COLUMBIA — Zombies are lurking in the shadows of a small, tattered town near the Midway Travel Plaza on I-70.
The town looks like a low-budget movie set from the 1960s, but nothing is being filmed here.
Informed by LuAnne Roth, who taught a "Zombies 'R' Us" course at MU; and "The Evolution of the Zombie: The Monster That Keeps Coming Back" by Shawn McIntosh in his book "Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead."
Characteristics: Zombies are controlled by a master. They are slow, non-aggressive and dim-witted. They appear to be derelicts, not rotting or decaying corpses.
Zombie films in this period reflected anxieties about the spread of communism and atomic annihilation.
The cold, calculating zombie-aliens in “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959) embodied prominent communist stereotypes of the time — they were incapable of individual emotion or thought.
Characteristics: Zombies have no autonomy. They appear as aliens, but for all intents and purposes, they are still zombies.
George Romero released “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, and the zombie was forever changed.
In Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), society collapses as zombies take over. A small group of survivors seek refuge in a shopping mall.
The movie has been regarded as a criticism of America’s mass consumer culture. Humans seem little better than the zombies, who are mindless consumers. They mirror our own worst fears.
Characteristics: Zombies are, for the first time, depicted grotesquely as rotting corpses. They have acquired autonomy and an insatiable appetite for human flesh. They appear in apocalyptic disasters.
1980 – 2000
Zombie films in the 1980s became preoccupied with the theme of infection and a preoccupation with bodily fluids that coincided with awareness of HIV/AIDS.
Characteristics: Most zombies can infect the living with a bite. Zombies are still slow-moving, but hints of their increasing speed can be seen in “The Return of the Living Dead” (1985).
2000 – present
Zombie films released in the past decade have invoked both traditional and novel themes. They have become a way for viewers to think about survivalism because in these films, things fall apart and people are left to their own devices.
“28 Days Later” (2002) began what many in film and academia have deemed the “Zombie Renaissance.” They depict zombies as fast and aggressive in an apocalyptic scenario.
Some zombies are now capable of thought. In “I Am Legend” (2007), the alpha male of a group of zombies develops a passionate hatred toward the protagonist, played by Will Smith, displaying capacity for memory and emotion.
Characteristics: Zombies have acquired speed. Some have developed intelligence and the ability to think.
As the undead slither through derelict buildings, a tractor pulls a utility trailer filled with people and weapons toward the town. The group braces for battle.
Moments later, someone spots a zombie.
Shots are fired. Zombies are hit. They flail, they moan, and yet they continue to stagger and stumble toward the trailer.
Finally, the shooting subsides, and the corpses slip back into their hiding places.
Fearfest adds a zombie game
The Halloween attraction near Columbia matches zombies against humans in artfully managed mayhem.
Called Zombie Safari, it costs customers $18 to shoot paintball pellets at a den of zombies for 15 minutes.
Each customer gets 75 paintballs. Because the actors dressed as zombies are pounded repeatedly by paint pellets, they wear padded suits that cost around $800 each.
Greg Allen, who owns FearFest, a haunted attraction, annexed Zombie Safari to his haunted house collection in 2009. He and his wife, Christina, have operated FearFest at Midway since 2003.
This year, Zombie Safari added the ramshackle town where the zombies dwell, the protective zombie suits and a new type of paintball gun.
"We did a major improvement on the scenery," Allen said.
He is banking on zombie fever to boost his business this year.
“They are more popular right now than vampires and other monsters, especially with stories of people eating each other’s faces,” Allen said, referring to the man now known as the Causeway Cannibal.
For the past decade, zombies have been showing up nearly everywhere in American pop culture.
A TV series, “The Walking Dead,” airs during prime time on AMC. There are blockbuster films like “Zombieland” and “I Am Legend” and best-selling video games like the “Left 4 Dead” and “Resident Evil” series.
Among books, the seems to be "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" by Seth Grahame-Smith, a parody of the Jane Austen classic — and soon to be a movie.
