On Zombies, and “Dr. S”

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(Author’s note: This is an essay about zombies inspired by the super-fun and worthwhile musical Dr. "S" Battles the Sex-Crazed Reefer Zombies: The Movie: The Musical, which plays at the Overtime Theater until Nov 6. For a much shorter and more straight-up review of that show, see tomorrow’s paper issue of the Current.)

I’ve always liked zombies better than vampires. Damn corny vampires with their schlocky oldtimey capes and bat-guises and mitteleuropean accents or — maybe worse — the sexy newfangled vampires sportin' celibate sparkliness (Twilight) or cable-ready perviness and bad Southern acccents (True Blood). That cheesy Euro-aristocracy that seems to inform vampire mythos irks me, all the Count Whatsit and Queen Whoever. I don't like a monster in fancy clothes won’t shut up about Transylvania, Viking antics, or Gettysburg.

Maybe I prefer zombies to vampires because Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about a thousand times a better novel than Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (who is a re-animated kinda multi-corpse, and therefore zombielike, in my book) despairs, rails at his creator, feels lonely and misunderstood. Dracula’s just some wealthy asshole. A dick with a boat, a castle, a lawyer, a crazed valet, and a London townhouse. The hell with him, and Lestat too.

Give me a zombie every time! Zombie, monster of the people! Zombies are the democratic-with-a-small-d monster. And they have walked among Americans forever, y’all. Certainly since the enslaved African diaspora met American shores, since way before Hollywood, through many epochs and national moods, chasing us around in the depths of our national subconscious, sometimes receding into the dark, sometimes charging en masse —like right now — and shaped by sociopolitical and cultural movements, just like always, just like all art. Zombiehood forms and traditions reflect specific cultural contexts; it's about who's afraid of what, and when.

Take Shelley's sorrowing monster from Frankenstein, who embodies the "noble savage" Romanticism of Rousseau. The Frankenstein monster — fuck it, let's go ahead and call him Frankenstein — is Mary Shelley's trepidation about the scientific advances of the Enlightenment, monsterized. Poor Frankenstein, product of Science, with his daddy issues (interestingly, Shelley was pregnant at the time she wrote the novel) and his bumbling around making a mess, just like the Industrial Revolution.

Now let's look at the New World monster: We’re all familiar with the original, Haitian-type zombies of yore, who trudge along in identityless nocturnal slavery, who groan and shamble but never complain while they work in sugar cane mills, and who threaten only when carrying out the orders of an evil master. Think White Zombie (the 1932 film, not the band) and I Walked With a Zombie (1942), and all those New Orleans-voodoo style zombies, as well as that lumpen, poky zombie in Scooby-Doo.

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These works present the zombie as fearsome servant, an anxiety transmuted into fantasy (which describes most horror) of the European-American power structure. By the time Hollywood ritualized the American imagination, though, the white U.S. was well accustomed to exoticizing and Other-izing African-Americans and Afro-Carribbeans, characterizing them as mindless and anonymous, ruled by mysterious superstition, and fit mainly for local color and unpaid labor. They're scary, but aimless, and hardly out to eat you.

In this Haitian-zombie scenario, it’s the “witch doctors” who are really up to something, with “voodoo” as convenient American shorthand for the African diaspora’s little-understood and possibly-subversive beliefs — for Candomble, Santería, Yoruba, and other West African religious practices that generations of slavery and oppression never quite routed. These traditional religious practices remained particularly strong in Haiti, however, the only country on Earth where African slaves took sovereignty, under Toussaint L’Overture in 1804.

Author/anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston researched traditional religious practices in New Orleans, Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930s, recording elements of a complex African-derived, colonialism-mutated belief system. In her book Tell my Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, Hurston observes "It is not so difficult to put a coat of European culture over African culture," and expresses way more interest in the psychoactive agents used to generate states of un- or meta-consciousness as in the notion of monsters. She de-monsterfies zombies, which isn't much fun for mass culture.

