Truly, completely HATE them.
Mine is a complex hatred, operating on more than one level. At the core I am, as previously stated, a huge chicken. Zombies, for their part, are one of horror’s basic building blocks. They’re practically terror ground zero. We were never likely to get along particularly well; it’s hard to forge a solid relationship with something you’re determined to avoid at all costs. Nor have I ever really understood the appeal of the zombie-as-metaphor. After all, it’s not as if the inevitability of death is any sort of secret. I mean, do we really need to dress it up with tattered clothes and rotting skin? Isn’t that a bit… obvious?
Lately the sheer ubiquity of zombies has added a patina of irritation to my hatred. Ever since Seth Grahame-Smith plunked zombies into Jane Austen, the damn things pop up everywhere. Appearances in works of classic literature turned into cameos in every historical period that could possibly contain the concept of the walking dead. Post-apocalypse. Pre-apocalypse. Both World Wars, along with pretty much every other major armed conflict one could name. Magic zombies. Fast zombies. Zombies in fairy tales, and on every street corner. In fact I’m so overwhelmingly sick of zombies that I’m ceasing to be so afraid of them*. Insult to injury, they’ve become tedious as well as terrifying. There is little that will make me drop a book faster than even a hint of zombieness within.
Okay, I cheated a bit. I confess, I actually saw the movie first. Which I absolutely adored, something I never thought I would ever say about a zombie film. Adapted for the screen and directed by Jonathan Levine, the movie is funny, sweet, and surprisingly thoughtful. It’s also entirely a love story.
Marion’s novel is all that and more. The book’s main character is R, a zombie, one among many living in an abandoned airport. He moves listlessly through the days, unable to read, or sleep, or remember anything about his past. He has a friend of sorts, M, with whom he manages to exchange the few words he can articulate. Otherwise, his life consists of lot of groaning, shuffling, and pointless staring.
Periodically R and the others are driven together by an unnameable obsession. They lurch into the city in slow, uncoordinated packs, seeking the only thing that can tame their feral hunger: living humans. Flesh keeps them alive, but the zombies feed on more than just meat. They feed on life, on the living energy than humans possess and they do not.
They also feed on memories – hence all the eating of brains. It’s more of a perk than a necessity but for zombies like R it’s the only way to feel even slightly alive. During one raid, R eats the brain of a young man only to find himself overwhelmed with feelings for that man’s girlfriend, Julie, who was part of the same salvage team. R is immediately drawn to Julie, compelled to keep her safe from the rest of the horde. He disguises her as a new zombie, and takes her back to his for-lack-of-a-better-word home.
Julie is understandably terrified. But she recognizes that R is different. And the more time they spend together, the more different R becomes. He develops more language, more sophistication of thought. He tries activities beyond shuffling and groaning. He stops wanting to eat, and starts wanting to sleep. He begins to develop sensations, and those turn into feelings. He becomes something more than just a zombie.
R and Julie are forced to leave the airport when the oldest of the zombies, called Boneys due to their lack of skin, are disturbed by Julie’s energy and try to kill her. Together they fight their way free and head back for Julie’s compound. It’s an emotional journey for both of them, even more so when Julie abandons R on the way to keep him from being killed on sight by her compatriots. But just as Julie’s presence changed R, it has a residual effect on many of the regular zombies, including R’s friend M. They, too, are changing, and are chased out by the Boneys. The Boneys who are determined to see Julie dead.
R sneaks into Julie’s compound to see her, to explain what her presence has done to him, to the others. He meets her friends and, unfortunately, her family, which consists solely of her rigid and unyielding father. They face persecution by armed humans and Boneys both, and triumph. Both of them are changed for the better, all of human and zombie kind are changed for good.
There are differences between the movie and the book, of course. The former is pretty much a charming romantic comedy with zombies (a phrase I previously thought impossible to use); the latter is both a Romance AND a meditation on societal degradation and the intrinsic need for human connection. The movie has more humour and less subtlety and compacts the roles of several characters, but generally the film does a remarkable job of capturing the bulk of Marion’s tale.
But the book cracks things open wider, digs deeper. It presents a more complete portrayal of a world gone cold and quiet, and the fragile motes of colour and hope that spark it back to life. R is alone in a world of dull grey longing. Julie explodes into that existence like a firecracker, bringing light and heat and wonder to everyone around her. But she is only the catalyst; R must do the hard work of changing, growing. Becoming. And it is immensely hard work. Marion’s book is a elegy for the disintegration of human social conncection, and a graphic demonstration of the results of its lack.
Neglect and isolation can bring the world to its knees, but love? Love can wake you right up.
Love can bring you back from the dead.
*which is bad because that’s when they get you.
Chris Szego only covered her eyes three or four times during the movie, which is progress. She didn’t have to hide during the book at all.