Night of the Lively Dead

At the "Zombie Cabaret," where the beleaguered undead gain respite

Gonna step on your head, gonna break your bones

Gonna rip your eyes out from their holes

I'm gonna get you baby

Don't try to give me your excuse

I just wanna get back at you

I want your brain

-- Lyrics from "Zombie" by Screeching Weasel

"It's our year," says the undead fiend who was once Ashley Niblock. "It's our century, really, but who's counting?"

Niblock tugs at the hem of his World War II Army jacket, seemingly oblivious to the huge gashes in his forehead. I note with some disquiet the glut of blood glistening on his lips and chin and try to reassure myself that fresh blood means a fresh feed, hence a diminished appetite.

"We can get by on one or two brains in a 24-hour period," Niblock assures me. "Of course, I always try to get three squares in us a day." He smirks a bit at the double-entendre, belying my assumption that all zombies are completely brain-dead, and nods at his companion, a sweet young thing in a long white nightgown and socks, clutching a blood-splattered teddy bear. The girl, who has obviously suffered a very serious chest wound, introduces herself as Niblock's daughter, but their relationship is clearly more complicated.

"Once you cross over," explains Niblock, "you begin to see things in a whole new light."

"Zombies are stupid, brain-sucking beasts," says one of a small band of sexy, seemingly fearless female zombie-killers milling through the mostly undead crowd. "Don't let them fool you. Stay on your toes."

I look out over the dance floor, where miscreations in various states of decay are shuffling in time with the Specials' "Ghost Town," their tattered clothes and sloughing flesh fluttering with their spasms. A decomposing couple lurch through a stiff but evocative tango, which garners them the spotlight and the approval of the would-be carrion that makes up the crowd. One creature in particular catches my eye -- a slender, fleet-footed man with his chin hanging off his face.

"I used to be a tap dancer," explains Rick A. Mortis, who, as Josh Pfeiffer, fell in front of a train while he was practicing his dance steps in a subway station just a few short months ago. "Being a zombie really sucks. All I want to do is eat brains. It completely ruined my career. I dance here sometimes. They give me free drinks. I guess that's OK."

For five years, "Madame Zombique's Zombie Cabaret"has provided a respite for the belittled and beleaguered undead; the occasional zombie-hunter and -researcher aside, it is a place for the putrid to mingle with their own. Madame Zombique, aka Monique Motil, is also highly respected in the walking dead community for the outreach work she has done in conjunction with Zombie Labs, taking zombie talent shows and beauty pageants into the live human world. She even launched Zombie Pinups, a Web site for fetishists with a penchant for yellow eyes, gaping wounds, and lesions.

As a child, Motil was not allowed to watch horror movies. At 8 years old, she inadvertently caught sight of a horror-movie commercial that left her sleepless and trembling for weeks. She could not block the zombies from her mind. The end result was to be expected: Out of terror and repression, fascination and passion were born.

"Zombies are sexy, too," explains Motil. "Of course, I prefer the shambling zombie. Fast-moving zombies are too distracting. Shambling is so much more sultry."

"This is a mostly classic zombie club," says Dr. Kingfish, one of the leading researchers at Zombie Labs. "Sometimes, a few new-generation zombies slip in, but I'm really a traditionalist. I think you'll find most of the scientists at Zombie Labs are of the opinion that zombies should be slow and shambling, not fast-moving and manic."

It is a controversy that has been brewing since the release of Danny Boyle's kinetic, low-budget, high-impact zombiefest 28 Days Later and has grown with Zack Snyder's remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. On March 27, a moderately attended protest erupted, or rather lumbered, outside of the AMC 1000, which was showing Snyder's update.

"There are those among us who really hate the new faster zombies," admits Herbert West, the brilliant medical student from Re-Animatorwho invented a special serum in the mid-'80s and now spends much of his time crusading for zombie rights. "But, mostly, we were concerned that the zombies in Dawn of the Dead were not paid union scale. Of course, some of us feel we are underrepresented and/or misrepresented by the media."

To emphasize their various viewpoints, the putrescent protesters carried signs that read "More Gore!," "Undead Are People, Too!," "No Oil for Brains," and the startling "More of Us Than You." Unpredictably, there was very little violence at the March protest; and the three security guards who were sent to investigate the disturbance seemed bemused but unalarmed. The Muni drivers were another story.

"When we lurched toward the buses, they shut the doors rather abruptly and took off," says West. "There seems to be a strict no-zombie policy on Muni. I'm going to look into it."

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