Nicholas Hoult stars in zombie-romance (love bite, anyone?) Warm Bodies. Click for more photos

How zombies ate our brains

Nicholas Hoult stars in zombie-romance (love bite, anyone?) Warm Bodies.

  • Nicholas Hoult stars in zombie-romance (love bite, anyone?) Warm Bodies.
  • George A. Romero's 1968 flick, Night of The Living Dead.
  • The undead make their way onto the small screen in The Walking Dead.
  • Bill Nighy looking for human flesh after copping a nasty bite in Shaun Of The Dead.
  • Children get a taste for zombies in ParaNorman.
  • Grisly scenes from Shaun Of The Dead.
  • The undead head to California in LA Zombie.
  • Will Smith in I Am Legend.
  • A scene from The Walking Dead.
  • A close call in Zombieland.
  • The cover of smash book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

THERE is a gut-wrenching moment in Colson Whitehead's latest novel, Zone One, when the young protagonist Mark Spitz arrives home from a casino trip to find his parents in deeply shocking circumstances. The New York neighbourhood in which they live has been suddenly overrun. Not by the homeless, street gangs or terrorists, but by an inexplicable plague of resurrected dead people craving to eat living flesh. Spitz runs for his life — as he does for most of this novel, richly praised by critics as a work of art that's "strangely tender" and "cynically acute".

A zombie novel as high art? It scarcely seems plausible the sort of people who might lap up W. G. Sebald, Mad Men or art-house cinema should find themselves moved and intellectually captivated by a tale featuring lurching corpses with scant brain function and a vocab limited to grunts and moans. Yet, here it is.

Zombies raise the central philosophical question: what is it to be a person? 

Zombies — whose infection is spread by their bite — are in plague proportions at the moment. As Sookie (Anna Paquin) was told at the end of season four of HBO's witty TV series True Blood: "Zombies are the new vampires — didn't you know?" She didn't — and obviously hadn't read the edition of Time trumpeting that same observation more than three years ago.

Zombie speak.

The virus has mutated since then, though. What is destabilising about Zone One, for example, is not the fact of corpses being reanimated in the Big Apple's boroughs but that the novel is transgressive and genre-busting. Whitehead, after all, is an established, well-respected "literary" novelist, for whom artful prose, nuanced characterisation and metaphysics take precedence over plot (and gore) — and whose publishers subtitled Zone One "a zombie novel with brains".

Ditto AMC's pay TV hit The Walking Dead; based on Robert Kirkman's long-running graphic novel series, it has been hugely popular as well as genre-bending. Intelligently scripted with emotional depth and complex characters, it has revolutionised what discerning viewers are willing to watch and finds itself spoken about glowingly by the sort of folk who otherwise have devoted themselves to such shows as Breaking Bad, The Wire or The West Wing.

So when The New York Times recently devoted an entire feature to exploring highbrow zombie poetry, who could be surprised? It focused on an anthology of 50 zombie poets (Aim for the Head), which it says is the first bid, in printed form, for serious attention in a genre that "has struggled to rise above the gross-out, mass-murder sensibility of comic books and video games".

This is on top of Hollywood's coming offerings. World War Z, based on Max Brooks' novel and starring Brad Pitt, is believed to be the first of a trilogy, to be released next year. It is a documentary-style tale of the world's collapse after a living-dead outbreak begins in China. Then there's Warm Bodies, due at the same time, which is set to stretch an already wafer-thin plausibility with the story of an "unusual" and weirdly handsome zombie (Nicholas Hoult) that saves a girl from being eaten by the hordes. Yes, it's a zombie romance.

And even the kiddies are getting into it: the Melbourne International Film Festival's program for younger viewers this year includes ParaNorman, described as "a vividly engaging 3D zombie tale from the makers of Coralin-e".

Surprisingly, what is interesting about contemporary zombieland (Warm Bodies aside) isn't usually the zombies. Unlike their suave, sexy and fast-moving fanged cousins the vampires, these mindless, stumbling undead haven't the wit or appeal to be the stars (to verify, check out the zombie lexicon on the Urban Dead Wiki). Instead, they act as a mere plot mechanism to bring into sharper focus the dilemmas and characters of the surviving humans around them — of the horrors and depravities people might perpetrate.

Through the undead we find out about being alive. Or, as William S. Larkin writes in the book Zombies, Vam-pires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead, zombies raise the central philosophical question of human identity: what is it to be a person?

Zombies have been an American staple since George A. Romero's film Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968. But now, beyond the parody of Seth Grahame-Smith's hit novel Pride and Prejudice and Zom-bies (2009) or the riotous film Shaun of the Dead (2004), a rich zombie repertoire has emerged with bigger, deeper themes than the vampire glut could offer. While vampires tend to be associated with sexuality, especially in True Blood and the Twilight books/movies, the zombie genre explores our anxieties about death, fears of apocalypse, contagion and the tenuousness of existence. From critiquing consumer culture — zombies as mall shoppers, perhaps — to plumbing the depths of war, disease, politics and social satire, the zombie palette is becoming increasingly broad.

