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The Big Business of Zombies

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The unliving are always fun and in fashion.

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Vampires are a poor man's Faust, and everyone knows the bargain goes bad. But zombies are a metaphor lively enough to encompass slavery, Nazis, capitalism, infectious disease, consumerism, and the mindless state of being a croaker in perpetuity.

When we laugh at zombies, we're thumbing our noses at our own mortality. Better yet, kill a zombie -- or several hundred, making the slaughter an orgiastic guilty pleasure -- and you get to live another day. This suggests that somehow we can beat the odds, better known as the actuarial tables shuffling toward us.

Zombieland opens Friday in theaters nationwide. The latest incarnation of the living dead, starring Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin, looks like great fun. And last month, zombie king George Romero's latest flick, Survival of the Dead, was well received at the Venice International Film Festival.

But are zombies poised to replace vampires as our ghoulish fascination du jour? Does a sluggish economy bring out the inner Thriller in all of us?

It turns out that zombie movies have a long history of popularity in both good times and bad. There are endless variations on the zombie theme, but a few movies stand out: White Zombie (1932), King of the Zombies (1941), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and 28 Weeks Later (2007).

Vampires knowingly trade the pleasures of the soul -- sex, food, wit, and sunlight -- for an eternal life involving a routine of blood sucking and profound philosophical discussions worthy of an undergraduate, making a wooden stake through the heart a welcome release from the lecture hall of life.

But zombies are different. The unquestioning creatures have an insatiable urge for more flesh. Has the American consumer ever said, "Enough"? Zombies roll up their sleeves, or what's left of them, and get to work satisfying their lust.

Zombies apparently got their start in the Caribbean as an offshoot of voodoo. In White Zombie, a young couple getting married in Haiti run into Bela Lugosi, the local witch doctor who whips up a potion to make people mindless and docile.

This is a huge advantage when holding down operating costs on the old plantation. Monsieur Beaumont, the randy Frenchman and plantation owner, has the hots for the young bride and uses Bela's (his character is named Legendre) potion to seduce her.

Rats! The potion turns the beautiful, vivacious woman into a mindless, unsexy lump and The Evil Froggie wants her changed back. Here's betting her sweet, but sappy husband learns something about the redemptive power of love.

In Revolt of the Zombies four years later, the mindless creatures did more than protest their non-union working conditions down on the farm, but that movie is little more than a footnote in the evolution of zombies. The next major step came in King of the Zombies during the United States' run-up to World War II.

In the film, a gathering storm forces an American plane down on a remote Caribbean island. There's intermittent radio chatter in German, but nothing makes sense until our heroes meet a charismatic leader who rules by word and gesture, turning the locals into mindless followers who do his evil bidding -- and he's not even a corporal with a funny mustache.

King of the Zombies is both funny and touching. Mantan Moreland has one of the best lines in zombie history: "If there's one thing I wouldn't want to be twice, zombies is both of 'em!"

Moreland, a delightful comic actor whose talent would be worth millions today, also reminds us how far we've come. Perhaps best remembered as Charlie Chan's driver, Birmingham Brown, Moreland's career underscores how few good roles were available to black actors in the 1930s and 1940s. As a result, Moreland played the stereotypical black man of the day: superstitious, jumpy and ready to run at the first sign of danger -- a zombie of a different sort created by a society that generally refused to recognize his humanity.
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