In Praise of the Undead

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Okay, I get it. Vampires are sexy. Smart. Tormented. In addition, of course, to being deadly. So I understand why they’re all over our movie and TV screens, our bookshelves. They’re just like us only they live forever, kill to live and have the ability to regret the choices they’ve made. They’re hot and tormented. No wonder they’re now a staple of chick lit.

But when it comes to the dead arising and going forth to do mayhem, give me a flesh-chomping zombie horde any day.

I saw the original Night of the Living Dead — the first of the modern zombie epics — back in the early ‘70s when it was attaining midnight movie cult status. It was gruesome fun, but I didn’t think it would be the start of something big.

That didn’t happen until several years later when Night... director George Romero delivered his sequel, Dawn of the Dead, in which a few human survivors hole up in a well-stocked shopping mall surrounded by zombies.

There was something about that end-of-the-world scenario that totally appealed to the survivalist inside me. With a gun and some ammo, a lifetime supply of consumer goods and a few good friends (including a pretty girl or two), one could actually survive a zombie apocalypse in relative comfort.

True, every now and then you’d have to load up and put down a few pesky zombies that found their way inside your perimeter...but even here there’s an upside.

It’s not nice to fantasize about killing lots of people. That’s sick. Anti-social. Immoral.

But here’s the thing about zombies...THEY’RE ALREADY DEAD!!!

No foul, no penalty. Guilt-free mayhem.

Unlike vampires, who can engage you in conversation, zombies are a blank slate. They mill about stupidly until someone warm-blooded shows up, and then they try to tear that individual apart.

They don’t feel pain or fear. You can’t scare them or intimidate them. You can’t reason with them because all their higher brain functions are fried. They don’t know how to use a gun or a bicycle...heck, even door handles pose a challenge when you’re one of the walking dead.

Basically they’re the terrestrial version of a Great White Shark. They live to bite. That’s about it.

The whole zombie thing has caught on big time with the public, or at least the horror-loving public. (The Twilight series, of course, has next to nothing to do with horror. These are sanitized romance novels/films aimed at the fantasies of adolescent girls and their moms. I prefer to fantasize about blasting my way through ranks of slobbering, half-rotted zombies.) Wikipedia lists more than 300 zombie movies, most made in the last 20 years. It’s an international phenomenon. The French have The Horde, the Germans Rammbock: Berlin Undead and the Norwegians Dead Snow.

One of the most popular zombie films ever was 28 Days Later from Britain...it was directed by Danny Boyle, who went on to win an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire.

In recent years there’s been a big emphasis on zombie comedies like Fido, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t still work the zombie cliches for serious drama. AMC cable’s hit Walking Dead (based on a truly excellent series of comic books), is less about killing zombies than on how the apocalypse affects the few humans left in its wake. It’s heavy-duty stuff...with exploding heads, of course.

And a surprise best selling book last year was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a truly inspired mating of Jane Austen and George Romero.

So you can keep your vampires, along with your werewolves, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night.

Give me a zombie and an 8-shot handgun, and I’m good to go.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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