Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Zombies and the Dead Island Trailer; or, Holy Shit Effective Marketing Batman!

I've made no secret of the fact that I like zombies. There's something about them that just appeals to me on a (ahem) visceral level. Maybe it's the confluence of post-apocalyptic social dynamics with the pure uncanny terror of seeing the dead come back to life (especially the reanimated corpses of your friends and family). Admittedly that sounds a little weird when I type it out like that, but when the zombie genre is done right it explores themes of desperation, loyalty, resilience, theology, and triumph and tragedy alike. It's just such fertile grounds for examining the human condition. Moreover the idea of great masses of people suddenly becoming mindless killers is a concept that seems to gain more figurative weight with each passing day.

All that said, the zombie genre is one that has also frustrated me in recent years. The market is, without a doubt, over-saturated with the undead (that's almost ironic), and as a result there's just so much cash-grab crap to sift through that the good stuff seems increasingly few and far between. The Walking Dead TV series, for example, was among the great disappointments in the fall. Despite the involvement of Frank Darabont and the potential displayed in the pilot, the show's narrative meandered about without really accomplishing anything until the finale. At that point it pulled a thematic 180 that left me cold, and frankly I don't much care if or when it comes back. A new series in one of my favourite genres made by a film maker who I hugely respect, and they managed to lose me within six episodes. Not a good sign.

Sidebar: I really should do a piece on how great The Mist is...

I don't want to sound completely negative, there have been some great zombie flicks in the last few years. As I wrote in 2009, Zombieland was great fun, and took a new spin on the satirical side of zombies. Also the British mini-series Dead Set, while not necessarily bringing anything new to the table, proved that the genre still has some legs in terms of social metaphor. The series depicted a zombie apocalypse from the perspective of the cast and crew on a season of Big Brother. Turning the lens on reality TV made for some great fun, but the true appeal of Dead Set was in its high production values and fearless approach to narrative. Seriously, for a good old scary time watch the entire series in one go, it's not much longer than a feature film and definitely worth the time.

But all of this is just to get to the reason for the post: the trailer released today for the upcoming game, Dead Island. It feels slightly, well, icky to dedicate an entire post to a marketing promotion, but this trailer is worth it. I found it over at Kotaku, and they called it "The Most Heartbreaking Zombie Vieo Game Trailer You'll Ever See." By no means an understatement, but I think Joystiq does it better when they say that with this trailer the game goes from "completely off our radar" to "has complete dominion over our minds." That does sum up the effect nicely. But don't take my word for it, give it a look yourself:

Now that's how you market something about zombies. Gore, pathos, tragedy, desperation, it's all there! They even go so far as to show the violent death of a child in a marketing tool! Twice, technically. Dead Island now has my full attention by virtue of its excellent trailer alone. This video is the best thing to happen to the zombie genre in years, and if the game can live up to even half the potential seen here then we'll all be in for a real treat this fall.


  1. I got Scott the Walking Dead graphic novels for Christmas (and Valentine's Day... aren't we romantic), and while I haven't seen the series yet, if you haven't had a chance to check out comic you should give it a shot - its a great read with awesome art and a decent story - not to mention sweet pics of zombies.

    ALSO Threadless Ts has a sweet zombie shirt sale going on right now.
    From your fellow zombie lover.

  2. I liked the trailer, but also found this article arguing against the trend of using dead kids for emotional currency kind of interesting:

  3. Sorry for the long delay in responding to these comments, I wrote a really long one and then my browser crashed, so I got fed up and put this off for like a week. Anyway:

    Genive - Haha, that's without a doubt the most romantic thing I've ever heard, I'm sure he loved them. I read the comic for a while, right up until the end of the prison storyline (that's about as un-spoiler-y as I can word that). I abandoned it because I got frustrated by the lack of innovation and the repetitive stories, but from what I've heard the series really picked up right after the point where I left off. As in I've been told it only really got going after that. I keep meaning to pick it back up again, maybe this summer.

    Protagitron - I have a lot of problems with that article, not the least of which is how it misrepresents Heavy Rain and especially Bioshock (I haven't played Dead Space 2 so I'll let that one be). In the end, though, the article comes down a point about the potentially exploitive use of children in video games. The author seems queasy about it, and doesn't go so far as to advocate censorship but definitely puts himself on a moral high ground in contrast to those who tolerate or (heaven forbid) enjoy such content. I understand the moral repugnance of enjoying the abuse of children simply for its own sake, but I don't think the games he mentions do that.

    Moreover I don't think the Dead Island trailer does either. It uses the death of a child as a jump-off to evoke tragedy and sympathy from nameless, voiceless characters who are killed during a zombie outbreak. It's certainly terrible that the little girl dies, but that's not what makes the trailer powerful. The real tragedy is the death of the entire family, all of whom are lost to the zombie horde and in such a way that the little girl actually bring about her own father's death. It's horrible and evocative, and it plays on our sympathies the same way all zombie movies do. The trailer is especially powerful given the lack of characterization, which allows this family to be anyone and hence viewers can see themselves in the characters of the father, mother and daughter. All this is just to say that I don't think there's anything exploitive in the death of the little girl in the trailer, I just think its evocative cinema. More so than a lot of what we typically see in theatres and on television, not to mention in gaming.

    All this is moot though, as it's since been announced that the game won't feature the family at all, nor will it feature the same tragic tone as conveyed in the trailer. That kind of kills the CNN article's point, although the soapbox argument about children in recent games is still as valid as it ever was I suppose. Either way, I just think the Dead Island trailer was a damn fine piece of zombie culture.