This Zombie Moment: Hunting for What Lies Beneath the Undead Zeitgeist
More zombies: Read STEVEN MIKULAN's "I Rode With a Zombie: An Undead Memoir," SCOTT FOUNDAS' "Birth of a Zombie Nation: The Undead at the Movies," and GENDY ALIMURUNG's web-exclusive interview with Zombie Research Blog founder, Andrew Morisson.
Also, view more zombie photos in the "What Lies Beneath: Zombies, Serial Killers & Suicide Girls" slideshow.
We are in a time of the walking undead. A time of global economic recession, global pandemic and hand-sanitizer frenzy. A time when hordes of the foreclosed, the fired and the flu-ridden wander among us. A time when forlorn survivors of the downsized are reduced to hungry shells of their former selves as they soldier on in half-empty offices. Zombies, in other words. Zombie banks. Zombie corporations. Zombie housing tracts. Zombies are the “It” monster of our global mass panic.
Cerebral, sexy vampires with their decadent lifestyles are out for the moment. So are werewolves, those slaves to animalistic passion. As real-life H1N1 swine flu rages through Mexico, Europe, Asia and the United States, and the world’s medical organizations prepare for a mutated viral onslaught this fall, a hoax BBC “report” of a new “H1Z1” strain circulates. “There has been a small outbreak of ‘zombism’ in London due to mutation of the H1N1 virus,” the hoaxster writes. “The Netherlands confirms its first case of zombie swine flu, in a 3-year-old boy recently returned from Mexico. After passing away early this morning, he rose from the dead and lunged at his mother.”
The entertainments of the moment rising up to meet the cultural Zeitgeist are a fresh wave of zombie films, zombie video games, zombie TV series, zombie comic books and a blockbuster zombie novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, “the classic Regency romance, now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” This book, more than anything else, starts me on a quest to explore the dark, mindless heart of the matter: Why zombies? Why now?
“I honestly have no other answer than it’s funny,” says Seth Grahame-Smith, the book’s author — the one, that is, who isn’t dead — Jane Austen is listed as co-author. “If you’re looking for a bigger point that I’m trying to make, um, you’re not going to find it.”
Undaunted, I meet Grahame-Smith at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in front of a Starbucks in Beverly Hills. He arrives late — a meeting at William Morris went long — apologizes profusely, glances at the people in line at the counter and declares himself to be already overcaffeinated. A TV screenwriter by trade, he has written books before, but none have done as well as this one.
“You have to understand,” he says, earnestly, “before this book, my Amazon rank was never above 7,000. The other day it was number 9.” That’s the power of zombies.
Grahame-Smith wrote the book over a five-week period last year. His editor, Jason Rekulak, had been wanting to do a literary mashup for a long time.
“He kept these lists with Wuthering Heights and Sense and Sensibility and War and Peace on one side,” Grahame-Smith says, “and zombies, vampires, pirates and robots on the other. He kept moving the pieces around.” Then Rekulak called Grahame-Smith out of the blue one day with the title: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. “And for whatever reason, I thought it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard,” the author says. “We went from there.”
Rekulak’s publishing bosses were hesitant at first. “They thought, well, you’re gonna turn off the Jane Austen fans with the zombies,” Grahame-Smith says, “and you’re gonna turn off the zombie fans with the Jane Austen.”
But what’s happened, despite the occasional “How dare you, sir!” flare of criticism, is the opposite, i.e. a zombie love fest in all quarters.
The zombies in the book are slow-moving, clumsy, easily tricked. They mistake heads of cauliflower for brains. “I didn’t want them to be quick, modern zombies. The comedy comes from the fact that they’re so simple-minded and helpless.” They barge in on the citizenry at opportune moments — during balls, during dinner, while traveling. “That’s another ridiculous thing about these people. It’s like, why would you keep traveling if this keeps happening to you? Sometimes they’ll send a letter by postal rider. And the postal rider would get slaughtered on the way there. So they have to send another postal rider. You have to think, why would the second postal rider go?”
