I still have never managed to track down the original source, but I have oft repeated the following quote (or variations thereof): “The main difference between vampires and zombies in modern fiction is that good vampire stories focus on the vampires, while good zombie stories focus on the humans.” The point being that while vampires are inherently interesting beings in and of themselves, zombies tend to only be interesting insofar as the effect they have on the people and places around them. The vampire is a conscious, thinking, possibly even feeling predator. Under the right circumstances, you might even be able to negotiate with a vampire. The zombie is more akin to a natural disaster, even though on a surface level They might resemble Us. Both zombie and vampire are former humans, dark mirrors of ourselves, but they couldn’t be more different in the circumstances of their Otherness.
While I like the dichotomy presented and think it has a lot of merit, I can be a sucker for rulebreaking… so long as it’s done in an interesting fashion. For example, one reason the various Marvel Zombies comics are unsatisfying for me is because the “zombies” presented there are much more like vampires who just happen to be decaying and have a taste for flesh: “I’m still Spider-Man but now I wanna eat people!” Captain America and the Red Skull are zombies, but they still end up fighting and spouting one-liners at each other. Compared to them, the few uninfected people in the narrative seem all but superfluous. There’s nothing new to be had there, no real risks in narrative, so for me it is what it is: at best recycled Evil Dead style wackiness… at worst, Marvel seeming like it’s just phoning in something to capitalize on the cash flow of people who’ll pick up anything with “Zombie” in the title (not that I should be complaining about that, right?).
But if you break “the rules” in a more inspired fashion, I’ll sit up and take notice. Y’all already know of my love for “Fido“, or Bub in the original “Day of the Dead“, both examples of a more conscious sort of zed than the usual, but this last week I ran into a zombie flick that took the concept to the extreme in a way I’d never seen before.
On Netflix it bore the perhaps uninspiring title of “Aaah! Zombies!!”, but it looks like the original appelation is “Wasting Away“. The poster blurb “Zombies Are People Too!” didn’t catch my imagination, either, since I’ve already seen offerings like “American Zombie ” that rolled with that to varying degrees of success.
The movie starts off in black-and-white, with the only color being the eerie neon green of the zombie-creating sludge. The usual trope sequence ensues: military experiments gone wrong, attempted cover-up and disposal, truck takes wrong turn and has accident, inflicting contents on an unsuspecting community…
The community in question being a bowling alley being currently populated by four twenty-somethings (two guys, two gals) in various stages of slackerdom. Their banter and the lack of color film brought “Clerks” to mind (albeit a much less snappily written Clerks), and it was gettin’ kinda slow… until, of course, the foursome share some contaminated soft-serve ice cream (“Does this look green to anyone else?” is a fun line), and expire in a shuddering fashion.
Then, boom! We’re in full color, and the kids wake up fine, wondering what happened. They seem to be stronger than they were, but otherwise okay, and…
And this is where the fun begins. Should I tell you? Oh, I’m sure you’ve figured it out, and if you haven’t the movie shortly shows you a back to black-and-white scene cut to clue you in: the kids aren’t all right. From THEIR perspective, they’re fine and normal, but the reality is they’ve become a bunch of green-veined, lurching, groaning undead. At appropriate points, the film switches between those perspectives, and similarly switches between color and black-and-white as a starkly effective cue.
I won’t go through the rest for you, but the filmmakers have a great time playing with the disconnect between the protagonists’ viewpoint and the viewpoint of the rest of the people in the city. The kids go into a bar to ask for help and everyone freaks out and attacks them, like they’re hopped up on meth or something. Literally. Regular humans move in a blur and talk in unintelligble sped-up chipmunk voices, and that was one of the moments I thought, “Huh, yeah, from a zombie’s perspective that *would* be the case”. The only humans they seem to be able to interact with normally are the drunks, whose brain and body functions have slowed down sufficiently to operate on a zombie’s level. But of course, drunks eventually get sober.
Is it a fantastic film? Nah. But it was fun and inventive enough to carry its weight for me throughout almost all of the runtime. Almost. It ended up going too long at the end and sapping away some of my high… but then again that makes it a film I found uneven, but with its weak points at the start and conclusion instead of the middle, and that’s not a usual occurrence.
So if you’re into the stranger side of zombie fiction (and if you’re a fan of Zombie Ranch, I suppose you well might be), you owe it to yourself to give Aaah! Zombies!!/Wasting Away a look. The concept is good enough that even at is most cliche, it can still feel mostly fresh. And let me tell you from experience, it can be mighty hard to keep a zombie fresh…