The Life and Times of the Living Dead

Zombie horror author Wayne Simmons and Susan Picken of QFT discuss their favourite genre ahead of The Life and Times of the Living Dead weekend at Queens Film Theatre

Don’t expect any square-jawed heroes to turn up and save the day in FLU, the latest novel from horror writer Wayne Simmons. He doesn’t believe in them.

‘My characters are not well individuals,’ the shaven-headed Simmons, tattoos playing peekaboo with the collar of his shirt, admits. ‘I write about flawed characters because we’re all flawed; everybody who reads my books will be flawed.’

In FLU the characters include a skinhead punk, a retired army major and an ex-gunrunner for the IRA who all have one thing in common. They aren’t dead: so far.

A deadly flu strain has swept through Belfast and the government has been forced to act. Martial law has been declared and the infected are forcibly quarantined, left to die in flats and houses. But they don’t stay dead. Instead, they rise from their snotty beds as bloodthirsty zombies.

The uninfected, Simmons collection of ‘not well individuals’, have to depend on each other to survive.

FLU was an idea born of the 2009 swine flu epidemic. Simmons, in the middle of writing a sequel to his first novel Drop Dead Gorgeous, remembers watching news coverage the TV and thinking it was like the start of a zombie move.

‘Then I realized that no-one had ever written a story about a flu virus causing a zombie epidemic,’ Simmons says, eyebrows bouncing as if he can’t believe everyone had missed that idea. ‘There had been variations on other virus’ – virii? – but never a flu virus.’

Inspired Simmons set aside the project he was working on and started work on FLU, writing the bulk of the story over three months. ‘I was just writing, writing, writing,’ he remembers. ‘I was writing on the train on the way to work, I was writing after work, I was writing on the weekends – just constantly scribbling away.’

The resultant novel has been well-received – available at 120 Waterstones across the UK and Ireland – but it wasn’t Simmons' first foray into the world of the unattractively undead. Drop Dead Gorgeous was a ‘sort of zombie-ish novel’ too.

‘Zombies are like a blank canvas to tell a story on,’ Simmons explains his interest in the walking dead. ‘George Romero used them to talk about consumerism, collectivism and herd mentality. I use them to bring out the best and worst in my characters. You can use zombies to talk about anything at all.’

Susan Pickens of Queen’s Film Theatre is the organizer of The Life and Times of the Living Dead, a zombie film weekend at QFT from April 30 - May 2, an event Simmons will be signing copies of FLU at. Pickens is a horror movie buff and has her own theories about the popularity of the zombie genre.

‘In movie and myth the zombie is a really interesting monster. It taps into those basic human fears about what it is to be dead and what it is to be alive. It works through those fears,’ she explains. ‘As a monster the zombie is something that deals with the fundamentals of humanity: what it is that makes us human or not human.’

Pickens selected most of the zombie films to be screened during The Life and Times of the Living Dead precisely because they explore those issues.

Pontypool is a Canadian film about the idea of a memetic zombie virus that uses language, one of the things that defines identity, to spread from person to person. Another interesting choice is the French film They Came Back, an immigration allegory where the dead quietly rise and go about their business.

‘They aren’t running amok or slaughtering people left, right and centre,’ Pickens says, describing a zombie movie more about crowd control than brain-eating. ‘But they are very 'other', this community that you don’t have anything in common with them and don’t understand what they want. You can’t have a more different country than death.’

For Simmons the zombies don’t come from an unfamiliar but a very familiar place. A voluntary sector employee for all his working life, he has worked with drug-users, alcoholics and the homeless. ‘It’s important to me to explore those themes in my work. I work with the disenfranchised and my characters are disenfranchised, with their own baggage and problems even before the zombie apocalypse.’

Simmons had tried to explore those themes in contemporary fiction in the past, but the novels just fizzled out. It was only after 2006, when he started writing zombie fiction that he had the impetus to pursue the story to the end.

‘I happened on David Moody’s work online,’ he explains. Moody is also a guest at The Life and Times of the Living Dead and his film Autumn will be screened on May 2. ‘His way of writing, based in the UK and character driven, spoke to me. I thought that this was something I’d like to do.’

So between Simmons' fondness for the zombie genre and his determination to base his stories locally – ‘Stephen King based most of his stories in Maine where he grew up. I’m following his lead and basing all of mine in Belfast!’ – can Belfast expect sporadic zombie outbreaks for the foreseeable future?

‘I’m working on my new novel now,’ Simmons concludes brightly. ‘It’s set in an apocalyptic Belfast about 100 years from now.’

The Life and Times of the Living Dead is on at Queen's Film Theatre from Apr 30 to May 2. FLU and Drop Dead Gorgeous by Wayne Simmons can be purchased at the CultureNorthernIreland Amazon store.

Tammy Moore