When Amber Steele, a Mills Dance Graduate student, gussies up for work, it is a two hour effort. Standing before a mirror, she covers her body with foundation. It is the only way she can capture that fresh corpse glow and make the blood smears visible from a distance. She smudges purple-tinted shading along her face, arms and legs – the deep streaks passing for bruises and the fainter ones for mold.
She and her six co-workers top off their makeup effects with costumes that range from lacy underwear to micro-miniskirts and belly bearing T-shirts.
People who guess that Steele is preparing for a horror film are only half right. She is the founder and director of San Francisco’s own zombie dance theater extravaganza: the Living Dead Girlz.
Little did Steele know that accepting horror filmmaker Shannon Lark’s offer to choreograph a number in her short film “Whatever Happened to the Zombie Killers?” would turn into a full-time job.
One year later, she gathered the women she had go-go danced with or worked with in the film and founded the Living Dead Girlz.
Samar Soriano, Jessica Katzman, Whitney Moses, Julie Rowlette, Shamika Baker and Lark perform plotted shows, appearing at nightclubs such as the DNA Lounge, special events like the Creepshow Peep Show and horror conventions.
All Living Dead Girlz shows center on campy horror plots and sexy dancing that mixes gallons of gore and pop culture parody.
Many reviews of the troupe focus on the suggestive dance moves they use- straddling each other, caressing and dancing on chairs.
According to Steele, the Living Dead Girlz use commercial jazz dancing and sensual moves to poke fun at the commercialization of women’s bodies, especially in the male-dominated horror genre.
“There’s such a huge shortage of women in the horror scene and when they are [in horror], they’re victims,” she said.
Steele wanted to pump feminism into the zombie arena, presenting confident women who arouse, disgust and disturb the audience. “We’re making fun of the male gaze: they’re checking out our bodies, but we’re still in control with mold and bruises,” she said.
Steele said that the basic plot of all the shows embraces female empowerment: a woman protagonist joins the Living Dead Girlz and fights off the antagonists, who are usually arrogant men.
In one of their latest shows, an unnamed dance they refer to as the Tango Piece, the Girlz poke fun at Goth culture, men and the romance reality TV shows.
Lark is in charge of the bloody scenes, using her expertise in horror filmmaking and vegetarian aversion to meat in order to produce quality gore. While Steele said the blood content of the shows would warrant a PG-13 rating, she admitted that the Girlz can use up to ten gallons of blood in one show.
The Girlz must strategically place gore since gallons of blood makes dancing harder. “You can slip and slide, but you cannot tango in a puddle of blood,” Steele said.
The Living Dead Girlz shows involve audience members in the gore-fest. In “Hillbilly Zombies,” the troupe surrounded the audience with surprise blood spouts. They hid one in a wood chipper and disguised the other as a gas pump.
Most of the audience enjoys returning home with bloody clothes to display, according to Steele. “It’s like battle scars,” she said. “They come screaming up front. Many audience members wear white T-shirts to show the blood.”
Along with geysering blood, frequent visitors to the Living Dead Girlz performances can note running gags and the Girlz’s tongue-in-cheek humor.
One ongoing joke involves the stereotypically lethargic movement characterized by the undead in Night of the Living Dead. The Girlz will typically enter the stage with stiff, jerky movements but then suddenly break out dancing in unison.
Steele said that the Girlz tickle their audience’s funny bone by using purposely ironic songs. In “Eat Your Heart Out,” the Living Dead Girlz convince a 1950s teenybopper to give up on trying to impress her fiancé and take what she wants: his heart. While Madonna’s song “Open Your Heart to Me” plays in the background, the Girlz dance with their lovers and literally open the men’s hearts.
Each show is plotted around clips of songs edited together. Song choice, visual puns and dance moves are decided round-robin style, which means that all members bounce ideas off one another. This process usually begins six months before the show.
Along with regular dance shows, the troupe also performs at conventions. Last year, the Girlz performed at a popular horror magazine’s convention: Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors in San Jose from Jan. 5 through 7. They also performed at the same convention when it played in Chicago on Feb. 23 and 24.
The group danced one of the acts and then toured the convention. Along with taking pictures with horror stars, fans asked the troupe for pictures and autographs.
Michael, a co-worker of Deez who writes horror movie reviews but did not provide his last name, chose the pose most commonly asked of the Girlz: being eaten.
“It’s an age old tale of boy meets undead Girlz; boy falls in love with undead Girlz; boy getting eaten by undead Girlz,” Michael said in his review.
To get your own piece of the undead action, check out The Living Dead Girlz merchandise at their Web site, Living Dead Girls.