Z-O-M-B-I-E-S: A Teacher’s Notes On A DCOM
By: Dan Koch
We watch a lot of Disney Channel in my house. I’d like to say that this is the result of my daughter being born, but my wife and I would shamelessly watch some of the very, very basic shows and “DCOMs,” an acronym for “Disney Channel Original Movies,” well before she arrived. By “basic,” I’m referring to the very fitting urbandictionary definition:
DCOMs are pretty “basic.” To be fair, most made-for-TV movies follow a fairly generic plot structure, character arcs, and rising and falling action. Couple this with the fact that the target demographic for the Disney Channel is ages 9-16, and it’s no mystery why most of the programming is fairly straightforward and not nuanced or groundbreaking.
For a taste of what to expect should you find yourself wanting to watch a DCOM, here are some of their movie titles and brief synopses:
- Smart House - A boy tries to stop his father from dating by programming their computerized house to be a surrogate mother.
- The Luck of the Irish - A teenager finds he's going through some unexpected changes and learns that his mother is actually a leprechaun--and finds he finds he's turning into a leprechaun himself.
- High School Musical - A star athlete at a small-town high school falls for nerdy beauty at a party. They audition for the upcoming school musical.They struggle to make it to auditions while also meeting their existing obligations to the basketball team and the academic decathlon.
- Camp Rock - Celebrity singers coach aspiring musicians at a special summer camp.
- Teen Beach Movie - Two young surfers find romance when they magically become part of a movie musical.
Most of these movies feature a character, or set of characters, who must learn the hardships of navigating high school or middle school while dealing with a personal issue, bullies, or someone (or even society in general) who just “doesn’t understand.” This is the classic everyman in literature - a framework of a person to hang typical angst, tropes, or tribulations on to be inhabited by the audience. An excellent example of this type of storytelling is in the movie Finding Nemo--a movie featuring fish as main characters. However, adults are able to project themselves onto Marlin, the main character of the movie, because his actions are undeniably human--all he wants to do is protect his child. He even calls Nemo “young man.”
In February of this year, Disney Channel released the Original Movie “ZOMBIES,” or “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S,” depending on which advertisement you look at. The story, as expressed by the many, many, many commercials I saw, featured a teenage girl who was seemingly transfixed on a very pale teenage boy--fascinated by how his world was so different than the one she was raised in. A few commercials later, some more bits of the story started to emerge, as both of these characters started talking to the camera. It seems like a classic fish out of water story.
Then the movie aired. The following are my unfiltered notes on what transpired throughout the story, and what I believe would have been a better story to tell based on discussions with my wife (who is also a teacher).
[Full Disclosure: I shamelessly love the music in this film. It’s catchy, the dance numbers are incredibly well-choreographed, and it’s easy to see where most of the creative talent went during production of this movie. The actors are clearly talented and worked hard on the film. I wish I had their dance moves].
Zed, the boy, is a “zombie.” They can apparently speak, walk, and go about their lives normally in this movie’s world. He looks a little pale and has green hair - and so do all other zombies. They are required (by the government, I guess?) to wear bracelets called “z-bands” that emit electromagnetic pulses, which apparently satisfies the urge to eat human brains (Note: it’s not shown at any time what zombies actually eat). One zombie, Bonzo, takes a bite of something on a stick during the movie’s opening song, but I don’t know what it is [edit: My wife has since corrected me on this—they clearly eat “Cauliflower Brains”]. Oh, and Bonzo only speaks in “zombie” throughout the whole film--which is a series of gibberish words that have lots of Z’s, R’s and G’s in them (example: “Ziggity zag zog, zig zick zac gar gizar zong.”) All zombies understand this language but no other zombies speak it besides Bonzo. Bonzo may be a vehicle to show the audience how zombies used to be 50 years ago - which Zed explains happened due to a “lime soda” accident at a factory. Basically, something in the soda factory exploded, created green mist, and if it touched you, you became a zombie (the kind we’re all familiar with from the Walking Dead: leg dragging, moaning, brain-eating ones). This is explained away by saying “but now we’re awesome.” Also they live in Zombietown. Note: It’s not explained how or why zombies are awesome.
The audience is then introduced to Addison. Addison explains to us that she lives in Seabrook, a place whose population doesn’t like people who are different. We can visually see that most of the town, as shown to us in the opening song, wears the same type of clothing, has nice hair, and own nice houses. It looks similar to a community akin to the one in The Stepford Wives. The main point being driven home here is that Seabrookians...Seabrookites...onians don’t take kindly to “imperfection” (Addison is even berated by a classmate later in the film for potentially wearing corrective lenses or having legs that are disproportionate). Addison then shares with us that her perfect blonde hair is actually a wig--hiding her true hair color: white. This is apparently so bad that if anyone besides her parents sees it, she’ll be shunned by the community and not able to join the cheer squad at school. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that: The coolest thing you could possibly be at Seabrook High School is a cheerleader (a detail that I actually like about the film). Note: This could actually be a good plot point to hang some later threads of the movie on; for example: Addison’s hair color could indicate a cure for “zombieism;” she could be immune to the affliction and it manifests this way, and it’s a secret that was kept from her. As it turns out, nope. It’s just white hair and people won’t like it for some reason.
