Fast Versus Slow Zombies

Lately there has been an unstoppable wave of zombies movies rampaging through the cinema, and lately even onto television.  Zombie movies are so well known that many of the new movies don’t even bother to bring up certain basic assumptions that they all have in common.

For instance:

  • Most attacks don’t harm them but a bullet to the head stops them every time.
  • If a zombie bites you and it breaks the skin at all, you become infected and die.  And of course, rise as a zombie.
  • Usually there is no explanation for the dead chomping on the living whatsoever.  It just happens, and in many of the movies nobody even seems that surprised.

Almost all of these movies are about people struggling to survive and not much else, except the opportunity for a lot of gore.  Lately, some of the movies have changed the zombies from a slow shambling horde to fast, animalistic creatures.  Some like the change because they say it’s scarier.

They are right, but it also misses the point of the originals, and it reflects the fact that the movies have shifted from Science Fiction to Fantasy movies. That’s because these movies are  imitating an original who the creators either don’t understand or don’t appreciate.

George Romero started the whole zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead.  A movie made on a tiny budget and released in drive-in theaters, it became wildly successful though Romero saw almost no money from it.

Nothing about the movie was derivative at all, nothing.  It put more gore on the screen then they were familiar with of course, but it also cast a black mane as the protagonist which was virtually unknown back then.  In the original, it’s explained that a radioactive satellite just came back to Earth and that might be what caused the zombie to rise.  It was a brief thing, but it exploited the public’s fears of the cold war becoming a nuclear war.

The movie had a lot of subtext, which became steadily better defined with each of Romero’s sequels.  In Day of the Dead, the movie opens as a group of affluent yuppies are driven from suburbia, and they take refuge in a mall.  Inside the survivors are held by a group of security guards who don’t want to share their resources or hiding spot, but eventually they band together against the horde outside.

Finally, in Dawn of the Dead, one of the zombies begins to actually learn, and leads the other zombies in an attack on the survivors while demonstrating positive character traits like loyalty to his fellow zombies.  The subtext becomes even more obvious when one of the survivors is shown to be a rich man who turned a single building into a relative paradise with working electricity and luxuries.  He then locks out the survivors, forcing them to bring him supplies while he stays inside his safe luxurious abode.

The zombie horde always represented the hordes of dispossessed people standing outside privileged society, wanting to get in.  They weren’t the protagonists, but to some degree they were sympathetic.  They almost always lost, and only rarely killed a survivor when they attacked in huge numbers, armed only with their bare hands while the survivors blazed away at them with all manner of weapons.

Almost none of the spin offs have been anything but generic horror movies.  I can enjoy some of them, but most just seem like bad imitations to me.  I actually do like the AMC television series The Walking Dead, but it doesn’t add a whole lot the genre.


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  1. Two comments.

    1. I see a parallel between the speedification of zombies and the speedification of mummies that happened in 1999 with the first Brendan Fraser movie. Before that, mummies (e.g., the Universal movies from the 1930's to 1950's) were slow and plodding, and they only got you if you tripped and fell down. Then, in 1999, they were running and jumping off the walls. Just like what happened to zombies.

    2. I agree with you that a lot of zombie movies (and videogames, for that matter) and mindlessly, repetitious and kinda boring. A couple of exceptions exist, like Zombieland (which I thought very clever and funny – remember to do aerobic exercise). And the videogame Dead Rising allows you to make clever and funny anti-zombie weapons like a combination drill + bucket called a, well, drill bucket. But the only real social commentary I've seen in zombie movies was "Shaun of the Dead", which makes the very valid point that a lot of us are sleep-walking through life, and we're pretty much zombies all day every day.

  2. You really need to do a bit of editing here. "Black mane" totally stumped me for a bit, and you've failed to literally fill in the blanks for movie names.

    Zombies seem to not only have become faster, they've become smarter over the years. And, as they've grown smarter, they've become more sympathetic and human. The new movie, WARM BODIES, is a good example.

    Like vampires, zombies as metaphor or archetype have changed meaning over the years, and that's what's kept them a vital monster. Whether they represent a fear of the starving masses in the Romero movies, a fear of a massive plague, or depersonalization like WARM BODIES, they speak to the current generation.

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