We’re currently suffering a plague of cannibal zombies. Not in real life, thank God, although it’s amazing how many school kids and students have a well-worked-out zombie survival plan. I’m talking about fictional zombies. Right now you can’t move for zombie books, comics, films, TV shows – the latest, In the Flesh, starts on Sunday BBC3 – computer games, “theme parks” where you can pay to get chased around by people dressed up as them...
There’s even a bestselling zombie keep fit app (Zombies, Run!) in which you have to escape from the undead on your daily jog. And it’s going to get worse. There’s a new “rom zom” out called Warm Bodies that tries to do for zombies what Twilight did for vampires, with a dead teenager as the ultimate rebel outsider. June sees the release of Brad Pitt’s World War Z, which depicts a full-scale zombie apocalypse.
Zombies are very much the monster de nos jours. There’s no escaping them and it’s amazing to think that such a ubiquitous monster first appeared as recently as 1968, with the release of George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It was Romero who came up the idea of the dead rising from their graves and trying to eat the living: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
There were zombies before that, of course, but they weren’t after your tender bits; in fact they weren’t even dead. They were people who’d been made to appear dead and were then “reanimated” by a voodoo witch doctor to use as a personal slave. This all started when the African Voudon religion was brought over to the Caribbean with the slaves, where it mixed with the toxic trappings of slavery and Christianity. Bringing the dead back to life is central to Christian beliefs, after all. In fact most religions and mythologies seem to have some concept of the living dead – Malevolent corpses that won’t stay buried, vengeful ghosts, and the ghastly creatures in the realm of Hades in Greek mythology, for instance.
Ghosts, vampires and zombies are very closely related. They’re all things that should be quiet in the grave but aren’t. You need special rituals and techniques to get rid of them and they all feed on the living in some way. So I guess Romero was just ransacking our collective subconscious and myth pool for his monsters, but he really hit a nerve. Night of the Living Dead is cheaply made and its gore is perhaps tame by modern standards, but it still has the power to shock.
I saw it as a teenager in the 70s. Ever since, zombies have been the screen monsters that frighten me most. I’m not bothered by space monsters, giant spiders or demons, but zombies... well, zombies are people. OK, they’re dead people but they’re still human. That’s what makes them so scary. People are and always will be the most frightening creatures on this planet. You can easily imagine what it’d be like to be cornered by a mob. And all mobs are mindless, violent and destructive.
The other thing that really makes zombies scary is that they could be people you know. That thing trying to get into your bedroom and rip your guts out could be your mother, your brother, your girlfriend, your child... It’s bad enough that they’ve died horribly from a zombie bite; now their mutilated, rotting corpse has come back to life and wants to kill you and eat you. You can’t reason with a zombie... “Stop, Mum, it’s me, stop! Please!” No. The only way to stop your loved one is to batter their brains out. Either that or let them kill you in an act of love. Nice.
Zombies have come in and out of fashion since Romero’s sequel Dawn of the Dead became an international hit in 1978. We’ve had Nazi zombies like Dead Snow, zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, even kids’ animated films with cute zombies such as ParaNorman. Zombies seem to speak to kids, maybe because they’re obsessed with, fascinated by and terrified of death, and zombies are a good way of thinking about it on a fantasy level. Or maybe they just love things that are “sick”. Actually it’s not just kids; we’re all on the zombie bandwagon right now. Just like back in the depressed 70s, we’re living through very uncertain times, with the feeling that it could all go badly wrong any second.
Also, it has to be said that zombies are a good antidote to the rather fey and girlie vampire, which, happily, seems to have had its day. Vampires are seen as cool, moody and sexy, and girls want to go out with them. Zombies are not cool and sexy. They shuffle about communicating in grunts, have a terrible diet, their skin is a mess, their trousers are hanging off their arses. Let’s face it, they’re basically teenage boys, which is maybe the real reason they like them so much; they identify with them. Plus, of course you’re allowed to splatter them. They’re the perfect enemy.
One of the hardest things when writing action stories is coming up with villains who are so nasty we all want to cheer when they’re gunned down like dogs. When I was growing up, it was Nazis, but then we became friends with the Germans, so then it was commies, then drug dealers, terrorists, whatever, but these are all problematical in their own ways. We’re never going to see a zombie spokesman on Newsnight complaining to Paxman that zombies have been unfairly misrepresented in the media – “We’re not all flesh-eating cannibals, you know, Jeremy...” and then trying to chew his leg off.
Zombies are people, but they’re already dead, so, basically you can do what you like to them. Bring them on!
ZOMBIES: 5 KILLER FACTS
1. Just like vampires with the old stake through the heart, there is only one way to effectively stop a zombie from trying to eat you — destroy its brain. Anything will do — you won’t need a fancy silver bullet — a shotgun, a hot poker, lawn mower, steam roller.
2. Brains are the zombie delicacy of choice. This possibly began with the zombie in Return of the Living Dead (1984) who was the first to do the old “Brains... brainsss...” routine.
3. Never let a zombie bite you. That’s how the plague is passed on. If you’re bitten you will die, and you will return as one of the walking dead. So, if a friend of yours is bitten, don’t hesitate, smash their brains out immediately.
4. Zombies don’t obey the normal laws of biology. A torso with head and arms attached and its guts trailing along the ground can still come at you. They don’t appear to need any kind of support structure to keep going. Which makes me wonder why they’re so obsessed with food.
5. Technically a zombie isn’t dead. The modern flesh-eating-cannibal-zombie has nothing to do with the original voodoo zombie. George A Romero didn’t even call the creatures in his films “zombies”.
Charlie Higson has written a series of zombie-horror books for children. The Sacrifice is published in paperback by Puffin on 4 April.
In the Flesh starts tonight at 10:00pm on BBC3