Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Left 4 Dead‘s epic story

Posted by Cory Casciato On April - 10 - 2009


Four survivors, thrown together by circumstance when the world dissolves into the chaos of the inevitable zombie apocalypse. While their friends, family and neighbors are turned into vicious, crazed zombies these four people, with nothing in common besides the will to survive, must work together to make it to safety. If they can’t, none of them has a chance.

Not only is Left 4 Dead a great video game, it’s a triumph of visual storytelling. Apart from a skippable intro movie and a separate post-campaign escape scene for each of the four campaigns, there are no cutscenes or non-interactive movies anywhere in the game. The entire story is told within the game world. This is done through messages spraypainted on walls, the scenes of carnage, the gameplay itself and, most impressively and importantly, through the characters.

The messages left everywhere are the tiny, impressive details of an epic horror story. These range from official quarantine orders and safety procedure signs to scrawled  messages for loved ones left behind, to flaky advice and philosophy. Whether you take the time to read it all or not (I did), its simple presence adds a lot of depth to the back story of the game, and consequently helps the immersion factor considerably. Along side the written messages, the simple fact of the carnage and improvised defenses obvious in the setup of the abandoned apartments, houses, hotels and businesses that make up the game levels adds another level to the story. Just like in real life (and in the best movies, for that matter) there’s no need to tell the story — it’s easy to see exactly what happened.

The four characters are expressed ably and subtly through their details, from animations to the signature lines they speak  and reactions to events within the game. Excellent voice acting, character modeling and animation all contribute to some of the best realized digital characters ever seen in any medium. The crusty old vet; high-strung office drone; gruff, tough swaggering biker; and horror-movie loving final-girl type are all communicated well without once interrupting the core game to introduce or explain or anything about any of them. Most gamers will pick one of the heroes as a favorite pretty quickly and stick with them whenever playing — for me, that’s the Bill, the chain-smoking, cantankerous old Vietnam vet with a dark sense of humor. Functionally, the characters are identical as far as I can tell — there’s no advantage to playing with one over or another.

The music and sound of the game are perfect too, from the gibberish and howling screams of the infected to the signature sounds of the special infected. The witch’s musical cue is especially spooky and effective. These elements support and deepen the visual and gameplay elements to tell the story.

I have to say that I love the zombies of this game. They are of the infected type, and possibly not technically dead (it isn’t really clear). I also love that they explained why the characters don’t get turned despite constant contact with infected — much like Planet Terror (which seems an inspiration), the main cast and certain others are all immune to the highly contagious disease. This game finally sold me once and for all on the fast zombies, too. Not as a replacement for the shamblers, who will always be first in my heart, but as an distinct and honorable branch of zombiedom. For the game, these work really well — the tension of the game would be absent if they could only shuffle.

The special zombies, who seem to control the regular horde, are an interesting touch, too. There’s the boomer that can puke zombie-attractant all over anything, the smoker with his long, whip-like tongue that can snare unsuspecting survivors, the fast, agile hunter that pounces and pins the unwary, the grotesquely strong tank and finally, the haggard, emo (she cries constantly until she attacks) witch, fast and strong and very easily upset. Their influence on the game play is enormous and they fit within the fiction just fine, even though tye aren’t really explained (what, you think in a real zombie apocalypse there’s going to be an explanation for all the weird shit you will see?). Again, there’s some precedent — JUNK had a master zombie who was super-strong and could control the other “regular” zombies and the Resident Evil franchise (both games and movies) have included a number of special “super zombies”.  It’s something of a requirement for games — simply killing the same zombies over and over again gets boring, in theory.

If the game’s story has a weakness it is the lack of a coherent overarching narrative to tie it all together. Why do they keep finding themselves needing to cross town to get to the next escape point? It’s a mystery. Or maybe an existential joke: why did the survivors of the zombie apocalypse cross the town? To get to the next level, of course.

Defining the dead: What is a zombie?

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 31 - 2009


In an earlier post, I addressed the question of what makes a zombie. My preliminary conclusion was if it looks like a zombie, acts like a zombie and isn’t something else, it’s a zombie. Here, I’d like to help nail that down with a definition and a look at the key question of zombiedom: is it dead?

