The Undead Go Underground

Zombies are the underdog of the horror genre. Lindsay Gibb walks with the living dead to see how they are the epitome of independent culture. 

When we think of zombies, we think of mindless conformity. We think: flesh-eating cadavers roaming endlessly in pursuit of a way to quench their hunger. We don’t think: zombie — darling of indie culture, unearthed from underground to save the underground.

Zombies mindlessly follow the crowd consuming for the sake of consumption. But they’ve also become ubiquitous figures in zine/DIY culture. You can have your portrait painted in the form of a zombie, join a zombie walk through a major city, purchase a guide on how to survive a zombie attack, and be bitten electronically by a zombie on Facebook.

So how did an underground community of fringe artists come to adopt the ultimate drone as their symbol?

In some ways, it makes sense: zombies are underdogs, perpetually dragging their decaying flesh around a blighted world in search of much faster, smarter prey. All zombies have going for them are their fellow zombies–who are also their competition. So zombies are more like indie artists then we might first realize. As well, on a metaphorical level zombies represent a leveling out of society. Were zombies to really infest the world all hierarchies and class systems would cease to exist. To immerse yourself in all things zombie is to enter a world where it’s every (undead) person for him or her self. It’s anarchism, unfettered capitalism, and even a bit of socialism all wrapped up in one giant apocalyptic experiment. No wonder the ever expanding ranks of the indie artist have sought out the sweet, terrible, inevitable bite of the zombie.

Zombies roam the filmic landscape…

Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything — William Seabrook

The zombie is one of film’s most enduring monsters, but not one of the most endearing. Dracula’s romantic side can pull at the heart strings, the man within the Wolfman evokes sympathy, Frankenstein’s monster has a father (and a bride) who loves him, but the zombie is generally an irredeemable villain. With the small exception of FIDO (2006), where the zombie is tamed and falls in love with the housewife, and Day of the Dead (1985), where a scientist trains a zombie to behave and grows to love him like a son, zombies are usually untamed and threaten to take down society and wipe out humanity by doing nothing more than eating our flesh.

The living dead began stalking the screen in the 1930s. The independently produced White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, is known as the first zombie movie. But the zombie first made its way into the consciousness of the western world as early as 1889 in Harper’s Magazine. Lafcadio Hearn wrote about the Caribbean and the superstitions of the people of Haiti surrounding voodoo and the walking dead. In 1929 American journalist William Seabrook published the book The Magic Island about the time he had spent in Haiti and his own experiences with zombies. In his book he explains how voodoo could be used to reanimate a corpse, and the fear this possibility struck in the Haitian people. Legend had it that they would hire guards to watch over the graves of freshly dead family members, to make sure they didn’t rise again.

Seabrook continued to freak out the American public with his tales of zombie encounters, and it wasn’t long before the motion picture industry caught on to this fear and decided to try it out on the big screen. White Zombie–the tale of an American couple who encounter a voodoo sorcerer on their trip to Haiti–was a successful film, financially, but the industry decided this type of motion picture didn’t cater to the higher-income crowd, and chose not to get into the business of zombie filmmaking. Already the zombie was being relegated to lower-class status.

Zombie flicks are the more B-and-lower-grade films of horror history. This is not to say that there has never been a mainstream zombie movie, but they have been few and far between, and not many have been done well. Due to their B-movie status, they don’t get the respect of the public or critics. In David J. Skal’s book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror Skal manages to mention zombies on a total of about three pages of a 400-page book dissecting the significance of horror in American society. Originally published in 1993, and updated in 2001, the book almost completely neglects the living dead except to mention White Zombie and the George Romero Dead films. While the world is by no means lacking for zombie films to speak of, Skal reflects mostly on serial killers and classic monsters such as Dracula, measuring their effect on American society and, on the flipside, North American culture’s imprint on horror films. But Skal does make one interesting point about zombies. Referring to the depression-era White Zombie, he quotes San Francisco reviewer Katherine Hill’s review: “Zombie’s don’t mind about overtime.” An important point I will return to.

Really, though, it’s no surprise that zombie movies get a bad rap. They’re the b-sides of the b-movie, after thoughts of after thoughts. Since White Zombie, the zombie movie has been largely characterized by such “classics” as Teenage Zombies (1957), I Eat Your Skin (1964), I Was A Teenage Zombie (1987), and Resident Evil (2002)–stinkers that make your average Frankenstein knock-off seem Oscar-ready. That said, some of the most progressive, classic, frightening and hilarious horror films feature zombies.

