You Can’t Keep a Good Zombie Down
A Look at the Zombie Genre
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando looks at the undead and hooks up with some reanimated corpses at a zombie walk and speaks with author Glenn Kay about his new book on zombies.
With Halloween right around the corner, I wanted to highlight a horror sub-genre that I'm particularly fond of - the zombie film. Those lumbering, vacant-eyed undead have become a horror staple since the 1930s, and they seem to be gaining popularity with recent films such as "Shaun of the Dead." So this Halloween I have suggestions for some undead titles you can check out. I've also consulted with author Glenn Kay who just wrote "Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide." To put me in the proper mood for all this, I headed over to the World Zombie Walk on Sunday in downtown San Diego and met up with some of the undead hordes.
Pani Musquiz stands with a sign that reads "Romero for Prez '08," and yells to his undead cohorts to gather round.
I'm down in the Gaslamp Quarter with Musquiz and the World Zombie Walk. I'm trying to find some undead willing to talk about zombies, and tell me what makes them so endearing?
Niki Ferris explains, "Everyone loves zombies, whether or not you know it. Everyone loves a good gory horror flick, seeing people getting eaten alive. I think just the thrill of knowing that it's possible is what makes them endearing. We're all really afraid of them by the way."
Jennifer Musquiz is one of the organizers of the San Diego Zombie walk. She says, "This is in celebration of World Zombie Day and there's over 50 zombie walk groups around the world right now who today and yesterday are doing Zombie Walks to promote World Zombie Day and to bring attention to world hunger and benefit their local food banks."
Hmmm? Zombies walking for a cause? Are they really the right demographic for this kind of consciousness raising?
Musquiz says yes. "Zombies have big hearts we may not have brains but they have big hearts."
One of the other zombies in the crowd steps forward. Angelica Aguilar gives me a rundown of what the undead will be doing: "We usually start by this trolley station here by the Gaslamp and we just shamble moaning, dragging our feet up to Horton Plaza. Sometimes we have fake victims. So we'll have someone just walking around and in their normal clothes and they'll have some sort of marker on them like a red X on their shirt or something and we'll all attack them. They'll scream and we'll spray them with blood and then they join us as an undead."
Turning back to movies, Pani Musquiz explains what he sees as the attraction zombies hold for fans: "Zombies are an open slate for the fears of people in the United States. You can put anything onto them, like in the 50s, zombies were caused by nuclear radiation; 60s, 70s and 80s, it was pollution; and nowadays with a lot of movies it's with disease. So it's just an open slate for fears of society."
"I love that they seem like such a simple creature," adds Angelica Aguila. "They are just mindless things that want to go eat flesh but you can do so much with them, George Romero especially has these great social commentaries using zombies and his movies have so much depth to them about socio-political events, and socio-economic events it's amazing that he can do that just using zombies. And I love that about them."
Her undead friend Alyssa Kovacs chimes in, "I love the way they walk, the way they act, just the fact that they walk so slow but always catch up with you, and always get you."
As the undead masses gather on the street, Jennifer Musquiz lays out the guidelines: "Please walk slow this is not 28 Days Later, they are not zombies. It is true, 28 Days Later is not a zombie movie, it is a farce of a zombie movie so we walk slow, we are actual zombies. Again, no accosting people, don't reach over the barriers, otherwise have fun."
Well how could you not have fun hanging out with a bunch of reanimated corpses? I don't know what it is about those lumbering, flesh-eating bumpkins that I find so endearing but from White Zombie to Zombie Strippers I love them all. The recent "Shaun of the Dead" touches on some of their appeal when one of the characters tries to instruct the others on how to act like a zombie.
Diane: "Okay let's all shake out, nice and limber. Now take another look at the way he moves, very limp, almost like sleepwalking. Look at the face, it's vacant with the hint of sadness, like a drunk who lost a bet."
