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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.

"It's like people have an inner zombie," DeArmon said, "and they've been waiting to channel it."

Zombie enthusiasts predict that the vampire trend maybe have peaked, while zombies continue to take over the world, one body and one bad movie at a time.

Which monster wins the pop-culture popularity contest remains to be seen. DeArmon said three of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" books were in the Copperfield's top-10, best-selling titles for the year. Vampires are among many retailer's Top 10 costumes for Halloween, while zombies are not.

But that may not tell the whole story. Zombie costumes, like zombie movies, are easy to throw together on the cheap. Zombies wear what they wore when they became zombies, so you can be anything. Splash on a little blood, black shadow and white powder and you're good to go.

Enthusiasts go on zombie pub crawls and throw zombie theme parties, like a zombie wedding or zombie prom.

"It's just scary and gory and creepy and awesome," says Shannon Verchor-Gonzales, a Santa Rosa mother of two who is immersed in the zombie culture. "It's just been a thing of mine since before high school. And I'm 40. My husband and I for Halloween last year were zombie survivors. You have weapons and a first-aid kit strapped to the back and Molotov cocktails."

Kendrick said the appeal of zombies goes beyond the macabre. They reflect a deep social angst and apocalyptic fears.

"One of the things that makes them interesting is they're not scary individually," he said. "You don't have very much to worry about from a single lumbering zombie. You can always run away from it. They become scary in multitudes. There's something primal about that."

Daniel Dougherty, 22, a sociology student from Petaluma who is plugged into the zombie culture, is attracted to the post-apocalyptic challenge of trying to survive in a world of anarchy populated by mindless killers.

"There's something appealing about the idea of essentially the walls of society falling away," he said. "It's a reflection of things that for the most part we don't want to admit about ourselves, the idea of the faceless masses. With the rise of the Internet and the global economy, most of us don't like facing the sheer number of other humans that exist on the planet."

For fans like Max Brooks, one-time Saturday Night Live scribe and son of Hollywood humorist Mel Brooks, the way of the zombie is a stimulating exercise in survivalism.

And, he admits, "They scare the. ... out of me."

His "Zombie Survival Guide," with tips on how to beat back an invasion of flesh-chomping ghouls, since 2006 has sold more than 1 million copies and is now a full-fledged franchise, with flash cards, journals, notepads and a graphic novel. There's even a follow-up best-seller "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War."

Brooks, who set out to write a book he figured would land in the hands of a few fellow sci-fi geeks, didn't realize that in the post-modern Bill Gates era, geeks rule.

"I'm like an accountant at tax time," Brooks exults as he criss-crosses the country in the crucial days before Halloween. He's cashing in on the book circuit, where earnest fans — some 1,000 showed up for an appearance at the U.S. Naval War College — pepper him with such probing questions as, "Should I wear body armor?"

Vampires and zombies tap into very different human impulses, said Linda Watanabe McFerrin, the Oakland-based author of the new Zombie love story, "Dead Love."

"The vampire represents the individual at all cost," said McFerrin, who has been into the neo-gothic since the '80s. "It's a charismatic being that lives forever and never ages and preys on the creatures around him or her. Our culture, which celebrates the individual, is very taken with them. Zombies are the opposite. They represent the masses and there's a certain comfort in a crowd and in not standing out. But there's also a danger involved that you'll lose yourself."

Whichever monster you prefer, Kendrick said there is an undeniable fun in being afraid of something that doesn't exist.

"It's similar to a roller coaster. There's something pleasurable in feeling threatened in a safe environment and then being able to walk out and be safe in the end."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@

pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.