Suddenly, books, telly and the movies are populated with lurching, flesh-eating biters. A look at the reasons for popular culture being overrun by zombies

You know a pop culture trend has become a mainstream phenomenon when a major Hollywood star is attached with it. Something like that happened when the Brad Pitt vehicle, World War Z, hit the screens in 2013. Until then, zombies had been a fixture of low-budget horror movies, which were all about buckets of fake blood and oodles of brain chomping. But World War Z made the march of zombies a visually arresting spectacle while retaining the ghoulish aspect that makes these creatures the stuff of nightmares.

The idea of zombies has been around for a while, used by horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft in his short story Herbert West- Reanimator, and in the H.G. Wells-written 1936 movie Things to Come, which can be considered the forerunner of zombie apocalypse movies. Says blogger and film critic Jai Arjun Singh, “Early horror films such as Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie feature zombies created under the effect of voodoo or hypnosis. They were not exactly the supernatural, living-dead creatures we know today, but fit in with a larger picture of a zombie being a slow-moving, lurching, reanimated creature, driven more by pure hunger than by a conscious sense.” However, the popular archetype of zombies as flesh-eating corpses owes its genesis to George Romero’s cult series of Living Dead films, beginning with Night of the Living Dead. The first movie was criticized for its gory effects, being called “repellent” and “amateurish” by Variety magazine, but audiences lapped it up, and Romero went on to write four more movies that used zombies as a social commentary on diverse topics such as bioengineering, greed and conformity to strictures.

Many notable directors have dabbled in this genre. Sam Raimi, helmed the low-budget Evil Dead in 1981; Peter Jackson made Dead Alive early in his career, and much before his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle directed the well-received allegorical zombie apocalypse movie, 28 Days Later. But it was with the television series, The Walking Dead, that the living dead lurched their way into the mainstream. The series, based on a graphic novel, follows a man who awakes from a coma to find the world overridden by zombies, and received rave reviews for refreshing the genre with its intelligent treatment of timeworn tropes.

Recently, many authors have found success in applying the zombie touch to new genres. Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody, Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, has Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett finding love while fighting the ‘unmentionables’ that roam the English countryside. Closer home, Mainak Dhar equips Alice with ninja skills as she fights the undead Biters in the Alice in Deadland book series. Says Dhar, “I found the genre fascinating, especially in playing with some of the conventions of the genre. I had an idea in my mind of blending it with old myths or fairy tales, and Alice in Deadland was born.”

The popularity of zombie cinema can be attributed to the fact that many people identify with the human protagonists in such films — sole survivors with little resources left to fend for themselves in a hostile (economic) situation. In fact, zombies are often thinly veiled allegories for changes taking place in society. Their hunger for flesh mirrors the rising greed for consumer products; the collapse of societal infrastructure like banks is akin to the global shutdown seen in the zombie apocalypse movies. Sometimes, the zombie effect can be seen at the micro level as well. Says Jai Arjun Singh, “I think of zombies whenever I see someone staring in a blank, glassy-eyed way at their smart-phone screen or walking mechanically about a mall staring into shop windows.”

For an audience tired of seeing glammed-up vampires and sexy werewolves, zombies are a representation of the good old days of horror, when being undead was a curse, when watching someone while they slept was creepy, not romantic. The scene of hordes of hungry zombies lurching towards a handful of humans is a sure recipe for bone-chilling fear.