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."

As we talk, West moves closer to me, giving me a good view of his weeping wounds and cold, pasty complexion. So amiable is his manner, I am almost caught off guard as he reaches around my back holding a syringe filled with glowing green glop very near my neck.

"Wouldn't you like to try some of my serum?" asks West. "It might help with perspective on your piece."

I cringe and am relieved to see a woman who looks remarkably like Alicefrom the zombie-splatter video game Resident Evilapproach with a large firearm. With deft precision, she puts a bullet in West's chest; it's not enough to kill him, but is just enough to knock him off balance while I escape to the merch table to grab a Necro-Swab. "Neutralizes necrogenous pathogens. Not for use on living flesh," states the package. I take my chances, wiping off as I peruse the T-shirts, "Zombie Pinups" and "Got Brains" being the fashionable options. Dr. Kingfish approaches me with a comely female zombie who stares through me with a glazed eye.

"This is one of our most popular models," explains Kingfish as Eerie moves close enough for me to see the maggots falling out of her brassiere, if I were to look. "Say something to the reporter, Eerie."

"You look smart," says Eerie, edging closer, a twinkle momentarily animating her dead eyes.

"Yes, well, that's the thing about zombie girls," says Kingfish as he shoos Eerie away. "They're only interested in one thing: brains.

"This one, though, is highly trained and well-disciplined," says Kingfish, motioning toward Stephanie, a girl with a huge bite taken out of her head and a blood-soaked tank top clinging to her slim frame. "Stephanie can hold a brain in her hands for two to three minutes without eating it. It's really remarkable. She'll be performing later."


After the zombie parade -- which includes, among many other deceased delectables, a rotting boy leading his girlfriend by a noose -- Madame Zombique and the highly skilled technicians from Zombie Labs take the stage to prove that the undead can be just as entertaining as the living. A group of has-been performers is herded into a holding pen made of chain-link fencing and offered brains as incentive. The brains, cryogenically stored in an ice chest, are pulled out of sealed bags of blood and held aloft by Madame Zombique while the zombies sing and dance to the best of their ability. Those who don't prove their worth are quickly disposed of inside the NecroCorp 3000zombie shredder, a large machine that emits a soggy grinding noise. The "woman" who was once Kitten on the Keyssings an updated, undead version of the Scarecrow's song from The Wizard of Oz.

"If I only had a brain/ I could slice it/ I could dice it," she coos and gurgles before lurching at the tasty treat being offered by Zombique and shoving it into her already bloodied mouth. One of the zombie wranglers, protected by a bird cage on his head and a specially designed cattle prod in his hand, pushes the convulsing Kitten back into the pen.

Eerie's epidermal striptease is a favorite with the crowd, but many of the other performing zombies don't fare so well. Rick A. Mortis, who starts his tap-dance routine only to cough blood all over the audience, is quickly shredded, as are the former Cantankerous Lollies, who make the mistake of attacking Dr. Kingfish. By the time Stephanie takes the stage to juggle brains, the rostrum is so suffused with gore that she is unable to stay on her feet. The ensuing bloody slip-and-slide sideshow works the crowd into a frenzy of groaning. When the next striptease act pulls out her own intestines, several patrons rush the stage, shoving internal organs into their mouths until the wranglers and their cattle prods get things under control. As I flee into the night, the sound of the zombie-chopper still roaring in my ears, I notice two police officers leaving the DNA Lounge, site of this season's "Zombie Cabaret."

"Are you here to get the zombie menace under control?" I ask hopefully.

"You kidding?" says one. "If we were off duty, this is where we'd be hanging out."

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