I love horror movies. I’m not entirely sure why, but I do. Nobody is quite surprised when I tell them this; if I tell someone that I like horror movies, the usual response is, “Meh. Figures.” I like werewolves, supernatural killers, ghosts, ghouls, and all that (except for vampires; I have an irrational prejudice against vampires). Being scared by such things is just spiffy.
Most of all, I love zombie movies. I haven’t dug too far afield in looking for good quality zombie horror (some people I know like Mexican or Guatemalan zombie films with gore that makes George Romero look like Disney), but I enjoyed all of George Romero’s Living Dead (LD) films. I even enjoyed the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead which changed some of the rules of Romero’s zombie horror films.
In 1985, a new zombie franchise emerged to compete with Romero; I’m talking, of course, about the Return of the Living Dead (RLD) series of films, which were produced by a former co-producer of Romero’s who thought Romero was doing it wrong. There’s a fundamental difference in how zombies are protrayed in Romero’s films versus how they’re portrayed in the RLD series:
Romero’s Living Dead films
- Zombies are inarticulate, shuffling corpses
- Zombies have no emotion or reasoning skills
- Zombies want human flesh, any type of flesh
- Zombies are killed by destroying their brain or decapitating them
Return of the Living Dead films
- Zombies don’t move very fast, but they can be agile
- Zombies can talk and reason and make jokes (”Send more cops…”)
- Zombies just want to eat brains
- Decapitating a zombie or destroying its brain doesn’t stop it; you have to destroy it completely
The last point in each list is what makes these movies so distinct from each other. In any of of the LD films, when you shoot a zombie in the head or cut its head clean off, the zombie is killed. In the mythology, the brain is the animating force. In the RLD films, though, a military chemical revives dead corpses and animates the entire body; cut off a zombie’s hand, and that hand will come after you as well as the rest of the body. If you cut off its head, therefore, the rest of the body will keep on moving, even if it can’t see where it’s going and can no longer eat the brains of its victims. The first RLD film showed this point dramatically with a dog that had been cut in half but was still breathing and alive. In my opinion, this makes the RLD zombies more interesting than the LD zombies, but Romero’s a better filmmaker, so his films are superior.
The RLD series has been going strong for about twenty years now, and over the weekend, I saw Return of the Living Dead 5: Rave to the Grave. It was made specially for the Science Fiction Channel, and it shows. The production values were awful, the script was lame, and the acting was wretched. Even the music sucked. There were plot holes so large they could have contained a small moon, with room for its friends to have a tea party. It sucked so bad it collapsed in on itself and created a spacetime singularity from which may emerge all manner of horrific disasters, such as Battlefield: Earth, Part II. Even the pixellation on the actresses’ breasts was bad during the one or two nude sequences. God, there was even a cheesy shot of a zombie hitchhiking on the highway (with a “Rave or Bust” sign). I think this was supposed to be funny.
Man, that movie stank.
But what I hated the most was that it destroyed the mythology of the RLD films. I didn’t mind the fact that the zombies were quick and agile in the recent Dawn of the Dead remake; I considered that more of a “reimagining” or the film. Even the semi-sentient zombies of Land of the Dead were consistent with Romero’s mythology, since his zombies had been evolving throughout the series (the zombies in Day of the Dead were smarter than they were in Dawn of the Dead and at least one even had some basic communication skills).
But in RLD 5, the zombies, while still out for human brains, could be killed by shooting them in the head. This isn’t a case of zombies evolving (impossible in the RLD mythology anyway); it’s just a case of the screenwriters being lazy and deciding to take the easy way out of instead of creating the kind of conflict and horror which the earlier films could generate in spite of their comedy. It demonstrated that the makers of this film were not at all interested in retaining the spirit of the first RLD films; they just wanted to make a buck. Yes, that’s the point of most films, but not many films are as blatant in insulting the intelligence of the viewers or violating the source material (Lawnmower Man II is a close second in this category).
Why should this matter to writers? Because it serves as an object lesson — albeit an extreme one — of what can happen when you ignore the need for consistency in your own stories. When you write a story, you create a world for that story, even if it’s just a five hundred word piece of flash fiction. That world has rules which had better be followed throughout the course of the telling. If your vampires can be killed by smelling garlic in chapter one, for example, then you’d better not have your vampire king dining at the Stinking Rose restaurant in San Francisco in chapter five (unless there’s an exception for vampire kings — in which case, you’d better make that clear). And if the single mother is terrified of public transportation in chapter two, she cannot blithely get on a bus in chapter seven. I’m not talking about character consistency; characters, being human, are allowed to change and be unpredictable, though they should change and be unpredictable within the context established by the rules of the story.
All fiction has rules. Even DaDaist fiction has rules (though the main rule there is to ensure that you don’t look like you’re following any rules).
Violating the rules of your story, or the mythology you establish about how the supernatural elements in your story work, demonstrates laziness on the writer’s part at best, and flat out cynical apathy at worst.