[27 October 2008]
Imagine an idle Sunday and you’re walking down a lightly trafficked urban drag and you catch a glimpse of a slobbering mess out of the corner of your eye. The initial reaction is that he’s a homeless weirdo looking to hit up the locals for a few bucks. But then you notice a gash with dried blood running down the side of his face. He continues down the sidewalk blank faced, never really taking note of his surroundings. It’s eerie and a little perturbing at first, but he passes in silence, setting your mind at ease.
This is right before a shaggy, foot dragging, blood drenched mob envelops you, moaning something about brains. The initial seconds of panic, the split moments of internal confusion among the normals is what this mob thrives off of. “I remember walking down Carytown and some guy was exiting a store looking at something he just purchased, completely unaware that there were a ton of zombies walking on by,” says Roger Barr, creator of Zombiewalk.com and the humorous website, I-Mockery. “When he finally looked up he was completely startled and screamed, ‘Oh my god!’ and dashed back inside the store and shut the door behind him, while looking out at the rest of us. Those are the kind of reactions you live for at a Zombie Walk!”
It has been 40 years since the ragged, undead shells of human beings hit the silver screen in George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead, and the fallout from the initial release is still felt world wide. Not only having cracked open a whole new sub-genre of horror with several sequels and endless movies inspired by the Romero films, Night of the Living Dead has burrowed itself right into humanity’s subconscious as many peoples’ favorite horror fantasy; the idea of true freedom from conventional society via an apocalyptic, undead swarm of zombies. Not to mention, the unspoken attraction of shooting something for a righteous cause. Rarely does one feel sad about wasting a zombie, you’re doing them a favor. The fantasy has spawned survival guides, video games, infinite simulation websites and internalized contingency plans for millions around the globe.
The zombie walk is taking the fantasy to the next level. It’s invoking a little piece of that proposed world, where the living are forced to ban together and make life changing decisions in order to survive. A midnight film festival, “The Trash Film Orgy,” in Sacramento, California was where in the idea hatched in the summer of 2001 as part of a promotion for the festival. A few dozen people gathered, costumed as zombies, and walked the parade routes around town. It was a success and has continued annually ever since. Today, most walks are organized under the radar, over the Internet on Myspace, Zombiewalk.com or other enthusiast websites. They often have a charitable intents tied with them, as well. Rarely does the location of attack ever see it coming. Walks from Vancouver to Brisbane, Australia have been recorded around the world, with Chicago holding an unofficial record of over 1,500 zombie walkers in attendance in June of this year.
But before the elaborate makeup and charitable scenarios, zombie fans were forced to live vicariously through the films. The Last Man On Earth (1964), based on Robert Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend, is well known for it’s direct influence on Romero’s “Dead” movies. Despite the vampiric nature of the ghouls stocking Vincent Price’s character, Dr. Robert Morgan, through out the movie, it is still very much a zombie film. The Last Man On Earth kicked off the genre with one of it’s most extreme scenarios, one man immune to an extinction level type plague that has reduced the human race to pack of blood sucking maws. But he has freedom to go where he wants, take what he wants, provided he does it in the sunlight. It’s a narcissistic and egomaniacal fantasy that has probed the depth of our character at one point or another, and Will Smith only made it look more enticing, revving up and down the overgrown streets of a ruined Manhattan, wielding a rifle in the 2007 adaptation, I Am Legend.
Price’s character is modest compared to the latter day incarnations with Heston (The Omega Man) and Smith. While Vincent Price’s character does only what he must to survive, The Omega Man and I Am Legend incorporate a certain level of comforting and whimsical consumerism. In the Omega Man when Heston is cruising the streets of a decimated Los Angeles, he blows a tire and just keeps driving. Instead of doing the old tire change, he walks into a car dealership and drives off with a brand new car. In I Am Legend, when the camera pans around Smith’s domestic fortress, showcasing several modern art masterpieces he has lifted from various New York art museums, he’s punching up Bob Marley’s greatest hits on an iPod and renting whatever videos he wants for free. The ‘what if I had the world to myself?’ question alone makes the films fun to watch.
The zombie walk, as a pseudo manifestation of these fantasies, is somewhat of a conflict with the idea of having the world to yourself and unloading shotguns on monsters. Instead, it’s almost like watching the display of a worldwide death wish and the walkers are sacrificing any uniqueness or heroic qualities the Neville character had, to join a group of people with similar values and bring on an end-of-the-world scenario. Matheson’s book, unlike the latest film adaptation, also eludes to the zombies rebuilding society in their new form, just as most walkers relate to on a much smaller and theatrical scale.
In 1996, Capcom brought the fantasy to the virtual world with the debut of the Resident Evil video game series on the Sony Playstation. Resident Evil has birthed a media franchise that spans across the gaming world into comic books, collectibles, and a cult-favorite trilogy of movies featuring Mila Jovovich. Including all of its incarnations, Resident Evil has sold over 34 million games across several platforms.
The release of Resident Evil coined a new genre of video game, “survival horror.” The two playable protagonist, Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, are sent into the fictional outskirts of Racoon City with a S.T.A.R.S team, after a series of brutal murders are reported through out the area. Only when they happen upon a mansion do they discover the Umbrella Corporation’s hidden underground laboratory facility, busting at the seems with zombies infected with the “T-Virus.”
The mindless, corporate drone theme was easy enough to extrapolate from the first three installments in the series, but Resident Evil 4 up the anti and changed the mechanics of the zombies explaining that a parasite called the “Las Plagas” (‘the plague’ in Spanish) animated the monsters with latent brainwaves sent down the spinal cord. It made them more intelligent and vicious than their predecessors and ultimately relayed the message that those without self-restraint become depraved horrors, feeding on the flesh of the living. Getting up on some random day of the year, dressing like a zombie and walking down a busy city street acting like a zombie, takes an incredible lack of self-restraint and personal security for the average person. The walks become a reminder of a world without restraint and is a brief goofy, taste of what it would be like for the average Joe to be thrown into the apocalyptic deep end.
But once again, the walkers are sacrificing the qualities of their shotgun wielding heroes to trigger a few seconds of fear, excitement and contingency plans for the general populace. And to know what it’s like to be on the other side of the proverbial barrels.