Ugh: Stories from the Zombie Apocalypse – A Review

     A coffee mug left half-finished on the kitchen table tells about someone’s interrupted morning routine. A broken picture frame in the garbage can, with its jingling shards of glass, holds the story of an angry wife finding out about her husband’s affair. One would notice that only the frame is in the garbage; the black frame showcases a cardboard backdrop. The family picture is missing, no photograph pieces sit in the trash can, but the presence of the frame holds as much significance as the absence of the picture. In the fictional zombie apocalypse, the untold stories of the fallen give gravity to the survivors’ fight for survival and serve as reminders for how easily their own stories can be wiped out by the undead. In both AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series, and the Left 4 Dead video game franchise, these silenced narratives are heard through the visual sights of reanimated corpses, the disarrayed environments such as homes and hospitals, and last acts of humanity. The Walking Dead breathes fresh air into the zombie genre by using personal stories of survival and humanity as its driving force while also including the undead head-bashing that zombie fans love. The stories of survival become louder amidst a silent world.

Adapted from Robert Kirkman’s comic books, the series’ premiere episode “Days Gone Bye” follows Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) after he wakes up from a coma, weeks after being shot, and finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies. Every day is a struggle for survival as Grimes sets out to find his family and refuge.

The show utilizes many direct point-of-view camera angles that place the viewer into Grimes’ shoes. This provides an authentic storytelling tactic in which every plot point comes through either as-it-happens or as-it’s-discovered. The viewer experiences the story simultaneously with the show’s protagonist, creating the illusion that the viewer is discovering the reality of the zombie apocalypse as well.

As Grimes wakes up in the hospital, desperate for water, his search for hydration and aid in his weakened condition leads him to discover the haunting post-apocalyptic world. The effective use of lighting in the hospital hallway, or lack thereof, creates a grim tone with its flickering fluorescent light bulbs providing quick bouts of illumination that reveal many of the hospital’s foreboding secrets. The abundance of darkness in every hallway, every corner, and every room closes in on Grimes.

Subtle bullet holes create jagged rows along the floral wallpaper. Each one is accompanied with blood splatter up the wall to the ceiling, the fingerprint left on the earth as someone died. A voice, and a personal story, being silenced for good. The physical context of the hospital makes the atrocities appear surrealistic. Grimes and the viewer are left wondering what could have caused such barbaric behavior and chaos within a typically safe place. Ceiling tiles lay knocked open or they are missing entirely; a stream of electrical wires spill down towards the floor through the open slots. The flashing fluorescent light gives off the deceptive notion that there’s electricity and a connection with the rest of the world, but is only the source of the emergency generator. The new world is silent, dark, and destroyed. The lack of soundtrack that’s typical for TV shows in these initial “discovery” scenes foster the illusive realism that puts the viewer into Grimes’ point-of-view. This silence and the accompanying sense of isolation gives gravity to the situation at hand.
As Grimes travels through the familiar neighborhoods, there is something offsetting about them. Two-by-fours replace venetian blinds, allowing only slits of possible light or sight through them. Children’s toys such as tricycles, playhouses, and basketballs are left strewn across yards as if they had only been set down for lunchtime. Cars lay scattered in the streets; their diagonal parking jobs give off the appearance of staggered blockades down the suburban road.

Inside the homes, some look like shaken doll houses- their contents are scattered on the floor, over tabletops, and across sofas. The actions are results of scrambling for survival gear about the home. Cupboards hold tipped over soup cans and dust rings that had encircled their companions. These are the fingerprints left after being snatched in a hurry. Step into another room and one breathes in the stale air that’s suspended throughout the homes’ rooms. Each home acts as a time capsule for when the world came to an end as the dead began to walk again; their contents became frozen in time like the stopped clocks on living room walls. The untouched homes appear as slightly tarnished relics of the days of society. In daylight, these neighborhoods look like frayed and deserted communities, but as soon as night falls, the dead walk the streets, making the suburban boulevards unrecognizable- a “no man’s land.” Like the hospital’s silence, the absence of car tires rolling down the pavement, packs of children laughing and stomping down the sidewalk, dogs barking at passing joggers, and shushing sprinklers sending jets of water over the green lawns only strengthens the idea of the survivors feeling alone. In this new world, the odds of running into a crowd of the undead are more likely than a fellow human being on any given day.

Grimes’ finds shelter with Morgan (Lennie James) and Duane (Adrian Kali Turner) Jones, a father and son who are coping with the recent loss their wife and mother. Grimes realizes that the Jones’ found shelter in his neighbors’ home, who, like everyone else in his neighborhood, are nowhere to be found. This home holds more memory to the Jones’ now than the strangers whose pictures decorate the walls and end tables. The show focuses on how everything is up for grabs in the apocalypse, embracing the phrase “Mi casa is su casa.” However, nobody enters the room next to the stairs; the memory of the Jones family’s third member succumbing to the fever brought on by the undead’s infectious bite is too strong, the idea filling the room like poisonous smoke.
As the episode progresses, Morgan Jones uses the undead for target practice as they shuffle through the cluttered streets. These zombies are dressed in casual clothing, business suits, military uniforms, police uniforms, etc; each outfit tells what the person was doing on the day they died, or at least a clue of their role in the previous society. Were they trying to get their family to safety? Were they helping control the chaos of evacuation and public panic? Were they trying to protect the living from the growing swarms of dead?

