Tuesday, June 11, 2013
The exact consciousness level of a zombie
This post contains some spoilers about 28 Weeks Later and Warm Bodies.
One of the reasons I ultimately didn't like 28 Weeks Later -- and more to the point, the main reason I regularly tell people I didn't like it -- is because (spoiler alert) Zombie Robert Carlyle stalks his own children.
That's right, he's been bitten by another zombie and so he becomes one himself, divorcing himself from all remnants of his former life. (I know, I know, they're not "zombies" -- they are infected with "the rage"). Yet when he crosses paths with his children, which I believe happens more than once, he breaks away from the horde to follow them.
I allow this complaint to stand in for a number of other problems I have with the movie, because sometimes it's easier just to focus on one thing. But I did really find it to be a serious problem. The movie sets up a world where zombies are unthinking killing machines who harbor no ability to make distinctions between their prey, or to have the capacity to prefer one prey over another even if they could make distinctions. In fact, pretty much every zombie movie you've ever seen sets up that same world.
The reason I didn't dig 28 Weeks Later ends up being the same reason I did dig Warm Bodies, which I saw on Friday night. Some people may find it problematic. I found it endearing, and ultimately, incredibly emotionally rich.
It may be clear from this movie's setup -- a zombie boy falls in love with a living girl -- that the zombies you're getting in Warm Bodies are not your typical shuffling, shambling brain-eaters. Oh, they eat brains alright, but it's for a specific purpose: Eating the brains of their victims allows them to experience the memories of those victims, just for a minute or so. It's like the zombie version of a powerful drug, a drug that temporarily reminds them what it felt like to be alive.
This alone I liked, but Warm Bodies is a unique take on a zombie movie in a number of other ways as well.
The desire to experience another's memories underscores the ways these zombies are still human. And that's kind of what Warm Bodies made me realize: Zombies don't have to be unthinking killing machines. Why couldn't they be just human beings struggling with their new mode of existence? Human beings who feel a newfound compulsion toward cannibalism that they loathe, but that they must yield to in order to survive?
Warm Bodies smartly establishes these former humans as beings in a state of limbo. They certainly aren't alive, but there's another brand of undead that's far more gone than they are. In the parlance of the movie, the zombies we're talking about are referred to as "corpses." However, there are also "skeletons," who look like this:
Essentially, skeletons are corpses who picked all their skin away, like you or I would pick at a scab. Although the movie doesn't specifically state this, you might surmise that the inability to stop tearing away loose flaps of skin escalates at the same rate that they degenerate irrevocably into madness. Corpses aren't really sure what they're doing; skeletons are fully committed to being the eating, killing ids that they are.
Put a bit more directly: Corpses might still be saved.
This idea that the zombies of Warm Bodies might not be lost causes allows for suspensions of disbelief that would otherwise be quite problematic. Like, the fact that our main zombie, dubbed R because he can only remember the first letter of his first name, can speak, a little bit. Like the fact that he makes moral choices. Like the fact that he returns each night to a makeshift home in an airplane, where he plays old vinyl albums that he collected when he was still alive. Like the fact that he falls in love.
If any of these things had happened in 28 Weeks Later, I would have laughed them out of the building. And in fact, because something sort of like this does happen -- a violation of the rules the movie has established -- I consider 28 Weeks to be lesser.
Warm Bodies establishes its own rules, and I quickly decided that I dug them. Zombies movies, on the whole, have always been part of a satirical tradition. They got their start as a means of commenting on us and who we are, and the comments were never positive. That's the big difference with Warm Bodies. It does have that satirical edge, most notably in a flashback scene in which we're all seen interacting with our phones more than each other. But it also has room for the optimism that human beings are characterized by their desire to improve. Zombies aren't content being what they are; they want to fight their basest impulses to become something more enlightened. They want to rise above.
The fact that the movie is narrated by R, as though he were a fully conscious and capable narrator trapped inside the body of the undead, is just one more indication of the kind of zombie movie this wants to be. It wants to explore our capacity for change, and the everyday heroism of overcoming our limitations. That makes us human as much as all our regrettable pettiness.
So I'm okay with a zombie who still sort of remembers what it was like to be human, and wishes he could get there again. It lends extra poignancy to his primitive attempts at rescuing the girl he loves from danger. If it's going to deliver me the kind of emotional catharsis this movie did, I'm okay with a zombie who thinks, who chooses, who decides.
Besides, R has a really great record collection.