With The Walking Dead’s record-breaking ratings and World War Z winning big at the box office, there’s no end of love for zombies. Nicholas Barber explains.

Just when you think they’re finished, they get up again and shamble towards you. It’s a truism that applies to zombies − everyone’s favourite decomposing, man-eating fiends − but it’s also true of the zombie films, television series, books and graphic novels that are being devoured by ever greater audiences, long after the fad for this particular breed of undead monster seemed to be heading for the grave.

It’s now more than a decade since zombies began their relentless shuffle into the mainstream of popular culture. In Danny Boyle’s 2002 hit 28 Days Later the mindless cannibals weren’t called zombies − they were simply ‘the infected’ − but they were close enough to remind the film industry that there was money to be made from the dormant horror sub-genre. Two years later saw the release of both a frenetic zombie action movie, Dawn Of The Dead , and a ground-breaking zombie romantic comedy (or zom-rom-com), Shaun Of The Dead   both critical and commercial smashes. Since then, the films have kept lurching onto the silver screen, from 28 Weeks Later (2007) to Zombieland (2009) to Cockneys vs Zombies (2012).

By the time Brad Pitt’s World War Z was released in June, it seemed it was several years late to the party. Surely there was nothing new to be said about the undead? That tardiness, along with reports of the film’s troubled production, suggested that World War Z would die a death at the box office. Instead, it went on to rake in $540m, making it one of 2013’s ten biggest blockbusters.

And zombie fever hasn’t been confined to cinemas. A comic-book series with the same grisly antagonists, The Walking Dead, was launched in 2003, and was adapted into a television series in 2010. This month, the TV show’s fourth season commenced, and its opening episode was watched by 16.11m viewers − five million more than the equivalent episode the season before. If that weren’t enough, a more thoughtful French take on the risen dead, Les Revenants, was shown on British television this summer as The Returned, and became the first fully-subtitled drama to be broadcast on Channel 4 in over 20 years. 2013, it seems, is the year of the zombie.

Raising the dead

Simon Pegg, the star and co-writer of Shaun Of The Dead, traces the zombie revival back to the release of Resident Evil, a video game that terrified and transfixed PlayStation users in 1996, and which has been spawning sequels (as well as film spin-offs) ever since. But the game’s creators − and the creators of every subsequent zombie project − owe a debt of gratitude to George A Romero, the writer-director of a low-budget black-and-white shocker, Night Of The Living Dead, in 1968. Before that, zombies were sorcerers’ slaves in Haitian Vodou folklore, but Romero imported them to contemporary America. He also codified a new set of undead rules. His zombies had an insatiable hunger for human flesh. They hunted in packs − and were unstoppable  unless they were decapitated. They could turn their victims into fellow zombies with one bite. And, just as importantly, they were a metaphor for everything that bothered Romero about the modern world.

In a new documentary about the making of Romero’s landmark film, Birth Of The Living Dead, the director comments that his screenplay was the product of “a good deal of anger, mostly that the Sixties didn’t work”. Released in the same year that Martin Luther King Jr was murdered, Night Of The Living Dead was radical enough to feature a black hero who was besieged by a mob of brain-dead attackers. From then on, zombies have stood for unreasoning, destructive conformity. In Romero’s 1978 sequel, Dawn Of The Dead (which was remade in 2004), the zombie hordes are seen lumbering around a shopping mall, still driven by an overwhelming urge to consume, even after death.

Beyond  human

To compare zombies to their rivals in the monster-movie pantheon, vampires and werewolves symbolise the thrill and the romance of having superhuman strength and no conscience − hence the Twilight and True Blood franchises. But there’s nothing glamorous about being a zombie. Unlike vampires and werewolves, they’re not frightening because of how powerful they are. They’re frightening because of how dismal it would be to become one yourself. Another difference is that werewolves and vampires are content to share the planet with the rest of us. They might tuck into the odd innocent bystander, but Dracula and the Wolfman don’t threaten our way of life. In Romero’s films and their many imitators, however, the monsters are either the cause or a symptom of a complete societal breakdown. When a botched science experiment, a radiation leak, or a glowing meteorite begins zombifying the populace, the result is a pandemic which leaves the world in chaos. Whether this scenario is played out in 28 Days Later, Zombieland or The Walking Dead, the rule of law ceases to exist. Humanity’s last survivors are forced to forage for food in a dystopian desert, while trying to avoid becoming food themselves.

It can’t be a coincidence, then, that zombies are in vogue during a period when banks are failing, when climate change is playing havoc with weather patterns, and when both terrorist bombers and global corporations seem to be beyond the reach of any country’s jurisdiction. It can’t be a coincidence, either, that the fourth season of The Walking Dead got off to its hugely successful start just weeks after the United States federal government shut down.

“We’re living in very uncertain times,” says Max Brooks, who wrote the book on which the World War Z film is based. “People have a lot of anxiety about the future. They’re constantly being battered with these very scary, very global catastrophes. I think a lot of people think the system is breaking down and just like the 1970s, people need a ‘safe place’ to explore their apocalyptic worries. They can’t read stories about real plagues or nuclear war. That’s too scary. That’ll make them turn away. Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional.”

Zombies embody the great contemporary fear − and, for some people, the great contemporary fantasy − that we’ll soon be surrounded by ravenous strangers, with only a shotgun to defend ourselves. Compared to that, facing a werewolf or a vampire is a breeze.

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