The Zombie Zeitgeist 

On the stump since 1968

Monday, Oct 30 2006

You know the drill: You wake up, and it’s The Day. Outside, the neighbor’s car is on fire; a truck careens through pedestrians into a wall and explodes; smoke rises in the distance; your bloody, disheveled daughter is eating the mailman’s leg; and the inexorable zombie horde shuffles ever forward. So begins the rest of your (likely short) life.

Since 1968, when George Romero first caused a Variety reviewer to question the very future of a film industry that could produce Night of the Living Dead, a sanguinary rising tide of zombie culture has engulfed the land. In addition to the burgeoning film catalog, there are zombie books, zombie comics, zombie conventions, Rob Zombie Inc., and, of course, a Simpsons episode in which Bart informs Lisa that the zombies prefer to be called “living impaired.” There is even a growing movement of participatory fan-fueled performance-art “zombie walks” — BYOB (Bring Your Own Brains!) — where people don elaborately shredded clothing, powder themselves into a pall with makeup, add lots of blood, and spontaneously shamble together in public places. Just last month, the first such event in Los Angeles attracted an army of 200 undead, gleefully alarming tourists on Hollywood Boulevard.

The full-scale movement has been on the lurch since movies like 28 Days Later (2002) took zombies mainstream for the first time, and was followed by near-simultaneous appearance of the Dawn of the Dead remake and the homage-comedy Shaun of the Dead. That paved the way for George Romero’s first big studio release, Land of the Dead, a roaring comeback that garnered a standing ovation when his entrail-devouring cannibals finally debuted at Cannes in 2005. In the same year, a dozen zombie flicks made it to theaters, along with many more for the video market. Titles included: Dorm of the Dead, Grindhouse, Last Rites of the Dead, Special Dead, Zombie University: Endgame and, of course, Love in the Key of Z. Mel Brooks’ son, Max, is currently touring with his book, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a “Studs Terkel approach” to zombie conflict that Brad Pitt’s Plan B films is working on turning into a movie. I also hear that there’s a 28 Weeks Later in the works. Hell, a friend of mine was off in the New Mexico desert this summer filming his own zombie-comedy-Western — Wanted: Undead or Alive.

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The zombie Zeitgeist has also infected video games, where walking corpses can finally be exploded and dismembered on demand in the comfort of your own home. Zombies Ate My Neighbors for the Sega Genesis was an early, but still pixelated, nod to Romero. Capcom’s Resident Evil turned sci-fi zombies into a successful video-game franchise, and then licensed itself back into movies. Even Half Life and Halo amp up the action with zombie throngs. Capcom’s latest effort, Dead Rising, is a return to the plot purity of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead: us versus them in a shopping mall. Dead Rising also finally puts to good use the Xbox 360’s next-generation processing power by rendering onscreen the inescapable dread posed by thousands of undead slowly trapping survivors inside the darkened mall.

It’s a winning combination. Dead Rising was widely anticipated when previews appeared at E3, the video-game industry’s annual trade show in L.A., and it has been flying off the shelves since arriving in early fall. An effectively bloody and addictive romp where “anything and everything is a weapon,” the game is a macabre playground of zombie carnage. Yet, it’s the limitations that give the game its juice. Instead of sci-fi backdrops and gnarly futuristic hardware, the combat is mostly low tech, even hand to hand, always in close quarters. Fighting tooth and nail with everyday objects to keep yourself and fellow survivors alive calibrates the action to an instinctive, primal effect. And thereby recalls the visceral, claustrophobic anxiety of Romero-inspired cinematic nightmares, making Dead Rising the first video game to embrace the full potential of the Zombie Idea.

That idea dates to first hints of human civilization. In the irrigated marshes of the fertile crescent, the Sumerians charted the heavens, erected stepped pyramids, and pressed their styluses into clay to record the Epic of Gilgamesh, a collection of myths that includes Ishtar threatening to knock down the Gates of the Netherworld and “let the dead go up to eat the living!” Every culture since has registered the same basic fear, from medieval Europe’s revenants to Haiti’s trodotoxinated nzambi,from which the word zombie originated.

But it’s the lurid scenario of an infectious zombie pandemic that gives the modern genre its unique frisson. In 1954, Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend told the story of a sole survivor in apocalyptic Los Angeles (where else?) who fights off bacterially infected undead bloodsuckers at night while barricaded with limited supplies in his home. The perverse thrill in falling one rung on the food chain combined with the genuine fear of constantly being hunted by undead was a fundamentally terrifying concept that Romero and his followers have been building on ever since.

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