How scary and dumb zombies became cute and smart | By Saundra Marcel

The New Undead

"Zombie Pet is kind of cute, if it wasn't for all the flesh eating."

So says the product description of an 8" toy created by Argentinean designer Patricio Oliver for Kidrobot. The Zombie Pet Dunny is made out of translucent, blue vinyl and its belly is printed with glow-in-the-dark bones. The result is not ghoulish, but rather adorable. On my bookshelf is the new novel Breathers: A Zombie's Lament by S. G. Browne, which will be brought to life next year on the big screen by female screenwriter Diablo Cody of Juno fame. In the comic book series Marvel Zombies, futuristic, part alien superheroes have become super-souless, retaining their intellect and personality but hankering for flesh. This is the new zombie. No longer a reanimated corpse on a mindless hunt for brains, today's undead are amped up and distorted from the old classic; manga-influenced cute rather than ghoulish, shrewd and strategic rather than moronic, and possessing a combination of superpowerful traits.

The pop culture trope Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot is a "rule of cool" that refers to the combination of two or more cool things resulting in a level of coolness that exceeds its parts. Sometimes physically impossible or even contradictory--it's not just a pirate, it's also a zombie and a skeleton. The Zombie Pet Dunny is a bunny-zombie-skeleton. The absurdity of the combination is embraced as cool rather than dismissed as confusing or unbelievable.

Noodle, backup vocalist for the virtual band Gorillaz, is portrayed in their most recent music video Stylo as a combination zombie-robot. Unfazed by mortality her character sits dispassionately in the backseat of a car with a gaping bullet hole in her head. It's not until midway through the video that she convincingly short-circuits and collapses, although it's not convincing that she's gone for good. Zombies--and robots--are hard to kill.

The Stylo video features three computer animated zombie-like characters engaged in a high speed chase, and requires the audience to suspend belief in a twisted and graphically outrageous world. Catapulting the video into ludicrousness is the band's adversary, a certain Bruce Willis, who stalks the villains in a badass '68 El Camino. For the sake of cool the layers of complexity are surmountable--our overstimulated minds welcome the chance to decode. On YouTube, most of the 15,173 comments speculate on the narrative behind the visuals. Perhaps contradiction and complexity is necessary, today, to keep our interest.

The popularization of the zombie in culture can be credited to Hollywood in the 1980s and the hugely popular horror genre. In movies, this was the decade of the post-mortem ghoul. The classic undead character, with unfocused, glazed eyes, and a penchant for hanging out in cemeteries, was film's favorite villain. Michael Jackson's Thriller--the best-selling music video of all time--was released in 1983 to popular adoration. Day of the Dead hit the big screen in 1985, the third of George Romero's zombie blockbusters. Romero didn't invent the zombie--that's been around for a long time, originating in African and Caribbean superstitions--but he's been credited with proliferating the character for mass consumption. Also in 1985 was Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead. The comedic zombie in Beetlejuice, directed by Tim Burton, was released in 1988. Other hits of that decade are seared in history as quintessential scary movies: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Since then, fantastical themes of the living dead continue to be revisited in new ways.

It's not surprising that the 1980s have lent yet another influence to us. We've been appropriating liberally from '80s style for a while now, wearing leg warmers, jelly bracelets, and aviator sunglasses. In the Gorillaz Stylo video, gristly Bruce Willis sports reflective aviators, chucks his gum out the window (which was later sold on eBay), and subsequently fires his oversized weapon at the green-faced zombie-driver of the villain's car. Our love affair of all things '80s potentially includes Mr. Willis, as that was the decade he became a diehard celebrity.

Like our undead subjects--new, more complicated variants on old themes--our contemporary culture has a knack for hijacking past styles and adding complexity. It's a contemporary trend of throwing in everything plus the kitchen sink. In the Stylo video, for example, the actual cars are from the '60s, but reference the 1980s TV show Dukes of Hazzard. In addition, we're confronted with a smoke monster a la Lost from this decade, not to mention the CGI and live-action combination. Rather than lacking coherence and historical accuracy we are unbothered by the mashing together of old, older, and new.

In a decade of overstimulation and information superabundance, boredom is staved off by a layering of complexity. We're a little bit lazy, a little bit indulgent, and a lot restless. Our contemporary culture is happy to appropriate what has already been done, as it saves us the trouble of inventing something new. The formula works. If the new zombie is an undead character plus--and our generation borrows from anywhere and everywhere--that plus could conceivably be anything.

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