Monday, January 28, 2008


In a continuation of my zombie apprenticeship, I just watched Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. In the aftermath of that enjoyable splatterfest, I'm left with a question: can a zombie movie really be a zombie movie if it doesn't include a Zombie Apocalypse (Zombocalypse? Zombiepocalypse?)?

For me, this goes back to an essay that I've obsessed about in the past, Rick Altman's treatment of film genres. Altman has what he calls a Syntactic/Semantic approach, and he divides genre elements, like language, into those two categories. The first, broad category is semantics - the building blocks of a genre. For a Western, these building blocks are obvious: cowboys, outlaws, Indians, horses, sheriffs, open plains, six-shooters, shootouts, saloons, etc. Then comes the syntax. With some variation, all Westerns arrange their semantics into some similar patterns: good vs. evil, the good bad man, the other, the alien, the settler vs. the cowboy, man vs. his other, etc. Semantics are broad and obvious; syntax are more specific. Altman's example of the difference is Elvis movies - sure, they have musical numbers, so they seem semantically to be musicals, but they sure don't arrange those musical numbers the way other musicals do.

Filmmakers have all kinds of fun mixing semantics and syntax. Most famous is probably Star Wars - semantically a science fiction film, it contains pretty much everyone of those syntactic features I listed for the Western. Science fiction semantics + Western syntax= billions and billions of dollars.

So, back to Zombies. You see, Dead Alive doesn't feature a Zombiepocalypse, which we can probably describe as a missing semantic feature. But Dead Alive still has zombies in it, so it must be a zombie film, right? Except, when you remove the Zombiepocalypse, you remove most of the zombie movie's syntax (see: Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc). Zombie movies, syntactically, are all about dread, the collapse of established authority, survival, the tragedy of loved ones turned into zombies. These syntactic elements make appearances in recent movies like I am Legend and 30 Days of Night, and thus make them feel like zombie movies, even though those movies feature vampires, which typically have their own very different, quite gothic syntactic elements.

It would be foolish of me to declare that Dead Alive isn't a zombie movie - it has zombies in it! It'd be like declaring that an Elvis movie isn't a musical, or that Star Wars isn't a science fiction film*. But I do think it matters that it isn't syntactically a zombie movie. One way I think it matters is that I wouldn't put it in my top 5 or 10 zombie movies - it just doesn't feel like a zombie movies. And if I were teaching a course on zombie movies, I would be willing to include it, but it would certainly be the exception that proves the rule that removing the zombiepocalypse results in a movie that doesn't feel like the rest of its genre brethren. There. Sorry that was boring.

*Disclaimer: It kind of isn't, if science fiction is held to its original standard, which is to say that it has some interest in science. I mean, "science" is in the title of science fiction, and Star Wars has (as near as I can tell) pretty much zero science. I, following others before me, might be more inclined to call it fantasy - all those mystical elements are what really matters, and no one really cares about how or why any of that technology works.. This is what makes it so much less geeky than Star Trek - which actually contains science.


Anonymous said...

I owe you great thanks as your post finally broke down the difference between semantic and syntactic elements in a logical manner allowing me to ace my film final!

Graham said...

Anonymous, if that's true, that is by far the greatest compliment I have yet received as a blogger.

Also, congratulations on acing your final.