Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Blog of the Dead

There are basically two types of blogs*: blogs that get updated regularly, creating a steadily growing pool of content that gains a popular life of its own such that it gets regular traffic even with less frequent updates, and blogs that stagnate, creating an embarrassing void conspicuous to the new reader that fails to impress that this blog is worth regularly following. Ben's Nerdery has always aimed to be the former.

So, what's been going on? Well, most recently, my family went up to the Fire and Ice Convention in Manitowoc Wisconsin for our second annual family outing there. Less recently than that, I had the bliss of wrangling a 23 month-old in an airplane for a 5 hour flight to LAX.



Least recently of all--as in, last frakking October--I became a handynerd (one standard of deviation away from being a handyman) and had a zombie birthday party. Zombies, I tell you! It was a low-key, smallish party--mostly because the official invites went out late and people are turds--but we had a lot of fun. The party invites were themed to look like an emergency evacuation notice, and we made treat 'bags' that were themed after Left 4 Dead medkits.

A quickly thrown-together invite made during a lunch break or two.

Feel free to use this for your own zombie parties and games, writing in scrawled personal details in the blank space. I put in the party specifics in those spaces, using a font to make it look a bit like hasty handwriting. The medkits were simply boxes of folded cardstock, with a few themed treats inside. Everyone got a P-38 can opener, as well as: a tube of M&M Mini's labeled Phalanx--the zombieism placebo from World War Z; breathsavers with a wrap to look like shotgun shells; Tic-Tacs labeled 'Pills here!' with the Left 4 Dead logo; road flare Rolos; Fruit by the Foot bandages. It made for neat things to give out to guests that didn't really require too much work to do individually but definitely made the party theme come out. Everyone at the party except my beloved waifu dressed up as either a zombie or a survivor. I dressed up as a zombie, with moderately successful effect. 

Check out my friggin' Skeletor hand

Alright, so I feel a little lame that A) my costume was done about 15 minutes after the last minute; and B) it incorporated none of the crafty self-made ideas I'd been pondering over the previous weeks. However, it was a quick mess to slop on and fairly easy to get off, and was moderately cool-looking for the minimal hassle, in my opinion. The neck-bite kit's latex was a little fiddly and didn't feel too secure even after waiting the recommended 10 minutes. Then again, I'd hardly want to spirit gum my neck. The other big feature of my outfit was the teeth--hard plastic denture thingies as opposed to the cheaper flexible kind. Great googaly-moogaly they were uncomfortable. In addition to rubbing a sore against my upper left gums, the inside of the dentures kept pooling with saliva, leaving me in a state of partially drowning in my own fluids. This may be good for establishing the torment of the living dead, but I think I'll pass on it in the future.

Of course, that didn't stop me from saving them--just in case.

Little Shawn was too tired for photos that day
My son, dressed up as a certain zombie-smashing protagonist who's got red on him. I'm a big fan of Shaun of the Dead, and I wanted to see my little blond-haired boy running around thumping zombies with a mini cricket bat. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a safe cricket bat to buy for him, and I didn't have time to make one, so he went without. The little guy really impressed me with his development, though, displaying hyper-advanced cognitive functions by frakking narcing on me.

See, I was the one in charge of his costume, so before I zombified myself I threw some fake blood in his shirt pocket. As soon as my plucky electronic store clerk saw the thick red stain start to seep through his shirt, he began to mutter and moan. I dabbed it around into an ever-increasing mar on his white shirt, and accordingly the pint-sized party-goer began to sputter and pout, face wrinkling as he let me know that he thought the situation stunk. Once I'd finished and I suggested he go show his mother, he pounded on the bathroom door until she came, stamped his feet, and angrily accused "Da!" as he displayed his ruined shirt. Ah, memories.

(By the way, narcing is an example of advanced cognitive function because it established a layered taxonomy of thought, ethics, recourse, and guilt. He recognized I was changing his shirt in a lasting way, decided that it was not the way it should be, told an authority figure, and then proceeded to assign blame to the guilty party--me. That's m'boy!)

Now, there's a question that I've probably been asked a couple of times a year for nearly a decade now:

What's it with you and zombies?

