The Zombies of Lbhaira
Last summer, in Casablanca, I found zombies in a souk. A souk is a traditional Middle Eastern market of small, closely-packed shops, clustered according to the goods they sell. It’s customary to haggle with the proprietors of these shops; argue long enough and they’ll serve you mint tea. The Lbhaira souk specializes in used books and pirated accessories. The zombies lay in pirate territory.
The pirates manufacture knock-off backpacks and handbags behind the booksellers’ stands, in rows of irregular little workshops. The place looks like a shanty town, with the whole pirate assembly line out in the open in dirt alleys. I watched a boy of 6 or 7 carefully stack wet prints of the Nike swoosh while his father manned a silkscreen press – a heartwarming subject for a Norman Rockwell forgery. The oddity of the enterprise deepened as I came across a macabre artifact: Hanging from a hook in one of the shops was a zombie backpack.
Jamie Hewlett of the Gorillaz designed four zombie-themed backpacks for Eastpak in 2005 through his company, Zombie Flesh Eaters. The “Zombie Attack” model featured a horde of grey and black hands clutching up the bag’s white fabric. The pirates rendered the hands in grey and white, probably because they had only black material to work with. For Eastpak to commission a zombie bag series tells us that the zombie craze may have gone too far, but for Moroccan clothing pirates to deem this line worthy of a rip-off indicates an infestation worse than anyone suspected.
Just as vampires dominated the last decade of the 20th century, so zombies reign over the first decade of the new millennium. You can tell a lot about people by the way they have their monsters eat them, and the zombie does not dine. It devours, noisily, sloppily, with great haste and, worst of all, with great anger.
With the revival of the zombie genre, the undead have invaded far more than movies, comics and videogames. The resurrection of the zombie genre has occurred in both the mass media and the cultural underground. Zombie folk art is the best evidence that this creature represents something important for us. It all starts with the handcrafting of the zombie.
Zombies Are We
“I try to keep them in line as much as possible,” Thea Faulds says of her zombies, “but I’ve had groups attack cars or restaurants.”
A zombie walk is a moaning, groaning parade of the undead. Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in zombie walks in San Francisco, Vancouver, São Paolo, Montreal, Baton Rouge and Philadelphia. Faulds started the zombie walk phenomenon with just five friends in the town Canadians refer to as the “Good City.” For the past six years, on the Sunday before Halloween, Toronto has enjoyed a shuffling invasion of its well-groomed streets. Because the horde now numbers upward of 500 undead, the annual walk takes months of preparation. Toronto police accommodate the zombies, despite the fact that Faulds has never acquired a permit. She sees the event as somewhat “punk rock” and has turned down offers of corporate sponsorship.
Anarchy doesn’t mean chaos, however. Faulds and her crew of volunteers gently remind participants that zombies “retain memories” of “traffic bylaws and other general rules.” Within these bounds, the march supports improvisation. “I’ve had free blood to give out,” Faulds says. “Sometimes somebody brings a brain.” A gory feeding erupts now and again.
“Western culture doesn’t have a celebration of death, and you have that coupled with a panic mode since 9/11,” says Faulds. Zombie walks present a more authentic confrontation with death than does a commercialized holiday like Halloween. The walks are equal parts safe and horrifying, and therefore cathartic. Plus, zombies offer an individualized expression of mortality. While the Creature from the Black Lagoon has always fascinated Faulds, and costuming 500 of her closest friends as him might look neat, the creature’s makeup would overwhelm each person’s identity.
This difference is crucial for Toronto, which, in terms of race, ethnicity and nationality, is the most diverse city on Earth. The zombie is perhaps the only monster that can both reflect this diversity and remain monstrous. As for Toronto, so for the world. Zombies are the most human of horrors.
Sexing the Zombie
Imagine a woman in a black slip, black garters and hose and black high heels. She holds a spade – the mark of a playing card, not the digging tool – as if it were a serving tray, in an ass-out, ’50s-era pose against a white background. The stark black-and-white composition sets off her bluish skin, which is mottled with bruises, ravaged by numerous wounds and running with blood. “The Queen of Spades,” as Monique Motil calls her, belongs to a sorority of women who are “sexy and voracious at the same time.” Zombie pin-up girls.
Motil began her zombie calendar project as a lark a few years ago. She wanted to do a pin-up series, but had gotten sick of vampires. Zombies seemed more of the moment. The initial portfolio of a couple of dozen or so figures – The Cheerleader, The Can-Can Girl, The Princess – now serves as a foundation for a website of user-created content. Women upload their own photos to zombiepinups.com. The site also hosts images of zombie beauty pageants. “Zombies are very inclusive,” says Motil.
