Zombies are awesome.
From Romero and Resident Evil to 28 Days Later, you can’t beat a good zombie story. They’re a staple of the horror genre across all media, and they’re about as iconic as elves are for fantasy, or Greys for sci-fi. They work as a cheap scare or social commentary.
They’re surprisingly versatile, for ambulant lumps of rotting meat.
However, any true zombie aficionado knows that the zombies are never the point of a good zombie movie. The point of a good zombie movie is to explore how isolated peoples cope in the face of an omnipresent danger without the support of the societal and moral frameworks we build our lives within and around. The zombies themselves are kind of a means to an end – they could be replaced just as easily with, say, ambulatory 8′-tall flesh-eating plants.
Aha! Slowly and meanderingly, in true Romero zombie-esque fashion, it seems we’ve come to the tasty brain-meats of the article.
Because that’s what Day of The Triffids is, really: a zombie movie.
It ticks all the boxes: complete and indefinite societal collapse; small, isolated bands of survivors; constant, lurking, threat; the tightrope balancing-act of measuring old-world values against new-world pragmatism… it’s all there, folks. In fact, Wyndham’s sci-fi classic pre-dates the quintessential zombie flick, Night of The Living Dead, by almost 20 years.
When you bear that in mind, it’s surprising just how accomplished Wyndham’s novel is. Often the forerunner falters; though Poe’s Dupin established the detective story, it was Conan Doyle’s Holmes that codified it – but not so here. John Wyndham did zombie movies before zombie movies were a thing and – what’s more – did it well.
There are plenty of pitfalls in a story like this. Overplay the monster and it can quickly become camp, as so many of the cheesier zombie movies have shown. Day of The Triffids avoids this excellently – in fact, anyone familiar with the story only through cultural osmosis might be surprised at how rarely they appear. Let’s face it: triffids are not quick, and crafty as they can be, shouldn’t pose much of a threat to someone well-prepared. Nor do they; the protagonist, Bill Masen, quickly learns that incaution can kill, and for the most part is well-prepared against the lumbering plants on his cross-London trek. Wyndham has done a good job of making the sporadic triffid attacks impactful without feeling contrived, and they punctuate the constant tension of the novel well.
That’s important, because it ties into another thing stories like this must remain conscious of: the fact that they should be concerned not with terror, but with dread. These stories fail when they concern themselves with cheap scares and sudden shocks, and are much more effective when long periods of comparative peace allow that thread of constant fear to show through. In a story such as Day of The Triffids the simple fact of finding clean water and untainted food should be as much – if not moreso – a concern than lurking beasties.
That’s where Wyndham really shows his chops, and why I’d recommend reading The Day of The Triffids. I can’t think of any other book that communicates so vividly the claustrophobic isolation of feeling the world bear down upon you alone, nor the tragedy and frustration of watching people suffer, helpless to help in all but the most well-meaning and futile manner.
Day of The Triffids is a classic, and for good reason. If you haven’t read it, go read it now – whilst you still can.
The Charity-Shop Book Review aims to bring to your attention all those overlooked treasures that wash up on charity-shop bookshelves, and updates on the second Tuesday of every month. Follow @DaneCurel to make sure you aren’t missing out on any forgotten favourites.