Local experts weigh in on zombies, their recent surge in popularity, and the possibility of a zombie apocalypse
They’ve risen from the dead, they crave human flesh, and in the last few years, they’ve come to dominate popular culture. Welcome to zombie mania.
The first real zombie movie, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968. Since then, zombies have appeared in numerous books, films and television shows—from Dawn of the Dead (1978) to 28 Days Later (2002) to Shaun of the Dead (2004) to Zombieland (2009) to Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (2009) to World War Z (2013) to AMC’s ever-popular hit show The Walking Dead, which just began its fourth season on Oct. 13.
Whether you’re a diehard zombie groupie or you’ve sworn allegiance to the vampire/werewolf camp, there is no denying our society’s new obsession with the undead. And, with Halloween right around the corner, you can bet that zombie costumes will be flying off the shelves, if they’re not gone already.
But why the recent surge in zombie popularity? What is it about walkers/biters/lurkers/unmentionables (or however you refer to them) that has grabbed hold of our collective imagination? To help answer those questions, we turned to some local authorities on the subject.
“Of all the supernatural, undead characters, I think [zombies] are the ones people can relate to most, since they’re the closest to still being human,” says Chris Zephro, owner of the Soquel-based Trick or Treat Studios. “It’s far-fetched to think of a vampire, right? Or even ghosts for that matter. But if you’ve ever been in a graveyard, you’ve probably wondered if anything has ever crawled out, or if anything has gotten up from under a slab and reanimated.”
It may sound implausible to some, but for Zephro, who has had a lifelong love for horror films, Halloween and Halloween masks, anything is possible. At Trick or Treat Studios, Zephro and his team of about 25 professional artists and designers turn such fantasies into reality with more than 100 terrifyingly lifelike, hand-painted Halloween masks, as well as a vast collection of costumes and props.
In the four years since Zephro founded the company, it has grown from under $100,000 in sales the first year to well over $1 million today. In addition to original mask designs, Trick or Treat Studios has licensed designs for some of Hollywood’s most celebrated horror films, including the Halloween franchise, Jeepers Creepers, the Saw franchise, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (which was filmed in Santa Cruz), The Orphan Killer, and many more.
Recently, the company’s line of zombie masks—designed by master sculptors Bruce Spaulding Fuller, Erich Lubatti and others—which includes Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead look-alikes, has been in high demand. “Zombies have always been popular, but I think with The Walking Dead, they’ve really become way more mainstream,” says Zephro, who adds that California’s Great America’s new Zombie High maze is currently using many of Trick or Treat Studios’ masks. He is also currently in negotiations with the producers of The Walking Dead about doing a line of zombie masks for the show.
“Zombies seem to be more believable [than other monsters],” says Zephro. “Plus, if anybody is in the Catholic or Christian religion—you know, Lazarus and Jesus were the first two zombies, right?” he laughs. “Easter wasn’t about a bunny. It was about someone rising from a tomb and walking!”
Author Scott (S.G.) Browne sees zombies a bit differently. The former Santa Cruz resident, who now lives in San Francisco, has loved zombies since seeing Night of the Living Dead as a 12-year-old. But it wasn’t until 2001, when he wrote a short story called “A Zombie’s Lament,” in which a newly minted zombie attends Dead Anonymous meetings, that he began to seriously think about them.
“I had this thought, ‘What if a zombie was more like a human?’” Browne says. “What would my parents think if I were a zombie? Could I join a softball league? What if I had all my memories, but couldn’t participate in life because I was decomposing?”
Those burning questions fueled his first published novel, a dark comedy called “Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament”—think Shaun of the Dead meets Fight Club—released in 2009, which tells the story of a recently deceased Santa Cruzan named Andy, who is having some trouble adjusting to his new existence as a zombie. Asked why Browne chose Santa Cruz of all places for his zombies to reside, he said, “It partly had to do with the fact that I lived there, but also because even though zombies are not tolerated by humans typically, Santa Cruz is very accepting of different lifestyles. So I could see zombies being more tolerated there.”
Far from typical zombie fare, in Browne’s book, zombies are the heroes and humans are the villains. Andy and his zombie cohort have memories and feelings, in addition to their insatiable craving for flesh. “There is a moral struggle over whether or not it’s OK to eat your parents,” he says.
Browne’s decision to challenge the zombie archetype—slow moving, brain-dead, flesh-eaters—supports his own theory as to why zombies have become so popular in recent years.
“Some people say fear of terrorism and the economy have historically triggered an increase in zombie popularity, wherein horror is catharsis. But I don’t agree,” he says. “Up until 2002, with 28 Days Later, zombies were just one-dimensional; they lived in this little box. Now they’re faster and, in some cases, funnier. They’re able to spread their wings, and it makes them more appealing to a wider audience. For instance, with ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ Jane Austen fans became more aware of zombies. The fact that we’re doing different things with them is what makes them popular—they’re more well-rounded.”
Aptos’ own Harry Franklin—a Santa Clara County firefighter/paramedic by day and an author by night—has some zombie theories of his own. His recently released book, “Aetas Furor: The Time of Madness,” is a zombie apocalypse story set in ancient Rome, starring the notorious Emperor Caligula.
A lifelong history buff, Franklin’s decision to make ancient Rome the setting for his new book was an obvious one. But why zombies? “Because I like The Walking Dead,” he says, “and because I read on 247wallst.com that zombies are a $5.74 billion industry, which is about 2 percent of the GDP.”
Unlike the characters in “Breathers,” Franklin’s zombies are the more standard, mindless, flesh-eating creatures, which wreak havoc. What’s unique to “Aetas Furor,” however, is the Romans’ ability to respond to the attacking zombies. Since the Romans were used to constant invasions by enemy forces and hand-to-hand combat, they’re much better prepared for a zombie apocalypse than your average American.
