Friday, 2 April 2010

Faster, Zombies! Kill! Kill!

Ah, zombies. Dear, dear zombies.

You can't live with them – a legion of films and novels and comic books and video games, all concerned with the dreaded undead, have clearly established that. But would you want to live without them? I know I wouldn't.

The rotting masses have a long history in popular culture, as rich and ripe as raw red meat. Particularly in literature, zombies have run amuck in one horrendous configuration or another for hundreds of years; from Shelley to Poe and from Lovecraft to Matheson, the undead have been a terror on humanity in its innocence and its ignorance for long enough now that it's truly hard to believe the bloody well hasn't run dry. And yet, ten years into the new millennium, zombies remain a going concern.

We've one man, I think, to thank for that. A man who, in 1968, reinvigorated the lumbering monsters of bygone books and budgetless Hollywood B-movies by making infectious cannibals of 'nzambi' – which is to say spirits of the dead, according to voodoo hoodoo. Night of the Living Dead changed everything. From its filthy issue the modern zombie was born, the selfsame zombie that has haunted our screens and pages since.

That is, except for one rather vital aspect. For Romero's awful army of zombies moved at a snail's pace, mindless machines bereft of both sense and, crucially, speed. As the heroine of the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead cleverly concludes, "They’re so slow, we could just walk right past them." The saving grace of humanity's survival in the face of the zombie menace has always been that if you were quick, and smart, you could always outrun them.

These days, if you see a zombie, your chances of physically outstripping them are... well, let's be honest: they're not great. When the hordes rise up, we’re done for.

Where's the fun in that?

There's no shortage of causal factors one might suggest spurred the transformation of zombies in film from shambling slowpokes to the kinetic powerhouses seen in the likes of 28 Days Later and Resident Evil. For one thing, there's technology: when you get right to it, undead dawdlers were rather a crutch of old-school special effects. Exploding pig entrails out of a zombie's prosthetic head was just easier, not to mention cheaper, when they stood around waiting for you to capture it on film. Nowadays, CGI some crimson pixels onto an extra in a dead sprint to devour your lead actor and you’re golden.

Another potential explanation is the fear that zombies were basically getting a bit stale. I'm personally prepared to feed whosoever dares make such a suggestion to the brain-munching masses, but with that caveat, there's perhaps something of an argument to be made here – as evidenced by a decade of embarrassed silence from the very zombies who’d made such a fool of themselves in John Landis' music video for Michael Jackson's Thriller. Even so, I'm a staunch believer that there's always something new to be done, even when it seems like every avenue for engaging new narrative has been exhausted. Besides which, the undead will never die. And people certainly started taking them seriously again when Resident Evil (the video game) arrived on the scene in 1996. But I digress.

Amongst the myriad reasons for the prominence of speedwalking zombies in modern-day entertainment, one rationale rules them all: fast food. As in the Big Mac, the Whopper and the Footlong. Let's face it: we're fast food people in a fast food world. And what we eat is just the beginning of it. Virtually everything we consume these days has to come in convenient, bite-sized portions, be it burgers, books or beliefs – the better for our increasingly intolerant appetites. And movies have not proven immune to the regrettable whims of such an impatient nation.

Once upon a time, the MTV generation merely consumed, but now it's all growed-up, and a few drive-through addicts have worked their way into positions of power where their bread and butter is not consumption, but creation. And largely, what they create, with frantic, borderline-lunatic glee – in film as in everything else – is a shadow of what once was. Thus, the fast zombie: a clear-cut case of style over substance if ever there was one. An empty thing, hollow and heartless, a focus group creation with no rhyme or reason but to stuff the lowest common denominator amongst the hungry hordes so full of quick cuts and mindless, wall-to-wall action that they never quite realise what an obscene thing they've consumed.

They should know better. We all should. Have we learned nothing from Supersize Me and people turning orange after drinking too much Sunny Delight? There's certainly something to be said for fast food, and indeed fast film, but in this day and age, we understand all too well that to overindulge a diet of such dodgy proportions is to consume ourselves into oblivion. Sadly, in terms of the undead, no-one's quite arrived at that realisation.

I'll say this: sometimes, yes, you get a good burger, a hearty, wholesome meal in fast food clothing, but more often than not, your Big Macs and your Whoppers and your Footlongs will only leave you with a severe case of indigestion. The same can be said for modern zombie fiction in film and literature. The notion that fast zombies have outmoded Romero's so-called "classic" undead is, then, fundamentally flawed.

In and of themselves, fast zombies aren't the enemy. The likes of 28 Weeks Later and Zack Snyder's retooled Dawn of the Dead are proof enough of that. In this day and age, fast zombies have earned their place. It'll always be a case of us versus them, but the "them" in that equation needn't be one or the other – fast or otherwise – and short of Romero's recent trilogy comprising Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and lately Survival of the Dead, the kinetically challenged amongst the zombie populace seem to be considered a remnant of the past.

Which simply won't do. Where's the hopelessness? Where's the sense of dread? Instead, we have stuttering handicams and extreme close-ups on gore no-one in their right mind really wants to see.

Are you with me?

Tell you what. Stop patronising McDonalds and Burger King and Subway and chow down on a nice home-cooked meal. On the go? Pack a sandwich. Maybe then, if we're lucky, slow zombies will get their second chance.


"Faster, Zombies! Kill! Kill!" originally appeared on The Living Dead Book blog on March 24th.


  1. The zombie acceleration is an inevitable result of the need for continuous innovation combined with the relative stagnation of the zombie monster.

    Unlike vampires/werewolves and other horror standards, zombies are largely static creatures. In the 40 or so years that zombies have been a part of the horror culture, it's pretty much all been done. The zombie menace is out of new ideas. We've had dozens of different ways to tell the same core story but without the monster evolving, it all becomes part of the same mindless throng.

    They can't get smarter and they can't become morally ambiguous without ceasing to be zombies. The same goes for love, greed, or any of the human emotions that drive stories forward. No one would make a ZomRomCom and if they did, no one would watch it (I hope). Zombies are mindless and to make them something more makes them something else. Tim Waggoner's Nekropolis (a book featuring a Zombie PI) is a prime example of the evolved zombie. He tried to make a zombie main character work. It didn't.

    So provided that zombies can't get smarter or bring emotion into the plot, how can you make them more threatening and escalate the stakes? The only thing you can do...make them bigger, faster, stronger...

  2. Of course there are plenty of people who don't consider viral infected to be zombies at all, and some purists who would say Romero's creations aren't zombies either and hark back to haitian zombification.

  3. Zombies are one of the fantastic devices I can't share any fascination for (while tongue-in-cheek treatments or sporadical appearances or zombie-like mutants might be ok). There are just more suspenseful ways of survival horror.