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The Blogging Dead – Misdirecting Travelers

October 1, 2010

How can I relate The Birds (1963) directed by Alfred Hitchcock to zombies you ask?  Easy.  It is a brilliant zombie film.  How do I prove it?  Simple.  Take a look at this paragraph from the synopsis of The Birds on Wikipedia:

Melanie and Mitch’s family take refuge in Mitch’s house, boarding up the windows. The house is attacked by the birds and they almost manage to break through the doors. In the evening, when everyone else is asleep, Melanie hears noises from the upper floor and finds that the birds have broken through the roof. They attack her, sealing her in the room until Mitch comes to her rescue. Lydia and Mitch tend to Melanie, but determine she must get to a hospital. A sea of landed birds ripples menacingly around them as they leave the house but do not attack, aside from a few pecks. The radio reports several smaller bird attacks in nearby communities. Mitch drives the car slowly towards the road before picking up speed. The film concludes with the car driving away, down the coast road and out of sight, as thousands of birds watch. – from wikipedia

Let’s replace the word bird with zombie, and see if anyone notices—

Melanie and Mitch’s family take refuge in Mitch’s house, boarding up the windows. The house is attacked by the zombies and they almost manage to break through the doors. In the evening, when everyone else is asleep, Melanie hears noises from the upper floor and finds that the zombies have broken through the roof. They attack her, sealing her in the room until Mitch comes to her rescue. Lydia and Mitch tend to Melanie, but determine she must get to a hospital. A sea of zombies ripple menacingly around them as they leave the house but do not attack, aside from a few pecks. The radio reports several smaller zombie attacks in nearby communities. Mitch drives the car slowly towards the road before picking up speed. The film concludes with the car driving away, down the coast road and out of sight, as thousands of zombies watch. – sort of from Wikipedia.

Works pretty well doesn’t it?

Melanie Daniels, portrayed by one of my favorite actresses Tippi Hedren, plays a strong-willed socialite who goes after what she wants.  She meets a man, Mitch Brenner, in San Francisco (on a street that I was standing on less than a month ago…  I miss vacation.) and decides to follow him the next day to his childhood home.  She drives up the coast to Bodega Bay with a birthday gift for his little sister.  Little did she know,  lovebirds was the worst possible present.

I had dinner in the Tides Restaurant in Bodega Bay a few weeks ago!

Queue the angry seagull!  One bird swoops down attacking Melanie.  Then a party is crashed by another flock.  Before you know it, Melanie, along with a small band of survivors, fights off a massive horde of thousands of various species of birds.

The Birds is not your typical Hitchcock film.  Each and every other film utilizes a human threat or antagonist.  This film, adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s novelette, utilizes an inhuman threat in the form of zombies—  I mean— birds.   Having this inhuman threat allowed Hitchcock to focus solely on the protagonists and the dynamics of their relationships.   This entire formula mirrors what happens in your typical zombie film.

Keep in mind though, this is a Hitchcock zombie film.  It is not your typical horror.  Typical horror today, thanks to the Saw franchise, Hostel, Paranormal Activity and various other graphic horror films, has fallen into the shock area.  These films resort to cheap gross-out scenes and/or simple and sudden shock.  Hitchcock was of the exact opposite school of thought, giving more thought to suspense.  He believed that the building of tension in a scene was much more important than any brief reaction gained from a surprise or shock.

Hitchcock explains it, thanks to AFI.

Any horror film with any decent budget can find way to be disgusting, but it takes a real auteur to figure out how to build tension.  One of my favorite tension building scenes in the Birds occurs about halfway into the film.  Melanie goes to the Bodega Bay schoolhouse to collect little Cathy Brenner at the request of Mitch and her mother.  She waits, sitting on a bench, for the class to end.  Over the course of a series of shots, the scene cuts away from and back to a jungle gym on the playground.  Each time the camera cuts back; we as the audience see something that Melanie does not.  The number of crows on the jungle gym literally doubles each time they show it.  They are completely silent, and massing for their terrifying attack while Melanie enjoys a cigarette.

The birds are perfect zombies.  They are inhuman.  They can’t be reasoned with.  There is no explanation for why they are attacking.  And they out-number us thousands to one.—- Just like zombies, right?

Let’s close with an open letter:

Dear writers of AMC’s Walking Dead,

I’m sure you’ve already seen it, but go back and watch The Birds again.  Keep in mind that tension is a valuable tool when writing, and do not get distracted with elaborate gross-out effects when you could be developing the living characters of your story.  It’s a film worth revisiting when you’re looking for zombie inspiration. Additionally, keep in mind that the best kind of horror story is the one where you get up from your seat and feel compelled to yell at the TV “No! don’t go in there!  The killer is in there!!!!”

Sincerely,

Robert Lee

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Recommended Reading: Hitchcock By Helen G. Scott and Francois Truffaut

This book is a series of  transcripts from years of conversations between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut.  I’ve read this more than once, but not from beginning to end.  I would watch a Hitchcock film and reference the book for the conversation about that film.  This beats the heck out of any DVD supplementary feature I’ve ever seen.

My favorite conversation from The Birds:

Melanie Daniels: On Mondays and Wednesdays I work for the Travelers Aid at the airport.
Mitch Brenner: Helping travelers?
Melanie Daniels: No, misdirecting them.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2010 9:08 am

    I love that zombie thing… it made my day

    • October 1, 2010 9:17 am

      Too kind, and as a result, you have made my day.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. February 15, 2011 7:30 pm

    Robert,

    Thank you for enlightenment! I had an idea for a story in which i wanted to combined a Hitchcock approach to a zombie flick. when i did a Google search it lead me here so i figured i would take the time to complement you on a good refreshing insight to what the genre of zombies could be. I would love to hear more about your ideas on how to go about executing such a task , so keep up the good work!

    – J

    • February 15, 2011 8:30 pm

      Thanks for the read and compliment Jess! Hitchcock and zombies are two of my faves, to do them together would seem natural, but would have to be done just right. The real thing that you would have to take into account is Hitch’s take on shock versus suspense. Too many films today go right for shock, when the real juicy fear comes from waiting for something to happen. I think you would benefit from watching a show I just saw on amc where Dick Cavett interviewed Hitchcock in the late seventies and really captured a lot of the “why” he did certain things. Videos from it are all over YouTube. Hope that helps. If you want to discuss further, feel free to email me. Cinemafantastica@gmail.com …As I said I’m a lover of Hitch and zombies. Good luck with your story!

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