We walk with a zombie

Pub date July 8, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

PHENOM In our heads, in our heads: zombies, zombies, zombies.

Don’t blame me for taking a bite out of your brain and inserting an annoying tune in its place — once again, not long after the last onslaught of undead trends, our culture is totally zombie mad.

The phrase "zombie bank" is multiplying at a disturbing rate within economic circles. In music, the group Zombi — hailing from the zombie capitol Pittsburgh — is reviving the analogue electronics of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead while the British act Zomby brings dubstep to postapocalyptic dance floors. A comedy of manners possessed by ultraviolent urges, Seth Grahame-Smith’s "unmentionable" Jane Austen update Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 320 pages, $12.95) has set up camp on the trade paperback New York Times best sellers list, with S.G. Browne’s Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament — currently being movie-ized by Diablo Cody — on its trail. On a smaller scale, Yusaka Hanakuma’s manga Tokyo Zombie (Last Gasp, 164 pages, $9.95) has caught a zombie plane over to the United States.

Most of all, posthumous Michael Jackson mania is bringing the corpse choreography of the 1983 video for "Thriller" to life, as the media and masses fluctuate between the worst facets of grave-robbing and best facets of revival and death celebration. A Friday, July 3 party in Seattle that aimed to top the 3,370-participant world record for largest "zombie walk" included a mass dance performance to the song.

When journalist Lev Grossman first noted the shift in bloodlust from vampirism to zombiedom in a Time trend piece this April, he ticked off some of these activities but steered clear of visual art. Zombies are around in galleries and museums, too. In Los Angeles last month, Peres Projects presented Bruce LaBruce’s "Untitled Hardcore Zombie Project" in which stills from a forthcoming movie by the director of last year’s Otto; or, Up with Dead People were blown up, framed, and hung on the space’s blood-spattered white cube walls. Here in San Francisco, Michael Rosenthal Gallery is hosting a variety of zombified works by another Canadian artist, Jillian Mcdonald.

Active revisions of cinema are central to Mcdonald, whose past projects find her staring down, mimicking and making out with male screen icons such as Billy Bob Thornton. "Monstrosities" makes room for vampires, but hunger for flesh is dominant over thirst for blood. The five-minute video Zombie Apocalypse brings the zombie back to the beach, its eerily effective primary haunting ground in Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1943 Val Lewton production I Walked with a Zombie — which, incidentally, is being remade, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre now explicitly cited as its source material. In 2006’s Horror Make-up, Mcdonald plays with the image of a woman putting on makeup in public by using her compact to turn herself into a zombie while raiding the New York subway. "Monstrosities" also includes zombie wall portraits that aren’t exactly static. Through lenticular photography, Mcdonald taps into the zombie within an acquaintance, a creature that often appears more animated than its "living" counterpart.

"Monstrosities" and much of Mcdonald’s current work mines horror as a source of catharsis. The tactic is most overt in 2007’s The Scream, where her screams scare off a variety of slasher killers and monstrous adversaries. Art world attempts at tapping into filmic horror can be dreadful in the sterile and blah sense (see Cindy Sherman’s 1997’s Office Killer — or better, don’t see it). But when Mcdonald bites zombies, she gives them love bites, borne out of and energized by genuine appreciation. (Johnny Ray Huston)


Through July 22

Michael Rosenthal Gallery

365 Valencia, SF

(415) 552-1010




Brain appetit: Fine reading and viewing for the discriminating zombie lover

Twilight (haven’t read it) and True Blood (haven’t seen it) are grabbing all the headlines, including a fawning New York Times story entitled "A Trend with Teeth." But fuck this newfangled passion for vampires. (Apologies to Let the Right One In: you are awesome, despite the massive English subtitle fail on your DVD.) Go back to the graveyard, sexy supernatural critters. There’s a far more terrifying and fiendishly disgusting army of coffin-rockers afoot these days. And though they’ll happily drink your blood, they’ll also help themselves to the rest of your delicious mortal flesh.

