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So I happened to catch Diary of the Dead the other day on TV, one of the several zombie films directed by George A. Romero, I’m not a huge Romero fan but I quite like Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, so I thought I’d give the film a try to see if it did anything interesting.
Sufficed to say, I realised not too far into the movie that I really wasn’t enjoying it.
It felt off somehow, a feeling I’d had with a lot of more recent big-screen horror films, there was an almost unreal sense to the horror, no matter how many times somebody screamed or some violence happened onscreen I couldn’t really relate to it.
As I was watching and also afterwards when I went back to think it over, I started to pick through my impressions of the film and try to piece together what for me felt so off about the film, and why I didn’t quite feel that I could believably relate to the events on screen.
In many respects the film was a ‘by the book’ horror movie, and zombie-apocalypse/found-footage movie. A cast of characters are introduced, with their own back stories, interests and motivations; at which point the apocalypse intrudes into their lives, and they’re thrust into a world slowly slipping into chaos; confronted by danger, death and of course the omnipresent sense that the world is ending.
What I realised stood out most for me was the reaction of the characters, there was this almost drama school-esque reaction to stimuli – emote, just emote; the characters screamed, the characters were terrified, but they never really seemed afraid. On the stage, and indeed on TV and in movies, it’s often easiest to show emotion and to reflect how characters feel by having them pull really pronounced facial expressions or cry or scream or do something obvious with their voice or mannerisms. In real life though real fear can be more subtle, sure there’s the initial reaction – possibly screaming, possibly shouting, getting angry, or even just being in shock, shaken or silent, but there’s always something that comes after that. Real fear touches something deep inside us, unsettles us and on a subtle level changes how we behave on a moment to moment basis.
The characters I was watching didn’t seem like people coming to terms with the end of the world, they just seemed like people having a bad day. Which felt incredibly off.
Good fiction is about bridging the gap between the make-believe, the totally unreal, and the real (though often a lot more boring) world. Regardless of how well it does this though no matter what we do a piece of fiction will always exist within its own self-contained world, because at the end of the day it reflects how we envisage the world, and not the reality of how the world is outside our perspective.
How the fiction in a play works is different to how it works in a movie, or a TV show, or a book, or a videogame, because of the way the information is conveyed, but also because each has rules that themselves relate to but are separate from the rules of reality.
What annoyed me so much about Diary of the Dead was that the characters and events in the film seemed to be playing by an out of date playbook, a set of rules that had worked well at one point for horror films, perhaps in the 80’s and into the early 90’s but didn’t really work anymore. It’s like those moments you still get in modern horror films where people go out to a secluded cabin in the woods and get attacked and can’t do anything but be hunted down because they’re so isolated – which was believable in the 80’s or 90’s, but this is 2013, that really wouldn’t happen. Literally everybody has a mobile phone now, or some sort of internet connection.
Once upon a time those sorts of situations made sense, because you could kind of see it happening in real life, it was believable enough that you could let the fiction gull you into believing it. Now though it seems somehow fake, and horror movies really need to adapt to that and find new ways of scaring, new ways of telling believable scary stories that include technology like mobile phones – perhaps that yeti in the middle of the forest hunting those girls could have a mobile phone tracker or something, so they’re desperate not to call anybody! – PROBLEM SOLVED!
In Diary of the Dead the most obvious way this came up was the apparent obliviousness of the cast as to how to kill a zombie, literally everybody in the film was surprised to hear that zombies could be killed by destroying the brain or shooting them in the head.
OH, COME ON.
EVERYBODY KNOWS HOW TO KILL ZOMBIES.
It’s like internet rule number one.
After the one about keeping your porn hand and your cheetos hand separate of course.
But as a modern horror audience we know this, we have had it drilled into our skulls continuously by films that to kill zombies you shoot them, or you bash or crush their head. And because that information is so entrenched in modern horror culture, and indeed general entertainment culture, it feels odd that any fairly modern film could exist in a world where people don’t instantly know how to kill these shambling, groaning, flesh-hungry creatures.
Fiction relies on its ties to reality, because you can create any sort of world you like (fantasy, Sci-Fi, apocalyptic future, etc) and the fiction doesn’t necessarily obey the same rules as real-life you need anchors, elements of the piece that help us relate to it. In a far out Sci-Fi or fantasy movie that may be as simple as there being people in it who speak a language we can understand (English or subtitles in English), behave in a way we can understand or fit roles we can subconsciously place them in (hero, villain, etc), and because of those elements the made up elements, the storm troopers, or the orcs, or whatever, become somewhat less confusing and incomprehensible because we have a point of reference; in a piece of fiction with a more contemporary setting though these points of reference (and therefore how real we feel it is) become more subtle, sure they’re wearing clothes like us, they talk like we do, but do they mention the TV shows we watch? Was that a coke can in the last shot? Do the characters mention the sort of stuff we would in that situation? Do they talk about internet jokes or well-known facts? If so it could make it more relatable.
We like the high-fantasy, the extremely unreal because sometimes it’s nice to distance ourselves from life; on the flipside sometimes we like our fiction to be gritty, to be realistically set in a world like the one we live in, because we want something closer to home, we want fiction that touches on real life because on some level we can relate more closely to it. One of the reasons why Alien originally worked as well as it did was because it made Sci-Fi believable and relatable to the real world – before it pretty much all Sci-Fi had been las-guns and little green men; making it feel like a near future, with bureaucracy, boredom, and pay disputes made it somehow better fiction than all the daring tales of spacebound adventures that had proceeded it.
