Author’s note: This essay originally aired on this blog prior to the file purge of 2014. It is now being rerun for your reading pleasure. Please note Zomtropolis is no longer available as a free on-line serial and will be released in paperback and eBook in the near future.
Zombies are monsters. At least, that’s the standard definition. Someone dies, rises, has a taste of human flesh and so hunts down the living and, once the prey is caught, chows down and eats their guts. Oh, and they’re ugly, too, slowly rotting away with each passing day.
That’s the standard version of the zombie and the one most are familiar with.
It’s the one I knew of when I first discovered them, but as for their main backstory, I didn’t know what that wasy.
See, I grew up in a household where horror and monsters where off limits. This was a good thing, in that I didn’t have to view creepy faces, see blood and guts, watch people get killed, or be subject to dark forests like other kids I knew. I was probably saved hundreds of hours of nightmares as a result. This absence of horror made for a happier childhood, in that regard. My dad always said, “If you want to watch horror, watch the news.” And he was right, and still is. We live in a sad world with villains in it that outmatch most of what we create in books or on screen.
At the same time, being so sheltered was a detriment to a well-rounded upbringing because later on, I was naïve about a lot of things, including the darker side of life, both in terms of what humans were capable of and scary images.
My first exposure to monsters was seeing a ripped-from-a-magazine picture of Freddy Krueger lying in the playground in elementary. The image of a disfigured man with bubbles on his skin was so foreign to me that I had occasional nightmares from that single image for years. I never saw an actual Freddy movie until I was eighteen and living on my own, but I got to tell you: going to the video store to rent one sent up all sorts of red flags and I was scared to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time.
But zombies, werewolves or vampires growing up?
At most I saw the Halloween episode of Highway to Heaven where Michael Landon was a werewolf for part of it. Scared me to death. Same with that other episode with the devil.
Highway to Heaven. Good show, from what I remember, and it was allowed in the Christian household I grew up in for its message. It was also this growing up in a Christian household and the zero tolerance policy for horror and monsters that shaped my life, not only in terms of what I couldn’t see, but how I reacted when faced with the horrors that pop up in life now and then.
In fact, I only got into horror because of something painful that happened to me. It was in this place of darkness that I found comfort in other dark things for a long time.
Later, when I incorporated writing about zombies into my writing career, my view of the undead and fandom of them wasn’t your typical horror fan’s. It wasn’t the blood and guts that excited me or their spooky nature, the whole things-that-go-bump-in-the-night thing.
Instead, it was rooted in my first love: superheroes.
And they still are.
I’ve never viewed zombies as “horror monsters” in terms of how I create and write them. To me, they’ve always been supervillains, and I think it’s this definition of them that is more accurate: they are “super” because they can’t die via conventional means—only by the removal of the head—and are certainly not part of our everyday lives, and they are “villains” because of the evil act of eating others they commit.
When I set out to write my first zombie book, Blood of the Dead (book one of the Undead World Trilogy,) I didn’t want to write a standard zombie novel about a virus, people dying, people coming back, people surviving. I’ve never been one for formulas in my fiction and have always tried to do something new with each tale. Once the story was done, it immediately birthed unusual plans for the sequel, Possession of the Dead: angels, demons, giant zombies some fifteen stories high, shamblers and sprinters, shape shifting zombies and the consequences of the time travel ending of the first book. The third, Redemption of the Dead, incorporated all these unusual elements, while neatly dealing with the time travel issue and ensuring it was paradox-free, which, as a major time travel fan, was something important to me. But all along, as these books were written, the zombies were supervillains to me, with my main cast—Joe, Billy, August, Des, Tracy—being superheroes in their own right, especially Joe and Tracy. While Joe was an excellent shot with the gun, tough as nails and grim, Tracy was a highly-skilled marksmen and fighter. Likewise, they had the tendency to rescue people versus just letting people die.
The story certainly would not have been what it was without my love of the superhero genre and my sheltered upbringing. Doing zombie stories this way also enabled me to tackle Zombie Fight Night: Battles of the Dead, with a kind of comic book sensibility, that is, classic characters—ninjas, samurai, robots, Vikings, and more—and pit them up against the undead in Bloodsport-like battles, each fight with a purpose that served the overall story being told between each bout.
The supervillain angle—I like it. I grew up with it, being a huge fan of Super Friends, the Christopher Reeve Superman flicks, the Tim Burton Batman movies, even the Spider-Man TV show. To be honest, I can’t imagine writing monsters any other way other than as supervillains because that’s what they are to me.
