I enjoy zombie films, but regarding the zombies themselves? Not so much.
From a literal standpoint, I don’t really find a shambling, brainless mass of meat and bones to be very scary. But a zombie is a lot more than another monster that goes “Boo!” in the dark. What the zombie can represent is fascinating.
The first zombie hit was none other than the classic Night of the Living Dead. Black and white, placid and crude by modern standards, the film isn’t what most of us would consider scary. Appearances, however, betray the brilliance of the film. At its core, Romero’s movie is about the breakdown of traditional power structures. Released in 1968, it was so easily identifiable with much of the strife afflicting contemporary American society, i.e. the Vietnam War, civil rights, the disintegration of the nuclear family, etc.
28 Days Later is another great zombie flick, but not just for its literal representation of the zombie. Yes, the zombies are faster now and everything’s a little gorier thanks to 21st century film technology, but that’s honestly the least interesting aspect of the movie. It’s much more important, instead, to wonder why the zombies are now fast and wonder what it means for the zombies to be infected with a “rage virus?”
The film opens with a chimp being forced to consume violent images. In the film, we get a very clever critique of viral media; the movie toys with the notion that the zombies are fueled by a media-born “rage virus.” Didn’t William S. Burroughs once say that language is a virus? In 28 Days Later, we see a similar idea played out to catastrophic results.
So finally, we come to Highschool of the Dead (I guess I’ll reluctantly spell “highschool” as one word). Although the adaptation is being handled by Madhouse, it’s not hard to see how zombie with an anime twist could go so wrong. What can schoolgirls, panty shots and hyperbuoyant breast physics do for the zombie genre? What can be said about babes with big guns and fat nerd wish-fulfillment fantasies beyond simply how trashy it looks?
Looks. That’s the key word above.
I’ll be honest — I’m not crazy about the anime from a literal standpoint, but like other zombie cinema, Highschool of the Dead is palatable for reasons beyond the expositional details.
The zombie infection first begins in the story when a man in a business suit pounds against the gate of the school. We immediately see the division between school and the rest of the world. From a certain angle, the school gate looks like a prison bar, but who are the prisoners? The dichotomy most overtly portrayed here is the separation between adulthood and childhood. It can’t be a coincidence then that the first zombie in the narrative is a salaryman. After all, which adults are the likeliest in Japan to dress in such a fashion? It also isn’t a coincidence that the first people to be infected were also adults.
In the mass hysteria following the first few zombie attacks, the students’ immediate reaction was to escape from the school at all costs, but that is where they erred. The danger lies on the outside; the danger is an impending adulthood and yet they’re trying to escape from school, a childhood santuary. It is as if they reject adulthood, but think that they can change it from the inside. Similar to the like-minded Battle Royale, a misguided attempt to escape authority will often turn former friends against each other.
From the school roof, the main characters observed the destruction of Japanese civilization. Modern society becomes pointless and meaningless not because everything has fallen to chaos, however, but because the zombies are so regimented like the adults they represent. The death of Japan is the death of the human soul, i.e. the death of free thought and creativity. Adulthood is the death of the childish imagination.
The zombie’s purpose in life is to survive. They survive by mindlessly hunting for food. A great zombie is simply one that hunts for food better than other zombies. I am reminded of my parents’ derisive reaction to anything that didn’t help me get into a good school and thus land me a well-paying job. For a lot of us, just getting by is often the only important goal in life. Some of us endlessly slave from 9 to 5 just to put food on table and for what? To do it all over again the very next day. They can’t afford to indulge in anything else if they want to avoid starving to death. They can’t escape their position because they are the lumpenproletariet. How different is this from a flesh-eating zombie bound by its natural instinct to obey nothing but its inhuman hunger for human flesh?
And thus our heroes are schoolchildren. Kids with “frivolous” interests in the spear martial arts club (those exist?!), kendo club, in guns, etc, and you can be certain that it is these qualities that will aid them in surviving the zombie apocalypse. It is only in their childhood fancies, in their selfish individualities, that allows them to stand apart from faceless horde. There’s an unreal, video game-esque quality to the anime. They even run in a nice RPG formation in the screenshot above.
The heroes are those concerned with more than just their hunger, which brings me to the final point: all the fanservice. The first episode alone is littered with nubile teen girls bouncing their ample bosoms and baring their long legs, but notice that the zombies don’t really give a shit about any of that. They just want to consume flesh. In a regimented world where the only concern is surviving until the next meal, sex becomes a tool. In a zombie outbreak, it becomes even more useless. It’s only in childhood that we can afford to dally about with concerns about romance and the enjoyment of sex.
Of course, adults enjoy sex too, but it is often not professional to do so. It is often hidden behind closed doors and hushed away with a single finger. Sex in Highschool of the Dead, however, is out in the open. It is one of the few things left to enjoy. It becomes something humanizing to cherish in the face of the mindless drones of zombies.
So final word… did I enjoy the first episode of Highschool of the Dead. Yes and no. Despite all that I’ve just said, it still looks really trashy, but in the end, I’m curious to see how the rest of the story plays out. I guess I’ll keep watching for now.