I’ve been reading some zombie novels lately; among others, I’ve read ‘Dead City’, ‘The Rising’, and ‘Day By Day Armageddon’…and I have to say, at the risk of offending authors who have some online presence (and plenty of online fans), most of them are really not that good. The current crop of zombie books tend to regurgitate Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, with a dash of “28 Days Later” for that bioweapon flavor and a generous helping of Mary-Sue-ism to boot. (One exception is David Wellington’s “Monster Island” and its sequels, which do some eye-poppingly clever things with the zombie apocalypse concept.)
And yet, the whole reason I picked them up is that I love zombie movies…and I gotta say, I love the cheesy ones just as much as the brilliant ones. “Nightmare City”, “Hell of the Living Dead”, “The Dead Next Door”, “Feeding the Masses” (which actually had a brilliant script, let down by sub-pornographic actors)…bad or good, I cheerfully watch them from beginning to end. Sometimes, the worse they are the better they are. “Diary of the Dead” is never going to match up to Romero’s earlier masterpieces, but I guarantee you, you will never find a movie with a more bad-ass Amish farmer or drama teacher.
So what’s the difference? Why do I love a bad zombie movie, but grow furious at the lack of ambition and drive behind the majority of most zombie novels? The answer, and I think a lot of readers will find it obvious, is the level of investment needed to finish a movie versus a book. A ninety minute movie lasts ninety minutes, and then it’s over. Whether that ninety minutes is filled with “Shaun of the Dead”, or “Shadow: Dead Riot”, they’re both done when the credits roll.
But a good 300-page book and a bad 300-page book…the former flies by almost on its own, as your mind pictures the story so vividly that you don’t even notice turning the pages. Whereas the latter crawls past at a snail’s pace, as your brain rebels at the thought of reading even one more sentence. You find yourself easily distracted, making excuses to put the book down…and yet, when you work up the nerve to get back to it, the book is right there waiting for you exactly where you left off. It’s like a movie that pauses itself whenever it thinks you’ve stopped paying attention.
And a horror movie can descend to the level of “so bad it’s good.” Inept comedy is merely excruciatingly dull, while inept horror can sometimes become brilliant comedy (which is why the movie “The Mad”, with Billy Zane, failed so badly. But I digress.) But the failings of prose are different than the failings of film, and what can inspire you to watch a bad movie again and again merely inspires you to throw a book at the wall so hard it makes a dent.
It’s a curious difference, the way that engaging with a work of bad art can produce such different effects in different media. The bad zombie movie only attains its true potential as entertainment when the audience engages with it, refusing to passively accept it and instead dealing with it on their own terms. But with bad zombie books, the more you engage with it, the worse it becomes. The only way to succeed is not to get involved at all. (Especially ‘City of the Dead’. Sorry, Brian Keene, but it was a mistake to try to get a sequel out of ‘The Rising’.)