Austen’s themes and the motivations of her characters stay mainly intact because much of the Austen stays intact. The book breaks down to 85 percent Austen, 15 percent zombie.
Grahame-Smith considered all sorts of plot lines. What if Lizzie turned into a zombie and killed herself? What if everybody became a zombie? Funny, but ultimately not sustainable. “While I think it’s hilarious to imagine Darcy pouring his heart out, and then his jaw falls off, there’s only so much mileage you can get out of that. All the jokes would be, ‘I would put my arms around you ... if I had any.’”
Mainly he kept coming back to the contrast between the mysterious plague and the elegant society. That is the heart of the mashup, the crazy zombie fight scenes, told in Regency language, against the backdrop of a very mannered society.
There were times he was going through the book and couldn’t believe things were being teed up so nicely for him. “There are things in the original book that lend themselves easily to this treatment. Independent Lizzy is the perfect character to be a zombie-killing heroine. Lady Catherine is perfect as a grand dame of zombie slaying. And the regiment of soldiers camped out at Meryton. In the book, they’re just there. There’s never a reason. It’s pretty easy to assume they’re there fighting zombies. It’s almost,” and he pauses here, “as if Jane Austen was subconsciously writing a zombie novel.”
Jane Austen was all about cleverly skewering the society in which she lived. “And zombies have always been used to skewer society. They’ve been used to represent consumerism, and the spread of communism, and the Vietnam War, so there’s a strange correlation between the two.
“People ask me, Why zombies? But when you think about it, the characters in Jane Austen are already like zombies. The worst of them are like zombies in the sense that they live in this immense bubble of wealth and privilege and they only care about upward mobility. The country could be falling apart around them and they wouldn’t care, as long as they had enough lamb to serve at the next dinner party. And in this version, the country really is going to hell around them, and they still only care if they have enough lamb to serve at the next dinner party.”
Asked if he can account for the resurgence of zombies in the popular consciousness, he thinks for a moment. “Well, zombies never really went away. So, if anything, I felt like I was coming to the table a little late with this. But because of the way this has been received, it’s given zombies another little bump. We’ve given them a little more hang time in the Zeitgeist.”
The reason Grahame-Smith loves zombies is because they are the most sympathetic horror creature. “They didn’t choose to be who they are. They’re kind of helpless, they’re kind of trapped. So you pity them as well as fear them. Also they’re the silliest, clumsiest. And they’re always the monster for fear of something larger than yourself, whether it’s the recession, or going on boats without pirates attacking, or countries far, far away plotting our doom. Zombies make sense right now.”
There is a scene he particularly likes. It’s the one where the Bennets are at dinner with the Bingleys and halfway through the meal they realize that the servants have stopped showing up with the food. So Mr. Bingley goes down to the kitchen to find out what’s happening. He comes back up, face ashen, and calls for Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth, sensing danger, goes with them. Downstairs, they see that the kitchen staff have left the doors open. A pair of zombies have gotten in and are now feasting on the servants. Bingley is upset. Not because of the zombies, but because the desserts are ruined and covered in brains, and are now unusable.
“And he vomits politely into his hands,” Grahame-Smith recalls fondly. “Elizabeth offers to slay them, but Darcy won’t let her soil her gown. To me that scene sums up the contrast, the silliness and the fun of the book.”
Between this book, an MTV pilot he’s working on, and his 5-month-old son, this is the busiest moment of Grahame-Smith’s life. “New book, new show, new baby — if I start to get outside that holy trinity, I lose my mind.”
