Essay: A Denver filmmaker’s zombie quest
I’ve always been a puzzled by people who dive obsessively into pop-cultural waters -- the kind of folks who believe that anything worth doing is worth doing excessively.
Personally, I have no interest in attending a Comic Con convention or participating in any conclave where devotees pretend to be Klingons. But I am intrigued by the people who are attracted to such endeavors.
That’s why on a day when temperatures flirted with zero, I visited film director Alexandre Philippe in his downtown Denver loft to talk about zombies.
When it comes to zombies — those flesh-eating, brain-devouring creatures who seem to be staggering everywhere these days — the 41-year-old Philippe knows his stuff.
The Swiss-born filmmaker’s latest pop-cultural documentary — “Doc of the Dead” — takes a comprehensive look at the zombie phenomenon, and includes interviews that range from Simon Pegg, the actor who starred in the grimly hilarious “Shaun of the Dead,” to a renowned Haitian Voodoo priest who once studied biochemistry at the Sorbonne.
If you’re still part of the vast army of the living, you can’t have helped but noticed that zombies seem be riding an unstoppable wave of popularity, generating a steady stream of movies and television shows. These include last summer’s “World War Z” and the on-going AMC hit, “The Walking Dead,” which resumed on February 9.
As far as enthusiasts are concerned, zombification knows no boundaries.
In 2012, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper — in zombie makeup that looked a bit half-hearted — joined his son Teddy on the 16th Street Mall to participate in Denver’s annual Zombie Crawl.
Smart move. Hickenlooper may be facing trouble from gun enthusiasts who object to Colorado’s new gun regulations, but should have no trouble securing the zombie vote.
As this zombie jamboree continues, it’s impossible not to wonder why zombies have captured so many imaginations.
“That’s a really big question,’’ says Philippe, who has made a career documenting pop cultural obsessions in movies such as “The People vs. George Lucas,” an exploration of “Star Wars” fans’ often conflicted attitudes toward the creator of the “Star Wars” franchise, and “Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water,” which examined Klingons and Star Trek fans. “It has become something so large with so many different pockets that one can’t say with certainty, ‘This is zombie culture.’”
Philippe asked this question of George Romero, the director of 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” -- the movie credited with starting the modern zombie craze.
“He says the same thing,” Philippe says of Romero’s thoughts on the subject. “‘What is zombie culture?’ Are they fans of the genre? Are they fans of zombies? Are they fans of horror? Are they just people going out in the streets and having fun?’”
“Zombies are used in hundreds of different ways by different types of people to fit whatever lifestyle they have,’’ Philppe says . “There’s zombie sex. There’s zombie porn. There are zombie fashion shows, zombie pub crawls, zombie walks and zombie car washes.”
Zombie sex? Don’t ask. I didn’t.
But wait…I’m beginning to scare myself. I’m talking about zombies as if they were real. There are, after all, no such thing as zombies. Are there?
“It depends on how you define a zombie,’’ Philippe says. “We went to Haiti. We interviewed Max Beauvoir, who is essentially ‘the pope of Voodoo.’ He talks about zombification as something that’s very real. He talks about it as something spiritual. We’re not talking about somebody who is dead and then comes back. We’re talking about somebody who’s poisoned and made to look like he or she is dead, who becomes brain dead and enslaved. It’s a very different kind of zombie.”
OK, so the shambling, relentless zombies of George Romero’s imagination don’t exist. why do people insist on bringing them to life?
Philippe talks about the research of zombie expert Sarah Lauro, who teaches at Clemson University, South Carolina. Clemson is the co-author of an article titled “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism.”
“She’s done a lot of research on zombie walks,” Philippe says. “She talks about the fact that it’s a form of revolution, a tacit message to our government. ‘Here we are. We’ve got 10,000 to 15,000 zombies. We’re out in the street. It’s all peaceful, but if we wanted, we could start a revolution.’ I don’t think that’s the full picture, but its part of it.”
While I conjure up images of zombies slouching doggedly toward the White House, my mind flips to thoughts of death and rot. Some say zombie culture began thriving after 9/11.
Others point to bioterrorism and the fear of uncontrollable infectious diseases. Are zombies a way of coping with the most final of realities? Or do they help people escape the grim fate that awaits us all?
“It could be both,’’ Philippe says . “That’s what I love about zombie culture. On the surface, it’s very simple, but when you start digging and looking at what is happening, there are so many theories and possibilities.”
I suppose it’s impossible not to discuss zombies with a filmmaker who has studied them without asking about his favorites.
“It’s difficult to argue against the original ‘Night of the Living Dead’ because of its impact,” Philippe says. "But to get away from that, I would go with ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ which I really adore. Recently, ‘Fido,’ I think, has been great, a lot of fun."
Happily, “Doc of the Dead” may serve as a primer for those of us who cling to the idea that a walk is best enjoyed by those who still are, as the saying goes, capable of fogging the mirror. I’m grateful, though, that Philippe has saved me the trouble of seeking out zombies on my own.
An 81-minute film may be quite enough for me, thanks. But for Philippe and the people that fascinate him, the subject seems inexhaustible. So many zombies, so little time.
Philippe’s film will have its world premiere at the much-watched SXSW, a multi-media festival that unspools in Austin, Texas from March 7 through March 15. If you live in the Denver area, you needn’t feel left out: Philppe’s 81-minute zombie orgy also will show at the Stanley Film Festival, which unreels in Estes Park from April 24-27. “Doc of the Dead’’ also will play as a lead-in to the showing of “World War Z” on the Epix network. Watch the trailer below:
Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at www.denersteinunleashed.com.