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In this publicity image released by AMC, Steven Yeun, left, and Andrew Lincoln, right, try to blend in with the zombie population in a scene from "The Walking Dead.
In this publicity image released by AMC, Steven Yeun, left, and Andrew Lincoln, right, try to blend in with the zombie population in a scene from 'The Walking Dead.

Unnatural selection: the evolution of zombies on screen and on paper

Zombies are now as ubiquitous as vampires, with new books, comics, television shows and films arriving all the time. But there's a reason this trend refuses to die.

Gwen Dylan is an artist in her 20s living in Eugene, Oregon, who deals with the same issues as everyone else: relationships, needy friends, criticism of her work. There's something else, though: she has to eat human brains once a month to survive. That's the set-up of a smart new comic-book series by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred which turns the usual zombie narrative on its head.

Instead of one individual struggling to stay alive amid infected undead hoards, iZombie has our protagonist attempting to maintain her identity despite the fact that at some point - she can't remember when - she died and came back to life hungry for human flesh. Out in May, iZombie is one more example of a trend that, like its subject matter, refuses to die. Once the preserve of B movies and nerds, zombie stories have gone mainstream in the past 10 or so years, with clever, knowing films such as Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later reinventing the genre as one with mass appeal. Mainstream releases such as Zombieland, starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg, followed, along with countless books and television series.

In its original traditions, the zombie was a corpse reanimated by witchcraft - not brought back to life, merely moving. The basic premise of the current zombie story is simple: an infection (probably caused by human folly) turns huge swathes of the population into groaning monsters with below-average IQs. Classically, they shamble along slowly and feed on brains, although there have been variations.

The central metaphor is that it takes courage to be an individual and to think for yourself; if we're not careful we'll allow mass culture to rot our brains.

George A Romero's Living Dead series of films is widely considered to have kick-started the genre in the 1960s (to ram home the allegory, he set the second instalment, Dawn of the Dead, in a shopping mall), although he has admitted to drawing inspiration from the 1954 book I Am Legend, which itself was adapted for film in 2009. But it has only been in the past few years that the genre has truly come into its own.

Perhaps the reason for that is that popular culture has become increasingly all-pervasive and, it often seems, brainless. The British miniseries Dead Set took place on the set of the reality TV show Big Brother, with the contestants protected from the zombie apocalypse raging outside by their enforced isolation. It doesn't take a genius to see the writer, Charlie Brooker, as being a little disapproving of the culture of the show.

Other writers have used the zombie template to explore different ideas. Robert Kirkland's comic-book series, The Walking Dead, which began in 2003 and is still running, simply uses its zombies as backdrop to a story of human survival, exploring how real people would react to their entire world collapsing.

It was made into a Golden Globe-nominated TV series last year, and will return this year for a second season, while another novel, World War Z, has been picked up for a film adaptation by Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment, after a bidding war with Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way, although it has been stuck in pre-production for several years. Written in 2006 by Max Brooks, who previously wrote the tongue-in-cheek Zombie Survival Guide, it uses zombies to explore terrorism, American preparedness for national disaster, and the country's political isolationism: big themes for what used to be a shlocky B-movie genre.

Structured as a document gathering oral histories of a zombie war which devastated the world's population, the book goes into rigorous detail about how countries continue to function after a zombie apocalypse, and how different political groups react.

"The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies," Brooks said in an interview. "The idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation. Of course that applies to terrorists, but it can also apply to a hurricane, or flu pandemic, or earthquake. Any kind of mindless extremism scares me, and we're living in some pretty extreme times."

With all this in mind, it's unsurprising that zombie fiction is still in the ascendant: as well as dealing with anxieties about losing our individualities, it allows us to imagine living through the end of civilisation; something that's on our minds as a generation faced with global warming, global political turmoil and worrying cycles of financial boom and bust.

As with global warming, it's inevitably man's dabblings with technology that trigger the apocalypse: in 28 Days Later, it's experiments on chimpanzees; in Stephen King's novel Cell, it's a pulse sent out to everyone connected to a mobile phone network; at the end of Joss Whedon's TV series Dollhouse, it's weaponised technology that wipes people's personalities. Survivors must return to small, wholesome communities in the vein of early American pioneers. Perhaps this sort of rootedness is what readers and viewers actually crave.

Of course, the zombie trend isn't all about big ideas. There's something appealing about the revival of a retro genre that used to be targeted only at nerdy kids.

Like werewolves and vampires, zombies can be funny in their cartoonish simplicity: in most contemporary series, the characters themselves are well aware of zombie-movie conventions and use them to stay alive.

Hence the popularity of mash-up books, which crowbar zombies into completely inappropriate settings. This started with the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (about an infestation in regency England; it's being turned into a Hollywood film) and continued with a whole range of spin-offs, such as Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter.

And hence iZombie, in which the undead are no longer the enemy but just regular people, with ghost pals and werewolf love interests, trying to get along (and to find some ethically sourced fresh brains if they can).

Like the "rom-zom-com" Shaun of the Dead and the Jane Austen mash-ups, it mines monsters for laughs, but also adheres strictly to its own internal logic. Happily for its fans, the rise of zombie fiction shows no signs of dying just yet.

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