Why I Love Zombie Movies

by Whatsblem the Pro

The Other White Meat -- Image: Whatsblem the Pro

The Other White Meat — Image: Whatsblem the Pro

Zombies. The shambling, hungry dead.

The initially-tiny cult phenomenon that was George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been massively reprised and expanded over the years into a full-blown touchstone of mainstream culture. . . but it isn’t just the grotesque thrills of gore-horror that give the genre its legs. Beyond and below the surface of GRRAAARR BRAINS lies a durable contemporary allegory that has struck a resonance in the hearts and minds of a certain kind of person for over half a century.

FREE PUSSY RIOT!!!!!!!!!!!

FREE PUSSY RIOT!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m not talking about the multiple individual subtexts that some zombie movies – and all of Romero’s zombie movies – carry with them. There are a number of clear themes that emerge from these films; xenophobia and racism, feminism, consumerism and the emptiness of life lived solely in material pursuits. There are pointed questions posed about relational heirarchies, about the moral and ethical problems that pure science faces in the presence of military concerns that weaponize every discovery possible, about leadership and autonomy, about Communism and Capitalism, about the innate goodness (or badness) of people in general, and about the very warp and woof of the fabric of society as a whole.

All of these subtexts have the potential to be interesting and thought-provoking for any particular viewer, but none of them are the kind of thing that might make you want to go out and actually prepare for the Zompocalypse as though it could really happen. . . and yet there are people who do so, often with a glaring display of tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes in what seems to be total earnestness. A large part of that impulse is no doubt attributable to the not-very-subtle subtext of the end of civilization and the imminent crumbling of social order and the rule of law, but for me it’s deeper than that.

Aww, don't shoot, he looks so happy -- Image: Hammer FIlms

Aww, don’t shoot, he looks so happy — Image: Hammer FIlms

Other monster genre films leave me cold; I’m not wild about graphically violent horror in general although I can certainly take it. The point is that I don’t watch zombie movies to see rotting flesh being ripped apart by bullets, or to see the living torn limb-from-limb in the teeth of the dead. Even the goriest, ghastliest vampire movies make me yawn with all their brooding, overly-studied cool, although I certainly understand the wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies they inspire in others. I find serial-killer slasher films dull and unrewarding, too, for the most part.

Why? Because here’s the thing about zombies: they’re not few and far-between, like vampires, or werewolves, or serial killers. When the Zompocalypse comes, the living are absolutely overwhelmed by the dead, and in no time, it is the survivors who are the rarity, not the monsters.

What does this make them?

For me it’s simple: the zombies, vastly outnumbering the living as they do, become the status quo. They, not the survivors, are the typical form of human life on Earth. The living, with their use of language and tools, their emotions and their emotional connections to each other, and their willingness to eat things no normal person would touch, are freakish, abnormal rarities.

And what is it that the zombies – i.e., the normal people – are constantly trying to do to these oddballs and outliers living on the fringes of their world?

Fine, go ahead and eat me -- Photo: Nate 'Igor' Smith

Fine, go ahead and eat me — Photo: Nate ‘Igor’ Smith

One of two things: infect them with normalcy, or turn them into a product, to be consumed.

If you’re an artist, and you earn your living by making art, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re beholden to nobody; you’re even free to some extent in a way that no corporate ladder-climber or blue-collar serf could ever be, but life can be peculiarly hard for you, and people often don’t understand you very well. Sometimes, especially if they’re family, they put pressure on you to give up your aspirations and leave the difficult, lonely path you’ve chosen, to join the herd and pursue cookie-cutter notions of worldly success that, to your way of thinking, resemble a kind of living death. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure most of those people in your life are nice folks with nothing but good intentions, but in our allegory they are best represented by the zombies.

What happens if you’re a successful artist, and the public gets to probing and clawing at you with their nerveless, idiot fingers? What happened to Michael Jackson? I’ll tell you what happened to Michael Jackson: starting with his own father when Michael was just an innocent tot, the normal people commodified him, wrapped him in plastic and bought and sold him as an item of consumption, like the neatly-packaged ground beef they sell at your local supermarket, isolated from its origins, sanitized for your protection, a natural thing made utterly, completely unnatural. They ate Michael Jackson.

DPW's Vaughn Solo is ready -- Photo: Jessica Reeder

DPW’s Vaughn Solo is ready — Photo: Jessica Reeder

Sure, Jocko is an extreme example, but the same is true of almost any famous artist whose name and face are in the public eye. Most of us dream of fame and fortune, but how would we really feel if we were unable to simply walk down the street like an ordinary person without being pursued and mobbed by random strangers?

