The news this week that British scientists are developing a synthetic alcohol substitute that gets you drunk without a pesky hangover comes with an obvious upside: No more hangovers! But also an obvious social crisis: No more movies based on hilarious hangovers! You may recall Very Bad Things, the 1998 movie about a bunch of dudes in Vegas who wake up to massive hangovers — and a dead body. Or last year’s The Hangover, about a bunch of dudes in Vegas who wake up to massive hangovers — and an infant. Or even Dude, Where’s My Car?, in which two dudes wake up to massive hangovers — and a missing car. Without the hangover, these would just be guys who clearheadedly have to deal with dead bodies, infants, and missing cars, and where’s the humor in that?
But don’t panic, lovers of cinematic pounding headaches! Pop culture has shown no inclination to discard obsolete tropes simply because they are obsolete. Instead, these chestnuts live on as zombie tropes — circumstances and/or complications that have long since expired in real life yet live on, undead (and often illogically), in the movies.
Consider everyone’s favorite zombie-trope sound effect: The movie-trailer record scratch. This irksome effect still universally signals a sudden (and usually comic) reversal, even though moviegoers born after 1990 have no idea to what the sound actually is: Is that a jammed hard drive? A stalled Segway? A burping Roboduck? (For the definitive record-scratch-trailer parody, check out this unearthed gem from Modern Humorist.)
And even in a world of ever-advancing technology — brrrzzzzzzippp! — other lingering offenders persist. For example:
The answering machine with a speaker. Our hero comes home, hits the play button, sorts through his mail, pours a glass of wine, then suddenly hears — as we do — his wife’s lover/murderer/best friend/neighborly serial killer leaving an incriminating message of some sort! For anyone to hear! Including us, the audience! Top that, voice mail!
The giant, floppy X-Ray. If you have been to a doctor recently — at least one who doesn’t operate out of a trailer on cement blocks — there’s a very good chance your X-Rays were displayed to you as a digital image, on a screen. But if you’ve seen a doctor in a movie or on TV recently, there’s a very good chance that he or she was still sliding the X-Ray film dramatically out of a manila folder, then hanging it in front of a light board with a loud snap. Because it just feels so much more doctor-y.
Automatic windows. Any time a character needs someone to roll down a window, they still make the crankety-crank motion, assumably because mime-pressing an imaginary automatic-window button is just way too hard to decipher.
Cell phones. So convenient in life, so inconvenient in movies in which people are in any kind of jeopardy from which they could easily extricate themselves with a single phone call. The magical failing cell phone is now such a trope of horror films that one enterprising fan cut together a delightful gag reel of “No signal” moments. (Damn you, sunspots!) Not to mention the fact that universal caller I.D. on these and all phones basically means no one ever has to take an inconvenient call ever again. Or draw out a conversation so the authorities can trace the call. Of course, cell phones have their narrative advantages, too, as ably demonstrated in this excellent College Humor skit about 24 … in 1994. Which of course brings us to …
GPS. This is the new challenge for any lost and/or shipwrecked and/or stranded-in-the-wilderness story lines of the future. Whither the next Blair Witch Project? Or Lost? Or Snowbound: The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story, in which Neil Patrick Harris and his wife get totally abandoned in a national park in a snowstorm and end up with brutal frostbite? A simple iPhone would have saved them all! Assuming there were no sunspots.
Because we are old, we both (a) remember using answering machines and scratching records, and (b) have no doubt forgotten a whole bunch of other zombie tropes. What other clichés live on in movies and TV, if not in life?