DeFlip Side #106: Zombies Rising

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Halloween will soon be upon us, a tradition that once gave horror fans an opportunity to get their yearly freak on. But that hardly seems to matter these days. With the explosion of popular shows like True Blood and Supernatural, acclaimed movies like Paranormal Activity and Let the Right One In, and (though I’m loath to mention it) the juggernaut that is Twilight, monsters have gone mainstream—and the classic creatures of filmland are suffering as a result. Vampires have degenerated into sparkly, angst-ridden wussies and werewolves have become the standard-bearers of shirtless homoeroticism.

But my favorite member of the horror ranks is taking this boom in stride—or should I say stumble? Zombies are everywhere—with bestselling books like World War Z and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; top-grossing movies like Resident Evil: Apocalypse; and the upcoming TV series The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novel of the same name, set to premiere on Halloween. The zombie genre is continually reinventing itself in creative and entertaining ways.

This shouldn’t be surprising considering the zombie’s literary pedigree in our popular culture. Though it’s not often touted as a zombie story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has much more ideological heft than fellow horror touchstones, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and serves as one of the earliest examples of true Science Fiction. The monster Victor Frankenstein creates is not just a stitched-together corpse, but an allegory for the consequences of scientific progress on humanity.

Taking it a step further, zombies embody the nameless fears that relentlessly encroach upon us, forces that can’t be reasoned with but must still somehow be overcome if we hope to keep surviving. They’re slates of blank terror onto which we project our existential dread, making them infinitely more malleable and relevant symbols of horror than, say, a guy sporting a cape and ruffled gothic shirt.

But Shelley wasn’t working in a vacuum. Long before she set them on the path to their modern-day brain-eating glory, zombies were shambling through mythic traditions of every stripe.

They show up in Icelandic sagas as creatures called Aptrgangs, meaning “after goers”—reanimated Viking corpses that wandered roads and fields around their burial mounds, waylaying unwary travelers. According to Norse folklore, anyone killed by an Aptrgang would become one. J.R.R. Tolkien obviously drew upon these legends when creating the barrow-wights that captured Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin in the The Fellowship of the Ring.

In Far Eastern tradition, if a loved one died far away and you didn’t want to go through the hassle or expense of picking up the body, the local Tao priest could turn the dearly departed into a Jiangshi, a zombie with the ability to hop over great distances. The only problem with these Chinese hopping corpses was a nasty tendency of attacking and eating people they met on their homeward journey to absorb their life force.

During the European Middle Ages zombies were called Revenants, restlessly wandering the streets at night spreading disease and calling out the names of those soon to die. It must have been like living in one of those old Hammer horror flicks, only without all the hot lesbian vampires.

Okay, these are all quaint stories. But the zombie lore that most of us are familiar with springs from Haitian voodoo traditions that many people believe abandon folklore for reality. According to legend, Haitian vodun sorcerers known as bokors would kill victims with a deadly magic powder, then raise the corpses to use as mindless slaves. A noted scientist named Wade Davis investigated these stories in the early 1980s and here’s what he claimed was actually happening: the zombie powder was made with a deadly neurotoxin found in the pufferfish common to Haitian waters, and would only mimic the symptoms of death. The bokor would then retrieve the body and feed the newly-revived victim a paste made from a local plant that would cause lethargy and partial amnesia. Voilà! Instant zombie!

Though Davis’s findings were roundly contested and dismissed by the scientific community, that didn’t stop him from publishing them in a wildly popular book—which, in turn, gave rise to one of the most enduring catch-phrases of 1988:

“Don’t let them bury me! I’m not dead!”

And thus did The Serpent and the Rainbow cement Davis’s hypothesis into the national consciousness, still taken as gospel truth by zombie groupies everywhere. Never underestimate the power of Science Fiction. Or of film. Because none of this folklore would have amounted to much if not for the other key thing that makes zombies so awesome…

Without movies to bring them to life—or unlife—zombies wouldn’t enjoy half their horrific legacy. And we have George A. Romero to thank for that. With the glut of zombie movies out there right now, it’s easy to forget the sheer terror of the original Night of the Living Dead, and how revolutionary it was for its time. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film:

“The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying… This was… ghouls eating people up—and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…. Nobody got out alive. I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater.”

I did too, powerfully, the first time I saw Night. Never before had a horror movie made me seriously ponder just what the hell I would do in a similar situation. Barricade myself in an attic? Take my chances in a car? Kill myself? In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I so fully embraced the next evolutionary step in the zombie film: Return of the Living Dead.

Forget heavy musings. This was teens trapped in a graveyard, running from zombies that would take you down in a flying tackle, interested in only one thing: Brains!

Since I first saw it in the theater at age 15, through the summer where my friends and I watched it every day, Return of the Living Dead remains my favorite zombie movie ever. It has all the terror and gore, but it also brought something new to the table: humor. And humor more than anything else has enabled the zombie genre to remain relevant.

You still have your straight horror instant classics like 28 Days Later and the terrific remake of Dawn of the Dead. But for most zombie movies it’s been there, done that. Even Romero’s latest ones stunk.

The buzz now is about comedic films like Shaun of the Dead, and last year’s excellent Zombieland, which took a deconstructionist approach that brought the zombie movie to absurd new heights. Thank you, Bill Murray.

And so the zombie lumbers relentlessly forward, an unwitting vehicle for everything from mythic Norse fears to post modern alienation—the doomed porter of our all-to-human baggage. No wonder they want to eat us.

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