Reason Writers Around Town: Tim Cavanaugh Chews Over Zombie Science at Slate


Today we are all zombies.

In today's Slate, Reason senior editor Tim Cavanaugh takes a look at two zombie series premiering in the U.S. this week—IFC's Dead Set and AMC's The Walking Dead —and how the return of the "banquet" scene, in which the living dead feast on warm flesh at a liesurely pace, marks a return to serious zombie science:

The zombie genre has always been fairly political as well, and enraptured fans are forever searching for deeper meanings that might justify our interest in watching the cannibal feast. At this point it should be clear that there are no larger sociological truths in zombie trends. Zombie holocausts are popular during booms, during busts, in peacetime and wartime, before, during, and after natural disasters, and at all other times…

Any new living dead entertainment must take account of the rapid advances in zombie science that have occurred in the last 10 years or so. Max Brooks' World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide codified zombie-fighting physics and tactics. In a recent issue of the hipster journal n+1, Mark McGurl compared the recent popularity of suave, attractive, withholding, physically robust vampires with the simultaneous rise of decaying, grotesque, needy, enfeebled zombies, and stumbled on a great hidden-in-plain-sight discovery: Vampires are stars; zombies are fans

The banquet in all its silly grotesquerie has always been the key to the genre's seriousness, not only because it shows that the dead must win but because it is where the zombie movie really luxuriates in physical dread and frailty. In recent years, the banquet has been undermined by the rise of the fast-moving zombie. First appearing in Dan O'Bannon's execrable 1985 Return of the Living Dead, the newly invigorated undead have recently blossomed in an atmosphere of hyperkinetic editing that allows filmmakers to cheat the angles shamelessly. (Boyle and Snyder should have been jailed for the improbable-to-impossible action in 28 Days Later and the Dawn remake.) With the action going by so fast, you never get to settle in and dine. As Romero, who explored the handheld-camera universe in 2006's Diary of the Dead, puts it in a commentary track, "If you're shooting a film objective camera … when the zombies are feasting, you can go in and feast yourself. You can stretch it out for five minutes, go in for close-ups, all that."

Whole article.

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  1. Ok, who had the pool bet for when today’s article trajectory was going to conflate the words “Zombie” and “Science”?

    Epi? sloopy? SugarFree? Aw fuck, not MNG?

    1. Fuck. It was me. Some clown downthread said a zombie could have a heartbeat and I had to set him straight.

  2. Tim – have you seen the BBC series “Survivors”?

    What do you make of the ubiquitous “free stuff” scenes that are found in all these pocyclypse movies: the shopping cart full of food, the new cars, clothes, etc? They seem integral to the genre, like a guilty pleasure that makes all the undeath worth it. Screw the homeowner jubilee: if only 90% of the population died off, I could have all the houses and shit to fill them I can haul!

    1. I have contemplated this at some length, and I take the position that the fantasy there is one of catharsis.

      The zombie apocalypse may kill us all, but before we go we get to rob the stores freely and shoot our annoying neighbors, bosses, spouses, etc. in the head after they “turn”.

      I think it’s closely related to the postapocalyptic survivalist subgenre, where the attraction to fans is getting to say “I told you so” while everyone you know starves to death and you sit snugly in your well-prepared fortress.

    2. While agreeing with Fluffy, I also think that it is mostly an homage to Dawn of the Dead a lot of the time. It makes a nice contrast for the “normal” that is gone and the “abnormal” that has replaced it. (The reason DOTD used it in the first place.)

      1. Free Stuff dates back at least to Omega Man.

        1. 1959’s The World, The Flesh, and The Devil featured similar scenes, but then delighted looting during social unrest has been with us since there was a social to unrest.

    3. Without the “free stuff”, the survivors would have a hell of a lot more trouble surviving as nothing is being made any longer. It’s merely a plot device to allow them to function without having to farm or learn metallurgy or whatever. The fact that it also seems to hit certain “I have all the shit I could possibly want now” notes in our brains is merely icing on the cake.

      I mean, if they didn’t have the gun store to raid in DOTD, it would have been a lot less entertaining.

