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Vampires are so passe -- it's the living dead that are gaining ground in pop culture

Teen girls and goths may swoon over brooding vampires; the wildly popular "Twilight Saga" book series has spawned several TV shows and an entire "paranormal romance section" at Barnes and Noble.

But a darker counter-culture of devotees is gaining ground. It revolves around zombies, the undead, cadaverous creatures with no consciousness, who exist solely to cannibalize — preferably human brains.

Close to home, there is evidence of the zombie trend everywhere you turn, from book displays and movies to local theater and musical productions and at least two very public "zombie walks" staged last weekend on the streets of Petaluma and Sebastopol.

Zombie legend has its historic roots in West African religion, brought to the New World as voodoo. Sorcerers, or "bokors," supposedly could turn people into zombie slaves with no will of their own. But the flesh-eating reanimated corpse of current pop culture was born with filmmaker George Romero's 1968 black-and-white cult classic film, "Night of the Living Dawn." Romero went on to make four more, including this year's critically panned "Survival of the Dead."

"They're just lumbering, human flesh-eaters," said James Kendrick, who teaches film history at Baylor University in Texas and writes and lectures on the zombie phenomenon. "That's what makes them scary. They used to be us and now they want to eat us."

A whole genre of zombie entertainment is spreading, from low-budget movies (Netflix offers more than 100 titles), zombie books, online forums and websites to video and iPhone games, make-up and a cascade of zombie music like Emilie Autumn's "Dead is the New Alive" and "Brain Eaters" by The Misfits.

The Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park has been feeding the frenzy this month by staging the camp musical, "Zombies From the Beyond." And "zombie walks," a sort of public performance art for the horror set, have become almost commonplace since the first in Sacramento in 2001.

In the past year, Copperfield's Books has doubled the number of books it features with "zombie" in the title, from 70 to nearly 150, spokeswoman Vicki DeArmon says.

A gathering of regular folks dressed up like reanimated corpses or zombie survivors, as they are sometimes called, shambled and shuffled through the streets of Petaluma and Sebastopol last weekend in two walks led by the North Bay bookseller.

The turnout was spirited and multi-generational, involving entire families.

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