As Morgan practices his sharp-shooting on them, each shot to the head comes off as a humane act. He is not re-killing a person who has come back to life, but instead freeing a person controlled by a hellish disease from a fate worse than death. Jones quickly picks up the pace of firing, freeing more souls until his deceased wife falls in between the scope’s crosshairs. He hopes to continue with the procedure set in place; he wants to lay his wife to rest finally, but the emotional costs prove to be too much and she walks out of the crosshairs, off into the gray decaying mob of soulless corpses. The quick series of camera shots gave the similarities of Jones’ wife after becoming one of the undead, but there’s the difference between his wife (a reanimated loved one) and undead strangers.

The gripping idea of having to witness a loved one die, come back to life as a horrendous creature whose only drive is to eat you, and having to end their life yet again is substantial in a zombie apocalypse. The viewer questions if they would be able to shoot their friends and family members in the head. The act alone is brutal enough, but the brain must be destroyed for a zombie to be killed. A bullet to the head is an instant death, a definite end, and a gruesome way to ensure a “good-bye.” The fact that Morgan could not shoot his wife speaks heavily about his character and how the show balances zombie-bashing and human story and morale. The trigger is much easier to pull when the person at the end of the barrel is a stranger. The walking corpse is just a number in the crowd then. They are seen as part of the collective group- the undead. Whoever they were before the zombie apocalypse is irrelevant for they only stumble around searching for flesh to devour. Their humanity is gone, their reason is gone, and their personality is gone. The dead are empty inside except for the revived region of the brain that forces the body to crave food. They are hungry and they can walk. The dead are simply trying to survive.

The initial weeks after the fall of society in the zombie apocalypse consist of elements typical of a power outage, only on a greater scale. Survivors’ shelters are illuminated with scavenged candlesticks and gas lanterns. Hot water is as rare as another living person. There is no television, no internet, no Facebook, no email, no mail service, no street lights, no five o’clock dinners, no radio, and no telephones. The modern world has been stripped of all its prized items that only fed its citizen’s desire for instant gratification and entertainment. Now, if someone wanted to live, they had to work and fight for their survival. This sudden reverting of survivors into scavengers makes such old world items into valuable treasures. Something as simple as hot food or water for a shower becomes desirable in the apocalypse.

Released in 2008, Valve’s Left 4 Dead video game centers on four diverse survivors two weeks after the first infection of the zombie virus. In a matter of fourteen days, cities have become seemingly vacant war zones. Their streets house abandoned tanks, buses, sedans, and military Humvees. Buildings and homes have been reduced to heaps of rubbles or ash. Each level of the first-person shooter game sends the player into the zombie-infested world to fight their way through a variety of environments. Their journey could lead them through the abandoned rural town of Riverside or a city’s destroyed subways beneath the downtown sector. While the player has to shoot the gray, milky-eyed zombies in order to stay alive, their trek to safety brings them upon other survivors’ paths that stopped dead in their tracks.

A compelling aspect of Left 4 Dead is that its levels consist of intricate mazes that are built out of the level’s environment, such as the subway will consist of obstacles like obstructed stairwells, derailed train cars, fires, and collapsed tunnels. These make survivors feel boxed in when fleeing from zombie mobs, creating a claustrophobic feeling as the player moves throughout the levels. While creating a path for travel through each level, such methods of establishing the paths add to the game’s imagined realism. Each mazes’ final destination is a red steel door to a safe room that is stocked with first aid kids, weapons, and ammo. They mark the completion of a level, or the journey between checkpoints, and the safe rooms provide a place for the team to regroup, heal any wounds of theirs, and restock their ammo before moving on.

