Techland’s "Dead Island" is a video game about zombies, but its refusal to take risks in that increasingly complex subgenre mires it in mediocrity. “Dead Island” isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t the game it should have been, missing out on the ostensibly significant role in a greater cultural scheme.
References in literature to flesh devouring undead exist as far back as ancient times. The earliest known example comes from the more than 4,000-year-old Sumerian text, the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” which features a passage promising that the dead will rise up from the netherworld and eat the living.
As a general rule, when people get killed, they don’t come back to life. In fact over the entire course of human events the only two exceptions to that rule have been Jesus and Robocop. What becomes clear then is that human beings have always had a sort of primordial fascination with the relationship between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Mindless living dead known as “zombi” have long existed in the traditions of West African Vodun and it’s spiritual antecedents. According to a September 1940 article from Time magazine, it was the sensationalized account of Haitian Voodoo rituals from the 1929 book “The Magic Island” by professional journalist and amateur cannibal William Seabrook that saw the term introduced into the American lexicon.
The modern understanding of the zombie as the archetypical shambling, decaying corpse is actually a relatively new construct, having been formulated by George A. Romero in 1968 for his film “Night of the Living Dead.”
Currently, zombies are in the midst of a cultural renaissance, not simply a popular resurgence but a deeper intellectual exploration of themes. Books like Max Brooks’ “World War Z” and Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” dot best seller lists. Films like “28 Days Later” and “Shaun of the Dead” took fresh approaches to the genre, serving as the catalyst for the steady stream of zombie movies produced over the past decade.
The pinnacle achievement of the zombie renaissance has been AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Based on an equally brilliant graphic novel, the show’s abbreviated first season proved to be a revelation with its existential exploration of being and poignantly humanist narrative.
Video games have also managed to capitalize in huge ways on the revival of the zombie subgenre with the “Left 4 Dead” franchise and a reimagining of the “Resident Evil” series. These games have been met with significant commercial and even critical success, but are basic narratives that haven’t really done anything to further the genre.
For an entertainment medium that demands it’s audience’s active involvement in shaping and experiencing it’s narrative — video games have always seemed entirely reluctant to incorporate an emotional complexity.
When the announcement trailer for “Dead Island” showed up on IGN.com in February though, it promised something inspired: a zombie game that was about people. The three-minute trailer fades in on the glassy eye of a dead child as a lonely and bittersweet piano melody swells in the background. The action then backtracks with grace and somberness through the zombie attack that claimed the lives of the young girl and her family before resting on their naively blissful vacation videos. The game failed to match the trailer’s affecting tableau.
Still, the zombification of popular culture has proven pervasive.
In 2009 Harvard psychologist Dr. Steven C. Schlozman drafted a faux medical journal article wherein he examines the zombie plague from “Night of the Living Dead,” even managing to diagnose zombieism as a neurological disorder he called “Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome.” In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a guide for surviving a zombie apocalypse on their website in an effort to educate the American public about emergency preparedness and response.
Editor's note: The following trailer contains graphic content.
Printed on September 13, 2011 as: 'Dead Island' lacks cultural substance