What's behind zombie fever
Nearly all of the variations on zombie legend are rooted in Haitian folklore.
Haiti was the birthplace of vodou, a polytheistic religion that emphasized ancestor worship, offerings to gods and elaborate ceremonies.
Vodou was based on the belief that the soul is tangible and can be possessed and affected by magic, according to "American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture,” a book by Kyle William Bishop, who teaches American literature and culture at Southern Utah University.
The more familiar term, “Voodoo,” was coined in Hollywood to capitalize on the gruesome stereotypes, said LuAnne Roth, who taught a “Zombies ‘R’ Us” course at MU last year.
As Bishop explains in his book, vodou fused African religion, mysticism and Catholicism when Haiti was part of Saint-Domingue, a French slave colony that flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries.
William Seabrook, an explorer and writer who investigated occult practices worldwide, is credited with introducing the zombie to an American audience in 1929 with his book, "The Magic Island.”
In the book, Seabrook described zombies as corpses endowed "with a mechanical semblance of life" achieved through magic and sorcery. Zombies were soulless bodies made to work like slaves, he wrote.
The American public has become both terrified and fascinated by zombie stories, which led filmmakers to dream up strange and exotic tales like "White Zombie" (1932), "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), "Dawn of the Dead" (1978), "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) and "Zombieland" (2009).
Zombies have a presence in Columbia
Lately, the walking dead have taken a liking to Columbia.
In 2009, student Sarah Hirner brought to MU a game called “Humans vs. Zombies,” to be held this year Nov. 2-9. Conceived in 2005 at Goucher College in Baltimore, it has reportedly invaded 650 campuses.
In the game, every player starts out as a human — except a few randomly selected to play zombies.
Humans defend themselves by shooting Nerf guns at the zombies, who try to tag, or "infect", them, thus increasing the population of zombies. A zombie must tag a human every 48 hours or be cast out of the game.
On Nov. 10, after the game ends, the Zombie Rampage 5k Run will be held at Stephens Lake Park.
According to the race website, humans will start the race ahead of zombies, who will try to tag them. Tagged humans must forfeit their “human card” to the zombies.
Zombies wear a pair of “health flags” that can be stolen by anyone. Once both are stolen, the zombie loses its power to infect humans.
The endless fascination with zombies
Why zombies continue to intrigue Americans is a subject of serious study.
Roth, who taught Zombies R' Us at MU last year, said her students learned to apply analysis of folklore and culture to zombie films and other pop culture references. She said they discovered how to examine societal anxieties, fears and preoccupations.
"Occasionally people are skeptical about the value of teaching a college course on zombies," she said. "I beg to differ."
Roth speculates that the appeal of zombies relies on their ability to adapt.
"They are always evolving to meet whatever needs we have for them," she said.
She also believes baby boomers have landed on a way to confront aging.
"Zombies are all about death and decay," Roth said. "So it could be that they are really popular right now because we’re coming to terms with our society aging.
"There are a couple of ways to deal with that. One is to stay young — that’s what vampires are all about. The other is to embrace it through death and decay, a sort of in-your-face approach.”
A zombie attack might be a dramatic and interesting way for someone to imagine how they would handle the collapse of society, she said.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” a graphic novel, on its website. An introduction on the site describes it as a “fun way of teaching emergency preparedness.”
“I think zombies are really useful for people to think about survivalism, the end of the world and how they would get through it," Roth said. "I think that’s what drives people to post-apocalyptic movies."
Most zombie films are not really about zombies, she suggested: “(They) are really more about the human survivors and how they cope with the zombie outbreak.”
Allen said customers tell him they enjoy shooting the zombies, and strangely, he said, many of the actors enjoy being shot.
“We try to keep them at a certain distance from the trailer, but if they want to get closer, that’s up to them," Allen said. "Last year we had a couple of them that would almost get on the trailer. They were very brave.”
Michelle Jesse, manager of Zombie Safari and a former actor in the game, said being a zombie is tough, but it can be fun.
“We have had people quit," she said. "It’s not for everybody. It’s physically demanding.”