Pop Culture Landscape is Becoming a "Zombieland"

Pop Culture Becoming a "Zombieland"

Zombieland opens Friday

Vampires may be the current kings of pop culture creatures, but another species is slowly – really slowly – gaining ground.

Watch out for the Zombies!

Interest in the Undead has been building steadily in recent years. Now it has reached a fevered pitch across the entertainment spectrum.

The film “Zombieland” arrives in theaters Friday, and it’s just one of several movies, comic books, novels, TV series, even stage productions tackling the subject matter. Want more proof that Zombies are hot? There are Facebook pages dedicated to zombies.

On the surface, the appeal of zombies may be hard to fathom. While vampires have become sex symbols thanks to “Twilight” and “True Blood,” there has been no such image makeover for zombies.

Zombies remain the mindless, bile-spewing, flesh-craving, monosyllabic killers they have been for the past four decades.

So why are these apparently one-note creatures so frightening, so fascinating?

“Though zombies are often seen as somewhat comical, I've always found them to be a truly compelling threat that's essentially the opposite of oh, say, vampires,” says fantasy author Cheri Priest.

“Vampires are special and sparkly, and wealthy, and good-looking, and maybe French. But zombiehood takes away everything and leaves you just like everyone else. No sparkles, no sexy accent. Just decomposing.”

“It’s like a reflection of ourselves,” notes comic book writer Robert Kirkman. “Vampires are different things, and werewolves are different things…but zombies are just, you know, us. Dead. Which is, aside from public speaking, everyone’s biggest fear. It’s kind of a personification of our fear of death, walking around, coming after us.”

That familiarity is at the heart of zombie mania. People relate to what they can envision, and in a world of zombies, all it takes is one bite to become one of them.

Kirkman’s Image comic book “The Walking Dead” (read the first fill issue here) has been a top seller since its 2003 debut. The series, which is being developed into a TV show for AMC, follows a group of human survivors trying to survive a post-apocalyptic Earth that’s been overrun by zombies.

“’The Walking Dead’ is more a character study than anything else,” says Kirkman. “It’s just an exploration of characters trying to live and survive in a destroyed civilization. The zombies are just set dressing.”

Other comic publishers took notice of “The Walking Dead’s” success. Kirkman launched the popular "Marvel Zombies" series in 2005 (yes, that's zombie versions of Spider-Man and the X-Men). Helped by artist Arthur Suydam’s zombie homage’s to classic Marvel comics of the past, the series became a best seller.

Suydam thinks zombies in general touch on people’s fear of resurrection.

“Into a negative situation, like Frankenstein. Loss of the peace of the grave. For some of us a long sleep following a tumultuous life and toil might seem a blessing.“

Living with the waking dead

How to survive in a world full of zombies is also the theme of “Zombieland.” The action comedy stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as survivors trying to find the last safe haven for humans in the United States of Zombieland.

Eisenberg’s character follows a list of rules of survival. They include pearls of wisdom such as ‘The Double Tap’ (don’t be cheap with bullets. Shoot a zombie twice to make sure they’re dead) and Rule #1 – ‘Cardio’ (you need to be in good shape to outrun zombies, since they never get tired).

While an unabashed comedy, the film’s premise is built around a very serious – and in this day and age of swine flu concerns, very possible – scenario. A virus similar to Mad Cow disease is behind the zombie outbreak.

“These are realities of modern living, and I think that it's something that we are all collectively feeling …could happen,” says director Ruben Fleischer.

“It could actually happen, and that’s terrifying,” Stone points out. ”Vampires aren’t going to exist, and werewolves probably don’t exist…zombies really could conceivably exist.”

Harrelson, a noted environmental activist, suggested zombies have their own agenda.

“In my mind,” the actor says, “zombies are pretty ecological because they eat humans, who are causing most of the ecological damage.”

He was joking, but real-life parallels are commonplace in zombie culture.

Zombie roots

While zombies had appeared in films for several decades, it wasn’t until George Romero’s 1968 masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead,” that the modern zombie archetype, ‘the undead risen to walk the earth’ zombie, was born. That low-budget film touched on racial tensions and people’s concern over the Vietnam War. Ten years later, Romero hit another cultural bulls eye with “Dawn of the Dead,” warning of society’s rampant commercialism.

