Thursday, September 30, 2010

Zombies: Sprint or Shamble?

Zombies are in now more than ever. At work yesterday, the conversation among myself and a few co-workers somehow turned to Zombieland and 28 Days Later. I can't imagine a similar dialogue occurring 20, 10, or even five years. The undead have gone mainstream. Whether it's because they're in the stylish movies or fun games, zombies are hip, instead of lurking in the cultural underground. Zombieland was a certified blockbuster, and anticipation is building for Frank Darabont's The Walking Dead on AMC, the network of the Emmy-dominating Mad Men.

This relates to what I'm getting at. In a movie review of Resident Evil back in 2002, the online edition of GamePro magazine mentioned there were two paths a zombie movie could take: stark and serious, such as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, or goofy and tongue-in-cheek, such as Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. Now the choice has narrowed from tone and intent to physical definition: should the living dead walk or run?

I feel part of the reason zombies are hip now is because many filmmakers are electing the latter. The sped-up, intense, chase-you-down hellcats from the likes of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake keep pace with today's wired-in, connected, multitasking generation more so than stumbling ghouls. The world is speeding by, and we're seeing a parallel in undead cinema. Besides, the shambling zombies are viewed as more pathetic than terrifying. All one needs to do is walk around them and not act stupid. Fast zombies can carry a sequence matching any modern action scene.

Which I think is the problem.

Slow, lurching zombies have an aura to them. They're decomposing figures barely held to together by what's left of their rotting flesh and moving in a clumsy, almost comical manner. It's a fitting gait because what the living dead is is a parody of nature. The human body is an amazing example of biology. So many processes, chemical and otherwise, are in such careful balance, if any part of it is skewed, a person can't survive. Zombies, just by existing, are mocking the laws of science. This is not an argument that slower zombies are more realistic. They're just a reinforcement of that inherent contradiction.

A professor I know at Ohio Wesleyan, former Columbus Dispatch film critic Rich Elias, told me zombie movies are in right now because of the impending Social Security crisis in America. George Romero said Night of the Living Dead was about revolution, a new generation devouring an old one literally. While that film spoke of the counter-culture of the sixties, Elias' observation is almost an inverse: the old devouring the new. In the next few years, millions of Baby Boomers will retire, bringing with them increased financial burdens on the rest of us, whether it is medical or pension costs. When you think of a Baby Boomer retiree, do you think of a spry, healthy, energetic individual? No, with retirement comes old age, and in the worst sense of the phrase, old age brings a weakening body, loss of mental faculties, loss of energy, and less independence.

But I just walked into a trap. I already said fast zombies are in. If this elderly generation is about to wreak havoc on the nation, why are zombies running today? I don't know. The only explanation I can think of is it's a matching of modern sensibilities (speed) with the current socio-economic situation. Culture is fast, and zombies are relevant, so zombies must be fast too.

Still, cinematically slower zombies are more horrifying. Yes, one is easy to avoid. So is 5. 10? 20? 50? 1000? It's a numbers game. Fast zombies, while a more immediate danger, are limited in what filmmakers can do with them. They attack and chase; maybe they get you, maybe they don't. Rinse and repeat. If a movie has interesting characters surrounding it, such as 28 Days Later, that repetition can be averted. But really, once you reach a certain number of fast zombies, it really doesn't matter how many more you add. It serves the same purpose.

With slow zombies, the danger shifts depending how many there are. Think how many people die every day from normal illnesses, accidents, and whatnot. That adds up quickly. Sure an armed group can take down hundreds of zombies in a day if prepared, but how many people are that well supplied and equipped? And for how many days? The enemy is constantly replenished. It's a war of attrition against an untiring enemy. Fighting zombies in an open field or out in the street gives you freedom of movement, but going inside a building at night is another situation. That's true of fast zombies as well, but my point is to illustrate a comparable threat level.

Slow zombies are an accumulation of horror. Their numbers grow along with the sense of despair and hopelessness. One hideout is safe for a while, but you can't stay indefinitely. Whether it's to forage for supplies or because they found a way in, you'll have to leave. Would you feel safe anywhere? Could you sleep if you never stopped hearing constant moaning and scratching at the walls? I suppose the same effect can be achieved if fast zombies too, but those situations are usually resolved one way or another in a much shorter span of time. Fast zombies rise; the world's finished. Slow zombies; the world will end. It's the power of suggestion. The world will end eventually, and slow zombies give you a chance to think about that. With fast zombies, it's a decapitation, a fast, shocking death, a surprise. With slow zombies, it's a slow, piece-by-piece disembowelment, and you're fully aware as it happens.

Slow zombies give you a chance to confront death, this impartial, relentless state that doesn't care who you are, where you go, or what you do. It will claim you. A shambling ghoul is a haunting reminder you're next. This is your future: a pathetic, falling-apart creature. Fast zombies don't allow you a chance to ponder that fate. It's just attack, attack, and attack. That's not to say fast zombies don't have their place. Dan O'Bannon hilariously sent up genre expectations of slow zombies with The Return of the Living Dead by having his ghouls run and sprint after their victims, and Danny Doyle showcased rage personified with the infected of 28 Days Later.

But consider how many memorable shambling zombies they're have been over the years versus the number of memorable fast zombies. In some cases, the slow zombies become equal characters (Bub in Day of the Dead). They have detail and texture you can infer so much from (wedding dresses, fishing rods), and you can get a sense of what they were when they were alive. It's tragic. The fast zombies usually become memorable on their own only when the pace slows enough to showcase them (the half-corpse tied to a slab in The Return of the Living Dead). When zombies are running, you can probably replace them with any mutant, alien, or creature that chases and bites people, and it woudn't alter the movie too much. Running zombies turn the living dead into just another monster.

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