Why the Zombie Genre needs to be Re-animated from Splatter-Chomp to Mysticism

I mentioned this earlier and want to examine it in more detail. As good as it was, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has done more to limit the zombie genre than any other movie or book I can think of.

Here’s why that’s not a good thing.

Prior to this zombies were never about eating people. And they sure as heck were never about eating brains.  But here’s the problem with Romero’s film. It took what was once a genre filled with mystique and made it into splatter-chomp. And now that it’s splatter-chomp there was nowhere else for it go go except over-hyped splatter-chomp cum Apocalypse. Served with brains on the side. And it wasn’t long before the genre slid into slapstick and parody. Now we have zombies no one can take seriously a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

That’s what faces us today.

It’s too bad, really, because zombies had so much going for them prior to Romero’s film. Take Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie which I reviewed. That was an awesome film. So was Val Lewton’s uber-supreme I Walked with a Zombie which uses Jane Eyre as source material.


Val Lewton’s take on Jane Eyre…with zombies, voodoo, pathos, and Gothic imagery

These movies and others like them portrayed zombies for what they were supposed to be: living people (and sometimes dead, you couldn’t always tell) transformed into the unliving. Usually to serve as slaves or to make them pay for some horrible crime. But there was always something poignant about the zombie and its plight in these movies. There’s nothing poignant about the modern flesh eating zombie. He’s one-dimensional.

Yes, yes, I’m a zombie snob. That’s already been established.

Now, zombies didn’t start off that way. I concede that. Romero’s film was both horrifying and artistic with a steady dose of nihilism. He was making a deep statement about the world he saw and he just happened to use zombies to get his artistic point across. But lesser filmmakers, and writers, only saw the cannibalism and ran with that single idea.

Now we’re left with zombies eating brains and there’s nowhere else for them to go. It’s a literary cul-de-sac in my opinion.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But isn’t it also cool to examine the deep mystery, the Gothic imagery combined with Caribbean mysticism of zombiedom, rather than turning zombies into simple-minded fast food consumers?

Zombies as they are now portrayed are no longer frightening or horrific. They’re gross. But they’re not scary.

So in my opinion the zombie genre is in bad straits. I hope someone comes along and reboots it with an eye toward reviving its mystical past. If they can reboot Star Trek and Spider-Man they should be able to reboot this. Anyway, I hope so, ‘cuz I kinda like zombies. The old time zombies. The mystical zombies. The scary zombies.

So. Until this happens, where can you go to read good, memorable zombie stories that are old school? Look no further than Marvel’s Tales of the Zombie. This was a black and white comic published in the Seventies and it still rocks. It’s what zombies used to be about. It’s sexy and violent and Simon Garth, the zombie in question, is definitely old school. The only carp I have is it’s written in second person, a forced literary affectation I have always despised because it calls too much attention to itself. But the stunning artwork and layered characterization overcomes that limitation.

If, like me, you like the old time zombies, then please check out this collection. I think you’ll like it a lot.

“The sky is the killer of us all.” Enemy Ace – A Review

DC’s Showcase: Enemy Ace , written by Robert Kanigher and penciled by the legendary Joe Kubert, is the most unrelentingly nihilistic comic I’ve ever read. Enemy Ace - nihilism at its best

It presents the face of war from the side of the enemy.  In this case it’s Hans Von Hammer, a WWI fighter pilot modeled after Baron Manfred Von Richthofen, better known as the “Red Baron”.  Like his namesake Von Hammer collects victory cups for each plane he shoots down and flies a red Fokker DR1, just like the Baron.  There are many other aspects of his life that parallel Richthofen’s,  which makes the comic (for those who know something about WWI aces) a real joy to read.

The technology and fighting tactics are correct for the most part. But, these are comics and sometimes you get goofy characters the Enemy Ace has to go up against and defeat, or situations that stretch credulity.  But overall the stories themselves are top-notch and crushing in their nihilism and bleak outlook of men at war.

Von Hammer has no friends.  Death follows him.  The ground crew call him a killing machine and always remark on how cool he looks and how easily he kills.  He cannot connect in any emotional way with other human beings, and his only friend is a black wolf he meets in the forest — another killer.  They develop a psychic connection.  They both know one day they will be killed.  Killers are always killed — Nature demands it.  Von Hammer returns to the forest many times between missions.  He can find solace only at the side of this black wolf, his only true friend.  It is his only moment of peace.

