Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Living with the Dead

In the immediate wake of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London Underground, Mark Fisher wrote about the extraordinary resemblance between police instructions to shoot a suspected terrorist in the head in order to 'extinguish the brain completely,' with the well-known formula for killing zombies in the classic horror films. At that time the zombies om our cinema screens were still anonymous marauding hordes, but significantly, as the police claimed of de Menezes, they ran.

The innovations of zombie films have always reflected - and sometimes predicted - the violence of the real world. There is a distinct suggestion in Jean Yarbrough's King of the Zombies, filmed a year before America entered World War Two, that Henry Victor's zombie master is secretly a Nazi agent, and in 1998's Bio-Zombie, the creatures are the victim of an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction. From the mindless consumers of Romero's (1978) Dawn of the Dead to the yuppie socialites of Bianchi's (1981) Burial Ground: Nights of Terror, cinematic zombies have always provided a kind of social index or cultural barometer.

Two new films offer us a different perspective on the living dead. In Marc Price's super low-budget Colin, and Matthew Kohnen's horror comedy, Wasting Away, we are asked not so much to run screaming from the walking corpses as understand them, and feel the pain of their social exclusion. Both films, made within a year of each other, offer for the first time, zombie movies told from the perspective of the zombies, with the intention of inciting less our shudders than our sympathy.

Marc Price allegedly made Colin for a mere forty-five pounds (and spent most of that on tea and biscuits for his cast). Its impossibly circular plot follows young Colin as he staggers around south-west London, bleeding and biting people along his way. Colin starts off by introducing us to our eponymous undead anti-hero as an iPod loving hoodie, and then asks us to empathise with him, understand his confusion, and ultimately, like David Cameron, learn to hug the hoodie. Rather than a mindless agent of evil, Colin, played by Alastair Kirton, is just a troubled youth who nobody understands, trying to make his way in a hostile urban environment.

Written and directed by brothers Sean and Matthew Kohnen, Wasting Away switches back and forth between the black and white of the film's 'reality' and the comic book full colour of the zombie's point of view, in which they see and hear themselves as normal humans to whom everyone else seems impossibly fast. Our re-animated heroes are all cool youg hipsters, hanging out and working in a downtown bowlorama in this youth movie horror comedy. The zombies-eye-view sections of the film allow our desiccated friends not just to crack wise and goof off, but even fall in love. Though at first, they think of themselves as still normal, believing everyone else to be infected, only towards the end of the film do they realise the true horror of their fate, prompting a kind of undead existential angst. Upon this dreadful realisation, they come to recognise themselves as an oppressed and misunderstood minority group and, in a speech which refers to Israel, decide to seek refuge in the Inland Empire where they might live in peace, albeit dead and rotting.

Beneath all this hugging and learning, however, behind the supposed liberal tolerance of these films towards even the living dead, some groups, inevitably, are still excluded. Every zombie with whom we are asked to identify with in either film is, as in the title of Victor Halperin's (1932) classic, a White Zombie. The only black speaking part in Wasting Away goes to a character who complains he'd rather just get drunk than fight for his friends' survival. The actors in Colin appear to have used the script as an excuse to pull a spazz for ninety minutes like insensitive school children or von Trier's Idiots, and the guys and gals of Wasting Away seem to have a dreadful knack for walking into appaling racist jokes - a bar is called Chinks becuase the barman is a "Chinaman" who everyone addresses as Chinky, and the brains of Mexicans, we discover, taste picante when loaded into a taco. "We're not illegal immigrants," cries one of our soulless slackers, "we're zombies!" For some, it is clearly still preferable to be dead than un-American.