We walk with a zombie

Nights and days of the dead economy and culture -- in art, movies, books, and song
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Zombie Portrait, Changah
by Jillian MacDonald

PHENOM In our heads, in our heads: zombies, zombies, zombies.

Don't blame me for taking a bite out of your brain and inserting an annoying tune in its place — once again, not long after the last onslaught of undead trends, our culture is totally zombie mad.

The phrase "zombie bank" is multiplying at a disturbing rate within economic circles. In music, the group Zombi — hailing from the zombie capitol Pittsburgh — is reviving the analogue electronics of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead while the British act Zomby brings dubstep to postapocalyptic dance floors. A comedy of manners possessed by ultraviolent urges, Seth Grahame-Smith's "unmentionable" Jane Austen update Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 320 pages, $12.95) has set up camp on the trade paperback New York Times best sellers list, with S.G. Browne's Breathers: A Zombie's Lament — currently being movie-ized by Diablo Cody — on its trail. On a smaller scale, Yusaka Hanakuma's manga Tokyo Zombie (Last Gasp, 164 pages, $9.95) has caught a zombie plane over to the United States.

Most of all, posthumous Michael Jackson mania is bringing the corpse choreography of the 1983 video for "Thriller" to life, as the media and masses fluctuate between the worst facets of grave-robbing and best facets of revival and death celebration. A Friday, July 3 party in Seattle that aimed to top the 3,370-participant world record for largest "zombie walk" included a mass dance performance to the song.

When journalist Lev Grossman first noted the shift in bloodlust from vampirism to zombiedom in a Time trend piece this April, he ticked off some of these activities but steered clear of visual art. Zombies are around in galleries and museums, too. In Los Angeles last month, Peres Projects presented Bruce LaBruce's "Untitled Hardcore Zombie Project" in which stills from a forthcoming movie by the director of last year's Otto; or, Up with Dead People were blown up, framed, and hung on the space's blood-spattered white cube walls. Here in San Francisco, Michael Rosenthal Gallery is hosting a variety of zombified works by another Canadian artist, Jillian Mcdonald.

Active revisions of cinema are central to Mcdonald, whose past projects find her staring down, mimicking and making out with male screen icons such as Billy Bob Thornton. "Monstrosities" makes room for vampires, but hunger for flesh is dominant over thirst for blood. The five-minute video Zombie Apocalypse brings the zombie back to the beach, its eerily effective primary haunting ground in Jacques Tourneur's classic 1943 Val Lewton production I Walked with a Zombie — which, incidentally, is being remade, with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre now explicitly cited as its source material. In 2006's Horror Make-up, Mcdonald plays with the image of a woman putting on makeup in public by using her compact to turn herself into a zombie while raiding the New York subway. "Monstrosities" also includes zombie wall portraits that aren't exactly static. Through lenticular photography, Mcdonald taps into the zombie within an acquaintance, a creature that often appears more animated than its "living" counterpart.

"Monstrosities" and much of Mcdonald's current work mines horror as a source of catharsis. The tactic is most overt in 2007's The Scream, where her screams scare off a variety of slasher killers and monstrous adversaries. Art world attempts at tapping into filmic horror can be dreadful in the sterile and blah sense (see Cindy Sherman's 1997's Office Killer — or better, don't see it). But when Mcdonald bites zombies, she gives them love bites, borne out of and energized by genuine appreciation.

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