The real beauty of zombie movies is that although the allegory that pits heavily outnumbered freaks against a status quo juggernaut is a sort of depressingly accurate commentary on what we, as real-life freaks, are up against, it all takes place in a consequence-free environment. This is where the subtext departs from reality and offers us our reward in the form of some satisfying wish-fulfillment: you can shoot the bastards in the head, and nobody will get mad at you. Hell, you’ll probably get a pat on the back and maybe even build some camaraderie with your co-freaks by pulling that trigger.

Note that you have to shoot a zombie in the head, in the brain, to make it stop. This is because our struggle in real life is a struggle of ideas. We can’t literally kill all the normal people in order to secure our own survival as artists and weirdos; we have to kill the normal ideas in their heads instead. We have to kill the way they think.

Destroy the Temple, Save the Village

by Whatsblem the Pro

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch NZ - Photo: David Wethey/NSPA/AP

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch NZ – Photo: David Wethey/NSPA/AP

A crew of volunteers in Christchurch, New Zealand, including five professional engineers and a draftsman from global engineering firm Aurecon, are coming together to build a temple for the earthquake-stricken city. . . and then burn that temple down a few weeks later.

The Temple for Christchurch project is inspired by Burning Man and the Temple built there each year, which attendees use for valuable catharsis by writing about their lost ones on the walls before the building is burnt to the ground. The people of Christchurch will be allowed to visit their Temple and write on the walls for several weeks before the structure is burned as a public event.

Photo: Kirk Hargreaves/Christchurch Press/Reuters

Photo: Kirk Hargreaves/Christchurch Press/Reuters

There’s some interesting architecture to the project, too; at 6.3 meters, the building’s height will reflect the magnitude of the biggest and most destructive earthquake in the recent spate, which devastated Christchurch on February 22nd, 2011. The lines of the building’s 40-meter length and 25-meter width will be designed to mirror the seismic waveform of the quake, as recorded at the monitoring station closest to the epicenter.

Hippathy Valentine, a leader of the project, said that the volunteers are driven by the city’s need for a little catharsis and emotional balm in the aftermath of the devastation.

“We plan to open to the public in June on the site of the old Convention Centre on Peterborough St. before [moving the Temple] outside of the city to be ceremonially burnt. We hope that people will share their earthquake experiences and use the Temple as a catalyst for reflection on how the earthquakes have affected them, their city, and their communities.”

Aurecon structural engineer Luis Castillo called the design of the Temple “right at the cutting edge of architecture for the new Christchurch.”

Some areas were badly flooded - Photo: Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald/AP

Some areas were badly flooded – Photo: Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald/AP

“The project gives us the chance to ‘think outside the box,’ to be creative while having a good grasp of the many technical issues that range from material properties to spatial vision,” said Castillo. “We created a balsa wood model to help crystalize our thinking.

“It was also a great opportunity for Aurecon staff to be proactive in bringing the city back to life and creating a means by which [local residents] can go out and enjoy it.”

The Black Rock Arts Foundation is lending some support to the project, and you can too. Get involved, or just show your support for the Temple for Christchurch with a donation of money, food, tools, or other resources, by visiting the project’s website, or by going directly to their Indiegogo campaign.

Good on ya for it, too. . . she’ll be right, mate, with time and hard work and a little good old-fashioned soul-cleansing fire.

Swimming in Air with the Bones of God

by Whatsblem the Pro

Ichthyosaur skull -- Image: The Pier Crew

Ichthyosaur skull — Image: The Pier Crew

Jerry Snyder’s enthusiasm is infectious. His face breaks out in moonbeams as we hit the high points of the Pier Crew’s project for Burning Man 2013. We’re at the Generator, a fee-free community art space in Sparks, Nevada, where Jerry and the crew are building his brainchild: a giant wooden puppet of an ichthyosaur skeleton.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: This is a puppet? And there’s a sort of carny tent revival show, right?

JERRY SNYDER: Right. It goes with our premise of this guy, sort of an uneducated miner who finds these bones and thinks these are God’s image on Earth.

WTP: He wasn’t an archaeologist? He was a miner?

JS: Well, in reality, Dr. Camp was a UC Berkeley paleontologist who did serious work very painstakingly, over the course of years. . . he did science. The name, though, is way too good to waste. We figured, he’s Dr. Camp, let’s make him campy. We’re sort of reinventing him as this itinerant miner who wanders into Berlin, Nevada, an ignorant, uneducated guy who has this revelation that this is God’s portrait on Earth. This is the face, the image of God!

WTP: God looks like an ichthyosaur. Sounds legit so far.

