Colson Whitehead Takes Smack for Zone One

I don’t know what it is about public libraries and their ability to draw the wackaloon factor, but when a writer does a reading at a library, something unexpected always seems to happen—at least in my experience. In February, I decided to go see Colson Whitehead’s reading and Q-and-A for Zone One, his newest genre-bending novel about the post–zombie apocalypse in Manhattan. Zone One has been described as a “thinking man’s novel about zombies,” and while I’m not crazy about the descriptor, I was anxious to read a literate take on zombies.

There’s not a lot of good zombie lit out there. Stephen King’s Cell and Max Brooks’s World War Z shine, but I’ve found most of zombie lit to be a wasteland, where the major plot point becomes the living women who are forced to become sex slaves for the surviving male population. Is this the best we can come up with for the end of the world?

Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse is much more civilized, where teams are mobilized by a centralized government in Buffalo, New York (which the author admits he has never visited), and corporate sponsors step in immediately, taking over just about where they left off pre-apocalypse. Whitehead’s zombie nightmare also has very different types who survive the apocalypse. Manhattan is a beacon for ambitious types from all over the world, and you would think that it would be the tenacious Wall Street traders and fashion flacks who would survive the chaos. Surprisingly, it is the meek who inherit the earth in Zone One. They’re the only ones who can handle it.

Going by what I overheard from the sixtyish Park Slope couple behind me who had come out for the reading based on name factor alone, I was expecting a low-key event. This was the Colson Whitehead who had won a MacArthur Fellowship, after all. Thankfully, the library wackaloons did not disappoint. There’s always one in the audience, and authors who do public library readings and especially Q-and-A’s are my heroes. I think they have to know what they are getting into; it’s a trial by fire that only the strong survive.

The reading had gone well, and there was a little back-and-forth going on between the host and Whitehead about how the book came to be, zombie anxiety dreams, and so on. Then the talk was opened up for questions from the audience. This is always when it gets interesting. As soon as a microphone was being walked around, a man in the front row of the auditorium lurched for it. He argued some points that had been made in the general discussion and then got right into it about Zone One. “I was fortunate enough to get an advance readers copy, and I was eagerly looking forward it, but when I was reading it I got the sense that I…had read basically the same novel before by another writer and that writer was Richard Matheson who wrote I Am Legend. I felt as I was reading Zone One and then looking back…at Matheson’s work that in main respects you were trying to deal with the same issues, but that back in the fifties, I think, Matheson did a much better job.”

People started heckling the guy right away and a woman wrestled the microphone away from him. Whitehead was good-natured about the criticism, though, and he knew his zombies well. He said, “The first zombie novel is I Am Legend. That’s where the zombie comes from. That’s the master text in terms of fiction. For me, I’m mostly influenced by novels, by the movies of Romero and…28 Days Later and its sequels, so if somebody said that this is the second-best zombie novel after I Am Legend, I’m very happy.”

Ah, you gotta love the library loonies. They bring out the best in everybody.

Top Five Horror Movies Featuring Old People

My Girls Write Now mentee hates horror movies, but she likes to make sure I’m keeping up on mine. A few months ago, Danni and I were talking on the phone about writing projects, but then we got to horror movies and she wanted to know if I was excited to see Cabin in the Woods and The Raven. At the time I hadn’t even heard of them, so she e-mailed me the trailers; then she asked me, “Why are so many horror movies about teenagers?” I gave her what I’ve been told so many times—that one of the scary things about being a teenager is having your body change so dramatically in such a short amount of time and a horror movie mimics or shows what a teen might be feeling inside and outside. Then I told her that not all horror movies are about teenagers, and I would make her a list of some. So here it is: my top five list of horror movies featuring old people.

1. CRONOS: This one’s got a special place in my heart since it was my first horror magazine assignment. I was supposed to be reporting on a cult movie Raw Meat, but the magazine I was working for couldn’t get any art from the movie. Thankfully, Guillermo del Toro was introducing Raw Meat as an inspiration for his work, and he talked quite a bit about Hellboy, which was in preproduction at the time, and that ended up being my first horror movie article. At this event, del Toro showed his first full-length feature Cronos about a vampiric device created in the Middle Ages that gives users eternal life. An elderly antique dealer stumbles upon it and is menaced by the nephew of a dying man who will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. Ron Perlman plays the nephew, and this movie is the beginning of the artist-muse relationship shared by Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman. It gets extra points for the most innovative use of a toy box that I’ve ever seen.

2. ROSEMARY’S BABY: Though Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is barely out of her teens in this movie, I chose this one because of the evil old people that surround her, never letting her make a move without commenting on it. Once Rosemary and her husband move into their dream apartment at the Bramford, the elderly in the building start to take an unusual interest in her. At a critical point in Rosemary’s pregnancy, which has been accompanied by constant pain, she decides to throw a dinner party and tells her husband, “I’m having a party for our old…I mean our young friends—Minnie and Roman are not invited. Neither is Laura-Louise nor is Dr. Sapirstein. It’s going to be a very special party. You have to be under sixty to get in.”

3. ALIEN: I think this is such a groundbreaking movie, and since it came out in 1979, not many other movies have been able to touch it. It starts out slow, building up the tension. We have a group of workers out in space starting their mission: They wake up, get dressed, eat a little something, drink coffee. Then they get their assignment, but it’s work—a little boring but something they have to do. First up, go check out this alien spaceship. They do, and worker Kane (John Hurt) provides the first scare of the movie with his alien rape from a pod, which leads to one of the scariest movie moments ever: the Alien birth scene. Probably the most brilliant part of this movie, though, is casting thirty-year-old Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. It was her first major film role, and she tore it up.

4. DAWN OF THE DEAD: While I love George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, I prefer the 2004 remake because U.S. shopping habits have changed so much and that is the main point of the movie. After flesh-eating zombies have taken over the world, a few surviving humans hole up in a mall, which is perfect for their needs. There’s food, water, furniture, supplies, and most importantly, security. Zombies, too, are attracted to the mall, remembering it as a place of importance. I love the casting of nurse Ana (Sarah Polley); it’s always important to have a medical authority in a zombie apocalypse who can tell you exactly what’s going on. And Ving Rhames as tough guy Kenneth is a joy to watch. I enjoy apocalypse movies so much because you have a large cast representing the general population and how it reacts after Earth is blighted by a natural or “unnatural” disaster.

5. THE THING: This is such a scary movie, and I’m glad I didn’t see it until my twenties. My friend’s teenage daughter was permanently traumatized after seeing this one at a tender age. It starts brilliantly, a beautiful panning shot of mountains, white, and ice and endless expanses of it. You know these characters, working guys, are out in the middle of nowhere and nobody’s around to help them. A helicopter mercilessly chases a beautiful husky dog, taking shots at it. When the copter crashes, you’re glad because these guys were trying to shoot a beautiful dog, but later in the kennel, all hell breaks loose. I knew a few guys in college who modeled themselves after the main character MacReady (Kurt Russell)—to the point where they would only drink J & B whiskey. I’m still not sure if that was deliberate product placement or not. Knowing John Carpenter, probably not.

Looking back on this list, I see that all the movies have to do with body horrors—using a vampire device to stay young, giving birth to aliens or a devil, or fighting off dead people who want to eat you. So maybe there is some truth to teenage horror movies being rooted in that scary thing known as puberty. Anything I’ve left off the list? What are some other horror movies with older people that should be included?