Hey everybody, how are you guys doing?
So last weekend (Three months ago, then I never finished this article. Whoops!) I rented a zombie movie from Netflix that had no time in theaters. Given that *wonderful* leadup, I was expecting a pretty junky zombie apocalypse flick- see a couple of main characters get eaten arbitrarily, a solid chunk of fake gore, everybody hides in a big abandoned something-or-other, the zombies break in, everything goes STRAIGHT to shit, somewhere in between 0-2 characters survive the experience, harrowed by the things they have seen OR ending in an unlikely romance. If that had been the case, I wouldn’t have even mentioned the movie- I’ve already seen it a dozen or so times (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Shawn of the Dead, every Resident Evil except #2, The Crazies, 20 Days/Weeks Later, The Walking Dead, etc.). Unfortunately for me, what I had failed to realize was that State of Emergency is not only a zombie movie. It is a zombie movie on a tight budget.
So, let’s briefly go over what kind of movie makes for a good zombie movie- what separates something like The Crazies (which is a lower budget but excellent zombie movie that is very similar to State of Emergency) from the mind-numbing tedium that is State of Emergency? BULLET POINT TIME.
- The Setting
Most zombie movies make it or break it in their setting- which is strange in it of itself, looking at the wide variety of settings that make for an amazing zombie movie! There are a whole host of good and bad settings, which can dramatically change how the movie turns out because of the common factors. There have been entertaining zombie movies in cities, suburbia, at sea, in Russia (Dead Snow FTW!), etc. Most of these movies either follow the characters as nomads (see Zombieland) or watch as the survivors hole up in some kind of “safe house” (Dawn of the Dead style). The biggest point to a good zombie setting is setting up some kind of normalcy and then tearing it apart. This is what makes both Dawn of the Deads entertaining, what makes Shawn of the Dead such a spectacular parody, and what makes all of the Resident Evil movies horrible. One of the big questions for zombie movies is not just how the survivors survive, but how society itself survives. This is why Shawn of the Dead is phenomenal- Shawn goes for several hours thick into the zombie apocalypse not even noticing that there are zombies everywhere. For him, society hasn’t changed at all, even though the world is ending around him.
So, why does the Crazies beat SoE in environment? Looking at both of them, they’re both zombie films that take place in small town environments, have an accident that causes some form of crazy/zombieness, have a high military presence, and are produced on a minimal budget.
First, the environment in The Crazies is still a lot larger than in SoE. The Crazies lets itself spread out- the characters bounce around from part of town to part of town, and even though many of the scenes take place in “Nondescript Farmhouse A” or B or whatever, they still change with the progression of the story and allow the character to see what “normal” is and then tear normal apart. We see the inside of a high school, the main street, a truck stop, all dramatically changed from their normal states. One of the best scenes in the movie takes place in a car wash. In comparison, SoE, for some odd reason, restricts itself to three environments- a field, briefly, a farmhouse, briefly, and an abandoned warehouse. None of the environments, in the way that they’re displayed, show me anything of what normal life is, and I can’t connect to the environment because I don’t hang out in abandoned warehouses.
- The Characters
Obviously, characters are a highlight of any zombie film, or honestly, any other film. Since this is such an obvious topic, let’s skip straight ahead to the difference between The Crazies and SoE. The Crazies follow a party of approximately four people, give or take- the sheriff, his wife (a veterinarian), the deputy officer, and the wife’s assistant (a high school girl). Additionally, a number of other individuals are introduced- the assistant’s boyfriend, the high school principal, a few hunters, a mortician, and over the course of the movie, these people’s humanity and civilized nature are tested and torn apart. SoE, on the other hand, has severely 2-bit characters. I already can’t remember a single one of their names- not what they do for a living, not why they survived over others, nothing. I don’t even remember how main character guy’s wife died! The character development was weaksauce, the acting horrible, and the script hamfisted.
Not every good zombie movie has action in it. Before the days of CGI and high budget movies, there were a handful of zombie movies that got away without having any action at all. I think there’s one where you don’t even see any zombies! Action can always help a zombie movie pass from boring to entertaining, often at the price of quality- even the worst zombie movie can be entertaining in its own right just by having a lot of gore and amazing action (Dead Snow FTW again!). Both of these movies try their damnedest to be action movies, and, as always, one succeeded, one failed. Guess which is which?
The Crazies does really well in their action scenes. Once again, I site that scene in the Car Wash as a really scary, entertaining scene. The action is chilling at times, you feel that the characters are in constant danger, and when there is action, the characters feel literally a moment away from death. Even when the characters aren’t in the process of fighting for their lives, they are constantly doing something, constantly trying to improve their odds of survival. SoE, on the other hand, suffers from overwhelming inaction. The characters spend a lot of their time sitting in their void setting, doing absolutely nothing interesting, and when there is action, it’s poorly choreographed, highly unnecessary, boring, and unlikeable. Half of the action scenes start with one of the four characters in the missionary position with a zombie on top. Just like a couple of virgins, both human and zombie seem quite surprised to find one another in this position, and now that they’ve managed to get here neither one really knows what to do from here.