But more than that it is the sky which endures in these comics.  The sky, as Von Hammer notes, is the “enemy of us all.”  He is “a killing machine” but one day he knows the sky will kill him.  The sky itself is a main character in all these stories.  It is vast, uncaring, unmoving.  The sky strikes down friend and foe alike.  There are many panels where Von Hammer’s plane is but a tiny speck in the vast space.  He is nothing compared to the infinite power of the sky, and he knows he can never be anything but a lonely speck waiting his turn to be killed.  As he kills.

About the only drawback to these stories is they are presented in black and white. These were originally four-color comics and we miss the red of his plane, the blue sky, the checkerboard green quilt of the land below.  Sometimes a comic can still work published in black and white even though it first appeared in color.  The Showcase: Jonah Hex collection is such an example.  But the absence of color hurts the overall appearance of these Enemy Ace stories, I think.  We want to see his red plane.  You can tell some of the panels were set up to enhance the color and make the action more alive.

Aside from that these stories are pretty darn good.  If you want to read a nihilistic comic and are interested in WWI flying aces, this collection is the one to read.

The Magical Reality of Reading

I used to read everywhere. Lying on the floor, in bed, in the tub, under a tree, in a tree, on the ground, in the car, at the dinner table, in the living room while everyone else was watching TV, late at night, under the stars, on a train, walking to and from school, inI used to read everywhere. Didn't you? school, in restaurants, under a table, under a trailer, in a deer stand, on the edge of a field, beside a campfire, in a tent…whew! I guess the one place I didn’t do much reading was church because that would have gotten me slapped.

I read everywhere. I probably couldn’t remember all the places if I tried, and what I put down here doesn’t begin to exhaust the list. When I think back to all the places I read it feels, well, kind of heavy in my mind. Like there were a lot of them.

Anyway, I read everywhere I could, whenever I could. I was voracious. I read everything, and I loved it.

I partly read to escape my life, but I also read because I enjoyed the physical act of reading. I liked carrying a book or a magazine around with me, its pages dog-eared, spine cracked. It seemed like it was always ready. There was something about it that felt right to me.

I will always remThe first comic I ever bought was Hot Stuff, haha. What was yours?ember the very first book I bought with my own money, and where I read it. It was a comic book about Hot Stuff, the Little Devil. We were living in Pearl, Mississippi at the time. I sat on the gray concrete stoop outside our front door and read that comic book while my baby brother took a nap. It was the beginning of a long, and often lonely, journey.

I say lonely because reading is a lot like writing. It’s a bit of a lonely exercise. Unless you are reading for someone or in front of someone. Otherwise it’s a solitary act, much like writing. Which is why they go so well together, I guess?

As I got older I read less, but I read more critically. Over the years, especially as an adult, I stopped making it a point to finish whatever book I started reading. I  used to be proud of that. I outgrew it fast enough when I began to understand it’s not how much you read, but how well you read.

I very much believe a good writer must be a good reader. Not of books, but people, too. Writers are always watching people and reading them in an unobtrusive way. We watch how they act and move and speak and change, and are changed, by the world around them. We read other people, and ourselves, and the world, as they circle around us.

We never stop because I think it’s sort of innate behavior with writers. I don’t know if it’s something you can teach. Maybe. If not it should be.

But all that reading doesn’t go to waste. When I attended a family reunion a while back one of my relatives pushed his little boy forward and said, “He wants to be a writer like you. Can you maybe give him some advice?”

I did.  I told him the best thing he could do right now was read. “Read as much as you can,” I said, “and everything you can. You like fantasy and that’s what you want to write, so that’s what you should read most. But you should also read mysteries, romance, science fiction, history, everything. Keep doing that, and the writing will come.”

I often think of my little relative from time to time and wonder if he’s reading. I used to lie in bed late at night (0n a school night, no less) and have the bathroom door cracked just enough so I could see the page and make out the words.

Is he reading? I expect he is. If he’s a writer, even at that unformed age, I can promise you he is reading.

I did it. You did it. Yeah, I bet he is, too.

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