November 13, 2012


Interview with Glenn Kay

These days, zombie movies are such a popular commodity that there's just not enough time in the day to keep track of them all. Every minute it seems like another zombie movie is unleashed into the video market, and there's no sign yet of zombie popularity slowing down. Thankfully we have Glenn Kay, author of Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide to help us zombie freaks navigate the increasingly murky waters of undead cinema selection

Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, is a painstakingly compiled compendium of zombie movies and reviews covering the zombie movie phenomena from the black-and-white days of White Zombie up to the modern era of fast-running, flesh-eating infected. Recently released in an expanded and revised second edition, Zombie Movies now contains even more zombie movies, reviews, and features. To celebrate the release of Zombie Movies (second edition), The Zed Word wrangled zombie fan and former Hamiltonian Glenn Kay into a meaty interview about the changes he made to the second edition and his thoughts on what's behind the current zombie popularity bubble.

ZED WORD: In updating and expanding ZOMBIE MOVIES for the second edition, what was the biggest surprise you found?

GLENN KAY: Well, I'm happy whenever I enjoy something new, like Zombieland (2009) and the TV series The Walking Dead, but I think what really surprised me were some of the smaller, low budget films that didn't get as much publicity.

Not too long after the first edition of the book was released, I saw [REC] (2007) and [REC] 2 (2009) and was completely blown away by them. They had incredible atmosphere, they were claustrophobic, and nail-bitingly tense. They also featured impressive use of the found footage technique -- to me, nothing felt forced or awkward, like many films of that ilk do. I think they're some of the most effectively frightening films of recent years. I'm really looking forward to catching up with part 3 (which I'm told has a more comedic slant) and, when it's released, part 4.

One of the biggest pleasures of writing this book was that I was able to interview and get into contact with the guys who made these movies. All of them are really, really nice people, fun to talk to and very knowledgeable horror movie fanatics.  

ZW: I noticed that the new edition of ZOMBIE MOVIES has been expanded to contain zombie TV shows (The Walking Dead) and zombie-themed episodes of otherwise ghoul-free television shows (Community). What was the reason for including television shows in ZOMBIE MOVIES and how did you make your selection process? I have to admit to being a bit disappointed that the zombie nightmare episode of The Hogan Family (1987) didn't make the cut.

GK: Oh, man! The Hogan Family! I remember that episode. That's actually an oversight on my part. Had I been able to recall it at the time of writing and find a copy of it, I would have included it. In general, for TV series it's a little tougher to find zombie-themed episodes because just about every television show to ever have been created has done a Halloween episode. I know there must be more shows out there; it's a matter of them being available and tracking them all down. Alas, I am just one man. The biggest problem is that a lot of programs before the 90's haven't been released on DVD and are nearly impossible to see. The ones I did review were, frankly, the ones that I could find, hunting through what had previously been put out on DVD, VHS or even laserdisc.

As for the Community episode, it was well publicized, and I thought that it was hilarious - zombie fans who haven't seen it really need to know about it. And with the success of The Walking Dead, zombies are going to show up a whole lot more often on the small screen, so it seemed logical to try to include more TV episodes in general. But yeah, Valerie/Valerie's Family/The Hogan Family or whatever the show was called that year... that one's gonna annoy me. Oh well, guess there's always the third edition!

ZW: The number of zombie movies being released has certainly increased since 2008. While compiling reviews for the new edition, have you found a general increase or decrease in quality of zombie movies?

GK: Usually when there's a big surge in titles the level of quality drops off. I've been pleasantly surprised that so many recent movies have been better than I expected. For a long time the big movie studios ignored zombies, and I tend to think it was because they didn't know what to do with them. Zombies aren't conversationalists brimming with personality, so for a time I'm not sure that anyone knew how to get around this problem. Most of the plots revolved around a hypnotist or a master of sorts using his zombies as muscle to kill the hero or kidnap his girl. Pretty ridiculous.

The ever growing popularity of George A. Romero's original dead trilogy showed people that zombies are malleable and, if used properly, can stand in for a particular social problem or issue. It took a while to sink in, but I believe more young filmmakers today have latched on to this concept. A lot of people aren't just making simple, old-fashioned zombie movies anymore; they're experimenting with the zombies themselves (their characteristics seem to be ever changing) and using them to make a personal statement. I really enjoy movies that have extra layers and depth, and it seems like a lot of today's writers and directors understand this and are applying it to zombie-themed entertainment.

ZW: Do you think the upswing in zombie popularity is largely the result of the success of The Walking Dead on AMC, or is the upswing in zombie popularity the reason The Walking Dead has been so successful? Or is this one of those inane "Chicken or the Egg" questions?

