Read or undead

John Sutherland on the coming of the zombie apocalypse

If Haiti could take a patent out on the zombie concept (as George Lucas has on Ewoks), that sad island's economic woes would be solved at a stroke. Zombies are one of the big horror/Gothic franchises. And they're biggest in the US. The term is from the Kimbundu "nzumbe", transported by slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and given currency thereafter by the Haitian cult of voodoo - and by Hollywood.

The reasons for America's love affair with the zombie are complicated. First, Haiti is (as refugee-rafts testify) nearer than Transylvania. Second, the zombie is, quintessentially, black - hence, for example, the title of Bela Lugosi's classic 1932 film, White Zombie. It brings into play a whole range of buried feelings ("horrors") about the black underclass.

Third, religion. The problem with Dracula is that he and his damned vampire kind are a Christian nightmare. Hence all that stuff with crosses. Anne Rice, the dean of American vampire fiction, has, with her latest books, spun off into straight Christology. Zombies don't carry problematic religious baggage. With them, as in the constitution, there's a convenient separation between church and horror.

Finally, supporting the whole "undead" genre is the fact that America is deeply superstitious, scarcely less so than Haiti itself. A Gallup poll last year revealed that more than 20 per cent of Americans believe in witches.

On the screen, George Romero rules zombiedom. On the printed page, Max Brooks owns the genre. Brooks is the author of two bestsellers, The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war.

Both are hyperrealistic. The Guide, modelled on cold-war survivalist manuals, solemnly explains the nature of the solanum virus that gives your average zombie an afterlife of five years, before it rots away. There is a hilarious section on the ideal zombie-killer. Chainsaws, blowguns and longbows are discouraged. Shotguns ("supreme against human attackers") are frowned on, as is that other beloved American accoutrement, the pistol: "Studies have shown that of all wasted ballistic wounds - ie, those that struck a zombie in a non-lethal way - 73 per cent came from some kind of handgun." The .22 rimfire rifle comes out best.

WWZ assumes that zombie outbreaks are taking place all the time. A particular source of infection is the Chinese organ export industry - the body parts taken from the still-warm corpses of executed prisoners.

Max is the son of Mel Brooks. And if his father's comedy is broad and Falstaffian, Max's is more slyly parodic. Many who buy these books - in good (but deluded) faith - will dutifully pack their .22 rimfires for the confidently expected apocalypse.

For those of us not in the 20 per cent gullible zone, Max's books do for zombies what Mel (the dedicatee of the Guide) did for cowboys in Blazing Saddles. It's a pity Haiti can't get some kickback, though.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Rumbled!