Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the only groups regularly enjoying zombie movies were habitually stoned students, young lads looking to prove their mettle by lobbing VHS grenades of gore at each other’s minds, and great sweating giants with mutton-chops corseted into two-sizes-too-small Iron Maiden T-shirts. Very few couples partook of the genre; liver-ripping and eye-gouging was rarely seen as the essential romantic complement to an evening entwined on the couch.
Aside from George A. Romero’s satirical side-swipes at society, the majority of zombie movies were gloriously nasty, schlocky yuck-fests, with names like “RETURN OF THE GREAT ZOMBIE INTENSTINE CARNIVAL III,” “ZOMBIES! ZOMBIES, OH, CHRIST ZOMBIES, THEY’RE EATING MY EYES!” and “I CLAW-HAMMERED MY ZOMBIE GRANDMA’S HEAD OFF.” Anyone with access to a video camera, a cabal of jobless friends and a few hundred gallons of tomato sauce could make one, and invariably they did. Ultimately, the budgets were as low as the interest paid to them by the media-consuming public.
And then The Walking Dead came along, arguably kick-starting our modern obsession with the genre. Goodbye vampires, you pale-faced emo sex-freaks: you’ve had your time in the sun. (Well, in the twilight, I suppose, if you want to be pedantic about it.) It’s unclear exactly how zombies managed to usurp the vampire throne. Maybe as the focus of our fear shifted away from bodily despoilment to the wider canvas of mass extinction, we’ve found zombies to be a better fit for the times. Whatever the reason (and it probably isn’t that, I just thought it sounded cool) we’re living through a zombie renaissance, and there isn’t a demographic out there that hasn’t boarded the Biter Bandwagon.
I offer as qualitative evidence in support of the Zombie Dominance Assertion (or zom-dom-ass if you like) details of my own recent recreational activities. This week alone I’ve watched Fear The Walking Dead; The Walking Dead; Z Nation; watched the trailer for Pride And Prejudice And Zombies; IMDBd World War Z 2; played Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead on the Xbox; started watching season one of CW’s iZombie and googled ‘zombie’ a million times over the course of writing this article. We’re through the looking glass, people. And it’s looking deliciously rotten.
This Halloween, I won’t be examining the raft of full-breed zombie projects currently on offer. That would be too obvious. Instead, I’ll be saluting those non-zombie shows that have injected a little soupcon of zombie into their regular runs. Our headline act tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is a beloved Aussie soap that was given a flesh-munching makeover last Halloween. But first. These…
Supernatural is currently in its 9605th season. Over its run, the show has exhausted almost every conceivable permutation of supernatural event to the point where nothing seems particularly out of the ordinary anymore: Jesus now covets the Winchesters’ seemingly infinite ability to resurrect, and the two brothers nip in and out of Hell like two old ladies with free bus passes. The show really should be renamed “Natural.”
Longevity-related gripes aside, the show has always proved itself adept at putting new hats on old tropes. When it came time to tackle zombies, it at least handled them in an offbeat and emotionally resonant way. The episode “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” began with a very Les Revenants flavor, with a town full of deceased loved ones rising from the grave and returning to their former lives. By the climax, it was Walking Dead time, with said dead loved ones developing a taste for living flesh. The kick to the heart came when Sam and Dean had to alert Bobby to the fact that his recently re-animated wife would eventually turn feral and tear him apart like a Bob Burger.
Speaking of Bob’s Burgers… oh, come on, admit it, that was a fantastic segue. I’ve just high-fived myself, so who cares what you think. Anyway, If you haven’t watched Fox’s animated comedy about the eponoymous Bob (voiced by Archer‘s H Jon Benjamin) and his family-run burger joint then you’re denying yourself something special. Bob’s Burgers now is arguably what The Simpsons was two decades ago. In fact, that very point has been argued in the pages of this esteemed website.
While there hasn’t been a zombie episode per se, eldest child Tina – by far the funniest and most endearing character on the show – has something of a fear/fascination/sexual awakening thing going on with zombies that also incorporates her love of butts. Somehow, it all comes off as sweet rather than creepy, even when she develops a habit of mentally recasting her crushes as the undead.
Some would say that The Simpsons itself has become a vast, lumbering zombie; a slowly decomposing show once dearly beloved that no-one has the heart to put out of its misery. While it can’t be denied that the show isn’t quite as sharp as it was in its heyday – and what show would be after 27 seasons – it’s still funny, and very occasionally brilliant. Nowhere is its inventiveness more apparent than in the annual Treehouse Of Horror episodes.
Given that The Simpsons has handed us a Halloween-themed treat every year for the best part of three decades, it was inevitable that zombies would make an appearance or five on the show. The Simpsons‘ zombie outbreaks have been triggered by events as various as occult rituals, tainted burger meat, Professor Frink’s highly unethical approach to scientific experimentation and aliens pouring poisoned Buzz Cola into the town’s water supply in order to boost ratings for their intergalactic gameshow. In any other town that would be considered unusual. Not in Springfield.
