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Some Very British Zombies

A few months ago, I looked at British vampire films. Now the time has come, I believe, to consider those other undead inhabitants of these isles: British zombies. Not least because I have recently returned from my annual trip to Day of the Undead, a one-day festival of shambling corpses on screen held very conveniently around the corner at Leicester Phoenix. This year there was a rare chance to see The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and Dellamorte Dellamore on the big screen, as well as the UK theatrical premiere of Devil's Playground and only the second screening of Zomblies, both of which I'll deal with in due course.
      But let's pause to consider the history of the UK zombie film and how the shambling, shuffling, cadaverous, cannibalistic undead have become, within the past 15 years or so, the default monster de nos jours.

      Back in the 1990s (when, as I may previously have mentioned, I worked on SFX magazine) the prevailing supernatural sub-culture was one of vampirism as all the goths left over from the preceding decade used up their stocks of hairspray and eye-liner. By the turn of the century there were actually two glossy mags wholly devoted to vampire-related stuff, Bloodstone and Bite Me. There were zombies too, but nothing like the number we have now. The list of zombie films on Wikipedia, while it's no more accurate or trustworthy than the rest of that online man-in-a-pub, provides a useful approximate index, in that more zombie films are listed for this current year than for the whole of the 1990s. You can analyse this using lots of fancy media studies-speak and phrases like 'post-millennial angst' and 'fin-de-siecle ennui', but you know what's relevant? - Two things: one is that it is much, much, much cheaper and easier to actually make a film now (at the bottom end of the scale) so more people are doing it and they are naturally gravitating towards easier, cheaper genres of film. Like zombies. And also: vampire require actors. Vampires have dialogue - or if they don't, you need an actor capable of emoting without dialogue. But anybody can be a zombie! No acting skills required. If you don't mind having gunk on your face and are capable of staggering forwards with a stiff-legged, lurching gait while maintaining a glassy stare - and who among us can say we've never occasionally behaved like that on a Saturday night? - then you too can be a zombie. And if you want dialogue, try this: 'B-w-a-i-n-s!' There you go, that's a wrap.

      While that whole vampire chic has retreated from the cultural zeitgeist, zombies have shuffled to the fore. I'm not aware of any actual glossy zombie mags (though that's probably more to do with changes in publishing) but there are zombie books, zombie websites, zombie games, zombie events up and down the country - not least the ever-popular zombie walks. Anyone who wants to can turn up to these things, dressed in ketchup-stained rags with gunk on their face, then lurch around town en masse, freaking out passers-by. It's a measure of how mainstream zombies have become that passers-by are in fact very rarely freaked out by zombie walks nowadays. Some people probably think it's just a protest demo or a parade. Zombie pride maybe. Say it loud: we're undead and we're proud! The goths never had vampire walks, did they? (Maybe because they would have had to do them at night so nobody would have noticed.) But the thing about dressing up as vampires is that they're all variations on a theme: bit of leather, touch of velvet, plenty of mascara, ruby-red lippy and you're done. The beauty of being zombies is that zombies are us. They're people. They're just dead. So anything you might want to dress up as - cowboy, construction worker, cop - you can zombify. Heck, you could have an entire zombie Village People if you want.
      And all of this dates back to one specific film in the late 1960s, which makes the progress of zombie culture not just remarkable but easy to trace. Yes, there were 'zombies' before Night of the Living Dead and even a few zombie films - but cannibalistic reanimated corpses spreading their contagion by chowing down on people - that's George Romero's baby. And look how big it's grown.

      That said, it took a long time for zombie films to take hold in the UK. If we skip over the 'walking dead' in the Terence Fisher sci-fi opus The Earth Dies Screaming and those in Hammer's pre-Romero The Plague of the Zombies, we find (unless we're prepared to really bend the definition) a complete dearth of the living dead in British film-making until Andrew Parkinson's I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain in 1998. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s there were zombie films made in the USA and Europe but the closest we got to British zombies was Jorg Grau and his Manchester Morgue, which was shot in the UK but is, in real terms, a Spanish film. It just never occurred to anyone making British horror features - at any level - to try to put Romero-esque zombies into British genre culture. Parkinson's still-impressive debut (released on the historically-important Screen Edge label) was a low-key, character-led zombie film. Which is why lots of zombie fans hated it; they didn't want to think about what it might be like to actually become a zombie, they wanted 'bwains' not brains, bloody not bloody good storytelling.
      To the more open-minded horror fan, however, Parkinson's film was a bleak, socially-relevant slice of horror which owed as much to Ken Loach as it did to George Romero. When discussing the renaissance of UK horror cinema, I have always cited I, Zombie as one of the definitive films which established the basic principles of the British Horror Revival: the tale of a young man who finds himself gradually descending into a state of cannibalistic necrosis. Parkinson's masterstroke was to include improvised to-camera interviews with family and friends to show how the central character's disappearance had affected them. In its decision to replace the standard quick-change transformation with a slow, painful, terrifying metamorphosis I, Zombie stands comparison with Ginger Snaps which did something similar for the werewolf sub-genre.

