Antiheroes and the Hard Six

SPOILER ALERT: Walking Dead Season 3, Man on Fire, Voodoo Cowboys, and 300


Classically a ‘hero’ is a dead man, venerated because of wide fame, the compounding of great deeds, a particularly epic death, or some combination therein. I’ve always thought of myself as a fan of the ‘antihero’, that being someone who fills the role of the protagonist, though exemplifies more villainous qualities than traditionally heroic ones. Recently I have been watching the zombie drama series ‘The Walking Dead’ and like most fans I really liked Daryl Dixon, and I had a soft-spot for his older brother Merle Dixon, because those guys were rough around the edges and reminded me a bit of growing up in the south. 

In the final episodes of Season 3 of the Walking Dead there is a scene where Merle has left one group of survivors and joined another, only to find that he doesn’t fit in there either.  His final act is to launch a one man assault against a vastly superior force, and dies in the process. I found myself deeply moved by the character’s arc, and that after several seasons of him being a somewhat reviled character he has his moment of heroism. Upon watching this I started to think about the classical definition of heroes, and thinking back to other heroes I’ve felt a connection with who went out in a similar fashion. 

As I sift through the list I begin to see a pattern, in which I find a particular interest in characters who  lay everything on the line for one perfect moment. It brought me back to Battlestar Galactica, where Captain Adama talks about how “sometimes you just have to roll the hard six”. Its a gambling phrase, about beating the dreadful odds against and coming out with a victory. When I apply that hard six idea with heroes, I start to see some interesting beliefs that I apparently hold to in my own fictional works. 

In the comic & film ‘300’ King Leonidas brings his Spartan warriors out into the open, instead of retreating into the hot gates where he can still fight, so that he can lure Xerxes within range of a well-thrown spear. When the trap is sprung all of the Spartans are killed, and though Leonidas wounds Xerxes, he fails to roll the hard six. Leonidas dies, but in such a heroic way his story is inspirational regardless of his failure. 

In the Walking Dead Merle Dixon leads a horde of zombies into an ambush laid by the Governor, and under cover of the zombie attack Merle manages to shoot down eight of the Governor’s men before he is killed. For a brief moment Merle has the Governor in his sights, and fires, only to hit a man who crosses in front of the Governor at the last moment. Merle dies, having also failed to roll the hard six, but damn what a way to go. 

In Man on Fire John Creasy is waging a war on the drug cartels in Mexico City, and is severely wounded early in the film. He fights his way through the film, all the while struggling with the increasingly debilitating wound. Somewhere deep down you as a viewer know he’s not going to survive, and you are ok with that, because he is too, so long as he can “do this one last thing”, which is save the little girl. Ultimately he rolls the hard six, and successfully trades his life for the little girl, managing to die before his captors can do anything worse. 

In my own film Voodoo Cowboys, a spell-slinger named Doctor John barely survives a battle with shaman-sorcerer Duvalier in which his comrades (Shaner and Reese) were killed. In order to gain the power with which to defeat Duvalier the slinger must make a magical bargain with a bloodthirsty god, exchanging his own vital life energy for the god’s favor in battle. Doctor John faces off high noon style with Duvalier and kills the shaman, then pays the price for his chance to roll the hard six and dies himself as he walks towards the setting sun. 

In the third Star Wars film Darth Vader sees his son being tortured to death by Emperor Palpatine, and decides to intervene. After years of serving as the dark champion for the Empire Darth Vader chooses to abandon his duties and attack the Emperor, though doing so would surely mean his death. Vader fights through the deadly lighting coming from the Emperor and manages to kill Palpatine before succumbing to his own wounds. Then, to top it off, he survives long enough to tell his son “you were right about me”, and that there was some good still left in him, before dying. To me that sounds like the gold standard of hitting the hard six. 

These are generally dark tales, with grim endings and hard choices, and I do love them so. One of my friends told me, after reading several of my stories, that I seem to kill all of the protagonists by the end of the story, and now perhaps I am beginning to understand why he was right. At the end of it all the way I see it is that whatever a person is, it’s that act of making the attempt to roll a hard six that makes you a hero, and the outcome, whatever it is, isn’t your concern, because you’ll most likely be dead anyway. 

