The “Doc Of The Dead” Is Not Very Good; Also, Go Upstairs Dammit
The Doc Of The Dead is a documentary about zombies and zombie culture. If you think that second thing sounds interesting, maybe this movie is for you. If the notion of zombie culture makes you want to crawl out of your skin and melt on a sidewalk, I’ve got some perhaps unsurprising news for you: this movie isn’t very good, is generally not worth your time, and occasionally borders on the infuriatingly stupid. If you have the opportunity to watch it and really want to, fast-forward to the parts that involve Simon Pegg and George Romero. You can also watch the historical explanation of zombie films up to and including mentions of Return Of The Living Dead. Finally, the Red Letter Media clips are funny. Those parts are reasonably interesting. Then skip the rest.
The local university’s student union showed the original Night Of The Living Dead when I was a teenager, my first knowing exposure to the zombie genre. I was hooked. It was a great movie and I was especially taken with the locality of it. It wasn’t shot too terribly far from where I was living, and everything about it screamed familiar, from the crawl at the bottom of the screen telling the fleeing where they could go to the overall geography of the place. This, for some reason, mattered to me. And it’s a great movie for other reasons too, including its portrayal of a black main character who isn’t a stereotype or a joke, but rather, just a guy who has found himself trying to survive. It was a big deal for any movie to feature a black man and a white woman and for it not to have devolved into racial ugliness. In fact, it just didn’t happen up until then.
But let’s get back to that trying to survive thing. Because the movie’s main characters find themselves in an isolated farmhouse with the dead slowly circling. That they’re slowly circling is its own problematic thing – contrary to zombie movie storytelling, there aren’t actually hundreds of people occupying every square inch of the world’s entire landmass (and, frankly, if zombies eat their victims, then figuring out how there are so many when they’re supposed to be devoured entirely after being bitten gets confusing too) – but best left to another day. Instead, all that matters is focusing on what the survivors do once they’re in the house: they defend the first floor.
This is dumb. And it is a problem that is replicated in zombie fiction after zombie fiction after zombie fiction, and as viewers, we’re simply supposed to go along with the notion that it simply never dawns upon our protagonists to minimize the amount of real estate that they’re choosing to defend. Here are some prominent examples of this madness:
Night Of The Living Dead
After its famous opening sequence – “They’re coming to get you Barbra!” – Night Of The Living Dead has Barbra flee the graveyard and find the seemingly abandoned two-story farmhouse She runs upstairs and discovers a woman’s corpse. It is a zombie? Is it a victim? It inexplicably never ends up mattering, because after Ben shuffles her back inside, nobody bothers to venture up the stairs again nor consider it as a possible place to hide. Instead, the trapped survivors debate staying in either the cellar or the boarded up first floor and, spoiler alert, everybody ends up dying, most because of the zombies, Ben because of racism. This is a great movie and continues to be as good today as it was when it was released but not going up is a problem. And it only gets worse.
Land Of The Dead
George Romero continued trading in zombie movies, long after NOTLD. The original Dawn of the Dead is one of the great zombie movie ever made. Day Of The Dead is also a movie with zombies in it, and, interestingly perhaps if you’re a huge megadork, it revisits the idea of living underground as long-term means of survival. Hint: it is not a good idea. Land Of The Dead is really, spectacularly bad. And it’s bad for all sorts of reasons, including its remarkably heavy-handed plot and its horrendous acting, but perhaps nothing is more stupid than the movie’s main character arriving at an uneasy distant peace with the zombies and declaring, “They’re just looking for a place to go.” Good point survivor human character!
Regardless, part of the film’s plotting is that human beings have set up a community in Pittsburgh’s remains, which includes one large building for the community’s rich residents. This would be the heavy-handed part. Meanwhile, the larger community is surrounded by water on two of its three sides and on that third, an electrified fence. Because, yknow, something or other. There’s no occupying the buildings, no anybody who apparently proposed defending only second floors and up. There’s only this rinky-dink electric fence surrounded by guards who take pleasure in watching the occasional shambling arrival get electrified.
Shaun Of The Dead
Shaun Of The Dead (SOTD) is the genre’s greatest films, mostly because it the best acted and best scripted of the bunch. It pains me to criticize it, as it is a fantastic movie. But as in most other movies, the characters make a planned decision to defend the first floor of a building that has a second floor, and predictably, they end up in terrible shape for the effort. Although I understand why the characters end up doing what they do – more on that in a minute – there’s still the nagging voice in the back of your head that screams, “Just go upstairs you idiots. You’ll be better off.”
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is awful for about a thousand different reasons, but among the most inexplicable is the steadfast refusal of characters to take advantage of the obvious defenses that they’re provided with. In the first season, they refuse to occupy buildings in Atlanta, because there are zombies down there, and so it makes more sense to the larger group of survivors to hide in the woods (no), create perimeters (no), defend those perimeters (no), and just keep moving (no, no, no). In the second season, the survivors reach a farmhouse where, again, it never dawns on anybody that they might be more safe if the only thing between themselves and the walkers was a single, blockable staircase, rather than the entirety of a huge old home.
But it’s in the third season where things get especially infuriating, as the survivors discover Woodbury, a few blocks of an old town that a crazed man called The Governor runs. Again, this village defends itself with a perimeter of semi-trucks and barely assembled walls and human guards, because to simply retreat to the town’s two-and-three-story brick buildings wouldn’t be reminiscent enough of what life used to be, or some similarly stupid justification for not doing the far more logical thing. NOT SURPRISINGLY, this defense doesn’t hold forever.
There are some movies that at least occasionally address this issue, if only barely. Dawn of the Dead, mentioned earlier, features its characters hiding out in a mall’s upper reaches (after inexplicably deciding that the four of them can defend the entirety of the building). 28 Days Later (which director Danny Boyle insists isn’t a zombie film, something he’s wrong about) does feature two characters living at the top of a high-rise. Even SOTD has a character point out that they’re better off staying in Liz’s apartment, advice he later dies for not having followed. In every situation, bad decisions undo their character’s perfectly reasonable accommodations, not the accommodations themselves.
Look, I get it: horror movies have to have the kids split up, have to have the one girl go for the skinny dip, have to have boy try to fight back, etc, etc, etc. The stories necessitate impossibly bad decision by virtue of having to have the action actually occur. Smart characters don’t get caught up in the action. So we need our zombie survivalists to choose the first floor, because we would struggle mightily with the concept that a determined set of survivors couldn’t survive on a second floor if all that it necessitated was defending a single staircase.
But What About Living!
Sidenote: before anybody jumps up and down and acts as if the second floor is a trap which cannot be escaped, you’ll have to explain why the marauding zombie hordes have taken the time to destroy all ladders. Because that’s not something that the zombie myth has ever accounted for. In other words, I’ve never seen the following list:
1. Zombies are reanimated.
2. Zombies eat human beings/human brains.
3. Zombies hate ladders.
Trust me, I watched Doc Of The Dead. Perhaps nothing undoes the film more than this. In the blurring of reality between that which occurs on celluloid/digital and the actual real world where people live, we’re meant to believe that there is no difference between the two. Which means that we’re asked to take seriously real adults who live in the real world taking a zombie threat seriously. That’s fun as far as it goes, but would any of us listen to any friend of ours who went on and on and on about zombies without once mentioning that there might be other means of survival? Who acted as though our only options were variations on what we’d seen in the films? Of course not. We’d at least briefly think critically about the challenges we face. And since zombies can’t climb, we’d think seriously about a life spent above the Earth. Rather than on it. Or worse, below it.
(Thanks to the Smithsonian for the picture. Which I stole.)