They’re liberating as well. For the pin-up models, undergoing make-up applications for up to six hours is well worth the chance to be gross. Motil did non-zombie photo styling for some time prior to her calendar. The cover-up work endemic to a standard shoot suddenly became an opportunity for creativity. Any flaw that a model perceived in herself, a cause for consternation in industry work, could be turned into an advantage. “Let’s rot it off!” Motil would say.
A similar turnabout happened with men’s responses to the images: They were aroused, says Motil, but disturbed by their arousal. Not just because of the gore, but because of the idea of the devouring female. Still, she says, “no need to make the feminist statement too obvious.”
What the Hell Was All That Back There?
The revival of the zombie genre had something to do with being obvious, however. They are an extremely blunt monster, more like Godzilla as the Bomb than vampires as the AIDS epidemic. We prize zombies for their frankness, rather than any particular symbolism they might convey. Faulds and Motil do not make use of zombies for identical ends. Nor does a zombie kickball game mean the same thing as zombie yoga. (Yes, both of these took place, in Maine and New York, respectively.) The popularity of zombies suggests a desire for starkest clarity, for direct confrontation with an issue – but what’s so great about being clear?
On Halloween of 2006, Kim Paffenroth, a professor of religious studies at Iona College, published Gospel of the Living Dead, a Christian interpretation of George Romero’s zombie films. Last year, he put out his first novel, Dying to Live, a zombie apocalypse story. For Paffenroth, zombies work as powerful allegories, because no matter how starkly they portray the author’s cause, they always provoke moral quandaries.
“Assume that the monsters stand in for a threat that exists in the real world,” says Paffenroth. For zombies, that could mean consumerism, avian flu, income disparity, the military-industrial complex or any other source of modern paranoia. In Romero’s Land of the Dead, the poor literally eat the rich, but because zombies, rather than giant bugs, represent the poor, it’s much more difficult to see them being killed. In a horror film that allegorizes a contemporary controversy, the form the monster takes means everything. “The more you can kill it with impunity,” says Paffenroth, “the more you can say, ‘I can solve the problem with a gun.'”
Forestalling the Zombocalypse
The moral conflict inherent in killing zombies – they’re just sick people, after all – explains why imagining life after the dead have risen is at once so pleasurable and so disquieting. It also explains why the most shocking scenes in zombie media are the human versus human ones. The clarity and force of the zombie genre and its ability to address a plenitude of issues come from the human focus of its conflicts. Nothing demonstrates this better than the work of Zombie Squad, a zombie-themed disaster preparation organization.
Founded in St. Louis in 2005, Zombie Squad promotes both survivalism and volunteerism through the conceit of being a zombie elimination task force. In mid-June this year, they’ll host the fourth annual Zombie Con in Irondale, Missouri. A couple of hundred people will head into the woods to learn about primitive fire building, ham radio operation, self-defense techniques, campfire baking and navigating by the stars. They’ll also watch zombie movies in an impromptu theater. Along with survivalist training, which includes a trip to a shooting range, Zombie Con will also hold a panel on charity fund-raising. It’s the latter work that really distinguishes Zombie Squad.
“There’s not a whole lot of zombie charities out there,” says Kyle Ladd, one of Zombie Squad’s founders. Nor are there all that many survivalist organizations that sponsor blood and food drives or do fundraising for Habitat for Humanity, as Zombie Squad has. There are three other chapters outside St. Louis: in Arkansas, New Jersey and Toronto. Zombie Squad’s charter agreement requires that each new chapter put on a charity event. They’ve also just started the Volunteer Award Program, which will provide ZS T-shirts, pins and patches to Zombie Squad members (they have 758 card-carrying members and 9,903 on their forums) for accumulating volunteer hours.
This community focus contrasts with the individualism a survivalist mentality usually promotes. Zombie Squad recognizes that getting through a disaster requires cooperation, not just self-reliance. Of course, this approach benefits individuals, too. As Ladd says, wryly, “The more people who are prepared, the less crazies I have to deal with.”
Thus, it makes perfect sense when Ladd says that “the zombie thing filters out weirdos.” You need a sense of humor to take Zombie Squad seriously, but the “zombie thing” also relies on an understanding that humans are social animals. It frustrates us when the survivors in a zombie film can’t work together. It upsets us when a character we like gets turned into a zombie, because that person can no longer communicate with us. A zombie is forever divorced from the group. As Paffenroth observes, “Zombies are individualized, but they’ve lost all personality.”
This is why Zombie Squad exemplifies the meaning of the revival of the zombie genre. They confront the horror of the zombie by strengthening community bonds. A zombie has a horde, but no society or social concerns; a zombie is an island in a way that no person is. Zombie Squad concerns itself entirely with connecting people. The same goes for zombie folk art, which affirms community in ways that zombie media can’t. A zombie represents the loss of the essence of humanity, and people like Faulds, Motil, and Ladd are all about celebrating precisely that essence.
Ray Huling’s a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can’t wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.