Obsessed. With. Zombies.

I love zombies.

As kids we got the wits scared out of us, in the most fun way, by the Night of the Living Dead. Even as a kid, it was shocking in a very primal way to see essentially “people as monsters”, because let’s face it the makeup in those first few Romero films were some eye-shadow and tatty clothes. Something was triggered deep in the recesses of our minds, a fascination with “surviving the night” as it were, and like many children do we started playing out our own scenarios. Seeing the dark 80’s comedy Return of the Living Dead set in concrete our love of zombies, and instead of playing GI Joe, Civil War, or Cowboys & Indians we started playing our own zombie survival games.

They are the perfect enemy. They look like people, so that plays into our natural fear of mobs. They are a somewhat unstoppable force of nature, so we get that natural disaster vibe going. They are (often) cannibals, and we really don’t like getting eaten. And their bites will turn victims into zombies, so there’s some epidemiology there too, with a smattering of disease/plague fear. Also its socially sanctioned murder, since zombies are basically just people. All great backdrops for exploring the human drama, which is at the core of all the “good” zombie movies and books.

Zombies really are the cheapest monsters to have in a film, other than extremely clever ways of portraying ghosts, so needless to say zombie films have been around for a long time, and they aren’t going to go away. Granted, while zombies are the cheapest monsters, and thus a metric ton of movies both at the low budget and hollywood level have been made, they are pretty tough to actually do “right”. I used to work at a low budget horror dvd distribution company, and trust me, everyone with a cheap camera and a few friends has made a trashy zombie movie, myself included. Most of them suck, especially because the zombies suck (it takes a real actor to portray a truly badass zombie, contrary to popular indie filmmaker belief), but even then I just can’t not watch them. Obsessed. With. Zombies. They may pass from the limelight from time to time, but like the relentless shambling hordes they portray, zombie films will just keep coming. Same for books and especially video games. I have certainly played my part in contributing to the ever-expanding glut of zombie media. To date I’ve made two of my own crappy zombie films (Johnny Sunshine: Maximum Violence and Voodoo Cowboys) and written three short zombie novels, two under my own name (Relentless and Gladiators vs Zombies) and one under my Edward Teach pseudonym (Zombie Jesus). I’ve got four more zombie writing projects in various stages of completion. Obviously I’m both a creator in the genre and also one of its most rabid fans.

The point of this post is that I am enjoying the zombie genre being a mainstream thing right now. Being a kid in the 80’s and 90’s meant that “being a nerd” was grounds for schoolyard fist fights and ostracism, but now we have hipsters and nerds-as-the-cool-kids in our mainstream culture & media. The same is happening with zombies, where manufacturers of hardware and ammo are slapping bio-hazard symbols on their products and Wal-Mart sells cheap “zombie hunter” t-shirts (I bought one, its cheap and awesome), zombies are now kitsch and I’m loving it. The Walking Dead is of course an incredible show, and it tickles me that its so wildly successful now, where in years past there was no way the networks would put something that violent or visceral on television. Not only is it approved for television, it is easily the most successful show in television history, you can have a multi-screen viewing experience, watch a fancy talk show after the episode, and then the whole series in black & white reruns. These days you’re weird if you aren’t into a television show about freaking zombies! Weirdos are the ones who don’t like zombie media! How’s that for a slice of fried gold? Video games like Dead Island and Left 4 Dead are high end and super fun, which is a long way from the old board game I have called “Maul of America”. Will this time pass? Of course. The Walking Dead will either end gloriously in the next season, or it will drag on for season after season (because it makes money) until it sucks and then doesn’t make money any more. Eventually zombies will fall away from the mainstream and go back to their sub-culture roots, where they will wait patiently for the next media cycle. Its good to be a zombie fan right now, to be one of the cool kids who knows which Walking Dead character I most resemble, to have a zombie outbreak escape plan, and to have my own creative projects be mainstream for once.

Aim for the head.