Dem zombies! Dem zombies!"
Dem dry zombies!"
Dem zombies! Dem zombies!"
Dem dry zombies!
Now hear the word of the Lord!
"Where am I?"
"In the Universal Village."
"Who are you?"
"What am I doing here?"
"We need information. You must explain yourself."
"Explain myself? Why? What for?"
"You've been very naughty to the absolute degree. Writing about zombies that think and feel will not do, you know. It goes against the natural expectation and sense of every zombie fan, against the foundations of good, clean, commercial horror itself. It simply won't do, you know. You must cease being different and join us. Embrace us."
"You'll get nothing from me. I've got tenure."
"By hook or by crook, we will. Follow me please."
College professor Kim Paffenroth shrugged his shoulders. He'd been called on the carpet before, and by bigger critics than this Burgomaster. Compared to them this guy was simply a number two; another cog in the great horror machinery waiting to be greased quiet. He followed the Burgomaster through the village square, where someone with a feather in his hat was singing as people danced round and round.
"What's going on? asked Paffenroth.
"It's the festival of the new wine," said the Burgomaster.
"But they're drinking beer," observed Paffenroth.
"Time's change. They accept that. We make sure they do and everyone is happy. For life is short and death is long you know. Ah. Here we are."
A bell tinkled as the Burgomaster opened the door to the Village Elders Shoppe. Paffenroth was surprised to see that the interior was filled with uncomfortable chairs and a gray reception desk instead of things to buy. Along the walls hung horror movie posters. The bald receptionist smiled as he picked up the phone to announce their arrival.
"Yes, a genre with endless possibilities," said the Burgomaster looking at the posters while they waited. "Some good, most bad, but all of them money-makers you know."
They were soon joined by a short butler who led them through the frosted glass doors and down a long hallway. At the end of it stood a mannequin dressed in a faded flannel shirt and woolen pants.
"We thought you'd feel cheerier dressed as yourself," said the Burgomaster.
Paffenroth looked at him in puzzlement.
"You know...Wade Truman; your remembering, journal-typing, definitely book-reading, former professor-of- philosophy-zombie in your novel Dying to Live: Life Sentence. Truman is obviously your cadaverous alter-ego. It's odd how so many college professors are zombies without knowing it, but you actually relish the notion of being one, don't you?. I did have one high-school teacher who was death on two feet, if you catch my meaning." The Burgomaster smiled and winked. "What I don't understand is how you can have Truman change clothes because he's embarrassed walking around in his filthy, blood-caked, big gaping hole-in-the-middle, suit. What's a zombie without smelly, vermin-infested clothing?
Paffenroth looked at the shirt and pants again and decided to put them on. The woolen pants were scratchy around his crotch. Truman, being dead, probably would not have felt it much. Paffenroth did his best not to let it bother him either.
"Shall we then?" The Burgomaster nodded to the butler. "It's time you met the village elders and explained all this touchy-feely zombie nonsense."
Donning a magistrate's red robes and a long wig, the Burgomaster ascended a small dais to stand behind a small table. He picked up the gavel and slammed down hard onto its sound block to call everyone to order. Paffenroth noticed a small emblem in the shape of a burning torch embroidered on his robe. Looking beyond the Burgomaster, he saw many robed and hooded people seated behind the dais. Each person in this deliberative assembly wore a black and white mask, and their white robes were embroidered with the same burning torch emblem. In front of each person stood a nameplate, but instead of names there were categories. Paffenroth mentally read the ones in the first row: Straight to DVD, Budget, Slasher, J-Horror, K-Horror,Undead, Vampire, Werewolf, Euro-trash, Classic, Mutants, Moms, Dads, Psychos, Dangerous Siblings, PTA, and PG-13 or Bust. His eyes then drifted to the cavernous soundstage. Oh, that's right, he thought, they're doing a sequel of The Descent, weren't they?
The Burgomaster slammed his gavel again. "Alright, we have an hour before that noisy gaffer and his electricians working on the Creature From the Black Lagoon remake, reboot, reimagining, or whatever the hell they think they're doing, fire up the lights and fog machines again, and go at it with those other idiots from The Descent 2. Lord I'll be glad when this economy improves so we don't have to share production time. Let's get to it, shall we? Will our guest please kindly take the chair of horror?" The Burgomaster nodded toward the Hill House chair standing tall on another dais.
"Take, take, take," chanted the deliberative assembly over and over again. The Burgomaster slammed his gavel down once to silence them. Paffenroth thought it over for a moment, then decided to sit. The small butler took a position next to him at the foot of the dais. It was only then Paffenroth noticed the butler had a slightly hunched back. I wonder if his name is Fritz? he thought.