    4. The post-zombification world I’d most want to live in is the L.A. of Omega Man. Everything’s still in pretty good condition, you have all day to shop, and even if Mathias catches up with you he won’t kill you outright — just talk you to death.

      1. You just want to watch Woodstock over and over again.

        1. God damn it. For once you use brevity and I have to pay for it.

        2. And drive cars off the showroom floor through the plate glass windows.

          1. And bang hot, not-yet-zombified black chicks with afros.

            1. You haven’t done that yet in the real world? I suggest you put that somewhere at the top of your bucket list sir.

            2. That’s not just any old not-yet-zombified black chick with an afro. That’s the great Rosalind Cash. (R.I.P.)

      2. But would you constantly watch Woodstock over and over? I don’t think I could handle that, even with a new Mustang whenever I wanted it.

        Also, tangentially related: why the hell can no one seem to do I Am Legend correctly? Are they afraid of the book’s central premise–that he is in fact the monster to the new humans–because it makes the “hero” the boogeyman? I mean, it’s so damn good, yet not one of the films, even The Last Man on Earth, does it right.

        1. Will Smith can’t pull off the deeply flawed ‘bad guy’. Even in Hancock.

          1. Smith couldn’t pull off his own cock. Stop letting him fuck up science fiction movies.

            1. sorry, what? Independence Day is fantastic.

              1. A science fiction thread is no place for your jokes, waffles.

                1. Sugar, imagine yourself alone, the last human living in a world ravaged by the Will Smith Virus…

                  1. Suicide. Immediately.

        2. I think you are right. The point at the end is too subtle.

          But also consider that the “infection” model of vampirism died out with Rice. Vampirism is now mostly seen as a “choice,” an embrace of own own dark urges (blah, blah). If everyone “chose” to be a vampire, then it is just a case of them being hoisted on their own petard now that the food supply has run out. They have to be victims as well as predator.

          The move toward the “bio-engineered plague” model was a Cold War innovation for Omega and it gave the central both the responsibility for what is happening and a plot pathway that he might be able to solve it.

          1. What’s most annoying about it is that Matheson has been involved in some of these efforts, and even he can’t seem to bring his own point across on screen.

            The Omega Man was a vastly different effort from the book, with its Jesus theme and racial overtones. And I Am Legend is just Will Smith destroying stuff, because that’s what he does.

            1. And unfortunately, we can’t seem to find out about Soy Leyenda. A copy has to exist somewhere.

              Unfortunately, now with that douchebag’s movie out there, all “Soy Leyenda” searches come back with Spanish web pages about the 2008 movie.

              1. I have a friend who can get his hands on just about anything, and even he can’t get Soy Leyenda. I don’t have high hopes for finding it.

                1. And SugarFree has no small knowledge of search techniques, as well as the places to look for sci-fi. If the two of you together can’t find it, we’re probably going to have to wait until a negative is found in some garage in a Madrid suburb.

            2. I think The Last Man on Earth basically got there, only wrecking the last scene.

              Don’t get me wrong, wrecking the last scene wrecks A LOT, but the bones of the point are still there. The new society hunted Vincent Price to destroy him because now HE was the monster. It’s there on the screen, even if they don’t actually say the lines.

              Omega Man inverts the point of the original story, but in an interesting way. Heston represents the pinnacle of what the former society had to offer – scientist, military man, autodidact intellectual and art connossieur. And he is facing down a pack of damn dirty hippies. And the thing is, on paper, Matthias is right – the old world destroyed itself and killed almost every living man, woman, and child. But from the movie’s point of view, Heston is still better than Matthias, because Matthias is a damn dirty hippie. And I think it’s awesome that there’s a movie out there that regards hippies as so damn bad that they’re still in the wrong even if the military-industrial complex does destroy the world.

              1. Good point about LMOE.

                Also, I could have forgiven (perhaps even enjoyed) the 2008 I Am Legend had Smith been revealed to be the true monster, as he is in real life.

                1. And they had originally planned to end the movie like that. But fucking test audiences didn’t understand it, so they made a new ending which made a third of the scenes completely incomprehensible and the whole movie pointless.

