Beanplating Dead Daughters

a cautious over-analysis of
—       the beautiful trailer for       —
Dead Island

The opening shot is of a teary young eye, glassy, unwavering. It belongs to a girl whose mouth leaks blood, whose limp pose on the lawn makes it clear that she will never stand up again. Behind her corpse: A man in flames.

Then a quick snippet of running feet. The sudden sound of a girl’s frightened breath.

The girl in the grass rises into the air, almost miracul-ously, and floats upward until she touches the window she was thrown out of. Its broken shards reassemble, and the girl, now living, glares wildly and rips out a chunk of her father’s neck.

Dead Island’s trailer was released in February 2011. At the time of this writing, less than two months later, it is just 43 thousand hits short of 4 million views on YouTube, which by every standard makes it a wild success. The only other thing I know about Dead Island is that it is scheduled to be released later this year; I have deliberately avoided reading anything more. The trailer is so memorable that I don’t want it spoiled by mundanities like technical or narrative detail.1 I only want to know what its wordless trailer tells me, which is that a father is a split second too late to save his daughter, that he pays for it with his life, and that he throws her out of a hotel window, where her bones snap and her jaw stains and her eyes turn empty and wet.

Presumably this is going to be a video game largely about killing zombies in satisfyingly brutal ways, which is why the trailer comes as such a surprise. Why attempt that feeling of melancholy in an advertisement? Is the game going to actually try and feel like sorrow and loss, or is the tone a Gotcha! intended to just turn our heads?

Melancholy is such a curious emotion to aim for, and the trailer’s unconventional structure makes me think that the director must have been aiming for it. Why end the trailer with thirty seconds of “footage” from the soon-to-be-dead family’s blissful island holiday? Certainly we’re meant to feel something about this family’s impending demise. But the tone of the trailer isn’t one of fear, or dread, or even black humor, any of which might get me in the mood to buy a zombie game. Melancholy instead gets me reflective. But what am I reflecting on? What am I supposed to feel about these non-real people who are about to die in a non-real tragedy?

I don’t know anything about these two characters, other than that they are happy, and they are about to die.2 There’s something moving about the father’s panicked concern for his daughter, the joy on his face for the brief instant that he thinks she is safe, and so it’s tragic that he’s both going to kill her and be killed by her — but I’ve only known these people for a few minutes. Why attempt a devastating emotional impact in the trailer, if it will potential spoil the moment when it happens in-game? Why try and sell me on the lowest point of the game? Or is this trailer trying to say that the entire game will consist of tragic regretful moments? And who wants to play such a game?3

My empathy for the father is complicated, moreover, because his tragic story relies on a few elements that are too fantastic for me to believe in:

Without the violence, there is no conflict. A disease followed by quarantine is less viscerally terrifying than the image of ravenous corpses running through a hotel’s hallways. And without the reanimation, the father does not have to kill his own daughter, and the trailer lacks that extra oomph that a young girl simply dying lacks.

It’s a scenario confined to the zombie genre, in other words, rather than a tragedy universal enough that I can relate it to myself. It’s clever and beautiful and effective. But I’m still not sure if the artistry of the trailer had a meaningful purpose. Simon Pegg, writer and star of the fantastic movie Shaun of the Dead, wrote an acclaimed commentary in the Guardian arguing that the poetic subtlety of the zombie as a monster is that it symbolizes slow, unmoving death; but this trailer is not about the fears of a father for his young, vulnerable daughter. The shots move too quickly for him to feel anything other than formless panic at the zombies running his way. The sadness is at losing his daughter to... what? A freak accident? A violent bunch of madmen? Zombie films have often been critiques of society and human nature, but what of that is in this trailer?

I also think of the “Carousel” advertisement by Philips in which we see a bank heist, frozen in progress, in a single circular take, because of how the endings of both films shed new light on the beginnings. But in “Carousel” the technique highlighted4 the product in question, which was a high-resolution television promoting its “cinematic” qualities. How does the technique of this Dead Island trailer say anything about its game? I’m assuming the gameplay doesn’t go in reverse, and the trailer is a stylistic rather than literal depiction of the game’s mood – so why pick that mood?

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I’m not sure that creating a melancholy piece of violence is the most honest way to sell a zombie video game, unless the video game in question is as melancholy as its trailer; and I’m skeptical that Dead Island will justify its manipulative emotional pulls. It doesn’t seem like a genre subversion with any meaning beyond that emotional manipulation; if there’s something more going on here, the trailer doesn’t show it.

When Tom Shone asked, in a 2005 Slate article, whether the comic book really needed to grow up — referring to Alan Moore’s seminal comic Watchmen — he missed (or outright ignored)5 the comic’s struggle between glorious adolescent fantasy and pyrrhic moral compromise; the genius of Watchmen was how it drew parallels between America’s love for the comic book and the dangers of glib catch-phrase patriotism. By “growing up”, Watchmen was able to make more nuanced statements about growing old and losing your childhood innocence.

Is Dead Island going to attempt to likewise “grow” the genre of the zombie game? Does it aim to be as complex and reflective as its trailer? Would it succeed if it tried? I would like to say yes, yes, and yes; but I am not sure. I worry that the tragic first glimpse of the game will prove to be a glib and thoughtless promotional grab; I worry that there was no purpose to the artistry of the trailer other than to seek attention. I hope that Dead Island proves me wrong. I like when I’m wrong to anticipate the worst.

1 There’s another reason I’m avoiding Dead Island news, and it’s that the trailer seemed so eerily like something out of the television show Lost — the slow-mo, silent shots; the sadness of the narrative undercut by piano and strings that felt right out of Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack —┬áthat I’m assuming it will be a similar tease and giving it a by.

2 I know there’s a third character, the mother, but she’s so nonexistent in this trailer — she holds up a knife to a zombie, but never interacts with either of the two main characters — that it’s hard to feel anything for her, or even think about her.

3 I mean, I would. But I don’t know who else. Give me a zombie game that’s a series of short vignettes about different families trapped on this resort. Use the unique dynamics of each family to give me new gameplay challenges, though in this case playing through the game would just mean bringing each family to its own unhappy ending. I bet you could make a compelling, powerful game that way. I just don’t know if a game like that would have a huge audience. And I won’t believe Dead Island’s capable of being that beautiful a game until I play it, since I haven’t ever played a game that moved me as hard as Dead Island would have to move me to do this trailer justice.

4 Albeit tangentially.

5 It’s possible that Shone’s article was entirely tongue-in-cheek; his last paragraph arguing that adults don’t have time for “difficulty” or “self-consciousness” made me wonder. But Shone doesn’t seem to be saying that ironically.

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Authored by Rory Marinich. Follow the blog via RSS, Tumblr, or follow Rory on Twitter.