What I’ve watched in 2017–18: Zombies

As I mentioned in the index post, I’ve been keeping track of the TV and film I’ve been watching, but then didn’t get round to polishing it into actual blog posts.

I’m a fan of apocalyptic fiction — and zombie fiction in pticlr. This article talks through some of the zombie fiction I’ve enjoyed in the last coupla years.

Crime Bites (podcast)

I don’t listen to podcasts often; I find they don’t fit into my life terribly easily. When I’m commuting, I like to catch up on reading and, more generally, I just prefer to consume information by reading or by watching it on a TV; I’m not a fan of YouTube much either, tbh. Jenny, however, spends a lot of her time listening to true crime in the background. Horses for courses…

So when she recommended that I listen to an episode of Crime Bites called “The Walking Dead and late capitalism: A criminological take on the zombie apocalypse with Dr Tom Raymen”, I figured I should trust her taste. (Don’t tell her, but she’s often right with her recommendations. She definitely was this time.)

Zombie fiction, like most fiction, and speculative fiction in pticlr, has always been about social commentary. The Night of the Living Dead, George A Romero’s seminal, genre-defining 1968 work — and a case study in how works entering the public domain can be vital to their success, as the copyright was incorrectly registered under pre-Berne US law — was widely perceived as a critique of the fracturing of American society in the Sixties. Viewers have read into the film containing subversive references to the widespread racism of the Civil Rights era (the film has a black lead, very unusual for the time, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X will have been fresh in the audience’s minds, if not Romero’s), the Cold War, the Vietnam War, disillusion with government and authority, the breakdown of the nuclear heteropatriarchal 2 + 2·4 and simple nihilism. While a little of that may have been subconscious:

It was 1968, man. Everybody had a ‘message’. The anger and attitude and all that’s there is just because it was the Sixties. We lived at the farmhouse, so we were always into raps about the implication and the meaning, so some of that crept in.

Romero’s 1978 sequel, with Dario Argento as a script consultant, is even less subtle, being a clear critique of capitalist consumerism even before Reagan got into the Oval, with the protagonists taking refuge in a mega-mall with zombies continuing their brainless shopping. Train to Busan (below) has a class-war narrative as well as containing messages about parenthood and work–life balance. 28 Days Later sees anti-vivisectionists cause the end of the world and the military abuse their power. Pontypool sees language as a corrupting influence. While Resident Evil was extrapolated from a video-game franchise, it’s also a critique of capitalism and evil-scientists.

Anyway, on with the recommendations…

Cargo (2018)

A baby, Martin Freeman and Simone Landers in Cargo.

Cargo is a remake of a 7-minute 2013 short that was made for and a finalist at the Tropfest short film festival. After its 2017 cinematic release in Australia, this feature-length version benefited from Netflix’s international marketing and distribution, but both versions were written by Yolanda Ramke and directed by Ramke and Ben Howling, who met while they were both working behind the scenes on Aussie Big Brother.

The short was made specifically for Tropfest, as Ramke and Howling wanted to see if they could add something new to the zombie genre in only 7 minutes. The resulting film is really lovely and well worth a watch, but it spoils part of the 2017 feature-length film, so leave it until after you’ve seen this expansion 😊

The remake expands on the few scenes of that original, but not unnecessarily; Ramke told Film Ink that “in trying to expand the film from short to feature, it was about trying to dig into additional layers and deeper undertones thematically in terms of social commentary.” One of those undertones being the deliberate casting of a Brit as the male lead rather than another Aussie, despite the film being explicitly set in the Australian Outback:

We thought would be interesting to touch upon and for us, having the Indigenous component in the film, incorporating that culture, looking at Indigenous survivors, there was just a layer there that we thought was quite interesting in having an English man coming into the orbit of these Indigenous characters who are thriving. Just a reflection of Australia’s own colonial history which is all quite dark and unresolved and ever-present. And we never wanted to get preachy or exploitative about that fact, but we liked the idea of it just sitting in the background for people to either pick up on or not. That was our thinking.

Something else they wanted to show was a contrast between Western society’s default expectation of apocalypse, where we withdraw into small “protected” groups, and the community-based approach that fits more comfortably with the Indigenous Australian characters. From an answer in their Reddit AMA, they worked with an Indigenous script consultant Jon Bell — disappointingly lacking a credit on IMDb for some reason — and worked with elders local to the shoot locations, showing them the script and addressing any concerns, to ensure they were being appropriately respectful.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, though there’s an almost cartoon villain at one point, who I thought was somewhat one-dimensional (and see content notes below). It was, however, beautifully done, with a surprisingly lovely ending.

I also loved the design work of their marketing materials; the production design is by Jo Ford (Gallipoli, Holding the Man, Cleverman) and includes this great government advisory package design, expanded on in this short ad:

Great 20-second ad for using Jo Ford’s government advisory production design, which is just splendid.

Cargo is available internationally on Netflix. It is a zombie film, so obviously there is death and peril; content notes should also include use of hate speech and depictions of slavery.

Train to Busan (2016)

Subtitled from Korean, Train to Busan is an awesome zombie film. With a pretty simple premise — a zombie apocalypse breaks out in Seoul just as the high-speed KTX is about to make its way south. And everyone is nearly safe, apart from that young woman with a bitemark in her leg. Obviously.

As fans of Snakes on a Plane will know, the forced confinement works really well for an action drama and Train to Busan manages to sustain that peril exceptionally. Our cast of characters includes a workaholic banker and his daughter, a working-class man and his pregnant wife, a high-school baseball team, an arsehole executive, a pair of elderly sisters and a homeless man. Of whom almost none survives. Obviously.