GK: It's tough to say for certain, but I'll offer a theory. I think it probably would have done well regardless, but I believe there's a bit more to success than a good product and more variables involved. Great movies flop all the time and are later re-evaluated and appreciated. The Walking Dead isn't a hit with only horror film fans. It's a cultural phenomenon. I think what has at least partially led to the overwhelmingly massive ratings for the show is the fact that it has tapped into the biggest fears of the general public at exactly the right time... and timing is everything.

When I started researching zombie films many years ago, a few things became clear to me. The zombie is constantly changing and evolving, and that the films themselves can intentionally or unintentionally reflect the fears of a particular era. During the occupation of Haiti, the customs and religious practices of the country were viewed with fear in the US, and you can see that influence on the films of the 30's. By the 40's and WWII, Haitian zombie masters suddenly became evil Nazi scientists. By the rise of the cold war in 50's and early 60's, aliens took over as villains, which can be viewed as an allusion to communism. A select few of these titles were incredibly successful and came at the Zietgeist, when these fears were at their most rampant - say, the not-quite-a-zombie 50's alien flick Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

With Night of the Living Dead in the late 60's, Romero made zombies into flesh eating ghouls and added a lot of social subtext. Many saw it as a criticism of US government and its continued involvement in Vietnam, etc. Not only was it an extremely effective horror film giving audiences something new and horrifying, but it struck a nerve with audiences who related to and felt the same distrust for the government. I tend to think that Night and Dawn (with its critique on consumerism) reached the public at exactly the right time. The same goes with the more recent surprise hit, 28 Days Later (2002). News of SARS, and later avian and swine flu outbreaks and pandemics around the time of its North American release were on the minds of many and seemed especially terrifying.

So, while The Walking Dead is an excellent show, it seems to also have come at a time when people can relate to its fears. The economic crisis has left many regular folks in foreclosure and out of work. Those that haven't experienced it certainly worry about it and everyone has felt the monetary crunch. We've all witnessed the levee failures in New Orleans and saw how quickly things can fall apart. I think that during tough times, people relate to grimmer stories, particularly one about a group of people whose lives have changed suddenly and must struggle against insurmountable odds to make ends meet and survive. It's funny, I think Romero's Land of the Dead is a good movie about many of the very same things, but it was released just a bit ahead of the curve. Flash forward a few years, and The Walking Dead has benefited greatly from airing exactly at the right time.

ZW: You've watched almost every zombie movie out there save for the most fringe and the most obscure. Of the movies that have been released since 2008, what are your favorites?

GK: Recent films that I've also enjoyed that spring immediately to mind include Dance of the Dead (2008), The Crazies (2010) and Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010). Thought The Cabin in the Woods (2012) was a hoot too.

I was also stunned by Juan of the Dead (2011). So many low-budget horror comedies are made and usually the results are all over the place. I thought this film was consistently hilarious, which would be enough in itself. However, in the George A. Romero tradition, this title had many levels to it, and featured a lot of satire and commentary that I wasn't anticipating. The characters are also very likable, and so by the climax you really care about them and the choices they make. It's a great little movie.

ZW: Is there any way I an convince you that Jason Voorhees is NOT a zombie. Please.

GK: I understand that many won't agree with me and it's a bit "out there," but here's where I'm coming from. 1985 was a huge year for zombie flicks. The Return of the Living Dead was a surprise smash at the box office, Re-Animator was also an indie hit and there was a lot of anticipation and press about the new Romero movie, Day of the Dead. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning had just flopped, so I don't think it's any coincidence that the producers thought, "Well, if zombies are popular right now, let's bring Jason back from the dead as a walking corpse." Admittedly, Jason doesn't eat any flesh, but otherwise, I felt that the producers were moving in a different direction and that there were definite similarities. By the time I re-watched Freddy vs. Jason, I felt like it had used major plot elements from White Zombie. Replace Freddy with Bela Lugosi (manipulating Jason as a zombie master of sorts to do his evil bidding), and you've got a real 30's zombie film vibe going. Too much for me to ignore.

Of course, I can completely understand anyone who doesn't agree, and my advice is to ignore the entry if you don't classify it the same way that I do. Actually, trying to throw some alternative ideas out there is what's fun about writing about horror flicks. Nobody shares exactly the same ideas or tastes as anyone else, and without these differences, there would be little point in writing about or discussing movies. It's great to share these movies and share opinions with fans. I just hope that the book introduces people to a lot of new films so that they can make their own minds up about them!

Look for ZOMBIE MOVIES: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE (Second Edition) out now from Chicago Review Press. Glenn Kay is also the co-author of Disaster Movies: A Loud, Long, Explosive, Star-Studded Guide to Avalanches, Earthquakes, Floods, Meteors, Sinking Ships, Twisters, Viruses, Killer Bees, Nuclear Fallout, and Alien Attacks in the Cinema!!!!