White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie are both set in Hollywood's version of Haiti, where local voodoo spells are used to zombie-fy white women, who must then be rescued from the African magic through the efforts of white dudes. This she-zombie plot point touches on the whole European-American (especially white Southern) hysteria to protect the flower of white womanhood from — well, rape, ostensibly, but more accurately, threatening African sexual prowess (white men fathering children by subordinate black women was OK though, right through Strom Thurmond and beyond.)

The postwar American zombie doesn't know from Africa, for the most part. A lot has been written about Cold War-era zombies as pop incarnations of anti-Communist paranoia. Look around on the internet: Zombies and Zombie-ism as a metaphor for the Red Menace is big academic stuff. The notion of zombie-ism, like Communism, as a spreading “infection,” one which could turn your very loved ones from normal God-fearing stuff-owners into an undifferentiated mass of scary Godless non-people who must be killed and can’t be reasoned with, shambled into the American consciousness with anticommunism, and remains there.

Famously, filmmaker George Romero turned this zombie-commie notion on its head with his 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the film wherein flesh-eating creeps into the genre, incidentally, and in which (SPOILER ALERT) an African-American leading man fights off a symbolic lynch mob of zombies while maintaining his literal and ethical humanity, only to be shot dead in the morning by white cops, who assume our hero must be one of those marauding undead cannibals. 1968, the year in which the picture was made, also marked the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Robert Kennedy, and of police brutality during the riots of Watts and Detroit, and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Says Romero: We have seen the zombie, and he is us.

Other countries have taken up the zombie baton (which is a great name for something), most notably Italy, whose filmmakers like Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and Ruggero Deodato went darker and much gorier. I've seen some of these Italian zombie movies, and whoa, nellie. I'm not gonna try to parse them, mainly 'cause I've got less of a grasp of why Italians made these, culturally, historically, socioeconomically. Was it their shared experience of World War II, is it something inherent to Roman Catholicism? (In which case, a particularly gothic Catholicism may also play a part in Mexican horror aesthetic).

However! I can't stand not showing y'all this, my favorite scene from Fulci's Zombie (1979)

Zombie! Shark! That is crazy bananas! I don't know what it means. I don't know who to root for. I like zombies, but I think I'm with the shark, here.

Nowadays, in the current “Zombie Apocalypse” era, the undead don’t stand for what they used to. Zombie meaning’s been diffused, even as their fictive numbers have grown. The Haitian voodoo model has been largely abandoned in film, in favor of the postwar contamination model. Also, the shambling corpses have sped up into vicious fast and furious mode, á la the 28 Days Later franchise; perhaps in no longer facing a large, slow-moving enemy like the USSR, the U.S. (and U.K.) live in dread of unpredictable strikes seemingly out of nowhere, tactics of which terrorist cels or single armed individuals have proven capable. (Note: the Italian zombie auteurs also went all "fast zombie" earlier than the US did). We’re also frightened by new diseases and ecological degradation, rogue states, chaos, other people. Hordes of "infected" no-longer-humans are filmic stand-ins for encroaching immigrants, Islamists, or Tea Partiers. It depends on who scares you most. But whoever they are, they're Other, yearning, heedless, in ravenous need, undissuadable, beyond saving, and numerous.

In 2005, I heard several on-the-scene TV newscasters described the Katrina survivors, repeatedly and shamefully, as zombies.

I didn't hear the victims of the 2010 Haitian earthquake described that way, but likely they were, by somebody.

Zombiehood doesn’t have to be so socially weighted, though. The zombie feature’s spawned a whole galaxy of subcategories, the most popular of which is the zombie comedy. It’s harder to discern what, if any, political or social import arises from Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, both excellent pieces of entertainment in which zombies happen, and what are you gonna do? You dispatch them with falling pianos, is what. You butcher them to a fun background song, like Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” You get Bill Murray to help you out. And it’s awesome.

