< Horror Film History — Zombie Walks

Zombie Walks are a recent street culture phenomenon. Karina Wilson explores their gruesome appeal.

Zombie Nation

Strange things are afoot in the malls, campuses and city streets of North America.  Shambling, groaning things. with peeling skin and tattered clothes.  Lurching, moaning things, with missing limbs and a thirst for ‘braiiins’.  They appear out of nowhere and vanish just as suddenly.  They lack identity, but stand out in any crowd:  Zombies.  Hundreds of them. 

This is not the long-dreaded apocalypse, however.   It’s not even TV news. Instead of grabbing the nearest shotgun and blowing off the ghouls’ heads, citizens reach straight for their camera phones.  And smile.  The stumbling undead, far from inspiring screeching terror, are greeted with giggles.  Shuffling corpses are the polar opposite of the plastic-perfect uber-beings splattered across the pages of celebrity magazines.  They’re stupid, ugly, and stink, but it seems we love us some ghoul-on-ghoul like never before. Welcome to the Zombie Nation.

In terms of popular culture, zombies are at the top of their game.  They’re the coolest currency imaginable in Hollywood, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio fighting a bidding war over the rights to World War Z before it was even published (Pitt’s Plan B production company won).  But cinema zombies are not enough for 20- and 30-something Americans, raised on the interactivity of gaming.  They don’t just want to watch them onscreen.  They want to be them.

Traditionally, this is not something sane humans have desired.  Your average zombie, whether the victim of a voodoo curse or an alien virus, is trapped in a transitory phase between life and death.  They can’t speak.  Bits keep falling off.  He/she is simply waiting for a well-aimed bullet to the head to end the misery.  So, why the current enchantment with the living dead?  Aren’t zombies meant to be the cannibal plague, harbingers of terror, soul-less shells hell-bent on death and destruction?  How did they get to be poster children for the Wii generation?

Dorm of the Dead

Blame it on the zeitgeist.  Sean Hoade is an Instructor of English at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he teaches a class entitled Zombies! The Living Dead in Literature, Film and Culture. He thinks “American” and “Zombie” make a good match.

“Zombies are creatures without a past,” he says. “So, as a group, are Americans.  Zombies want to consume, but don't really *need* what they consume (since their bodies don't require nutrition). This is the same with many Americans: We want to buy and consume, but our McMansions are filled to overflowing with things we never use. Also, zombies are largely ignorant of — even completely uninterested in — their fellow zombies. Well, what is America but the ultimate place where neighbors never even learn one another's names?”

He suggests zombies “act as a mirror for Americans, not only as we see ourselves but also as the rest of the world sees America in the time of George W. Bush: as a roaming, voracious killer turning its victims into soulless creatures like itself.”

His students have embraced the idea of zombie studies. “Their eyes lit up and many of them said…"I love zombies! They're so cool!"” Hoade is bemused. “Now, why would intelligent young people, in the prime of their health and beauty, find "cool" a bunch of rotting dead bodies which happen to walk, bodies which have no personality, intelligence, or anything else one would look for in a friend or mate? I think it's because in our Western society, we're never really around death -- the whole thing is utterly sanitized compared to even fifty years ago -- and the zombie concept lets them "interact," if you will, with the concept and the physical reality of death, but without being overly morbid or depressing.”

The Munch Bunch

It’s not just in Alabama that playing dead seems like the coolest way to spend your weekend.  And it’s easier – and less of a permanent decision – than you might think to become part of the post-mortem ambulatory horde.  From Baltimore to Texas, groups of like-minded individuals are organizing themselves into a specific form of flash mob – or flesh mob – via MySpace and FaceBook.   Scan through the forums on www.zombiewalk.com and you’ll find eager discussions about upcoming and recent zombie walks in most major cities across the US.  And it seems other continents are fast latching on to the idea, with zombie walks organized in Australia, Canada and the UK.

