Zombie Week

Interview: David Lubar on Zombie Humor

David Lubar has spent many years designing and programming games for various companies. His games include Home Alone for the GameBoy, and Fantastic Voyage and River Raid II for the Atari 2600. He worked as a translator on one version of Carmen Sandiego, two versions of Shanghai, and two versions of Ultima. He designed Frogger 2 for the GameBoy and programmed the GameBoy versions of Frogger and Super Breakout.

He is also the author of two novels about Nathan Abercrombie: Accidental Zombie, an unsassuming fifth grader who becomes a zombie, an by extension, cool.

John Ottinger: How would you define zombie fiction?

David Lubar: Having barely squeezed into the category with a half-dead fifth-grade main character, I guess I’d better take a liberal approach and claim that zombie fiction involves anyone who isn’t breathing. I realize that’s far too broad a category and will send the purists out in search of torches, tar, and feathers. Generally, the current idea of zombies is mindless, flesh munching, walking corpses. But a mindless corpse makes a rotten narrator, so I had to take lots of liberties. I apologize to anyone who feels I’ve sullied an honorable monster.

JO: What is it that makes zombie fiction appealing to readers?

DL: It’s nice to see someone who is rotting faster than the normal rate at which our living bodies fall apart. (I’ll never my high school biology teacher gleefully explaining that when you hit a certain age, anabolism is overtaken by catabolism. Or was that cannibalism? Either way, we are all decomposing.) There’s also the general appeal all of horror has. Beyond that, we are fascinated and repelled by death. Zombie fiction has a lot in common with zombie video games—we get the pleasure of seeing waves of enemies get mowed down.

JO: Has zombie fiction seen its apex? Or is there more that can be done with the archetype?

DL: Given that I was convinced personal web sites were a passing fad, I’m a bad person to make predictions. I do suspect there will be creative surprises. There will also be a lot of imitative filler flooding the stores, but that’s true of all fads.

JO: Why would you say zombies are scarier en masse than as individuals?

DL: A single zombie is easy to escape or dispatch. Anyone who has ever played a zombie video game knows that swarms are a lot harder to deal with.

JO: Most current zombie fiction seems to posit a scientific basis for the creation of zombies, rather than the mystical origins of the original tales. Why do you think there has been a shift from the fantastic to the scientific?

DL: In my case, I wanted to anchor the story in the real world. I guess I could have had Nathan stumble across an ancient relic or come up with some other fantasy-based way to launch his new state of being, but I liked the idea of using massive overexposure to a formula designed to erase bad feelings.

JO: A lot of zombie fiction is closely tied in with a doomsday or apocalyptic scenario. Why are the two so closely linked and is it possible to write zombie fiction that is not apocalyptic in theme? Examples?

DL: If it’s not doomsday, it’s a lot easier to call in the police or the army. As for examples, I’ll leave that for the experts.

JO: How is it that zombies can also be as humorous as they are scary?

DL: Humor and horror are just two aspects of the same reactions. We often laugh and scream at similar stimuli. The common threads found in things that are funny or horrifying are the unexpected, and relief in seeing someone else get the pie (or the spiked baseball bat) in the face. 

JO: What do you find funny about zombies?

DL: I think the best way to answer that would be to point to Fido or Shawn of the Dead. As for my own work, my first published zombie story was a comedy. It involved a fast food place that could undercut the competition because the employees were all zombies (until a competitor cut the power to the cooler one night, spoiling the employees.) In my current series, Nathan’s best friend is constantly making zombie jokes. And Nathan is dealing with unexpected and amusing side effects. For example, soon after he becomes half dead, his mother notices that he isn’t going to the bathroom.

JO: What themes are you exploring in the Nathan Abercrombie novels?

DL: I delve a lot into issues of popularity and identity. Who are you? What can you do? At the start of My Rotten Life, Nathan is one of the Second-Besters. This is a group of kids who are not the best or worst at anything, and thus have very little identity in the school hierarchy. But I have to emphasize that I don’t focus on themes. I write to entertain. My books are all about story and plot. Themes creep in, but they are tolerated guests.

JO: Why would a zombie character like Nathan Abercrombie be appealing to younger readers?

DL: He’s a likable kid. He just happens to be sort of dead. Part of the appeal is that he functions much better in the mine field of school now than he did when he was alive. He’s better at sports since he doesn’t feel muscle fatigue or suffer from asthma anymore. He’s great at video games since his hands are steady. He can win staring contests, and do lots of other cool things. The catch phrase that hit me while I was writing the first book is, “Being half dead is not all bad.” That became my mantra as I looked for storylines. Of course, by book four, he’s starting to smell a bit. So it’s not all sweetness and roses for him.

JO: Can zombies appear in works of fantasy without being just cannon fodder? Examples?

DL: I believe Piers Anthony’s Xanth series had several heroic zombies. Once again, we have to draw a line between creatures lacking volition and the dead-but-thinking. The latter can do all sorts of things.

JO: Is the Romero zombie the first and last word on the depiction of zombies, or have some authors moved beyond the shambling, mindless, flesh-eating corpse concept and explored the archetype zombies present in ways less than obvious? Examples?

DL: I would say that the Romero zombie was the third and transitional word. The zombies of myth came first. Then we had various depictions from early horror films, some of which stuck close to the archetype while others drifted. Then, with a quantum lurch, George Romero redefined the zombie. (All of this is based on memory. I could be totally wrong about the cinematic history of zombies.) But the definition has grown loose. Anything that is dead but still moving can fall into the category. To finish up, I have to stress that most of your readers know more about zombies than I do. I just know how to write an entertaining book.

John Ottinger hates zombies. Hates them a lot. And likes to play whack-a-mole with their severed heads.


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