Well, as grammatically suspect as that question is, it's one I'm fully prepared to answer. I've been enamored with the walking dead ever since I first played Myth in 1997 and saw a cut-scene featuring a mob of undead Thrall lurking at the bottom of a river, waiting to surface and overwhelm a nearby town. That visceral image is ever-present in my appreciation for the genre, and it is emblematic of the themes of the genre that grab me and never let go. Now, I also happen to be a zombie snob, and that goes to the point that there is one 'true' type of zombie and everything else--while it could very well be enjoyable--are deviations from the master zombie. This master zombie is a biologically and irrepressibly infectious creature that is devoid of a traditional human metabolism except for dependence on a central nervous system, possessed only by the urge to spread itself, which appears to be through cannibalistic attacks. So it's the World War Z zombie that I'm talking about here. The book, not the disrespectful absurdist movie (expect more rants on the movie in the future). These shambling zombies have no reliance on blood, tissues, or organs other than the brain, they desire to infect the living purely for the sake of viral reproduction, and they are limited by the rigamortis of their dead hosts. I'll doubtless go into the logistics and storytelling rationale of the superiority of this zombie iteration later, but for now I'll just gloss over the definition and skip to the essence of the question: why I like zombies.

I'm not a fan of gore for it's own sake. Sure, I've watched every episode of Deadliest Warrior wide-eyed several times, but it's not the visceral violent spectacle that draws me to the zombie genre. It's that zombies are an indictment of human frivolity--or at least modern frivolity. Zombies are the sort of enemy that a rational and stoic human should be able to handle, whether in a modern or primitive setting. But yet the zombie--even if slow and simple-minded--manages to plod onwards and devour the resourceful but terminally-flawed humans.

As Simon Pegg said in an old article from 2008, zombies are supposed to be a manifestation of death itself: plodding, slow, unsophisticated, and only slowed or delayed by technology--never completely vanquished by it. But a good zombie yarn also condemns its characters to a degree, because after the initial outbreaks victims to zombie attacks almost always deserve their deaths. They die for curiosity, overconfidence, lack of cooperation with their fellows, or a general unwillingness to live in the post-modern world. That last part is a critical component of the survival aspect of most zombie stories since their 80s resurgence, because modern leisure has divorced most of us from useful, practical skill sets. And as such the struggle to become self-reliant and useful is a fixture in stories that have protagonists that are shop clerks (as in Shawn of the Dead), bike messengers (28 Days Later), Best Buy associates (Dawn of the Dead remake), game-playing shut-ins (Zombieland), and so forth. All of these characters need to learn hard, fast lessons and reform their character to survive. Static characters don't fare well in these movies: one gets torn apart and pot-lucked in Shawn of the Dead, another served up as an a-la-car zombie-snack  in 28 Days Later, one shrill one gets chainsawed in half for no frakkin' reason in Dawn of the Dead, and finally a famous one is shot in the chest for surprising an unassuming loser in Zombieland. In the novel World War Z, this point is especially elaborated in one chapter in the post-zombie West Coast of America. In it formerly rich white folks in America sit down and learn gardening and cooking raw ingredients from people who used to be their landscapers and maids. It's a fabulous message that gets lost as zombies become a faster, sillier threat.

Now you'll notice that all of my examples except Shawn of the Dead feature fast zombies (or 'infected' in 28 Days Later's case). This is deliberate, as these movies' focus strays toward gunplay, simple-minded action, or purely human threats. The dilution of the zombie's identity as a slow-but-hard-to-kill threat makes it less nuanced and requires you to move away from them as the focus of your story. People are more likely to die for reasons outside their own control and culpability, and the zombies themselves make less sense. I think it's pretty well-represented by the zombie evolution you see in the Romero remakes, where zombies are not only fast but become smarter over time to the point that they have individuals and leaders in Land of the Dead. And they keep waffling between alien, supernatural, and biological explanations as none of them are satisfactory ways to justify having fundamentally super-powered zombies that are fast, smart, and resilient to the loss of all but one organ. And most of all, these stories have to cheat to establish the initial world-wide infection levels needed to make a good zombie story. People just wake up one day and they're everywhere. How? With zombies that fast, that obvious, and infection turnover in terms of minutes or seconds, how could a zombie even get aboard a plane, let alone make it to cross an ocean from one continent to another? The transmission of a disease takes time, and the longer an infected host can move freely about a population, the more likely it is that the disease is going to spread. Fast zombies just aren't effective as a contagion because they are too deadly a threat as individuals--which also means that fast zombies are more likely to destroy a victim rather than let a wounded victim escape to infect more friendlies.

And there you go. A long, long overdue post that combined a few crafty ideas and a long-winded ramble on my stance on the zombie issue. And it took only...4 months? Don't worry, though, as my love for zombies extends to this deadly quiet blog, and I've got quite a few special things in store for you over the coming days.

*As much as any dichotomy can be true, that is. In algebraic terms, you can only say there are two types of things: A and not-A. More specific dichotomies are usually either simply false or misleading simplifications.

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