Loving Community and sticking with it for six seasons is a lot like being in a long-term relationship. Consider the parallels. From the moment you meet them you’re bowled over by how quirky, funny, sexy and unique they are. The first year is a blast, a blur. You can’t stop talking about them. You want other people to meet them and love them as much as you do. The second year is even better. You’re smitten, obsessed, your baby can do no wrong. Half-way through the third year, the cracks start to show, but nothing you can’t forgive. The odd bit of nose-picking, a few stray farts. Whatever. Then one day during the fourth year you wake up and look over at the person lying naked in the bed next to you, and you sigh. You don’t recognize them anymore. They don’t make you laugh like they used to. You want to end the relationship. But you stick with it, because you love them and you owe them the chance to change (or Chang-e, God forbid). And they reward your patience with another great year, with moments in it comparable to the first. By the sixth year you’ve made peace with the relationship. Yes, they’ve changed, they’ve changed so much, but the core of them is still intact, and your love has only grown deeper. You wholly accept them for who they were, who they are, and the person they’re still becoming. And then they leave you.
When people recommend an episode of Community to newcomers, it’s usually one of the show’s many pop-culture pastiches. One of the best of these is “Epidemiology,” in which the gang face down a zombie horde composed of their own infected classmates, sent into zombiedom by a consignment of tainted Taco meat the Dean bought on the cheap for the college’s Halloween party. It’s an incredibly fast-paced and funny episode, showcasing a tonne of deliciously satisfying character moments along the way (Jeff’s fatal relationship with his own sense of style, for one). Tropes are set up and then shot down with dizzying glee, one horror trope in particular giving rise to the funniest line of the episode, spoken by Abed:
“Troy, make me proud. Be the first black man to make it to the end.”
Plus, it’s surely the only recorded example in history of a zombie outbreak being set to the music of Abba.
Finishing a show can feel like a bereavement. Of all the many television series I’ve watched over the long decades of my mostly-squandered existence, there are few characters I’ll miss as much as candy-guzzling, hallucinogen-loving, world-tearing genius Walter Bishop. I’d give Walter pride of place in the highest ranks of TV’s greatest icons, alongside Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Eddie Fitzgerald and that other famous Walter with a love for drugs and science. What a legend, what a show. I’m jealous of the alternate universe me who’s just sitting down now to watch Fringe for the first time. Damn him.
Fringe began its run as a quirky, so-so, monster-of-the-week sort of show, but quickly evolved into a smart, endlessly inventive serial capable of juggling clever sci-fi ideas with moments of deep earnestness and heart-breaking pathos. The show dipped into a lot of styles and concepts over its lifespan, but never tackled the zombie genre head-on. Sure, there were reanimated Frankenstein-esque creatures; skinless shape-shifters, and a Brigadoon-inspired town filled with demented, double-faced, flesh-eating savages, but zombies – real, shambling, undead brain-munchers from classic horror lore – were thin on the ground.
The only time “true” zombies appeared was in the mostly cartoon-ified season 3 episode “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide.” Walter and son Peter use a combination of LSD and fringe science to enter agent Olivia Dunham’s brain in a bid to rescue her ever-shrinking ego from oblivion. (God I miss this show) Lab-coat-clad zombies with a striking resemblance to Walter’s lab assistant Brandon mount a drooling attack on Peter and Walter as they run across a rooftop to the safety of a helicopter. Peter’s bout of slickly-animated high-rise zombie ass-kicking is a genuine joy to behold.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
The only thing scarier than being trapped in a zombie apocalypse is being trapped in a zombie apocalypse with the staff of Paddy’s Pub. You won’t meet a more horrid bunch of human beings. Mac, Charlie, Dee, Dennis and Frank are the walking embodiment of at least seventy-eight different psychiatric disturbances: narcissism and anti-social behavioral disorder chief among them. They’re venal, savage and selfish, so don’t expect much in the way of heroics and sacrifice once the zombies start biting.
Luckily for the world, the zombies in the season 8 episode “The Maureen Pondorosa Wedding Massacre” aren’t zombies at all, although the episode has a lot of fun messing around with the conventions of the genre. The “zombies” are in fact a whole reception-load of people whose minds have been pushed to the brink of collapse by a combination of spiked drinks, wholly justified anger and a thousand years of McPoyle inbreeding. No prizes for guessing which guests are the architects of this near-apocalyptic destruction. That’s why you should never, ever invite the gang to your wedding. Or your birthday party. Or your bar mitzvah. Or anything at all, really.
But you really should watch the show. It’s genuinely one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years.
Honorable mentions go to: The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spaced, South Park, Doctor Who, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But now, for the headline act…
Neighbours vs Zombies
A real-life zombie apocalypse would be a terrible thing, but one aspect of it has always appealed to me. Should it happen, and should we manage to overcome it a la World War Z, or learn to live with it a la Fido (a wonderfully quirky Canadian zom-com starring Billy Connolly as a domesticated zombie), our reward for persevering as a species would be genuinely amazing soap operas. Think about it. Their writers couldn’t just mix up the same hoary cocktail of fist-fights, affairs and loud cries of “Gerroutta my pub!” They’d be forced to address the apocalypse and its toll on an almost daily basis, essentially transforming every British soap opera into a spinoff of The Walking Dead. I can see the TV listings now:
Undeaderdale Farm: A bunch of farmers are forced to deal with their lingering zombie problem when one of them is devoured by a dead cow. “Eee, lad, thy ca’ as just etten uz. Theur owe uz ten chickens n’eur ferret.” “Tha’ cowpat thy just stood in was uz son!”
