This is the final installment in the series about zombies in popular culture and in psychobilly.
READ THE PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: SECTION A gives examples of the so-called Zombie Renaissance within recent popular culture; SECTION B discusses the origins and definitions of zombies that make us think they’re evil and must be killed; SECTION C talks about how zombie stories over time have corresponded to major fears or anxieties that permeate the masses; SECTION D analyses the ways in which zombie movies help us prepare for disaster and learn strategies for surviving a real apocalypse; and SECTION E describes the idealistic zombie (post)apocalypse that psychobillies have constructed as a fantasy preferable to their current situation.
CHECK OUT THE SLIDESHOW posted underneath SECTION E.
Picking off where SECTION E left off…
Psychobillies don’t simply fantasize about this alternative survival narrative – they perform it regularly by dressing up as zombies and acting out the hedonistic undead fantasy world that they have constructed through art and lyrics. For instance, there were monthly “Pub of the Dead” zombie psychobilly nights at a local Irish pub in Pomona. The organizer advertised the event by changing the tagline from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth” – to “When hell is full, the dead shall drink at Old Town Pub.” The cover charge was $5 cheaper for those dressed as zombies.
Walking in for the first time, I found myself struggling to recognize the people I knew. Most of the attendees had smeared their faces in white, grey, green, and black paint, and artfully dabbed fake blood around their mouths. Scabby bits of rotting flesh decayed off their cheeks and chins. After my eyes adjusted to the scene, I began to identify certain zombies. Over there in the cowboy hat and boots, that had to be Xavier from the Texas-based band Hotrod Hillbillies. And that must be Tony, guitarist and singer of The Rocketz, dressed in a tattered blood-stained suit, a corporate zombie who was probably bitten and infected on his way home from the office. Another zombie was dirty from crawling out of his grave but still sported a wittily insulting shirt: “I eat brains… You’re safe.” The members of all the performing acts were in full zombie mode, although their make-up started to run down their necks as they sweated from the stage lights and physical exertion … which in fact just added to their soiled, disheveled, undead appearance.
There are also zombie skates – the same Romero tagline is appropriated: “When there’s no more room in hell, they will skate” – with a zombie costume contest and a post-skate “bar stalk”, celebrity resurrection zombie socials with prizes for the best dead celebrity, yearly “April’s Ghoul’s Day” concerts across the country, and numerous zombie walks and pub crawls. Psychobillies act out the (post)apocalypse – the one where zombies get to do everything that psychobillies enjoy normally (drinking, rocking, and riding their vintage cars) – by performing “zombie-ness” regularly at events such as these.
Because this performance of death/undeath reveals a number of conflicting anxieties, Eric Lott’s theories on blackface help to tease out the ways in which this type of performance satisfies a number of contradictory and dialectical psychological and social needs. In Love and Theft, he explains how blackface minstrelsy in the antebellum period expressed both an affinity for, and a dislike of, African-American culture that reflected their anxieties about a changing social-political landscape. Working-class white minstrel actors represented blacks by way of excessive stereotypes in order to reflect their disgust for certain qualities, even while they subtly expressed an underlying desire for these same characteristics.
In a similar way, psychobillies work through their fears of death even while they relish the idea of being a zombie. By dressing up as walking corpses, they express the frightening prospects of death, decomposition, social collapse, and undeath even while they enjoy performing the ideal aspects of these same concerns though zombie-ness.
Furthermore, by lampooning African-Americans and their perceived traits, white minstrel actors gained control over their anxieties about black progress. Minstrel characters represented blacks as absurd, silly, comical, ignorant, and, hence, non-threatening. Similarly, psychobillies use “zombie minstrelsy” to turn their fear of death into comedic farce. By ridiculing death through a campy (and admittedly unrealistic) fantasy of zombie undeath, psychobillies can cope with human mortality through laughter and silliness. They are able to confront death on their own terms, as not quite so scary, depressing, and real.
Embracing the Zombie Within:
Finally, there is another reason why psychobillies perform undeath that also corresponds to one of Lott’s theories about minstrelsy: in the same way that working-class whites also expressed a “sympathetic identification” with blacks (Lott, 8), psychobillies embrace the zombie within. Zombies are the psychobillies of the monster realm. Zombies don’t have any magical superpowers or special abilities. They’re aren’t smart or elegantly dashing. They are ugly, disheveled, dirty, grotesque, and incomplete, often missing limbs. They’re the rejects, the grossest monsters that nobody wants to be. Zombies frighten and repulse most people. Rockabilly greasers, punks, and psychobillies have each in turn rejected normalcy and been perceived as anti-mainstream, gross, dirty, scary, off-center.
As Annelise Sklar notes: “this low-key, angst-free, persistent attitude and vulgar physical nature makes the zombie the blue-collar monster of the horror movie world” (147). By embracing this grotesque, ugly, disgusting monster, psychobillies remain committed to expressing their unique anti-mainstream personality while at the same time joining rotting hands with their fellow alienated comrades.
Coming back with a vengeance:
It’s no coincidence that many representations of psychobilly zombies show them sticking out their middle finger. Psychobillies are essentially saying “fu@k you” to the hegemonic narratives that suggest we kill zombies and preserve the current social order. They’ve experienced a disadvantaged, reject, alienated, and subaltern life outside of the mainstream so they instead fantasize about the possibility of returning from the dead to experience an idealistic alternative life after death, while also observing that they share a lot in common with the zombie.
And on their way, they might stop off to feast on the flesh or brains of a cheerleader, former boss, ex-boyfriend, or anyone else who snubbed them during their lifetime. This dates back to one proposed analysis of the earliest vodou zombie films: “Haitian history is inexorably linked to the idea of an abused, mistreated segment of the population begin controlled, only to eventually rise up against its so-called master” (Kay, 4). Psychobillies could someday come back to take down mainstream society with a vengeance, but they might do it as part of a travelling horde of undead.
I’m alive, alive, baby, I’m alive
In the twilight, I fulfill my devastated greed
And I reach climax when I hear them scream
Now this feeling’s even stronger than before
Brings out the beast in me, I can’t help it anymore.
Sleep all day, hunt at night.
Baby, baby, baby I’m alive
– “Alive’, Nekromantix (listen here)
Perhaps this can all be summed up by the license plate that I saw while leaving a Nekromantix concert in Los Angeles: “BZOMBI.” Given the ways in which psychobillies have re-constructed zombies from popular culture, I agree. I think I, too, wouldn’t mind being one of these zombies.
PLEASE LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS OR EMAIL ME. I’D LOVE TO KNOW WHAT ZOMBIE LOVERS AND ZOMBIE HATERS THINK!
Kay, Glenn. Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Sklar, Annelise. “Can’t Sleep When You’re Dead: Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and the Undead in Psychobilly” in Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. by Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2008.