It seems to happen whenever Steve Beard hangs out with friends -- especially folks who don't go to church -- talking about movies, television and whatever else is on their minds.
"It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you're going to run into some kind zombie comment," said Beard, editor of Good News, a magazine for United Methodist evangelicals. He is also known for writing about faith and popular culture.
"Someone will say something like, 'When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we're all at so-and-so's house so we can stick together.' It's all a wink-and-a-nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time."
Tales of the living dead began in Western Africa and Haiti, and zombie movies have been around as long as Hollywood has been making B-grade flicks. However, the modern zombie era began with filmmaker George A. Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, which led to his "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Other directors followed suit, with hits such as "28 Days Later," "Zombieland," "The Evil Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead." Next up, Brad Pitt in the $170 million-dollar epic "World War Z," due June 21, which could turn into a multimovie franchise.
In bookstores, classic literature lovers will encounter a series of postmodern volumes clustered under the title "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Also, videogame fans have purchased more than 50 million copies of the "Resident Evil" series, and these games have inspired countless others.
But anyone who is interested in the worldview -- if not the theology -- of zombie life must come to grips with the cable-television parables offered in the AMC series "The Walking Dead." This phenomenon, said Beard, has become so influential that it cannot be ignored by clergy, especially those interested in the kinds of spiritual questions that haunt people who avoid church pews.
Truth is, "The Walking Dead" is not "about zombies. It's a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living," he stressed, in a telephone interview.
"How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane, in a world that has gone crazy?
... "Where is God in all of this? That's the unspoken question."
In his classic book "Gospel of the Living Dead," religious studies scholar Kim Paffenroth of Iona College argued that Romero's zombie movies borrowed from one of the key insights found in Dante's "Inferno" -- that hell's worst torments are those humanity creates on its own, such as boredom, loneliness, materialism and, ultimately, separation from God.