Participants “cadaver up” - the real enthusiasts spending hours with layers of liquid latex and prosthetic limbs, while others simply tear some old clothes and sploosh themselves with fake blood – and then stumble through the streets of their home city in a loose, but instantly recognizable group.  It’s fun.  It’s very simple.  And it’s seen by the ‘stumblers’ as a cheap and harmless way to get some kicks.

Will Jayne is part of a Saturday night stroll along Hollywood Blvd’s Walk of Fame. “A bunch of people dressing up, scaring the crap out of strangers sounded like a great idea to me.  I’m actually here with my girlfriend. We don’t just want to sit at home and eat popcorn and scare ourselves, we want to go out there and be part of the action.”

Fellow stumbler Erin Sirpinksi came because “it’s really fun to play around and dress up.  Some people will think this is a normal Saturday night in Hollywood – that’s also fun because they’re asking ‘Are are they doing something?  Is this organized or are they dressed like that cos they’re Goth kids?’ It’s really fun to be able to congregate as a group and just do this…That’s why I do it, for the fun.”

For costume designer Crystal Wilkinson, walking with zombies is part of a wider set of choices.  “I’m here because I have a fascination with occult fantasy, it’s always been something that I’ve been into, ever since I was a little kid.”  It’s not just an opportunity to dress up.  Social comment is involved, however subtle it might be.   “I think this is what American culture is.  Everyone following other people, a mindless, brainless society, no one stepping outside of the box, no one doing anything to differentiate themselves from another person.  Group society in general – I’m kind of against that.  I’m all about individualism.”

Sadly, even zombies have to play by society’s rules.  LAPD’s finest also turn up to the Hollywood walk, summoned, not by some terrified citizen in fear of their brains, but by the maintenance staff at the Metro (LA’s Underground) station who are, understandably, upset about the fake blood spilled on their usually-spotless floors by stumblers.  The zombie horde are extremely apologetic about the mess, but offers to help clean up get rebuffed.   Something about union rules.

The cops hang out for a bit, however, intrigued by the well behaved and sweet smelling undead, a far cry from the usual homeless crack addicts lurking round Hollywood and Vine.    “Y’all have a good night,” one shouts, as he returns to his car. Polite, sober zombies, sitting around chatting while they wait for their numbers to reach critical mass are the least of the horrors he will face on tonight’s shift.

Around thirty costumed dead turn up in Hollywood in the end.  Attendance on a zombie walk varies.  King of them all is Pittsburgh, laying claim to 894 stumblers at the Monroeville Mall (location of Romero’s classic Dawn of The Dead) in October 2006.  The average number of attendees is more likely to be in the low tens.  Wikipedia defines the zombie walk as just “two or more people dressed as zombies”, and sometimes, despite the insistence of MySpace Event invitees that they’re bringing “300 friends”, no one turns up at all. 

Beware of Flakes

In the ever uncertain world of flesh mobs, it’s always a good idea to bring at least one similarly decomposed companion, otherwise you could find yourself looking a complete idiot when all the other attendees find something better to do.  It’s embarrassing to be the only zombie in a busy crowd of shoppers on a Saturday afternoon, and you might have to deal with a shotgun-wielding mob of the living.  Still, the walks go ahead when there are only a few brave souls clutching their bottles of Karo, although their groans might be rather subdued. 

Vincent Pogoda was one of “around seven” who staggered up Venice Boardwalk last November.   “All great cultural movements start out small and experience exponential growth,” he says.  “Remember the humble beginnings of the Berlin Love Parade?”  How did it feel to be part of such a tiny cadaverous crew? “The cold dead stares of the living as we stumbled down the Boardwalk were...great!  Our small numbers made the onlookers confident enough to approach us, and gave us the opportunity to interact personally, thus making it possible to share the joy of being a zombie. We even managed to harvest a few recruits.   But we have big plans for the future.   Meet me at zombie walk 2012.  We will be 7 million strong in 23 nations.”

