A zombie drama with actual ‘brraaiiinss’

Post5's new "Last Days" rises above the wreckage of its genre and bashes around a few interesting ideas. The results are, well, haunting.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t like zombies. Most of the time, I don’t even try. I find them repulsive and simplistic, and frankly dehumanizing.

“That is the point!” says everyone, from people who participate in the annual Zombie Walk to those who play zombie video games, first-person splattering the poor things as they jump in their virtual path. I lack the sophistication, zombie advocates assert, to appreciate the fictional premise of the human race being stripped of its sophistication. And I lack the guts to confront the guts that the zombie hoards spill before me.

That may be. But I also recoil from the notion that we should fear, shun, and punish anyone who’s already in pain. And that’s where Post5’s The Last Days is with me. Though they’re surrounded by zombies and head-bashing them to death, the play’s four survivors pause to share misgivings about how they should respond to zombies. And between lurches of id, the zombies themselves have lucid and poignant musings. I consider this at least a concession—and like the barricaded, besieged characters in this story, when surrounded by “zoms,” I’ll take what I can get.

It's not easy being green. Or dead. Russell J. Young Photography

It’s not easy being green. Or dead. Russell J. Young Photography

Larina (Cassandra Boice) is also making do, shacking up with Shep (Orion Bradshaw), a man who was supposed to be a fling, just because he’s a good protector and is (so far) plague-free. Her brother Valentine (Ernie Lijoi), with whom she’s fortunately close, is also sharing the cabin with the pair and his high-strung bookworm boyfriend Miguel (Chip Sherman). They periodically venture outside to bust heads and loot provisions, but otherwise they’re stuck with each other—and perhaps more threateningly, themselves.

Don’t let playwright Carlos Cisco’s accessible banter fool you; these four characters are not merely being themselves, they represent broader modes of crisis reaction:

Larina, a former flight attendant who, by her own admission, has spent half her life saying goodbye, is a compromiser; she snuggles up to Shep because she’s “become accustomed” to him, and as new problems arise, she looks to half measures as solutions.

Shep is a warrior, taking perverse, simplistic delight in destroying “zoms” with a baseball bat full of nails he affectionately calls “The Regulator.” He practices his martial arts moves, whistles “Always Look on the Bright Side,” and mocks the others’ serious concerns with, “Womp, womp, frown town.” At first, we’re led to assume he’s too dumb to see anything but the “bright side” of his own victories. But as the play wears on, we learn that his optimism and lack of analysis is a conscious coping strategy. By his simple code, living means winning, and losing means death. The question becomes, will he stick to that system when facing the punishment rather than the reward?

Miguel, a former librarian, is a victim, easily wounded by his boyfriend Valentine’s lack of affection, readily annoyed and overwhelmed by his cabin-mates’ activities (especially the abrasive Shep), and ultimately better prepared to give up than he is to compromise or to fight.

Val’s role is the hardest to peg. A former EMT, his savior complex is coupled with the detachment necessary to work through a crisis rather than be emotionally overwhelmed by it. At the same time, he and Miguel share a similar existential neurosis, resorting to Neitsche quotes to describe—and hence convince themselves they’ve mastered—a world that’s actually crashing down around them.

Speaking of: zombie drama is a timely metaphor for real-life threats, particularly epidemic illness and rampant war. As the ebola epidemic surges, for instance, a debate rages over how to “treat” the threat: cut off whole countries to stave off the spread, or just cure victims individually as they emerge? And in warfare abroad, another “zombie” dilemma: how to separate the potential survivors from our would-be attackers, how to stop one group from “infecting” the other? It’s no wonder the Cranberries’ rock song “Zombie” is actually an antiwar anthem. These issues will not be resolved on Post5’s tiny stage, but they can at least be raised while we’re on the zombie topic.

Very few zombie stories end well, so we know what we’re getting into from the get-go here. But The Last Days does meander us through some interesting dilemmas before hurtling toward disaster. It also handles the half-baked myth of zombification pretty plausibly by limiting its characters’ understanding of the process of “turning” and letting them wonder what will and won’t “work” to disable the creatures. This is a mercy, because nothing’s worse in a sci-fi or fantasy premise than characters who figure it all out too fast.

Obviously keen to elevate the zombie dialogue above, “MMMmmhhhh, braaaainsss,” Last Days‘ dialogue is intelligent—sometimes to a fault, over-quoting literature and overpacking Miguel’s lines with ten-dollar vocab words. And the characters’ back-stories may be more tortured than necessary; they’re in enough trouble now, thank you, to lend ample drama. Those overreaches aside, this story has a lot to offer, and is haunting in more than the horror-movie sense of the word. Since the zombie craze stubbornly refuses to die, it’s good to see it advancing.

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