For an archetype that is so pervasive in our culture that it was probably burned into our collective subconscious long before we even had a word for it, the zombie has an awful lot of variations. Zombies eat brains, except when they avoid the brain and go straight for the nearest outstretched limb. They’re mindless drones, save for when they can reason and learn. Zombies (much like vampires) are paint-by-numbers monsters, with their particular set of powers, weaknesses, and quirks in thrall to what their creator requires of them.
It’s something of a surprise, then, that there’s one simple change a filmmaker can make to his personal zombie that can do more to alter the tone of the film in question than any other factor. The change is nothing more than a simple question of tendons, synapses, and coordination -- an allegiance with horror or a surrender to terror.
That is, it’s a question of just how fast you want your zombies to be.
Most modern zombie movies have their signature monsters as sprinters. 28 Days Later mainstreamed this trend, to the point where its zombies almost aren’t recognizable as zombies. The heroes of 28 Days Later spend much of their time in full sprint, barely outstripping a horde of infected humans (note: they’re not undead in this movie, just infected with a virus) who power after them with an almost exuberant bloodlust. Frankly, it looks like being a fast zombie is a whole lot of fun. You go out for meals all the time with your buds, work up a sweat, maybe scream a little bit, and best of all, you never seem to get tired. Fast zombies are real type-A personalities.
Compare this with classic zombies, particularly of the George A. Romero variety. Slowness is almost their defining characteristic -- it’s often mentioned in Night of the Living Dead that the zombies are barely able to manage a shuffle. They’re strong, sure, and utterly implacable in their desire for flesh, but you could probably outrun them on crutches if you avoided potholes. You don’t want to let them get close, but that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem, unless you do something stupid like hole yourself up in the basement of a house.
Zombie movies are often described as being less about the threat of zombies themselves and more about the threat humans pose to one another -- they’re character dramas against the downward spiral backdrop of a moaning undead apocalypse. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead, for instance, are less of a threat to the film’s protagonist than are the various people he comes in contact with; the movie’s final scene spells this out quite clearly. Compare this to the 28 Days Later zombies--those that are still alive try to exploit and manipulate one another, but the zombie threat is always paramount, simply because they’re an actual danger.
This comes down to two emotions that are often conflated, but have distinct meanings -- terror and horror. Consider a situation in which you’re confronted with a group of fast zombies -- they've just seen you and are coming after you like a combination of a serial killer and Usain Bolt. Your brain won’t even have time to think about what it’s just seen -- the adrenaline’s going to kick in immediately, reducing you to a machine whose only purpose is to run away. This is pretty much the same reaction you would have if you were being chased by a person with a knife, or a pack of wolves, or a lion. It’s a primal reaction, and a necessary one -- this is why your ancestors survived despite the lion in the tall grass. You’re terrified.
Consider further that same situation, except with Romero’s slow zombies. They shuffle after you, and while you’re primed to run away, you lack the same urgency that you had when up against the fast zombies. You have time to examine your pursuers -- their rotting flesh, the deadness of their eyes, and everything else about them that isn’t quite right. This is a similar concept to the hypothesis of the robotic uncanny valley . Your mind fixates on everything inhuman about these seemingly human creatures, and it wants nothing more than to shrink away from them. You’re scared, of course, but it’s a far different kind of fear. Slow zombies tell you that the world itself has been corrupted, that the plague stalks the land and that no amount of running will save you in the end. You’re horrified.
Now, there are clearly elements of horror in a fast zombie world (once you get behind a nice wall and have time to think about the hell you’ve stepped into) and terror in a slow zombie world (if you’ve somehow managed to let yourself be cornered), but they’re secondary at best to their movies’ primary emotions. It’s arguable that neither form of zombie movie is superior in quality. They’re simply different experiences. Any zombie video game worth its salt will use fast zombies (and lots of guns), while books about zombies tend to go with slower varieties. For George Romero, however the answer was charmingly simple, a prime example of low-budget pragmatism enhancing the movie experience 1:
"Zombies don't run. They can't! Their ankles would snap. What did they do - wake from the dead and immediately join a health club? I don't get it."
Truly horrifying, George. Truly horrifying.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.