It’s always good to see something new done to the zombie genre — especially when the creators remember that the whole genre is social commentary. (Don’t get me wrong, I also loved The Rezort, below, which is definitely not that deep.) Premiering at Cannes, Train to Busan was the first Korean film to be seen by over 10 million in the cinema (there are around 50 million people in South Korea; the population of Seoul is about 10 million) and became the highest-grossing Korean film in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Jeannette Catsoulis at The New York Times made it her Critics Pick, commenting on its class warfare and Edgar Wright called it the “best zombie movie [he’d] seen in forever”. Good call.

Train to Busan is inclusive with Amazon Prime UK and can be rented from £1·99 or bought from £4·99. In the US, it’s inclusive with Netflix and Hoopla, rentable from US$2.99 and purchasable from US$7.99. Canadians can pick between those 3 streaming services, rent from C$3.99 or buy from C$6.99

Plan Z (2016)

Stuart Brennan, the star, writer, director and producer of Plan Z.

Stuart Brennan wrote, directed and produced Plan Z, as well as playing the lead. It has an independent-film feel, but that can be a good thing.

Starting off in Dunfermline and travelling to Skye, via Horrible HistoriesTerry Deary, this film is every bit as bleak as you’d expect from an apocalypse seen from Dunfermline.

As MJ Simpson puts it in his review:

There’s not a huge amount of plot to Plan Z, which is fine because this sort of depressing lament for humanity works best as a slow burn. What separates this film from so many others is that the main character does have a plan of what to do, he’s not just winging it. […]

This is as dour and unforgiving as a Scotsman’s postcard: everything is terrible, life is empty and hopeless, almost everything we know has gone, the rest of our days will be a struggle for existence, if we’re lucky it may be short, weather fine, how are you?

Plan Z is inclusive on Netflix UK, available to rent from £2·49 or to buy from £4·49. Americans can buy or rent from Fandango and Vudu (US$2.99 or US$9.99); JustWatch doesn’t have data for Canadians.

Fear the Walking Dead (TV series, 2015– )

Season 1 of Fear the Walking Dead is really interesting. While the parent show starts a few weeks into a zombie apocalypse, Fear starts right at the beginning as the dying are beginning to rise. The first episode in particular plays with this conceit exceptionally — for almost all of the episode, we know what’s occurring but the only character who has seen a zombie had just woken from heroin delirium and doesn’t know what is really real.

Through the first season, our protagonists are struggling their way through the start of the apocalypse in LA, while most other characters are ignorant or disbelieving. Seeing how that world begins to end and how an extended family group tries to find its way to safety is really very interesting.

Season 2 continues where s1 leaves off; as the characters try to find a more-permanent safety, having fled the Californian metropolis. Without giving spoilers, I was definitely pleased that I enjoyed seeing the characters explore locations and seek safety as much as I had the collapse of civilisation we see them experience in s1 — especially given the main thing I liked about s1 was watching people navigate the collapse, rather than the firmly post-apocalyptic setting of the parent show.

4 seasons have aired, though I’ve only seen up to the end of season 3A so far; I should probably get round to the back half and season 4, which aired with new showrunners in 2018. A 5th season is due to air in 2019. The main thing that struck me about season 3, mind, is that this family really can’t stay in 1 place together, even for just a single episode.

3 seasons are available to stream on Amazon in the UK and Canada, with the 4th available to buy from £24·99 in the UK; the first 3 seasons are available from most services, from £10·99 or C$12.99. Hulu carries the first 3 seasons and all 4 seasons are available elsewhere from US$10.99

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

With less than a day left before the end of their mission collecting samples, looking for life on Mars, one of the team thinks they might have spotted something. But then things all go horribly wrong — as is evident from this film appearing in the write-up for Zombies, rather than for Sci-fi. Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Johnny Harris, Goran Kostić, Tom Cullen and Yusra Warsama star, but don’t expect too many of them to survive to the end credits.

Content notes are mainly pretty obvious — zombies, murder and peril. Also some really irritating strobing lights for a tense few minutes, which make an implausibly bad design for an alarm system.

The Last Days on Mars is available inclusive on Netflix UK, Hulu US and Hoopla Canada or can be rented from £2·49, US$2.99 and C$3.99 and bought from £5·99, US$6.99 and C$7.99 from most services.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

Closing up Paul W.S. Anderson’s franchise, this 6th live-action film: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is, as you might expect, utter bobbins but it’s also plenty fun and has a fair amount of eye candy — Eoin Macken, Fraser James and William Levy, for example.

Milla Jovovich, who married Anderson shortly before they filmed the 4th instalment, is as kick-arse as you’d expect, their daughter is wonderfully creepy as the Red Queen and its always good to see Ali Larter kicking some arse as well. Iain Glen must worry about being typecast as an untrustworthy arsehole, mind.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter can be streamed on NowTV and Sky Go in the UK, Starz in the US and Crave in Canada, where it may also be rented from C$3.99; it can be bought from £6·99, US$12.99 or C$12.99

The Rezort (2015)

Don’t get me wrong; this film is not some genius piece of original screenwriting. The Rezort is, quite simply, Jurassic Park with zombies. And Dougray Scott. Who shoots things. Well, zombies. And maybe a padlock.

You’ve seen Jurassic Park; you already know the plot. But it’s an entertaining 93 minutes if you fancy a zombie action flick.

The Rezort is available to stream globally on Netflix. It can be rented from £2·49 and bought from £2·99. In North America, it can also be streamed from Hoopla, as well as being rented from 99¢ US or C$2.99 and can bought from $2.99 in both currencies.

Images are used without permission for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This article’s text is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Please feel free to translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

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🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him

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Owen Blacker

Owen Blacker

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🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him