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Shock-O-Rama: What Makes a Zombie a Zombie?
Get your flamethrower and bring it on!
By Chuck Francisco
June 26, 2013
There are a number of massive flame wars available to nerds looking to prove their mettle and enlist in. The classics are wistfully recalled as if foolish combatants took part in some heroic last stand. Trek vs Wars, Kirk vs Picard, Marvel vs DC, Joel vs Mike, Crystal Pepsi vs New Coke...alright so no one is ready to declare a winner in that last example. Nowhere are the forces more entrenched than in the battle between slow zombies and fast zombies (to say nothing of the infected- who aren't even dead!). To understand why this divide is so deep, let's explore what a zombie is, what it represents culturally, and why a filmmaker might choose one over the other. While this is a topic which caught fire in my mind because of World War Z, I won't be spoiling major plot points of the film here, so no worries.
Zombies, as we know and love them, sprung into existence fully formed from the mind of George A. Romero. 1968's Night of the Living Dead is worthy of thousands of words on its merit alone, but for our purposes it served to breathe new life into a corpse shell. Romero based his screenplay on elements from Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend and its first film adaption The Last Man on Earth (1964, staring Vincent Price). In the novel and film, a man is besieged within his fortified home by a world overrun with vampires; a version of the classic creature having been given a pseudoscientific explanation. But this only formed half the blueprint of the creatures we love to decapitate. The other weighty portion of inspiration came from Africa by way of the Caribbean. Through a mysterious pharmacological process, voodoo priests are thought to create nearly mindless servants who obey them without question. The most famous cinematic example of these zombies is the Bela Lugosi classic White Zombie (which received loving blu-ray treatment recently). Ironically Romero himself is a fan of White Zombie and its accompanying style of mindless shufflers; he was disappointed to hear his style of zombie overtook the Haitian version which he grew up loving.
From those humble independent film beginnings outside Pittsburg, to the homes of millions of families each week in the form of The Walking Dead, zombies have an enduring allure about them which Americans can't seem to shake. They allow us to face death, while acting as a surrogate to critique the darker aspects of society. More than anything else the zombie is inevitability. Time can be bought, resistance can be mounted, and a fight can be put up, but in the the end zombies will inevitably over come humanity. Their very nature demand this, for every combatant the human side loses, the zombie side gains another. Their slow speed, always creeping along, allows for time to consider the awful horror of it all. It's a benefit to the medium, giving it much more intellectual credibility then it would otherwise attain.
This is also what makes the zombie unique. They aren't brutally stronger than or overwhelmingly faster than humans like werewolves; they can't cloud our minds or seduce us like vampires, there's no death at the hands of unseen poltergeists, and we won't find our external souls imperiled as with demonic horrors. Taken on its own, a single Romero zombie isn't a tremendous threat unless the human is caught unprepared, unawares, or wounded. And this is precisely the point. They're a cumulative threat, which allows for meta ideals to be explored in a separate layer above the fright and carnage. Do we, film fans, lose something because that formula has been altered? Many would say no, but I would posit that they may be missing the landscape for the trees.
I've discussed a number of the pros and cons of fast zombies with fellow horror fans. They're more aggressive nature and pressing threat frighten filmgoers more completely. They're a threat no matter the circumstances. Slow zombies simply aren't scary. These are all commonly used to defend the prevalence of super athlete zombies. While I agree that it's easier to make fast zombies scary, a good director can bring on unmatched dread with laboriously slow undead. The Walking Dead, perhaps the most broadly popular zombie media of all time, proves that their classic form can be immensely successful. And, lest we forget, the real monster in the best zombie stories are the other humans.
Perhaps the most glaring flaw of the super zombie is that in most instances another monster or creature can be swapped into its place without dramatically altering the film. Consider what the actual threat is in a film like the Dawn of the Dead remake: a large number of beings who can out run, over power, and swarm normal humans. Replace them with mutant tigers that breed rapidly and the film could be shockingly similar. I understand in that example, the dynamic of infection is lost, so instead take the same scenario, but instead of tigers, replaces the zombies with werewolves. Dawn of the Dead 2004would be remarkably the same film with werewolves instead of zombies. Now try and consider the same switcheroo with the 1978 original. Doesn't work, does it? Why is that? I suggest that this is because the fast zombie, while gaining an air of danger, loses what makes a zombie a zombie.
Let's now consider World War Z (the film). I asked a number of people, who had only seen trailers or commercials, to describe the physical characteristics of the individual zombies in the film. None of them could. They could, however, tell me what kind of hair cut Brad Pitt was sporting, what he was wearing, and that he was scruffily unshaven. In the film these zombies leap, scramble, and climb like powerful supernatural creatures. They pour over barricades like water. They pile atop each other like ants. They are in nearly no way at all like zombies. Despite that, would you believe me if I told you that I enjoyed World War Z (both the book and the film)? I enjoyed it with a single conceit: it isn't a zombie film. "But the Z in the title refers to zombies, Chuck!". It sure did, but it does not. The creatures in this movie are a force of nature and when ascribing a genre to it, the only correct label could be disaster movie (with some aspects of political thriller).
And so, just as World War Z is like its source book in name only, so are its zombies like the traditional creatures in name only. The logical step would be to rename speedy zombies something else like ghouls or revenants, but this would be the movie studios giving up on all those blind purchase zombie bucks. We've seen a similar renaming with the "Infected", fast zombies which aren't actually dead (and thus aren't zombies), in great media like 28 Days Later and the Left 4 Dead series. There's room for all flavors under the undead sun, so I suppose the real lesson is in proper nomenclature and in respect for tradition. At the same time we can't be bound by it, forever frozen. Perhaps what we need is a zombie film where slow walkers symbolize the advent of fast infected, inevitably overwhelming the traditional dead heads. Or maybe that's way too much symbolism, even for the great Romero to pull off (there's nothing I wouldn't put past the man).
What's your take, Maniacs?
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.