  3. vampires are liberal democrats, and zombies are libertarians.
    vampires are elitist (part of a select group) think they know it all, hate god, are economically advantages (live in castles), have servants, are articulate (you can scarely shut them up), are young and good looking, don’t do any actual work but live off red blooded Americans, etc.

    zombies can be anyone, killed in any manner, are inarticulate, eat red meat, have dead end jobs, and tear flesh off your bones with their hands. They are not elistist because they are always in a crowd.

    discuss amongst yourselves

    1. I’ve never seen a zombie working.
      They clearly sponge off the welfare state.

    2. Zombies aren’t libertarians, they’re anarchists (the modern “I’m gonna smash stuff up because fuck the man and also the government should pay for everything” type, not actual anarchists).

      Think about it. They shuffle or run around pretty aimlessly, they eat productive, living people, they destroy things, and they can’t ever make a coherent point. They’re also easily beaten on an individual level and incapable of strategizing or problem-solving.

      1. What part of this makes them non-libertarian as we actually function?

        1. We’re not usually infectious. Excepting some of you.

      2. Think about it. They shuffle or run around pretty aimlessly, they eat productive, living people, they destroy things, and they can’t ever make a coherent point. They’re also easily beaten on an individual level and incapable of strategizing or problem-solving.

        So, basically all levels of federal and state government in California?

    3. So, if I start biting people, we can finally have libertopia?

    4. Are vampires afraid of zombies?

  4. First appearing in Dan O’Bannon’s execrable 1985 Return of the Living Dead

    Really, Tim? You didn’t enjoy it? When it was clearly supposed to just be gross fun?

    Boyle and Snyder should have been jailed for the improbable-to-impossible action in 28 Days Later and the Dawn remake

    The Dawn remake was stupid and pointless (other than from a “make money off existing name” perspective), but not terrible. 28 Days Later ripped off a lot of stuff, but was also watchable.

    I’m starting to doubt your taste here, Tim.

    1. While I really liked the performances and atmosphere of 28 Days Later (and its underrated sequel), that movie is one long proof of Godard’s principle that every edit is a lie. I can take you through frame by frame and show how Boyle uses trick photography to violate reality. I’m not just talking about “That was too easy” stuff or “Zombies wouldn’t do that” stuff. I mean sequences where four zombies get turned into only one, people cover (or fail to cover) distances in ways that they demonstrably could not do at the speed they’re shown to be traveling, and actions you have seen with your own eyes don’t have the effect you have already been told they will have. It’s a bigger angle cheat than than the lowest-budget girl-running-from-slasher movie, but because it’s done fast and with hipster artiness, everybody calls it art.

      Snyder’s Dawn remake is not quite at that level of dishonesty, but after about the thousandth time somebody running full speed away from the zombies looks back and fires the Han Solo over-the-shoulder shot, and manages to hit a full-speed zombie in the head, I realize that people’s fates are being determined by filmmaker whim rather than any fidelity to the situation they’ve created, and I start to zone out.

      1. I’m not going to disagree with you on those points, Tim, but frankly, most movies are full of physics fails, and I’m not going to bother focusing on them, because there would be little to enjoy.

        28 Days isn’t really even a zombie movie, anyway; it’s a biological outbreak movie. It really shouldn’t be conflated with DOTD, as much as it rips off the first three Romero films.

        1. I’d hate to see Tim’s critiques of the Matrix films. Or of ANY FUCKING ACTION FILM EVER MADE.

          C’mon, Tim. Suspension of reality is what makes the genre, be it action, horror, romance or even drama. FWIW, most documentaries require a little of it as well.

          1. By this logic, every movie is equally good, regardless of how well or how poorly it sells the action. “Relax, it’s only a movie” is an argument fit only for people who don’t like movies.

            1. There’s a difference between selling the action and actively looking for flaws, Tim. I can find continuity errors all day if I want, for instance. But unless they’re glaring, why would I do that?

              1. He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!

            2. What? You’re not an adherent of cinematic relativism? What a dolt!

            3. No, by this logic, every movie requires a little suspension of reality. I’m not gonna say Raiders of the Lost Ark equates to Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed just because they both had some flaws.

