Sunday, September 23, 2007

Apple #268: Zombies

Your very own Apple Lady might have the chance to be a zombie extra in a zombie movie. Some friends of a friend are supposedly making this movie, and it's one of those things that's so far-flung, I may never hear anything more about it again. But the other night, somebody asked me if I wanted to be an extra in a zombie movie, and I said, immediately, "Yes."

Zombies from Shaun of the Dead
(Image posted by Reeling Reviews

Part of the reason I want to do this is that certain zombie movies freak me out completely. Not the body-parts-falling-off kind of zombies, but the ones where you don't really know who's a zombie and who's not. I'm talking mainly about the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake with Donald Sutherland. That movie scares the crap out of me, largely because I've had nightmares -- far worse than any movie -- that involve hard-to-identify zombies who are taking over people's souls.

My nightmares involve trying really hard not to stand out and thus avoid setting off this type of alarm. Oof, terrible.
(Photo from Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978
posted by creature from the blog lagoon)

Enough revelations about your Apple Lady's psyche. Let's find out about zombies.

  • Zombies are re-animated human corpses. They have been brought back to semi-life through some sort of curse, or by some scientifically complex interaction, usually involving nuclear waste. They're usually very stupid.
  • Zombie movie aficionados will claim that the nearly-dead do not qualify as zombies. Though they may be operating in a befogged, near-mindless state due to some form of possession or illness, they have not died and so they are technically not zombies.
  • Philosophers and folks who study human consciousness disagree. The zombies they believe in are only the nearly-dead. In fact, the word "zombie" became a part of Western theoretical discourse in 1974 when a philosopher, Robert Kirk, described creatures looking very much like human beings but lacking consciousness, and applied the term "zombies."

Robert Kirk, now an Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham in England, recently published a book about zombies, called Zombies and Consciousness.
(Photo from U of Nottingham)

  • The concept of zombies has existed, however, for far longer than that. Haitian voodoo, which is rooted in West African traditions, says that a sorceror, or bokor, can turn someone into a zombie. A law in Haiti condemning zombie creation was enacted in 1835, so lots of people must have been aware of and not liking the zombie thing as long ago as that.
  • Most people's ideas about Haitian voodoo and zombies comes from a movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was based on a book of the same title written by then-doctoral student Wade Davis.
      • Davis went to Haiti to investigate a reported case of zombification and said he discovered that the bokor had given people a powder that was a combination of puffer fish, poisonous toad, jimson weed, and other toxins. The toxins paralyzed people until they appeared to be dead, the people were buried, and when the toxins wore off, the bokor dug them up, and the people believed they had been turned into zombies.
      • However, other researchers, from anthropologists to pharmacologists, have scrutinized Davis' research and called it bunk. One of the main flaws in his research -- though not the only one -- is that the amount of paralyzing toxin present in the powder he brought back for analysis is too small to have the effect he claimed.
      • Regardless of opinions to the contrary, Davis is to this day a respected ethnobotanologist who works for National Geographic Explorer and also gives motivational speeches.

Wade Davis, anthropologist and lecturer-at-large
(Photo from UC Santa Barbara)

Enough of the high-level thought about zombies. In the movies, zombies are generally:
  • Slow-moving
  • Clumsy
  • Expressionless
  • Moaning
  • In search of living human flesh or brains to eat
  • Seen traveling in large groups
  • In various states of decay
  • Contagious; can turn healthy humans into zombies
  • Difficult to kill, except by decapitating or otherwise destroying the brain, usually in a violent or pyrotechnic manner -- which is kind of strange if you think about it because zombies apparently have very little of the brain at their disposal.
Exceptions to these generalities do exist, of course.

In this game, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse, you play the zombie.
(Photo from V's Recommended Games Wiki)

Now here are some notable zombie movies -- notable primarily in the sense that I've seen them, and other people refer to them a lot.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956
  • In black and white, this original movie tells the story of a doctor who struggles to keep his fellow small town residents from being turned into zombies. Mysterious pods arrive and in the pods grow a duplicate of the person who is to be overtaken. Soon, pods are being shipped in to the town by the truckload. The whole thing is a symbol for the McCarthyistic paranoia about Communism.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978
  • This remake uses the whole duplication-by-pod mechanism, but the zombification has more to do with mindless consumerism and the pervasive sense that the post-Watergate United States of the 1970s is bankrupt of emotion and morals.

Night of the Living Dead, 1968
  • George Romero's classic established a lot of the rules for zombie behavior that most zombie-movie makers followed afterwards. These zombies are created when a NASA satellite, covered in radiation, comes back from Venus.

The Evil Dead, 1981
  • Fully utilizing the friends-stuck-in-the-woods ploy and picking people off one by one, this zombie movie is notable for its herky-jerky special effects and its tongue-in-cheek attitude. The friends find the Book of the Dead in the basement, and reading the book unleashes demons that possess the friends one by one. To protect themselves, they must destroy their zombified friends.
  • Director Sam Raimi made this into a trilogy, including Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. I can't remember whether it's in the first Evil Dead or the second that the hero cuts off his zombified hand and attaches a chainsaw to his stump and uses that the fight the evil.

Apparently it's in Evil Dead II that his hand becomes zombified and tries to kill him in increasingly wicked and taunting ways.
(Image from Rifftrax forum)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003
  • A rare breed: a zombie movie that's also a crowd pleaser with a romantic storyline. The pirate-zombies have been made undead by their unrelenting quest for gold, and only those who pursue their true love with unwavering devotion can escape the pirate-zombie curse. Mercifully cutting the Hollywood shlock is Johnny Depp as the rogue pirate Jack Sparrow. In some ways, he is more in limbo than anyone else in the movie -- and we are grateful to him for it.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004
  • The zombie movie that asks, what happens when a couple of British slackers have to fend off a hoard of zombies? The people who survive the zombies in this film are the ones who know the true value of friendship. Lots of references to classic zombie movies.

Grindhouse, 2007
  • The first part of this double feature is an unapologetic zombie extravaganza. Way over the top and aware of it, this movie employs everything -- chainsaws, motorcycles, sawed-off shotguns, syringes that inject paralyzing substances, radiation, vats of chili, and the government. I'm not sure what the zombies represent in this movie. Maybe just plain directorial glee.

And of course, right now the latest Resident Evil is playing at a movie theater near you.

(Image from Random Musings)

Movies you wouldn't normally think of as zombie movies but which technically could be include:
  • The Monkey's Paw
  • The Terminator
  • The Hills Have Eyes
  • End of Days
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street

Here are some lesser-known zombie movies with titles that I especially enjoy:
  • Hey You've Got Zombies in Your Backyard
  • Better Off Undead: A Zombie Musical
  • Guinea Pig: Android of Notre Dame
  • Attack of the Mutated Killer Chickens
  • Dusk of the Recently Living
  • Resident Evil Without Jill
  • Botched Surgery
  • Breakfast
By the way, some of these are shorts that can be found on YouTube.

If you want a bigger list of zombie movies, check out the Zombie Movie Database.

Monstrous, Zombies Central
Tom Polger, Duke University, Zombies
Brains: On Mind and Related Matter, Kirk Takes Zombies Back, June 25, 2006
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Zombies
Howstuffworks, How Zombies Work
Robert Lawless, review of Wade Davis'
The Serpent and the Rainbow, Latin American Anthropology Review, 1989.
Leslie Desmangles, Zombie powder, March 21, 2001

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