Zombies, like many other creatures in supernatural lore, began as a scary folktale. Haitian voodoo culture, and some South African communities, held that witches could control people or animate dead bodies to do their bidding. Today, we owe our stereotypical image of the lurching, brain-hungry undead much to the 1954 novel I Am Legend and George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead, both of which set up the basic formats for zombie apocalypse scenarios. But there's only so much space to be creative with a one-note portrayal of zombies, and newer films and stories are more playful with the idea. Zombies are sometimes a misunderstood minority group struggling for rights, as in the 2007 mockumentary American Zombie. Once under control, they're mostly harmless and played for laughs, as in Shaun of the Dead. Zombies even tug at our hearts, like in the short Dutch-made musical film Zombie Love, a comedy about the romance between a 200-year-old zombie and a teen girl.
The hour-long musical Fleshed Out, showing this weekend at the Crystal Theatre, joins the legion of stories that revel in flesh-eating gore and even ask us to sympathize with the zombie. Fleshed Out's writer, Ely Sheets, directed and first staged the show last Halloween as part of an independent study project to finish his English degree at the University of Montana. Now that Sheets has graduated and is preparing to move to Minneapolis in hopes of joining the theater community there, he and seven cast members are putting on Fleshed Out again.
Fleshed Out is set in Missoula, and follows a family as it's completely devoured by a pack of zombies. It's staged simply, with only a few chairs as props and a projector showing backgrounds like Sacajawea Park and the Oxford. "This thing could be put on by third graders, if they were allowed to cuss," Sheets says. "There is a lot of cussing. It is obscene." One song is titled "My Grandchildren Are Fucking Eating Me."
Sheets says he enjoys some traditional musicals like Chicago and Evita, but finds more inspiration in irreverent ones like Book of Mormon, Fleetwood Macbeth and Putnam County Spelling Bee. It's comedy and gore that Sheets loves. In one scene of Fleshed Out, for instance, zombies disembowel a judge and use the intestines to jump rope.
One of Sheets' favorite things about zombies is the idea of wiping life's slate clean. "I love the idea that, if a zombie apocalypse happened, all your debt would mean nothing," he says. "All your associations with friends would mean nothing. Even your name would mean nothing." That mentality inspired his song "Zombietown," in which the undead gleefully sing, "No more disease, no more wars, no more endless department stores / no more diets, no more greed, all that's left is time to feed," before diving on a body.
Toward the finale of Fleshed Out, the zombies hold hands and sing a hymnal. It's not much of a spoiler to say things don't work out great for the people in this tale. The twisted fun of the show lies in living vicariously not through the people, but through the zombie. Zombies are an expression of pure, unchecked id, after all, and that resides in everyone to some degree. Much like how apocalypses let us imagine a place where superficial things have been stripped away, zombie gore lets us find catharsis in imaginatively ripping apart the banal parts of our existence. Thankfully, we can depart the theater with our innards and brains intact.
Fleshed Out shows at the Crystal Theatre Fri., June 7 and Sat., June 8, at 7 and 9 PM. $15/$11 advance at Rockin Rudy's.