It’s an exciting if slightly bewildering time for him. One newspaper took his photo at a casket showroom climbing gamely out of a casket. There is a persistent rumor that Natalie Portman will be playing Elizabeth Bennet, a rumor Grahame-Smith can neither confirm nor deny mainly because they haven’t told him yet if it’s true.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has so far sold some 125,000 copies, with 60,000 more winging their way to stores as we speak. They have The New York Times bestseller stamp on them. “This is Quirk’s Harry Potter,” he says of his publisher. We’ll be seeing a lot of literary Frankensteins soon, he predicts. “I think because of the success of this book, in the next couple of years you’re gonna see a lot of classics revisited. Publishers now realize we have this stream of revenue just sitting there.” He didn’t have to purchase rights from Austen, who never married or begat heirs, and whose books are now in the public domain. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see new twists on Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick or Dickens and Twain.”
“I have friends who say they’ve been to every Barnes & Noble and it’s sold out. There are no books. It’s crazy.” He saw one copy on eBay going for $85. “I don’t recommend anyone getting them for 85 dollars. You can wait a week.”
It would be very easy for him to do Sense and Sensibility and Vampires after this, he says, and there’s a temptation to just be the guy that does that. But he feels like that’s a narrow writing career. Instead he’s doing Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
“I’m hoping we’re gonna do a special edition,” he says of the Austen book. “I’m gonna get to go back and write a few scenes that I think can still be squeezed in there, some audacious fights that I’ve thought about since the book’s come out.”
WAS JESUS A ZOMBIE? AND OTHER HISTORICAL NIGHTMARES CONSIDERED
The grandmotherly woman grimaces when she spots the cover painting on the copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I have come to deliver to the UCLA English department mailbox of Professor Robert Maniquis, a 19th-century literature specialist. An elegant lady in a white gown looks out from the cover, her face half-decomposed, bony jaw protruding. Blood drips down her bosom.
“The funniest thing is the satirical discussion questions at the end,” says Professor Maniquis three days later as he ushers me into his cozy, book-lined office. “The way they’re satirical of literary studies. The vocabulary can seem absurd. Some conventions in literature classes have become fuddy-duddy and are easily mocked.”
For example, question number six asks: “Some critics have suggested that the zombies represent the authors’ views towards marriage — an endless curse that sucks the life out of you and just won’t die. Do you agree, or do you have another opinion about the symbolism of the unmentionables?” Characters in the novel are so obsessed with decorum, they won’t even say the word “zombie,” preferring instead “unmentionables,” or “manky dreadfuls,” or “sorry stricken.”
Maniquis takes a seat. “If you really begin to know something about English literature from this period,” he says, “in which Jane Austen is to be found smack in the middle, one of the most common themes in high and low literature is the theme of death in life, or life in death.” The Wandering Jew, who spit on Christ, and was condemned to eternal wandering, dates from this period. The Wandering Jew gives rise to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, who in turn influences Balzac in France. The wandering ideas spread like a virus across the land.
“What are these themes about but someone who can’t die?” Maniquis says, in his calm, collected way. “These figures are worse than zombies. They can never be killed, they can never die.” The most famous was the Mariner in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “Talk about death in life! The Ancient Mariner, when he comes upon someone who needs to hear his story, he hypnotizes them and gives them the heebie jeebies and they have to listen. The Mariner also cannot die. He must forever tell his story of crime and punishment. And who is the Ancient Mariner? According to Coleridge, he’s Cain, the first murderer.”
Death-in-life figures were enormously popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. They became interesting to people at a time when Christianity was losing its hold on the mind. They are, Maniquis says, iconic projections of a transformation that cannot be made.
“You know about doubting Thomas?” he asks.
Sure, I say, the guy who poked his finger into Jesus’ palm to feel the wounds from the crucifixion. Professor Maniquis chuckles a bit. “I don’t mean to offend the Christians,” he says, “but who is this guy risen out of the grave?” He’s a zombie.
People doubling, the werewolf, the vampire they all represent what Maniquis calls a “blockage” in Christian transformation. They’re the guys who can’t die and get to heaven. “What’s grotesque in zombies is that it comes too close to the idea of resurrection. Jane Austen knows about that world, even as she’s writing about a much more ordinary world of power and society.”
