Dead and kicking

Communism, science, the exotic - the zombie movie mirrors all our fears, says Matthew Sweet. But its latest incarnation presents us with the scariest vision yet...
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The most shocking scene in Shaun of the Dead - a new British romantic comedy set during a zombie invasion of south-east England - is not, oddly, the one in which the fragrant Penelope Wilton has her brains blown all over a pub carpet by her shotgun-wielding son. It's one in which the hero of the piece (played by Simon Pegg) strolls from his home to the corner shop to buy a can of Diet Coke.

We've seen him make the journey several times already - a Reggie Perrinish progress down a series of unremarkable suburban drags. This time, however, the details are a little different. The pavements are scattered with rubbish and dead bodies. The glass door of the corner shop's refrigerated drinks cabinet is spattered with blood. The proprietor is thrashing around at the back of the premises, slaked with gore. The animated cadavers of his neighbours are roaming the streets in search of fresh human flesh. There are no newspapers on the counter. And it is only the last of these that Shaun registers. Although he remains untouched by the mysterious radiation that has reduced most of London to a state of vicious imbecility, he too is one of the walking dead. Civilisation as we know it has just ended, and he's too glazed to notice.

The zombie, after two decades buried at the bottom of the scrag bin of popular culture, is clawing its way back to the light. In 2002, 28 Days Later emptied Piccadilly Circus and transformed the population of Manchester into a horde of blood-spitting cannibals. A few months later, Milla Jovovich led a team of zombie-swatters into battle in Resident Evil, a big-screen adaptation of a small-screen computer game which owed much to George Romero's epochal zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead. This week, Romero's 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead is resurrected in cinemas in the form of a remake starring Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames. Next month, Shaun of the Dead - the first "rom-zom-com", according to one of its stars, Bill Nighy - will use these monsters to support its arguments about the zombification of everyday life.

The walking dead are obliging that way. They've always been happy to carry the metaphorical weight of any social anxiety upon their putrefying shoulders: the fear of environmental disaster; the fear of the exotic and the unknown; the fear of scientific meddling; the fear of dehumanisation or evolutionary atavism; white fear of black post-colonial power. It's the role for which they were made, and the reason why they keep being exhumed for more.

Vampires are aristocratic - they have cloaks, coaches and four, mittel-European castles. They engage estate agents to bag them grandiose second homes in NW3. Mummies are titled gentlemen who employ acolytes in fez hats to fix them chota pegs from the juice of the sacred Tanha leaf. Even Frankenstein's monster was the son of a baron. Zombies, conversely, are proles. In Haiti, the place that they call home, they are unwaged night-shift workers, corpses chivvied ceremoniously from their graves by Bokor magicians to cut sugar cane or do nocturnal housework: creatures who toil uncomplainingly while their bosses congratulate themselves for not being obliged to cough up sick pay or NI contributions.

The first 30 years of zombie cinema keep this model in mind. In White Zombie (1932), Bela Lugosi plays a slaver with a pointy beard like a tarantula's palps, who staffs his plantation with agriculturally-minded cadavers. The living dead of Jacque Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943) have similar work experience placements on their CVs. In Hammer's only living-dead flick, Plague of the Zombies (1966), chipper corpses in cableknit jumpers labour in the depths of a Cornish tin mine without eating into the owner's profits by demanding so much as a beef and onion pasty.

It's true that no zombie film has ever been marketed towards the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. (The distributors of Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead - a horror flick concerning a gang of teens who have their weekend in the country spoiled by the intervention of walking corpses - altered its title from "The Book of the Dead" because they suspected that a drive-in audience might think it sounded too literary.) But after George Romero detached the zombie from its voodoo context and repositioned it in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the monster was endowed with new metaphorical powers. The secret was in its vagueness. Night of the Living Dead (1968) doesn't even explain why the population of Philadelphia is being transmogrified into lumbering ghouls. There's some Plan 9 From Outer Space bafflegab about a space probe returning from Venus dosed with "mysterious high-level radiation" but the pathogenesis of this breed of zombie remains obscure. As you watch, you feel certain that these creatures can't just be common-or-garden living dead. They must be symbols of something...

Under communism, the zombie was a political figure. In the 1980s, the Necrorealists, a band of dissident artists led by a young photographer named Evegenii Iufit, decided to spend their weekends in the woods on the outskirts of Leningrad with a 16mm movie camera. Andrei Demichev, their chief theorist, described how the project's participants, who lived "against a background of communist slogans and portraits of zombified leaders" felt gripped by "an utter existential senselessness". They stripped to the waist, applied "zombie make-up" (bandages and tomato paste) and filmed themselves simulating acts of cannibalism and sexual violence, fellating birchwood phalluses, staggering about in the snow and punching each other's lights out. The results were screened in unofficial cinema clubs under titles such as Urine-Crazed Body Snatchers, and helped to define the nihilism of life under late Sovietism.