Any monster is, actually, and I explored this idea in the series of anthologies I edit called Metahumans vs. The first two are Metahumans vs the Undead and Metahumans vs Werewolves. For the uninitiated, metahumans are superheroes are the same thing. The idea with this series was not only to showcase independent superheroes, but also put them up against a new kind of supervillain that isn’t used that often in comics or cartoons: monsters.
Before you accuse me of this article being a giant commercial for my undead work—for free serial zombie fiction, see my on-line novel, Zomtropolis at www.canisterx.com, wink wink, nudge nudge—there’s a point to all these examples, and that is this: not to let stereotypes and archetypes be a guide for your fiction, in this, we’re talking about undead fiction.
Why do zombies have to monsters via the standard definition? Why can’t there be something more to them?
I fully realize we live in a very commercialistic society, where most of what’s produced is made because it’ll make the most money. For me, this is a shallow way of approaching storytelling. It’s selfish, it’s limiting, it’s, frankly, wrong. Art—which includes writing—should be about honest expression, about pushing boundaries and trying something new. Will this new thing always be popular? No, but the fact that it is new is important and shows the artist behind it has put thought into it and expressed something from within versus simply a formula of what would sell.
Let’s look at the typical zombie formula.
1) a virus sweeps the world, killing people
2) these people rise from the dead as flesh-eating machines
3) a group of people were somehow not infected—which may or may not be explained
4) this group must survive in a half-destroyed world with limited resources—are our armies really that incompetent that the surviving military couldn’t defeat creatures who are stupid and slow?—and battle amongst themselves and against shambling zombies
Did I miss anything?
While this is fine for the skeleton of a story, it doesn’t make much for the meat of it. There needs to be more. Reasons for things need to be given. A new spin on these four main ideas needs to be taken otherwise it’s just the same story being told over and over again, the only difference being the people’s names and locales.
“Well, that’s what the audience expects?” you say. They expect that because that’s what we’ve been giving them.
Ever read a book or see a movie and go, “Now that’s a new way to do it?” I have. It’s an amazing realization and elevates the work in question to a whole new level upon seeing it.
Some possible fixes to the aforementioned zombie formula, off the top of my head:
1) Why is it always a virus? Why not something supernatural? Or something from space? Something from Earth? Something mechanical that gives the illusion of people back from the dead? I edited an anthology called Dead Science, which challenged the authors to create unique science-gone-wrong-based origins for the undead. The stories they came up with were fun and original.
2) Shamblers and sprinters seem to be the order of the day. Some have ventured into smart zombie territory. What if they had super strength? What if to kill them it wasn’t cutting off their heads but it was their guts—source of hunger—that needed to be removed? What if they were giants? What if part of the cause of them dying also shrank them and you had zombies so small they were like bugs and could get all over you so quickly like ants that you had no hope of survival?
3) Seldom is it explained why the group of survivors were immune to the zombie virus. An explanation for their survival needs to be included? Was a vicinity thing? Did the cause of the undead only affect people indoors? Outdoors? Is the whole world taken out or just a part of it?
4) How come the world is always destroyed within a few weeks of the outbreak? Have you noticed this or is it just me? While I realize people act like animals under panic—we’ve all seen riots on the news—all these cities with broken everything, over-turned cars, bodies everywhere, graffiti, everyone suddenly in torn clothes, etc.—I just don’t get it. What about our military? Wouldn’t the countries’ forces combine to eradicate a common threat like a zombie outbreak? How could even a horde of zombies take out a guy with a machine gun unless they’re oh-so-slow moving bodies somehow got in a sneak attack? What about planes and bombs?
I won’t admit to having read every zombie book or seen every zombie movie, but it seems to me the element of realism has been taken out. It’s always been my view that a book or comic or movie—whatever—needs to be grounded in reality somehow, the whole “what if this happened tomorrow for real” thing. To add such an element to a book—regardless of how out-of-this-world the circumstance is—suddenly brings that fantastic circumstance into our world and puts the reader right in the middle of the tale because he/she can completely understand why things happen a certain way. Life isn’t full of conveniences, tidy plotlines and clichéd ideas. It’s a mess with tons of twists and turns.
Shouldn’t our stories reflect life?
The argument is people want to escape. For me, that’s just an excuse to get out of a life that isn’t the one you wanted. How about turning that on its head and reading stories about lives like yours, that aren’t the way the characters wanted, and you draw strength and encouragement from that? There’s lots to be said about relatability and seeing people in the same boat as you, whether they’re real or not, whether the world they inhabit is yours or not.
