For years, I spurned zombie flicks for the same reason I spurned the cinnamon challenge: I didn’t need to personally try them to know that I would personally dislike myself afterwards.
It wasn’t only that I saw little cleverness in subjecting myself to such cheap, godless, frothed-up fear; I simply saw no reason to be afraid at all and, furthermore, I’ve always hated being manipulated. Catastrophes that couldn’t, wouldn’t, don’t happen, don’t scare me. They’re just obnoxious.
My mantra? There are no zombies, and I hate them.
But then I saw 28 Days Later. I’d heard it was the most intelligent zombie movie out there, and as a half-pint film critic of sorts, I wanted to watch one–just to see what the ghoulish nonsense was all about. (Since “Thriller” didn’t exactly count.)
And then I watched I Am Legend.
And then World War Z.
I’ve changed my mind.
Barry Cooper’s recent article, “4 Reasons Zombies Won’t Die,” sums up why I now think Christians can (and in some cases, should) watch zombie movies–some Christians, some zombie movies. Why? Because the films frequently possess what we might call “response value”–value for the mature viewer who has the wisdom not only to discern the kernel(s) of truth there, but to provide any truth that’s missing.
For zombie movies, this response value lies in the walking dead themselves.
Before evaluating these three films, I want to highlight one of Cooper’s observations in particular–something which I consider to be the key point in the grisly genre’s favor, and that is this: zombies remind us of where we’re all headed. “The psychological horror of the zombie is rooted in the creeping realization that we, too, are the walking dead,” Cooper writes. “We all bear the family likeness of Adam, as sure a promise of oncoming death as a bite mark from one of the zombie horde. As the poet Philip Larkin expressed it, ‘Life is slow dying.'”
Cooper hits it right on the head. This is the real zombie apocalypse. “Apocalypse,” which comes from the Greek apocolypsis (ἀποκάλυψις), simply means revelation, or, more strictly, “an uncovering,” “a laying bare, making naked” (1)–and zombie movies do lay one thing painfully bare: all we like zombies have died anyway. Is there any clearer picture, in any art form, of the wages of sin? Can you find a more sickeningly honest depiction of the shadow of death? Is there any truth more scary? Is there any truth more necessary?
My mantra: there are zombies, and I fear, pity, and pray for them, for they are we.
My thumb is up for all three flicks I’ve seen. They each virtually explode with the truth that “in Adam all die.” But how are death and evil answered in each story? That is what determined my favorite. And it wasn’t the one I expected.
World War Z
Directed by Marc Forster. Starring Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane; Mireille Enos as Karin Lane; Daniella Kertesz as Segen; James Badge Dale as Captain Speke.
Brad Pitt’s $150-million summer blockbuster (which almost didn’t survive all the rewrites, reshoots, and endless production nightmares) launches with disturbing snapshots of animals devouring each other in the wild. The metaphor makes a strong start: this is a story about humans becoming “like the beasts that perish.”
Marc Forster’s handling of the script and Robert Richardson’s cinematography alike are strong, stark, and genuinely creepy without reaching high-proof horror. Less than two hours long, the movie actually feels much closer to three thanks to heavy, well-executed action sequences (one of the best of them featuring my new favorite spec ops captain, James Badge Dale, fresh from Iron Man 3 where he basically chewed gum and blew himself up repeatedly) and tension turned almost as tight as it can go without sending me into hyperventilation (hey, it’s happened before).
The characters, if not terribly complex or interesting in and of themselves, are hearty, noble, and likable–which tends to be all that really matters in a disaster film. If we care enough that we don’t want them to die, that’s usually enough to squeak by.
What I liked best was Gerry’s (Brad) family-mindedness. (Think a blond, worry-lined Jack Ryan chasing down a virus instead of Sean Connery.) “This whole thing started because I just wanted to do a film that my boys could see before they turned 18,” Pitt explained at the CinemaCon Convention. If a picture of the ideal husband, father, and fighter is what that dream boiled down to, then Brad gave his boys just that. The moments that gut-punched hardest were the moments when his character was ready to lay down his life for his wife and kids.
