Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Storytelling Engines: George Romero’s “Dead” Films

Storytelling Engines

[Storytelling Engines] relate to some comments I made some time ago about the construction and maintenance of “status quos”. I described the setting of an open-ended series, the status quo of the [comic/TV show/book series/movie franchise/add open-ended series here] as a “storytelling engine”, pretty much off-handedly, with no attempt to explore the idea. And as I think it’s an idea that merits some exploration, I’m going to follow up on it.

The idea is that when creating an open-ended series, you include a variety of different elements that act to help the writer in generating ideas for stories; each of these elements can be seen as a component in a “storytelling engine”. This is different, I think, from relying on intuitive creativity–the “hand of the muse”, as it were–in order to generate a setting that can sustain a large number of different stories, you do have to think with a certain technical air. (This is not to say that all writers have sat down and thought in terms of a storytelling engine, but then again, that’s part of the point; sometimes, writers have written a good story, singular, without necessarily thinking about what it did to their storytelling engine, and have found themselves stuck in an awkward position somewhere.)

So what elements make up a storytelling engine? The basic concept of the series, for starters; Doctor Who, to use a series we won’t be looking at later on, has as its concept “a mysterious stranger has a time and space machine.” Then from there, you layer on the main character, with his motivations and backstory (”an endlessly curious not-quite-human trickster, on the run from his own people who see helping people as a crime”), the supporting cast (”a young woman with more curiousity and guts than common sense”), the setting (”the inside of the time machine”, “modern-day London”, “a variety of alien planets”, “various Earth historical locales”), the antagonists (”a variety of evil aliens who seek to enslave or destroy people”), and the tone (”light-hearted adventure, with occasional forays into horror.”) Each of these, ideally, does something to help the writer come up with a story or move it along, and each of them could be changed in ways that help or hinder the writer. (For example, if the Doctor was “a heavy reader with no interests beyond enlarging his vast library”, the series would probably have to work much harder to get him involved in events.)

Each series has these elements, and each series evolves over time as different writers take a hand at the character. Over the next several weeks, I plan to show (using the wondrous “Essentials” series from Marvel and “Showcase Presents” series from DC, both of which present enough issues in a single volume to really be able to take a long view of a comic book’s development) some of the things that worked, some of the things that didn’t, and some of the tricks writers used to get a series on track.

Storytelling Engines: George Romero’s “Dead” Films

Normally, when I talk about a series’ storytelling engine, what I’m really doing is trying to take a look at a long-running (or occasionally short-running) series from a different perspective. Instead of just seeing the elements of the series as part of the story the writer is telling, I’m looking at them as story-generating components–the supporting cast fulfills this function, the setting adds this potential, the protagonist moves the plot this way, and so on. But it’s very rare that I think that writers consciously consider their status quo as a machine that generates plots.

In the case of George Romero’s seminal zombie movie series (”Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead”, “Day of the Dead”, “Land of the Dead”, “Diary of the Dead”), though, that’s pretty much exactly what they are. Romero starts with a set of postulates that function as his “engine”, and then takes other stories and runs them through the engine to see what the result will be. It’s a storytelling engine that takes the world as it is, applies a major change, and observes the logical result.

The change is, of course, the dead coming back to life. Romero postulates an event (never explicated, but hinted as some sort of radiation wave released by a returning satellite) that causes every recently-deceased corpse in the world to re-animate and seek out living humans with an instinct to consume their flesh. (Their bite is invariably lethal, although Romero never makes it clear whether this is an effect of their status as zombies, or just due to the normal infections that would result from being bitten by a septic, rotting corpse.) They retain traces of their former personality, but generally have limited intelligence and diminished physical capacity (they’re slower, but stronger.) Being dead, they’re pretty much immune to pain, and the only way of permanently killing them is with damage to the head. But more importantly, the event affected living humans as well, even if it doesn’t show. Anyone who dies in the series re-animates within minutes of their death as a zombie, unless that death is due to head trauma.

Romero’s movies (and the various comic and novel spin-offs) focus on the consequences of this event for different groups. He never returns to the same set of protagonists (which allows him a lot of freedom when it comes to killing off characters), but the world is always the same. Humans find ways to survive the zombie apocalypse, some of which are co-operative (as in the small community of survivors in “Land”) and some of which are competitive and counter-productive (as with the nihilistic end to “Dawn”.) Different people cope with the psychological stress of the event in different ways (most of which aren’t good–if Romero’s movies have a common theme, it’s that people tend to come unglued in crisis situations.) And the zombie horde always gets larger–in fact, with the span of time separating the movies, the size of the zombie horde provides the only definitive timeline for the series. “Diary” might look like 2005 and “Night” might look like 1968, but the two both occur early on in the zombie plague.

Romero’s “zombie rules” provide a very interesting storytelling engine, precisely because they’re the only real element of an engine with very loose continuity from installment to installment. This faithfulness to the rules has meant that the entire zombie sub-genre of horror has found itself defined by Romero’s rules and the ground-breaking films that provided them, to the point where many zombie movies are essentially Romero movies in all but name. Some of them are loving homages, like “Shaun of the Dead”, others are rip-offs, like “The Dead Next Door”, and still others are deliberate reactions against or alterations of the Romero rules, like “Return of the Living Dead” or “28 Days Later” (or, for that matter, the James Gunn/Zack Snyder remake of “Dawn of the Dead”.) But the Romero rules now provide a practically inescapable framework for everyone following in Romero’s footsteps, a storytelling engine that has escaped its creator and run wild throughout the genre. Its simplicity is also its strength, something that is constantly proved with each new zombie movie, comic, or book that comes out.

Check out John Seavey's blog, Fraggmented.

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