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

Debate: Best Movie to Re-Release in IMAX

This past week saw a limited re-release of Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX. Next summer, Jurassic Park is slated to be re-released in IMAX 3D. This is a trend that Josh and I are very much supportive of. Movies are meant to be viewed in theaters. Certain movies greatly benefit from the IMAX experience. Additionally, IMAX re-releases allow fans to revisit their favorite films and spawn new generations of fans. So which older movie would be most worthy of a re-release? I’ll be defending Akira. Josh will be defending Blade Runner.

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Debate: Best TV Show Cancelled Too Soon

You may have noticed that MovieDebaters has been spending a lot of time talking about TV lately and you would be right (hint hint Another TV article is in the works). We have been focusing on the small screen more these days because though we love the movies, Harrison and myself are devotees to good narrative, whether that’s on the silver screen, the tv screen, or the computer monitor. With that, Harrison and I bring you tonight’s debate The Best TV Show Cancelled too Soon. Harrison will defend Terriers and I will defend Sports Night.

Harrison: I don’t think there’s been any other show in the past 10 years, hell, ever, that pains me to think about as Terriers does. It was such an amazingly written show with deeply defined characters and rich plots. And it got cancelled after one season. We only got 13 episodes of the adventures of Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond James). But they are 13 of the most awesome hours of television ever. The main reason it pains me to think about this show is because at its core, it is a detective show. There are limitless possibilities. Maybe under different circumstance the show would have outstayed its welcome. As it stands now, we only get a fleeting look into the universe of Terriers.

Josh E: The same thing that makes television great is the same as it’s weakness: they extend the length of the narrative to allow you to build and maintain compassion for its characters. The problem with television, you must produce the ratings to stay on the air. Some of the better shows on television don’t build the ratings quick enough and die a quick death. The best example of this is Sports Night. It’s the pinnacle of Sorkin’s writing: a romantic comedy series about sportscasters that has its roots in production code era quick talking classics like His Girl Friday. It had a bigger run than most television shows, but I believe if it was given a bit more time it would have become a high watermark in broadcast television.

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Chris Marker 1921-2012

I have many filmmakers that I count among my favorites, but there are a select few that I count as my inspirations. Chris Marker was one my inspirations, even though I’ve only seen one film, which is only 26 minutes long, and consist of three elements: still photographs, sounds/musical score, and silence. The film, La Jetée, is everything that is amazing about experimental cinema and a textbook on the of the power of narrative simplicity.

La Jetée*
Even though it’s available online, seeing it on a big screen (or at least a big tv screen) with a good sound system is key to the film’s power. Fortunately Criterion has packaged a Blu-Ray and DVD version of La Jetée with Marker’s feature length Sans Soleil.

If you haven’t spent time in the world of Chris Marker, you are truly missing out.

*If you’re thinking that this feels familiar, you’ve probably watched 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s pseudo-remake of this same film.

Josh E.

Enjoying the Deriviative

I want to elaborate on something I touched on in an earlier post. I said we live in a world of fan fiction and I think that’s hard to deny. As a recent relocatee to the New York City area it’s impossible not to be bombarded by ads for the next big thing, be it a new movie, TV show, website or play/musical. It’s hard not to notice how the biggest pop cultural events are derivative works. Broadway has been dominated by derivative works including the near-flop Spiderman musical. Not to mention all the revivals and film to Broadway adaptations now playing. The hottest book of the summer 50 Shades of Grey is literally a piece of fan fiction, written by James initially as a piece of Twilight fan fiction. Not to mention the mashups of classic novels and zombies/sea monsters/ aliens/ what-have-you.

The biggest and most impressive derivative work of the summer is the Avengers, which has made all of the money in the world this summer. It’s a whole mess of derivativity. The Avengers based on a comic book story that was based off of previously established characters (fan fiction defined). Not to mention it is the sequel to 4 superhero movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. Iron Man had it’s own sequel and the Avengers features the third actor to play the Hulk/Dr. Banner (after a remake of a poor adaptation by Ang Lee). After all this the Avengers comic book was Marvel Comic’s response to DC’s successful Justice League comic. Can one film get any more derivative? The short answer is yes. Loki and Thor are reestablished characters taken from Norse mythology. There’s hardly a frame of the Avengers that’s not derivative.