Diary of the Dead had all the prop aspects down, but the story, the way the characters reacted, the things they said in reaction, didn’t really feel like the kinds of things people would react with in a sort of zombie apocalypse situation. You know what my first thought would be?
It’d be ‘shoot them in the head or they won’t die.’
And I’m not saying that in a sort of gung-ho way, but more in the sense that it’s what pop culture has taught me, has taught all of us, and modern films should reflect that, characters should know almost instantly what to do with zombies, otherwise it’s not believable. If you want to set your film in a parallel universe in which zombie culture hasn’t been a thing, that’s fine, but don’t expect me to relate to your film or feel like it’s something that could happen.
And this is something that’s true in a lot of films, there’s an odd naivety, that might have made sense, say in the 80’s or 70’s, or before, when the information culture wasn’t as well developed as it is now, but nowadays we have this sort of internet hive intelligence, obsessed with every kind of apocalypse, being prepared for each of them, and hell all of them at the same time, so if anything did happen we would at least get to say ‘told you so!’ before being mauled to death by zombies.
Like with the mobile phone thing, or easy internet access, horror films really need to adapt to the sort of new world we live in, one in which we have access to a lot of very powerful and useful equipment – we’re no longer as alone or as potentially ignorant as past generations might have been. Does that mean we’re any smarter about making decisions or keeping ourselves out of danger? Well, not if the amount of Jackass-like videos on Youtube is anything to go by. It’s just now we film those moments as well.
Perhaps horror should adapt not by taking away those pieces of technology (or their signal) but by creating heroes or heroines who have no idea how to use that technology properly – or even are misinformed or misdirected about how to use it, rather than just generally ignorant or stuck in a (figurative) hole. Sure the lead character can find a handgun or a rifle but they have no idea how to use it properly and more likely injure themselves than their assailant; yeah, they have a phone but when they phone for help they either call the wrong people for help or are unable to properly direct law enforcement to where they are.
The problem shifts from being one of lack of tools or general ignorance to specifically relating to the complexity of modern life – who would believe you on twitter if you declared you were being hunted by a serial killer? Or on Facebook? If you call the police do you know enough about where you are to be able to give them directions? Is the service busy?
Horror needs to adapt to the way the world’s changed, else it’ll lose its impact. Obviously this isn’t just true of horror, all fiction needs to change with the times, even if just a little bit. It becomes especially important with horror though, where fear, isolation, and not knowing are often the biggest motivators for the audience, and indeed the characters, being scared.
We’ve already seen some examples of fiction that adapts to the changing nature of the world and the way attitudes have changed. Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example is a good example of a series that adapted to a culture so rife and so familiar with the cliches of past fiction that it began to experiment with quirky takes on the original message of the cliches but also adapted to the complexity of the modern world, as compared to the seeming (at least in fiction) simplicity of the world for past generations.
Cabin in the Woods (also by Whedon) is another good example of a piece of fiction adapting to a changing world by bending or altering the rules a little – at quite a few points in the narrative it rigidly obeys the conventions of the modern horror genre and the slasher genre: you have the creepy old man, the studly jock, the slutty college girl, the horrific-looking zombie creatures. But then it turns the rules we do know on their head – the creepy old man with the warning is mocked openly, and rather than being some old-fashioned Luddite is shown to have a pretty normal working knowledge of technology (Have you got me on speaker phone?), the jock and the college girl are shown to both be under the influence of something but intelligent before hand, and the horrific-looking zombie creatures are mocked by their handlers, and seen as a boring disappointment to them, which when you compare that to the audience’s and characters’ reaction of horror and apprehension, sort of relates both our own frustration with the overused tropes of the genre but also the way we would in reality react to being confronted with redneck zombies.
In the end Cabin in the Woods ends in a very unconventional way, completely turning generally accepted film convention on it’s head, with the characters doing something completely unlike anything we might expect movie characters to do, but something we could see real people doing, based off our own experience of that internal friction between morality and being a selfish bastard that we all have.
Which sort of leads me onto my next point, that I feel is also very important to horror: the problem of over-sensationalising onscreen stimuli – having characters scream at every little thing, it just doesn’t fit that well, especially not with the way culture and the sort of paranoid media environment we live in has taught us to react to danger. I think we’d all be scared, we’d all be horrified, but I haven’t ever really met anybody I thought would scream their head off seeing a zombie, they’d be scared, they’d shake like hell, but the signs of fear would be more subtle. I think, anyway.
I think a real apocalypse would get pretty boring pretty quickly, and the real horror wouldn’t be the monsters but the collapsing world that people would find themselves in. Probably the biggest killer wouldn’t be the literal horrors confronting people but rather the philosophical horror confronting them – the realisation that your world is gone, and all that’s left is the nightmare. A little like what makes the original Terminator movie so dark, the foreboding vision of the future.
There’s a sort of stoicism that comes with experiencing anything traumatic, where maybe you do show some signs of breaking but mostly you bury it, only for it to express itself in other ways – drinking, fighting, losing the will to live. I guess the problem is horror movies need to learn to show that better, to show that fear is more about how erratic your behaviour becomes rather than how much you cry or scream. Horror needs to adapt to the way our lives have changed but also to how sophisticated our tastes have become when it comes to the stories we like to be entertained by.
Horror needs new ideas, fresh blood, and God only knows, if there’s something the horror genre always needs then it’s fresh blood.