      Parkinson followed I, Zombie with the similarly themed but differently structured Dead Creatures, about a group of women rather than a single man. But after that brace of indie undead, it was two much bigger studio productions which really established the UK as a suitable home for zombies. 28 Days Later was released in 2002; Shaun of the Dead two years later - yet even at this short remove they seem to have appeared together, solidly establishing the United Kingdom as a place where the dead walk.
      Though one was serious and one comic, both used the zombie concept to examine British society. And even though I found Danny Boyle's picture a damn fine action-adventure-horror featuring (and this is something I'll deal with in a future blog) a sufficient number of squaddies, it was the Simon Pegg film which impressed me most and which, in my opinion, is the definitive British zombie film. Dawn of the Dead, Romero's first sequel to NotLD, was a satire on American society and Shaun (released at the same time as the Dawn remake) does exactly the same thing, only in a very British way. It is very easy to believe that the events of the two films are happening simultaneously on either side of the Atlantic. I never rated Pegg's sitcom Spaced, which always seemed to me to be self-consciously 'cult' in a way that would please fanboys but few other people, whereas Shaun of the Dead was eminently accessible to all and sundry - as demonstrated by its tremendous success both in cinemas and on DVD.

      Boy Eats Girl was an Anglo-Irish co-production which may have been just too similar in its approach to Shaun of the Dead to achieve the same success. There's only so many rom-zom-coms that audiences can take. Which is a shame, as Stephen Bradley's take on high-school crushes is not only a hugely enjoyable film, it's also one of the few zombie pictures to combine Romero zombies with the traditional pre-Romero voodoo angle.

      Recent years have seen three notable British zombie features, although one of these - Jake West's Doghouse - sits on the fringes of the sub-genre by featuring 'zombirds' rather than zombies. Still, we have long passed the point when zombies (or at least, the first wave of them) actually had to start out by rising from the grave. Pedants can point out that the threat in 28 Days Later isn't actually zombies, it's infected people. But you still wouldn't want them to catch you because: boy, they gonna eat you up. Similarly, the ladies of West's gleefully-funny horror-comedy haven't died, just become infected by something (in this case, a biological weapon as in Romero's The Crazies), but they do lurch on unsteady feet - tricky in heels! - and they will chow down on you if they catch you so they're effectively zombies. Doghouse, which proved how effective Jake could be with a solid cast and a decent budget, was an original and eclectic movie which took only the most basic iconography from the zombie sub-genre to create its own world with its own threat. Unlike The Zombie Diaries which, frankly, did what it said on the tin.
      This debut feature from Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates was an anthology of sorts as it consisted of three separate camcorder tales that documented three stages of the zompocalypse. Hence the plural title, which distinguished it from Romero's near-simultaneous and coincidental Diary of the Dead. The connection between the stories becomes evident at the end and there are plenty of squaddies. A sequel is currently in post-production.
      Then there's Colin - the '£45 zombie film'.
      Marc Price's little movie wasn't the first to tell its story from the zombie's point of view (as we have seen) but it' was a smart, well-directed feature with an absolutely cracking central performance. Even more impressively, Colin survived the hype. It was a quiet Cannes Festival, apparently, and the press was looking for something interesting. Price's sales agent told somebody the film was shot for a few hundred quid and Marc, demonstrating a naive honesty rarely encountered on the Croisette, said that he thought the total financial outlay was closer to £45. The message was relayed to the journo, purely for the sake of accuracy, and it all snowballed from there.
      Of course, Colin didn't cost 45 quid if you consider the 'in kind' budget: all the work and materials that were begged, borrowed or stolen. And there was an initial investment in camera, editing software etc that's not included. More to the point, although Colin cost basically nothing, so do plenty of other films. There's nowt special about Colin, except to mainstream journalists completely unaware of the grass roots UK indie cinema scene (of which Colin is admittedly an above-average example).

      Which leaves me virtually no space to tell you about Devil's Playground and Zomblies. The former is the latest offering from Jonathan Sothcott, producer of vampires-vs-geezers malarkey Dead Cert, and shares many of its cast and crew with that film. Sothcott introduced it in Leicester as 'an attempt to make the most generic zombie film possible', but that's somewhat self-deprecating. While it's no Dawn of the Dead, Devil's Playground has some great character interaction and some tense moments (after a rather wobbly first act that spends far too long telling us where this particular zombification came from). And it can't be generic, it's got no squaddies.
      Zomblies, which runs a mere 50 minutes, is absolutely packed with squaddies and, aside from a few bits of dodgy acting, is brain-bustingly impressive. It has non-stop action, atypically-effective video-game-influenced direction, characters we care about and lots and lots of zombies. Whereas previous British zombie films have all been content to be very British, Zomblies takes on the Hollywood indie at its own game and shows it how things could and should be done.
      It could be the film that marks the moment when the British zombie sub-genre comes of age.
      At last.

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.