Zombies have lurched out of grainy retro films into the zeitgeist of popular culture and, despite apparent signs of decay, they don’t look ready to amble on anytime soon.
They’ve spurred popular television shows, movies and zombie walks in cities across the globe. Even the provincial government displayed some zombie zeal in recent months, crafting an emergency preparedness program around the soulless among us.
But what is it about the decaying that’s caught the eye of the living? In the aftermath of Kelowna’s zombie walk, and in the lead up to Halloween and the Day Of The Dead reporter Kathy Michaels spoke to a couple of zombiephiles who know a thing or two about what it is to be caught up with the hottest thing since vampires.
Some people don’t wait until Oct. 31 to immerse themselves in the macabre.
Kelowna’s Gen Duchesne, for example, has adopted the grim, brain-slurping persona the Zombie Queen on Facebook and Twitter, and from there she disseminates zombie news 365 days a year.
“I live, breathe, sleep zombies,” she said.“I have loved zombies since I was a little girl …I have seen hundreds of zombie movies and read many books, I guess you could call me a zombie expert.”
In turn, she’s become pretty well-known in the “zombie world.”
“I now have 2,223 followers on Twitter including the producer of the AMC TV show the Walk-ing Dead Glen Mazzara,” she said, adding one of the show’s lead actors, Norman Reedus, is also among her fans.
With her finger on the flat pulse of zombie culture, it’s clear that Duchesne was the right woman to lead the local zombie movement—and, yes, there is one. It just happens to get more people out than an average political rally.
She organized the first Kelowna zombie walk in April 2011. Since then, there have been three more, amounting to an average of twice a year.
“Over time they have grown to be bigger—more people find out about it and come and join in on the fun,” she said.
Dozens upon dozens of locals go out for the festivities that usually include walking downtown in a state of un-dead, then maybe going for a beverage afterward. The whole affair likely lasts a quarter of the time needed to prepare, but there’s something about zombies that seems to warrant the investment of time and money.
“Why am I so fascinated by them? I don’t quite know. But I do know that if a zombie apocalypse were to happen I am ready. I know everything there is to know about zombies,” she said.
A growing amount of academic work has been put into exploring the reasons why Duchesne and her ilk are interested in the un-dead, thanks to Kelly Doyle, an inter-disciplinary graduate student in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at UBC Okanagan.
She’s been studying zombies and their political, social, and cultural relevance since 2006, and has found that zombie movies are a reflection of the times, highlighting political and cultural anxieties.
It just so happens that the over-arching con-cern of modern times has an existential bent.
Historically, however, that wasn’t the case.
Your friendly neighbourhood un-dead were first were found in Haitian and African folklore, and used to explain hierarchal conditions within those societies.
In the 1960s, zombie films rose to popularity and the storylines acted as a metaphor for prevailing political themes.
Night of the Living Dead, for example, offered a view of the race issues that dominated the time.
“They have one African American character, he’s the hero and the only one who can survive,” Doyle said. “Then the police see him and shoot him on sight, and it’s un-clear whether it’s because they think he’s a zombie or because he’s not white….There’s more go-ing on there than the zombie being a fictional monster. The movie is about very real problems in society.”
Then, for a time, the zombie genre went silent, relegated into the collections of kitsch fans.
There may never have been a resurgence had it not been for a global crisis of faith, sparked by 9/11.
“When 9/11 happened, people started to question what it means to be human and what it means to label someone else an outsider,” Doyle said. Films that followed —like 28 Days Later and the TV series Walk-ing Dead—also sussed out society’s fears around pandemic and contamination, mirroring news stories that dealt with Mad Cow disease, HIV, and Anthrax.
“Zombie films are al-ways working with the idea of progressing,” she said.
“They look at med-ical research, capitalism, money being invested and how far you can push the limits…and with all of those films, it ends in apocalypse. The question is, what happens when you go too far?”
Those boundary pushing zombies were also a departure from their Haitian and African ancestors, in that they have no spiritual hang-ups. They are purely secular monsters, highlighting the downfalls of humanity’s attempt to strive ahead.
“They’re too human—they can decay, they have no special powers, or reasoning skills or goals,” she said.
“They’re Freud’s id. They’re not afraid of death…they’re mindless.”
Basically, they’re the antitheses of all the qualities society praises and a sneak peak of its fears about the direction we’re all going. “Since enlightenment, humans have (revered) the ability to reason and be spiritual, but zombies work on a completely base nature. “Then they’re put against a small band of survivors that inevitably act with selfish reasons and have to die. The question is, what is it to be human? Are we as benevolent as we think we are?”
Then the scary part is, there is no hope, there’s only the end, she said. Granted, that’s where zombie-fans like Duchesne see the appeal. And that, said Doyle, could mark another transition.
“Zombies are gaining ground. When I started working on this in 2006 there weren’t that many examples, now they’re ubiquitous in our culture,” she said.
Ironically, things like zombie walks, like the one in Kelowna earlier this month, show that there may be a bit of humanity around the fringes of a pessimistic obsession.
“There’s something freeing about getting rid of taboos and being part of a group of zombies in a zombie walk,” said Doyle. “They’re taking part in something bigger.”
So, tonight, when you see the un-dead animated around the city, don’t judge the wheezing meat bag by its cover. Zombies may just be the embodiment of your own fears and dreams for the community.