Increasingly, the most popular zombie media supplants both the Mary Shelley example of the undead as Romantic tragedy, and the George Romero model of zombie horde as political symbol, and has shifted into a speculative intellectual exercise. For example, you can find a nifty and nearly plausible narrative in World War Z, a geopolitical zombie apocalypse novel. In this very smart book and its follow-ups, Zombpocalypse (a word I may have just made up) plays out as global war, recounted in a series of after-the-fact news reports based on eyewitness testimony, and which details the fall or rise of individual nations based on their climate, natural resources and geology, like the boardgame Risk with more descriptive text (go, Cuba!) Fascinatingly, Max Brooks’s father is Mel “Young Frankenstein” Brooks, the pre-eminent farcemeister with a vaudevillean musical bent.

HUGE SEGUE

Speaking of farcical musicals, that’s exactly what Bryan Ortiz and his collaborators have crafted in Dr. ‘S’ Battles the Sex-Crazed Reefer Zombies: The Movie: The Musical. And it really works, mostly. Ortiz’s particular zombiescape borrows elements from all over the undead pop mythos: He’s located the action squarely in the Cold War period, and takes great advantage of ‘50s and ‘60s anti-Communist and anti-marijuana hysteria (often linked, at the time). The show’s also got the au-courant "zombies are funny" conceit. But whereas the joke’s on the zombies in films like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead, in Dr. S., the zombies themselves are funny on purpose, graced with many of the show’s best lines and cleverest choreography. Ortiz’s band of weed-fuelled horndog undead teens are energetic and jocular, with a James Dean-hipster vibe, sexy in a frankly vampire-esque kinda way. These zombies sing, dance, snark, eat Boy Scouts, and have crazy white contact lenses. No kidding: Dr. S’s zombies will win —then consume — your heart.

OK, wait, let me do a largely spoiler-free plot summary right about now. It seems that in late ‘50s-early 60’s America, a team of scientists have developed a strain of super-potent marijuana, purely for defense purposes, under the auspices of some U.S. government entity (the armed forces? Or something? It’s not clear to me, and doesn’t much matter), with the idea that if disseminated in the USSR, the weed will somehow win the Cold War for the U.S.A. and destroy Communism.

However.

Teenagers get their mitts on the stuff, which turns them into, well, sex-crazed reefer zombies. Who maybe sex some people up, or at least one person, and then only maybe, and definitely eat at least one boy scout, which is pretty cool, and threaten the very fabric of civilization (offstage, though). The non-sex-crazed, non-reefer- zombie population has only one hope of survival, and it’s the titular “Dr. S.” He’s a scientist. In addition to saving every(non-zombie)body, he has a special romantic interest in protecting Mary Jane (of course), a perky cheerleader who may or may not have been sexed up by her then-boyfriend, Billy Somebody (she manages to marvel at his dick size, so I guess they got to at least third base) before he mimes smoking reefer and zombies-out and joins a gang, after which he and his gang tirelessly seek to sex up and/or eat Mary Jane, specifically. And everybody else, it seems. But especially her, I guess?

Are y’all still with me?

The plot’s completely secondary to the musical numbers, which makes me wonder about the short film from which this musical sprang. I was gobsmacked by the show’s mightily talented horde of a chorus, which is divided into two equally funny, engaging, and skillful groups, the Zombies and the Scientists.

Zombies have mussed 50’s-teen costumes, Scientists have labcoats, you get the deal. Both camps achieve good harmonies in silly songs, always fun, and the dance bits are musical-comedy pastiche but with sparks of real originality, thanks to the witty, allusive choreography of Jennifer Baldwin.

All the scenes featuring the zombie gang are watchable; the early “Gonna Funk You Up” song-and-dance totally sells the whole sexy-zombie idea. It’s always a treat to root for the villain, but who knew zombies had it in them? This number, and the teen-zombie gang, are led memorably by Dru Barcus, who plays “Billy Everybody,” football-hero-cum-(ha)-undead-gangleader. Barcus looks like the handsome villain from a mid-80s John Hughes movie, and acts the hot-bad boy archetype with bravado and a wink, the hallmark of any good musical comedy performance. He’s backed by the Cary Farrow, Alexander Berkowitz, and Lilly Canaria, each of them fully inhabiting recognizable zombieness, horny teenagerhood, and a weed-addled doofus quality at the same time. This is no small task.