As I’m picking my jaw up off the floor, Professor Maniquis asks: Did I know that cannibalism was one of the dominant political metaphors of the period? “As for the half-dead eating the living, how about the living eating the recently killed? There is many a story at the time of aristocrats’ hearts being ripped out, cooked and eaten. Or spectators at the guillotine soaking up the beheaded victim’s blood in handkerchiefs that they would then suck on.” And here he makes a motion as if to dunk an imaginary piece of cloth into a pool of blood and brings it up to his lips. For the masses, the implication was, the aristocrats have been sucking on our blood for years, and now it’s our turn.
Why is Grahame-Smith’s book so popular right now? Professor Maniquis suggests it’s simply another instance of the constant tug-of-war between high-brow and low-brow art. “There was a point when someone was able to sell a lot of posters of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn on her, which breaks through what Walter Benjamin called the aura of art. Austen becomes something you can laugh at. The Mona Lisa needs a mustache drawn on her every now and then, and Austen, I think, would have smiled at our poking fun at her.”
There’s another place where Grahame-Smith is doing more than he knows, Maniquis adds. “He’s pushing horror up against the neat, structured decorum of Jane Austen. It fractures the Jane Austen world.”
Talk turns to a real-life event where Jane Austen is put up against the face of horror: World War One. She became extremely popular among the soldiers in the trenches. “They’re seeing guts and brains blown out and tens of thousands of people killed. When people in England asked what authors they’d like to be sent from home, the soldiers asked for Austen. She provides an island of sane order.” Back then, even as it is now, the smallness and ordered-ness of her world is comforting.
“Of course she herself is suspicious of that order, although she also insisted upon it. She lived in the midst of 20 years of nearly constant war. Her countryside was green and pretty, but it was also haunted, as were the cities and the villages, by returning soldiers dazed, some insane, and often with amputated limbs.”
As he speaks, I feel a chill in the otherwise warm, sunshiny day.
WEIRD SCIENCE: KITTENS OF THE DEAD, HAITIAN VOODOO AND REALLY MAD COW
The best way to dispel fear is with science. Cold, hard fact. Against warm, mushy decomposing flesh. For scientific explanations for zombies, I once again turn to my alma mater, where I spent many a mindless late-night hour shuffling between library and laboratory.
“I don’t know of an expert on zombies,” says Stuart Wolpert, public information officer for UCLA’s College of Letters & Science. “I hope you’ve been well.”
I have not in fact, been well. This is because the vast majority of my messages have not been returned. Not the ones to the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh, where doctors plunged several dogs into a state of clinical death before bringing them back to life. Not the ones to the Zombie Research Society, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising the level of Zombie scholarship in the Arts and Sciences,” a group whose tagline is “What you don’t know can eat you.” Which leaves me with a more than sneaking suspicion that (1) scientists do not want to be associated with fringe disciplines like zombology; that (2) fringe zombologists are wary of being made fun of by their mainstream science counterparts; and that (3) both groups think I am insane.
There is a school of thought — of which controversial ethnobotanist Wade Davis is the acknowledged master — which holds the opinion that zombies aren’t supernatural. They’re just people poisoned with a special powder whose contents include ground-up toads, tree frogs, lizards, spiders, glass, human remains and the puffer fish neurotoxin tetrodotoxin. Tetrodotoxin paralyzes people, making them appear dead.
Davis’ explanation, essentially a pharmacological one supplemented with a bit of voodoo-induced hypnosis (the poisoned people believe that voodoo sorcerers have turned them into zombies, and thus behave like zombies), enjoyed its greatest popularity in the decade renowned for its zombie-like behavior, namely the 1980s. Davis’ exploits in Haiti procuring the recipe for the zombie powder are chronicled in the bestselling book and cheesy movie The Serpent and the Rainbow.