Ah yes that hint of sadness. Zombies are like a faded memory of what it's like to be human; they used to be us and sometimes we sense they are trying to be like us again as when the zombies make a pilgrimage back to the shopping mall in George A. Romero's 1978 "Dawn of the Dead."
In that sequel, the characters hole up in a shopping mall. One of them looks out at the undead milling about the mall and notes, "They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here." When he's pressed for an explanation of what these creatures are, he can only offer this: "You know Macumba? Voodoo? Granddad was a priest in Trinidad, he used to tell us when there's no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth."
I love the elegant simplicity of that explanation. Nothing else is needed. Plus the reference to voodoo is also appropriate says author Glenn Kay. Kay recently completed "Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide."
"Initially it came from Haitian folklore," says Kay, "and the zombies were mindless, soulless, slow moving corpses raised from the dead through the bidding of a voodoo master. "White Zombie," in 1932, was the first film to use the word zombie in the title and to feature characters referred to as zombies and adapt very loosely the Haitian zombie folklore."
Those zombie films from the 1930s gave us zombies that were controlled by others who had raised them from the dead or had transformed then into a kind of undead state. Here's an exchange from the Bela Lugosi film, "Whire Zombie."
Man: "Why did you drive like that you fool we might have been killed?"
Driver: "Worse than that monsieur, we might have been caught."
Man: "Caught? By whom? The men you spoke to?"
Driver: "They are not men, monsieur, they are dead bodies."
Driver: "Yes monsieur, zombies, the living dead, corpses taken from their grave who are made to work in sugar mills and fields at night."
These early voodoo influenced zombie films had an exotic flavor and a creepy atmosphere. Classics from the 30s and 40s include "The Walking Dead" and "I Walked with a Zombie."
More recent films also returned to this voodoo theme says Glenn Kay, "I really liked a film from the 80s called 'The Serpent and the Rainbow,' which I thought did a really good job right up till last five minutes of spinning the whole Haitian zombie culture and doing a very realistic job of just basically showing that these were just drugs that brought on a lethargic, kind of comatose state and often hallucinations and that's all it really."
And because drugs are shown as the basis for inducing a zombie-like state a big American corporation is interested in getting them. So they ask Bill Pullman's character, "What do you know about zombification?" To which he gives the only sane answer, "Just what I've seen on the late show."
"The success of the zombie," says author Kay, "is that it's kind of a personality free creature and it's really adaptable. So you'll see all through the history of zombie films that they are used for an analogy for bigger ideas. I mean going back to the 50s, there are a lot of movies about dead people controlled by space men who want to take over the world and there's a real strong link to the Cold War and communism. And yeah the recent films that deal with viruses... I actually talked to a crew member from the 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later and he told me that all they did was they took a zombie and took merged it with an Ebola virus."
The mention of "28 Days Later" brings up a contentious point for true zombie fans -infected people. A true zombie is a lethargic undead creature that feeds on human flesh. The creatures in "28 Days Later" are not really undead zombies but rather people plagued with a virus.
In "28 Days Later," Selena explains, "It was a virus, an infection. You didn't need a doctor to tell you that. It was the blood, there was something in the blood. By the time they tried to evacuate the city it was already too late. The infection was everywhere. The army blockades were overrun and that's when the exodus started. The day before the TV and radio stopped broadcasting there were reports of infection in Paris and New York."
Glenn Kay elaborates on the infected person, "They are living humans infected with a virus but what I decided was if the zombie infection, what I called the zombie infection, was incurable and that it transformed its victims into the same kind of mindless soulless creatures seen in the zombies films of decades past then I would keep them."
Kay grants these infected people zombie status because the films tap into many of the zombie elements from the craving for human flesh to the socially conscious themes underlying the horror. That social consciousness is something that George A. Romero brought to the genre in 1968 with his seminal film "Night of the Living Dead."
Romero didn't invent zombies but he did create a lasting cinematic mythology for them says "Hostel" director Eli Roth in a "Making of..." feature for "Land of the Dead" : "George Romero created the zombie. He wrote the rules. Shoot it in the head. If it bites you, you get infected, the dead coming back to life. George made all that stuff up and people it is lore. That is fact."
