Day of the dead

Zombies are all the rage. They are the perfect postmodern symbol, a bloody canvas on to which any fear may be inscribed - but it's not all gloom and doom. It's the end of the world as we know it, and Clive Bloom feels fine

June 24, 2010

Never invite a zombie to meet the vicar. They are simply an embarrassment, shuffling around in a most unpleasant manner, mumbling when spoken to and with the disconcerting habit of having bits fall off into the cucumber sandwiches.

If you must invite one of the not-quite-deceased to take tea with a member of the clergy, let it be a vampire - always a much safer bet. Yes, I know they used to have a disturbing habit of arriving as a bat and feasting on the nearest jugular, but they've moved with the times. Since their makeover courtesy of Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, they are as tame as pussycats and will sip their Earl Grey with the best of them. Just remember, vampires are the undead, but zombies are the living dead - an important little point of etiquette. There's always the werewolf option, but there's still the problem of the full moon and pet insurance. Just don't invite a zombie.

Now that vampires are girlie and romantic, only a zombie will do for all those ghoulish thrills. Michael Jackson danced with them as long ago as 1983 and they didn't do his career any harm. At the Grimm Up North! horror film festival held in Manchester last year, dozens of enthusiasts wearing torn clothes, green make-up and fake-bloodstained faces moaned and stumbled their way to the box office to get their horror kicks.

Goth is out and black leather and purple velvet are so 1990s. Today's ghouls wear a business suit or put on a nurse's outfit, but grave-soiled, of course, and with plenty of gore. Indeed, gore is central to zombieland. What flesh-eating fiend would be complete without a severed arm or dripping brain? It is this visceral appeal that makes the zombie so effective.

The most popular campus movie in the genre is 28 Days Later, made in 2002 by Danny Boyle for a few bob as a cheap English horror flick. It revived zombie fortunes and reinvented zombie-dom. More than that, it offered masculine adventure and escape amid the female colonisation of horror fare. Instead of romance there is violence, terror and post-apocalyptic survivalism - stuff for boys, or at least boys aged 15 to 25 who seem to be the prime audience for zombie-porn, especially on US campuses. The film has spawned a world of real-life urban explorers and adventures who seek out derelict hospitals and asylums.

Zombie movies are cheap on costumes and don't need exotic locations. Find an empty shopping mall, half-demolished building or empty street and let those dead-brained zombies go. The living dead are the perfect postmodern symbol, a blank on to which any contemporary fear may be inscribed. Zombies are us. They are the perfect expression of that alienation, aggression and monstrosity that has opposed consumer culture since the alien and radiation scares of the 1950s.

The first zombie movie was made in 1932. White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi, was set in Haiti and concentrated on Haitian voodoo, but black magic zombies were poor fare. Zombies returned during the 1950s in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), where they masqueraded as aliens, but it is in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) that they make their spectacular modern debut in a parable of the civil rights struggle.

In Marc Fratto's Zombies Anonymous (2006), the living dead are reanimated with their personalities intact, even if their guts aren't. These zombies exemplify the fears of the 21st century. They are sentient beings who hold down jobs, attend self-help therapy sessions, eat doughnuts, enjoy a relaxing cigarette and try to fit in with the living. They even have a "Look Alive" face cream to help them blend in, but to no avail. The "living supremacists" are on their case, watching jihad-style videos and pledging to wipe out the "filth" in a tale reminiscent of any one of a number of real-life tragedies from the Holocaust to Bosnia.

But it's not all heavy subtext and theoretical angst. Some people just love zombies: the film-maker of the delightfully named House of 1000 Corpses (2003) is the rock musician and film director, Rob Zombie (born Robert Bartleh Cummings). Zombies represent the final challenge to human global dominance: we are our own worst enemies in a doomsday scenario where the last man standing has to fight the man-made ecological disaster that reanimates the dead.

No longer a victim of voodoo, the modern zombie is rather a "victim" of some agency, variously an airborne virus, a mutated bacterium, or the result of a sting from genetically altered bees; it is known as the "plague", the "rage" or "Solanum poisoning", a mutative blood virus discovered by the scientist Jan Vanderhaven, which suspends the living brain and makes the human organism no longer dependent on oxygen. Well, at least that's what Max Brooks would have us believe in his bestselling Zombie Survival Guide (2003), essential if you want "complete protection from the living dead".

