Have zombies become too mainstream? Has the horror gone out of the undead?
Several weeks ago, Privateer Press man of mystery and Militant Optimist Matt Wilson visited the Secret Worldwide Headquarters of Appy Entertainment, and as you might expect, we got to drinking and the conversation soon turned to zombies and the living dead. With Zombie Pizza making waves and Halloween fast upon us, we thought it time to publish our transcript of that boozy, three-way conversation …
PAUL: Hey Ulm, how come you like the undead but you’re such a goddamn pussy about zombie movies? I mean, I had to bind you to the chair with duct tape to make you watch 28 Days Later. Yet you’ve created Dead Clown Comics, a angst-ridden teenage undead superhero named Ghoul for Ultraforce, you co-created the vampire lord Rune with Barry Windsor-Smith, then there’s Jericho Cross from Darkwatch … and now Zombie Pizza. WTF? Does this all stem from getting your wires crossed by watching An American Werewolf in London … did that potent brew of coming-of-age story, undead best friend, and oversexed Jenny Agutter just mess you up for all time, or what?
ULM: First off, it is all Jenny Agutter’s fault. I hover around the whole undead thing like some demented moth around an evil green flame. The undead thing has always attracted me, but I faint at the sight of blood. I just can’t stand to see gory depictions of guts being ripped open or close ups of torture cannibalism. It freaked me out when I was ten and it freaks me out now. I don’t know why I can hold both of these beliefs in my head at the same time, but that’s why I’m an enigma wrapped in a mystery. I mean, I love to travel, but I hate to use public toilets — what can I say?
PAUL: “I’m A Frickin’ Looney” might work.
MATT: I’m with Ulm, here. I actually get kind of squeamish with graphic or gratuitous depictions of violence. That said, I’m a huge fan of all things undead, especially zombie movies. I think that zombies are such a parody of humans that the graphic imagery is reduced to over-the-top cartoon violence that doesn’t hit me in the same psychological soft spot that more realistic subject matter would.
PAUL: I suspect much of the success of Left 4 Dead is down to the fact that it doesn’t feel wrong to shoot zombies. Even Quentin Tarantino might get sick to his stomach killing that many Nazis … but the zombies can keep coming, all day long.
MATT: Are you supposed to laugh at Night of the Living Dead? I laughed my ass off all the way through.
ULM: I’m out. Too terrified to laugh. I was in for the “split dogs” in Return of the Living Dead, though.
Split Dog — now you know where we got that name for Zombie Pizza
PAUL: Matt, if you tell me your love of the undead stems from every artist’s careful examination of animal skeletons then I am going to pull your belt out through your throat.
MATT: I’m not into researching skeletons — you’ve got me confused with the world famous artiste, Farzad Varahramyan. I just like drawing all those skulls and gooey bits.
PAUL: C’mon, I want to hear the deep, true, sick reason you are in love with the undead. Did you pray for the return of your run-over dog? Stare too long and too closely at a bit of roadkill? Grow up as a closeted Iron Maiden fan?
MATT: Trying to trace back why I dig the undead –
PAUL: Heh. “Dig” the undead. Get it?
ULM: Shut up.
MATT: — my earliest relevant recollection is the 1963 version of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason fighting the skeletons was one of the coolest things ever and definitely made its impression on me. Not long later, I’d encounter my first lead D&D minis, which included a couple of skeletons.
Privateer Press’ Own Take On Undead Pirates
ULM: It always comes back to D&D, doesn’t it? It’s the wound that never heals.
MATT: … So my first encounter with the undead was skeletons. Of course, during that time, Scooby Doo was the cartoon du jour, and they encountered all kinds of undead, from zombies to ghost pirates … it’s all coming together here. I was a sponge, as a kid, soaking up all of these lovely images and themes.
PAUL: There is a skeleton pirate subculture, isn’t there? I blame Pirates of the Caribbean — the ride, not the cash cow movie franchise. I remember trying to assemble the old MPC plastic model kits from Pirates … the ones with the “zap action” rubber bands that were supposed to make them move, but instead just made them fly apart. I remember trying to force-fit a couple pieces by biting on them and having a flood of model airplane cement gush into my mouth.
ULM: That explains a lot.
MATT: Playing with the undead has been a great creative pastime of mine. The undead have been a huge part of our endeavors with the Iron Kingdoms/WARMACHINE setting. Indeed, our first books, the Witchfire Trilogy, were heavily peppered with the undead. (Spoiler Alert). The story is of a young woman trying to put the soul of her dead mother back into her mother’s exhumed corpse, with the help of an ancient and magical sword that raises all dead within a several mile radius. The first book in the trilogy climaxes during a festival called ‘The Longest Night’, a celebration of the deceased, analogous to our Halloween. Only this time, the deceased actually come to the celebration and mix it up with the partygoers, which doesn’t go over so well as you might imagine. The whole trilogy actually ends with the heroes lading an army of ancient undead soldiers against a foreign invader. These soldiers protected the land in life, and now they protect it again in death.