In "Shaun of the Dead, a dignified British newscaster informs us that "The attackers can be stopped by removing the head or destroying the brain. I'll repeat that by removing the head or destroying the brain."
Zombies may be working on limited brain cells but not Romero. He has repeatedly delivered fun, cleverly conceived splatter fests with a message says author Glenn Kay, "His films definitely had a really strong social consciousness that and that was the problem with all the imitators, they missed that and that was a really important thing. Because the subtext is what's so fascinating in Romero's movies and that's why they are still popular is because you can go back and see them again and again and get more out of it than just a staggering zombie."
And that's why the recent "Shaun of the Dead" was so successful. Star and co-writer Simon Pegg says he and director Edgar Wright wanted to pay tribute to Romero's zombies. "It is close to George Romero's theme because our zombies are like his," Pegg says, "they're slow and they're allegorical and yeah we kind of wanted to keep that spirit that George Romero started off which is to be, which is to use them to as he did with 'Dawn of the Dead' with consumerism, and 'Day of the Dead' which I think was vivisection and stuff like that and use them as a metaphor."
"That's the thing, the zombies meant different things in different eras," adds Wright. "We always said our zombies are a metaphor for apathy it's kind of like the great plague is laziness, so it was like the zombies represent sloth." So when the characters in "Shaun of the Dead" are faced with a zombie invasion, what do they decide to do: "Have a sit down."
But you can also find mindless zombie flicks like "The Return of the Living Dead." The innovation here was that the zombies only wanted to feast on human brains.
"The big brains movie is 'Return of the Living Dead,'" says Kay, "and that is more of a satire as well and it's people just people taking the zombie and deciding we're going to do something different so our zombies are going to specialize in eating brains.
In that film, one of the undead is captured and forced to explain why they want to eat the living (unlike most zombies these can talk). The zombie insists that she doesn't want to eat people, "just brains...: [because] it makes the pain go away."
Kay places "Return of the Living Dead" on his top ten of zombie films but it comes after "Dawn of the Dead," "Night of the Living Dead," "Shaun of the Dead" and the oft overlooked "Day of the Dead."
"It's a bleak movie," says Kay. "It's the third in the Romero series, it follows 'Dawn' and it came out in 1985. And again it's a really claustrophobic setting and it creates a really paranoid, claustrophobic vibe. But it features some great villains. As far as zombie characters there's a character called Bub in it who's very important he's one of the most famous and sympathetic zombies, he's actually quite sweet.
In "Day of the Dead," one of the doctors performs experiments on the zombies. He tries to domesticate one and explains to the others: "I call him Bub. That's what the club fellows used to call my father. Bub's been responding so well lately I've decided to let him live. Well is he alive or dead? That's the question these days isn't it. Well let's say that I continue to let him exist. Hello Bub. Here are some toys for you. Some nice things for you to play with, you remember them from before, from before."
And Bub may represent the next stage of zombie evolution -the trainable zombie. Romero touched on this in "Land of the Dead" as well. In that film the zombies started to pick up the vestiges of their old lives. One zombie in a gas station attendant's uniform passes by a gas station and a vague memory of the place seems to distract him, which prompts this exchange between two human characters:
Man: "They're trying to be us"
Riley: "No they used to be us, learning how to be us again."
Man: "I don't know how those things got up and walking but there's a big difference between us and them. They're dead"
So who knows where the zombie film will take us next. "Yeah it just depends on whatever our next big fear is," says Glenn Kay, "who knows there might be Wall Street Zombies in the next few months or it just depends what happens to scare people at a particular point in history."
The good news is that zombie master George A. Romero is already shooting his next zombie film and Kay served as an extra on the set.
"He's shooting a new movie up in Canada," says Kay, "it doesn't have an official title yet but everybody there is calling it 'Blank of the Dead.'"
Oh the possibilities!