Bad Taste (1987) and The Evil Dead (1982) are two of the most humourous, ridiculous and gory films to come out of the horror genre. In these movies directors Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi paid homage to zombies by creating insane looking risen corpses and slaughtering them in all manners possible. Ash, the hero of the The Evil Dead series, is a true survivalist, who comes up against gruesome odds, but combats them with a killer attitude, and great one-liners. The zombies in Jackson’s Bad Taste are clearly low budget, but, as with The Evil Dead films, the ultimate triumph of the geek-ish hero is what endears us to these movies. The main element that impresses about these films, and that makes them a role model to indie filmmakers, is the fact that they were all done on a low budget. Focusing on the lead actors and what could be stretched out of the special effects department, it didn’t matter if the effects looked goofy, because they were used in a goofy manner. The energy in both these films outweighs and overshadows the lower production values. Jackson’s follow-up to Bad Taste, Braindead (aka Dead Alive) (1992), had a comparatively bigger budget and more ridiculous looking zombies, with even more over-the-top splatter deaths than you could imagine the crew being able to clean up. The Evil Dead has since been turned into a musical with the slapstick side of it really hammed up. The comedy aspect of it is played up more in the stage play, Evil Dead II (1987)–essentially a remake of the original with more laughs to accompany the gore–and the final follow up, Army of Darkness (1992). Films like these and the “zomedies” to follow are largely responsible for bringing the zombie into the mainstream.

The zomedy–the zombie comedy–seems to have truly stemmed from The Return of the Living Dead (1984), through to Shaun of the Dead (2004) and even Canadian indie flicks such as Graveyard Alive (2003). Return crossed the border between fright and foolishness with the story of a punk kid who ends up working at a medical supply company that is storing once-risen dead bodies in sealed canisters in the basement. Once he and his boss accidentally release the gas inside the canister that turns anything dead into zombies (and eventually kills anything that’s alive) they try to use what they learned from watching Night of the Living Dead to protect them from the zombies. One of the funniest moments is when they find that shooting a zombie in the head isn’t the answer to their problems. “You mean the movie lied?”

The ultimate horror/comedy crossover is 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. It reached more audiences than most zombie films do because of its blend of horror with comedy. While horror films remain a genre on the outskirts of mainstream culture, the comedy element of Shaun makes it palatable to a mainstream audience. The film parallels the behaviour of the zombies with the routine of the British middle class worker, and then makes an unlikely hero out of a lazy lay-about. What zomedies have done for the zombie genre is dig them out of the underground and introduced them to a whole new audience.

Even independent Canadian horror films have grabbed onto the zomedy formula. Graveyard Alive, an English language film out of Quebec, takes zombies and makes them likable through a sympathetic lead who goes from homely to über sexy after a zombie bite. Parodying both zombie films and 1950s soap operas, Graveyard Alive’s director Elza Kephart delivers a tongue in cheek horror that empowers the female lead zombie, something you don’t see much of in most zombie flicks.

Of course the ultimate zombie movie and perhaps one of the most important indie movies of all time is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Though well known today, the film was an underground, indie endeavor at the time of its creation. It gets a lot of credit to this day for being enlightened in its depiction of the African American male as the hero, but beyond that it is simply a great piece of filmmaking. Without resorting to mounds of gore, like most zombie films of the past thirty years, Night focused on the reaction of the people to their imminent death and possible extinction. The main characters in the film simultaneously panic, turn on each other and work together to try to survive the onslaught of flesh-eating corpses. But in the end, when the most clear thinking survivalist of the group manages to make it to the next morning, a group of rednecks rounding up the dead come in and shoot him leaving the shocked audiences to watch newsreel style shots of the body being lugged off of the property as the men clean up the zombie mess, none the wiser.

An evening with Night director George Romero was held at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto this past August in conjunction with the Festival of Fear. That night Romero talked about his zombie films. “I had to leave the world a mess,” he said of the end of Night. He felt that most horror films, and mainstream Hollywood films in general, create chaos only to restore order at the end, in order to achieve the typical, at least somewhat happy ending. But he didn’t want to restore order. To him the real zombies were the rednecks who came in and shot our hero. While a the iron fist of the Hollywood studios may have forced someone like Romero to tie it up in a neat package at the end, his independent status allowed him to do whatever he wanted. With Night, Romero successfully used the zombie to reflect society, something he would do again and again.

