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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

NYCC: What Distinguishes the Zombie Genre from Every Other Type of Horror

Out of all the subgenres of horror (and there are plenty), I still believe that none have been as compelling, vastly explored and consistently fresh as the zombie genre. From George A. Romero's groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, creators continue to churn out captivating stories that delve into the human experience and survival unlike any other genre -- horror or otherwise.

Some of the best and brightest zombie creators from literature and cinema gathered together to discuss this very topic at a New York Comic Con panel I attended last weekend titled Decade of the Dead: A Zombie-versary. Panelists Jonathan Maberry (New York Times bestselling author of "Dead of Night: A Zombie Novel"), Roger Ma (author of "The Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead") gave their thoughts on the last ten years of zombie film and TV in a lively hour of conversation moderated by the co-creator of the SYFY channel's Z Nation, Craig Engler. Here's a great takeaway:

While many people often focus on the zombies, there's a deeper meaning behind most great stories that often leads back to the human connection. Maberry said, "What's so interesting about the zombie genre is that zombies generally don't have a personality, so the humans remain the center of the story. In fact, many fans don't realize that the title The Walking Dead refers to the humans, not the zombies." It's the humans who have to fight to survive knowing that this could be their last day on Earth. "Any story that makes the zombies the focus, loses the audience," Maberry added.
It's true that the humans' fight for survival is most absorbing to watch (and I'd also add understanding how a situation as unique as a zombie outbreak affects their sense of self and who they ultimately become when faced with death). But then I thought of Warm Bodies, which is more about the zombies' struggle with their humanity. It's also the only time I've seen a zombie gradually recompose and develop human capabilities. I've always wondered whether a zombie would even want to ever be human again, and how that would affect their zombie urges. What's also fascinating is that zombies are former humans, and some of them have just recently inhabited their zombie forms yet still feel so distant from humanity. The Walking Dead often plays with this concept: sometimes the zombies start exhibiting symptoms quickly after they've been exposed or bitten, while others are bitten and instantly shed their humanity.

Does it make a difference to the viewer whether the zombie is first introduced as a human rather than only ever being a zombie with actual characteristics? I feel more connected to a human-turned-zombie, but I can also understand how some may be drawn to a zombie like R in Warm Bodies who's quite distinct. But that goes back to the earlier theory that many of us are interested in the human aspect, even if the human aspect is provided by the zombie.

But hey, I also love a zombie to just be a zombie -- a slow-moving, human-eating villain with no name. There is, however, the idea of fast zombies, which are often found in more recent contributions to the genre. They get around quickly, but there is something about them that definitely leaves an impression, especially given that they're the rarer breed. Plus, their speed weakens the humans' chances of survival because it makes it difficult for them to be outran. So how does a human overcome this type of zombie? Well, fight them as if they were human. Ma went into greater detail from his book on how a human could utilize common weapons to annihilate a zombie (like, seriously explicit detail that even discusses how to properly bash in their skulls).

I could really go on and on about the zombie genre since it has been revitalized so often, which is perhaps the best thing about it. As Ma said, "Everyone has an opinion about the zombie genre. Even if they hate it, they've got something to say about it and what it means to them."

So now I must ask, what do you love most about the zombie genre? Or what do you dislike most about it?


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