Sunday, October 11, 2009
Movies: Three kinds of apocalypse.
Yesterday, the wife, my horror flick wingman Dave, and I went to go see the latest recrudescence of zombie cinema, long-time Jimmy Kimmel Live! director Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland. Watching Fleischer's rigorously non-objectionable zom-com actioner, I realized that my taste in end times has changed radically over the years.
For those who haven't heard the news, because you just came out of a coma, in your private isolation ward, in a special secret lab, on the bottom of the ocean, on the Jupiter moon of Io, Zombieland features Woody Harrelson (doing a cleaned up, good guy version of his Mickey character from Natural Born Killers) and the poor man's Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, on a wacky road trip across a zombie infested post-collapse US. Along the way, the boys meet a hottie and her younger sister, Woody gets dangerously close to having to emote, and not-Cera learns that sometimes to win somebody's heart you need to do an awful lot of killing. Built around an uninspired plot, populated with thin characters, and breezily predictable, Zombieland is aimed as people who find Shaun of the Dead too cerebral and Diary of the Dead too frightening.
What is innovative about Zombieland is its tone. Zombieland may put to rest the idea that the engine of zombie cinema runs off steady flow of cultural anxieties, from war to financial meltdown. It is hard to imagine a less angsty, troubled film than Zombieland. Not only do our characters gleefully dispatch zombies with giddy abandon, but when one of the characters accidentally dispatches a pure strain human the most notable reaction is laughter followed by a hasty, "But it is sad though."
What Zombieland has done is take the Merry Looter Scene typical of zombie flicks since Dawn of the Dead and made it the entire basis for the flick's charm. The Merry Looter Scene is the near inevitable scene in a modern post-apoc flick in which our protags go hog wild in a grocery store, shopping mall, whatever. Despite the apocalyptic conditions that prevail, there's something carnivalesque about the scene and, more often then not, the scene involves our protags wallowing in fancy clothes, nice booze, fancy new cars, or whatever else symbolizes that the lowly survivors are now free of the economic constraints the once bound them. Doom's all around them, but in the topsy-turvy world of the zombie holocaust, the bike messenger and the beat cop are now the rulers of all they survey. They aren't really the meek - they've usually had to do a metric assload of killing to get where they are - but they have definitely inherited the Earth. (As an aside, this is hardly novel. As seen in this years Silent Scream Series, the French silent film The Crazy Ray features a carnivalesque apocalypse.)
The thing about this is that it is expresses an essentially conservative, in the most literal sense of the term, impulse. In flicks like Zombieland, 28 Days Later, and the various "of the Dead" franchise films, the world is pretty much the one we recognize, simply more dangerous and more depopulated. More importantly, there's a crucial continuity with the old world. In Zombieland, aside from the rubbish in the streets, the infrastructure of the old world is still intact. (In fact, we even get a gag in which the narrator explains that a particular Texas town looks like it was destroyed in the zombicaust, but it is actually just a dump.) Everywhere they go has power, there are no unchecked wildfires, nobody frets about leaking nuclear power plants, and so on. All that has happened is that the people who were once the losers and outcasts are now free to do as they wish. And what they wish to do is drive nice cars, stay in plush joints, drink A-grade booze, get laid, and play Monopoly with real money. The characters in Zombieland don't want to be on the bottom of the heap, but they want the heap.
Which brings us to Thundarr the Barbarian. When I was a kid, my favorite post-apoc landscape belonged to the short-running Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon (1980 to '82). In the "future" of that show, in the then far-distant year of 1994, a runaway planet zipped between the Earth and the Moon. The Moon split in two, but gravity held each half in about the same position of the current Moon. The Earth was racked by catastrophes and, 2000 year later, is home to all manner of magic and mutants.
