Zombies, Gamers and Role-Reversal: Brian Keene’s The Rising

BrianKeeneRisingI’ve been spending my October reading-time delving into zombie fiction, starting with Brian Keene’s 2003 novel The Rising. And it got me thinking about the genre.

The early 2000s were a boom time for zombies, with The Rising on bookshelves and 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and a remake of Dawn of the Dead in the cinemas. What exactly caused this resurgence of interest in the genre? After all, zombie films had seen a definite lull through the 1990s, in comparison to their golden years of the 70s and 80s.  Doubtless there are many erudite articles on how the zombie apocalypse embody specific turn-of-the-millennium anxieties, but I suspect that the main factor was something more prosaic.

While zombies weren’t a particularly popular subject in horror films during the 1990s, they were firm favourites in horror video games at that time – see the likes of Resident Evil and House of the Dead. Then, come the 2000s, a generation weaned on zombie video games was eager to see the theme explored in other media.

The boom in zombie games inevitable, really, considering that the Romero-defined zombie is the perfect video game bad guy: it behaves according to a predictable set of rules, can be killed without remorse, and exists in a potentially infinite quantity.

But what works as a video game element can quickly overstay its welcome in film, let alone literature. So, writers of zombie fiction have often tried to put fresh new twists on the familiar shambling corpses. In the case of The Rising, the twist is both simple and inspired: rather than video game bad guys, Keene’s zombies are video game players.

In The Rising, the zombies are the result of a mass demonic possession outbreak. They are not mindless killing machines, but intelligent (if evil) creatures who taunt their victims in the manner of The Exorcist’s possessed girl. With all of the world at their disposal, they behave as though God’s green Earth is nothing more than a game of Grand Theft Auto:

Jim leaped out of the way, tumbling back into the culvert. As he jumped, he caught a glimpse of the driver and the passengers.

They were zombies.

Jim rolled to his feet, crouching in the darkness and clutching the pistol. The car screeched to a halt, the smell of burning rubber filling the air. The motor hummed, idling. Then, a car door slammed, followed by another. And another.

“Did you see that?” The voice sounded like sandpaper. “Sent him flying!”

“No you didn’t,” rasped another. “You didn’t even tap him.”

“And you shouldn’t have tried,” reprimanded a third. “What use is the body if you’ve shattered it beyond mobility?”

“Bah. There’s enough living on this planet for all of our brothers. Let’s have some fun with this one.”

By transferring the role of disposable video game baddie from the zombies to the human protagonists, Keene was able to keep everything that made the genre entertaining in the first place while finding a new angle on the subject matter. This innovative approach helped to make The Rising a deserved hit.

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