Zed’s friend Eliza is a zombie that doesn’t have time to play by this world’s “rules” and wants a (in her own words) “revolution.” She’s good with computers and stuff--and we know this because she says she wants to join a coding club or something at school.
Oh yeah, the main conflict of the first act is that zombies and humans are finally able to go to the same school for some reason that’s not explained--but they do have to enter through different entrances (with signs that say “normals” and “zombies”). There’s a few lines of singing prior to this shot where we meet Bucky--Addison’s cousin--who’s head cheerleader at the school and is a mean person who also doesn’t like anyone different. Basically, he’s the entire town personified.
The rest of the movie includes the following plot points:
Zed wants to be on the football team
Addison grapples with the fact that she’s a “phony” for having fake blond hair
Bucky doesn’t like people who take the spotlight off of him
Humans’ prejudice against zombies and zombies’ prejudice against humans
Zed eventually does get on the football team when the head coach sees him catch Addison after a cheer stunt is about to go awry, smacking his Z-Band accidentally and causing it to go in “unstable” mode, which makes Zed into a...half zombie or something? Apparently zombies have innate Hulk strength and can send people flying like twigs when it’s unleashed. Anyway, Zed smashes half the football team out of the way when in half-zombie mode and saves Addison from hitting the ground, securing his spot on the team as quarterback--even though this type of strength would be better for a linebacker to have for, you know, tackling people. This is also where Addison starts to tell herself that zombies “aren’t what she was taught,” begins a crusade for their acceptance into the school and society, and starts to “like like” Zed.
After a song about love and one day being accepted for who they are, and a very well choreographed dance to the song “BAMM” (Google it and you’ll hum it all day), Addison learns more about “zombie culture” (they’re just like humans...shocker), and Eliza even begins to feel she’s made too harsh a judgement on all humans based on her own experiences. Zed continues to win football games because Eliza is able to “hack” his Z-Band--allowing him to swipe left and go “half-zombie” and destroy anyone in his path. Note: Okay, how does this even begin to work? Do the Z-Bands require Wi-Fi? How do they work when they’re out of range? Do they use LTE bands when Wi-Fi isn’t available? Is it bluetooth? Do they have batteries? What happens when they die? How do you hack into it? Zed even “swipes right” (undoubtedly a Tinder reference in a Disney Channel movie) when Eliza tells him not to because it will “corrupt the software,” changing him temporarily into a full-fledged human so he can meet Addison’s parents. Has anyone ever tried this before? Why haven’t zombie scientists checked into this? What?
Eventually, Bucky’s cheerleading minions get ahold of Eliza’s computer and mess with Zed, Eliza and Bonzo’s Z-Bands, overloading them and causing them all to go “full zombie,” scaring everyone at the final football game until the zombie siren blares and the zombie police show up with a zombie electropulse shooter thing and snap them out of it.
Note: This is the crux of the film for me, where it could have been a much, much more powerful vehicle for tolerance and a commentary about human beings’ own preoccupation with themselves, their fears, and their own confirmation biases. My wife’s theory was that the original cloud in the prologue narration of the film was actually an ability-enhancing mist--and those touched by it got superhuman abilities (as Zed has established). Humans, seeing this and becoming jealous, exiled these people, called them zombies, and created the Z-Bands to limit their abilities to make themselves feel better about their own existence. Zombies eating brains could have been a fabricated tall-tale. Over time, this became legend and hence, the story begins. As a result, all the claims of zombies being dangerous could be proven false, expose the hypocrisy and jealousy of Seabrook’s citizens, validate Addison’s crusade, and create a classic hero’s journey ending for Zed.
Instead, the film doesn’t address any of this, and nothing changes. They’re still just zombies. The Z-bands do prevent them from eating brains. After a closing cheer squad competition song and dance, everyone sees the “error” of their ways, Addison still wants to be with Zed, and Zombietown and Seabrook open the gates to one another. The problem with this is that every fear the humans have of zombies is justified with no semblance of a resolution. What happens when the Z-band malfunctions again? Even though the zombies have developed personalities and offspring of their own for two generations, they are only able to achieve this with the Z-band. They’re inherently dangerous. It’s been established that when the Z-band is removed, zombies revert immediately back to hyper-strong, primal beasts that want to eat humans. Addison’s parents were right. Her wanting to integrate them into society, by the film’s logic, should be met with a good amount of trepidation and caution.
Or maybe I’m thinking too much about it. It has good music.