JS: God is a fish-lizard! This is God’s message to his Creation! So he recreates this skeleton and goes around preaching to people from town to town in this sort of tent revival, saying “I’ve seen God, He saved me! He pulled me up from the depths of despair and sin and privation! He showed me His face! If you really believe, you may make the bones of God move, you may manipulate God Himself, become one with God, and make God’s bones dance across the desert night!”

WTP: Preach it, brother Camp!

At what point exactly does this story diverge from the actual story of Dr. Camp?

JS: Oh! Uh, entirely. It’s entirely made up. Dr. Camp was a respectable scientist who wasn’t a bit kooky, as far as I know.

WTP: Let’s talk about you for a minute. . . how did you get here?

JS: Well, my first burn was 2004. My first almost-burn was 1994, when I was an art student at UNR, and a friend told me “hey you should go to this Burning Man thing,” and I didn’t. Oops. Ten years later, we finally made it out there.

I’m from Yerington, Nevada originally. I lived in the Bay Area for a few years but moved back here in 2001.

Jerry Snyder and a rib for the Ichthyosaur Puppet

Jerry Snyder and a rib for the Ichthyosaur Puppet

When I was an art student at UNR, I always felt like Reno was right on the verge of something really big; it’s felt like that ever since. Things come and go, but it really has developed a lot. Burning Man has had a lot to do with that, and that fosters a very specific kind of art; it’s often very sophisticated outsider art, by insiders in non-art worlds. . . techies and geeks.

WTP: I think some of it could fairly be called craft, or even research, but I like the way it inflames the passions of the inner child in people.

JS: With the Pier, and the ship, and this project, we started thinking: let’s just build the stuff that we wanted to build when we were seven years old and weren’t able to.

WTP: Yeah! I know exactly what you mean. . . that’s why I wrote an obituary article when Gerry Anderson died.

So the Ichthyosaur is a marionette?

JS: Yes, it’ll be hanging from a 20’x20’x60′ structure. It’ll move in a swimming motion, the flippers will move, the head will move side-to-side, the jaws will open. . . of course, this is all dependent on how well we can figure out how to do all this stuff. No one’s really done this. . . it’s not like you can just Google “how do I build a giant dinosaur puppet” and find much on the Internet.

WTP: And you’ll have a live human playing Dr. Camp?

JS: Yes, I’ll play Dr. Camp; Ed Adkins will play Dr. Camp, I think Brandon Russell will play him, and so will Ian Epperson.

Some of the crew at work

Some of the crew at work

WTP: What sort of interactivity will it have?

JS: Aside from making the puppet move, Dr. Camp will be preaching and there will be hymns sung, pilgrims will come and be saved; basically, we’ll have a full free-form tent revival meeting going on. The rest of the time the place will be staffed by one or two people so that you can come and play with the puppet if you like.

We’re working on the hymnal; Brandon Russell, who wrote the ship’s log for our project last year, is writing our hymns, and they’re hysterical. A few of them are on our website.

WTP: Why do this? Will you burn it, or are you taking it home from Burning Man?

JS: (laughs) Because I want to see it. It’s in my head and it wants out.

What we’re thinking about is possibly donating it to Great Basin Brewery, if it’s technically feasible. They have a location that has a high ceiling, and I’m hoping we can hang it up there. They’ve been really generous and wonderful to us and to other burners so many times, we would really like to do something nice for them. We didn’t get a Burning Man grant, so Great Basin has been a godsend to us and really gone out of their way to help us out.

WTP: The Pier Crew is also running this build space, right?

Space, time, tools: The Pier Crew's gift to the Reno arts community

Space, time, tools: The Pier Crew’s gift to the Reno arts community

JS: Yes! It’s called “The Generator” and we’re super excited about this project. I just look around and smile whenever I’m here. . . we have an incredibly generous donor who foots the bill, and we’re going to be able to provide this amazing resource to the community, with tools, full metal shop, full wood shop, and so on. Anyone will be able to come down here and make art, when we’re all set up.

WTP: Tell me what you want people to know about the Ichthyosaur Puppet.

JS: In part, it’s silly. In part, it’s just making a giant dinosaur. . . but there’s also a sense in which I am totally fascinated by the intersection of art and religion, and this notion of them both being made-up stories that are trying to get at the truth. I don’t mean that to be insulting to people of faith at all, but I like playing with these notions of misinterpretation, and faith, and the ways in which we try to explain the world. Maybe the way we see the world is just wrong, and the things we accept as reality are something else altogether. I like putting characters into that particular kind of confusion.

WTP: Thanks, Jerry.