It seems the dead are very determined, and zombie walks, despite some discouraging numbers, continue.  Why? Aaron Vanek, horror film-maker and stumbler thinks the walks are popular because “Anybody can be a zombie. Any age, any income level, any race, it’s easy to dumb yourself down… “  In this fast food nation, the speed of zombification is also attractive.  “It’s a virus… It’s relatively fast acting.  Most zombies are instant whereas with vampires, it’s a longer process and a conscious entity has to choose to make you one.  Werewolves have to wait till the full moon.  With a zombie, you’re bitten and sooner or later you’re going to die and become a zombie yourself.  It’s that easy.” 

In an age where identity theft poses a major problem, and people are judged primarily, if not solely, on their looks, voluntary zombification is perhaps an inevitable form of backlash.  Even if it is only for a couple of hours. Sean Hoade agrees. “In a zombie walk, you're not *you* -- you're *you* after being bitten by a zombie! So it doesn't matter what clothes you wear, how handsome or beautiful you are without gory makeup on, how witty or intelligent you might be -- as zombies, everyone is equal!”

Everyone has a zombie alter-ego, a creature for whom nothing matters but forward motion and food.  Releasing your inner ghoul is both a cathartic experience and the simplest form of street theatre imaginable, with no lines to remember other than “braaiins!” and “gragh!”.  Every performer is rewarded with instant celebrity; the stumbling mass stops shoppers in their tracks, and becomes the absolute centre of attention. 

"Love dead... hate living."

Most telling is the reaction of ordinary citizens; smiling, pointing, laughing.  It makes their afternoon something special, once they’ve done the obligatory double take.  Those with children hurry past, as there is nothing more likely to inspire awkward questions from Junior (“Mummy! Why has that man’s eye fallen out?”).  Some want to play too (“Bite me!  Make me one of you!”) and totally buy into the fake apocalypse scenario.  Others just don’t get why anyone would do such a thing. “Are they all rich people?” a passing young Latina asks, “rich”  being a catch-all term for those who feel they can do what they want, where they want.  She seems affronted that the stumblers feel they have the right to do this out in public. “Don’t they know Halloween was last year?”

Zombie walks do seem to appeal predominantly to the white middle classes.  But is it just a geek thing?  Apparently not.   Fake death is a great leveller, breaking down even pernicious high school stereotypes.  According to Sean Hoades, who observes stumblers on campus zombie walks,  “you might have been a sorority girl; you might have been a math geek; you might have been terribly unpopular; you might have been promiscuous; but as zombies, none of these old identities matter one whit. All that matters is preying on the living and making them equal to you as well. This is appealing to almost everyone, but especially to college-age kids.”

It’s a sign of the times that college age kids avoid active political protest, and instead dress up as the ultimate drop outs. Zombies don’t appear to be anti or pro anything. They’re not even fighting for their right to party. They represent hopelessness, decay, the breakdown of civilization.  They’re a one-size-fits-all symbol of the anxieties of our age – homelessness, drug addiction, greed and over-consumption.  It’s a sad truth that zombies rock our world.

Give Blood!  Not Brains!

Yet it’s not all about passive-aggressive subversion.  One organisation utilises zombie walks for good, using them to promote blood drives or non-perishable food collections.  The St Louis-based Zombie Squad (www.zombiehunters.org ) uses the concept of zombie invasion to get across important messages about survival and responsibility.  Zombies on Main Street might be cute in the broad light of day, but what if they – or terrorists or natural disasters – start to threaten the very fabric of the nation?  It’s sensible to be prepared.

Kyle Ladd, one of the founders, says Zombie Squad started as a gang of friends who were “big on horror movies.  Specifically, zombies and post apocalypse movies like Mad Max or Omega Man.   We didn't have any huge world saving ambitions with ZS at first…[it]…was simply a fun reason for us to get together and watch bad nostalgic movies from our youth.”

