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The Zombie Zeitgeist

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.

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.

Dead Rising takes up the torch by making the raw struggle for survival interactive. The protagonist, Frank West, is a photojournalist, airlifted into Willamette to cover a mysterious outbreak that’s causing the citizens to eat one another. Once Frank is dropped on the roof of the Willamette Mall, it’s on; the zombie bum rush is constantly prowling for Frank and any survivors he can save. Or document: Like Robert Forster’s cameraman from another politicized portrait of chaos born in 1968, Medium Cool, Frank is a detached war photographer, and a critical element of gameplay allows you to rack up points with your single-lens reflex, introducing a strange metaperspective where you can be torn between rescuing that poor woman and getting a well-composed shot of her gruesome demise.

Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Dead Rising juxtaposes the zombie multitudes with American shopping culture. In death as in life, consumption reigns. Using the “sandbox” style of gameplay pioneered by Grand Theft Auto, Dead Rising makes the metaphor meticulously explorable. Muzak still plays as you dodge hungry zombies to explore stores like Granma’s Fanfare and Ned’s Knicknackery for potential supplies and weapons. The food court is an important stop for sustenance. With every path blocked by undead, you have to grab what you can for defense, from planters to skateboards to bowling balls to the ever-favorite zombie killer, a chain saw from the hardware store. Learning how the improvised attack of each new item works is part of the dirty, feral fun. A showerhead planted in a zombie’s head sprays blood like a fountain. A scythe in the garden allows you to catch a zombie around the neck, put your foot on its chest, and yank its head off for an extra few style points. Capitalizing on zombies’ dim wits, you can plop a pail, orange traffic cone or stuffed-animal mask on their heads for comedic effect. Or take in a free shopping spree. I’ve had Frank run through zombie crowds in a summer dress, hot pants and crop top, and a tuxedo, all the while wearing that stuffed animal mask on his own head, alternately throwing pies in zombies’ faces or slashing them clean in two with a souvenir battle-ax. As with Dawn of the Dead, the wild bloodbath of Dead Rising is strategically leavened by camp, except that now, both are endlessly customizable.

Why is this so satisfying? As in zombie flicks, the violence works because it’s guilt free. Slaughtering the undead isn’t pathological; it feels more like God’s work. And in Dead Rising, that slaughter is wholesale. I haven’t played very long, and my zombie kill count, which racks up like pinball in the bottom-right corner, is already topping 3,000. And I haven’t even found the submachine gun yet. Or the .50 cal. Or the sniper rifle.

Oh, and there’s a plot too, I guess — as absurd as one expects from a video game. There’s Jessie, in a sexy peach business suit, and Brad, who looks and talks like Principal Blackman from Strangers With Candy, trying to find Dr. Barnaby and unlock the mystery. Standing in the way is Carlito, a villain who apparently moonlights with the Gipsy Kings, gallivanting amongst the zombies as he does with long, luxurious Latin-lover hair and a billowing white-collared shirt unbuttoned to his waist.

Whatever.

Besides being a ridiculous bore, Dead Rising’s story centers on discovering the mystery behind the zombie outbreak, a stinker by definition because, as true connoisseurs know, origins are irrelevant. As zombie culture widens and strays from its roots, a whole host of zombie provenances have been posited, including radiation, toxic chemicals, mutagenic gas and cosmic dust. No elaborate back story, however, rivals the simple, direct and far scarier original explanation Romero provided, which is no explanation at all.

In proper hands, the zombie story is less about zombies than the human survivors — a tool for social, psychological and economic commentary. Or even metaphysics, as eager academic interpreters with cultural-studies backgrounds and perhaps too much time on their hands have wondered about the implications of zombies on the philosophy of mind; if the body can walk as undead, the induction goes, perhaps the soul is a separate spirit from our material beings.

Dunno if Romero is a Cartesian dualist, but there was certainly a broad political critique behind his original black protagonist who survives the night only to be killed by the roving white vigilantes. Ever since, we’ve been watching zombies act as a cultural lens, a means to measure human frailty under pressure.

As the undead converge, the humans often become petty, bloodthirsty and predatory, little better than the monsters outside. Romero’s Land of the Dead has wealthy yuppies living in a fortified high-rise surrounded by a teeming slum of human peons on the edge of zombified terra incognita. In Max Brooks’ World War Z, the postzombie world stabilizes after the outbreak through a massive apartheid system. Hey — drastic times mean drastic measures; or, as C.J., the vaguely bigoted asshole security guard from Dawn of the Dead, menacingly proclaims with gun in hand: “America always takes care of its shit.”

But Dead Rising is a game; unlike in the movies, the system of choice allows as much self-sacrifice and redemption as you want. Frank need not be a heartless hack. Forget unraveling the mystery — a waste of time, anyhow — and be a hero instead. As with Grand Theft Auto, the missions aren’t vital to Dead Rising. Instead of fucking around with Brad and Carlito, it’s more fun to scour the stores for humans, convince them to join you, and assemble the ragtag team of survivors befitting the zombie end times. You can even arm your crew, and then hack and shoot your way together to the next survivor — by far the most satisfying experience to be had in the Willamette Mall. Together, we’ve proudly saved 32 people so far, some from among the human psychopaths who lurk in the mall and use the disorder to prey on others. At the heart of the Zombie Idea, after all, lies the hopeful opportunity for reasserting humanity on the brink; because when the shit goes down, true survival isn’t just staying alive, it’s staying human.