Remembering the time The Smurfs faced off against the zombie apocalypse.
If you were a little kid in the early 1980s and you swore by Saturday morning cartoons, chances are you watched THE SMURFS, the now beloved American animated adaption of the classic illustrated books and comic strips by Peyo. And if you did, chances are you remember the scariest episode in its run, season one’s apocalyptic outbreak chiller ‘The Purple Smurfs’.
Based on the original Peyo story ‘The Black Smurfs’, published in 1959 in Spirou magazine and later as part of a Les Schtroumpfs (the original name of the little blue buggers) compendium in 1963, the network adaptation changed the color of the corrosive critters to a friendlier purple. This was likely for two simple reasons. One, a story about evil black Smurfs reeked of racism, or at least could easily be manipulated and/or interpreted as such by more sensitive viewers. The other reason was that, well…the black Smurfs were visually terrifying on page and to see them actually moving about in such a nihilistic episode might just have shaken a generation of kids to the core and launched a thousand night of a thousand bad dreams.
I know I was disturbed enough by the episode as is.
I was 6 when it hit the screen in 1981. I had seen horror movies at this point. Real ones. But something about this story alarmed me. Probably because the Smurfs get along. They protect each other. They work together. They’re a unit, a stronghold against the evil wizard Gargamel. Except Gargamel is a clown and not much of a threat and really not all that scary.
But The Purple Smurfs? That shit was scary. Because in this story, the Smurfs turned on each other, like rabid dogs.
In it, Papa Smurf and his “children” are attacked by the dreaded “purple fly”, a fanged, bug- eyed and grinning beast who, after he bites one dumb, axe-wielding Smurf on the tail, passes on a virus that turns him purple and infects him with a kind of homicidal rage. Said Smurf gnashes his teeth, begins jumping around and screaming “Gnap! Gnap! Gnap!”. When the diseased Smurf bites other Smurfs on their tails, he passes on the condition and soon, the smurfs they kill get up and kill. Well, maybe not kill. But they do indeed turn into the living dead.
“The Purple Smurfs” is a zombie movie. A horror movie. Full stop. And it almost does not end well, with an infected Papa battling his own newly minted tail-biting instincts while holding the fate of the Smurf universe in his hands.
“The Purple Smurfs” is, in fact, outside of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella turned oft-mined film source I AM LEGEND, the first real deal zombie outbreak story. The original tale predates George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD by 9 years. And the episode came in the wake of his DAWN OF THE DEAD and the glut of European knock-offs. I’m not saying one has anything to do with the other, but it is interesting to note that one of the most feral zombie entertainments was nestled amongst these bloody adult films, but hiding quietly in the land of cereal ads and toy commercials, affecting kids on peaceful Saturday mornings.
What’s that? You’ve never seen “The Purple Smurfs”?
Well, we can fix that.