Hulk says movie is good.

This by no means these projects to be poor in quality. I enjoyed the Avengers and think it’s one of the better summer blockbusters in recent memory due to its playful tone and wonderful escapist quality. It means that as a criterion for cinema (in terms of quality) originality can’t be the deciding factor. I’m not going to argue whether or not we can be original in the post modern era, that’s not the point Originality is just not en vogue. As artists we should be focusing our attention on a much more important criteria of what is good–enjoyability and transcendence.

It should come as no surprise that movies are more than just entertaining things to watch. Some films cause emotional responses (be them repulsion or joy). We should let these be our guide. I have two different viewing experience when I watch the Avengers and when I watch Win Win, but that doesn’t mean I can’t watch them both. These films are both enjoyable, but in my opinion only one of them gets the emotional response that I want to have out of a movie. If you are satisfied with the pure adrenaline rush and fun laughs during the Avengers fantastic. I’m going to enjoy that film but it won’t be on my top ten list at the end of the year.

What do you think? Are there better examples of film that transcend the viewing experience or films that don’t need that because they are just that enjoyable?

Josh E.

Moving Beyond Genre

I am a Mad Men fan. I have tried to explain my Mad Men fandom to multiple people with no luck because Mad Men is such a specific show, it resists a one line explanation. Now I direct people to this great NY mag piece by Matt Zoller Seitz about what Mad Men is about. In a flustered attempt to catch up on Mad Men this concept kept coming back to me Mad Men is the without a genre.

Before we get to genre-less things we should try and get a handle on what genre actually is. Genre is often thought of as a way to classify films, after the fact. However it’s important to note that every viewer has a rolodex in their mind of genre conventions. We use these conventions in our mind to sort through elements of the movie. When a film that doesn’t follow these rules it is exhilarating because in part, it breaks with genre. An audiences acumen to accumulate rules is grand.

Genre is something that used to be easily defined: monster movies were horror films, funny films were comedies, and serious films were dramas. As audiences became aware of these genre became specific: the comedy got the romantic comedy and the screwball comedy and the generic ensemble comedy’ the scary film got separated into the sci-fi film the horror film and the thriller; and the serious films were separated into period pieces, and the normal dramas.

Then something happened. Genres began to (for lack of a better word) mate. It’s easy for me to say that we went entered the modernist/post-modernist era but that does leave out a lot of the practical side of the movie business.

This isn’t the first example of a genre bending film but it’s an example of an extremely profitable genre bending film. It was top ten in 1982. Audiences enjoyed the melding of action and comedy because it defied expectation. However Hollywood isn’t about defying expectation. The movie business is a business of copycats–because the combination of Eddie Murphy and your typical cop movie worked more of these genre bending films appeared. Including some action hits:

It also spawned wise-cracking cops in the 1980s actions scenes. Eddie Murphy continued with BHC1-3 and Bruce Willis joined the party as John McClane in 1988. This trend continued and evolved as audiences got bored with the buddy cop dynamic the industry started to blend other genres together:

From Dusk till Dawn is an excellent example of how genre bending can work and create an interesting movie and how limited it is. The first plays genre against you, which is what Tarantino does all of the time. It starts as a action/thriller with a relatively unproven George Clooney (first real film lead role) and Tarantino himself as cons running for the border when they stop at a vampire infested biker bar. The film blends the action comedy (buddy cons instead of cops) with the horror film. I enjoy this film but it’s jam packed, any more genre bending and it would cease to work. Some didn’t like it when they saw it because it was too strange or too sudden of a genre change.

This leads to today: we’re at a point where genre has been almost thoroughly exhausted. These categories don’t mean anything anymore. Let’s look at the weekend’s box office as an example.


Avengers

It’s a film about a group of people fighting crime (action film). They have super powers (comic book film). They jockey for position in the group and make fun of each other (screwball comedy). They fight a Norse God and an army from outerspace (sci-fi film).


Men In Black III

It’s a two cops, one plays a straight man one is a “comedian” (buddy cop action/comedy in true 48 Hours tradition). They investigate alien mysteries (sci-fi film).


Snow White and the Huntsman

A princess freed from captivity by a supernatural queen leads an army against her to save her land. There’s a love triangle too.(fairy-tale, supernatural, romance, epic, action, adventure…) You catch my drift.