The true home of the walking undead isn’t Haiti, however, but the Internet. There are any number of theories floating around out there as to how a zombie might be created. Creutzfeldt-Jakob, otherwise known as Mad Cow disease, is a potential culprit. You get it by eating infected brains. Its symptoms include progressive dementia, personality changes, hallucinations, speech impairment, jerky movements, balance and coordination dysfunction, rigid posture, and seizures. Sound familiar? A sort of Super Mad Cow disease could evolve (or Really Mad Cow, or Madder Cow, as one blogger puts it).
Or how about fetal stem cells injected into the spinal column? These might reanimate a cadaver. It’s worked on coma patients, if you believe the article published by doctors from Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in the August 2, 2005, Volume 59, Issue 7 edition of the Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy journal. The near-dead literally got up and walked.
Could. Would. Might. Each lead is more tantalizing and far-fetched than the last. Crackpot, yes. But retaining a whiff of truth strong enough to still smell the sweet stench of decaying flesh.
Many of my questions remain unanswered. How did those reanimated dead dogs do after being brought back to the land of the living? Any weird behavioral ticks? Any, say, unusual thirst for flesh? Human clinical trials were supposed to begin sometime right around now at the Safar Center.
And assuming that some type of zombie-esque lifeform might exist, why, for instance, do they favor brains? Are brains more calorically dense, and thus, especially delicious? (“They’re almost 100 percent cholesterol,” Dr. Carol Miller, chief of neuropathogy at USC/L.A. County Medical Center, said in this very newspaper a few weeks back.)
To get metaphorical about it, do the doomed creatures crave the very thing they now no longer possess? Or, could zombism be the result of an infectious agent, a parasite or a virus, as so many sci-fi books and movies have lately suggested?
One popular explanation rests with the parasite toxoplasma gondii. This urban myth gets a lot of traction online. Toxoplasma gondii is a common parasite — roughly a quarter of the human population carries it. One Oxford study observed that rats infected by the parasite will actually run toward places where cats (their sworn enemies) hang out. Toxoplasma gondii breeds within the gut of cats. The cat poops out the parasite’s eggs, the rats eat the poop, another cat eats the rat, and the cycle is complete. If it can alter the behavior of an organism, making a rat seek out something it would ordinarily fear, is the parasite demonstrating evidence of mind control?
Examples of a parasite taking over a host and controlling the host’s behavior do exist in nature. There’s a tropical wasp that turns a cockroach into a zombie by injecting venom into its brain. The cockroach loses the will to walk around, and becomes the wasp larvae’s baby mama. And don’t even get me started on the barnacle that zombifies crabs. The poor crabs become slaves to their dastardly barnacle masters.
I contact the California Department of Public Health. They send me to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy people infected with toxoplasmosis, the CDC Web site says, tend to exhibit mild, flu-like symptoms. But immune-compromised people “may experience severe symptoms,” including “fever, confusion, headache, seizures, nausea and poor coordination.” So, essentially, if the myth is true, your cat will turn you into a zombie, but only if you’re already sick and feeling like death warmed over. Also, you get toxoplasmosis by eating undercooked meat. (Rare brains, anyone?)
“There is no scientific evidence to support the ‘urban myth’ that humans infected with toxoplasma gondii become zombies, or even act like zombies,” Dr. Patricia Conrad, professor of parasitology at UC Davis tells me. “If that were the case about 14 to 25 percent (depending on the study cited) of the population in the USA would be displaying zombie-like behavior. Pretty scary to imagine!”
Phew! Pretty scary, indeed. But not half so scary as other things. Things like zombie strippers.
Porn star Jenna Jameson, now retired from the skin trade, debuted in her first “mainstream” film late last year. Its subject? Zombies. A virus created by a secret government agency to reanimate dead soldiers accidentally gets loose. It infects a Marine, who then infects Jenna Jameson, the strip club’s best pole dancer, whose interests include French existentialism and being a stone-cold bitch. Zombification only increases her stripping power. Soon, all the other strippers want to become zombies, too.
“Oh, she won’t do it,” says the guy on the other end of the line, when I call Sony Pictures’ publicity department asking if they might be able to put me in touch with Jameson’s people so I can ask her what it was like being a flesh-eating corpse.