But the very thing that makes the zombie genre so (potentially) compelling is the very thing that makes World War Z, by the time the credits are on the roll, rather weak–purely because of the ending. The first golden 100 minutes turn all the clichés back into classic; they give us the impression that we’re watching the original, the true archetype. But it doesn’t last. The third act (that gnarly conundrum for so many storytellers) wraps things up in a sloppy jiffy that is simultaneously trite and bleak.
Why? Because the answer to the zombie problem doesn’t nearly live up to the power of the problem. There were moments when I thought they were cooking up something great (everyone’s flocking to Jerusalem, Gerry just got pierced straight through his side), but then…. Camouflage? Really? Just duck and hide till it’s all over? Though injecting yourself with “death” to overcome death might be wowzers poignant in any other action flick, Gerry’s 11th-hour “solution” feels like finding a foxhole on Omaha Beach and thinking you’ve nailed the objective. “I’ve got it! Now the Germans can’t get me!”
Zombies are death on ten toes. They are sin with souls. They are us. And we need saving. We don’t need to be avoided, we need to be cured. The problem won’t be fixed simply by grimly playing ostrich until hell blows over, because the problem will keep coming back–we will keep coming back until we are truly dead, buried, and resurrected.
World War Z is strong. It holds out for as long as it can. But in the end, it turns … just a little … and dies.
I Am Legend
Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville; Alice Braga as Anna; Salli Richardson-Whitfield as Zoe Neville; Willow Smith as Marley Neville
If you want a picture of the death of Christ that doesn’t star Jim Caviezel, here’s your movie.
I Am Legend doesn’t achieve the same heights as 28 Days Later in technical proficiency, and the story-grip loosens where World War Z keeps a white-knuckle clench, but it carries the sin/death metaphor all the way out the most obviously. Which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
Robert Neville is a doctor. He’s been saving lives for a long time. His face appears on an old issue of TIME magazine along with the question: “Savior?” He sticks around a deserted New York City (for how long? three years, of course), refusing to leave his people because he insists that he can still save them–even though they’re trying to kill him. He says “Light up the darkness” all the time. (Who cares that he’s quoting Bob Marley; Bob Marley was quoting John 1:5, whether he knew it or not.) A cross pendant swings from Anna’s rear-view mirror. She shares a name with the prophetess who saw the coming of the Savior. She even declares that God is the one who sent her to him–to Robert, a man on the verge of losing his faith, a man who is immune so he can’t get infected, but he can sure die. And he does. For the world. And when the doors of the survivors’ colony swing open, the first thing we see is the steeple of a church, and the last thing we hear are church bells. If it isn’t yet obvious what I’m saying, I’m saying I Am Legend could stand to be a little more subtle in the Christ department.
But that’s also what makes it so good.
I Am Legend shows how simultaneously hideous and tragic our (unsaved mankind’s) hatred for God truly is. They aren’t called zombies in this movie; they’re called “dark-seekers”–which is way too elegant and self-conscious a name, by the way; no one besides a well-meaning but clumsy and over-excited screenwriter would ever come up with that one. But it does have a certain ring to it. We are dark-seekers. We are lovers of darkness rather than light. If Legend’s “walking dead” are a little cartoonish in name and form, they are unmistakably, uncomfortably, undeniably us.
Cornering Robert in his lab where the cure is literally in his hands, the rabid mob is a mirror of humanity and our own blind, headstrong stupidity that would be laughable if it weren’t so damn monstrous. Robert tries to tell them that they are sick and he can save them; they don’t care, they want him dead. God became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory; but we didn’t care, we wanted Him dead. If you don’t think you were there, crying “Crucify Him” with our fathers, here’s your movie.
Other pros: Will Smith does a heartrending job. I thought he was limited to the slick wiseacre act, but he can pull off the haunted-man-on-an-island thing even better than Tom Hanks. And his canine co-star, Sam, almost steals the show. (I dare you to get over that scene. You know the one I’m talking about.)