Zombies on a budget…

The zombie was always the blue collar monster. They were us. — George Romero

“Zombie’s don’t mind the overtime,” asserted Katherine Hill in her review of White Zombie. And most independent filmmakers who have attempted a zombie film would likely concur. For some reason people are unusually willing to work for free when it means they get the chance to be a zombie. And it’s imperative that they do, or these films wouldn’t get made. Ionas von Zezschwitz, creator and director of the indie zombie film Walking Among the Dead, says that, while working on his film, it was relatively easy to find people who were willing to be transformed into zombies for their use. “You see some kid walking down the street in a black trench coat and you say ‘hey do you wanna be a zombie’ and he’s like ‘fuck yea!'” says von Zezschwitz.

Stacey Case, director of Enter… The Zombie King, had a similarly simple time finding people who wanted to be turned into the undead. Filming outdoors in Ontario in November, his zombies were covered in blood that was freezing to their faces, but they didn’t seem to mind. Speaking of one of the bit players in his zombie vs. Mexican wrestler flick he says, “She plays like three different roles. She’s a stunt double here, she’s a zombie here, and she’s a ref for the zombies here. It’s because you’re working with such a small crew.”

But small doesn’t cut it when you’re making a zombie film. The fear comes in the numbers. Though the numbers don’t reach into the hundreds, a good 20 plus bodies are needed before the zombies start to make a scene. So it’s lucky that people are willing to give up some of their time in exchange for a ghastly makeover. “Literally anybody can be a zombie,” says Case and, in fact, it seems like literally anybody is willing to become a zombie for an hour or day as well. Romero has compared zombies to the blue collar working man, and Case agrees. “Who is going to become zombies first is basically like who goes to war first,” he says. “The poor people. The upper class will be in their penthouse apartments with their air purification systems and their own water untainted from the general population’s water supply and they’ll be able to stay safe.”

(Lucky for us at Broken Pencil as well. Our cover model gave us his face for free. And, incidentally, while he was getting his makeup done in the park, tourists stopped to have their picture taken with him.)

This desire to turn into a zombie can explain the popularity of Robert Sacchetto’s zombie portraits (our product of the issue on page __). Sacchetto is an illustrator who paints realistic pictures of people, but with oozing brains and decaying flesh. Based on photographs that his clients send in, the portrait comes out looking like the subject of the photo, but with a few gory embellishments. Sacchetto thinks it’s because a person’s physical characteristics stay intact when they are turned into the living dead that they are more enthusiastic about becoming a zombies than they would be about being a vampire or a wolfman, for instance. “I think it really brings a horror fan closer to that state of actually seeing yourself as you’d appear in a movie or book about zombies. It’s very personal and individualistic,” he says.

The willingness of people to be turned into zombies is nowhere seen more prominently, or on a larger scale, than at zombie walks. Zombie walks are typically word-of-mouth, underground events, planned by a small group and attended by those who want to become a zombie for a day.

Originating in Toronto in 2003 as an event to coincide with Hallowe’en, the walks typically have no particular purpose or cause. Rather, they’re usually held just for the fun of dressing up like a zombie. But dressing up is only half of the job. Once on route, wannabe zombies lumber through the streets, moaning, drooling and dragging their feet at varying paces. Some call out for brains, some stare blankly at passers by, some have even been known to break into the graveyard dance from the Thriller video. The point of a zombie walk is to not necessarily to make a point, it’s to gather together and do as the zombies do. “It rules to see hundreds of people you have never met put effort into a costume and makeup, and get into the character of a zombie for a couple of hours,” says Ottawa zombie walk organizer Allie Hanlon. “It shows that there are lots of people, even in Ottawa, which can seem desolate at times, that have a sense of humour and are up for having a good time.”

The zombie walks are spreading and the numbers at each subsequent walk are growing. Zombiewalk.com houses multiple message boards for walks in different cities from Tucson to Melbourne to Stockholm to the Yukon Territories. The message boards include tips on dressing up as a zombie, tips on how to set up your own zombie walk, forums for chatting about zombie films and an exhausting pile more. Recently there was a call put out on the LA message board for any potential zombies to report to a filming of CSI:NY for an episode that is meant to revolve around zombie walks. In October 2006 a group of over 800 people got together in the Monroeville Mall in Pittsburg, the very mall used in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, in an attempt to set a world record for the largest number of people participating in a zombie walk.