The scientists are likewise awesome; the mustachioed Jules Vaquera hits a longish interjected rat-a-tat spoken expository solo with such light and bright accuracy that she moved the crowd into (deserved) applause, and Ramona Villareal hits her marks both as a scientist and as a Boy Scout. Both actors illustrate the endearing and witty genderfuckery that the Overtime often takes on as a matter of course.

There are some major writing problems, though. The songs, which are musically credible, often feature rhyme-reliant, clunky, amateurish wording, though nothing that couldn't be fixed in the next Dr. S production (the lyric "You're the one for me, because everyone else is dead" from "Lost Love" is pretty great, though).

Also, the scenes between the two leads, frankly, aren’t as bracing as the chorus scenes, which is a problem of writing (the scenes are too long), direction (the actors are stylistically at cross-purposes and have no chemistry) and, most of all, acting. Morgan Scharff’s a pleasure as cheerleader Mary Jane, a character who, in less capable hands, coulda been a clunky, sexist cliché. Scharff’s able to hit tricky beats of humor with the deft precision of a good percussionist, though, and her singing voice rings sweet but not sugary, with a heart-pinging, Chenoweth-like shimmer. The opening-night audience ate her up. Unfortunately, Dr. S’s Dr. S, played by Arthur Gonzalez, isn’t exactly on the same page, somehow. He’s handsome, appealing, and possesses a nice tenor voice, but his portrayal of the titular hero (TITULAR HERO, MIND YOU) lacks nuance and focus. It’s not that Gonzalez is bad — he rolls out some wonderful moments, particularly his unexpectedly graceful movement in the hilarious “Suicide Tango” with the excellent, vaudeville-sharp Benjamin Scharff, and his tenderness during the “Lost Love” duet with Morgan Scharff. But he seems very young, both as a person and as a performer.

The problem is this: Barcus and both Scharffs are able to play characters, squared: by that I mean they enact the words on the page, interpreting them with their individual consciousnesses, but also know, and play, the archetypes therein. The experienced actors are comfortable enough in archetypal parameters that they can break them — i.e., Barcus and the Scharffs know what the audience expects, and both deliver and tweak it, and they draw on recognizable influences without aping them. For example, Morgan Scharff portrays a clingy, winsome all-American cheerleader, but she lets the audience know that she knows what a ridiculous character she's playing. And the resulting performance comes off as layered, rather than overly-ironic. Scharff connects the material to the audience.

Gonzalez, by contrast, seems to be engage in a sort of cosplay: Has labcoat, has glasses, has big ol' pipe, has shotgun, has voice, can move, but hasn’t worked out his contract with the audience yet. My guess is, a more experienced director would have guided him away from prop-reliant superhero posturing and towards more more fully rounded— thus funnier — character work (for a funny, could-be-stock-character scientist, see Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. In fact, looka here):

Grant's not all that scientific, there, and he's wearing a ladies' robe, but the scene's pace and the chemistry between the two characters is something to take note of. Grant modulates his spoken rhythm and increasing frustration to match the old lady's, and resolves the growing conflict with a completely unexpected gesture. Gonzalez could take a cue from this; regardless of whom you're portraying, you should maintain a responsive relationship both to the other characters, and to the audience. There should be a slight tension between the confines of the character and your own instincts, in musical comedy. Even a musical comedy about zombies.

The show’s finale, an all-cast number called “A Hero’s Anthem,” gave me chorus-induced chills. The song is silly, but the voices are not. Like much of the show, that shit is improbably but powerfully rousing. I hope the young Mr. Gonzalez comes out of his shell to revel in it.

Totally minor points:

The program doesn't have a list of the musical numbers in it

I wish it had cast pics, too

The intermission should ideally come about 10 minutes earlier, but maybe I say that because I had a beer.

Dr. ‘S’ Battles the Sex-Crazed Reefer Zombies: The Movie: The Musical

$12

Through Nov 6

The Overtime Theater

1414 S. Alamo (in the Blue Star Complex), Suite 103

(210) 557-7562

theovertimetheater.net


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