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The undead have invaded our games — again

An invasion of undead video games has shuffled across store shelves and into game machines in recent weeks and promises to continue spreading in the weeks to come. A look at this growing plague and one can’t help but wonder: Why the obsession with zombies?
Image: \"The House of the Dead\"
"The House of the Dead: Overkill" is over-the-top fun and a good illustration of why we love zombies so much — because they have the ability to terrify us and make us laugh at the same time.Sega

Ah the zombie, that poor shuffling lump of reanimated flesh — at once human and yet utterly inhuman, a putrescent walking corpse forever on the hunt for brains and yet altogether brainless no matter how much gray matter it consumes.

For the undead, living with us living human beings is a pitiable conundrum — we loath them with a visceral fervor … and yet we love them with an unshakable passion.

What more proof do you need of our bi-polar love affair with zombies than this breaking news: An invasion of undead video games has shuffled its way onto store shelves and into game machines in recent weeks and is sure to continue its spread in the weeks to come … despite the fact Halloween is nowhere in sight.

On Friday, "Resident Evil 5" (for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) became the latest entry in a franchise that helped pioneer and popularize zombie gaming. Meanwhile, "Burn Zombie Burn!" launches on the PlayStation Network March 26. And in April, “Left 4 Dead” — this winter’s zombie shooting hit for the Xbox 360 and PC — is scheduled to receive a fresh helping of downloadable content.

But the outbreak seems to have plagued the innocent little Wii with an especially virulent zeal — “Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop” and “The House of the Dead: Overkill” clawed their way onto the machine last month along with “Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers.” Of course, there’s also the iPhone. The App Store has been mauled by games like “Zombie,” “Zombie Attack!” “Zombie Invasion,” “Zombie Mansion,” “Zombieville USA” and, uh, “Math Zombie” (no really).

A look at this growing plague and one can’t help but wonder: Why the obsession with zombies? With their personal hygiene issues and incessant mumbling about braaaains, they seem to have so little to recommend them. And yet, just when you think zombie movies and zombie games are so, like, over … they rise again to regain their status as our monster of the moment.

Zombie you and me
Chet Faliszek, a writer at Valve who worked on “Left 4 Dead,” sums up our fascination like this: “They were once us, but no longer.”

Indeed, zombies are so perpetually appealing because — grotesque as they may be — they really aren’t so different from us. “Dawn of the Dead” left an indelible mark on the movie-going masses in 1978 thanks in part to the way it used the undead as a metaphor for the living. Set in a shopping mall, the movie made a wry statement about our insatiable hunger for stuff, showing throngs of zombies tottering about the sprawling shopping center as though trapped in an all-too-familiar haze of mindless consumerism.

Image: \"Dead Rising\"

The 2006 Xbox 360 game “Dead Rising” picked up that torch and ran with it, dropping players in the middle of a modern mall infested with zombies. Consumerist goods became weapons for fending off a horrific horde of brain-eaters. The game was brought to the Wii in February as “Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop.” And when you’re not too busy clubbing zombies over the head with a guitar pilfered from the mall’s music store, you might stop to wonder: Am I really so different than these ghouls?

Practice, practice, practice
Faliszek offers up another explanation for the current zombie game outbreak.

“I think with the pending zombie apocalypse, people just want to get in as much practice as possible,” he says.

Let’s face it, things on planet Earth aren’t looking so good and one can’t help but wonder: Could zombies be the next plague upon us? Better safe than sorry, I say. And what better way to prepare than by playing video games?

Personally, I’ve been using “The House of the Dead: Overkill” to hone my reflexes and targeting skills. This on-the-rails shooter (and throwback to the good ol’ arcade days) tosses zombies in your path at a brisk clip and only those who are fast on the draw and steady with the hand survive. Meanwhile, “Chop Till You Drop” is schooling me on how to use everyday items found at a mall to subdue the undead — shopping carts, baseball bats and lawn mowers among them. 

These rules are made for breaking
Hard-core zombie fans can be notoriously prickly when it comes to their favorite monstrosity. Zombie purists, for example, believe that true zombies are not capable of running. After all, zombies are reanimated corpses and thus logic (and rigor mortis) dictates that they should move at no more than a limpy shuffle.

Image: \"Resident Evil 5\"

But the great thing about zombie video games is — you never know what the undead might do. Games don’t just play fast and loose with the zombie rule book. They toss it out the window, chop it up into little pieces with a chainsaw and set it on fire. Take “Resident Evil 5” for example. These zombies don’t just eat your brains, they swallow your entire head with tentacles that come spurting out of their mouths. They also come after you with chainsaws and giant axes and sometimes take the form of shape-shifting piles of worms.

Meanwhile, “Left 4 Dead” thumbs its nose at zombie conventions by plaguing players with zombies that explode and zombies that grab you with long rope-like tongues. And yes, most of these zombies move at a real swift pace.

“Expanding the zombie menagerie and adding more monster-like zombies helped us keep the gameplay fresh,” Faliszek says. But they did remain true to some zombie standards, he says. “We wanted to keep with their complete lack of humanity. They can’t operate machinery. They don’t shoot back at you. They can’t be saved.”

Horror and hilarity in one convenient package
Some sort of defensive mechanism must be at work in the deepest recesses of our brains, because while zombies have the ability to trigger a wrenching state of horror in us, they’re also great for a laugh. And what a beautifully twisted emotional package that is.

“Zombies Ate My Neighbors” got the gaming chuckles rolling back in 1993, poking fun at the cheesy horror films of the past. “The House of the Dead: Overkill” has continued that tradition by taking the over-the-top conventions of the 1970s grindhouse films and using them as the basis for some wickedly funny video gaming. Campy and gross in the extreme, “Overkill” and its mouthy protagonists will have you guffawing as you blast zombies into chunky nubs of flesh.

Guilt-free killing spree
There are Nazis and there are zombies. And in the case of the WWII shooter “Call of Duty: World at War” these two villainous gaming staples will soon be joined as one. A new downloadable map pack launches tomorrow, giving players the chance to gun down hordes of, yes, Nazi Zombies.

Hackneyed as it may be, zombies and Nazis have landed starring roles in a great many video games over the years because of one important thing: They offer players a chance to partake in a relatively guilt-free digital killing spree.

Image: Left 4 Dead

“There are no zombies with a heart of gold,” Faliszek points out. “When you see a zombie coming at you, you don’t need to ask what’s your motivation for shooting.”

We’re all in this together
George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” was a film not only about the dead returning to flesh-eating life but about the way living human beings are, ultimately, their own worst enemies. And plenty of zombie films ever since have shown us humanity’s propensity for falling apart when the pressure is on.

But what I like about some of our newest zombie games is the way they teach us that when the walking dead take over the planet, it’s time to put aside our differences and work together. Both “Left 4 Dead” and “Resident Evil 5” have made team play central to the game. Here, playing nicely with our friends is the only way to triumph over our ghoulish enemies. And zombies or no zombies, that’s something we could all stand to be reminded of more often.