Zombie: a) a dead human that’s been reanimated to a state between life and death; b) a human in a death-like state that strips them of cognition, will and other mental or spiritual traits most considered unique to humanity, esp. the soul.

Many zombie fans would argue that the second definition is incorrect. To their point of view, if it isn’t dead, it isn’t a zombie; nothing else matters. It’s frequently the justification given to deny zombie status to the infected in 28 Days Later, for example. But it isn’t that simple. The zombie is all about blurring the lines between life and death. After all, in real life, dead people do not walk around, much less try to eat people’s faces off, right? So it seems a wee bit absolutist to argue, “If it isn’t dead, it isn’t a zombie.”

Is the zombie alive? Dead? Well, there’s a reason they created a word – undead – for it. It’s neither, really. Not technically alive, not technically dead, but in a third state. And again, since this state is largely imaginary, it’s impossible to definitively say what that means — at least until the real zombie apocalypse breaks out, which I expect any day now. But that’s another story.

To my way of thinking, the unlife/undeath of a zombie is all about the corruption or loss of humanity. This is frequently represented by the horde in zombie movies: i.e. the loss of individuality, subsumed into a mindless, unthinking mass. In this light, the Rage zombies of 28 Days Later are just as easily seen as zombies, despite being technically alive. Certainly, they’ve lost their cognitive functions, their identities and their ability to exercise free will. They act only on the impulse to kill and to infect. The heart beats, but something vital — the spark of humanity itself, whether you call it a soul or a mind — is gone. How is that not a zombie? (There’s also the fact that they are clearly in a zombie movie, but that’s a subject for another post entirely…)

There can’t be any absolute answer, since we’re talking primarily about fiction. What makes a zombie for me might not for you, and we could both be “right.” I do think that when trying to determine the validity of a potential zombie, the death question is absolutely key. If it isn’t dead, or in a death-like state that strips some essential component of its humanity from it, then no, it isn’t a zombie.

The zombie dream

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 16 - 2009

dreamimgI had the zombie dream last night, and that seems as good a reason as any to address it here on the site. See, I’ve been having variations on the same zombie dream on and off for close to fifteen years now. I’m fairly certain it started shortly after I saw Dawn of the Dead, which was shortly before I turned twenty. It’s something I’ve discovered is remarkably common among my male friends, especially (but not exclusively) those who are deeply interested in zombies. I’m sure there are women that have the zombie dream, too, I just don’t know any of them.

The dream is usually some variation of the apocalyptic zombie scenario. Zombies run amok everywhere, and I am left alone, or nearly alone, to battle the undead hordes. These dreams are not nightmares, not for me at least. To the contrary, I find them both fascinating for their symbolism and entertaining for their sheer zombie awesomeness. Indeed, I have no doubt that they have played a major part in my obsession with all things zombie. For whatever reason, my brain has latched on to the image of the shambling, animated dead as a vehicle for any number of subconscious desires, fears and impulses.

In the dream, I am always fighting valiantly and unceasingly against the living dead, but there is always the grim certainty, just as in most zombie fiction, that eventually I will fall and be consumed. In my own analysis, I’ve determined that the zombies frequently play the part of inexorable external forces working against me. For example, while I was in college, I would have the dream with some frequency around the time of finals. I have also had it at tax time, before a big project at work is due, etc. At other times, the zombies themselves aren’t necessarily the focus, but simply acting as a foil for other impulses — for example, the last time before this most current time I had the dream, the main anxiety in it was about not being able to reach my daughter, who was on the other side of town during a major zombie outbreak.  Not coincidentally, this was right after she went to stay with her grandparents for a while. In other words, like many a filmmaker working genre Z, the zombies were but symbols of something else.

On the other hand, I occasionally have it at a time when I simply am thinking a lot about zombies. Last night, for example, I was thinking about them right before bed and actually hoping I’d have the dream. I was also trying out melatonin to see if it would aid my intermittent insomnia, and I’ve heard it can contribute to vivid dreams. In any case, I love the zombie dream and I hope I keep having it — honestly, the one thing that’s a bummer about immersing myself in zombie media is it tends to reduce the frequency of how often I dream zombies. If anyone cares to share, I’d love to hear about others’ zombie dreams, including what you think it might mean to you.