But I realize that trying new things and going against the grain is countercultural, especially in the West. I realize that to propose writing zombie fiction as something other than zombie fiction flies in the face of decades of tradition.
It just seems, though, that these standard ideas have become so ingrained in us that we’re afraid to move or operate outside them. Afraid to grow. Afraid to step off the beaten path and blaze a new trail.
Spider-Man 3 (2007) Written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent Directed by Sam Raimi Runtime 139 min. 4 out of 5
It’s triple trouble for Spider-Man in this third installment in the mega franchise.
Life is good for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He’s got the girl, about to propose, making bucks, the good people of New York love their Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man like it’s their job—yeah, everything is smooth sailing.
Suddenly, a mysterious new villain shows up out of nowhere: the New Goblin (though he doesn’t refer to himself as such in the film). Quickly, we find out it’s Harry Osborne (James Franco), Peter’s once-best friend out for revenge because he thinks Peter murdered his dad.
One villain Peter can handle, especially since his first altercation with the suped-up Harry Osborne ends rather quickly. But no, things quickly get worse for our favorite wallcrawler when fugitive Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) gets himself trapped in a molecular blaster thingy and becomes the shape-shifting Sandman. Also adding to Peter’s troubles is ultra-hungry photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who wants nothing more than to make a name for himself in the newspaper business.
Unbeknownst to Peter, while he and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) are on a date in a NY park, a mysterious meteor lands from the heavens, leaking a strange black goop that follows Peter home and eventually latches onto him, transforming him into someone darker, meaner and more spider-powered than ever before. When Peter finally realizes his new black suit is slowly destroying his life and he’s alienating everyone he’s ever cared about, he manages to ditch the suit in a cool church bell tower scene that screams Peter’s search for redemption, but also Eddie Brock’s search for revenge. The black goop lands on Brock, carrying a copy of Peter’s spider-powers with it, transforming Eddie into the menacing Venom.
It’s Black Spider-Man versus three villains in this web-slinging rollercoaster ride that scratches Spider-Man fans right where they itch!
The spider effects keep getting better with each installment, especially in the area of you feeling like you’re right there with Spider-Man zipping through the air. That scene where Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) falls off that building and Spidey has to cut through the air in between falling debris to save her? Pure good.
The story had some good twists, especially building up the suspense while we waited for the black symbiote to latch itself onto Peter. Same with Peter proposing to MJ. The whole “it not working out” thing was well done.
James Franco played the villain wonderfully. I genuinely hated him after a while, the big tip of the hat being to when he fooled Peter into thinking he was his buddy again only to screw him over big time later on.
Topher Grace was easily the best actor in the film. He was funny, cocky, yet at times you sincerely felt bad for him.
The fight scenes were great. The symbiote effects for the living suit were fantastic, too.
The ending with Harry Osborne—even after all he did during the film—made tears prick the corners of my eyes.
One would think a major lesson had been learned from Batman & Robin: too many characters is just plain stupid. Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 didn’t take that warning to heart. The film had way too much going on. I know they had to wrap up some story threads as established in the first two movies, but when all was said and done, things just felt way too rushed and I know I’m not the only fan to think so. If it were me, I would have left it at two villains: the New Goblin and Sandman. Or just do Venom and leave it alone. (And if anyone knows the Venom story, from the comics or the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon, you know that Venom’s mythology is more than enough for a feature film.) I really felt short-changed regarding Venom. So much time was spent building up to him—the origin, Peter going dark, Eddie Brock’s character, both before and after he inherits the suit—that by the time Venom showed up, there wasn’t much time left in the movie for him to really be the bad guy fans know him to be.
There’s really not much to complain about with this movie other than it feeling very rushed and cluttered. Over all, it still was a solid flick, but my least favorite of the three.
Rumor has it that Spider-Man 4 is getting back to basics so I’m eagerly anticipating that one.
Also stars: J.K. Simmons, Bruce Campbell, Rosemary Harris, James Cromwell, Ted Raimi, Bill Nunn, Willem Dafoe, Dylan Baker, Stan Lee and others.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) Written by Alvin Sargent Directed by Sam Raimi Runtime 127 min. 5 out of 5
Who ever said being a superhero would be easy?
In this second installment in the Spider-Man franchise, Peter Parker has his back against the wall as he tries to juggle life as a student, being best friends with Mary Jane Watson, carrying the guilt of his uncle’s death, freelancing for the Daily Bugle, delivering pizza, and, of course, being ever on-call as your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man.
