By WARREN ST. JOHN
ONCE again, they're everywhere.
Roaming the streets in business suits, blood dripping from their chins. Ducking through the city's parks, dodging bullets fired by the invading army of Somali schoolgirls. Rampaging through an experimental women's prison. Clawing their way out of graves, on a murderous march to reunite with the Deathbringer.
And so forth.
We're talking of course about zombies. If you haven't been paying attention — and if you haven't been paying attention, heaven help you — zombies are back. In films, books and video games, the undead are once again on the march, elbowing past werewolves, vampires, swamp things and mummies to become the post-millennial ghoul of the moment. And while you may yet be unaware of the zombielike proliferation of zombie stuff, horror fans speak of the zombie craze as a fact of life, the way the rest of us talk about $3 gasoline.
"We're really seeing the day of the zombie," said Don D'Auria, the executive editor of Leisure Books, a publisher of horror titles. "Until three years ago they were really unseen. Then they just seemed to pop up everywhere. As a monster, it's speaking to people."
If you allow that zombies are back from the dead, it seems reasonable to ask: What's up with that?
But before we get to the theories, let's tally the corpses.
Next month Thunder's Mouth Press will publish "Monster Island" by David Wellington, a zombie novel set in Manhattan. This summer Max Brooks, the author of the successful "Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead," will publish "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" (Crown). One of the best-selling titles in recent years at Leisure Books has been "The Rising," Brian Keene's novel about smart zombies. Even Stephen King has gone zombie: his latest novel, "Cell," is about a throng of Bostonians who are turned into zombies when a mysterious pulse emanates from their cellphones and scrambles their brains.
Zombies have been marching through theaters as well. A remake of the legendary zombie film director George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" was well received in 2004. After a 20-year hiatus from making zombie classics like "Day of the Dead" and "Night of the Living Dead," Mr. Romero himself released his fourth, "Land of the Dead," last year, ahead of smaller zombie flicks like "Zombie Honeymoon" and "Shadow: Dead Riot."
And then there are zombie games: video, online and board games galore, like Urban Dead and, of course, Zombies 1, 2, 3, 3.5 and so on.
In zombie circles — and yes, there is such a thing as zombie circles, just check out AllThingsZombie.com for an introduction — there's a debate these days about the newfound popularity of the ghoul.
The discussion takes for granted that certain monsters go in and out of fashion, depending on the cultural winds. Monica Kuebler, an editor at Rue Morgue magazine, which covers the horror genre, said werewolves were popular in the 1980's and vampires in the 1990's, before zombies lurched back on the scene.
"These things tend to come in cycles," Ms. Kuebler said.
So: why zombies?
Most zombie zealots seem to agree that the zombie renaissance has something to do with the anxieties of life after Sept. 11.
"People have apocalypse on the brain right now," Mr. Brooks said. "It's from terrorism, the war, natural disasters like Katrina." Several zombie aficionados said there was a zombielike quality to the spread of the bird flu.
Zombies, Mr. Brooks said, are the perfect goblin for such times, in part because they suggest broad social collapse, when anyone — a policeman, a nurse, a friend — can turn into a force of evil. With a werewolf or vampire, all the evil is concentrated on a single creature; with zombies, the evil is everywhere.
"They go hand in hand with apocalyptic scenarios," Mr. Brooks said. "You can't have one zombie. You've got to have millions of them. Society has to be breaking down. And zombies aren't in conventional horror settings. Zombies find you. The sun comes up, and they're still there. You call the cops, and they're still there. They create a chain reaction of societal collapse."
Bryan Smith, the author of "Deathbringer," agreed. "It speaks to the underlying fear that a lot of people have that the whole world can suddenly go crazy," he said.
If you need to brush up on zombie lore, a little background. Zombies have their origin in Caribbean voodoo; they are thought to be reanimated corpses, under the control of the witch who reanimated them.
In modern literature and films, zombies are typically mindless, slow-moving creatures (due to the stiffness of necrotic tissue, Mr. Brooks writes) with but one aim: to eat flesh. And they're not particular about whose flesh they eat.
"Zombies are consumers," Mr. Wellington said. "They eat and eat, and they're driven by one thing: their hunger. They're more of an urge than anything else."
Mr. Wellington said that the generic quality of zombies allows readers to project their particular fears onto them, and writers to personalize their zombies, which are otherwise blank slates. In some books, zombies can think or talk; in others they simply babble nonsense and are thoughtless.
In some books and films, zombies can pass the undead bug to humans by close contact, like a flu virus; in others, the bug is more like rabies and can be passed only through a bite.
Perhaps the biggest debate in the zombie world is whether zombies have to move slowly, as they do in the Romero movies, or whether they may run. Some of the first sprinting zombies appeared in the 2002 film "28 Days Later." In "The Rising," Mr. Keene's zombies can sprint and even drive vehicles, qualities some zombie purists object to.
"I gave them an upgrade," Mr. Keene said.
Mr. D'Auria said that writers have long used zombies to get at broad societal themes. Those writers fit into two categories, he said: those who see zombies as metaphors for American culture and those who see zombies as representative of outside forces that threaten society.
In Mr. Romero's movies, zombies have often represented America's ravenous consumerism. "Dawn of the Dead," for example, is set at a Philadelphia mall where people are undone by their own greed, while the humans in "Day of the Dead," from 1985, hole up in a bunker that some have likened to gated communities in America's suburbs.
"He sees the zombies as us," Mr. D'Auria said.
On the other hand, it does not take much of a stretch to see the parallel between zombies and anonymous terrorists who seek to convert others within society to their deadly cause. The fear that anyone could be a suicide bomber or a hijacker parallels a common trope of zombie films, in which healthy people are zombified by contact with other zombies and become killers.
"That's what I wanted to capture — that your wife, your child, your best friend, your pastor, whomever, could suddenly become one of those things," Mr. Keene said. "It's the xenophobia. Americans don't trust Muslims, and Muslims don't trust the West. Everybody is paranoid."
There's dark humor in many zombie books and films that may be heightened these days by zombies' lack of technological prowess. In a world where death is delivered swiftly, by satellite and laser-guided smart bombs, there's something comically ridiculous about a killing machine that walks with the dexterity of a toddler.
"It would be unfair to say that all zombie-related works are so serious in nature," said Ms. Kuebler, of Rue Morgue. "When something becomes a fad, some people will create work within the genre seeking to make a social or political statement, while others will just jump on the bandwagon knowing zombies are hot."
Mr. Brooks said he thinks zombies will be around for a while.
"Every time I want to hear the zombie genre is over, I call my agents," he said. "They are consistently wrong, because every day there's a new movie or TV movie, a new book, a new video game, a new board game. That's the crazy part about zombies: they're not dying."