In the West, the zombie picture built on the ambiguities introduced by Romero. The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974), for instance, at first presents itself as a green kind of satire. It opens with a montage of shots that demonstrates the zombification of the city's population: slack-jawed commuters stand gawping at a bus stop; a bowlered businessman pops a pill outside the chemist; a streaker belts across the road, and not even the lorry drivers notice; a dead sparrow rots in a gutter; factory vents belch steam. And intercut with these images, we see shots of the hero (Ray Lovelock) scooting away from the city and towards the beauties of the Lake District. The zombies of its plot, we soon learn, have been brought to life by a tractor-mounted ultrasonic ray being used by the Ministry of Agriculture to kill the earwigs of Windermere. Then, in direct contradiction to this proposition, we're shown that a splash of zombie blood can bring a corpse back to life. The scientific and the supernatural cancel each other out, and what you're left with is the notion that lies behind most of zombie cinema's gestures towards metaphorical complexity: a contempt for the mob, a disgust for the stumbling, thoughtless masses.

28 Days Later - scripted by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle - offers an excellent example of this phenomenon. Like The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, it pretends to blame science for its vision of catastrophe. In a prologue, we see a scientist begging a gang of animal rights' activists not to release the caged chimpanzees in his lab; animals which have been infected with some rage-inducing germ. But the hero who wakes up after the virus has killed or zombified most of the British public is as exhilarated as he is horrified by the strange England founded by this virus. 28 Days Later is not really a zombie picture: it's a re-run of The Beach (Garland's best-selling novel which Boyle later made into a film) - a story about a protagonist who is offered the possibility of a paradise defined primarily by the absence of other people. This is the key to its intoxicating appeal: it's not really interested in expressing anxieties about irresponsible science. Instead, it expresses an apocalyptic strain of the same misanthropy you'll find on websites about chavs: the hope for a holocaust that will cull England of its shellsuit-wearers.

28 Days Later divides humanity clearly into the living and the undead. What's both satisfying and shocking about Shaun of the Dead is that it declines to recognise this difference. Bill Nighy sits slumped, red-eyed in his armchair, but his wife fails to register that this zombification is more serious than the kind produced by a combination of beer, soft furnishings and the football results. The hero's flatmate plays videogames and looses farts from under a pile of chocolate wrappers and crisp bags - and continues to do so after suffering the effects of a bite from one of the walking dead. He remains in this state until the closing credits - jiggering his Playstation in the garden shed, where Shaun, now getting on with his life, keeps him as a reminder of his bachelor days. The last scene pictures them reunited over nibbles and a video game. And the message is clear. You don't have to blow their heads off. Some of your best friends can be zombies.

My life as a zombie by Timothy Chipping

Being shot in the neck by an electrical appliance salesman is not something one can put on a CV. My screen time in the gory romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead may be mere seconds, but crashing through a sugar glass window and managing the fake blood spurting from a prosthetic on my jugular gave me a hitherto unknown sense of job satisfaction. If only one could earn a living being the living dead.

My life as a zombie began in the spring of 2003 when Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg invited me to screen-test makeup for their forthcoming film. Being of an already sallow complexion, I proved easy to zombify and took to the role like a (dead) duck to water. A small group of us, modelling the latest in cadaverous chic, staggered about on Ealing Common (to the bemusement of the local constabulary), evolving the "zombie shuffle" and guttural groans that the hundreds of skin-munching extras would have to learn and personalise (a twisted leg here, a floppy neck there).

Filming proper commenced on one of London's less welcoming council estates. A boy of no more than 12 took umbrage that the undead were "on his turf", disruptively dragging his terrified younger brother through a large group of zombies (collective noun: zombage). The little boy pointed in my direction. "That's a real one!" he squeaked.

As we grew accustomed to each other's hideous faces, romances blossomed on set and a couple of reanimated corpses were spotted licking each other's wounds. The early morning blinding and blooding - a 6.30am application of opaque, veined, contact lenses and red sugary gunge - became a chance to gossip and compare sores. For a lucky few, the reward for monstrous working conditions was a bullet in the brain or a cricket bat to the skull. I'm not one to moan (unless it's in the script) but please remember, despite appearances, zombies are people too.

'Dawn of the Dead' is released on Friday, 'Shaun of the Dead' on 9 April