Though the closest the game allows the player contact with other survivors is in the finale when one calls in a rescue, many of the unseen people utilized the safe rooms before Left 4 Dead’s protagonists. The cream-colored brick walls soon became stationary for messages to be passed from person to person: “Sarah! Jen is fine. Meet us at Riverside.- Aaron;” “Keith, waited 3 days… I can’t wait anymore. Meet me at Mercy Hospital. – Krista;” “NOBODY IS GOING TO SAVE US;” “Dennis – got bit but I feel o.k. see you at the airport. The walls of these temporary sanctuaries are intended to be message boards, but they come off as memorial walls. People’s final messages to their loved ones before becoming lost out in the dark streets and woods. The most abundant source of light in the game is found in the safe rooms at the end of each level, and survivors flock to them in a world gone dark. The rooms act as beacons for security. Like flag markers dispersed throughout the levels, similarly spray-painted safe house symbols are found on walls, semi-trailers, and on slabs of concrete leaning against stairwells that lead down into darkness. Arrows next to these pieces of survival-inspired graffiti point the player down the right path to safety. There comes a sense that this is the same path traveled by many before the player, and that some of the zombies they’re forced to put down with their automatic shotguns were those people who pursued the same path earlier. Would the player’s team suffer a similar fate? This is a constant reminder with every swarm of zombies swooping down on the team. Upon approaching many of the game’s safe rooms, a heap of dead bodies lay in a pool of crimson blood that’s dried on the dirty concrete. The light from the safe room shines on their faces; the light also reveals flies swirling over the mound of corpses with the intensity of static on a television screen. These people had made it so close to safety; they were within arms’ reach. How many had made it inside the safe room, but they were injured. Were some cast out by others and left to die? Each body, with its proximity to the iconic door for safety, had either been so close or had made it but lost the fight inside.

 Left 4 Dead enforces that only chance the group has at surviving is to stay close together and work as a team. Every member’s personal decision and action influences the fate of the group. The game is laced with cars whose alarms are ready to go off with a touch or a stray bullet. The car alarm pierces the still night air; as if Hell opened up, an ungodly choir of hellish shrieks answers back from the shadows. The undead call out for the survivors’ blood with jealousy, vengeance, and pity heavy in their shrieks. The messages of “Don’t forget us! Don’t forget who we were,” and “You’re going to be one of us eventually,” carries in their cries. The moment is chilling as the city or the countryside erupts with the waking of the dead. The players are reminded of how small they are compared to the millions of predators out there against them as well as their slim chances for making it to the next checkpoint. The player and their teammates have only a few seconds to devise a plan before the onslaught of zombies come charging down on them from every direction, ready to wipe them out like a rogue wave.

In these situations, the barrel fire next to the destroyed school bus or beneath the lone working streetlamp becomes the go-to point with its little light. Though the light source places the team be in plain view of their attackers, there is clearer visibility of what’s coming for them. Automatic shotguns, assault rifles, hunting rifles, pistols, pipe bombs, and Molotov cocktail bombs make up the group’s arsenal. The team fires all of them into the mob of approaching zombies as the mass closes in like moths drawn to a fragile bug zapper. “Reloading!” is called out frequently by teammates and the expectation of covering each other becomes crucial. In an instant, the team falls short and a member is dragged out into the sea of zombies to drown under a barrage of clawing hands, stomping feet, and gnashing teeth. This loss takes a huge hit on the team of four. However, should members of the team manage to survive this surge of zombies, dead team members will not return as undead savages; instead, the recently deceased can be rescued within minutes from various checkpoints, usually comprising of a bathroom, closet, bedroom- basically from any four-wall room with a door.

These checkpoints are found within make-shift safe rooms that had been used by people before the group. The floors in these rooms are covered in opened food cans, bloody clothes, and abandoned sleeping bags huddled together around a lit gas lantern. These shelters become the closest thing to a home after the end of the world. But that home can only be temporary because how everything is left untouched, the lights still on, that whoever was using the home had to leave suddenly or unexpectedly. Open the door leading to the apartment building’s stairwell and the player discovers a pile of dead bodies. They are gray, decaying, and the death has dyed their clothing a similar shade. These could be the people whose make-shift home the player and their team just stumbled upon. One is wrapped in a white, blood-stained bed sheet. The team had seen similar figures in alleyways, hallways, bedrooms, and diners throughout the city.

The groups that these wrapped bodies had been with did the best they could to give their fallen friend a proper burial during the apocalypse. There is no time to bury, no time to mourn, only time to cover and move on. The human population may be diminishing, but those who are still alive try to hold onto their humanity in the wake of society’s dissolve. These tiny acts of kindness come through with such action taken by survivors. Acts like roadside memorials and messages left in the safe rooms dispersed throughout the game is bittersweet to see. These roadside burials mean that yet another person was claimed by the undead, but the acts of their friends and loved ones give the player and their teammates hope to press onward towards the safe haven, which had been every zombie’s hopeful destination before succumbing to the disease. There’s almost an unspoken obligation to make it to salvation for all who were lost. 

In the fictional zombie apocalypse, the survivors’ fight for survival is pushed by the silent stories that surround their search for refuge, which is seen in The Walking Dead TV series and the Left 4 Dead video game franchise. Every person is reminded that they could become one of the reanimated corpses at any time. In the end, the fight for survival comes through in a want to honor those lost along the way to safety and to not join the enemy. The most effective way that these two pieces connect with their audiences is through their attention to realism in a fictional situation by using of first person point-of-view storytelling, experience, and close attention to the environment.
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