Josh Shaffer

Photographer explores the lighter side of zombies

“Pancake Breakfast,” the first in a series of zombie photographs by Ashley Hutchinson of Apex, who hopes to show the popular brain-eating creatures in a more relaxed, domestic setting.
“Pancake Breakfast,” the first in a series of zombie photographs by Ashley Hutchinson of Apex, who hopes to show the popular brain-eating creatures in a more relaxed, domestic setting. Ashley Hutchinson

When we think of zombies, we picture them thrashing through ruined cities, tearing out eyeballs, ripping off arms and biting into skulls with their gore-stained fangs.

But in Apex, photographer Ashley Hutchinson has imagined the walking dead in the tender moments beyond the brain-eating frenzies we know from TV. In her work, we see them lurching through their workday routines, slicing up fingers to feed the children, watering a garden of severed hands, digging up leg bones on a bloody beach outing.

In 19 color portraits, all shot with live subjects, Hutchinson presents zombies in a relaxed and domestic setting, capturing moments so humdrum and suburban they call to mind Ozzie and Harriet splattered in gore. Her portrayal, finished just in time for Halloween, presents pop culture’s favorite monster in a daring new fashion, fresh as pint of warm blood.

“I wanted to do something that showed zombies not in their crazed state,” said Hutchinson, 30. “How would a zombie cook dinner? How would a zombie wash dishes? They’re not always eating.”

Hutchinson discovered photography as a 6-year-old at Disneyworld, where she acquired a purple Mickey Mouse camera with 110 film. She graduated to a string of jobs at portrait studios, including Glamour Shots, then the now-defunct Wolf Camera. In her other life, she works on sets for TV commercials, including a new one for the N.C. Education Lottery that features a lucky white rabbit.

The zombie gallery grew out of Hutchinson’s own experience. A single mother, juggling photography classes at Randolph Community College, she settled on the undead when asked to shoot a self-portrait. You can see the thematic ties between motherhood and the zombie lifestyle in the first picture she shot for her series, “Pancake Breakfast,” in which the mother carries a pair of hell-spawn while serving a stack of dripping red hotcakes.

As she considered other examples of zombie art, she wondered how a fan such as herself might introduce the genre to children – without all the ripped-apart bodies.

What followed were scenes from the zombie’s cozy domicile, which Hutchinson painstakingly arranged down to the glistening brain platters.

“The food is all dollar-store canned meat,” she explained, “which just happens to look like something a zombie would be eating. I was originally going to use dog food but the dog food looked better to eat.”

From there, the collection spun off into a dozen other motifs: a zombie baby shower complete with bloody onesie; a zombie night at the movies, where the popcorn comes with a free human hand; a zombie family gathered around the dead brown Christmas tree.

“I just happened to have been driving home,” said Hutchinson. “My neighbors threw their tree out really late. I drug her tree all the way home and let it sit at the side of my house. I think we shot that picture in July.”

Zombies are, after all, the monsters best-suited for human comparison. Vampires are an escapist invention, creatures of pure fantasy, sleek and idealized. But we are all zombies in a way, stumbling through our workaday lives, arms outstretched, hungry for someone to notice us and take our pictures. And feed us brains. Don’t forget brains.