Brooks lays out the dos and don'ts of fighting zombies, what kit we need and what weapons we should use. One should always carry a good crowbar for bashing in zombie heads, and keep in top physical shape, he says.

Remember, says Brooks, that "when the living dead triumph, the world degenerates into utter chaos". This is survivalism at its grimmest and you had better have taped Bear Grylls and Ray Mears if you want to know the correct way to light damp twigs in a rainstorm or fricassee some roadkill in an old baked-bean can. Bushcraft and wilderness survival courses teaching self-reliance, self-denial and self-preservation are all the rage for that corporate bonding session.

But just in case you've no time for such larks, you can always get hold of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), no longer to escape into Jane Austen's world and picture Colin Firth in a see-through shirt, but to see how the Bennet girls survive as ninja experts in Seth Grahame-Smith's rewriting of the narrative, complete with balls and "ultraviolent zombie mayhem". And who would have thought that we knew so little of Queen Victoria that her exploits as a zombie slayer have been forgotten? Never fear, as A.E. Moorat has kindly written her secret history in Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter (2009).

Zombies and zombie culture are the latest accessories on campus as well as at film festivals. Mathematics and philosophy departments are full of the critters. In 2008, Philip Manz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad and Robert J. Smith? (yes, his name features a question mark) from the School of Mathematics and Statistics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, presented a paper, "When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection". It looked at the "classic pop-culture zombie" and mathematically modelled situations that may arise in a zombie-virus outbreak. Predictably, we all die if the zombies aren't contained or killed by "quick, aggressive action".

Although something of an April Fool's joke, the essay caught on around the world as pop culture became serious and zombies became legitimate. All this talk of the end of civilisation by Smith?, who holds dual Canadian-Australian citizenship, has given rise to the Zombie Apocalypse Anticipation Party of Australia, whose Facebook page hosts keen debate about the best place to be on Z-Day. Apparently you shouldn't fly, just in case the pilot comes over all zombiefied.

The mathematical model in "When Zombies Attack!" can be extrapolated from fiction and into the real world of medical disasters or political affiliation. It lends itself to any doomsday scenario, of which the banking crisis seemed a perfect example.

Gordon Gekko, the corporate-raider villain of Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street, was resurrected after a long quiescence and hundreds of bank customers dressed as zombies swayed through Manhattan in Zombiecon 2008. Glow-in-the-dark zombie toy financiers could be bought on the internet, with the tagline: "They've lost all your money - now they want your brains." Flesh-eating zombies are the ultimate symbol of consumer greed and so, of course, are bankers.

Now, a living animated corpse gives plenty of scope for ontological musings. Ludwig Wittgenstein, trotting past schoolchildren everyday, fell to musing that the little kiddiewinks were simply automata, mini-simulacra fooling the likes of the truly alive. How could one tell? And so philosophical zombies, or "P-zombies", were born.

There are three main types of the species: a behavioural zombie, who acts no differently from the living; a neurological zombie, who has a normal brain but no conscious experience; and a soulless zombie, who lacks the essential nature of what it means to be human. A P-zombie is a body that essentially lacks all conscious experience, but looks exactly the same as the living. If you hit it, it would react as if programmed, but would have no experience of pain. In effect, Rene Descartes thought that animals were mere P-zombies. Scary, eh?

P-zombies owe their theoretical existence to social scientists and philosophers who wished to argue against certain forms of physicalism or behaviourism. If behaviour is consciousness (as physicalists have argued), then how could the living dead react in the same way as a person with consciousness but have none themselves?

In 1996, David J. Chalmers, in his book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, imagined a world of zombies identical to our world but lacking conscious human nature. Chalmers, today a philosopher at the Australian National University, tried to crush the physicalist argument via rigorous philosophical logic. Of course, and rather problematically, this logic did not exclude Chalmers from being a P-zombie himself, a worrying, if tantalising thought - something to bear in mind next time you're faced with a class full of expressionless students.

As for that mindless, unshaven guy mumbling to himself as he shuffles down the corridor: remember, he's not a zombie - he's the dean.

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