Zombies are taking a big bite out of pop culture
Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 10:14 a.m.
Vampires have become so last decade.
Evolution of the zombie
2500 B.C.: Mentioned in the "Epic of Gilgamesh."
Middle Ages: European folklore; zombies rise to avenge a crime; Norse "Draugr" was believed to be the corpses of warriors.
1929: "The Magic Island," book by journalist William Seabrook is the first popular English text to describe Haiti zombies and voodoo.
1932: "The White Zombie," a Bela Lugosi film about a colonialist in Haiti whose sugar mills are run by zombies.
1937: Author Zora Neale Hurston finds tale of Felica Felix-Mentor in Haiti; Felicia apparently died in 1907, but folk who knew her reported seeing her walking about 30 years later.
1943: "I Walked with a Zombie," early yet creepy zombie film notable for not showing any gnawing on humans.
1954: "I Am Legend," novel by Richard Matheson popularizes concept of worldwide apocalypse from disease; victims resemble vampires rather than zombies. Made into a film released in 2007.
1968: "Night of the Living Dead," George Romero's terrifying horror film introduces moviegoers to the unstoppable Hollywood zombie. Several sequels follow. Remade in 1990.
1984: "Zombie Zombie," first videogame focused on zombies; released exclusively in Europe.
1985: "Return of the Living Dead," introduced fast-moving zombies and "braaaains!"
1985: "The Rainbow and the Serpent," book by ethnobotanist Wade Davis investigates Haitian voodoo and the making of Haitian zombies. Made into a film released in 1988.
1996: "Resident Evil," first modern survival horror videogame; made into a film released in 2002.
2002: "28 Days Later," a viral plague decimates London; expands on zombies who can run.
2003: "Evil Dead," hot young cast, evil Book of the Dead, remote cabin, need more be said?
2004: "Shaun of the Dead," a zombie comedy.
2009: "Zombieland," college students travel across a zombie-infected U.S.A.
2010: "The Walking Dead," highly regarded AMC series about human survivors coping with zombie apocalypse.
2011: "Warm Bodies," novel by Isaac Marion presents a zombie point of view; young zombie comes back to "life" with the love of a human girl. Made into a film released in 2013.
2012: "ParaNorman," animated feature about a misunderstood boy who takes on ghosts and zombies to save his town from a centuries-old curse; nominated for Best Animated Oscar.
Sources: Wikipedia.com, boston.com, imdb.com
"Only Another Day" premiere
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ocala Drive-In, 4850 S. Pine Ave., Ocala
Cost: $8 per carload
With "Twilight" now fully on Blu-ray, they're nearly non-existent, save for a few television series. And there are few vampire projects on the horizon.
Zombies, however, are the revenants du jour. The mindless, lumbering flesh-eaters are inescapable: on TV, at the movies, in books, videogames, even commercials for Toyota, Honda, Red Bull and Doritos, which declared them "better than brains!"
One of the most popular TV series today is AMC's "The Walking Dead," which follows human survival following a zombie apocalypse. In its third season, it recently took a puzzling turn: Despite creatures outside hoping to get at the zombie chow inside, two rival groups of human survivors opt for war — with each other! Really?
Yet, people are watching. "The Walking Dead" last Sunday outpaced network TV fare, pulling in 11.48 million viewers, the highest for the night, according to Nielsen ratings.
A few weeks ago, "Warm Bodies" opened; to date, the film from a zombie point-of-view has grossed $63.5 million. And "World War Z" is expected to do well when it opens this summer; whether because it's zombies or features Brad Pitt is debatable.
Still, nowhere is safe. Independent Ocala filmmaker Bronson Mosley on Saturday premieres his campy, horror-comedy "Only Another Day," a zombie apocalypse filmed in Marion County. "We just love zombies," he said as he wrapped editing. "Love the genre."
They're everywhere. The University of Michigan's Zombie Club helps other campus clubs fundraise. HowStuffWorks.com offers an article on "How Zombies Work."
In October 2009, Gainesville was the center of zombiedom; a news outlet found a zombie attack disaster plan posted on a University of Florida website.
Dr. Doug Johnson, who manages UF's e-Learning Support Services, wrote the plan one night in a "bout of insomnia," he said. Its purpose, was a serious exercise in disaster planning for his staff.
"It sat unlooked at for months," Johnson said. "And suddenly I was at the center of something going viral." The story hit outlets in every continent but Antarctica. "I spent six years on my PhD thesis and pffft, it's gone," he added. "But I wrote this in one night and it's what I'm known for."
While fun for a while, the plan dealt with a serious subject: emergency preparedness. Since then, he's been asked by various agencies to use his plan. "If zombies get people to think about that," he said, "then that's what's important."
Following Johnson's path, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year posted a guide on coping with a zombie apocalypse. Initially tongue-in-cheek, CDC officials also found it an effective tool to emphasize preparedness.
Noted Dr. Ali Kahn, director of public health preparedness: "If you are generally well-equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse, you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack."
They never said anything like that about vampires, glittery or otherwise.
"If there's ever a glittery zombie, zombies will go away," declared Jacob Jacobowitz, an Ocala fan of zombies, referring to "Twilight's" vampires. "But there will never be a glittery zombie."
Ocala under attack
Certainly not in "Only Another Day," a low-budget film depicting a zombie apocalypse in Ocala.
Bronson Mosley, 30, said his first film is "a story about local people and local places being faced with a what-if world," he said during a break in filming last month.
