Bad Dinner Guests

Logged 4 September 2019

Zombies throughout film history have been burdened with a variety of appealing or appalling personal habits. Opinions on them, pro or con, vary according to whether you’ve led them or been eaten by them. Opinions on cannibals have a tendency to be very similar.

Film-makers can never agree exactly on what typical zombie behaviour is, and that’s clouded the subject for the rest of us. The most consistent behaviour I’ve identified (with zombies, not film-makers) is that of being impatient diners. Their impatience is pathological and impulsive – characteristics they share with smokers who are equally impulsive, though obviously not – I hope – for the same reasons. In defence of smokers, I’ve yet to see them gnawing on anyone in the leper-sheds they’ve been banished to outside of some office buildings. At worst their gnawing targets fingernails.

In today’s judgmental, born-again prohibitionist world, smokers are treated disgracefully – much worse than the reanimated dead. It’s impossible to justify. If you have a zombie round for dinner it’s always going to end in a mad clatter of plates and cutlery, shrieking, and overturned furniture (and perhaps a visit from the Police). I hold smokers in higher regard because none of them have ever tried taking a bite out of me at dinner. Contrast this with the behaviour of zombies who, routinely, tuck into anyone who strays within grabbing distance. Trust me, it’s not smokers who need legislating.

Government, as ever when dealing with controversy, is silent about the persistent lawlessness and general lack of hygiene of zombies. Grudgingly, it looks askance at some of their more extreme behaviour, but that’s all it does. Government is like Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse Now” when he saw Martin Sheen gaping at a mass of decapitated heads jammed onto spikes:

Awww…man….you’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far.”

At this juncture I should declare that I haven’t smoked since I was aged ten. When I did it was an experiment that a friend and I executed in conspiratorial silence (twice) like members of the resistance, though without a clue of how to do it properly. We grasped enough of the basics to light the right end of a cigarette and dock the other end with our eager mouths. The rest was guesswork based on casual observation that drew on unimpeachable sources such as episodes of “The Saint” and “Man in a Suitcase”, or just about any 1960s TV show, including (bizarrely) Thunderbirds and Stingray. In the 1960s, even the puppets on TV smoked (they made commercials too, but for lollies rather than cigarettes).

My friend and I didn’t persist with the smoking experiments. The only tangible success we had throughout was drawing on the cigarettes until we had hamster cheeks. We held the smoke in our mouths for a few seconds, presumably looking like Popeye, then blew it all out as if it had been an accomplishment. “So that was smoking” we thought. Fantastic! We finished one cigarette apiece in this idiot manner, then put the pack away feeling like we’d made an advance, though without really understanding why. I still don’t understand why.

Some element of this must have troubled us dimly. A day or so later we repeated the experiment using the same methodology. Predictably and depressingly it brought us to the same inconclusive results. As a vehicle for establishing our radical credentials it was completely useless. It followed that we didn’t attempt the experiment a third time, or at least I didn’t. I lost touch with my co-conspirator when life’s events parted our ways a couple of years later. I don’t know if he was ever tempted again. I suspect not. Smoking was just a phase we went though in the same way that some young people become communists while at University.

It’s likely I’m better disposed towards smokers than zombies because I’ve actually tried smoking, albeit in an imprecise way, while I’ve never tried eating anyone. Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer it when my food stays still on the plate rather than fighting back or trying to escape. I’ve also found smokers to be good company for the most part. I’m not convinced the same can be said for zombies for any part. Even when they’re quiet there’s a sense they bring with them of being trapped in a car with a wasp walking about on the back window. You can’t help but keep looking over your shoulder at where it is and what it’s doing.

For me the worst aspect of zombies is their complete absence of versatility. Smokers throughout history have been able to do virtually anything but stop smoking without becoming irritable. All zombies can do (if the film and TV people are right) is sway about making ridiculous noises and lunge abruptly at anything that moves. Although that’s never prevented someone from having a successful career, especially in mainstream media, nobody’s going to be discovering the next great advance on penicillin that way. Zombies are also a novelist’s nightmare. There are pockets of readers who still take some pleasure in descriptions of shafts of light projecting obliquely into a smoke-filled room. Nobody’s going to linger over a tender scene where the major component the author has to work with is carnage, other than Hannibal Lecter.

Ultimately the choice between zombies and smokers is a simple one that can be given form with an equally simple checklist. What do you want someone to bring to the table (sometimes literally)? If the answer is good conversation, wit, and agreeable company, smokers tick all of the boxes. If the answer is horror, a rank smell, and bad table manners, then zombies are what you want, and my blessings (for whatever they’re worth) go with you. They just go with you from afar.