But don't take my word for it. Here's the intro:
Admittedly, the cosmic doom visited upon the Earth in that intro is far more epic than a zombie holocaust (that damn runaway planet apparently even stole all our clouds). But that's not really the distinction that sticks out in my mind. Rather, the world of Thundarr seems to have radically split from the pre-disaster world. The show did have one character who constantly pointed out the remnants of pre-collapse world: Princess Ariel's function in the show was to act as a exposition, explaining trains and soda pop and bowling and Cape Canaveral and whatever else might pop up to Thundarr as the plots demanded. (Oddly, the female figure who remains the sole link to Earth's past was a reoccurring motif in '80s cartoons: the mom in The Herculoids was a stranded Earth astronaut who attempted to teach her child about her native home as was Prince Adam's mom in He-Man.) What's interesting, however, is that Thundarr usually didn't give a rats ass. Insomuch as Ariel's book lernin' was useful for blowing up the evil wizard's war tanks or killing any given shoe's baddy, he cared. But there was never this sense that Thundarr or his Wookie-rip-off companion Ookla were ever all that interested in the pre-collapse world. The idea of re-establishing the previous order or even mourning its passing doesn't occur to them. They represent a radical break with the past. The heap has been swept away and replaced. These post-apoc works are the opposite of the Merry Looter flicks. We're going to dub them "Ookla, Ariel, We Ride," or OAWR, works.
As a kid, it was that kind of post-apoc I dug. In my juvenile mind, the post-end looked like Gamma World or Thunder Dome - and as soon as the fit hit the shan, we'd all start wearing football padding studded with metal spikes. There should be mutant animals and plants walking about. Sure, we can have a car or two. Maybe even a gun. But, honestly, what we really need is Year Zero weaponry and some black magic. Good times.
Now, however, I have to admit that Thundarr-style shenanigans now seem hopelessly dated. Case in point, though it is hopelessly unoriginal, Zombieland doesn't seem retro in anyway. The same can't be said of Doomsday, Neil Marshall's retro-tastic post-apoc flick which managed not only to get numerous football safety pad fashion plates in shot, but also managed to work in a bunch of Medieval knights in a castle because why the hell not?
Eighties vintage feel aside, I think there's something else behind my shift from digging surrealistic Thundarr cosmic doom to more Zombieland-style doom-mongering. I think part of it has to do with growing older. When you're a kid, you have no emotional investment in the system that supports you. All of it is confusing, illogical, and often profoundly unfair. OAWR films not only satisfy the fantasy that the adult world gets swept away, but the radical weirdness of the world levels everybody regardless of real-life experience. In contrast, as I've grown older and softer in the belly, I don't mind the idea that life as we'd know it would be swept away in a violent wave of mutilation - but I totally want a comfy bed when I'm not slaughtering undead or fighting cannibal bike gangs or what have you.
So that's what I'm proposing Zombieland doesn't feel as dated as the original Dawn of the Dead because the horror audience is aging and we are too into our apartments and children and cars and our increasingly valueless 401Ks to enjoy the fantasy of the world as we know it getting totally wiped off the face of the Earth. We just want the all the jerks dead so we no longer have to punch clock.
There is, notably, a third way for post-apoc tales. Most post-collapse worlds, be they Merry Looter tales or OAWR works, have a strong element of wish fulfillment in that they posit a simpler world. In Zombieland the characters discuss how great it is that parking is free and we're not plagued with Facebook status updates. The fantasy is that a disaster strips all the superficial crap away, leaving behind something purer and truer; see Walking Dead back cover copy. Few post-apoc works suggest that life will simply just get worse and worse and worse. Nothing is clarified, and if you started at the bottom of the heap, some armed warlord a-hole will most likely just stomp you down even more. Adam Rapp and George O'Connor's Ball Peen Hammer is one of the few post-apoc works that suggests that a post-collapse world would look like Somalia on its worst day. In Rapp and O'Conner's grim graphic novel, there's still a government, but it has grown brutal and sporadic in its presence. Dog packs run the street. A flesh-eating virus is rotting its way through population. There is no power or running water. There are conspiracies afoot; but, with no stable communication systems, nobody can be sure what is going on, or even if those involved in the conspiracy still know what's going on. Worse yet, there's a young generation of kids who feel this state of affair is normal. Honestly, the dark hard-edged weirdness of Ball Peen Hammer is probably the most genuine image of what humanity, without all the social props, would look like. But it is too relentless to pack a megaplex. We're more optimistic about the end of everything.