              I watch action movies for action. Could Indiana Jones have really hooked his whip to the truck frame and climbed back in? Not very likely, but it was still a hell of a movie.

              I love movies. All types of them, and like to think I have a fairly keen eye for what makes a movie good or bad. Just because I’m willing to suspend reality a little more for a post-apocalyptic bio-outbreak film or an action-adventure with Harrison Ford doesn’t mean I wouldn’t put a Jihad on Michael Bay for what he’s done.

              Actually, fuck it. I am officially putting out a Jihad on Michael Bay.

          2. I’d hate to see Tim’s critiques of the Matrix films.

            I wouldn’t. Because the last two sucked.

      2. Underrated sequel? 28 weeks later sucked. Oh, but its shits on the military so thumbs up from Reason.

      3. …Godard’s principle that every edit is a lie…

        And yet Godard was far closer to Vertov than Renoir.

    2. 1985’s Return of the Living Dead is a fun flick that’s good for parties. It’s cartoony, pioneered the zombie plea for “BRAAAAINS”, and I can laugh with friends afterwards about it. What the hell’s your problem with it? Not realistic enough? I would save execrable to describe something like “Diary of the Dead” or the recent (?remake) of Day of the Dead.

  5. The Dawn remake was perfectly serviceable, until they decided to flee the mall.

    28 Days Later and its sequel are also perfectly acceptable entertainments. The first one was clever among horror films if only because of the games it played with genre conventions on who lives / who dies. I know plenty of people who walked out of that movie actively pissed off that one character was killed, and I like horror movies that fuck with people’s expectations like that.

    1. I agree. I liked the Dawn remake. Slow zombies are boring.

      1. BLASPHEMY!!

  6. The genre is probably due for a Scream-style meta-movie

    Well, we have the overrated Zombieland and the stellar Shawn of the Dead. Zombies have two meta-movies, I guess another couldn’t hurt. World War Z is far and away my favorite zombie anything ever.

    1. That book and the survival guide had me viewing my neighborhood in a whole different light for about a week.

    2. Shaun of the Dead is overrated if you ask me. It’s good for the first half or two-thirds or so. Once they reach the pub and hide out there the movie goes downhill fast, suddenly and without warning transitioning from a comedy to a drama. No more jokes, you’re suddenly expected to take everything seriously and really, really care about these ridiculous characters.

      Zombieland is overrated but at least its tonally consistent.

      1. … suddenly and without warning transitioning from a comedy to a drama. No more jokes, …

        Wow. You need to check your genetic code for the humor gene, cause there were a lot of funny bits once they got to the pub.

        1. It’s been a while since I last saw it, but I recall the jokes at that point being few and far between, and not nearly as funny as anything that had gone before.

          1. Not quite as funny after the pub, but I don’t know why you didn’t care about the characters.

            1. I cared. Just not enough to really want to watch supposedly emotional moments like Shaun having to kill his mother and all that. It felt too heavy-handed.

  7. I don’t like the zombie feast because it doesn’t make any sense.

    If zombies take apart their victims and utterly devour them, the zombie plague should not be able to advance. You need lots of people killed by zombies but with legs, arms, and mouths intact enough to create more victims for the crisis to really get going.

    I’m not a big fan of the “final payoff” scenes in zombie movies, anyway. Sure, the gore work can be interesting, but it’s everything that happens before the feast scene in the original Dawn and Day that’s really interesting.

  8. In recent years, the banquet has been undermined by the rise of the fast-moving zombie. First appearing in Dan O’Bannon’s execrable 1985 Return of the Living Dead
    Your link correctly identifies the fast zombies as appearing in
    (most notably 1980’s Nightmare City) well before Return of the Living Dead.

    Lenzi’s landmark classic features the fast-moving,weapon-using undead devouring spandex-clad aerobicizing Eurobabe dancers on live television.

  9. 28 Days Later is jumbled stew of references to other movies, but it doesn’t strike me as pointless. I accept the argument that it is really the first three Dead movies all jammed together: Isolated small group -> Facade of Domesticity -> Trapped with military guys trying to tame “zombie.”

    What I dislike most is the unacknowledged (AFAIK) use of Day of the Triffids for the opening sequences.

