For Disney, a High School Musical … With Zombies

2/19/2018 8:00 AM Eastern

Zombies are mostly portrayed on the big and small screens as ravenous, flesh-eating predators, but Disney Channel is regarding the undead in a different, more human light in its new original movie, aptly called Zombies.

Instead of portraying the walking dead as the catalyst for a world apocalypse, the film — produced by Effie Brown (Dear White People) — instead casts the outsiders as the centerpiece of a musical that revolves around the issues of inclusion, tolerance and love.

The story focuses on a group of teens from Zombietown who transfer to a traditional, suburban high school. When a zombie football star falls for a human cheerleader, the two sides are forced to find ways to co-exist with one another.

“It’s a fun and interesting movie about football and cheerleaders, and two star-crossed kids who like each other and having to buck against their parents,” Brown said. “It’s like a call back and a call forward to where we are today.”

For Brown, who has delved into complicated relationships and social issues through her hit show Dear White People — recently renewed for a second season — and movies such as Real Women Have Curves, the move to produce a kids-targeted, music-themed project with fictional, undead characters was eye-opening.

“But if you look at my other projects, it’s always about an outsider coming into the mainstream and the mainstream being better off for it,” she said. “So Zombies actually fits — the theme of someone integrating into a ‘normal’ school spoke to me as a black woman with regards to segregation.”

A self-professed “horror/sci-fi nerd,” Brown added the zombie/horror genre in particular often serves as a useful metaphor for the conflicts and social issues facing society today.

“Genre is a great way to talk about things that are happening now in a way that’s not so confronting for others,” she said. “We were able to talk about weighty issues without the heavy medicine.”

Other themes in the movie, such as an otherwise shunned outsider being accepted because of his athletic ability and what he can do for the school’s team, as well as the issue of the zombies living behind a barrier or wall, also correlate with some of the issues young people see and hear about on the news, even if they don’t directly deal with them in their everyday lives.

“We’re reaching a whole different culture, but the crappy things that are happening today have become more subtle and less obvious than back when my parents or when I was coming up, but it’s still there,” Brown said. “I hope that kids can see that some of the things happening in the movie are not right, and then determine what are they going to do to change it.”

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