Wednesday, October 31, 2018

HubrisWeen 2018, Day 26: Z-O-M-B-I-E-S (2018)

Yes, that's right: I am reviewing a Disney Channel Original Movie. Yes, it is a musical about zombies that uses them as a very clumsy allegory for racism and classism. And, yes, my son did choose this when we were at my local library and he has made me watch this multiple times.

Being a parent and being a movie reviewer have a tendency to intersect on the graph at "You Are Going To Watch A Lot Of Crap." You lot should just be thankful that I'm not making you listen to my feelings on The Angry Birds Movie.

Though, for my part, I am thankful that Z-O-M-B-I-E-S is crap of the more innocuous variety. It's also the sort of movie that has its heart in the right place, but has no idea what it's doing so it completely bungles its attempted message. There's always something kind of entertaining about that sort of failure, to me.

To be fair, that failure is largely because it follows the familiar pattern of making monsters a clumsy allegory for an oppressed subset of society. Monsters that kill and eat "regular" humans, at that. Many more "serious" properties have attempted the same thing with very similar levels of clumsiness, but that doesn't stop folks from continuing to fail to see the problem with this trope.

It's important, then, that we begin with a bit of world-building. After all, you can't use the "monster as allegory" nearly as obviously if you start right when they first showed up, now can you?

In a nifty, if somewhat cheaply done animated opening, we learn that the town of Seabrook was once a haven of suburban conformity. Before the film allows us to take in the fact that they made it sound like the creepy cul-de-sac in A Wrinkle in Time, we move on to what disrupted the community. Someone manning the station at the local power plant spilled lemon soda onto their control panel, which caused an accident that unleashed a toxic green cloud.

Anyone touched by the cloud became a brain-eating zombie.

"Typical liberal media, lying about zombieAIIEEEEE!"
We get a couple glimpses of zombie predations, but of course this is a TV movie on the Disney Channel, so that aspect is very brief indeed. Seabrook successfully built a wall between the uninfected part of town and the zombie-infested side and that was that. Sort of.

We leave the animated flashback and reveal that it has been 50 years since the wall went up, and we are introduced to our two leads as they break the fourth wall to address us directly. Zed (Milo Manheim) is, naturally, a zombie; while Addison (Meg Donnelly) is a perfectly perky young cheerleader-to-be.

Zed and Addison, post meet-cute.
Zed seems oddly articulate for a brain-chomping monster, huh? Well, that's because at some point the government created the "Z-Band," which is a device worn on the wrist that somehow allows zombies to maintain a certain level of humanity while still keeping their weird green pallor. Oh, and the government also forces zombies to wear officially issued jumpsuits and they aren't allowed pets, since it is still assumed that they will eat them. This last bit is more a concern for Zed's little sister, Zoey (Kingston Foster), but she is happy enough with her stuffed dog and Zed occasionally pretending to be a dog for her amusement.

Another weird angle that is never explored: zombies still eat brains, but they are forced to eat artificial brains made from cauliflower. How does this work? Doesn't that mean that they can simply eat regular food, if cauliflower can be eaten instead of brains? I don't know and I don't think the movie does, either, but there's more sloppy world-building where that came from.

Addison, meanwhile, seems like a perfectly normal human girl. Her greatest ambition at the moment is just to get on the cheer squad, captained by her cousin Bucky (Trevor Tordjman). However, Addison naturally has a secret--her blonde hair is actually a ridiculously convincing wig that hides her much less convincing "real" hair beneath. Addison's real hair is stark white and no amount of hair dye can stick to it, so her parents have forced her to wear a wig for years. Normal is very important in Seabrook, you see.

That, or her parents are afraid she's an anime character.
Which makes it a bit odd that we are joining Seabrook on the first day in which their high school will be "integrating" by allowing the zombies to attend. Zed is stoked, hoping to go out for the football team. His best friend, Eliza (Kylee Russell), is much less enthused since she is furious at the oppressive system they live under and thinks zombies need to rise up. (Casting a black actress as the overly revolutionary member of a minority group is certainly...a choice) Their mutual best friend, Bonzo (James Godfrey) is just excited in general, but he also only speaks in the zombie language so Zed and Eliza have to translate for him.

