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The Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch - Sleepy Eye, MN
What is it with zombies?
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By Stephen W. Browne
June 28, 2013 5:20 p.m.



Note: This is cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

Well I took my son to see “World War Z” the other day and will probably be reviewing it week after next unless something more compelling comes along.

(Sneak peak: as an action movie it’s pretty good.)

I’m old enough to remember the second wave of monster films in the ’60s when I was a kid. The first wave being the black-and-white classics of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. Or maybe they were the second and third waves, there were some classic silent monster films.

It seems to me this wave has some significant differences. For one, the old monster films either had only one monster, or one primary monster. A Dracula film was about Dracula. He may have turned some beautiful women into vampires along the way but only the Count really counted.

Nowadays they pile on the monsters. They’ve taken an idea from the late Richard Matheson (who died last week at the age of 83) of a plague of monsters and run with it.

In Matheson’s “I am Legend” (1954, filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, The Omega Man in 1971, and I Am Legend in 2007) the world is overrun by something like vampires or zombies created by a plague.

Matheson also introduced the first hint of the vampire as not-so-bad guy. This idea was fleshed out in Fred Saberhagen’s “The Dracula Tapes” and sequels, where we learned that Count Dracula was some kind of uncle to Sherlock Holmes.

The 1979 “Dracula” with Frank Langella as Dracula and Lawrence Olivier as Abraham Van Helsing introduced the “sexy Dracula” that had young girls itching to roll down their turtlenecks for the smooth-talking count.

Now we have the “Twilight” series, “The Vampire Diaries” and “True Blood” with whole families, clans and civil rights movements of vampires who if not all good guys, at least have the choice of being good.

Then came the Zombie Apocalypse, hordes of zombie books and movies in which the zombie condition like vampirism is an infectious disease, but doesn’t make you more attractive.

Zombies are like vampires in one sense, they’re corpses who won’t stay dead. They’re different in a whole lot of other ways though.

For one, vampire legends are common in a lot of different countries, though we got Dracula from Romania via Irish author Bram Stoker.

Incidentally, though the persona of Count Dracula was based on the historical Voivode (Prince, or “Governor”) of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes (“Vlad the Impaler”) Dracula (“Son of the Dragon”), he is remembered as a national hero in Romania, and not at all associated with vampirism. Making him into a vampire in fact intensely irritates some Romanians I know.

Zombies as we know them come from one place – Haiti. And they’re real.

There is a theory vampire legends may have come from observing people infected with rabies, though that seems a stretch to me.

The origin of zombies is known however, and has been for some time. Zombies are a legend from Haitian voodoo, but based on the practice of drugging hapless victims to make them fall into a death-like coma, then revive them after their own funeral and keep them compliant and stupefied with drugs.

Haiti’s French masters knew about this in the 18th century, and knew it wasn’t supernatural. The colonial penal code of Haiti had a law making it a crime to give anyone a drug to make them appear to die, revive them and make them into slaves.

In 1985 Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis published “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” an account of his research in Haiti to find the zombie drug. Which actually turned out to be a sophisticated combination of drugs derived from datura, pufferfish venom, toad, and sea cucumber.

After being retrieved from their graves and revived, victims were dosed with lower concentrations of drugs, and possibly a bit brain damaged from lack of oxygen. And because of the superstitions about zombies, if they escaped they couldn’t go home.

The appeal of vampires is easy to understand I think. Though way mutated from the original myth of a demon-animated corpse, the modern incarnation is basically an immortal superhero with some weaknesses. So you have to stay in after sunrise and your diet is a little restricted, big deal. And they even fudge that a bit these days with animal blood and sunscreen.

(If you want a modern treatment of the vampire closer to the original myth, check out “Let Me In” (2010) or better, get the Swedish original “Låt den rätte komma in” (2008). In one word – chilling.)

But what’s the appeal of zombies?

Simple. You get to shoot a lot of people in the head.

There is a lot of concern, fully justified in my opinion, about first-person shooter games. I’m concerned as a parent about games which offer practice in killing people.

With zombies you can blast away all you like with a clear conscience. I have to admit that I’ve wasted a few quarters in “House of the Dead” video games myself from time to time.

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