Plotwise, Stubbs the Zombie bears a striking resemblance to Arthur Miller’s 1966 adaptation An Enemy of the People. In both works, the power-mad leader of a burgeoning town conceals a horrific threat from residents for financial gain, and a compromised water supply comes into play. In Miller’s case, the contamination has nothing to do with a vengeful urinating zombie, which is where the storylines start to diverge sharply. Still, this subversive depiction of sociopathic developers, along with the anti-Communist tirades from characters set in the McCarthy-era ‘50s and an unnerving Patton-style speech in front of a blood-splattered flag, proves this game has brains beyond those ravaged every few seconds by undead incisors.
Intelligence spurts aside, Stubbs tonally resembles the 1993 slapstick farce My Boyfriend’s Back (a dire entry from early in Lost star Matthew Fox’s career) more than the thinly veiled dead-serious war analogy 28 Days Later. When its titular character, deceased traveling salesman Edward “Stubbs” Stubblefield, first appears on screen, he’s extending his arm Carrie-style to snatch a hot dog from an unsuspecting young couple, triggering the first of many ribald-pun groaners (“he grabbed my wiener”). A “GuideBot” character directs the following orientation/tutorial sequence, during which the verdant-hued Stubbs, his cigarette remaining lit after burial like the Unknown Soldier’s flame, learns how to chomp through skull casings and feast on pink spongy goo.
The snazzy-looking metropolis, GuideBot explains between orchestrating Stubbs’ gray-matter snacks and gruesome disembowelings, is Punchbowl, Pennsylvania, a fully functional retro-style city of the future with hover cars, subservient cyborgs, and ostentatious architecture. (In one of the game’s darker bits, a filmstrip reveals a naturalized Nazi scientist handled the technological advances.) The dazzlingly rendered surroundings make exploration tempting, but very few of the creative backdrops are interactive. Stubbs can smash a few walls, but he can’t make a dent in countless other tantalizing breakables. In a puzzling missed opportunity for a game that incorporates toxic flatulence as a weapon, Stubbs can’t even do anything amusing with the several toilets he encounters.
The first hour of play feels frustratingly formless. A ride in the ambiguously named Sod-O-Mobile provides a quick jolt, but without a map or clear objectives, Stubbs ambles aimlessly. He learns several skills, such as how to detach his hand and have it maneuver through tight spots, or how to whistle for undead reinforcements, but they’re only useful in specific situations and thus do little to alleviate the initial tedium. Biting into brains provides some vicarious thrills, due to the resultant scarlet fountain and the victims’ exclamations (“Stop killing me!”, “Not the face!”), but after the hundredth vanquished sap, players might ask, like ‘50s siren Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”
Stubbs shows signs of life in the mall, a mandatory setting for zombie happenings in a post-Dawn of the Dead world. Mercifully, the game’s creators fail to riff on the consumers-as-brainwashed-army theme that Dawn director George Romero drove into the ground, then revived and hammered down again. Instead, the shopping center presents plenty of goofy public-address ads (a gaily-voiced spot for Fairy Godmother formalwear, a lingerie ad that spoofs the ‘50s prudish mores, a rave about bacon being “nature’s wonder meat”) and genre-appropriate sight gags (Eye Robot vision center).
The Stubbs soundtrack, on which twelve modern acts remake jukebox chestnuts, comes into play for the first time (with the exception of the start-up screen) during a dance contest that begins with a two-note tribute to “Thriller”. While the game itself uses the Halo engine, this section swipes its memory-flash methodology from the ‘80s handheld toy Simon. The sequences become quite difficult, especially when the beats shift to double-time, but it is possible to bail out without consequences. With its grafted-on rhythms, the dance-contest remix version of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Earth Angel” actually outshines the album version.
In another smart music-driven moment, Ben Kweller’s eerily vacant reading of “Lollipop” spins in a diner while Stubbs devours its unsuspecting inhabitants. It’s a cinematic scene reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s oft-duplicated tactic of pairing incongruously upbeat tunes with horrific violence. Soundtrack contributions from Cake and Flaming Lips aren’t incorporated into the gameplay, which seems odd given that large stretches of near-silence call out for some sort of accompaniment.
Then again, perhaps the game’s creators figured that stuffing a dozen tunes into such a short span would feel absurd, much like Cameron Crowe’s fifteen-CDs-on-a-45-minute-roadtrip exercise in excess Elizabethtown. Experienced players can finish Stubbs in six hours or less, which is pretty damning, given the redundancy of the opening stages. Because of the lack of diversions, notably minigames, Stubbs offers little to prompt a repeat voyage. The game might raise the dead, but it won’t experience a life-after-completion of its own.