Is it a zombie?

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 5 - 2009

kirsty1What is a zombie? It’s an obvious and necessary question for any blog that seeks to cover the wide variety of zombie media. In my research and writing, I’ve encountered a number of different definitions for what is or isn’t a zombie. It’s something that really, really seems to get zombie lovers riled up. If you want to see an example, check out the discussion page for the Wikipedia list of zombie movies (it’s in my blogroll links). It has pages of discussion over 28 Days Later, much of which can only be described as frenzied.

Many people take what I feel is a ridiculously narrow view. In a list of the best zombie movies of all time I wrote a while back, some of the commenters complained that The Serpent and the Rainbow didn’t belong. Another commenter said if it wasn’t an ambulatory, flesh-eating corpse, it wasn’t a zombie (in other words, it’s a Romero clone, or it’s not a zombie). That’s just ridiculous. For one thing, it makes the list of zombie movies and media about a ten percent of what it actually is, or should be. For another, it completely ignores the history and development of the zombie. Worst, it completely excludes some of the coolest zombies of all time.

Personally, I take an expansive, inclusive position on what is or isn’t a zombie. I use what I consider a common-sense approach: if it looks like a zombie, acts like a zombie and/or is called a zombie, then it’s (probably) a zombie. I know that might seem like a circular argument, but we are talking about a largely fictional creature here — a zombie is what the people who make zombie media say it is, and, to a lesser degree, what the people who experience that media think it is.

It’s not quite that simple; there are other considerations. For starters, it’s definitely worth noting that zombies are, in one incarnation, a real thing. You can’t say that about too many other monsters! The first zombie stories came from reports of Westerners who visited Haiti and witnessed or heard about the creations of Voudon practitioners. From there, zombies were incorporated into film and theater, then later books, video games, etc.

On the other hand, things that are clearly and definitively something else, such as vampires, demons or ghosts, are not zombies (although there are some special cases that might qualify as zombie hybrids). These creatures have their own traditions and tropes associated with them. Trying to encompass them in the definition of a zombie simply dilutes the definition beyond usefulness.

That’s the basic premise: if it looks like a zombie, acts like a zombie and/or is called a zombie (i.e. is based on the reality of the Voudon practice of zombification or any of the fiction inspired by that practice) and isn’t something else, it’s a zombie. I’m not done with this topic, not by a long shot. I’m actually working on a super-scientific method for determining zombieness and I intend to address several specific characteristics of zombiism in later posts, but I think I’ve poked the fire enough for one day.

Me as zombie

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 2 - 2009


I know when you’re reading this blog, you’re thinking, “This is all fascinating, riveting stuff, but what does this guy look like? More importantly, what would he look like as a zombie?” Well now, thanks to my loving and ever-creative better half and the artistry of Rob Sacchetto of Zombie Daily, you know. I received a lovely, hand-drawn version of the image you see here for my birthday Saturday and knew I just had to share it with you fine people. If you like it as much as I do, you can get one of your own done by Rob by visiting the link above, or hitting his other, portrait-specific site Zombie Portraits. He’s also got some t-shirts and coffee mugs and what not, if you like that sort of thing.

My humble beginnings: Return of the Living Dead

Posted by Cory Casciato On February - 5 - 2009


The film Return of the Living Dead is largely responsible for what has become a lifelong obsession with zombie movies. My history with the film starts way back in 1985, the year it was released, when I was but a wee boy of twelve years old. The movie was being advertised heavily and the commercials, some of which featured the notorious tar zombie and his “BRAINS!” catchphrase, simply terrified me. I distinctly remember one night, staying in a cheap hotel in California, where I was convinced that zombie would break through the flimsy door of my room and attack my brothers and me before my dad, in the room next door, could do anything about it. I didn’t sleep much that night, and, no doubt due to my terrified vigilance, the tar zombie never came for us.

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