    1. Friggin’ A. Wake up in a hospital? No one around?

  10. Doyle did a fine job with Days, but Weeks was an utter piece of shit.

    I take exception to conflating those films as “zombie” films when they were anything but. The people who were infected would eventually die, IIRC, thus not zombies according to conventional wisdom. The fact that they were crazy-fast and -strong only proves the point, as does the opening scene where the dumbass enviros (are there any other kinds) go to free the lab monkeys and are told not to by the lab tech. The monkeys were obviously alive as opposed to undead. They had monitors on some of them measuring vitals for fuck’s sake. And we all know true zombies are flatliners.

    Either way, the hole in 28 Days was how did the guy survive in his coma without zombies breaking into his room and ripping him to shreds? They had obviously infiltrated the hospital and had the chance. Also, why would his parents have not just pulled the plug on him before they offed themselves? Would that not have been the humane thing to do? Greedy fuckers just wrote him a note. “Sorry for the post-apocalyptic world if you come out of your coma. Good luck. We’re checking out now, thank you.”

    Personally, I think Pegg got it right with Shaun. I would hope there could be some equilibrium where zombies and humans are able to interact peaceably when the time comes.

    And it will come.

    1. This is a dumb zombie definition. It’s the mindlessness, not the hear that counts.

      1. So you’re saying a zombie can have a beating heart and that’s OK, because as long as it’s mindless it’s still a zombie? This goes against all zombie science to date.

        What if all their fluids work then? Could a zombie still produce semen, and if captured reproduce half-zombies? What about a female zombie? Could she still ovulate and have offspring? And if so, would she eat it when it came out or not?

        Please, show your work.

        1. They produced a baby in Braindead. Just sayin’.

          1. Are you sure? I thought it was just the “rebirth” of the son, but I may be wrong as it’s been like 15 years since I’ve seen it.

            Either way, they break from reality when they have arms and legs and heads going after people when everyone knows a zombie is done once you lop off their head.

  11. First appearing in Dan O’Bannon’s execrable 1985 Return of the Living Dead, the newly invigorated undead have recently blossomed in an atmosphere of hyperkinetic editing that allows filmmakers to cheat the angles shamelessly.

    That sentence hurts my head.

    I think Return, which does suck, features the earliest non-pornographic film appearance of a shaved beav’. So it’s like the Rosa Parks of…that.

    (Why do I know this?)

    I don’t like the zombie feast because it doesn’t make any sense.

    It makes artistic sense as an ironic perspectival twist on the shopping scene Hater mentioned, like in the original Dawn. It never works as a scene, though. It can’t shock, or even really be gross. Everybody eats, and we know what zombies eat before we see them do it. BFD.

    Does any movie start with a feast? Opening cold in the zombie vomitorium would be an unpleasant surprise.

    1. Thanks for the heads up!

    2. shaved? Actually Linnea Quigley was wearing a crotch covered prosthetic as some producer ended up being shocked by the blatant nudity.

  12. “First appearing in Dan O’Bannon’s execrable 1985 Return of the Living Dead…”

    So my favorite Reasonoid, who loves zombie movies, hates my favorite zombie movie.

    I will never understand what’s not to love about that movie.

    1. it’s in floreda, yuck

  13. On a tangenital note: I’d like to see HBO or Showtime or AMC adapt Earth Abides as a miniseries.

    1. It seems like it might share some of the “what atrocious acts will we commit to survive” themes from John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass. Does it?

      1. No, it’s really more of a “cozy catastrophe” without the ghoulish relief at everyone being dead. It’s more of a gentle struggle to survive.

        What you want, in that same genre, is Wilson Tucker’s The Long, Loud Silence.

      2. Or the savage nihilism of The Purple Could, where the protagonist sets Paris on fire just so he can watch it burn.

      1. If they went back to the source material, yes. But it is short enough to be a movie. (If you haven’t read “Lot” and “Lot’s Daughter” by Ward Moore, I highly recommend. The movie butchered it.)

        1. What do you have against Frankie Avalon in a postapocalyptic movie? 😉

    2. On a tangenital note

      From anyone by SugarFree, I’d think this was a typo.

