Zombies have fallen – A low budget movie, and a discussion on language, narrative voice, genre and respecting your reader

I was recently contacted by a friend with regards to the film Zombies have Fallen.  It is a low budget movie, with zombies in it, that has recently been advertised to me on Amazon Prime.  And none of that would have had any interest for me were it not for the fact that the writer & director is a graduate of the University I attended.

Given my allegiance to my former institution, and given that Amazon did in fact advertise it to me, I felt I should make the effort and watch the movie.

This is not a movie review.  However, so you are aware of what you are getting into if you decide to watch for academic or other reasons, here are some impressions.

The scripting is poor, the acting is wooden, and the editing could have been significantly better.  All that being said, the first 45 minutes of the film had a certain tone to it.  The movie was trying to be a hide & seek thriller, with one bounty hunter trying to kill a psychic under the protection of another.  The story just about works, and there was one element that I thought was really clever, though not executed as well as it could have been.

Then at 45 minutes, Zombies appeared in Gretna (a town down the road from where I live).  Allegiances shifted very quickly, almost as quickly as the tone of the film changed to one so far beyond black comedy; I would almost call it a farce.  (The Zombie farce was quite entertaining, to give credit where it is due).

So, let’s get to the point.

For me, the major issue with the film was the fact that it didn’t know what it was trying to be.  (I am not saying the writer/director didn’t know, only that something happened that caused a radical shift in direction that breaks the narrative flow, making it look like there was no clear idea).  Perhaps obviously, this is applicable to written work. Stories exist and, whether or not they belong in a genre, their language sets the tone of their overall impact.  Where applicable, language choice helps define genre.  And genre guides reader expectations.  Language and Genre give a story identity, it gives it a voice.  As a writer, you have the freedom to choose whatever genre and/or voice you want.  You also have a responsibility to do it properly.

I once read a piece of work by a peer.  The piece was ok.  I expected it to be a supernatural horror as it was named for a Cannibal Spirit.  There were certainly parts of the piece which felt like they were in a horror.  Unfortunately, other parts read more like the movie “The Hangover”.  I never did find out what genre the author intended, or if he even realised he what he had done.  All I know, the piece had a mixed voice and it was hampered by this.

Zombies have fallen started as a thriller.  It tried quite hard in this.  It became a ludicrous comedy.  This was entertaining but wasted any tension built up in the first part.  The title bore no relation to the film, sounding very much like a recent Gerard Butler movie (the design work looked a bit like that too).  The end result was a movie with no identity, no personality (or more appropriately, multiple personalities).  As a movie, it didn’t stand.  As 30 minutes of sillyness tacked onto the end, it was ok.

I guess what I am saying is that you need to know what you are trying to communicate, and in what voice, in order to know what language to use.  I would suspect a reader would be less forgiving of a book littered with mistakes, dull characters just to get to the last three chapters worth of silly.  A book is an investment that a reader makes.  Don’t waste the reader’s time.

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Chicken Run – A Study in following your own rules

In a previous life, I was a student officer at University.  Which meant it was my job to nag the University about stuff.  And in order to be successful at nagging, I had to build relationships with University staff.  The hardest of the lot was the Vice Chancellor.  I am not sure he was entirely comfortable with folk under the age of 40.  However, I eventually managed to build that rapport and the point where I realised this was when I was on schmoozing duty at Students’ Union’s Awards Ceremony.  I was talking to the VC, and I said to him, “I have a major problem with Chicken Run, the film.”

His response was the same as everyone’s response.  “You mean that it has talking chickens?”

This was going to be a long night.

“No, Peter,”said I, for Peter was his name.  “I have no issue with that.  It is established in the narrative as a rule of the world that chickens talk to one another, that their feathers can act as fingers and it is perfectly reasonable that intelligent chickens with pre-hensile feathers can build a flying machine.”

Disclaimer – this conversation took place 2 years ago.  The words might not be exact.

This usually confuses my audience.  I have declared that there is a flaw with Chicken Run, but none of the above bothers me.  Here is why, and this is also why it should bother any writer.  Or at least be noted by any writer as something to learn from.

All of the above follow the accepted rules of the world.

Stories, in any genre have internal rules and logic. If a wizard can cast a spell, then other wizards can.  If casting a spell tires the wizard, then all wizards tire when spell casting.  And so on.  That is a simplification, but it works.  You might be skeptical if spell casting caused major exhaustion for 90% of a story, and then suddenly a wizard casts a spell without so much as a wheeze.

“No Peter, my problem with Chicken Run is that it breaks established rules of the world.  Rules of supply, demand, profit and loss.”

That was the point I lost him.  But I am persistent.

“The plot of Chicken Run revolves around a bunch of hens kept as egg laying hens by an evil Farmer’s Wife.  She has no affection for the hens.  They are simply a means to profit.  When chickens stop laying eggs, they are for the chop.  Not worth keeping them.”

Peter nodded sagely.

Disclaimer.  The sageness of the nodding may have been exaggerated.  As may have the nodding have been.

“The Evil Farmer’s wife gets frustrated with the chickens not laying eggs and costing her money.  So, she hatches a plan…”

I am quite pleased with ‘Hatches a plan’.  I am pretty sure I didn’t say that on the night.

“She buys a chicken-killing machine.  A giant metal monstrosity designed to kill all the chickens.  In order that she can sell them as pies to the pie eating public and make a profit.”

More (potential) sage nodding.

“That’s my problem with it.”

Blank look.

“Her business plan makes absolutely no financial sense!  How on earth is she going to make a profit this way?  She invests all her money into the chicken-killing machine to slaughter her entire stock of chickens, (This is a vital plot point.  It necessitates their escape plan) to make pies.  Then what?  All she has is a chicken-killing machine and no chickens.  No bank in the world will loan for that business plan! I isn’t sustainable!”

He actually chuckled at that, and confirmed that there was a certain element of logic to my thought process.

 

Ok, so I have made that story slightly more ridiculous than actually happened.  And I accept that Chicken Run is a kid’s movie, and most kids don’t necessarily think this deep when it comes to elements of plot.  But a writer should.  If your audience’s average age is greater than 5 months, things need to be logical, reasonable and follow an internal logic, even if the logic is of the fantastic.

Until next time