Playing Dead: The Toronto Zombie Walk

By Richard Moszka

This FUSE article from issue 36-3 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

A figure often seen wandering through the imaginary postapocalyptic landscape, the zombie, could be described as a defective or dysfunctional survivor, hopeless, devolved — a body in a chronic state of decay, deprived of its consciousness, senselessly perambulating the city, the countryside or even the suburban mall.

In Toronto, this figure appears every year at the zombie walk, where participants stumble through the streets spilling blood and guts. The first walk was staged in 2003 as a public performance spontaneously organized by film editor Thea Munster and six of her friends. Since then, Munster has continued to run the annual event with a group of volunteers, ultimately drawing a crowd of close to 10,000 in 2012. [1]

Zombie walk participants met for the first three years at the Necropolis Cemetery, until the graveyard banned visitors from entering the grounds in costume. From 2006 to 2011, zombies met at Trinity Bellwoods Park and followed slightly different routes each year. After the 2011 walk, the zombies were contacted by an altogether different kind of monster, the City of Toronto, who wanted to impose regulations on the event under the pretext of ensuring the safety of walk participants as well as bystanders. The organizers were told they could no longer meet at Trinity Bellwoods because the walk was too big. [2] According to the City of Toronto website, anyone organizing an event in a public space such as a park must be a registered nonprofit organization and apply for a permit. In response, the zombie walk had no choice but to create a board of directors and register as a nonprofit.

The City of Toronto thus approached Munster and the board of directors with a mix of economic coercion and incentives. On the one hand, it intimidated them with threats of personal liability and lawsuits should any private or public property be damaged, or anyone be injured during the event. On the other, the city enticed them with grants, initially telling them they could apply under several categories. One of these, “Community Festivals and Special Events,” is designed to help small festivals start up and become self-sustainable, but the zombie walk was deemed already too big for that. Another category, “Access, Equity & Human Rights,” is geared toward community-based projects that act against discrimination, but the city decided that zombies could be viewed neither as a community nor as a project encouraging diversity. In contrast with this official opinion, Forest Lightbody, the Toronto zombie walk’s secretary, argues that the action of dressing up in zombie drag blurs distinctions of class, race, gender and sexual orientation, while remaining deliberately apolitical. [3]

For the 2012 walk, the board of directors went along with the city’s plan to have participants meet at Nathan Phillips Square and follow an itinerary that circled one large block: walking westward from the square on Queen St. toward University, then north to Dundas, east to Yonge, and south back to Queen and Nathan Phillips Square. The city first said it would provide road closures, and then stated that not enough people were in attendance to warrant them. Thus, on one leg of the walk, participants were herded into the eastbound lanes of Dundas Street (one of which was partially blocked by parked cars), while bystanders crowded the south sidewalk, and westbound lanes were filled with cars and streetcars. The amount of space was totally inadequate for the huge number of walkers, packed so closely together it was difficult for bystanders to see their costumes.

Overall, the city’s way of dealing with the zombie walk is contradictory: it offered grants under the condition that the walk be moved to the location of the city’s choosing, only to renege on the funding it offered. It promised road closures and then stated they were unnecessary. It said the walk has no purpose since it is neither a festival nor a parade. Lightbody says, “They try to help us but they don’t know how to categorize us.” [4]

The collective seems indeed to be defined by its lacks: the lack of a rallying cause, the absence of a political agenda and the lack of demands or goals beyond its continued existence. This brings the zombie walk close to the medieval carnival, which, though apparently only concerned with revelry for revelry’s sake, was a highly symbolic enactment that overturned the social order — if only fleetingly and on the level of metaphor. Both the zombie walk and the medieval carnival could be termed grotesque pageants. In his analysis of the carnivalesque and the grotesque in the writings of Rabelais, Soviet philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin states that the grotesque body “never presents an individual body” but rather a collective body or a body in transition, “a body in the act of becoming… never finished, never completed,” that represents the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and that depicts both sickness and fecundity. [5]

This seems to transpose itself easily to the figure of the walking corpse, whose incontinence further upsets the municipality’s “clean streets” policy. [6] Though some social theorists state the obvious — that zombie walks are symptomatic of growing social malaise, and symbolize feelings of disempowerment — could they not be taken more literally, as the most recent embodiment of a visibly rotten body politic? Physical decay is often seen as a manifestation of underlying moral decay. This popular perception, this confusion between literal and metaphorical disease, relates zombies to marginalized communities such as drug addicts today, or to people with HIV during the early years of the AIDS crisis.

In essence, zombie drag exhibits a confusing semiotic excess; it celebrates a symbolically messy, ugly, leaking, undifferentiated body. The walk is an example of an expressive social movement, where the act of taking part in the collective acquires its own finality. It is precisely this expressivity that may soon be overwhelmed by the interests of outside agencies — not only the city, which considers these creatures a nuisance that needs to be contained or at least groomed for broader appeal, but also sponsors who attempt to harness the walk’s energy, to instrumentalize zombies to promote products and services. [7] But if, as Sylvère Lotringer would have it, “our society desperately needs monsters to reclaim its own moral virginity,” [8] then oughtn’t the zombies be left to roam free?

NOTES:

[1] Number of participants for the years in between: 12 in 2004, 150 in 2005, 600 in 2006, 1,100 in 2007, 2,500 in 2008, 4,000 in 2009, 6,000 in 2010, 7,500 in 2011. Munster states the Toronto walk did not attract a large following before walks staged in US cities were widely publicized. Internationally, walks have now taken place in Singapore, Buenos Aires and Prague, and even in smaller, more isolated cities, such as Merida in Mexico. Thea Munster, in discussion with the author, January 2013.

[2] And also because dog owners in the park’s off-leash area had allegedly complained about zombies being a nuisance to their pets.

[3] Forest Lightbody, in discussion with the author, November 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 317.

[6] Another quip of city officials was that cars and shop-fronts had been smeared with blood (i.e., food colouring and cornstarch) during previous walks.

[7] The Heart and Stroke Foundation asked the zombie walk board of directors to distribute flyers and perform a zombie flash-mob at Nuit Blanche for their “The Undeading” campaign. Videogame distributors wrangled zombies into advertising Resident Evil 6 and Call of Duty: Black Ops II at the Taste of the Danforth festival in the summer of 2012.

[8] Sylvère Lotringer quoted in David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 87.

Richard Moszka left Montreal in 1993 to do an MFA in Mexico City. He ended up staying there for twenty years, making his living as a translator and visual artist.

His work has been exhibited in America and Europe, most notably at the Havana and Porto Alegre Biennales, the Barcelona Contemporary Art Triennale, the Museo de Arte Moderno and Colección Jumex in Mexico City, the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Ghent, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He moved to Toronto in the summer of 2012.

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