Director Francis Lawrence and his effects team do particularly fine work transforming NYC into an eerie, oddly beautiful, jungle-borough hybrid–a refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic city. Most directors go for instant grunge. Not Lawrence. “We didn’t want to make an apocalyptic movie where the landscape felt apocalyptic,” he said. “A lot of the movie takes place on a beautiful day. There’s something magical about the empty city as opposed to dark and scary.”
And James Newton-Howard (perhaps taking his cues from Alan Silvestri’s Cast Away) shows amazing restraint with his musical score. Seldom has any composer conveyed so much anguish with so little melody. When the first notes–soft, heartsick piano–at last touch about 30 minutes in, the movie itself feels like a stoic survivor finally breaking down.
Other cons: A few lumps in the screenplay. The first half is stronger than the second, for one thing; something to do with the fact that the story is actually a bit thin; something to do with the fact that it feels like Lawrence is just trying to get us to Calvary because he knows that’s the point; something to do with the fact that we all loved the German Shepherd best. And for all the power of Robert’s sacrifice, the last 120 seconds do feel quite dry; the end credits, unexpected.
But of the three movies in this review, people will probably find I Am Legend the most satisfying. It’s dark, scary, funny, touching, relatable, easy to appreciate, and redemptive–all in one. For once, the zombie problem is matched by a solution just as powerful in its truth. It’s not about camouflaging ourselves from evil, it’s about saving the dead. Letting those who could not kill you take your life. Giving yourself up for the rest of the world when you didn’t have to because you could have lived your life in peace, untouched by the decay around you.
“This is ground zero,” Robert says. “This is my site. I can still fix this.”
We’ve seen the sick and the dead before. We haven’t seen a son of man willing to die for them.
28 Days Later
Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Cillian Murphy as Jim; Naomie Harris as Selena; Brendan Gleeson as Frank; Christpher Eccleston as Major Henry West.
Say hello to the only movie that’s ever scared me. Not Jaws. Not Alien. Not all of M. Night Shyamalan’s jump moments combined–but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. And when I say I was scared, I don’t mean I got the shivers, I mean I was thoroughly, miserably, wretchedly terrified of being eaten by pure evil in my own world.
Which is, come to think of it, the point of the film.
28 Days Later is objectively the finest of the lot, judging by sheer filmmaking skills. It’s Danny Boyle; he almost can’t help it. (Where was he when they were passing out Oscars?) His directing is tight, dexterous, and visually grabby, and brings the best out of first-time-screenwriter Alex Garland’s creative, character-driven (if occasionally logic-holey) script. The cinematography alone deserved an Academy Award: haunting angles, sudden POV shifts, staccato camera tricks, and, of course, Boyle’s signature color bursts (notably red, fitting for rage).
And no one walks away from 28 Days Later without talking about the soundtrack. Danny Boyle is known for shaping his movies with profound musical selections, but this one is possibly the best I’ve seen yet, and I’m comparing it to Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and Sunshine–awesome soundtracks, all.
It’s his choices of church music that are the most striking. He can call himself a spiritual atheist all he wants. I smell–if not quite faith–at least certain knowledge of the truth. (He did grow up Catholic.) The movie never mentions God explicitly (perhaps the closest it gets is a graffitied wall saying: “REPENT: THE END IS EXTREMELY F–ING NIGH”), but Boyle pays tribute to his childhood faith through some exquisitely well-timed pieces: “Ave Maria,” Fauré’s “In Paradisum,” and–what brought me to tears in the saddest scene of all– “Abide with Me,” where a single alto sings:
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
The story itself? Amazing. Danny Boyle set out to make a social commentary answering the question, what is wrong with the world? The answer: it’s us. Humans. Sons of Adam. The “zombies” aren’t actually dead (which means it isn’t technically a zombie movie, but nobody cares); they’re simply infected with rage.
Why? Because scientists are studying rage-infected chimpanzees when a few misguided animal rights activists decide to turn the chimps loose. How did the apes get infected? The movie doesn’t explain the science, but it does show furious animals surrounded by dozens of TV screens playing real-life events of humans killing humans, all over the globe. The problem, in other words, comes from people.
And why were the chimps infected? “In order to cure,” explains one of the scientists, “we must first understand.”