No matter how hard he tries, Peter just can’t seem to balance everything at once and the constant sacrifices he makes in his personal life so he can help others wears him down . . . down . . . down . . . until he can’t take it anymore and his spider-powers begin to change.
The timing couldn’t have been worse, either, because Dr. Otto Octavius’s energy device backfired and has fused four robotic arms to his body, their AI worming its way into his brain, controlling him. All they care about is fulfilling their purpose and they don’t care who they have to hurt to recreate the device they were made for.
Dr. Octopus’s (Doc Ock’s) rampage through New York is met with little resistance until our favorite web-slinger attempts to take him on.
This movie thrills the inner fanboy much more than its predecessor and officially is my favorite—so far—in the Spider-Man series. This flick carries near start-to-finish classic superhero goodness: stellar aerial battles, eye-popping web-slinging, dual identity troubles, nerd-can’t/won’t-get-the-girl issues, a hardcore villain bent on his mark, trials, sacrifice—all crammed into a-little-over-two-hour movie. But the pacing works and doesn’t feel over cluttered at all.
You feel for Peter Parker every minute of this film, both when he’s at the top of his game and when he’s at the bottom, and when he loses his spider-powers, your heart sinks and you cry out, “No! Not Peter! His powers are part of who he is. How can you take them away?”
Tobey Maguire was extremely believable in this film and brought a real depth to Parker that—though was present in the first one—really shone through in this. And Alfred Molina as Doc Ock? Such duality. When you first meet Otto Octavius, he genuinely seems like a nice guy, an almost fatherly figure in a way, but when he loses his project and those he cares about, things switch and he barely resembles the man he once was. Yet deep within, you see him struggling against the mechanical arms that have taken over his body and mind.
J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson was hilarious as always, and Kirsten Dunst as MJ—there was more maturity in the character this time around and though she still acted kind of “high school-ish,” you also saw someone struggling with who they were—more specifically, trying desperately to reach out to the man she’s fallen for but who is pushing her away.
Spider-Man 2 thrilled me to pieces. I was there on opening night and I left the theatre all smiles and in a state of disbelief at how downright cool it was. I wasn’t sure if it would top the first one because most sequels—’til that point because the Superman movies and the previous set of Batman films were pretty much what we had to go on except for X2—usually don’t nail it like the first one.
I was proven wrong.
This movie rocked so hard I went back a couple more times and bought it on DVD as soon as I could.
Check this flick out. You’re in for an amazingly cool, web-slinging good time.
Spider-Man (2002) Written by David Koepp Directed by Sam Raimi Runtime 121 min. 4 out of 5
This flick was decades in the making. So many legal setbacks forced Spider-Man to bounce from rights holder to rights holder before finally finding a place with Sony to deliver the goods.
The hype surrounding this movie was astounding. I remember getting my copy of the soundtrack before the movie came out, and not just that, but also a copy of the “Hero” single by Nickelback as well. Seeing Spidey swinging over a golden-bathed New York on its cover got me even more stoked for this film.
And so, opening night, I went with my dad to check the movie out, my heart pounding with excitement, the previews before the movie taking excruciatingly long.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), geek extraordinaire, gets bitten by a radioactive “super spider” while on a class fieldtrip as he tries to get a picture for the school paper of next-door-neighbour-slash-love-of-his-life Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Following a bout of sickness, Peter wakes up the next morning no longer a skinny geek but instead buff and tough, wondering what happened to him. Adding to the weirdness, he’s suddenly able to do things he wasn’t able to do before: no need for glasses; lots of energy; fantastic agility; amazing strength; sticks to walls; shoots sticky white web-things out of his wrists; can sense bad things before they happen. So, like any good teenager with superpowers, he uses them to impress the girl of his dreams, in his case, taking on a spider-like persona in a wrestling match to win some big money to buy a car. While on the way there, he fights with his uncle, Ben, and leaves in a huff, only to later find out the burglar he let get away—who had stolen from the wrestling folks who didn’t pay Peter what he was worth—killed his uncle in an effort to swipe a getaway car.
Also going on, Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe) is having trouble with his company and so, in a fit to prove to the military his superhuman formula works so he can sell it to them, he tries it on himself . . . but with dire side effects: the creation of an alternate personality which is eventually dubbed “the Green Goblin.” When things go sour for the company, the board of directors votes him out and Norman goes into full villain mode to exact his revenge.
Across the city, Peter has learned that with great power comes great responsibility and so avenges his uncle’s death by using his new spider-like powers for good and becomes the Amazing Spider-Man.
It’s hero versus villain, Spider-Man versus the Green Goblin, in this superheroic slugfest/love story/coming-of-age movie that made the wait for this flick well worth it.
