Zombie craze continues to infect popular culture

By John Sudworth
BBC News

  • Published
Brighton zombie walk
Image caption,
Zombie numbers have been rising in recent years

This weekend an estimated 3,000 people dressed as zombies took to the streets of Brighton. It's the latest proof, if any was needed, that the undead are really on the march - culturally at least.

If the zombie craze has passed you by then you probably haven't been hanging out with any children lately.

In my own random poll, conducted outside a set of school gates not far from BBC HQ, every one of the little rascals I spoke to admitted playing one particularly popular zombie killing game, despite its 18-certificate rating.

Ten-year-old Mark very obligingly offered to give me a demonstration.

He asked his mum if I could come round to play, she said yes, then there I was watching Mark and his friends destroying an army of zombies dressed as Nazis.

The conversation between them went a little like this:

"Shoot! Shoot!"

"He's only got one eye."

"Uggh, that looks gross."

"You've just shot his head off."

It was a brief but gory glimpse into the world of zombie video games, a niche market which makes millions of dollars a year and consumes millions of hours of our youngsters' leisure time.

But it's not just games.

The undead's insatiable appetite for publicity has, in recent years, seen ever-growing legions of them appearing on our TV and cinema screens.

If news of the blockbuster series like The Walking Dead or Dead Set or of Brad Pitt's latest zombie movie World War Z has passed you by, then perhaps you haven't been hanging out with anyone at all.

Beach of the dead

But if you do still need convincing that the zombie has truly arrived as something of a cultural phenomenon then a trip to Brighton this weekend would have done the trick.

Image caption,
Some 3000 people, dressed in zombie costumes, groaned their way through Brighton city centre

Some 3,000 people, dressed in zombie costumes, turned up to amble, shamble and groan their way through the city centre and along the sea front.

"For fun," one man with fake blood running down his face told me when I asked him why he'd come to the event.

"Why do people go walking, or why do others jump out of planes? We like our fun on the ground, with make-up," he explained.

But some media critics and cultural commentators have begun to wonder whether this explosion of zombie enthusiasm is, as well as a bit of fun, an expression of something else.

After all, it's often been argued that the boom in sci-fi tales of alien attack in 1950s and 1960s America was in some way an expression of the fear of Soviet invasion.

So what might the current zombie craze tell us about the world we're living in now?

Mass of rotting flesh

Dr Marcus Leaning, programme leader for media studies at the University of Winchester, believes the shambling mass of rotting flesh now colonising our cultural space is well worthy of academic attention.

"Zombies are incredibly popular, the growth is phenomenal - not only are they in films, TV shows and fan productions on YouTube, but there's a vast growth in books, with zombie survival guides selling very, very well on Amazon," he told me.

"You even see small garden ornaments dressed as zombies - zombie garden gnomes."

In fact, Winchester is soon to become the first university in the UK to offer a study module devoted entirely to zombies.

"We're living through the hardest economic times in most young people's memories," Dr Leaning said.

"Maybe zombies speak to austerity Britain in a way other monsters don't."

Living dead

Nick Pearce, director of the left-leaning think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), is a man who spends much of his time reflecting on the interplay of democracy, economy and citizenship.

A man perhaps well qualified then to explore whether art is indeed, in the case of zombies, imitating life.

He gallantly rose to the challenge and was soon attempting to put the flesh on the bones of a theory linking zombies to the underlying social reality.

"Even before the global economic crisis we saw young, unskilled young men finding it much harder to get a foothold in the labour market," he told me, "and since the crisis we've seen a rocketing of youth unemployment."

"There is something in the idea that if you can't see a future, if you don't have a sense of progress for yourself personally, then you are stuck in the present tense, and this would lend itself to the notion of a kind of recurrent nightmare of repeatedly being a living-dead."

System eating itself

In fact, the idea that zombies offer some kind of commentary on the monotony and emptiness of our modern lives can be found in some of the best films of the genre.

Image caption,
Some of Brighton's 'un-dead' said they dressed as zombies just for fun

In one of the most celebrated scenes from George A Romero's 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, a couple stand and watch zombies pacing aimlessly through a shopping mall.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here?" the woman asks.

"Some kind of instinct. Memory. What they used to do," comes the reply. "This was an important place in their lives."

Paul Gilding, former chief executive of Greenpeace and author of a new book The Great Disruption, is another thinker happy to engage with the idea that something more profound might lie behind the recent boom in zombie culture.

There's a good reason, he suggested, why the anti-capitalist protesters on Wall Street and elsewhere have sometimes dressed in zombie costumes to underline their point.

"The system is eating itself alive," he said. "The idea that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet is just not physically possible."

"The old system is dead, in this case it's the walking dead. That's why we have this diffuse protest movement, sometimes with very vague demands and expectations, because no-one has the solution. We just know the current thing isn't going to work."

So have zombies really been rising in such numbers in recent years because they're a metaphor for our times?

Many of the undead that I bumped into in Brighton would say that that's thinking too hard.

But then what would they know?

They're not supposed to be able to think at all.