Oddly, in a zombie movie, the scenes in which nothing important is happening is significantly more important than the scenes in which something is happening. A good movie goes through various peaks of excitement and tension- a movie that is go-go-go 100% of the time loses some of the effect of its tension. (Unless it’s Crank, but that’s a different story entirely.) On the other hand, the way that inaction is held can also ruin a movie, as seen in State of Emergency. 90% of the movie is inaction, and, while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, SoE does their inaction horribly. When comparing SoE to the Crazies, let’s look at the big differences- in the Crazies, when the characters aren’t actively interacting with the “crazies”, they’re still doing something- they don’t show the characters simply resting. The way that they react and adapt to situations reveals more about their characters, and as the movie progresses, as their situation becomes more and more hopeless, their characters change to adapt to the situation. We see that effect I keep mentioning, where they’re forced to lose part of their civility to survive. In SoE, the characters have basically nothing to do in between their action scenes. Half the shots in the movie are one character or another lying on a cot and discussing their life before the zombie apocalypse. They’re not doing anything for the majority of the movie- they have secure shelter, they have weapons, they have food, and they’re not really in imminent danger at any point from about 15 minutes into the movie until 5 minutes before the end. That’s the biggest difference between these two movies- the Crazies doesn’t get boring in between the plot’s progressions. SoE feels like it was engineered to be excessively boring in between plot progressions.
The zombies in a zombie movie are, in my opinion, the least important aspect to a zombie movie. They’re the deus ex machina built into the setting, a driving force for the characters actions, a gift that allows the writers at any time to increase drama and tension. While the characters’ main priority is zombie management, our main interest lies elsewhere, in the characters themselves. Thus, I’ve found that a good zombie movie doesn’t pay too much attention to what zombification really is. 28 Days Later has a simple enough story: virus did it! Dawn of the Dead, Shawn of the Dead, hell, half of every zombie movie ever, nobody knows! One moment, there were no zombies, the next, buckets of zombies everywhere! The Crazies does a great job of having “Zombies” with a clean, concise backstory: a chemical gets introduced into the water supply of a small town. Once in contact with the chemical, the townsfolk become infected. Infected are psychopaths, killing as many people as they can reach. They even supply reasonable cause for the main character, the sheriff, to investigate the source of the contamination. In this way, the user is allowed to draw its own conclusions without forcing the backstory on the characters. In SOE, the zombies are confusing and poorly created. I think they were trying to go for something along the lines of “Local chemical plant creates bioweapon for the military that is zombies in a can, but when the plant blew up, the tiny town around it got severely boned.” Ultimately, they botched the idea by forcing the idea upon the reader at every available moment, and botched the zombies themselves with irregular zombie quality. Just compare every other zombie in the movie to the old woman about 45 minutes in. She’s fully cognizant and still bloodthirsty, but the rest are mindless drones. Frustrating, to say the least.
All in all, the point that I’m trying to make here is that Zombie movies, and many other apocalypse based movies (Book of Eli, anyone?) have the goal of showing us what happens to our humanity when it is overwhelmed. What do we do when there is no more running water, no more television, no processed food? Who do we become when our lives are in constant danger, when we live in a world that is kill or be killed? Is our survival or our humanity more important?
Maybe we’ll never see the era of zombies films that was “alive” when John Russo was a director. Maybe we’ll never see zombie films evolve past what George Romero gave us. These days, that idea that we lose our humanity when the world ends is already passe, overdone and an old idea. To keep us entertained, we resort to all sorts of gimicks to keep zombies fresh- comedy in Shawn of the Dead and Zombieland, romance in Warm Bodies, action and CGI in pretty much every other movie. If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching zombie flicks, though, the one thing that separates a good zombie movie from a terrible one is what the movie teaches us about ourselves, about our true nature, the human we are beneath the mask of civilization. Many zombie movies are about showing the darker side of us, how we are unable to or unwilling to put others ahead of ourselves. Many other zombie movies are about the exact opposite- how, even in mankind’s darkest hours we strive to be the best human beings we can be. The Crazies ultimately shows us two stories. Through the deputy, how a man who has lost everything can still be courageous, how a model of a noble human being can be shown through a man whose humanity has almost run out. Through the sheriff, a strong and magnificent character, honorable and brave, break under the constant stress of loss, pain, and fear. The main characters are not the same people they were in the beginning of the movie, and they are not the better for it. SoE shows us what 90 odd minutes of wasted money is.
I leave you with the best zombie tribute I’ve ever heard, straight from the mouth of the band whose song I got this blog’s title from- this is George Romero, by the Sprites.
-Zip!, long overdue, out.
I really need to see WWZ. Christ.