To be honest, however, the crazy overhype of this movie did put a damper on it for me when I first saw it. Straight up: when I left the theatre opening night I left disappointed. Not that I thought it was awful, not by any means, it was just there was this lingering “Is that it?” feeling that hung over me as I made my way back to the car.
If anything, Spider-Man is definitely an origin movie, something to set the stage for more to come, giving a rich backstory and atmosphere not just to Peter Parker’s world, but to each of the supporting characters, even J. Jonah Jameson (who J.K. Simmons played brilliantly, by the way).
The effects were top notch save for a couple moments where you clearly saw that the Peter that was swinging and jumping from rooftop to rooftop was animated. Speaking of the swinging, when Spidey took you up and down through the deep concrete chasms of New York—man, you felt like you were there, swinging along with him. I heard they even developed a “spider-cam” for this movie. Cool. And that heartbreaking scene at the end where Peter turns down MJ? My heart bled for the guy.
Do I stand by Spider-Man? Absolutely. I saw it again in the theatre, going back with the mindset of “seeing it for what it was,” and I adored it afterward. Out of the three movies in this series so far, it’s my second favorite. As for my favorite-favorite, just read my reviews.
This was a superhero movie done right, done well and done just plain cool.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves Directed by Marc Webb Runtime 136 min. 4 out of 5
After getting bitten by a genetically-modified spider, teenager Peter Parker discovers he has spider-like abilities. However, after looking into his past, he meets Dr. Conors and becomes the scientist’s pupil. When Peter’s uncle is murdered in cold blood, he uses his new spider abilities to try and track down the killer and ends up creating an alternate identity in the process. Meanwhile, Dr. Conors’s own limb-regeneration experiments goes haywire and the good doctor is transformed into a giant lizard. Peter, now under the identity of Spider-Man, takes it upon himself to stop the Lizard at all costs before others get hurt.
When I first heard they were rebooting Spider-Man, I was like, “Come on, really? You just did that in the movies, the cartoons, in the comics . . .” It seems Spider-Man has only one story to tell: his origin. They keep doing it, after all.
But I got something more than that in The Amazing Spider-Man and I was won over. While I enjoyed the Raimi films on the whole, this one seemed more comic book Spider-Man to me as they dialed back the clock all the way to his childhood and got a bit more into Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield’s) parents’ history, introduced Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and went with a villain that fans have been itching to see ever since his civilian identity was mentioned back in the 2002 Spider-Man movie: Dr. Conors aka the Lizard (Rhys Ifans). While Spidey’s origin stayed true to its main components—getting bitten by a spider, Peter Parker as a student, the tragic death of Uncle Ben—they modernized it a bit and seemed to suggest that, kind of like in the 2003 Hulk movie, our hero’s destiny was mapped out for him many years before. This part I wasn’t too keen on, to be honest, nor was I big on how the Peter Parker side of things was done: pretty cool dude, likeable, good looking, hot girlfriend, etc. Pretty much the opposite of nerdy Parker becoming a superhero.
However, on the Spider-Man side of things, we got one wicked webcrawler on our hands. We’ve got three movies prior to this one to learn how to make him move, swing around, climb walls, spin webs—everything that was showcased in this flick was like a comic book come to life. What made it work, too, was that it was believable and didn’t look like a 3D cartoon unlike some sequences in 2002’s Spider-Man. What made it even more special was that this Spider-Man actually cracked a lot of jokes, something that was missing for the most part from the other outings. And the Spider-Man-point-of-view wall crawling and swinging around scenes? Yes, please! Totally made you feel like you were there and reminded me a lot of the Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios in Florida. Bring back the mechanical webshooters instead of the organic variety (I didn’t mind those, actually, as it makes more sense), and Spider-Man is back in business, baby!
The stakes were high in this movie, too, with the Lizard being a serious bad guy to contend with. He was strong, powerful, showed no mercy, and that sewer scene was spooky.
This movie was a lay-the-groundwork movie, setting things up for what is currently rumored to be three sequels and, according to director Marc Webb, aiming for the Sinister Six storyline, which was being mapped out even while they were making this Spider-Man movie. I can’t wait. A giant Spider-Man story is going to be awesome and I’m glad they started from scratch to make it happen as they can then link everything together, starting from scene one.
So what can I say? I’ve been pulled to the other side and am glad they rebooted Spider-Man. A part of me can’t help but wonder what might’ve been had Spider-Man 4 happened, but this new journey we’re on with our favorite webhead is off to a good start.