"Honored delegates, here stands before you a man, a singular author and prime mover, seeking to buck the established order of all things undead. In his brief time writing Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead, and now his sequel, Dying to Live: Life Sentence, he has, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps determinedly, broken many of the rules of zombie order we hold dear. Through his writings, his philosophical musings if you will, zombies retain their memories, those fragments of their past lives that make them more human than monster, which make them regret past devourings, which make them able to keep daily journals, and which, by all of these combined, make them retain their very souls!"
"Why, why, why," asked the deliberative assembly over and over again. The Burgomaster slammed his gavel down once to silence them.
"I never said anything about souls," said Paffenroth.
A clap of thunder and shimmer of white sparks spilled from one of the many tunnel openings in the artificial cave walls lining the soundstage. The Burgomaster listened to the rumbling as it echoed down, nodding in agreement. When it stopped he turned back to Paffenroth. "Go on," he said.
Paffenroth cleared his throat. "Sure, I have Truman keep a journal, just like Zoey, the young girl, keeps a journal. Alternating chapters between the two was a way to keep it all interesting and the story moving, but thinking, remembering zombies are nothing new. Romero's lovable Bub from Day of the Dead is somewhat like Truman. Bub didn't keep a journal, but he did begin to remember who he was before he died."
All eyes turned to the Burgomaster. The Burgomaster turned toward the tunnel opening. Another clap of thunder and shower of sparks erupted. "Yes, I understand," said the Burgomaster as the sound died away. He turned back to Paffenroth.
"But you go further. You have Truman write clearly and think clearly. You have Truman question his existence, regret his past deeds, and strive to overcome his present condition. You even have him wear a construction hat and handle a rifle and read books!"
"That is true," replied Paffenroth. "However, zombies are also us, as one of Romero’s characters announces in Dawn of the Dead. So we often, I think, identify with the zombie, as well as with the live characters in a zombie story. We feel sorry for them, and they remind us that even in the real world, we’re just one step away from being dead at any moment. They’re a salutary reminder of our mortality and fallibility. Both Zoey and Truman reflect growth in their journal entries, and--"
"But how can a zombie grow?" interrupted the Burgomaster. "They are dead. There is no growth, neither physical or mental! They are commercially ideal in their pristine state of mindless hunger and fixed decomposition. Give them thought, give them willful action and you will have anarchy and worse, you would have no sponsors; the great commercial machine of gory horror is shut down! And not even the straight to DVD shelves could be filled with all this touchy, feely nonsense!" The deliberative assembly cheered and clapped.
The little butler looked at Paffenroth with concern. The Burgomaster slammed his gavel to silence the assembly.
Paffenroth cleared his throat again. "The real terror of zombies lies beyond gore; there is a psychological terror, a terror more real to us. It is not just horrible to watch zombies devouring humans, but it is more subtly and insidiously horrible to imagine the human characters in the movies slaughtering hundreds of zombies who look and, to some extent, still act, exactly like human beings. They are simply caught in a hellish limbo. How many of us feel like that every day?
The deliberative assembly murmured and nodded in agreement.
"Zombie movies imagine a scenario far worse than nuclear war or a cabal of vampires taking over the world. They present us with a world in which humans and monsters become very hard to distinguish, and therefore the moral rules that guide our dealings with other humans are discarded as irrelevant and unfeasible. Even “an eye for an eye” would be considered impractical in a world full of zombies: the only way to stay alive and continue some kind of human “civilization” would be to shoot any suspicious person in the head before he tries to tear out your throat and eat you alive, a rule made explicit in the more recent movies, in which bitten or infected humans are routinely and heartlessly killed, rather than waiting for them to turn into zombies. The horrific nature of zombies is that they may force us to act as barbarically and impetuously as they do. In my novels, the greatest threat doesn't come from zombies, although they can chow down like the rest of them, it comes from people fighting and harming each other as they respond to the zombie threat and destruction."
"Kim, don't say another word! Permuted Press sent me to handle everything," yelled a man, jumping out of the golf-cart screeching to a stop in front of Paffenroth's dais. He tossed his briefcase into the startled butler's hands and turned toward the Burgomaster.
"Mr. Christian," said Paffenroth, "glad you could make it."
