“What’s that sound?”
“It’s dead people… SCREAMIN’!!!!”
I was probably 16 when I heard that line for the first time, and I think I surprised myself by laughing out loud. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to laugh like that when you were already scared out of your mind.
There are a lot of theories about why we love zombie movies… I believe we love them for the same reason we love Westerns. Here at the beginning of the 21st century we are a pampered and sheltered people. Like caged lions desperate to roam and hunt free of fences and zookeepers, we are at odds with the endless layers of protection that exist between us and our problems (or our prey). Got a fire? Call the fire dept. Someone breaking into your house? Call the cops. Someone bullying you at school? Talk to the Principal. Next door neighbor building a fence over the property line? Call a lawyer. In zombie movies, as in Westerns, all those layers of “officials” whom we call to deal with our issues have been stripped away. We stand naked – just us and our wits against a deadly existential threat. As a fantasy, it’s both exhilarating and terrifying.
After the seminal zombie flick Night of the Living Dead, director George Romero and his writing partner John Russo parted ways. Russo walked away with the rights to the title “Living Dead” and eventually a sequel was born – Return of the Living Dead. For a brief period, the production was planned as a 3D movie with Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper set to direct. Eventually Hooper left the project and writer Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Heavy Metal, Dead & Buried) signed on to not only pen but direct the film. Not wanting to retread the same territory so brilliantly pioneered by Romero’s original film, O’Bannon stipulated that he must be able to craft the project into something very different than Night of the Living Dead. The result of O’Bannon’s re-imagining is a nearly perfect zombie movie. It’s as scary as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, while also being funnier than any other zombie movie made before or since.
“How do you kill something that’s already dead?”
“It’s not a bad question, Bert.”
It’s got fantastic actors like James Karen, only two years away from Wall Street and absolutely refusing to mail it in. Watch the scene where he calls his boss to let him know they’ve accidentally released zombies on the city. He takes the time to smooth his hair, wipe the sweat from his brow, and take a sip of water before sing-songing “Oh, Bert – we’ve got a little problem here.”
No other zombie movie has ever worked so hard to come up with a plausible reason why zombies eat people. The scene where Ernie the mortician interviews a captured zombie is mesmerizing and horrifying all at the same time. It somehow manages to make you sympathize with the zombies even as you are disgusted by their callous disregard for the lives they take and the ruthlessness with which they take them.
“Why do you eat people?”
“Not people, BRAINS!”
“The pain of being dead – I can feel myself rot!”
“Eating brains… how does that make you feel?”
“It makes the pain… go away!”
Perhaps O’Bannon meant for his zombies to serve as an allegory for drug addiction, which was just starting to dominate the news in the mid-80’s (Return certainly contains a strong element borrowed from the juvenile delinquent films of the late 1960s). Just as an addict, strung out on heroin and desperate to head off the pain of withdrawal, will lie, cheat, and steal to get that next fix, these zombies seem capable of any atrocity, as long as “it makes the pain go away”.
“Send. More. Cops!”
Did I mention that Dan O’Bannon’s zombies can talk? They can also use machinery and tools. And strategize. But most importantly, they can’t be killed. You can destroy their brains, remove their heads, cut them to pieces, and the pieces will still come after you. The only way to permanently dispose of one of these zombies is to burn them to ashes in an industrial crematorium. You don’t have a crematorium handy, do you?
In the pantheon of the zombie mythos, just about every movie made gives its terrified audiences a thin ray of hope: if you’re fast, you can outrun the zombies (Romero); if you can shoot well, you can kill the zombies (Snyder, Romero); if you can hole up somewhere with supplies, you can outlast the zombies (Boyle). But this is where Return of the Living Dead is different. It’s downright merciless.
Return removes any hope of salvation. Every single one of the characters in the film is doomed from the minute James Karen unwittingly releases the plague – it’s only a matter of how and when. I think that’s what terrified me most as a boy, and that’s why the film has stuck with me all these years. Most horror films have the good sense to let the audience off the hook. Return of the Living Dead, on the other hand, is fiendishly ruthless. At the risk of spoiling things, that’s all I’ll say.
For today’s companion drink, we turn to the heart of zombie lore – the voodoo of the West Indian nation of Haiti. Haiti has long been associated with voodoo and the walking dead. From William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) to anthropologist Zora Huston’s photographs in the late 1930s of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a purported zombie who had originally died in 1907, to the more recent work of ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who journeyed to Haiti to investigate similar claims of reanimation being performed by local voodoo practitioners as well as by Tonton Macoutes, members of President “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s death squads. The stories Davis had heard were horrible. It was said that the Macoutes were using plant and animal extracts to create a potent drug – a cocktail, if you will – which would simulate death in anyone who came into contact with it. With all of this in mind, we chose the Voodoo Cocktail.
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Shake with ice and double strain into a highball glass over large ice
Pre-Zombiepocalypse, garnish with a lime wedge or voodoo charm
Post-Zombiepocalypse, you shouldn’t be worried about garnishes
Featured Glassware: Boston Double Old-Fashioned by Villeroy & Boch
We found the Voodoo Cocktail on absolutdrinks.com, and, unfortunately, the provenance isn’t given. The same drink (one of many called “Voodoo”) appears elsewhere with Appleton rum specifically called for, a choice which makes thematic sense, if nothing else. We checked the Appleton site to see if they claimed it, but it was not among their recipes. From wherever it originally hails, the drink is outstanding, especially if made with the Spiced Sweet Vermouth from the Bloodbath (you’ll want the spices to be more cinnamon than cardamom). While on paper it may look a little thin, the Voodoo reveals itself to be a very balanced autumnal cooler (I’d call it a cooler rather than a cocktail), which can be successfully scaled into a bowl of punch (finish with a grating of nutmeg and cinnamon). Of course, if you’re looking for something even more Living Dead like, please click on over to our recent Laughing Zombie.
While the Voodoo Cocktail won’t bring any long lost relatives back to life, do heed a word of warning: it’s a deceptive drink, and more than two may have you slipping into a walking dead state yourself. Of course, if your Halloween plans include a bowl of dip shaped like a brain – well, then you’ll be ready to rock n’ roll.
Esoterica: There is a right way and a wrong way to clean a dusty voodoo chicken foot.