“Why not?” I say.
“Because,” he says. “She’s Jenna. She doesn’t have to do shit.”
He hangs up before giving me his name. But not before relaying the name of her talent agency. “Can I ask if the publication is prepared to pay a fee for the interview?” Chrissy (no last name) of Intrigue Management writes me back. “If you can let me know, I will then forward the request to Jenna and let you know if she’s interested or not.” With no fee available from this alternative publication, I am still waiting for Jameson’s response.
In the meantime, luckily, or unluckily, Jameson’s movie airs over the weekend on cable TV. It’s the first film in which she doesn’t have actual sex with anyone in front of the camera (men are fine, women are fine, but she draws the line at fornicating with the dead). I happen to have also purchased the DVD — for research purposes.
The zombie strippers hurl insults at each other. “Zombie whorebitch, prepare to die!”
“Been there done that, loser.”
“Too bad you couldn’t reanimate your personality.”
“I see your skin didn’t get any worse.”
“We’ll destroy them,” says one of the two remaining human strippers when asked to come up with a plan of attack. “No wait. We’ll join them. No. Kill them and everything they stand for. No. Join them? Destroy them? Fuck! Why can’t I decide? Am I no longer human? Have I no soul? This is all your fault, existential bitch!”
BE THE UNDEAD, KNOW THE UNDEAD
To understand the monster, you must become it. These are the rules of the zombie walk: “While on the sidewalk you must remain in zombie mode. Do not touch, attempt to scare or otherwise engage anyone who is not a willing participant. Above all, avoid confrontations! Do not miss the point by causing or getting caught up in drama. And do not apply fake blood to the point where you are dripping it all over other people, the ground or anything else.”
No parasitic infection is needed for people in the city to display zombie-like behavior. Even without financial inducements, some people will be zombies just for the hell of it. It’s early morning at the horror magazine Fangoria’s annual Weekend of Horrors convention, where I’m meeting Anthony Dalbis, the organizer of SoCal Zombiewalk. The rules are his, based partly on common sense and partly from his experience working at Knott’s Scary Farm, where he moonlights as a half-dead-farmer-half-gorilla manimal every Halloween. The night before the walk, I ask how I will recognize him.
“Easy. I’ll be the zombie construction worker,” he says.
According to the literature he hands out, the group was “put together out of a love for the living dead” and “gives fellow fans of the living dead a chance to gather together and transform into a pack of zombies for the night. Walk with us and you’ll see!”
Several zombies are milling around in the foyer of the Los Angeles Convention Center. It’s quiet and surreal. Soon, more undead arrive. They admire each others’ blood-spattered faces. They compliment the cadaverousness of each others’ pallor. “You guys look so good!” a dead nurse gushes to a bloody Bears Stearns stockbroker couple. A zombie surgeon, upon encountering a zombie in a green Starbucks apron asks, in an imperious way, “Can I have a double venti green tea?”
The zombie Starbucks barista stares vacantly, then says, “With brains?”
The room starts filling with zombies from all walks of life: undead teenage prom queens, undead schoolgirls, a decaying ob-gyn clutching a two-headed evil baby, rotting rockabillies, passed-away punks, bloody businessmen, an undead hooker, undead gangbangers, undead joggers, an entire hospital ward of zombie patients. One woman in a fluffy pink bathrobe and shower cap complains that her Chihuahua wouldn’t stop chewing on the stump of her severed plastic hand.
“Remember,” says Dalbis, “stay in character.” When the march begins, some 150 zombies take to the street to do a slow, halting lap around the convention center. Some zombies drag their legs, as if the limb had gone numb. Others march with their arms held straight forward, in classic undead stance. Some screech. Some groan. People in cars stare. They honk their horns. They roll down the windows, point and laugh. The zombies walk in front, clumped up at first, then gradually stretching out into a long straggling line, followed by the bloodsuckers — i.e., the picture-snapping, notebook-wielding, blogging, quote-seeking members of the media.