Of course, no discussion about zombies is complete without Michael Jackson’s legendary “Thriller” video. It was the zombie equivalent of The Beatles showing up on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” John Landis’ groundbreaking short film put zombies front and center on the mainstream stage.

“I think it [‘Thriller’] is the biggest reference point for zombies in popular culture,” points out Fleischer. “Our makeup guy, the guy who designed the makeup for [‘Zombieland’], Tony Gardner, actually worked on ‘Thriller.’”

Fleischer says they tried to get the rights to use “Thriller” for the opening credit sequence of “Zombieland” but couldn’t work out an arrangement.

As influential and unforgettable as “Thriller” was, to some observers, the image of groovin’ flesh-eaters took the bite out of the zombie genre. It wasn’t until the 21st century that it got its grunt back.

A new outbreak of zombie-dom

Danny Boyle’s 2002 hit “28 Days Later” had Great Britain decimated by the spread of an experimental rage virus, which turned its citizens into rampaging flesh-eaters. Zack Snyder’s remake of Romero’s 1978 zombie pic “Dawn of the Dead” also used a viral outbreak as a plot device.

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg showed how much fun zombies could be in 2004’s cult classic “Shaun of the Dead.” It parodied zombie films and paid homage to them at the same time.

The stars of “Zombieland” are aware comparisons will be made to ‘Shaun’, but believe their film stands alone.

“I think ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is a great, funny movie, but I think the similarities are pretty much the fact that it’s a kind of a world of zombies…and I don’t really see the other similarities, other than being a comedy as well,” says Harrelson.

“Our movie is less a parody, less satirical,” insists Eisenberg, who says he has never seen any other zombie film. “I don’t think it plays on the conventions of zombie movies as much as it kind of creates its own world.”

The great zombie debate

Pegg, seen most recently as Scotty in “Star Trek,” is an avowed zombie aficionado who wrote an editorial last year for the British paper The Guardian calling for a return to ‘traditional zombie values.’ His main gripe?

Zombies don’t run. Ever.

Zombies walk, he insists. They may plod, waddle, may even appear to be marching (though they’re not really all that organized), but they don’t run. It may look like a zombie, grunt like a zombie, eat human flesh like a zombie; But if it’s running after you, Pegg asserts, it’s not a zombie.

The zombie blog DontEatMyBrain.com agrees with Pegg. So does Kirkman.

“There’s a huge debate over running zombies vs. walking zombies,” Kirkman says. “I much prefer the slow, shambling zombie just because it adds a hint of realism.”

While they may have been born onscreen, the printed page is where the relevance and impact of zombies has expanded. Not just comics, but a wide range of literature.

Max Brooks has been credited with giving the genre new life with his bestselling books “The Zombie Survival Guide” and “World War Z.” The former is a lighthearted How-To instructional said to have been inspired by the Y2K craziness. The latter is a horror story that used the trappings of a planetary zombie war to comment on social issues such as an ineffectual government, isolationism and apocalyptic anxiety.

Authors ranging from Stephen King to Brian Keane have crafted zombie tales. Even long-dead authors have jumped on the zombie bandwagon.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” injects new, err, life into Jane Austen’s literary classic, keeping nearly all of the original text while adding zombie mayhem to the plot.

And slow they afoot they may be, but zombies travel well across time and genre subcultures. In Priest’s seventh and newest novel “Boneshaker,” zombies terrorize an alternate-world, Victorian Age Seattle.

“Zombies have become something of a steampunk fixture, and I'm a longstanding fan of the undead anyway – so the end result was a perfect fit,” says Priest. “And in my world-setting, I needed a very good reason for the city's former population to stay the hell away from the wall and what's inside it. Hordes of moaning zombies did the trick quite nicely.”

So let the debate rage on. Who’s cooler, Vampires or zombies?

Vampires can be conflicted, charming, and even vegetarian. Zombies offer no layers, no complexity. They are what they are, they do what they do, they eat what they eat. That kind of straightforwardness can be somewhat refreshing in an age of irony, cynicism and double-talk.

For Kirkman, it’s no contest.

“Cooler than vampires? Hands down. Of course. C’mon. Vampires are for teenage girls.”

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