Roxanne Tellier: Brains – Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

RoxanneSo, I’m in my favorite bookstore, and everywhere I look there are books about zombies. Certainly, AMC’s The Walking Dead has revived the franchise, but the sheer volume of books, music videos, television shows and movies is, well, brain boggling.

Apparently vampires are yesterday’s news. Move over, Twilight and True Blood, we want to see Rick and the Governor go mano a mano whilst fending off flesh eating fiends.

Rick and the GovernorMax Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, and World War Z; An oral history of the Zombie War, soon to be made into a film starring Brad Pitt, are two of the better books available. There’s How to Survive When Zombies Attack: A Guide for Dummies but I haven’t yet seen an Everything You Wanted to Know About Zombies, But Were Afraid to Ask.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller video is probably the best known video featuring zombies, but Billy Idol used the undead as extras in his video for Dancing with Myself. There are also Rob Zombie’s Living Dead Girl, Kanye West’s Monster, and MGMT’s horrific Kids.

The BBC, always ready to leap on a bandwagon, recently released a wonderful three part series called In The Flesh but this wasn’t the UK’s first go round … in 2008 there was a wildly successful five parter aired on E4 called Dead Set.  The action took place primarily on the set of a fictional series of the real television show Big Brother 2008 (UK.) Apparently, even the shelter of the Big Brother House cannot save you should a zombie apocalypse break out. The undead; they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere!

But why are we suddenly so fascinated with these brain-eating, shambling corpses? How is it we can relate to this new breed of hero, with its pallor and frighteningly empty eyes?

Clemson University Professor Sarah Juliet Lauro has been studying the phenomenon of zombie popularity and says people are more interested in zombies at times when as a culture we feel disempowered.  Lauro says there is a direct connection between zombie culture and capitalism and the economy.

“The zombie is a more convenient metaphor for the way that they are feeling, powerless within the system. You see it rise in popularity when you have a large number of people who are unemployed.”

No one chooses to become either unemployed, or a zombie. One day you’re quietly rotting in your cubicle (or grave,) the next you’re a mindless brute who lives only to devour human flesh and brains (or to try to pay the mortgage.)

So is it acceptable to kill a zombie before it kills you? Is a zombie more evil than a tiger that needs to eat to live? And if you kill a zombie, are you killing a monster, or could there be a shred of humanity left within that rotting husk? What does that make you, as it’s murderer?

If destroying the head of a zombie, singly or in packs, is necessary to survive, how does a normal person, raised to revere life, deal with this new reality? Is this a license to slaughter anything that looks much like a normal human, on the grounds that the beast does not present as intelligent?

Whether you are partial to scary zombies, or the new ‘romantic’ zombies as seen in 2013’s Warm Bodies, it’s interesting to dig down to the roots of the filmic undead. Victor Halperin’s 1932 film White Zombie is often cited as the first feature length zombie film. As with 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie and 1944’s The Voodoo Man, the focus was on the colonial Haitian practice (the roots go back as far as tribal Africa) of reviving primarily female corpses, who would then presumably become sexual slaves to their masters. The rituals necessary to raise these slaves involved an awful lot of drum banging, the ingestion of magical herbs, and some downright sexual dancing about. Early rock for necrophiliacs, I guess.

Nicole Limacher, aka “Gethsemaneful” is a horror critic who points out that the brain-eating could be a metaphor for a deeper hunger. “It is not until the 1960s, or the Sexual Revolution, that the flesh-eating variety [of zombie] was created by George Romero. The evolution of the flesh-eating variety of the zombie from slow shambler to sprinter ironically parallels the increasing pervasiveness of sexual permissiveness and promiscuity in today’s society.”

Zombie Babes

British and American fiction writers, perhaps reacting with a mixture of lust and fear of this third world depravity, began to weave their own ideas into contemporary scenarios, and the walking dead became symbols of society’s frustration and inability to control events. Packs of zombies, hell bent on devouring ordinary people in uncontrollable situations, represented the horrors of rock n roll music infecting the minds and nervous systems of teenagers, the bloody struggles for Civil Rights, the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and his brother Robert, and the terrifying and barbaric Viet Cong fighting ‘our’ boys in Vietnam.

Enter George A. Romero and John A. Russo, with a little film called Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968. Shot in black and white, and running only 96 minutes, these zombies, though slow moving, inexorably pursued what seemed to be the last humans on earth. The movie explained through radio emergency broadcasters that the recently deceased had reanimated and were consuming the flesh of the living. Radioactive contamination from a space probe returning from Venus was believed to have caused the problem. Science and technology frightened and confused people, then as now

Romero continued the series over the years, and movie goers flocked to each new appearance of the undead. Dawn of the Dead (1978,) really terrified me. It was set in a shopping mall, and a shopping mall was exactly where we had gone to catch this flick. Didn’t sleep a wink that night.

The whole brain chomping didn’t actually catch on as a zombie trait until 1985 when Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon directed Return of the Living Dead.  Originally meant to be one more in the Living Dead franchise, O’Bannon instead stepped outside the box to create a new punk rock horror comedy that focused on a penchant for brains. O’Bannon himself tossed out the idea that the devouring of brains eased the pain of being dead.

The genre exploded in all directions. Here a Nazi zombie, (Dead Snow (2009,) often described as a twisted combination of the video games “Resident Evil” and “Wolfenstein”, with a dash of the movie Evil Dead II,) there a Samurai zombie (Versus (2000) an Asian zombie film well worth watching for the fast-paced martial arts battles between the living and the dead.

Samuri Zombie

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) centers on an acting troupe, predictably overreacting to the zombie attack. Deadgirl (2008) peeks into the depraved minds of suburban teenage boys, bored and morally corrupt.

28 Days Later (2002) brought a new group of young viewers to the genre. You’ve got your fast-running modern zombies, as well as a claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic survivalist treatise.

Canada’s had a few entries … Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008) centered around a remote radio station, while David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) had a sexually transmitted mutation that drove men, women and children into a feeding frenzy.

A Little Bit Zombie (2012) was an attempt at horror in Ontarian cottage country. Fido (2006) starred Billy Connelly as the title character, and was a fun cross between Night of the Living Dead and Lassie.  Fido is a house-broken zombie pet and housemaid, thanks to a collar that renders him harmless and obedient – most of the time.

For me, comedy rules, so I particularly enjoyed Dance of the Dead (2008) which highlights a punk rock band holding the living dead at bay, and teenage zombies making out in a school bathroom.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) broke wonderful new ground with realistic walking dead, a pub setting, and brilliant new ways to turn everyday items, like record albums, into anti-zombie weapons.

Which brings us to today’s anti heroes … in Warm Bodies, recently deceased and misunderstood R just wants to be loved. “Why can’t I connect with people? Oh right, because I’m dead.” R falls in love with a live woman, and redeems his humanity through the connection.

Does this switch up mean that even zombies now have to be hot? If our infatuation with zombies can also be construed as a rejection of contemporary, surface beauty, is the Hollywood machine set to place zombie heartthrobs as the new celebrity? Would you let your daughter marry a zombie?

= RT =

Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonRoxanne Tellier has been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king – and that was just yesterday’s to do list. Tomorrow she starts on the letter Q.  

One Response to “Roxanne Tellier: Brains – Not Just For Breakfast Anymore”

  1. great piece Roxy! i need to loan you my copy of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

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