Eliza, Zed, and Bonzo--apparently on the set of Shocking Dark.
Yes, zombies have somehow developed a unique language--both spoken and written--in the 50 years since the wall went up. Yet, Bonzo is the only zombie shown to speak it better than English. You'd think that would be a generational thing, but given that the film never makes clear if its zombies are animated corpses that never age or some kind of mutation that is passed on to any children I don't even know if there are different generations in zombie town!

Seriously, don't think about it too hard, for your own sanity.

Speaking of sanity, I'm not going to notate every time there is a musical number in this film or talk much about them. They're frequent and they're all performed quite well, but they're also mostly just inoffensive pop songs with the occasional bit of embarassingly white rapping

Naturally, Zed almost instantly falls for Addison when he sees her. However, it's kind of hard to introduce himself from the other side of a fence. Sure enough, the zombies are not actually allowed to interact directly with the human students and Principal Lee (Naomi Snieckus) nervously introduces them to their special classroom--which is in the school's basement, and the teacher is the school's zombie janitor.

So while Addison is busy getting herself and her new friend Bree (Carla Jeffery) onto the cheer squad, Zed is plotting how he can sneak out of the basement and try out for the football team. His attempt goes pretty damn awry when he gets spotted and thus sets off a zombie alarm. However, in an attempt to hide himself, Zed ends up inside a zombie shelter where the lights are dimmed--along with Addison.

Their meet-cute goes well, until the lights come up. Addison's first reaction is to punch the zombie in front of her, but she does apologize. Her chat with Zed has made her realize that zombies aren't that scary, and she has even begun to crush on him in return. So when the cheer initiation involves Bucky driving her and Bree to zombie town to egg Zed's front door, she refuses to do it. She also begins to realize that zombies are oppressed in some horribly depressing ways.

Bree and Addison, here not cheering for oppression.
Bucky isn't the sort to care about that, however. He hates zombies, partly due to simple prejudice and partly because their grandfather lost an ear to a zombie attack and he just can't forgive this perceived slight against his family. So when he sees that Zed, Eliza, and Bonzo have joined the audience at a cheer rally, he decides that he is going to include fire sticks in his cheer routine. Zombies have an instinctive fear of fire, naturally, and Bonzo in particular is susceptible to it.

When Bonzo freaks out and runs off, he knocks Zed over and damages the Z-Band on Zed's wrist. Bonzo also scares off the cheerleaders who had just tossed Addison into the air. Zed has sprouted green veins and splotches all over his skin to indicate his zombie nature breaking through, but he sees Addison in danger and rushes to save her--knocking several football players through the air in the process of catching her. Luckily his Z-Band kicks back on before we find out if full-zombie Zed would want to eat Addison.

Naturally, this means Seabrook's coach wants to put Zed on the school's football team, but part of getting Principal Lee to sign off on that involves making a wager with her. If Zed can win games for the school, Lee will allow zombies to eat in the school cafeteria and have better surroundings than the basement. If a single game is lost, however, Zed will be off the team and the zombies will remain in the dungeon.

Of course, Zed only got on the team because his Z-Band went wonky. Without that, he is terrible at the game. So he has to convince Eliza to help him hack the band in order to get his zombie strength back in controlled bursts. Eliza can already see this is a dangerous plan, but it sure does allow Zed to win games, become a huge star at the school, and to begin romancing Addison.

Of course, Bucky is enraged by all of this. And it isn't long before he manages to not only find out what Zed is doing to win games, but how to get his vapid underlings to help him completely sabotage the Z-Bands of Zed, Eliza, and Bonzo in the middle of a football game. Of course, Bucky is an idiot and didn't consider that this would turn the trio into the exact kind of slavering, horrid monsters he always thought they were...

Zombie or were-raccoon? You decide!
And really, this is where the fact that this is a Disney Channel musical film butts up against the goals of the zombie movie it also wants to be. Obviously, Zed can't crack Bucky's skull open like a coconut and devour his dumb but delicious brains. However, the film also decides that this is the point where it wants to start setting up the happy ending where everyone learns tolerance and has a big dance party.

