Cowan Palace: Zombies: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without (Killing) Them

We’re starting a new dramaturgy column where Ashley Cowan, local actress, director, writer, gets to regularly ruminate on whatever we’re putting on this month. She kicks off her column today with some thoughts on Zombies, what makes them tick, and why we can’t get enough of them.

It’s a zombie paradise these days. From AMC’s “The Walking Dead” to Brad Pitt’s upcoming “World War Z” to Theater Pub’s very own “Love in the Time of Zombies” by Kirk Shimano. The pool of zombie-themed films, books, and games released within the last decade would probably take at least two zombie lifetimes to swim through; in fact, on IMDB alone there are nearly 1,000 zombie titles.

It’s a curious development to harbor such an obsession with creatures that are by definition, brainless. What is it that we feel so connected to these undead little rascals? Where does the fascination come from?

Well, for one thing, zombies are a monster for everyone. They don’t need a full moon to shape-shift or a superhuman thirst for blood matched with impossibly sparkly skin. They’re just ordinary folks who have suffered an unfortunate nibble and developed into hungry, mindless, wanderers. They’re pretty simple.

Simplicity is something of a luxury in these complicated times. Life for us non-zombies hasn’t exactly been a piece of cake. Our economy is like a fifteen year old without a license: prone to crashing. Jobs, money, and even basic survival needs can be a struggle. Somehow, along the way, visions of an idealized future appear to have halted and without that sense of personal development and advancement, a preoccupation with the undead seems almost natural. While our surroundings become complicated by technology advancements, new means of communication and abundant social media there still remains a sense of brutal desolation coinciding with modern emptiness. When you consider the uncertain, politically divided, and frightful mindset that governs most of the world, why wouldn’t you want to escape to land of simple necessities? A Zombieland, perhaps?

But when did the preoccupation begin? Well, some believe things started centuries ago. Derived from African and Haitian folklore surrounding voodoo doctors, the word “zombie” came from those who were thought to have the ability to resurrect the dead into brainless shells so that they could then be sold as slaves. These voodoo-practicing doctors would dispense a potent drug to bring people into a near death state and then after they were thought dead, they would be buried and later dug up to resume a life as a servant. Pretty pleasant, right?

Historically speaking though, one of the oldest documented examples of the undead comes from the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, a 2,000-year old poem. Within this seasoned text, Ishtar travels to the underworld and promises, “I will raise up the dead and they will eat the living.” Ah, a lady ahead of her time.

While colorings of zombie qualities have painted their way throughout the canvas of history, the masses have been acquainted with zombies mostly via film. The first zombie film, Abel Gance’s “J’accuse” graced the silver screen in 1919. Described as an anti-war melodrama, the piece featured soldiers who rose from their graves to invade the lives of the survivors. Political reactions were often reflected in films following “J’accuse” as movies were regularly used as a place to reflect the devastations of war, which progressed the zombie film genre.

George Romero’s “Night of The Living Dead,” released in 1968, became another example of an iconic piece of the zombie history. Things are grim, a sense of claustrophobia haunts each shot, and the undead are looking for a party. And by party, I of course mean human flesh. Like other films of its kind, the concept is basic: kill the cannibals who can only be stopped by a blow to the brain or join the masses.

The wonderful thing about zombie dramas is that they can represent any number of societal nightmares. Worried about atomic weapons? A zombie could help channel that. What about genetic modification? Sure, zombies eat that up. Racism? You, got it. Consumerism, violence, death? Obviously. You get it. Zombies provide a tangible scapegoat: a force to destroy hidden within these apocalyptic shadows.

With zombies comes the promise of a new existence. Life would have the excuse to change. There would be no government or bills to pay. No boss to report to or morality to uphold. Everyone would have the chance to be a hero and change the rules of humanity; even the underdog would have a chance to win. All you have to do is survive the zombies. Fight the fear and forge ahead. Hoping that perhaps we could be one of the select few to survive the impending apocalypse.

Whether it be through film or play, book or comic, video game or fantasy world, there’s something almost romantic about the idea of zombies trying to take over. So embrace this entertainment trend and enjoy “Love in the Time of Zombies”. Because when the zombies attack, it’ll be nice to know that the Theater Pub gang is prepared and ready to make a new paradise of plays and beer for both the living and the undead.

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at https://twitter.com/AshCows.

2 comments on “Cowan Palace: Zombies: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without (Killing) Them

  1. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here: just wanted to point out that there are a number of zombie films we often forget are zombie films because they follow the classic zombie mythology that zombies are not made from zombie bites and don’t eat people, but are rather the dead who have been raised by witch doctors and voodoo practitioners. This is actually the culture from where we get the word “zombie” from. Today’s zombies that eat flesh and attack in hordes are more like the European ghoul, which is said to haunt graveyards and live off of human remains, and makes others with its bite. Anyway, for good voodoo zombies, I recommend Val Lewton’s stunningly elegant and strange “I Walked With A Zombie” and Wes Craven’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow.”

  2. I always loved the way George Romero described zombies as “blue-collar monsters” as opposed to the “bourgoisie” of creatures like vampires. They represent the great unwashed masses and how terrifying they are in force: if you succeed in taking down a few, you can not stop all of them.

    I love how horror stories (and sci-fi, for that matter) are best when they can be taken at face value AND have something bubbling underneath.

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