Tuesday, November 16, 2010

And thus, a zombie.

Now that November has pretty much gotten away from me -- a joint effort made by both my day job and the excruciating demands of NaNoWriMo -- and the holidays are nearly upon us, I think it's about time we got back to business.

So let's talk about zombies.  Or, rather, zombie walks.

If there was ever a way to really see what, exactly, epitomizes a zombie in our modern culture, it would have to be the zombie walk.  There, one can see zombies of all types, from the blue ones to the bloody ones, the vocal ones to the brain-mantra'd ones, the ones with poor motor control to the ones who run marathons.  Every kind of zombie seen in movies, books, and games (at least, the ones released post-Romero) is there, and in fine form.

The first zombie walk on record was held in Sacramento, California in August of 2001 -- thirty-three years after "Night of the Living Dead" hit the big screen, but shortly before zombies went up in popularity in the mid-2000s -- and was held as a means of promoting a midnight film festival (thanks, Wikipedia!).  Since then, other walks have emerged.  In 2003, Toronto held the first non-promotional zombie walk.  Although that walk only had six participants, including the organizers, the event is now annual and attracts upward of six thousand zombies.  The Toronto walk received a great deal of publicity, and the non-promotional walk spread across Canada, into the United States, and overseas, and it, of course, grew exponentially each year.  Now there are zombie pub-crawls, proms, and beach parties (because even zombies have the right to a great tan).

I've never actually participated in a zombie walk, but I've been audience to a handful of them.  Of course, I never come prepared with a camera, but I'm lucky to have friends who do.  One such friend was with me for the Silver Spring Zombie Walk.  She took a few videos, which she posted on her blog, and a mess of pictures, which she didn't.  The clip in the linked post show just a few of the many, many zombies that showed up to stumble down the street, but even so there are a great many zombiaic interpretations -- just take a look!

Another friend of mine went to a walk in Florida and sent me over a hundred fabulous pictures.  There's definitely a different feel to this walk -- to begin with, it took place during the day! -- but the idea is still there.  Any kind of zombie you want to find, you'll find it at a zombie walk.

Want to find a Zombie Walk near you?  Check out the Crawl Calendar at CrawloftheDead.com!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What to watch.

One of my favorite things about October is that it's one of the few times of year where zombie movies and TV shows actually air.  If you have Comcast, check out their free movie On Demand, where they're showing classics like "White Zombie" and "King of the Zombies" as well as more modern flicks like the 1990-version of "Night of the Living Dead", "Night of the Creeps" (1986), and -- my current favorite -- "Zombie Strippers" (2008).  (Hey, don't knock it 'til you've seen it.)

TV-wise, IFC is showing its 5-part mini-series "Dead Set" (2008) at midnight for five consecutive nights starting Monday, October 25.  If you haven't heard of it before, "Dead Set" takes place on the UK's "Big Brother" set... and involves zombies.  (Honestly, that's really all I know about it at this point.  I'll be eagerly tuning in!)  And, to top things off, AMC is premiering "The Walking Dead" on October 31 at 10 o'clock, EST.

I highly recommend "The Walking Dead", for what it's worth.  It's based off the comic series by the same name, which was created by Robert Kirkman and began circulation in 2003.  The comic is fabulous, and, going solely off the AMC trailer and the promo photos, the show looks like it's going to follow suit.  So watch it, record it, do what you must: I'll very likely be talking about it in the first week of November, and what fun are those rants going to be if no one else has seen it?

Finally, if you're local to Baltimore, check out the Charm City Roller Girls this Saturday, October 23, if only because they have a fabulous Roller Zombie poster.  It's not really my scene, but, y'know, zombies.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Point B and beyond.

So let's define the modern zombie.*

When George Romero unleashed his 1968 movie "Night of the Living Dead" upon an unsuspecting populace, he not only redefined the role of the undead in film but also pieced together an entirely new monster.  These ghouls were terrifying, but not for traditional reasons.  They weren't clever or manipulative, strong or individually overpowering, and they weren't even particularly bizarre or horrifying in appearance.  No: they frightened audiences because they were essentially uninhibited, monstrous versions of ourselves.  Romero's monster forced us to consider what lies within, and to face what we are each capable of -- even if we're still in full control of our mental capacities.  And that too was new to the horror genre: the idea that the threat was no longer external, but internal: everyone was capable of becoming a monster.  After all, just as terrifying as the horde outside the ramshackle farmhouse are the individuals within, whether by means of reanimation (i.e., the zombies and -- spoiler alert! -- Karen) or sheer attitude (Harry Cooper).

Virtually all zombies in pop culture today are based off this singular model, the so-called Romero zombie, but the movies that followed "Night of the Living Dead" further characterized the monster.  In 1985, "Return of the Living Dead" introduced semi-vocal zombies who fed specifically on brains -- an idea further enforced by "Night of the Creeps" (1986), "Corpses are Forever" (2003), and a handful of other movies and games made since.  "Braindead" (1992) and "28 Days Later" (2002) left us to speculate as zombie-ism as a virus, and the Resident Evil franchise haunted us with the Umbrella Corporation, who intentionally doomed the human race to live as walking mutations and undead nightmares.

Forty-two years after Romero's shuffling, blank-stared zombies made their film debut, today's zombies can run, multiply via any number of means, and, on occasion, think and communicate.  Today's zombie doesn't necessarily have to be undead** or even human.  The basics are still there, but we're still left with a wide variety of monster.  This variety is maybe most evident not in movies, books, or video games, but in man-made scenarios, like zombie Walks and and LARPs (more to come on both of these).  There, the zombies can shuffle, run, moan, speak, use simple tools, slap helplessly against closed doors...  Participants can pick and choose from any number of zombie features and characteristics, with very few limitations.  Even though there is such a wide variety, there is little doubt that these monsters are still zombies.  Thus, they must have something in common, some binding feature that labels and appropriately categorizes them.  But what is it?

