Thursday, 19 November 2009

Zombies; Dead/Alive...Fast/Slow...Metaphor/Monster.

Zombies are a contentious creature in the horror world, from the definition of what a zombie is through to the physical capabilities and behaviour of the often semi rotten, life challenged humanoid. Having now made a couple of videos exploring the fast/slow zombie debate I felt a more detailed look at the subject may be interesting.

My own opinion is that I find the slow zombie to be more interesting and I will explain why later in this blog, First of all it may be helpful to first talk about the zombie and what it is.

Part 1: Zombies: A definition (Do they need to be dead?).

Wikipedia defines a zombie as such
‘A zombie is a creature that appears in folklore and popular culture typically as a reanimated corpse or a mindless human being. Stories of zombies originated in the Afro-Caribbean spiritual belief system of Vodou, which told of the people being controlled as laborers by a powerful sorcerer.’ as this

zombie, zombi [ˈzɒmbɪ]
n pl -bies, -bis
1. a person who is or appears to be lifeless, apathetic, or totally lacking in independent judgment; automaton
2. (Spirituality, New Age, Astrology & Self-help / Alternative Belief Systems) a supernatural spirit that reanimates a dead body
3. (Spirituality, New Age, Astrology & Self-help / Alternative Belief Systems) a corpse brought to life in this manner

The reason to show these two definitions is to clarify one major point in particular... Zombies are not necessarily just reanimated corpses. This is just to get past the whole ‘they’re just infected, they’re not zombies’ argument when it comes to comparative studies of the fast and slow zombie. The fact that some films do not define their creatures as zombies is also irrelevant as with that argument even George Romero’s monsters in his début feature Night of the Living Dead would not qualify. As far as Romero was concerned at the time they were ‘ghouls’ and the Z word is not mentioned in the film.

Even if we take the examples from movies that specifically define the creatures as zombies, we find a wide range of examples from the fast reanimates of Return of the Living Dead, to the lumbering corpses of Romero and Fulci, through to the very much alive victims of ritual zombification in Wes Cravens The Serpent and the Rainbow so from this we can see that the definition is not restricted to reanimated corpses and does not require an explicit identification of the creature in the movie.

It is as much an aesthetic judgement that allows me to call ‘The Infected’ in the film 28 Days Later as it is specific definition. Rabid they may literally be but overall symptoms; infection method and behaviour are in line with the common view of Zombies (at least those of the horror genre).
So definition out of the way lets proceed...

Part 2: Metaphor or Monster? (The function of the Zombie in a movie)

So now we have a rough definition of what could constitute a zombie (and I am aware it is a rough definition) now we can hopefully move along without having to argue about whether or not 28 Days Later, which will be my primary but not exclusive example, is a zombie film. They certainly fit enough of the defining qualities of a zombie to qualify as such.

The fast/slow zombie argument is one dominated by the question ‘Which is the scariest?’ Now I am prepared to cede the point that the fast zombie is indeed a more daunting prospect in terms of its ability to kill you. They are shockingly fast and brutal (and even able to run along ceilings in one particularly poor remake) and will, as I mentioned in my first video about the subject, ‘chase you down faster than Asafa Powell with a JATO rocket up his jacksie’. This is fine and well but when all is said and done the general attitude of the film maker, once they have employed the fast zombie, is to let it do the work it does best, to scare the viewer. Unfortunately it tends to be, at least in my own opinion, a very shallow quality, the (occasionally slightly more sophisticated) equivalent of sneaking up behind someone and shouting BANG!

The problem as I see it is that due to the nature of the fast zombie, with the threat being much more immediate, there is little time for the human protagonists to exist with this problem and they can only react in a limited number of ways. In the Dawn of the Dead remake the zombies were of the fast variety and the action was piled on in spades in a series of attacks that the protagonists barely escape from....However. As soon as it becomes important for the human story to take place it is very noticeable how slow the zombies become. In 28 days later it's also noticeable how the story only really develops when the zombies are absent, even in Return of the Living Dead the interactions with the zombies are limited to the slower or incapacitated ones.

The absence or slowing down of the zombies is when things can happen on a narrative level, the threat needs the chance to be a latent rather than a immediate one in order for us to see how the protagonists react. This was very noticeable in the 1981 BBC TV series that inspired 28 Days Later, The Day of the Triffids. In This series the Triffids were surprisingly absent most of the time and the Triffid problem was something that happens mostly in the background, it's the identifiable threat to humanity but it is not the most problematic compared to the man made problems. This is true of the best 'slow zombie' films, for instance.
In Romero's Night of the living Dead the zombie threat is always in the background, a catalyst for the situation that the protagonists find themselves in. Harry and Ben's conflict is the thing that brings them down in the end, their petty power plays and squabbling distract them from the problem at hand and although the zombies are the instrument of their demise (with the exception of Ben who is treated to an altogether more shocking and more resonant death) the zombies are not the reason they die. Again this is true in both Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), the problem is getting worse and the threat is more obvious but still the characters live in a world that is not only isolated by the physical nature of the place, the mall or the bunker, but in terms of their attention. George A Romero, in commenting on the nature of his 4th instalment in the 'Dead' series stated that the theme was one of 'Ignoring the problem'

Initially it was about ignoring the problem, ignoring social ills like homelessness and AIDS and just telling people, "Don’t worry about it, that’s their problem" and I think this is more impactful.

Like the new one that I'm doing I've been pitching it, saying, "Well it's about people ignoring the problem". You know, in a post-9/11 [world]. And nobody gets it.

This theme, although Romero only applied it to Land of the Dead is a common theme throughout the series, the point being that the narrative is not actually about the zombies, it's about the people involved in the story, their reactions and interactions, the zombie represents the bigger picture of which mankind has a seemingly unerring ability to not see. To a greater or lesser degree throughout the slow zombie world this is true.

Part 3: Fast or Slow?

The one thing I wish to get away from in this exploration of the subject is 'which is the best', although it is obvious that I have a preference. The main aim here is to identify what is the purpose and function of each example. It seems fair to acknowledge these in the following way...

The fast zombie... Useful for scaring the bejesus out of the audience. Its viciousness and speed make it such a truly terrifying prospect that you'd better get your shit together PDQ because you haven't got time for mistakes.

The slow zombie... The leisure time you have between meeting these rotten puss bags is your worst enemy. While you spend you time in your little world the slow zombie and his buddies are quietly gathering and finding your weaknesses. If only you'd spent as much time dealing with the wider problem instead of being so involved with trivial matters such as who's in charge you may have avoided finding yourself surrounded by a flesh eating army of shambling (seemingly) life challenged folk.

The point is they both have very different functions, the fast to be a monster, the slow to be a metaphor or device by which we can test the protagonists. Neither is best because they do such different things, but in my opinion the slow is the one with the most chance to further the story beyond the scare and that's something I want from a film.

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