Boyle understands. And his little twist in the genre is strong. Rather than turning its victims into something whole “other” (aka, dead), the virus amplifies what is already inherent in every man and woman. It simply reveals what is natural in each of us: the blind anger of the kin-slayer Cain. If C. S. Lewis turned Eustace into a dragon in order to show us the dragon inside us all, Boyle turns humans into zombies to show us the zombies that we are.
It’s a genius premise. The result: a dark, nauseating, pull-no-punches exploration of the absolute worst in human nature.
If you get your jollies out of zombie movies because you like a creepy thrill every now and then, 28 Days Later will sober you right down. There is hardly anything sadder than fearing your fellow man. (Indeed, that is the tragic world Jesus came to save; He was killed by His fellow men.) But not only does Danny Boyle scare the ever-loving snot out of us with the darkness of our own hearts, he also proves–violently–how futile it is for man to try to save himself from himself.
“Salvation is here,” announce the British soldiers. “The answer to infection is here.” Like Lot’s daughters, their idea of salvation is to take matters into their own hands. And their “cure” is even worse than the virus. How close they come to raping the girls under their protection (including a very young teenager) is far more hellish and animalistic than anything we see from the red-eyed crazies.
The soldiers don’t understand that salvation isn’t something you grab. It’s something you give.
And Jim gives.
He gives, and he grows. “Staying alive’s as good as it gets,” says the cynical, hard-bitten Selena, ready to kill anyone with the first sign of infection. She has the same mindset as the soldiers. But Jim proves them all wrong. Innocent to the point of pathetic at the beginning, he grows into a true dragon-slayer by the end–proving that just as survival isn’t the greatest good, so dying isn’t the worst evil.
The first time I watched it, the climax was too bloody offensive for me to recognize the hope it offers. The second time, my eyes were opened to the gospel.
Jim is taken “outside the city” (as it were) to be executed like a traitor and a criminal, but he escapes by feigning death (becoming one with the dead) and returns, a warrior against all odds, to save his bride.
Boyle deliberately shot Jim’s bloodbath heroics using the same shaky, slow-motion trick he used for the infected so that we would identify Jim with them, except that he is fundamentally different. Jim controls his rage. His rage delivers justice and spares the innocent. His love for life is so strong, he’s willing to give his own for others.
And if Jim scares you at the end of the movie, that’s a good thing. True love, salvific love, is always terrifying.
Danny Boyle drags us through a lot of mud, blood, panic, and despair. Man is dead. Man is death. Man, acting as man, is hopeless to save himself. But Boyle doesn’t leave us there. Where is salvation? Let go of your own bootstraps. Salvation demands an altar. Life is only at the end of a long, dark tomb of “my life for yours.” You can pick up only that which you have first lain down for others. Follow Jim.
28 Days Later would have to be my favorite of the three. Blistering, unfun, and unforgettable, Boyle’s truth is both more subtle and more over-the-top than either WWZ or I Am Legend. He makes you dig harder to find anything redeeming whatsoever about having your hair stand on end for two hours. But the result is worth it.
The movie itself is a virus. It crawled under my skin and changed the way I felt about man, about myself, about life, about God’s love for a dead, depraved world. And it’s here to stay.
So watch zombie movies–at least these three, and I’ve heard some good things about Frank Darabont’s Walking Dead, too. But watch out how you watch them. Remember that “all those who hate Me love death.” Don’t be so obsessed with the chills and thrills that you start falling in love with the last enemy He will destroy.
On the flip side (if you’re the easily depressed type), don’t despair over the death in zombie flicks. Staring Adam’s curse in the face has its uses. After all, before we hear the good news, we must first know that we are dead, and we are disgusting, and that without the real Legend, we are all going to a hell that we, haters of God, will have created for ourselves. Face it. Confess it. But don’t wallow in it, for in Christ, death is good news. In Christ, the first (and only) precondition necessary to new life is precisely that we be dead. Dry bones are His material of choice. To this world of rotting corpses, He says: “Get up. Live. Know that I am God.”
One by one throughout this millennia-long zombie movie, the walking dead of the world receive His breath from the four winds, and we live, and stand: an exceedingly great army.