Zombies have plodded across the silver screen in almost exactly the same way—slowly—for about as long as the modern zombie convention has existed. Here and there, a film would bend the rules—Return of the Living Dead, for instance, had a few pretty spry zombies—but for the most part, filmmakers piously followed the doctrines set down by zombie-film granddaddy George Romero.
In the past four years or so, however, a couple of filmmakers have taken the initiative and portrayed zombies that moved damn quickly—as fast or faster than survivors. The trend began in 2002 with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and continued with Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Granted, Danny Boyle would tell you his film isn’t a true zombie movie, since its “Infected” are living people with a disease. That may be so, but popular culture saw the film as an innovative take on the zombie genre. Dawn 2004’s runners wouldn’t have been possible if Danny hadn’t gone there first.
Now, this is only two zombie movies out of hundreds that have been made. Films have been released since then featuring good-old shambling revenants—Romero’s Land of the Dead, the loving British send-up Shaun of the Dead, and other, less notable films. Zombies in other media continue to shamble, like in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide and its upcoming sequel, and Capcom’s recently-released Dead Rising (which, aside from having zombies, is completely different from that other Capcom franchise. Yes, I’m talking about Mega Man.)
So sprinting zombies hardly have a monopoly on the genre. They barely have a foothold. Even so, a lot of zombie enthusiasts are taking umbrage at these speedy corpses. George Romero understandably prefers his own shambling type, reasoning that rigor mortis would probably result in a slower zombie, though he has expressed his respect of Dawn 2004. Folks on message boards throughout the internet have been far less tactful. On the flip side, there are those who see running zombies as a welcome change from their slower brethren and the inevitable next step in the evolution of the zombie flick. What is so fundamental about a mere difference in speed that has people divided?
I’ve frequently said that the difference between the fast zombie and the slow zombie is the difference between terror and horror. The difference is subtle but important: “terror” is merely intense fear; “horror” is a combination of intense fear and revulsion.
Your casual horror fan will probably prefer the fast zombie. The fear it creates is much more visceral than its shambling counterpart. When something rushes at us with intent to feed, whether on screen or in real life, our limbic system initiates our bodies’ fight-or-flight response, pumping us full of adrenaline. It’s a similar feeling to the thrill we get from riding roller coasters. Unfortunately, it’s not very cerebral. It’s scary merely because it’s gonna eatcha.
The slow zombie, on the other hand, has a more cerebral effect. Its slow, shambling gait, clumsy movement, and vacant eyes are almost alien to us; we’re used to seeing human bodies imbued with intelligence and purposeful, or at least controlled, movement. Something human is clearly missing from slow zombies. The spark of life is gone. Even if we don’t grasp that at a conscious level, we realize it on a level higher than the primal instincts which give fast zombies their appeal. Fast zombies at least move like living things, even if the exposition tells us they have no pulse. Slow zombies move more like we would expect dead things to move if they were imbued with some monstrous animating force. In other words, slow zombies pull off the whole “dead” thing far more effectively.
Being more deadish makes slow zombies not only scary (still gonna eacha!) but repulsive. Death as a concept is anathema to thinking beings; as humans, we have a lot of psychological hang-ups about the phenomenon. Corpses make a lot of people really uncomfortable; moving corpses doubly so, since they blur a line we’d much rather have distinct. Now give one an appetite for living flesh, and you’ve got a recipe for true horror.
Slow zombies are clearly not as dangerous as their speedy counterparts. In countless flicks, the lone hero (or, frequently, heroine), having out-survived the other main characters, must make his or her way through a crowd of flesh-eaters in search of safety or help, often with little or nothing in the way of weapons. This would be impossible with fast zombies. But fast zombies, no matter how decomposed they might be, don’t invoke death as an abstract and they don’t effectively blur the line between cadaver and living creature. As a zombie fan, I can’t get enough of either. But as a sophisticated connoisseur of undeath, I’ll take horror over terror any Night, Dawn, or Day of the week.