“We then got a hair up our ass and decided to see if there were other crazies out there like us who also spent an unhealthy amount of time imagining the ultimate worst case scenario and coming up with (and often practising) ideas on how to prepare and survive it.  The forum was the start.  It drew a lot of attention.  Then we decided that maybe we should do something with this large group of people and tried hosting a few charity fund raising movie film festivals.”

“It's blown up since then.  We have chapters around the country and thousands of members.    There almost isn't a month that goes by where there isn't at least one big event going on somewhere.   We now host a number of regular charity events, disaster preparation seminars and camping trips throughout the year”.

Zombie Squad conducts survival seminars, using tongue in cheek humour (and a “live” zombie) to break down audience’s barriers against thinking the unthinkable.  Zombies are cool and accessible.  Tornadoes, or plagues of killer African bees are not – even if they pose a more immediate threat. These zombies save lives.  Post 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, it’s clear that government response to catastrophe might be little more than inadequate.  Kyle says “it's irresponsible and dangerous to leave the burden of your survival and well-being on someone else.  We've gotten lazy.   Our goal is to help promote people to be prepared but we trying to make it fun. That's where the zombie theme comes in.  Our motto is if you can be prepared for the walking dead, you can be prepared for just about anything.”

That’s good to know.  Also good to know is that Zombie Squad provide on-the-spot security for zombie walks, keeping a watchful eye on the stumblers.  For all their apparent approachability and public usefulness, it’s worth remembering that zombies are dangerous brain-sucking scum, out to destroy and assimilate the entire human race.  And, surely, a major part of their charm is that they’re eminently killable?   

Unlike vampires and werewolves, ghouls don’t require any specialist kit when it comes to their annihilation. Common everyday objects can be pressed into service.  Recent movies have shown us some spectacular zombie elimination techniques, from Simon Pegg’s deftly wielded cricket bat in Shaun of The Dead to Milla Jovovich’s motorbike in Resident Evil 2.  Games such as House of The Dead and Dead Rising bring corpse-crunching satisfaction into the comfort of your living room. Everyone has a favourite approach. Kyle Ladd’s weapon of choice is “probably a Heckler & Koch HK416 with a titanium crow bar as a back-up.” Sean Hoade would agree with Max Brooks (author of the Zombie Survival Guide) and go for “a machete. Never needs reloading.” 

If you’re looking for thrills, a way to voice disenchantment, or simply scare people, might it be more appropriate to dress up as a zombie hunter? 

Zombie Walk II: Fighting Back

Pedro Miguel Arce plays Pilsbury in Romero’s Land of The Dead and has seen more than his share of splattered heads in action.  He shudders at the very idea of a zombie walk. “It makes me nervous.  I don’t want to be around this thing and have access to any weapons… Zombies smell bad.  They’re stenches.  They’re bad for society – they have nothing to do except walk around rather slowly and feed off good people.  They just consume.”  Another kind of flesh mob altogether brings a glint to his eye, one perhaps timed to coincide with the stumblers, but incorporating nearby rooftops and other vantage points rather than following a street level route. “If that were to happen I want every zombie hunter out there to give me a call and I will gladly lead you.”

The zombie walk is a peculiar cultural phenomenon, the nexus of movies, gaming, social networking and urban myth.  While it offers huge opportunities for social protest (zombies as anti-war, or anti-poverty marchers, anyone?), most stumblers maintain a distance from what zombies symbolize in society, acknowledging only the ‘fun’ side of the experience.  Up until now, zombie walks have been an underground, unofficial event, generated by fans.  But as their profile is raised on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s just a matter of time before mass media moves in, sponsoring zombie walks in order to promote a tired movie remake or sequel, or yet another shoot-em-in-the-head game.  Then it will be time to add some real edge to the proceedings.  Bring on the zombie hunter walk, and let the battle for a nation’s braaainsss begin.


All words and pictures © Karina Wilson 2007