“Grrrrr ... 5-dollar parrrrking,” mutters one zombie as we pass the parking structure. He’s so convincing, I can’t imagine him as anything but undead. “Blessssss yoouu,” he says when another zombie sneezes.
It’s rather pleasant emptying your mind, shambling around in the early quiet of morning, with nothing but the soothing shuffling of feet and the occasional mutter of “Mmmmmrrains?”
They are the most populist of monsters, representing a negation of the self as well as a contradictory glorification of that which is base and human. You don’t have to worry about being sexy, attractive or smart like vampires. Or ancient and menacing like mummies. Or wild like werewolves. As Time’s Lev Grossman recently noted, the zombie is “plucky and tenacious — you can cut off his limbs and he’ll keep on coming atcha.” As a zombie, the subtler of life’s expectations seem to melt away. You just have to keep on keeping on.
One fellow munching contemplatively on some intestines — juicy bits tumble from his mouth to his feet as he chews — looks positively Zen.
“We usually do the walks in the evening in populated areas, around dusk as the light is fading,” says Dalbis afterward. “That’s when it looks the best.” Ordinarily, he works in the transportation industry delivering cars. The construction-worker outfit (fluorescent orange Caltrans vest, baggy jeans, hard hat, all doused in blood) is an homage to that. Dalbis, who is 35, got hooked on zombies when he was 9 years old and saw Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video for the first time. “It changed my life,” he says. “I loved everything about those zombies. The way they looked, the way they moved, their clothes, their makeup.” In his opinion, interest in zombies isn’t cyclical. It is eternal.
Each zombie walk he hosts benefits a charity: animal rescue, or Toys for Tots, or the L.A. Regional Food Bank. People donate canned food, or toys, or cash; let it not be said that the dead don’t care for the living. “Sometimes we get zombie dogs, or zombie babies. Zombies are great because there isn’t one particular zombie. People can identify. There is so much variety. They don’t have special powers, and they’re not supernatural. Plus, I like to think about what would you do if this really happened.” He dabs his forehead, careful not to smudge his gray face paint. “I would probably move to an island.”
Pittsburgh, he tells me, is the zombie-walk capital of the country. (Pittsburgh, by the way, is the same exact place where those doctors at the Safar Center reanimated those dead dogs. Coincidence? I’m just saying.) “They have the biggest walk there at the place where the original Night of the Living Dead was filmed. You know, at the mall? They get thousands at that one. Ours is tiny by comparison. But I just talked to a couple people who flew out from Chicago and Boston to be a part of it. It’s touching.”
He invited some of his Knott’s Scary Farm coworkers to serve as zombie wranglers today. The wranglers keep people from venturing off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic and otherwise getting out of hand. “Everybody’s sue-happy these days,” Dalbis says. He’s careful to read some of the rules out loud on a megaphone before each walk: “Never, ever touch, bother or ‘scare’ anyone during the walk. Those types of actions can be considered harassment. . You have no idea if the person you try to ‘scare’ is a money-hungry attorney. . The Walk is performance art and you simply must look and walk like a brain-dead zombie (without the actions of actually attacking anyone to eat their brains!).” There are some fairly serious method actors in the bunch, I guess. The disclaimer concludes with the strangely liberating, potentially chaotic and vaguely Marxist statement, “Remember, We Are All One and No One Person is in Charge.”
The zombies are dispersing into the convention center. I see them later on, perusing Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead DVDs at the Troma Entertainment booth, shopping for Vampira T-shirts and Bride ofChucky posters. They drop coins into vending machines, order pizza, argue with their loved ones. They cry that they are tired and want to go home. They can’t wait to come back tomorrow. They stand in line at the restroom and complain about the cost of stuff and otherwise go about their day. The real message of the zombie — and this is disturbing to some, comforting to others — is that death isn’t anything special. It’s just like life, only slower, and with more moaning.
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