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April 14, 2011

Back from the Dead

The Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. If you're tuned into pop culture of any kind, every day seems like the "Day of the Dead." Zombies have moved from the stuff of horror flicks and comic books to nearly every element of today's culture, populating popular TV series such as...

The Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

If you're tuned into pop culture of any kind, every day seems like the "Day of the Dead."

Zombies have moved from the stuff of horror flicks and comic books to nearly every element of today's culture, populating popular TV series such as AMC's "The Walking Dead," video games such as the Resident Evil series, even literature - zombie mash-ups including "Pride and Prejudice with Zombies," which features the undead chomping their way through Edwardian England.

Recent Halloweens featured a plethora of zombie costumes ranging from the absurdly simple - white makeup, shredded clothes and fake blood - to elaborate latex creations complete with oozing brains.

The word has infiltrated politics and finance. During the Great Recession, some commentators referred to "zombie banks." Bill collectors hassling consumers about defaulted credit cards from the late '90s are said to be collecting "zombie debt." The current crop of legislators in D.C. has been referred to frequently as the "zombie congress."

The walking dead are the subject of serious academic research. In 2009, scientists at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa released a study that said an outbreak of zombie-ism "is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly."

Zombies are even taking to the streets. For nearly a decade, crowds of people in zombie makeup have staggered through city streets and malls as the result of flash mobs, or come together for organized events called "Zombie Walks," fun celebrations of everything undead often are organized to support a charity or cause.

Myrtle Beach will host its fourth annual Zombie Walk on Saturday, with registration and zombie makeup sessions going on from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Fresh Brewed Coffee House. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Autism Advocate Society of Horry County.

The Zombie Walk is open to all kinds of zombies, whether they favor the slow, lumbering walk of the creatures in George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," or the faster, more vicious and violent style of more recent zombie flicks such as "28 Days Later" and "Zombieland."

The local Zombie Walk started in 2008, and Myrtle Beach resident Brandi Matkins took over as organizer in 2009. A self-described "goth girl from way back," Matkins said the idea of combining scary fun with doing good was right up her alley.

She said the event has become progressively more successful each year, as more people catch on to the zombie phenomenon and seek out fun, interesting ways to help out the community. In past years, the Walk benefited the Grand Strand Humane Society and local food banks. Last year's walk attracted about 250 people, and so far this year more than 900 have RSVP'd for the event on Facebook.

"You hear all kinds of theories about why zombies are popular, but I think it's just like having Halloween in April, people like the idea of dressing up and getting out in character for the day," Matkins said. "Some people say the zombie craze is about consumerism, but I don't think it's that deep. They're just fun."

Blood brothers?

Zombies, according to experts, are battling it out in the pop culture sphere with the sparkly bloodsuckers of "Twilight" and the vampire craze in general.

"Right now the zombie and the vampire are kinda fighting it out to see who's the most fit monster for this moment," said Glenn Jellenik, an instructor in the English and film departments at the University of South Carolina in Columbia who is offering a course in "Zombies in Film" later this year. "Obviously the vampire has the sex/anxiety angle, which always makes it attractive. But the zombie, I think speaks to several big fears that our culture has at the moment. On one hand, it signals an existential crisis. We look at our lives - get up, go to work, go home, watch TV, go to sleep, get up, go to work - and at some point, we all wonder if we've become zombies."

Zombies also speak to the "fear of the horde," Jellenik said, reflecting the fear that one person's individuality is going to be swallowed up by the huge, mindless maw of the masses.

He noted that zombie-apocalypse movies are all about the defense of individuality, one small group of survivors left to defend their intrinsic humanity against the brain-swilling zombie mob.

"The zombie as a monster taps into two fears we're feeling keenly at the moment, that we're losing our identity and our life has become a series of empty motions, and that there are huge stupid masses of 'people' who want nothing out of life than to grab our individuality and eat our brains," Jellenik said.

Terry F. Pettijohn II, a professor of psychology at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, said a number of factors could explain the popularity of zombies, including that they are more realistic than other horror characters, and constantly remind humans of the themes of death and coming back to life. Other reasons, he said, could be simple as a search for escapism. Even the constant playing of Michael Jackson's zombie-filled "Thriller" video after his 2009 death could have caused more people to focus on zombies, he said.

Zombies at the beach

Jeff Bracey, who works at Nightmare Haunted House on Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, has helped with makeup as part of the Zombie Response Team at the Myrtle Beach Zombie Walk for three years.

He enjoys turning everyday people into brain-eating ghouls for a few hours because, he said, he's into anything to do with sci-fi, fantasy and horror, and zombies are right up that alley.

"It's about fear of the mob, that ultimate conformity," Bracey said. "Americans are very individual people but everybody also kind of wants to fit in. I think we have a weird love/hate relationship with zombies. They're kind of the ultimate thing to run from."

Horror fans and people who just like a taste of the macabre in their lives are also drawn to zombies and zombie walks because, well, the zombie look is just easier to create than some other monsters, Bracey said. That's why the zombie motif is also popular with many horror filmmakers just getting their start, he said.

"Anybody with a camcorder and a little bit of fake blood can make a zombie movie," he said.

Priestess Kandi Ranson, vice-president of Kluckin Films, a Myrtle Beach-based small video production company that specializes in horror films, is in charge of the Zombie Response Team.

She thinks zombies are getting their day in the limelight because more fantasy and horror themes are simply present in mainstream films. The rise in popularity of Cosplay, a portmanteau of "costume play," the practice of dressing up in public as favorite characters, especially from manga and anime, also may lead more people to events like Zombie Walks, she said.

"It is a time for all the free-spirited who love to have fun while giving back to the community to come together and just do that," Ranson said. "Since this is the fourth one, it's going to be like a reunion for many of us."

Zombies are not popular with everyone. A rumor sprouted just before Surge press time that a Grand Strand area church is planning to protest the zombie walk because they believe the event somehow promotes Satanism and the occult. Matkins said she had not heard what specific church or religious group might protest, but the accusations are completely baseless. A notice on the Zombie Walk Facebook page stresses that the walk is not affiliated with any religious belief at all.

"This is simply about having fun and raising funds for autism," Matkins said.

North Carolina resident Tony Spears, a native of Dillon, said events like the Zombie Walk are a good way to get people involved in giving back to the community who might not ordinarily attend more mainstream fundraising events.

Spears will make his second appearance at the Myrtle Beach Walk in the persona of "Digger the Zombie," a character he first developed while working as a roadie for a horror-themed band in North Carolina.

"I'm not sure if the culture itself is driving the interest in zombies, although part of it might be the talk about an apocalypse in 2012 and that kind of thing," Spears said. "I think part of the whole appeal of zombies, and dressing up like zombies, is it's just an easy way to rebel. Your makeup can be as simple or complex as you want."

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