly, I must contend that zombie fiction was already a mainstream commodity prior to 2010 and if anything SotD was more instrumental in making it so. I will also contend however that making an art genre mainstream is often not the best thing for it. Therefore that argument is also irrelevant. If you disagree, I implore you to check out the state of the music industry these days.

    Secondly, though the idea of a television series does offer viewers the ability to witness the prolonged struggle by humanity to stave off elimination at the hands of zombies, the mere idea takes away from the zombies themselves. The focus is not on zombies but instead Rick Grimes as he fights to find his wife and son. It is a soap opera; “Who shot JR?” “Will Grimes find his son?” “Tune in next week!” versus a zombie film. A complete contradiction to your third point, the zombie character is elevated by the fact that all dead are potential zombies. A zombie can be your father, your mother, neighbor, etc., risen from the grave to stalk you in the night. I believe that is far too cliché and too Halloween kids story to be taken seriously – think toilet paper hanging from the outstretched arms of a walking corpse. So how can I possibly think you won? I just killed you in all you theories. Is it because SotD is just that bad? Let’s grade shall we?

    The Zombies have to enhance or elevate the character of the zombie (content): C. The zombie character is not enhanced but certainly not down played in the case of SotD.

    Elevate the story (narrative): A. The story truly is about a zombie apocalypse and without such an event we would be left with no story at all.

    Enhance the genre as a whole: C-. I do not believe that TWD enhances but instead offers the chance of an over saturation and a grotesque loss in zombie fiction integrity as a whole. Though I would love to give it an F in this category it has not done so as of yet so I cannot in could judgment do so.

    Overall: B.

    And now to prove you both wrong.

    It is known by friends of mine that my favorite movies that loosely match this category are as follows (in no particular order). The Thing (the one with Kurt Russell, I am not sure what happened in 2011), Dog Soldiers (if you haven’t seen it, it is a must), 28 Days Later, I am Legend (Will Smith). Now only two of the aforementioned titles contain actual zombies, 28 Days Later and I am Legend. I would love to debate 28 days later however I feel Josh is correct in stating that the story follows a man having to grow up as a result of a crisis versus the zombies themselves. Therefore I choose I am Legend. Although I think it should be abundantly obvious as to why I will explain anyways… Once again following the framework of how the movie “uses: zombies. Let’s start with grades from the top.

    The Zombies have to enhance or elevate the character of the zombie (content): A+. In IAL we get our first glimpse of a zombie having any character traits other than the antagonist. All other zombie fiction offers the zombie character as an infected or dead creature that’s sole motive is to feed and infect the masses. Though it can surely be argued that the zombies in the film are the antagonist as they attempt to abolish the human race, the opposite can also be argued. Though Dr. Neville is trying his hardest to save the remaining 10% of the planets population from infection, he also makes the mistake of taking hostage the leader of the zombies love interest. I am sorry what? Yes the zombie has a love interest! So the Fresh Prince, I am sorry Dr. Neville, is now in fact not only a protagonist but an antagonist in a sub plot of the story. Zombies with feelings!?!? I think that elevates the character of the zombie. Point me!

    Elevate the story (narrative): A. I think clearly the use of zombies elevates the narrative. The story is no longer about finding a cure to save humanity, which as we see in the early stages of the film Dr. Neville is fine taking his time doing, makes the story a race against time. He must save humanity before he must atone for his own sin, taking hostage the zombies’ wife.

    Enhance the genre as a whole: A. I think that I am Legend greatly enhances zombie fiction as a genre. Gone are the days where zombies must be mindless killers, but instead they can be transformed into infected humans, that share character traits such as happiness, sadness, love and loss. They seek revenge for a single action and only feed out of necessity. Is that not truly the scariest depiction of all? They are not something we can simply wipe out with a Hummer and a baseball bat. But instead a formidable foe that can strategize, mobilize and attack to accomplish a goal. They become not the walking dead but instead the under world of society that only come out at night to enact their revenge.

    Overall: A.

    Final Grades:
    Shawn of the Dead: C-. A hilarious exhibition in love, that happens to contain zombies and lots of British accents.

    The Walking Dead: B. A respectable look into the zombie apocalypse that is sure to evaporate into mere dribble.

    I am Legend: A. A window into the sole of the 21st century zombie.

    So as you can see I clearly dominated. Feel free to criticize and pick apart my findings.

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