I'll give you a hint: the answer is obvious.

In every movie, book, and video game I've ever seen, read, or played, the zombies consistently pursue and feast on living human flesh.  While other movie monsters may feed on humans, their techniques are different.  Dracula and his vampire kin seduce their victims and specifically go for blood.  Likewise, a Hannibal Lecter-esque villain, also in pursuit of human flesh, is more likely to exhibit charming, off-putting behavior and continue his or her meal over polite dinner conversation.  Not zombies.  When they feast, they're animalistic about it.  I've yet to see a zombie handle a knife and fork (at least, not in the way such utensils are intended) and I'd be very surprised if they knew how to use napkins.  Their table manners are atrocious.  Zombies rip into flesh using whatever they have available -- most commonly their teeth or bare hands -- and eat it, raw, with an apparently insatiable hunger. That is what defines the modern zombie: the undeniable need to feed.

That alone, however, does not explain our fascination with these monsters.  After all, if zombies are just the same as wild animals but with human faces, what's the point?  What makes them interesting, and what draws people to them?  Why do zombies continue to show up on the big screen and between pages?  Their hunger alone is nothing.  No, there's something more there.

And that's where we join the fray.

*I feel a little as though I'm writing a thesis paper.  I only wish my actual thesis paper was nearly as interesting.  (Fact: it was not.)
**Controversy arises in movies where the monsters are not actually undead -- see "28 Days Later" -- but since the principle is the same and because zombies in the traditional sense were in fact living, breathing human beings, I'm going to let it go for now.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From Haiti to Hollywood.

Let's start off easy (haha).  What, exactly, is a zombie?

Zom·bie (zŏm'bē)
  1. A snake god of voodoo cults in West Africa, Haiti, and the southern United States.
  2. Spirit of the dead; a ghost.
  3. (a) A supernatural power or spell that according to voodoo belief can enter into and reanimate a corpse. (b) A corpse revived in this way.

The entire concept of zombie-ism comes from Haitian folklore -- or, rather, from the Voodoo culture.  By administering a powder called coup padre, which contained tetrodoxin, malevolent priests could raise the dead from their graves.  In actuality, the toxin created an artificial coma, lowered the subject's pulse and body temperature, and subdued the subject's breathing patterns.  Since there was no way of screening for the toxin, the subject would be mistaken for dead and buried.  The subject would later be exhumed by the priest, and, though physically whole, would have little to no memory.  The subject, working under a comatose trance, would be used as a slave.  So, in the original sense of the word, zombies were only thought of as the living dead, and they certainly didn't exhibit the violent, cannibalistic nature of the modern pop-culture zombie.

So how did we get from Point A to Point B?

It's interesting to note that the early zombie films -- little-known flicks like White Zombie (1932) and Zombies on Broadway (1945) -- followed the Haitian model.  Though some elements changed -- the priest might become a sorcerer or Haiti might become New York City -- the big things stayed the same.  Sometimes the zombies were used for horrific purposes, sometimes for humorous (check out the passing reference in Scared Stiff (1953), wherein the only zombie acts rather like a stoned college student), but the zombies were usually people under hypnosis or a heavy trance, and they were always controlled by a master of some sort.  There were, of course, some exceptions.  Most notably, Things to Come (1936) references a sickness that spreads upon contact, leaving the victim listless, slow, and insensible.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, zombies became a little more menacing.  Movies like Plague of the Zombies (1965) [note: this is not the first movie to do this, but it's the only one of this era I've actually seen!] created a creature -- typically still under another person's control -- that actually needed to consume human flesh in order to survive as the undead.  Toxins and hypnosis disappeared; suddenly, zombies were being reanimated via supernatural means -- or by science or by aliens -- and they were terrifying creatures.

Enter George Romero.

When he created Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero drew inspiration from all kinds of sources, including the vampire novel I Am Legend, and in the process he created the modern zombie -- an entirely new monster, by Hollywood standards.  These creatures are obviously undead and they are hell-bent on consuming living flesh, for apparently no reason other than insatiable hunger.  There is no definitive cause for the undead uprising (there is a vague mention of a crashed spacecraft and lingering radiation, but nothing is ever truly determined), and there is certainly no overlord controlling their actions.  The zombies here, much like in Things to Come, spread the plague on contact (in this case, via fluid transfer -- most notably, biting), and conquer their prey with sheer numbers.  They have to come in large numbers: these zombies are frail and slow, and would be easy to pick off individually.  That is, they would be... if they didn't look like our friends, family, and neighbors.

Still, all this only covers the evolution of the zombie, and our initial definition only touches on the traditional voodoo zombie.  This leaves us with an obvious question: How do we define the modern zombie?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Behold a pale horse.

I talk about zombies.  A lot.  Or, anyway, enough so that friends have encouraged me to start this blog (perhaps so I'll stop talking about zombies to them!).

I'm going to figure this out as I go.  I'll throw together movie and book reviews for everything from the obscure to the not-so-much.  Maybe I'll flesh out a hypothetical or two, or complain about common zombie clichés.  And if I'm lucky, maybe I'll make myself think about zombies So Much that I'll finally write that novel (or six) I've been talking about (because that's just what the world needs: one more poorly-written book about zombies).

So here goes.