In short succession, Addison reveals her true hair and is booed as a freak. Zed, Eliza, and Bonzo are simply detained for a while before getting new Z-Bands and returning to zombie town. And then everyone helps the increasingly hostile and anti-zombie Bucky to compete in the cheer championship. Bucky then instantly accepts zombies because little Zoey was nice to him.

Zoey gets a real dog and all the humans and zombies congregate at a barbecue in zombie town, with a dance medley to roll the credits over.

Admittedly, if more zombies had dance parties I might not be as tired of the subgenre as I am.
It's tough to truly view this film critically because it was meant to be a catchy musical for kids, pre-teens, and whatever teenagers haven't yet hit their cynical phase. For 90% of its running time, it's essentially High School Musical but instead of a parable about mostly fictional cliques colliding it's zombies and humans learning to get along.

Except it's impossible to ignore that the film does have a deeper meaning about how racism, xenophobia, and oppression are bad. And the execution of that lesson is really, really disturbing.

In real life, oppressors ascribe monstrous characteristics to minorities in order to justify their treatment. Indeed, we see that here. We also see that zombies are forced to live in a ghetto, they have enforced curfews, they must wear identifying clothing and arm bands, they get "separate but equal" education, are forced to assimilate to be accepted, and are subject to frequent micro-aggressions. It's a very thorough attempt to show children how this is bad without presenting the real life atrocities this is all based on.

There's just one major problem with all this: the zombies in this film are monsters. We are explicitly shown that they did eat human brains 50 years ago, and in the present of the film it is shown that the only thing keeping zombies from attacking people are their Z-Bands. Honestly, while the zombies can't help their condition, treating them as dangerous just seems like common sense. All it takes is minor damage to that Z-Band and suddenly they are unable to resist attempting to kill innocent people.

That is not a good lesson to be teaching.

Speaking of bad lessons, why the hell is Bucky not punished in any way for sabotaging the Z-Bands of three zombies? There is nothing wrong with teaching kids that some prejudiced people are beyond redemption, and Bucky could have gotten someone killed. I'm not saying he should have fallen to his death from a high place in the fashion of most Disney villains, but why not at least have him lose his place as the captain of the cheer team if not end up in jail?

The film doesn't seem willing to even accept that Bucky is the villain, despite setting him up as one for the entire film!

If you can look past all that, well, you'll still know immediately if this movie is for you or not. Obviously I am not about to recommend this film to hardcore horror hounds, because it barely even qualifies as horror. However, if said horror hounds have pups, this is a pretty decent way to let the pups enjoy a zombie film without traumatizing them for life.

Naturally, a better choice for that would be Paranorman, which is not perfect in its moral but still teaches about the evils of prejudice an oppression in a much better manner. And I would say that the Disney Channel already gave us a much better kid-friendly horror movie with My Babysitter's a Vampire, though that was technically made for Canadian TV originally.

That said, this film is still enjoyable. The actors are all solid, even if they are asked to dial everything up a few notches like they're doing children's theater. I'm definitely glad that I've seen Meg Donnelly and Carla Jeffery doing work in other things, since I found them both very compelling young actors. And the songs are just as devilishly catchy as they were clearly meant to be, since even months after my son first made me watch this I would hear the "Zombieland" song playing in my skull at random times.

Hell, as far as zombie films go, this film is still better than a lot of that particular subgenre--I'd sooner recommend watching this five times than watching Diary of the Dead or Day of the Dead: Bloodline even once. I can't quite rate it as far as zombie musicals go, though, since I haven't yet seen Anna and The Apocalypse.

Hopefully we'll find out next HubrisWeen, eh?

This has concluded Day 26 of HubrisWeen 2018, which brings this year to a close! To see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for Z, click the banner above! You can also check out this year's Letterboxd page for a more visual breakdown of the movies we did!

I honestly didn't think I would manage it this year, but here we are! Much as I may indicate otherwise, I do love the challenge of HubrisWeen and you will probably see me doing this all again next year.

Unless I come to my senses before then, or we're all annihilated in a fiery nuclear war. Stay tuned to find out!

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