[Guest Post] Women In Horror Month: Women Killing Zombies
- Next up in our Women in Horror Recognition Month blogfest (and taking the torch from Maura McHugh) is writer Chris Farnell, who is our go-to consultant for bespoke zombie apocalypse contingency planning. (Wanna join the guest blogging fun? Send your pitches to [email protected].)
I love zombie movies. I run a blog about them, I just helped run an event at the Science Museum about them, and I once sent BadRep writer Hannah Chutzpah to get arrested just so I could write about a zombie flash mob.
One of the things about being a fan of all things zombie is that on a regular basis I come across articles declaring the end of the ‘zombie craze’, saying that all the stories about zombies have been told, that the genre is exhausted. These articles will usually involve puns.
It’s an argument that essentially misses the point of how both people and stories work – we don’t tell a story and then move onto the next one, we tell the same story over and over, from every possible angle, trying to tease out something new or rediscovered each time. One of the reasons I love zombie movies is they’re full of opportunities for that.
But that said, there is one zombie story that I have yet to see told anywhere (and if it has, and I missed it, please tell me. I wanna see). Particularly, it involves a group of people that zombie movies have led me to believe could make up as much as a third of the global population – women.
Zombie movies have, on the whole, managed to avoid most of the standard horror movie tropes when it comes to women. The amount of alcohol and sex a woman enjoys doesn’t usually directly correlate with their survival chances. Chase scenes rarely take place while female zombie fighters are in their underwear.
Yes, the first proper zombie movie, 1968′s Night of the Living Dead did star a woman (Judith O’Dea, right) who switched between being hysterical or catatonic, and another who gladly let herself get stabbed to death by her own daughter, because that’s what good mothers do. There was another woman in that film as well, but nobody ever remembers either her or her boyfriend, so we can safely ignore them. However, after that initial outing George Romero actually seemed to learn, and the way women in zombie movies are portrayed generally has improved as a result.
By 1978, and Dawn of the Dead, the main female character (Gaylen Ross’s Francine) may have found herself in the role of “house mom”, and not just because she was pregnant. But she fought against that role, insisting that the others teach her how to fire a gun and fly the escape helicopter, skills which led to her being the movie’s only survivor.
Day of the Dead (1985) had only one female character, but Sarah (Lori Cardille) was also very much the brains of the film, a badass, level headed under pressure, and again, one of the three characters to make it through the film.
When Night of the Living Dead was remade by Romero in 1990, Barbra, our alternately catatonic/screaming heroine from the first film, was now – played by Patricia Tallman – also a badass who knew her way around a firearm.
This is a pattern that’s replicated across the genre. You can see it in Selena in 28 Days Later (and yes, that is a proper zombie movie), in Ana, the lead protagonist in the Dawn of the Dead remake, in Wichita and Little Rock in Zombieland (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, right), and in Kelly, the lead protagonist in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set. Even in Shaun of the Dead, Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is the level-headed straight woman to the comedy antics of the rest of the cast.
And now we’re getting to the nub of the matter. Liz is the straight woman.
You see, zombie movies come in many different flavours. They can be war movies, economic parables, satire, or an examination of the violence inherent in human nature. They can even, with their “bunch of people locked in a building together” format, be a sitcom. But in most cases, one thing you see a lot of in zombie movies is wish fulfilment.
It’s the reason why so many perfectly sensible, realistic people have more detailed plans for a zombie apocalypse than they do for a fire breaking out in their home. There’s an appeal in the idea that real life, with its bills, jobs, relationships and traffic jams, might one day give way to the sort of massive catastrophe that would finally reveal the inner badass you’ve been all along.
Zombie movies are filled with guys who lead boring or screwed up lives before the outbreak hits, only to rise to the occasion and become the hero. Shaun is stuck in a go-nowhere job and has just been dumped by his girlfriend when the zombies turn up. Zombieland’s Columbus is a phobic shut-in who plays endless World of Warcraft and has “perfectly justifiable to speculate on” virginity. 28 Days Later’s Jim is a bicycle courier who goes from being a liability at the start of the film to single-handedly taking down a house full of armed, trained soldiers by the climax. Even Ash Williams, famed zombie killer extraordinaire (despite the Evil Dead films, I’m sorry, not counting as proper zombie films. I don’t make the rules) started out as a shop clerk.
But it’s always the guy. The guy is allowed to start out hopeless and go through the learning curve required to reach the point where he’s massacring zombies with a lawnmower (Braindead, incidentally, is another example of this trope). Female characters in zombie movies nearly always start out with their badass qualifications already in place. Only guys get to use the zombie apocalypse to escape how little they can cope with day-to-day life.
And it’s not because this is an exclusively a male fantasy, not by a long shot. If you doubt me, do a quick search for “zombie survival” among the women of OKCupid. Talk to Mary Hamilton, one of the brains behind Zombie LARP, or Naomi Alderman of Zombies, Run!. Talk to my own sister, who has an imaginative, if fatally flawed zombie survival plan that involves stealing a train. Even with my fairly limited social media following, I was able to find five women with zombie survival plans in the space of an hour (and one of them had three plans, depending on her circumstances).
So, going back to the beginning, this is the new zombie film I want to see. Show us a zombie film with a hapless female protagonist caught in a shitty dead end job with mounting bills and a disaster of a love life. Then, over the course of the film, have her discover she has a knack for clean decapitations and barricade building.
It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but I can’t find that film out there, and I’ve looked hard. If you make this film, I’m telling you, there’s a huge readymade audience for it.