"So am I," said Mr. Christian, running his palms down the side of his grey suit jacket. "By the looks of things, I'd say I'm right on time. Listen bigwig, I'm here to talk turkey and stop sidestepping the issues. Look, we can argue until Romero grows a beard, but I think the point of Dying to Live: Life Sentence is we will always strive to find meaning in what happens around us; both the living and the undead us. Hell, there are thousands of undead all around already. You can find them drinking coffee in Starbuck's and twittering keystrokes and paper in little cubbyholes in big corporations everywhere. Most of us are in limbo, waiting for glory or damnation, but waiting for something. And even when we don't have the wiggle room we want while we wait, we still strive to better our lot with what's at hand. So Truman's undead and reads and writes. Zoey's alive and struggles to grow up in a difficult world. In between, cultures still strive to build and grow on the rubble of destruction."
"That's why there is Will," added Paffenroth. "He dares to bridge the gap between undead and living. He takes a chance and gets Truman all the books he can handle, and takes him away from the other more violent and deadly ones to experience more, to help him remember more, and to help him grow more, even though he's stuck in limbo. That's why I also include the important rituals the survivors engage in, to seal their social bond with their new world and the damned. After all, there's just so much zombie munching you can take, you know. Without additional meaning, without additional depth, it's all just simply gory horror."
"And my client tosses in the gory and action horror to boot," added Mr. Christian. He ran his forefinger across his pencil mustache. "Just read the scene where her dad falls through a store's floor and he has to deal with moaning zombies that have been trapped for years in the dark. Or how about the birth of that zombie baby, or when a beloved member of the community goes zombie-horrible in the wink of an eye and they have to fight him off."
Thunder and white sparks erupted from the tunnel opening, louder and more brilliant than before.
"Look," said Mr. Christian, "it can sputter and spark all it wants. But we want to talk to the head person face to face.
The Burgomaster listened to the thunder. "Alright. Follow me please." He put down his gavel and descended from his dais. The deliberative assembly stood up and began to chat among themselves. "This way, please."
The Burgomaster took the wheel of the golf-cart as Paffenroth and Christian took their seats. With a screech of rubber on concrete, the Burgomaster sped down one of the larger tunnels. Within a few minutes they could see daylight ahead. In another few minutes they were outside on the backlot, heading toward the Bates mansion as seen in Psycho. The Burgomaster stopped in front.
"He's waiting for you in there. Second floor. Do hurry," said the Burgomaster.
Paffenroth looked up toward the mansion. He shot a glance at Mr. Christian.
"I'll wait here," said Mr. Christian. "Hey, does this buggy have a radio?"
"Fine." Paffenroth got out of the golf-cart and walked up the steps to the mansion.
The front door opened automatically for him. He hesitated, then stepped inside. It was dark and musty and both fought each other for his attention. As his eyes adjusted to the low light he could see the main staircase leading up to the second floor. He shrugged his shoulders and headed up the stairs. He noticed the carpeted steps needed a cleaning. When he reached the second floor, a door on his right opened with a creak. He held his breadth, although the musty odor made that difficult. Out stepped the silly looking ape-suited Ro-Man from Robot Monster.
"Can you help me get this space helmet off? I think it's stuck."
Paffenroth looked all around him. "What?"
"No, really, I think the effects guy bent the hinge. Cheap crap they make these days. I'd appreciate a hand here. Getting stuffy, you know." Ro-Man leaned forward. "Just pull on the sides."
Paffenroth grabbed the sides of the space helmet and tugged. It did not budge.
"Oh, c'mon, a big guy like you. Give it another with some heft."
Paffenroth tugged with all his might. The space helmet finally came off, causing him to lose his balance and fall backward. He tried to grab the railing but his fingers could not hold on. As he tumbled down the stairs the last thing he saw was Harvey Pekar dressed in a gorilla suit waving at him. "Be seeing you," he said, waving.
Paffenroth woke up in a cold sweat. His pillow showed signs of feverish chewing and his bedsheets were tossed off the bed. Oh, thank heavens...just a dream. He slumped back with relief. The phone started ringing. He tried to ignore it, but a little, slightly hunched-back butler entered the bedroom and answered it.
"It's for you. It's your publisher. He says Every Man Films wants Uwe Boll to do Dying to Live and Burger King will do a bunch of kid's meal toys featuring Zoey, Truman, and Lucy."
The last thing Paffenroth remembered was running out his front door but Rover, the floating white ball with a mind of its own, stopped him before he could get very far. He listened to the song of the new wine whirling in his mind as he slipped into unconsciousness. Just before it all went black, he noticed Rover was covered in advertisements for Taco Bell and Home Depot. He suddenly remembered he forgot to stop at Home Depot for something he needed. He could not remember what it was. Then again, maybe I'll set my next novel in a Home Depot, he thought; yes, that would be a great tie-in. Zombies with tools could be rather interesting. I can see those television commercials now. It will boost my Amazon sales for sure.
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