Zomedy the musical
Until 1968, zombies kept a pretty low profile in Hollywood. The eloquent I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)–and let’s not forget WHITE ZOMBIE (a 1932 Bela Lugosi sleeper)–hardly prompted a niche market. Zombies were routinely written-off as a submissive, mostly inarticulate stiffs who had somehow not yielded to physical erosion; shuffling around in Monogram cheapies, they routinely unnerved Mantan Moreland, the perennial black comedy relief (deluding himself into thinking he’s one of the undead, Moreland chastises a maid: “Don't bother me woman! Can't you see I is a has-been?”). Ironically, the most intimidating, physically cadaverous zombie–voluntarily acquiescing to violence–was featured in THE GHOST BREAKERS, a 1940 Bob Hope comedy. One of the film’s straight men succinctly defined the popular perception of a zombie:
“...A zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.”
“You mean like Democrats?,” quips Hope.
Over a quarter of a century later, George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) reinvented the zombie as an animate, rotting corpse that sustains an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Cue the clones and a flood of Italian imitations. Never mind the generic screenplay, Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD (1981) remains the seminal classic; the director’s surreal violence, visual hubris and practical f/x cathartically circumvented budget constrictions. SHAUN OF THE DEAD is credited for introducing comedy into the genre but die-hards will remind you the pioneering “zomedy” was 1945's ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (which cast a desperate Bela Lugosi with Carney and Brown, RKO’s comedy duo; Abbott and Costello didn’t lose any sleep). Subsequently consigned to hibernation, zombies made a comeback though they were no longer filler for cheap, direct-to-video quickies. The DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) remake, though hardly extravagant, bonded zombie mythology with production value. Flash forward to THE WALKING DEAD, an expensive television series which drew the genre into the mainstream. And now Brad Pitt’s personal pet project is WORLD WAR Z, an apocalyptic “zombie” epic.
Bear Manor founder Ben Ohmart and Fred Frees have appended music, and zombie crooning, to the subgenre in their collaborative “Zombie Maria”. The omnipresent voice of Fred’ late dad, Paul Frees, reverberated all through the entire adolescence and young adulthood of baby boomers. He was a tradition in Jay Ward’s satiric cartoons, manifest as Boris Badenov and Captain Peachfuzz (ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE), Inspector Fenwick (DUDLEY DO-RIGHT) and Ape (GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE). Though engaged by Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Rankin/Bass to literally give voice to animated characters, Paul occasionally crossed-over to the horror/sci-fi genres (his vocalizations are quite audible in THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES, JACK THE RIPPER, EARTH VS. FLYING SAUCERS, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, THE TIME MACHINE, etc.). Paul also resided within Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion as the disembodied voice of the Ghost Host. Fred Frees, heir to his father’s talent, kindles some comic panache in his own translation of the living dead (the premise of “Zombie Maria” invokes a scene from Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD [‘85] where evolving zombie, Bub, grooves to a recital of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven 9th Symphony). Think of a zombie on any given karaoke night and you get the picture.
The Ohmart/Frees humor will appeal to devotees who prefer their horror diluted with zomedy (think ZOMBIELAND, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, ARMY OF DARKNESS and the sadly neglected NIGHT OF THE CREEPS). “Zombie Maria” is not only quite collectible but would prove quite practical as a Halloween party favor. It’s Charles Addams, Sam Raimi and a lobotomized lounge singer but with a beat!