I don’t get zombies. Vampires, I get, but zombies, no. Maybe it’s a generational thing. People under 35 seem to appreciate the undead in a way that I can’t. Maybe it has something to do with growing up under the shadow of AIDS, pandemic flu scares, and diseases caused by environmental abuse. The children of the boomers seem to like their monsters faceless and relentless, like cancer cells. I guess I’m old school. I want my monsters to have personalities. Sure, Dracula is old hat, but he does have his charms.
And Drac has rules. There are certain things vampires can and cannot do. Certain things kill them–or at least piss them off–like sunlight, crosses, garlic, mirrors, and not getting an invitation. Watching them operate around these impediments is a big part of the fun of a vampire story. It levels the playing field for the humans. Zombies, on the other hand, aren’t as much fun. Unlike vampires, they have pretty miserable existences so they don’t have much to lose. They’re not cunning or diabolical because they don’t think. Basically they just shuffle around and try to eat the brains of the living. If you bash in their brains, they die. And that’s pretty much it. A zombie doesn’t relish eating your brain; he doesn’t feast on it with orgiastic release the way a vampire drinks blood. And when you kill them, they get upset, but not the same way a vampire does. They don’t roar, curse at the heavens, and burn until they’re nothing but ashes. They just die. And they leave a gooey mess behind.
I just finished reading Max Brooks’s World War Z, a novel that presents the unexpected consequences of a worldwide infestation of the undead. The war is over, but the social and geopolitical ramifications are pretty startling. It’s a smart, entertaining what-if tale, and I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Danny Boyle’s stylish zombie film, 28 Days Later. Moaning flesh munchers don’t keep me from appreciating a good story well told, but I’m still not totally on board with this zombie thing. Yeah, they’re scary and dangerous and all, but they’re just not great villains. They’re dumb and single-minded and they leak. Yuck.
Now Nazis are good villains. They do horribly inhuman things, BUT they’re human beings, which makes them that much scarier. The “virus” that created them is a warped ideology. They’ve been the bad guys in countless novels and films, and for decades they’ve work well as villains. Every season seems to have at least one movie that deals with some aspect of the Nazi atrocities leading up to and during World War II. This year it’s Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness about Polish Jews who hid in sewers to escape Hitler’s army.
Mafiosi used to be good villains, but the public seems to have grown weary of them. Wiseguys were the staple of many classic novels, films, and TV shows, most notably, The Godfather and The Sopranos. But the real mob has lost its teeth for the most part, and the public doesn’t fear them anymore. When they show up in works of entertainment, they’re usually more comic than deadly. The decline of the mob makes me a little sad because I used to write about wiseguys a lot. All the villains in my BAD series (Bad Guys, Bad Blood, Bad Luck, Bad Business, Bad Moon, and Bad Apple) were members of La Cosa Nostra. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t admire them. In real life these guys are crumb-bums, but I have to admit I miss the fictional ones–Don Corleone, Tony Soprano, any of the trigger-happy men of honor played by Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro. To be honest, I’m hoping for a comeback.
Every so often someone gets the bright idea to make a hybrid villain. Horror author Robert McCammon created Nazi zombies in The Night Boat. Director John Landis gave us a crew of vampire wiseguys in Innocent Blood. The McCammon’s Nazi undead reanimated from a sunken submarine, and they were pretty scary as I remember (it’s been a while since I read it), but Count Vinnie and Nicky Nosferatu didn’t cut it. Landis’s The Blues Brothers seems to be on TV every night of the week, but Innocent Blood? Fuhgeddaboutit. You’ve probably never even heard of it. In my opinion mixing villain types is usually not a great idea.
Which brings me back to zombies. (You can see I’m stuck on this topic.) Popular villains reflect the fears and preoccupations of the times we live in. Fear of incurable disease and rampant overpopulation has given us zombies. Fear of extreme bigotry and totalitarian regimes has kept the Nazis in front of the cameras. Fear of crime (as well as a titillating desire to watch guys get away with it) opened the door for the Mafia. And let’s be honest, the fear of vampires–with all their sucking–is really a double-edged fear/fascination with sex.
The next big thing in villains will no doubt showcase our latest dread. Here’s my prediction: regardless of political affiliation, we all fear that government insanity, on one side or the other, will do us in. So make way for the bloodthirsty politicians. I mean just look at the crew trying to run for president and tell me they don’t rival the rogues’ gallery in the old Dick Tracy cartoons. Flattop? Big Boy? Pruneface? The Brow? Seriously. Think about it.