About 175 people volunteered to help, he said, being zombies, victims, doing makeup, sound, being cinematographers, unit directors and so forth. Their effort hits the Ocala Drive-In big screen Saturday night with a premiere party beginning at 10 p.m.
"Drive-ins are very zombie friendly," Mosley said.
Though it features some campy moments — zombies dancing the Macarena, for instance, and raving a rock concert under the stars — and "pokes fun" at many zombie films, Mosley insisted "it is not a spoof."
The film stars his sister, Darian Mosley, as an anime-dressed and tressed mountain-bike rider who teams with a drifter at the Santos bike trails to battle the onslaught. Among the zombies was Marissa Heath, a 15-year-old West Port High student. "I've always had a fascination with being in movies," she said. "I watch ‘Walking Dead' all the time. It's fun."
For a few brief seconds on screen, she sat in Curtis Gibson's makeup chair for about an hour earlier. "I've always loved zombies and horror movie makeup," he said. Jessi Booth, working on another zombie nearby, chimed in, "what everyone else does at Halloween, we do all year round."
Added Mosley: "This was never intended to be some big Michael Bay production like ‘Transformers,' but some fun storytelling locally." He added it is going straight to DVD.
Taking to the streets
Meanwhile, some are looking seriously at the zombie phenomenon. The Associated Press recently reported that Clemson University English Professor Sarah Lauro considers the recent rise in zombie appeal to be "part of a historical trend that mirrors a level of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval."
She focused on zombie walks, flash mob-like gatherings of people dressed as zombies ambling city streets. Hundreds are held every year in the U.S. and a dozen other countries; the Guinness World Record was set in 2010 when more than 4,000 gathered in New Jersey.
"We are more interested in the zombie at times when as a culture we feel disempowered," Lauro said. "And the facts are there that, when we are experiencing economic crises, the vast population is feeling disempowered."
On the other hand, it's a release. In response to an email, some Walking Email Writer at DeathByZombie.com, which tracks and promotes zombie walks, wrote: "When being a zombie, you get to let your basic instincts take over your rational, normal mind.
"You get into character and transform into a savage," the ghoul added. "You get to be wild. In a zombie walk, the group's infectious fever is irresistible and the urge to join grabs you."
Then, presumably, you go home for dinner; maybe to sushi or steak tartare.
According to DeathByZombie.com, there are no zombie walks set for either Ocala or Gainesville anytime soon. But Central Florida's first zombie run — a zombie-infected 5K — is scheduled May 4 at the Central Florida Fairgrounds in Orlando.
Lore in zombie land
Zombies extend back to an era before Rome. They are first mentioned in the "Epic of Gilgamesh," a Sumerian king in 2500 B.C. A passage reads: "… and will let the dead go up to eat the living! And the dead will outnumber the living!"
In modern times, there are three categories of zombies: the first is the Haitian zombie, who is the result of voodoo and mind-dulling drugs. There's some question if they are real.
There's also the philosophical zombie cited in articles on consciousness; the Internet lists at least 85 philosophical papers dating back to 1987 referencing this type.
Their defining feature, Australian philosopher David Chalmers wrote in an email, is they "are either physical duplicates of us (with brains and bodies just like ours) without consciousness, or functional duplicates of us (perhaps made of silicon, but behaving like a biological being) without consciousness."
So in other words, like many of us before that first cup of coffee.
But most of us have a healthy fear of the lumbering, inarticulate creatures introduced in George Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead" — which still scares the bejeebees out of us 45 years later.
Sometimes called Hollywood zombies or Romero zombies, we rarely learn how these once-living beings become zombies — though various explanations hint at cosmic radiation, nuclear holocaust and viral pandemic.
Whatever the cause, the curse typically is passed through bites; once gnawed on by a zombie, a living human can only look forward to switching sides. Though this is a common way disease is spread, the medical community generally is skeptical of it actually happening.
A pair of recent films, meanwhile, have lurched the genre into both scarier and softer directions. The 2002 release "28 Days Later" introduced zombies who could run. "That's scarier," said Elsbeth Russell of Gainesville. "With the typical zombie you can get away, but the ones that can run can catch you."
She was introduced to zombies when she married her husband, Brian, nine years ago. For Christmas, she gave him a boxed set of Romero zombie films. Now she's a fan, too, and a faithful follower of "The Walking Dead."
Hardly scary was this year's "Warm Bodies," which introduced a cuddlier zombie — R, brought back from his deathlike state by loving a human girl.
"For thousands of years we've been watching the pure white knight slay the monster, and it's getting old," "Warm Bodies" author Isaac Marion told Scienceblogs.com. "People are starting to understand that mortality and motives are complex and we want to know more about what goes on in the darker half that's been hidden away."
"The New Hunger," a prequel to "Warm Bodies," recently was released, and Marion has said he's writing a "Warm Bodies" sequel.
But there is one place where zombies have yet to bury their rivals — the box office; vampires are still very much undead and kicking there.
Since 1980, the entire zombie genre totaled just over $1 billion in box office, yet the five "Twilight" films alone combine for $1.1 billion, according to the Box Office Mojo website. With all the other vampire films — including dozens featuring Dracula — going back to 1978, add another $1.8 billion to "Twilight's" total.
So perhaps in that sense, there's still some life in vampires yet — for now.
Rick Allen can be reached at email@example.com.