We are in an age where potentially anything goes in cinema, which is in one sense freeing and the other sense incredibly debilitating. The problem is that audiences demand new and different and exhilarating and the business model of the industry is the back of a shampoo bottle. Debut existing property, see if it makes money, repeat (sequels, prequels and spinoffs). That’s why there seems to be a ho hum feeling coming out of many movies these days. You know that “it was okay” instead of awesome or brilliant.

If we let go of conventions can we still be exhilarated by it? The answer is yes, at the end of the day a good story is a good story or a good performance is a good performance and audiences will flock to see good stories. Cinema is evolving away from convention and genre itself and moving toward real life. This is what has already happened in television and why Mad Men and Breaking Bad will continue to have audiences and be the water cooler talk. These dramas (the Emmy category only) are able to breach multiple genres because they are being written as stories with real human characters in unique situations. This is what cinema has to try to do. It has to focus on stories that are intriguing and original not massive and filled with set pieces. Nothing against large tent-pole pictures and set pieces, but until cinema realizes that it’s fallen behind tv as the best drama around.

Josh E.

QBIE Rocky, They Live, and Collapse

Rocky

Do I have to talk about Rocky? This film is so pervasive that I’m worried that many haven’t actually watched the film or even worse, written it off as schlock. Yes it does have some jarring elements (particularly the score) but it’s a classic piece of filmmaking. Avildsen is a very talented director but under appreciated filmmaker. He is adept at making you feel the film on an emotional level. When you’re done with Rocky check out Avildsen’s lesser known and much more serious film Joe.

Collapse

Collapse is a strange little film. It’s an interview with Michael Ruppert who published the newsletter From the Wilderness. Ruppert’s belief is that we’ve reached “peak oil” and the next few years will become increasingly difficult because of that. It’s always interesting to hear the “crazies” talk about what scares them the most. Ruppert is a special case though, a former LAPD detective, who builds a very convincing case. In any event, this film isn’t for the weak of heart.

They Live

Now for my favorite film in the list. They Live is one of the best sci-fi films to come out of the 80’s and it stars Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David. Can one ask for anything better than that? It does have one fatal flaw, the makeup effects are incredibly dated. They’re so dated that it seems that they were bad when the film debuted. Either way if features the best fistfight over a pair of sunglasses ever and possibly the best line ever written by a human being: “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Watch it.

Each of the three movies listed in this article expire in one week (6-1).

As always, check Queuenoodle for a list of all expiring Netflix movies.

Josh E.

Set Your DVR: 70s Sci-fi Extravaganza 4/21

It’s a treat when I get to talk bout my favorite period of filmmaking the 1970s and it’s a dboule treat when I get to talk about my favorite genre in my favorite era of filmmaking. This Saturday Night on TCM (April 21) there is a must watch block of Sci-Fi from the 1970s. This block contains 5 movies starting at 8:00pm that are must see if you haven’t or must rewatch if you haven’t watched in a long time. It’s a long block so unless you plan on sipping on Jolt cola all night you’ll need to Set Your DVR.

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Apocalypse Countdown 2012: Daybreakers

As a regular reader of our site or as a conspiracy nut you know, the looming Mayan apocalypse is only seven short months away. I’ve taken the tremendous task of preparing all of our blog readers by reviewing the best source of doomsday preparation literature on the planet: dystopian and apocalyptic films. This week I’ll be looking at a particularly bloodthirsty apocalypse: the vampire apocalypse as depicted in Daybreakers. Remember this is more than just a review of the film; this information could save your life.

Spoilers about the plot of the film will follow after the trailer and the break.


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The Exploitation of the Moviegoer

First off, congratulations to Christopher Plummer, who became the oldest actor to win an Oscar at 82. He was definitely the best story (and might I add gave the best speech?) of the night that was not full of many surprises. He is a wonderful example of an actor who loves to work and isn’t afraid of doing traditionally lowbrow roles alongside the high drama.

I did want to talk about a another Oscar story that night. It was the nomination of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for Best Picture. It didn’t get very good reviews and many believed that the film was not just a bad film but transcended into exploitation:

“In the most genteel way the film has both its hands around your throat, forcing you to choke up.” – Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

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