Among the must-have ingredients for any successful horror story are characters with depth. Sure, the monster in question may be harrowing to look at and it might kill gruesomely, but that’s not half as important as the fear that’s demonstrated by the subject of the monster’s attention. Doubly-so in zombie stories: Without living flesh to eat, zombies would just slouch around or stagger aimlessly about in a depressing parade. You wouldn’t go to a movie where there’s just zombies and no living people for them to eat, would you? So it’s fair to say that, as much as we like monsters, we don’t care about them half as much as we care about the struggle against them.
International zombie films such as Shaun of the Dead, Dead Snow and [REC] keep things fresh with new terrains, people, cliches and cultures. What’s also neat about them is that we get to see the breakdown of those cultures as they attempt to endure the zombie apocalypse.
In 2010, writer Christopher Tauber (pictured above right) and artist Ingo Römling (above left) of independent publishing house Zwerchfell created Die Toten (“The Dead“), an anthology of zombie stories set in Germany. Joining us from the Weekend of Horrors convention in Bottrop, Germany, Tauber and Römling help us understand what they think makes Die Toten different. (Get more information about the next Weekend of Horrors here: http://www.weekendofhorrors.com/de/index.html)
With all the zombie material out there today, why do another zombie story? What makes Die Toten different?
Ingo Römling: I would say Die Toten is unique in that it’s set in Germany and that the episodes and events that follow the course of the epidemic are thought out very carefully.
It’s very much a German comic (e.g., the covers with the German uniformed police officer, ambulance worker and postal service worker). Were you looking to reflect any current German social issues in your series?
IR: Well, a world filled with undead is basically a “social nightmare.” I did the artwork for a story Christopher wrote where there’s two junkies fighting zombies in Frankfurt. Since they’re on a permanent drug trip, they approach the zombie threat more like some kind of chaotic, real-life video game, which influences the narrative of the story and, of course, ends badly. There may be socially conscious undertones, but that’s not the story’s intended purpose. Whether you read a socially critical statement between the lines is something we leave up to the reader. The way I see it, it’s the intention of Die Toten to describe a zombie epidemic from a different angle more than … to denounce social injustices.
Christopher Tauber: Indeed, the horror genre always has potential to help social issues charmingly shine through. Stories that are completely detached from the real world would be something quite different: namely, fantasy. We’ve been lucky with our authors too. What zombie comic, so far, pits a group of senior citizens, already waiting to die in a nursing home, against the living dead? We’re also very lucky to have author Andi Vollinger working with us, because he deals with the protagonists very empathetically. In [the zombie apocalypse] it’s necessary to zoom in on these characters, because zombies are comparable to the real horror of growing older and being pushed to the margins of society.
IR: I would say it’s most likely the films of George A. Romero.
CT: Ditto, and the British mini-series Dead Set, simply because of the regional localization and spiritual era [that] is part of the plot.
What first sparked the concept for Die Toten? And how did this collaboration come together?
CT: The concept was born shortly after the founding of our publishing house, [which] has been around for over 20 years. [Zwerchfell manager] Stefan Dinter and I had replaced the lead founder, Christian Heesch, who wanted to retire from the industry. We thought about where, in our work as publishing director and editor, we had the most fun, but also where we wanted to position ourselves now with the publishing house. Stefan and I were fans of the genre, and it was either horror movies or hard-boiled literature. Sure, we love exploitation and trash, but we think the best models are more akin to [John] Carpenter and [Dashiell] Hammett – creative people who take their stories seriously – and of course, Romero. As zombie fans, we wanted to add something to the genre that didn’t yet exist: zombies in Germany. It’s rare to find zombies here so far, and when you did find them they were always more trash than fun. But I think if you want to see the demise of a society by their own bodies, then you should give thought to what exactly could happen. Also, the catalyst to all this was that one boozy night we completely succumbed to drink and pounded the concept on coasters. So much for the necessary seriousness…
IR: Collaboration with Christopher came very easily and spontaneously. We met at an event in Frankfurt. Also on board was Stefan Dinter, the other manager from the Zwerchfell publishing house. The three of us hung out, then came a couple of beers, and then I was approached on the subject: There was a zombie series in development that takes place in Germany, and would I like to join them? I particularly liked the seriousness and precision with which Christopher and Stefan regarded the subject, and that the goal was not to make fun of the zombie genre or that it was somehow funny. I love cartoons and satire, but I wouldn’t have found that approach as exciting. The genre is already overburdened by clichés that re-draw and emphasize those stereotypes into the mud, and that approach would have been too obvious for me.
Can you see this story this becoming a film? If so, who would you want to see film it?
IR: Yeah, that would definitely be the big prize. For the director, I would immediately say David Fincher [Se7en, Fight Club]. I imagine, however, the result would be rather un-American (especially without U.S. theatrical cliches.) Or perhaps a German director like Tom Tykwer [Run Lola Run], or Robert Schwentke [Red].
CT: Can I time travel too? If not, I’d hire British filmmaker Christopher Smith [Severance]. Otherwise, I’d probably lean more toward Austrian-German directors. There are some among them who have what it takes.
What was the last great horror story you read or watched?
IR: I can still remember the first one I’ve read: H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space.” I was 15 or so, and I shit my pants! However, I’ve read very little lately. The last really good horror movie? I think horror films often fail because they leave little to the imagination of the viewer, and instead have to show and explain everything and cover up everything with CGI monsters. I found James Wan’s Insidious pretty good.
CT: Kill List was the last horror movie where I got really scared. For me it was a completely new turn, as if Mike Leigh [had done] two-thirds of the movie and [left] the rest to a young horror director. Very intense. Horror books I tend not to read so much, because my preferences [swing toward] the already mentioned hard-boiled pulp fiction. A mixture of both I enjoyed was the Red Riding trilogy by David Peace.
Zombies are, of course, frightening, but often the human monster and the breakdown of society is more horrifying in undead stories. What do you personally feel is the most horrific element of your story?
IR: The fear of being alone and isolated in the world.
CT: Exactly. The idea that in one fell swoop, all the people you know will be dead, or come back as monsters that want to kill you, and you have to run away and shoot them in the head. I think these delusions of omnipotence that many live by in this game “how do I survive the zombie apocalypse,” are a kind of therapy for today’s stressed-out generation. Should such a thing really happen, I don’t think anyone would be mentally prepared for it. I’ve never seen a horror movie where the protagonists purposely go looking for horror as the basis of the story. It’s about time!