Redhead Temper: Changing our Creatures’ Features– Innovation versus Sacrilege?

In this week’s edition of Redhead Temper, I want to delve into the age old (okay, slight exaggeration maybe) question of altering our beloved movie monsters. When is it offensive to do so? How extreme must the creative liberties be to irk an audience of loyalists, how brave and risky must they be to earn the same audience’s respect? Similarly to last week’s entry, I don’t have all (or even any, necessarily) of the answers. But I feel like by simply bringing up these questions, movie-goers might be more aware of these issues, and awareness can bring change, if change is indeed something we need with regard to this phenomena of course.

I suppose my thoughts about this started forming as I was sorting through my DVDs and I found Zack Snyder’s well received 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. When I saw this movie, I was in my preteen years and already well on my way to being a zombie aficionado. I loved this film, and still do. It was airing on Syfy channel earlier this summer and it was one of those “oh man I forgot this movie is scary good” moments where I simply couldn’t turn it off. It’s fascinating to me though how much derision the movie causes because the zombies, in anti George A. Romero style, are fast as hell. And if someone is used to the “classics” like Night of the Living Dead in all its allegorical glory and race politics symbolism and black and white shambling undead baddies slowly but somehow terrifyingly creeping up on you, then I personally would think Snyder’s marathon-ready zombies would be a welcome change because in comparison, they’re that much more of a threat. You’d no longer have your advantage of blood running to your leg muscles because for whatever reason, all the blood they’ve consumed in biting human flesh all day, well it’s all going to their legs as well now. So you have to run that much faster, and aim that much more precisely because they’ve got an even better chance of getting you. Well, to some people, it was not a welcome change. Purists who feel zombies should shamble were understandably confused about the change. They didn’t see it as a welcome and horrifying upgrade in our faster-paced and shorter-attention span horror genre climate. They saw it as a scientifically impossible and therefore distracting inaccuracy in the zombie canon, where the rules have apparently been set and cannot be changed

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Yet, 28 Days Later is considered to be the film that revolutionized and revamped the zombie genre. So how did Danny Boyle get away with it in 2002 but Snyder couldn’t in 2004? Was it because, perhaps, Boyle’s work was wholly original while Snyder’s was admittedly a remake or retelling of Romero’s consumer-culture allegory from 1978 and you just don’t mess with the classics? Well, maybe but I think in a weird way the trick is that Boyle’s zombies weren’t zombies at all. They were all technically alive, victims of an infection that leaves them as fast-moving, ravenous packs. Somehow, the structure of the film is seen as unique enough I guess, especially with the added caveat that they’re sick but not dead, and therefore it is hailed as an important and well-made entry into a then waning subgenre. Don’t get me wrong, I love both of these films. But can’t we all just get along and not be so picky and, dare I say, hypocritical? In all honesty, I don’t prefer one over the other in terms of types of zombie films. I hesitate to say “if I were truly in a zombie apocalypse,” but for argument’s sake, I will say that I couldn’t possibly outrun a fast zombie in real life. Which makes them scarier to me on the one hand, but that doesn’t make the original shambling undead any less creepy and significant in shaping this subgenre and who these creatures are, for years to come.

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The zombies of World War Z were fast but what made them terrifying was actually more their ability to band together and I applauded the film’s unique and chilling image of a self-made zombie mountain in instinctual attempts to get over that oh so protective wall or to bring down a copter. Similarly, in The Walking Dead, the zombies are neither too slow nor do they sprint, and their similar ability to find strength in numbers and just somehow corner and overwhelm you is what is terrifying– they come out of nowhere and are everywhere and so it isn’t even their pace we should be focusing at all. Plus, it is amazing how popular the show is considering many people were wondering at first if zombies could live in a television sphere. Further, I think both slow and fast zombies should just hold different places in pop culture. Both can be effective and indicative of larger things, and both serve their purposes in the way they continue to evolve and inspire more and more films within the subgenre, like I said. I think without occasional changes, there would be no interest in zombies anymore because we will have seen it all and nothing would shock or frighten or intrigue us as fans and movie-goers. As long as they don’t change key rules, like the one about shooting them in the head for example, seeing as that would probably (definitely) manage to piss some people off.

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For instance, I haven’t seen or read Twilight, but just knowing they don’t burst into flames and explode into a pile of guts a la True Blood and rather just sparkle makes me all the more confident that I made the right decision. Some people would even disagree with me when I say that vampires don’t have to be scary sans sexy (once again, a la True Blood or even Christopher Lee) but they most certainly shouldn’t sparkle either.

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Now, I’ve rambled about zombies but I just want to conclude with another monster who is misunderstood, both within the context of his source material and in his interpretations across mediums for years to come: Frankenstein(‘s monster). With Aaron Eckhart playing the not-title role (FRANKENSTEIN WAS THE DOCTOR, PEOPLE) in 2014’s I, Frankenstein, looking buff and only moderately stitched together in the early photos I’ve seen, I can’t help but feel fatigued over the countless adaptations that get things so “wrong”. I’m not saying Boris Karloff’s monster was accurate, but he is our visual marker and classic Hollywood icon for the character. Sure, a lot from the book was changed in James Whale’s 1931 version. And I’m used to that by now; the novel would probably make an atrociously boring film if adapted perfectly. From what I’ve read in fall movie previews, at the very least Eckart is allegedly going to be portraying a more articulate and eloquent creature like the intellectual self-taught softy he is in the original 1818 Shelley text, so that makes me happy, plus it is based on a graphic novel so I suppose I can’t be that upset? But do I really want to see a film where “Frankenstein’s creature finds himself caught in an all-out, centuries old war between two immortal clans?” (quoted from IMDB.com) Because until I see a trailer, I’m leaning towards a cynical and critical NO. I definitely don’t need another Underworld-esque series out there. Too much sleek and stylized black-and-blue action in future-goth pleather for my personal taste. Let’s hope this isn’t that, at the very least.

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Then again, who knows, just like zombies of all shapes, sizes, and speeds, maybe even Frankensteins and vampires should be able to change a bit (or a lot?) here and there, in tone and look and even in terms of rules which we all know and assume are fixed. At the end of the day, these things are fictional, and meant to be creative and entertaining exercises or starting points, and therefore creative liberties will always be taken. Whether the public feels the changes were refreshing, bold, interesting and even necessary might depend on a lot of factors, because sometimes when too much is changed or something classic is being messed with, then hardcore fans might feel a little offended. I’m not one to say whether we should embrace all changes or whether we are too sensitive to changes, but I think ultimately, experimentation in our genre films and television can be a good thing, or at least an inevitable thing, and the best we can do is understand that before we judge whether something is innovative or sacrilegious, and consider that any addition to our horror and fantasy creature canons has its own function and place there as such. In terms of revisions to these things, the good, the bad, and the ugly are all valid and worthy of coexistence. Even if that does necessitate that we include Twilight.

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