Corpse-nation Street: Ken Barlow argues with his local MP over Weatherfield’s disproportionately high ‘Defence Against the Dead’ tax. Also, Betty makes a hotpot. Which then comes to life and kills her.
Deceased-enders: Dirty Den comes back… again. “Ello, princess…” “Oh for Christ sake, Dad…” Thankfully, Dot manages to take him out with a clean headshot before he can reach the webcam.
Thanks to the people at FremantleMedia we can get a glimpse of what that soap-apocalyptic future might look like Down Under through the five-part 2014 Halloween webisode series Neighbours Vs Zombies. (I would’ve gone with G’Day Of The Dead) If you’ve ever wanted to see a squad of the undead clamouring to devour Paul Robinson, or wondered if that dirty beggar Karl Kennedy would fight zombies or try to have an affair with them behind Susan’s back, then this is the seasonal event for you.
Neighbours Vs Zombies is actually pretty good, to which I add the qualifier “for what it is.” Don’t go in expecting some undiscovered body of work from George A. Romero. You’ll probably find something in it to like if you are, or ever were, fond of the soap. It’s all a bit of silly fun, after all. Subjecting it to harsh criticism is rather like lamenting the dearth of symbolism in an episode of The Chuckle Brothers.
The plot is straightforward enough. Somebody’s been dumping toxic waste in an Erinsborough lake, causing Neighbours‘ extensive back-catalogue of snuffed characters to return from the grave. At first, they seem reasonably tame. The supremely irritating Stingray goofs around calling everyone a “cake-taker.” David Bishop mopes around looking like a cross between a vampire and a ventriloquist’s dummy. Dead Drew is just as stiff an actor as living Drew. Things are calm for a while. The zombies just seem to want to chat and reminisce. And then they start eating people. There’s a bit of screaming and running, chewing and gnawing. We finally discover the limits of Karl Kennedy’s medical knowledge. The zombie extras shuffle around unconvincingly like people who’ve been kicked in the balls. A small band of survivors holes up in Lassiters or Harold’s Shop or whatever the hell it’s called now, and the whole thing bows out on a Dead Set-ish note of bleakness.
There’s certainly some fun to be had along the way: an entertaining and appropriately tongue-in-cheek version of the theme song by the talented Louna Maroun (she also co-stars and wrote the script), several callbacks to classic-era Neighbours, and an amusing Back To The Future-inspired Tony Abbott joke.
If I have one major complaint it’s that I didn’t know who most of the characters were, but given that I stopped watching Neighbours in 2008, that’s hardly surprising. What is surprising is my lingering affection for the show, even after all these years. My default position on soap operas is usually one of open disdain. Neighbours managed to sneak past my cynicism circuits by aping the age-old strategy of religion and nabbing me in childhood. I was a lad at the height of 80s Aussie-mania: everyone loved Neighbours, everyone was talking about it. Permed mullets and denim were de rigueur. Cockatiels were out, gallahs were in. For approximately three years, girls from my class at primary school fawned over the union of Des and Daphne. I got married so many times in that playground I’m practically a Mormon.
The show continued to hug me tight throughout my stoned adolescence. At university, groups of us would huddle around tiny portable sets in each other’s disgusting kitchens to watch the show, scoffing 5p cans of beans and toast made from mouldy bread, lying to ourselves that we were watching it ironically when clearly we were desperately hooked. Ultimately, Neighbours was a harder habit to break than smoking. When the show moved to Channel 5 it felt like an intervention, my best chance of being cured. If there’s one thing I hate more than soap operas, it’s ad breaks.
I’ll admit that it was gratifying to see Toadie, Karl, Susan and Paul pitted against the undead, but Amber, Robbo, Mason, Sonya? Who are these people? Where was zombie Jim Robinson? Mrs Mangel? Henry Ramsay? Zombie Kylie Minogue? Where was Lou Carpenter with a bandana strapped to his bonce letting zombies have it with a pump-action leaf blower? Okay, Alan Dale‘s busy appearing in every TV show on earth, so we’ll give him a pass, but what was Kylie’s excuse?
Spoiler alert: It will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that Paul Robinson is the man responsible for the end of the world in Neighbours Vs Zombies. That doesn’t concern me too much. I’d gladly forgive Paul Robinson for the zombie apocalypse. What I will never, ever, ever forgive him for is releasing Don’t It Make You Feel Good in 1987.
Have a happy Halloween, folks. I’m just off to dress up like Zombie Dracula and write my long-awaited treatise, “The Dearth of Symbolism in the Chuckle Brothers.”