      Oh, and can I just say that I really, really, really hate the whole shaky-cam, faux-amateur-camera school of film-making? Really. Hate it. A lot. Hate.

      1. Sorry, distracted typing. It kills, you know.

    3. Thanks, SF! I was thinking of this book the other day, and could not for the life of me remember the name.

      On a completely unrelated note, I finished Surface Detail last night. I have the strong feeling I am missing the significance of the epilogue, but I haven’t bothered to google yet.

      1. I have it, but I’m waiting for the glory of Thanksgiving to read it.

  14. At the end of the day, the Zombie vote will still go 90% democrat.

  15. I think I just like apocalypse scenarios. I even liked the movie, Blindness. There, I said it. Zombies are but one type of apocalypse movie. I don’t see why Zack gets compared to Vampires all the time, vamps are never apocalyptic, just lame, though I recently enjoyed Lost Boys. I even think The Mist is an acceptable apocalypse scenario movie, like Half-Life or something.

    In the best-of-all-possible-world the apocalypse will come in form of the undead. Just sayin’

    1. Can there be headcrabs? Please? And the Combine for that matter?

    2. You got your science zombies (28 Days Later, Omega Man, Zombieland) and yer Hell on Earth Zombies ( Floating Holiday of the Living Dead, etc)
      WHich would you prefer?

      1. The best-of-all-possible zombies are of the Max Brooks type. Which generally follows the Romero trope EXCEPT you actually need to contract the virus to turn. The hang yourself, turn into a zombie despite never being near one is utter crap. Also if everyone has a 100% chance of turning where is hope for the future? Blow your own brains out? No thanks.

        The skeptic in me needs science zombies in my end of days. It will still be experienced as a hell-on-earth, but a few scientist type survivors will at least know why.

        1. There was one doctor guy in Day of the Dead that died (not from a bite) and didn’t turn into a zombie. So there was at least one person who was immune.

          There were also additional scenes added by someone, not Romero, to an anniversary edition of Night of the Living Dead that had a priest who claimed to have been bitten by a zombie and not died.

  16. I have to add “Zombi 2” in the list of semi-good semi-sucky zombie movies.

    Good: non-zombie nudity, the shark versus zombie scene and uh… the zombie makeup.

    Bad: Italian production

  17. I think the zombie genre, and the overarching apocalypse genre in general, doesn’t need another comedic take – but like most horror, it could really use a take where the characters steadfastly avoid doing anything stupid but still end up totally fucked.

    So it basically would have to be written not by horror writers [who don’t know how to write anything but stupid protagonists] but by a group of amateurs including one Navy SEAL, one electrical engineer, one farmer, one doctor, and one COO of a major corporation.

    We need a “group of survivors devises flawless plan to save themselves from zombies/aliens/plague/barbarian bikers/whatever, but then get their asses kicked anyway because the apocalypse is just that fucking bad.

    Because I’m really sick of “The mall is perfectly safe but let’s leave anyway” or “Let’s try to drive across Britain while it’s full of insane cannibals” or “Vampire monsters ate America, but I’m going to hang out on Manhattan because DIS IS MAH SITE!”

    1. AMEN!

      Love the zombie genre, hate the stupid protagonists. Having read the Zombie Survival Guide, I’d love to see a movie where the protagonist does the smart thing, is properly prepared and holes up to wait it out, but still gets eaten in the end.

    2. This is a fantastic post, and the real problem with apocalypse survival films.
      The problem with movies made by nerds for nerds is that they inevitably get dumbed down. The solution for this is, of course, to play Fallout.

    3. I have a good point to add, but first I have to check on that strange noise in the basement. BRB.

      1. Make sure you take a flashlight with really weak batteries and no protective weapon of any kind.

    4. I think the zombie genre, and the overarching apocalypse genre in general, doesn’t need another comedic take

      Get a copy of Zombies on Broadway. Hilariously bad.

  18. So under Clinton we had the teen hormonally charged Buffy and Angel. Under Bush we had the ghosts and demons of Supernatural, Ghost Whisperer, and Medium.

    And under Obama and Harry Reid we have zombies.

  19. Foreign Policy article:…..ving_wonks

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