There will be some spoilers for School-Live and Shaun of the Dead in this post.
While my initial thoughts on this post were sparked by watching School-Live, I will admit, the question of zombies has been one that has been rattling around my brain for awhile. Not that that’s surprising given the prolific nature of zombie movies, TV shows, video games, and books and my love of terrible horror (and the occasional good horror story).
So what is the question?
What makes something a zombie or a zombie horror?
That seems like a really silly question given, as I already mentioned, the vast number of stories that feature zombies. In the last ten years you’ve barely been able to blink without a new zombie story being thrown in front of your face.
While some people will argue that this is an over-saturation of the market and that zombies are now pretty boring (and they aren’t entirely wrong), what they miss is that a zombie is not always a zombie and with a vastly over saturated market writers are becoming more and more innovative in how they present their version of a zombie filled future. Of course, this phenomenon isn’t entirely limited to zombies. We’ve seen the same thing occur in super hero movies. So many super heroes and the movies are all the same? Time for a gritty reimagination. Then again, zombie movies were always pretty gritty and depressing so I guess we’re doing the opposite in that some of these shows and movies are having a bit more fun with their zombies.
I do find it interesting that both werewolves and vampires had their make-overs done nearly two decades before zombies though I’ve noticed some modern vampire shows are starting to dump the romance angle and are heading back into actual horrific territory. It would be interesting to see the lore come full circle and more of the ravenous beasts and less of the cool beauty for awhile.
However, let’s focus on zombies. Specifically zombies in anime.
If you want classic zombie silliness with some fan-service and not a lot of plot (unless bouncing breasts count as plot) you can’t go past High School of the Dead. It will give you exactly what you expect as the teenagers go from frightened students to armed and dangerous literally hacking their way through anything without a pulse that moves. The zombies in this story are as stock standard as they come. They shuffle and walk in mobs with limited to no intelligence demonstrated and are only to be feared because of sheer numbers and the fact that normal injuries don’t dissuade them. Go for the kill shot or run.
There is nothing noteworthy about the portrayal of zombies here except that it seems decidedly old-school considering the zombie movies of the time were adding in zombies that could sprint, jump, and generally seemed to work together in a terrifying manner. Seriously, zombies that can move quick are unfair and 28 Days Later or 28 Weeks Later (not to be mistaken with 28 Days that deals with drug addicts and not zombies – though you’d be forgiven for that mix-up) took the fast violent zombie angle to new levels of terror. It was probably the first time I genuinely jumped watching a zombie movie.
Of course, the standard commentary that both High School of the Dead and 28 Days Later incorporated was the question of ‘who is the real monster?’ Both show that the human survivors are frequently more terrifying than any virus running rampant. I will note here that zombie stories have kind of moved beyond using zombie culture as a metaphor for consumption and consumerism which is kind of nice even if that particular metaphor is still pretty apt at times. Instead questions of identity and what makes a person a human float to the surface but never for too long because there are zombies to kill.
Then we have the story that decided to play zombies for laughs: Is This A Zombie? And the question had to be asked and I had to rewrite my title for this post because originally that was my question about zombies in general but given it is also the title of one of the examples I was discussing that just seemed confusing. Despite the comedic nature of the show, you are left wondering what actually does it mean to be a zombie in this story?
Ayumu is definitely dead. He died and was brought to life. He is pretty indestructible (a fact which is played for laughs many, many times) though is weak to sunlight. Otherwise though, he has his memories, his personality, everything about him is pretty much unchanged. There’s no shuffling mindlessness and apparently no concern about him infecting others (mostly because he didn’t become a zombie via a virus or contamination but rather due to a necromancers magic).
What this does is makes us re-evaluate the term zombie. Because prior to the movies, older zombie lore was more about a zombie being made. The idea of rapidly spreading infection and bio-hazards is a far more recent entry into the genre even though it is now the standard.
Still, a comedy play on a zombie doesn’t really allow for much discussion of the genre because any idiosyncrasy can be laughed off as part of the humour of the story so we’ll move on to School-Live which is mostly what brought me to this topic.
School-Live has your slow moving and shuffling zombies that seem to swarm at times and infect others through a bite. The spread of the virus seems pretty rapid considering how slow the zombies seem to move but I guess once they had numbers on their side there was little normal civilians could do if they got themselves surrounded. What School-Live does that is different from High School of the Dead, other than far less fan-service (though they didn’t remove that aspect entirely) is that the survivors don’t become fearless zombie killers and the zombies themselves seem to retain some memory of their former life.
I was kind of reminded of the joke in Shaun of the Dead when the son is trying to convince his mother to abandon the step-father because nothing of the man he was remained and then the step-father in question leaned forward in the car and switched off the annoying music. It was played as a joke but it raised a significant question about the moral implications of bashing the brains in of a zombie if it still had a personality and an ability to think. And Shaun of the Dead took this further where at the end of the movie we see the two main characters (one human and one zombie) playing video games together in the shed. It really makes you wonder about all those zombies that were ruthlessly mowed down and how many of them could have learned or been saved and whether or not living chained in a shed is actually considered to be living.
School-Live raises this question early on when the zombies are noted to follow the pattern of their previous daily routine. They rock up to school during the day and seem to ‘go home’ at night. Sometimes the boy zombies seem to be ‘playing’ soccer. Basically the zombies seem attracted to places and things of significance during their life.
However, it is with Megu-nee (the teacher) where this question really becomes important. We have the obvious encounter between one of the students and the zombified teacher where the teacher does end up biting and infecting the student. So we know that the zombification does in fact over-ride some of the basic instincts of the human they were. And we have the student unable to defend herself because she likes that teacher and can’t bring herself to kill her (kill her again?). That’s pretty standard. However, the presence of the teacher in the sub-basement, the note book that was clearly written in after the teacher had ‘died’, all of this hints at a life after death that is more than just being a mindless monster.
The dog also demonstrates this point where even after becoming a zombie (and zombie dog is really cute even though he is terrifying) he ends up protecting one of the girls from a zombie attack.
If further evidence of this theme of zombies that think needed to be given in the show, they then get the zombie students back out of the school by telling them that school is now closed and it is time to go home. Seriously. They make this announcement over the school speakers and the zombies all just kind of leave and go home.
In a genre full of spectacular and bloody murder, such a clean solution to a zombie crisis seems crazy and yet it kind of changes how you look at every other show about zombies and what is driving the zombies. In many films and shows it is clear you couldn’t interact with a zombie in this way. You would be dead. They don’t respond at all. But others? Even Resident Evil attempted to domesticate the zombies throughout the films despite miserable failure at doing so.
So my next questions are for you:
What are your favourite zombie shows/movies/books?
And which classic monster needs to have the next make-over? (My vote is for mummies.)
Thanks for reading.
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