“That latent anxiety (that we’re not prepared for an apocalypse) has been fueling zombie popularity,” says Franklin. “People who aren’t prepared when shit hits the fan are a direct metaphor. We’re all so interconnected that if things fall apart, we won’t know what to do.
“I think there is deeper stuff to that metaphor, too,” he goes on. “Are we really super smart people, or are we all just zombies? You could make a case that all of this higher consciousness stuff is a bunch of bullshit. It could also be argued that there are people or forces out there that are trying to make us into zombies through subliminal messages.”
Whatever its significance in popular culture today might mean, Santa Cruz photographer Gary Irving is embracing the zombie trend whole-heartedly. The gifted artist has combined his passion for landscape photography with his affinity for the macabre into a collection of beautifully creepy zombie photography, which will be exhibited at his studio on the Westside on Saturday, Oct. 26.
Each piece in his collection features Santa Cruz residents posing as horrifying zombies and zombie slayers in full makeup and bloodied costumes, with one of Irving’s striking European landscape photographs serving as the backdrop. The images are edited extensively using Photoshop and layering techniques to add texture, depth and whatever other creative flourishes Irving sees fit (adding bullet holes to windows, for instance).
A fan of album cover artwork and heavy metal music growing up, Irving gives his photographs a dark and cinematic quality, which blurs the line between fantasy and reality. It’s for that reason that he has had to apologize on multiple occasions to Bantam, the Italian restaurant located next to his studio, for frightening patrons on evenings when he’s done zombie photo shoots.
Drawing inspiration from some of his favorite zombie TV shows and films, including Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and The Devil’s Rejects, Irving works with local artist John Palka, who does the makeup for each shoot to get the zombie look just right. Often using clothes from Goodwill, Irving will do everything from throwing paint, mud, organic flour and/or boot polish at the clothes to using a belt sander to make the material look as tarnished and believable as possible.
“If these weren’t zombies and they were just regular people, it would look pretty sick,” laughs Irving. “But because they’re zombies, it doesn’t look that bad … you’re probably doing the world a favor by killing the zombies, right?”
While there are a few photographs in his collection that appear to offer social commentary on things like the closing of mental institutions, religious wars and youth violence, Irving admits that it’s something that happens subconsciously during his artistic process. “What’s funny is, I do [zombie photography] just for the artistic license,” he says. “I have free range of anything.”
Irving admits to being partial to old-school zombies “because of the suspense that came with it” and the lack of over-the-top special effects, but he also appreciates what newer films like World War Z have brought to the genre.
“World War Z upped the ante with their ant-like [zombies]—the way they horde through areas and stuff like that. But it was more like an infection, rather than a zombie outbreak,” says Irving. “I don’t know which way it’s going to go off now. Are we going to go back to our super slow, brain-dead zombies? Or is it just going to be these lunatics?”
Whatever direction Hollywood decides to take zombies next, one thing’s for certain: This zombie apocalypse idea isn’t going away anytime soon. And with so many creative minds exploring the topic at the same time, the question begs to be asked: Is a zombie apocalypse on the horizon?
“Anything’s possible,” Browne says with a laugh. “When the CDC puts out reports and does trainings for zombies, and law enforcement practices for it, it makes you wonder if it could be possible. If it does happen, I don’t know what I’ll do about it. In the event of the apocalypse, I won’t be well-prepared … I don’t even have an earthquake kit.”
Franklin is more optimistic about how locals, in particular, will fare come doomsday. “I think it’s entirely possible that there will be a national disaster or a war that will lead to what you’re seeing in zombie movies—all that xenophobia, do what you can to survive, and us-against-the-world mentality,” he says. “[But] with the Loma Prieta earthquake, I think enough people in Santa Cruz have supplies and community connections to get through at least the first couple days of the zombie apocalypse. We’re pretty isolated in terms of location, but I could see zombies coming over from the valley—we might have to barricade Highway 17.”
For more information about Trick or Treat Studios or to purchase a mask, visit trickortreatstudios.com. To find out more about S.G. Browne and “Breathers,” visit sgbrowne.com. “Aetas Furor” is now available on Amazon. To view some of Gary Irving’s photography, visit garyfoto.com. Irving’s Zombie Exhibition will be on display at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26 at his studio, 1010 Fair St., Ste. K, Santa Cruz. (Photo below: Gary Irving)
CALLING ALL ZOMBIES
Apocalyptic party featuring costume contests, photo booths, zombie drinks, and music by DJ Frank Zummo and Street Drum Corps’ Blood Drums. 8:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. $30/adv, $35/door. Visit beachboardwalk.com/zombie-bash.
Santa Cruz Roller Derby Girls Harbor Hellcats vs. Undead Bettys Damned Skaters
The final home game of the 2013 season is Halloween-themed. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Kaiser Permanente Arena, 140 Front St., Santa Cruz. $12-25. Visit ticketreturn.com.
Halloween Festival & Mask-making Workshop
The family friendly event features a haunted house, a phantom photo booth, parade and more. Noon-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz. No cover. Visit nelsoncenter.com.
Second Annual Zombie Pub Crawl
This Zombie Pub Crawl begins at the Clock Tower, then heads to Red Room, Motiv, The Poet and the Patriot, and ends at The Blue Lagoon. 7 p.m.-Midnight, Saturday, Oct. 26. The Clock Tower, Downtown Santa Cruz.
Monster Bash Masquerade
Halloween party featuring music by Opiuo, Liberation Movement, Vibesquad, JPOD the Beat Chef, and Little John. 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 31. Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. $35/adv, $40/door. Visit monsterbashsix.eventbrite.com.