Granted, zombie movies are almost as old as cinema itself. Glenn Kay’s recent Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide (Chicago Review Press, 352 pages, $25.95), which features a forward by Stuart Gordon, director of 1985’s Re-Animator, is a pretty good jumping-off point for the uninitiated — and a steal for anyone who’s shy about paying $280 on eBay for Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (FAB Press). Generously illustrated chapters — with a full-color photo section in the book’s center — cover the genre’s history, starting with 1932’s White Zombie (fun fact: star Bela Lugosi earned $500-ish dollars for playing the sinister plantation owner improbably named "Murder.") There are spotlights on the turbulent 1960s (the era that spawned 1968’s immortal Night of the Living Dead), the insane 1970s (with an index of "the weirdest/funniest/most disturbing things" seen in zombie films, including my own personal fave: the underwater shark vs. zombie battle in 1979’s Zombie), Italy’s reign of terror in the 1980s (the decade that also brought us, lest we forget, "Thriller"), and the rise of video game zombies in the 1990s. Sprinkled throughout are interviews with horror luminaries like makeup master Tom Savini.

Zombie Movies‘ biggest chapter is devoted to the new millennium, with shout-outs to Asian entries like Versus (2000), cult hits like 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, and mainstream moneymakers — 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake brought in $59 million. Less successful (in my book, if not apparent George Romero fanatic Kay’s) was 2007’s Diary of the Dead, the least-enjoyable entry in Romero’s esteemed zombie series. Blame it on an annoying cast, and an even more annoying reliance on the hot-for-five-minutes "self-filming" technique. Aside from producing a Crazies remake (nooo!), Romero’s next project is titled simply … of the Dead, release date unknown, zombie subject matter an absolute certainty.

Still, ammo enough for walking-dead fans sick of all this fang-banging comes in two forms: the hilarious trailer for Zombieland (due in October), featuring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg as slayers of the undead, and the eagerly-anticipated arrival of Dead Snow. Currently available as an On-Demand selection for Comcast customers (in crappy dubbed form), this Norwegian import — a comedy with plenty of satisfying gore — opens July 17 at the Roxie (in presumably superior, subtitled form). Nazi zombies, y’all. Get some! (Cheryl Eddy)


Zombie playlist: Music to eat flesh by

For whatever reason, America is possessed by a another wave of fascination with the living dead. Is increased anxiety about a devastated economy manifesting as comic book fantasy? Or do we just think zombies are kinda neat? Either way, like so many (or few) survivors barricaded inside an abandoned country home, we’re captivated by the brainless hordes. In the mood for some mood music? Here’s a brief celebration of zombiedom in the world of rock. It ain’t authoritative — no self-respecting zombie respects authority.



(from Walk Among Us, Slash, 1982)

Yes, Walk Among Us also features "Night of the Living Dead" and "Astro Zombies," but neither of those tracks captures the profound ennui of existence as a walking corpse. Democratically sung from a zombie’s perspective, "Braineaters" laments a repetitive diet of brains. (Why can’t a zombie have some tasty guts instead?) The Misfits actually made a primitive music video for "Braineaters" that shows the band engaged in what has to be the most disgusting food fight ever filmed. If you’ve ever wanted to see a young Glenn Danzig covered in what appear to be cow brains, have I got a YouTube link for you!


"Fast Forward to the Gore"

(from II, Six Weeks, 2005)

One of the standout tracks from II, "Fast Forward to the Gore" makes excellent use of singer Jimmy Rose’s frantic vocal delivery. Rose’s raw lyrics, belted out over the hardcore guitar assault of Graham Clise and Jamie Sanitate, celebrate the subtle artistry at play when zombie meets chainsaw. In the event of an actual zombie apocalypse, this song should serve as nostalgic reminder of simpler times, when zombies were merely a source of entertainment that didn’t leave the TV screen.


Entire discography



"Zombie Ritual"

(from Scream Bloody Gore, Combat, 1987)

The second track on the seminal Scream Bloody Gore, "Zombie Ritual" helped establish the nascent death metal scene’s predictable love affair with the titular braindead hellspawn. Chuck Schuldiner’s lyrics — as awesomely repulsive as anything the genre has to offer — deal with some sort of zombie creation ceremony, though the only discernable part is the Dylanesque chorus ("Zombie ritual!" screamed four times in succession). While Death’s later albums saw Schuldiner grow by leaps and bounds as a songwriter, "Zombie Ritual" remained a live staple up until the band’s final days. (Tony Papanikolas)