So, going back to the idea of playing with the rules, we had a lot of fun with the idea that the living would actually be saved by the undead, and all the imagery that came with this giant battle between a legion of skeleton heroes and the evil, living invaders.
The Cryxians in the Iron Kingdoms are another great collection of undead with a twist. Here’s a hostile empire, ruled by a giant, undead dragon. They use corpses as raw materials in the construction of their armies and war machines, fusing steam powered technology with bone and flesh to create some truly hideous things — and topping it off, everything runs on souls.
ULM: When we were playing Warmachine, I painted up a whole bunch of Cryx. But then I beat Paul’s Khador army and he cried and now we don’t play any more.
PAUL: Not true!
ULM: Don’t lie, Paul. It demeans us both.
leader of the damn Cryx that smashed Paul’s Khador and made him cry
MATT: The realm of the undead is a huge sandbox for artists, story tellers, game makers— anyone creative that enjoys the contrast of fragile, vulnerable life and the limitless and eternal power of death. There’s probably a great philosophical metaphor here just waiting to be penned …
ULM: There is. And we’ve found it. Pizza Delivery As Metaphor. Think about it — you make money by sacrificing life to the insatiable appetite of death. Really, there’s no philosophical metaphor that is NOT made by Zombie Pizza, which is why it is an outstanding bargain for $.99!
MATT: … there’s a malleability to the undead that allows you to do anything with them that you want from a story perspective. The core concepts are familiar — people already understand what a zombie, vampire or ghost is, on a fundamental level. And each flavor of undead has its rules — zombies only go down when you kill the brain, Vampires don’t like sunlight, etc. But it’s also acceptable to change the rules, or play against them, which from a story-telling point of view, is where I really enjoy ‘undead’ as a genre. The film, Fido, is a great example of taking the tried and true zombie sub-genre and turning it on its head; the story of a boy and his zombie — genius.
PAUL: Out of a desire to keep things on track, I won’t introduce Let The Right One In to your list of reinvented genre movies, except to say that it is brilliant and you are a Philistine for not agreeing.
MATT: And you are a port-sipping film snob. That picture was a bore. There are an endless number of ways to explore the subject, and all of them better than your over-rated Swedish fang flick. Lesser known fav’s of mine include Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (originally Braindead) and a recent fun romp through a zombie infested town called Dance of the Dead. Of course, everyone knows the Army of Darkness. And the hits just keep coming.
Goreshade, another cheery denizen of the Iron Kingdoms
PAUL: Any comment on pop culture’s relatively recent re-casting of the undead as hero figures? Certain vampires, at least, are now seen as good guys, or semi-admirable anti-heroes. Are we so afraid of death that being a vampire now seems a pleasant fantasy … are we really that materialistic at heart? It seems all these heroic vampires have tragic pasts but bright futures full of romance and redemption.
MATT: Is it really such a recent phenomenon that the undead have become the heroes? Or is it just that they’re now being mainstreamed (eg. castrated)? How far back can we go and find examples of undead protagonists? Does Spawn count as undead?
PAUL: We’ve had undead comics heroes since at least the early 1970s – Blade, Ghost Rider, Swamp Thing…
ULM: Actually, despite my supposed hatred for violence, I keep coming back to the undead. Back in my comic years, every character I had a hand in a creating ended up being dead at the core: Dead Clown. Ghoul. Rune. I think what draws me back time and time again to the undead is that they have crossed the ultimate divide — only to be back among us! The very existence of the undead is an aberration against all that is natural and sacred and occupies this high place of tragedy — which, like you, causes me to convulse with laughter.
PAUL: Are you mocking me?
ULM: I love the idea of this weird juxtaposition: every character is better if he’s dead for some reason. Consider: a wise-cracking detective — who’s dead. A supermodel with a twinkie fixation – who’s dead. A teenage wizard — who’s dead.
PAUL: An iPhone startup CEO — who’s dead! Not that anyone cares or remembers, but the first comic book I wrote — Bones — featured a sarcastic, undead protagonist, so I guess I am with you guys.
