Highschool of the Dead (HOTD) is a surprising winner once you get pass the campy title reminiscent of last-century B-grade horror movies. Despite a story set-up that is pretty generic in the zombie apocalypse genre, the series manages to mix in enough anime-unique tropes to create an entertaining blend of two vastly different subcultures.
Zombie survival is a relatively modern literary genre that traces its roots to American storywriters inspired by accounts of real-life “zombies” in Haiti, who were basically slaves tricked into believing that they were brought back from the dead after given a blend of tetrodotoxin (the same toxin found in puffer fish) and undergoing a state of near-death.
Hence, most zombie-related movies and novels are of American origin and have over the years evolved a well-documented style of story-telling that is quite far removed from the conditions that cultivated the anime subculture. Though the concept itself is not completely new to Japanese pop culture (e.g. Resident Evil, House of the Dead), I am hard-pressed to name offhand any other anime series that actually features traditional American-style zombies. So HOTD is kind of breaking new ground, I think.
Though zombies differ from story to story, they typically share a few trademark attributes. The zombies featured in HOTD follow the conventional archetype:
- Infectious bite that raises dead victims as zombies
- Respond to sound but not sight
- The brain/head is the sole weak spot
The infectious nature of zombie is typically responsible for a great portion of story tension, because it is difficult for people to accept that their bitten loved ones will soon turn into mindless brain-eating automatons, hence creating a chink in any fool-proof defences that can be conceived by humans with emotions (except maybe some kind of automated killer robot that kills anyone it detects to have been bitten).
Typically, this set-up benefits the sociopaths in a life-and-death situation because they can run away without a second thought, but their advantage is somewhat offset in the long-term by the fact that they eventually need to become part of a sufficiently large community of able-bodied humans in order to survive and defend territories.
The rest of the attributes are basically there to give humans a fighting chance so that they don’t get wiped out instantly (which makes for very boring storytelling). Really, why does the undead have to be slow or unintelligent? See: Sylvannas Windrunner.
HOTD is probably not going to break any new grounds in the story mechanics of zombie horror, but what it does is to apply the tried-and-true formula to a bunch of anime stereotypes not typically found in zombie movies. It’s quite common to see losers who (surprise!) turn out to be heroes when confronted by the flesh-eating undead, but it’s a whole different can of entertaining when these losers consist of an angst-ridden shounen protagonist, a loud-mouthed tsunderekko, a textbook otaku and a ditzy fanservice school nurse (who probably saves the day unexpectedly in the end).
It’s almost as if HOTD has somehow managed to craft something unique and creative by combining two ultimate examples of cliché.
There’s an incredible amount of fanservice in HOTD, which, for the zombie genre, is probably the equivalent of inserting dinosaurs into the Bible. I mean, zombie survival stories thrive on dramatic tension between the characters and well-choreographed horror scenes, both of which should in theory be greatly denatured by having the female characters running everywhere with their panties exposed. The juxtaposition is often almost comedic saved for the fact that the protagonist is about to get her neck bitten off.
Surprisingly, this odd combination works out far better than it sounds. It flips the whole genre upside down, whereby you start to wonder when the next fanservice shot will interrupt the shambling undead doing their job, and this inversion of viewer expectation can be oddly enjoyable. It’s kind of like Shaun of the Dead except with lingerie. Both the horror and fanservice scenes also benefit greatly from HOTD’s high animation quality.
That said, HOTD does the typical zombie stuff quite well too. The author is clearly well-versed in the relevant literature and has created a scenario that goes deeper than just “omg zombies/monsters/aliens, run for ya lives.” There are some thoughtful discussions on the societal response to a zombie outbreak and the survival techniques needed, which are generally believable and interesting.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he had read and was partially inspired by World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. (WWZ in particular is probably the most thorough and serious thought experiment ever written about the macro social and political effects of a hypothetical global zombie outbreak. Highly recommended.)
And while the main characters are a hodgepodge of anime clichés, it can be quite interesting to watch them work.
For example, in American zombie movies, you always have these anarchistic gun-loving rednecks (I believe the politically-correct term is Tea Partier), whose crazy beliefs have finally been vindicated by the zombie apocalypse and who are insanely well-prepared for it with a huge stockpile of ammunition and canned food. Hollywood common sense tells us that these people usually end up dying in a grandiose last stand against hordes of undead, thus buying time for the main character to run off like a little girl. But replace them with a high school otaku living in urban Tokyo who has never touched an actual gun before, and who knows what will happen? Hilarity ensues, probably.
Gimmicks aside, the core of any zombie apocalypse story is ultimately the character interaction.
Some survivors become overcome by grief or hopelessness and give up, some who are better prepared see it as an opportunity to profit or seize power, some continue to naively believe in the safeguards of society and government to rescue them from their predicaments, some fight because they are trained and disciplined and some fight because they accept the reality of the situation and are left with no other options.
The range of emotional responses, and the cascading effect they have on other characters and society at large (or what remains of it anyway), is ultimately what makes such a survival story so compelling. (Did I mention that World War Z is a great book for this?)
And by that measure, HOTD is actually a pretty decent and thoughtful piece of work. One of the most memorable moments in the show for me so far as of episode 5 (warning: slight spoilers ahead) was when a bunch of high school delinquents jumped a police barricade (which kept out potentially-infected people until they can be screened at checkpoint). They taunted and laughed at the riot police whom they naively believed were unable to do anything to them due to their legal status as juveniles.
The unflinching police officers responded with ruthless efficiency by firing the water cannon, blasting two of the delinquents off the bridge and into the river below. The remaining teenagers quickly realized that the nature of society they lived in had been irrevocably changed and that the social safety nets they had come to take for granted no longer exist when the entire country and its institutions are on the verge of collapse.
Moments like this make the show far more than just zombies and fanservice. I like that.
Veteran fans of zombie movies can find something unique in HOTD as it simultaneously celebrates and desecrates the genre without skipping a beat. Newcomers can enjoy it for its zany fanservice, nice story pacing and pretty animation, and hopefully absorb enough basic knowledge along the way to survive the inevitable undead uprising caused by nanobots gone wild. Perhaps even pick up a few protips on how to organize and rule your own post-apocalyptic band of wandering scavengers.
Or you can just look at the frequently-exposed undergarments. There’s something in it for everyone. :)