Things like the zombie walks, zombie portraits and the spread of the zombie application on Facebook (where you become a zombie, bite your friends and gain zombie points through battles) suggest that we not only embrace zombies, we think they’re so great that we want to be them. But, going in a costume shop around Hallowe’en, you won’t find this desire reflected in the costumes that are available. That’s why we do it ourselves, any way we can.

Zombies bring the Apocalypse…

If the apocalypse happens, it doesn’t have to be all-bad, here’s how you can make it work for you. And you’ll know when it’s happening because… zombies. If the apocalypse happens… you’ll be in the fuckin’ VIP section of eternity! Cause everyone up there is like “Hey, how’d you die?” and they’re like “bus accident”… How’d I die? In the fuckin’ apocalypse! Oh my God, it was awesome! — Patton Oswalt

If the zombies come, you’re toast, right? Not necessarily. According to The Zombie Survival Guide–a mainstream, tongue in cheek comedy book published by Random House and written by Mel Brook’s son Max Brooks–the rich and the poor have equal chance of surviving, depending on their preparedness. As much as this book is kept in the comedy section of the bookstore, the humour lies in how seriously Brooks looks at every aspect of a possible zombie outbreak. Were there to be an apocalypse lead by the rising of the dead, survival would be the only goal, while money and social status would cease to have meaning.

So while the end of the world as we know it seems pretty grim, there’s an up side too: the rise of the ultimate meritocracy. In St. Louis, zombies were the impetus for a group dedicated to preparing for disaster and the equality such a disaster might bring. Zombie Squad is a group of undead fanatics who got together in 2003 to discuss zombie flicks. The conversation moved from the best way to survive a zombie attack to planning for other natural disasters. “Zombie Squad believes that if you’re ready for the downfall of society caused by the flesh eating, risen corpses of your friends and neighbours, you’re ready for anything,” says Kyle Ladd, a founding member of the group. “Of course if the dead do ever rise… we’ll be ready.” The Squad uses the knowledge zombie movies have taught them for disaster preparedness. And together with its other chapters in the New York/New Jersey area and Southern Ontario, they put together events such as Disaster Awareness Fairs and Blood Drives.

Scott McGovern, Technical & Programming Coordinator for Ed Video in Guelph, a media art education centre that gave lessons in zombie filmmaking to children this past spring, thinks that zombies symbolize a longing for the end of the way of the world as we know it. “Zombies are a metaphor for a shift in our consciousness,” says McGovern. “Maybe people feel that there is a possibility that the world could end. Like we used to think that the world would go on forever, why wouldn’t it? But now it may seem like there is a chance that humans won’t go on forever or that there is a chance of an apocalypse.” McGovern theorizes that the many people attracted to the notion of the zombie might have what he calls “the romance of the apocalypse”. His theory is that people may be longing for a change that will level the playing field. That people are tired of the way the world works and that something like an apocalypse, or zombies taking over, would be a definitive, drastic, but in some way welcome change.

Along the same vein, McGovern says zombies are a way to escape from the rules of morality. “I think zombies symbolize a base desire in mankind,” says zombie portrait artist Sacchetto. “The ability to destroy one another with impunity. It’s okay to shoot the neighbour because he’s already dead. He wants my brain, so I’m gonna crown him with a shovel… plus he always mowed his lawn at 7 AM.”

This explains why indie artists, especially filmmakers, harness the idea of the zombie as a metaphor for a decaying society. The undead are not just cheap labour, they’re also a way for filmmakers to voice their frustrations about the world around them without simply ranting on about the Bush administration. Romero continues to make zombie films to this day (his latest, Diary of the Dead, screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival) because it’s the kind of political satire he can get funding for. While Dawn of the Dead (1978) took a jab at consumer culture by setting the survivors up in a mall that takes their minds off of the horrors outside–through retail therapy–until boredom and a biker gang set in, Diary of the Dead (2007) is Romero’s reaction to our media saturation today, it parallels war reporting as it’s told through students documenting the outbreak blow by blow from the trenches. Without the zombies to add entertainment value, these messages could otherwise come off as pontification.

While it’s unlikely that the dead will be rising to finish off society any time soon, zombies will continue to be a tool of the underground. Zombies are easy to create, fun to play with, and fraught with meaning as they reflect the living world through their dead eyes.

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