London’s long, colorful history has many gruesome episodes. Take 1665–66, the year that saw the last wave of bubonic plague decimate the city—before the Great Fire destroyed most of it. What better pedigree for a modern zombie scourge?
When a construction crew breaks into a crypt sealed by King Charles II in 1666, they discover that not all the withered corpses within are dead. Once unleashed, the zombie contagion quickly overtakes the city, imperiling, in particular, a retirement community in the East End.
Coincidentally, the grandkids of one of the residents have already planned a bank heist to restore the care home to financial solvency, and thus avoid its imminent destruction as part of the wave of gentrification convulsing the region. Their financial scheme becomes a rescue expedition after the outbreak.
A double parody—of the caper and zombie films—Cockneys vs Zombies plays both genres for laughs, while presenting working-class Cockney spunk and resourcefulness as the heart of London spirit.
Since the film invites it, let’s adopt the vocabulary of epidemiology and explore several vectors offered by Cockneys vs Zombies. One is linguistic. On full display here is not just the Cockney accent, but also the hallmark of Cockney speech as it emerged in the mid-19th century: rhyming slang. A pair of related words is chosen to represent an omitted word that rhymes with one of the paired words (e.g., apples and pears for stairs; mutt and jeff for deaf). Then the non-rhyming word (or sometimes the word pair) is used to signify the referent: e.g., ‘he’s completely mutt and jeff’.
It’s inventive and satisfying in its own right, but also the perfect feature of a dialect whose speakers wish to remain incomprehensible to outsiders. Cockneys vs Zombies works as a primer on how rhyming slang works, and also captures the downside of what linguists call a cryptolect: sometimes even the initiated don’t have a clue what others are saying. Such is the case in the care home, where the grandfather, Ray (Alan Ford), and other residents regularly have to ask fellow pensioner Eric (Dudley Sutton) for explanations of the convoluted constructions he utters.
Another vector is class. The zombie plague stands in for the latest threat posed by the dominant culture on working-class denizens of London’s East End. Most recently the area has been subject to the construction of venues and other projects for the 2012 Olympic Games, work glimpsed through several shots incorporated throughout the film. A banker kidnapped as part of the heist and a construction contractor measuring the care home in preparation for its demolition represent the cold, mercantile forces threatening a way of life characterized by hard work, resourcefulness, and authenticity.
A third vector is durability. The long sweep of history thumbnailed by the desecration of the mass grave from 1666 presents the Cockney as eternal, a type that predates the fire and the plague—never mind that the archetypal rhyming-slang-spouting Cockney only dates from the 1840s. While the film also acknowledges the constantly changing nature of Cockney identity and speech (rhyming slang often incorporates topical words, or the names of contemporary celebrities), a reactionary subvector marks some changes as threatening, at least those involving racial and linguistic impurities introduced from the UK’s former colonies.
Our band of heroes—brothers Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) and Andy (Harry Treadaway) and cousin Katy (Michelle Ryan) initially includes a Cockney of color—Mental Mickey (Ashley Thomas), a volatile, violent Iraq vet, whose bloodthirsty ways on display after he becomes a zombie aren’t much different from his behavior as a living man. One of the deleted scenes features Mickey headbutting an old woman who is interrupting him as he’s ‘trying to pray’. Perhaps the producers thought that this association of religiosity (we don’t know if he’s holding a Bible or a Koran) with violence made the reactionary thread too explicit.
Another deleted bit extends a scene in which Ray reprimands a group of black and white ‘hoodies’ outside the home. The long version includes a taunt uttered by one of the black members: ‘We run this place now; it’s about time you respect that.’
Once rid of Mental, our merry band are free to reunite with grand-dad and his co-inmates in a multigenerational, pure Cockney tribe who have the run of the East End (humanly speaking, anyway).
Cockneys vs. Zombies has some genuine laughs. It manages to make fun of zombie conventions and a doddering pensioner in a walker without being disrespectful, either to genre conventions or the elderly. When the kids run into rival football fans still scuffling with one another, Terry remarks, ‘Even when they’re zombies they can’t stand each other’.
It’s also good to see Alan Ford (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger) recruited for juicy roles in a genre generally not kind to seniors.
But like Eric’s obscure productions of rhyming slang, Cockneys vs. Zombies strays too far from substance. Just as the linguistic referent must always be implied for slang to be comprehensible, so parodies are most successful when they resonate with the same themes addressed in the best examples of the target genre. Finally, the Cockneys, reduced to an agglomeration of stereotypic features, are as insubstantial as the zombies, from which the film has taken such pains to distinguish them.
Extras include a series of making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, and the ‘Zombie School’ instructional video screened for the film’s 526 zombie extras. It includes such ‘zombie style secrets’ as ‘think stagger not swagger’ and a tutorial on the zombie ‘smash and grab’ attack strategy.