MATT: I was an avid watcher of a Canadian TV show in the early 90′s called Forever Knight, about a reluctant Vampire trying to atone for his sins by solving crimes. (A vibe repeated many times since then as seen in Buffy, True Blood, etc.) That’s almost twenty years back. There were some helpful ghosts in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as I recall, though I’m not expert on that saga. And Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t really evil, right, he was just built that way … and misunderstood. Even Dracula was sort of a tragic figure, though I suppose not a protagonist at all.
PAUL: Dracula was the protagonist in the old Tomb of Dracula comic series from Marvel. Man, I loved that book.
MATT: When it comes to the undead leaches, though, I like my vampires like a I like my eggs: sunnyside up on top of a stake. (That pun’s for you, Paul.) I mean, come on, I enjoyed the first three seasons of Buffy as much as any other geek with a free hand and a Y chromosome, but I think we’ve really lost sight of the idea behind what vampires are supposed to represent when every teenage girl in America wants to date one.
ULM: Matt, most of the time I like you, but now it’s on. Buffy was awesome all the way through the sixth season! You just have to snuggle up with a warm fire and let your inner chick take over…
PAUL: Marvel was wise to keep Drac a mean old son-of-a-bitch in their comic series, and they kept it going for 80-something issues. Marv Wolfman’s take was that Dracula was aristocratic and proud to be Lord of the Vampires. He reveled in his evil. There was no looking back for that dude, no Hamlet-like monologues on the battlements of Castle Dracula.
MATT: Just out of high school, I wasted a lot of hours arguing with a couple gamer buddies about the idea of being a vampire. They thought it would be the coolest thing in the world. I thought they were idiots. Give up the taste of good food? Never see the sun again? It’d be like living in England! Ugh.
MATT: Of course, the ultimate trap was, would you give up sex to be a vampire? Well, they both said yes, but they were late bloomers and didn’t have a basis for comparison. Otherwise, that used to be the coupe de grace in that debate … until vampires were reinvented with a raging libido. I blame Joss Whedon. He did smartly what no one before him could do, but he broke vampires for everyone, and since then we’ve been subjected to a slew of craptastic vampire media that has reached so far in an effort to be different that they have not only redefined the once bloodsucking spawn of Satan as emo-kids who sparkle in the sunlight, but have finally answered the question of whether or not a virgin-turned vampire would actually regenerate her hymen each time after intercourse. (Might be good, might be bad, depending on if you live in a landlocked state.)
ULM: Now, no vampire gives up sex at all. They get everything! For the latest in vampire porn, see True Blood!
PAUL: Maybe we lay the body of the heroic vampire on Anne Rice’s doorstep. She kind of defined the tortured metrosexual noble vampire with her books, and was laps ahead of Joss Whedon, at least until she got religion and started writing Jesus books.
MATT: My musing turned into a rant, but here’s the score so far: I’m down with undead heroes — what’s more tragic than having every reason for living denied you and suffering on, consciously, in a dead vessel that can never enjoy the pleasures of humanity again? But you do it anyway, out of some sense of righteousness, to protect loved ones, serve humanity better in death than you did in life, seek revenge on some wrong — name your motive. That’s good stuff!
PAUL: Good premise for a novel there.
MATT: But it reduces down to weak sauce when you temper the tragedy by giving back to these things what death rightfully takes away. As we said before, what’s fascinating and enchanting about the undead is the contrast to real life, the exploration of continued existence trapped in a state of death. When you let vampires enjoy long afternoon walks on the beach and make them better lovers than the living, I think you’ve cut the nuts off the whole foundation of the concept.
as mainstream and scary as it gets — soccer mom!
PAUL: Yeah, the horror of undeath is being undercut in contemporary fiction by giving back to the undead those things they should have sacrificed with the end of their lives. It’s like Hummers in mall parking lots, soccer moms on Facebook, and tattoos for everyone – mainstreaming messes things up!
MATT: So, can we just kick vampires out of the undead club? Clearly they turned traitor. Let’s stick a stake in them and call them done.
ULM: Resolved. But I’m not giving up True Blood. My wife likes it, after all.
PAUL: If vampires have been pussified, are zombies next?
George Romero — Old School Patron Saint of The Undead
George Romero still has a pretty unflinching idea of what these mindless, flesheating ghouls are all about … but we’ve moved on to Shaun of the Dead, Army of Darkness, Zombieland, these characters making Zombie Pizza (plug plug) … Have we entered the era of the Fundead?
ULM: The next frontier! Maybe Marvel will bring back Millie The Model as a flesh eating zombie and show us how it’s done!
Our thanks to Matt Wilson for providing images from the upcoming Warmachine MK II for use in this article. All Privateer art (which definitely does NOT include Millie the Model, alive, undead, or otherwise) is © & TM Privateer Press, Inc.Explore posts in the same categories: pop culture