Zombies go back a long way in human history, being most commonly associated with African and Haitian voodoo traditions in which dead people are revived by sorcerers or shamans. Religions, too, grapple with life after death, usually with a more romantic promise of paradise, the rising of the dead on Judgment Day or, in the case of Christianity, with belief in a saviour (Jesus Christ) who is resurrected from death.

The reanimated creatures imagined by Romero for his horror films, by contrast, were always intended as metaphors. He has made six Living Dead films so far, the most recent in 2010, and they have all been associated with social commentary on topics as various as racism, consumerism, class and military power.

Fascinatingly, US academic Kyle Bishop draws connections between the "zombie renaissance" we are experiencing and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Bishop, whose book American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popu-lar Culture was published two years ago, says there has been a steady rise in the number of zombie films since 2002 and that a post-September 11 audience cannot help but view these fictions through the filter of terrorist threats and apocalyptic reality.

Writing in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, he says that even though the zombie genre is 40 years old, the concept of zombie-contagion now resonates more strongly with contemporary audiences for whom September 11, the Iraq war and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina provide comparably shocking ideas and imagery.

Death and inhumane acts, in all these real-life scenarios — as with a fictional zombie plague — were broadcast into our homes, shattering that code of silence about death's sudden inevitability in which we all collude. This deep connectiveness is perhaps why the 21st-century zombie has such a wide reach, appearing not only in cinema, poetry, literature, games and television, but in global phenomena such as the plethora of annual ''zombie shuffles'' - carnivalesque pageants of DIY cottage-industry zombies who stumble through city centres with all the commitment and seriousness of protesters (but with an enormous sense of fun, especially at the pre-shuffle make-up classes).

There are also zombie apocalypse preparation groups (some of them fully expecting an outbreak sometime soon) as well as more irreverent cohorts - the Australian Zombie Awareness Association says in its mission statement that ''Australians are often neglected in apocalyptic discussion … recent plagues such as swine flu, reality TV and Justin Bieber only go to prove that Australia is just as at risk as any other continent''. Or there's Humans vs Zombies Victoria Inc, which is dedicated to physical activity for young people, usually in the form of foam-ball blaster matches (no biting, please).

Astonishingly, even the US's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention last year issued a teaching aid in the form of a graphic novella and ''preparedness 101'' kit showing how to deal with a zombie pandemic - or ''zompocalypse'', as it's known in the trade - with the aim of educating people about the very real potential threats and prudent responses associated with outbreaks of fast-spreading diseases (think Ebola or bird flu), such as that depicted in Steven Soderbergh's thriller Contagion (2011).

An associate professor for the school of culture and communication at the University of Melbourne, Angela Ndalianis, also a long-standing horror aficionado whose tastes cover the spectrum, has just written Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses, which she discusses with as much enthusiasm and delight as she has for her participation in last year's zombie shuffle from the Carlton Gardens to Federation Square. She's watched almost everything with zombies in it, plays computer games featuring the undead (''I love them!'') and reads widely on the topic. And she looks fabulous in the photos of herself gored up to become one of the horde in the zombie shuffle (this year's is set for October 27).

Ndalianis, whose zombie-lore knowledge is encyclopaedic, contests the idea that horror is only about being plunged into a state of fear and repulsion for the hell of it. In watching horror, she says we actually experience some sort of pleasure - especially in the tension between wanting to look and not wanting to look, at the heart of which is a sense of disgust, especially with the cannibalism perpetrated by zombies (or even in non-zombie fiction such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Jonathan auf der Heide's 2009 film Van Diemen's Land).

''That disgust is at the root of the zombie genre,'' she says. ''People tend to be put off by the gore, but I think it is one of the most intelligent genres in terms of the filmmakers it attracts and the kinds of writing it attracts, even from as early as the 1960s. The human dynamics explain the inexplicable - there's always something rotten at the core.''

In her book, Ndalianis says the apocalyptic horror film, through the infection of the monstrous, confronts us with our worst fears about the collapse of identity, social systems and order. But, beyond appealing to the intellect, they incite ''the whole sensorium'', she says - contemporary TV and cinema's unrelenting and increasingly graphic depictions of violence and bodily destruction ''weaves its way offscreen and on to the body of the spectator''.

''All of these films,'' she says, ''play on the idea of the close-up, the camera that gazes at the body which is rotting, the flesh falling apart, the gums that are decomposed. It fetishises what happens to the body once death has hit home. The whole idea of the dead coming back is a metaphor: we have to embrace death.''

Little wonder Ndalianis writes in her book that one of Romero's reasons for using the term ''living dead'' for zombies was to draw on parallels between the dead who are ''living'' and the living who are ''living as if they're dead - empty, repetitive, unfulfilling lives that lack depth and emotion''.

As historian Marina Warner observes in Phantasmagoria (2006), the term zombie is now used generically as an existential term for ''the uttermost condition of cancelled selfhood'', where ''the zombie figures as a most acute, symptomatic and pervasive symbol of the living death inflicted by humans on one another''.

The hordes who have been watching The Walking Dead or reading Zone One will no doubt attest to tears or a wrenching of the heart at the unrelenting grief this genre is capable of exploring. Ironically, perhaps we are enlivened and able to treasure every breath more consciously when confronted with that cruel truth: life is fragile and it usually ends without warning.