Sunday, December 14, 2008

In Defense Of The Running Zombie

Floating around the interwebs is an article penned by Shawn of the Dead's Simon Pegg in which he discusses his objection to the new breed of running zombies famously shown in 28 Days Later (which, I know, isn't technically a zombie movie) and the Dawn of the Dead remake (which absolutely was.) If you want to get really technical, you can say that mainstream American running zombies started with Return of the Living Dead, but the argument mostly comes up when people refer to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. How DARE they change the rules, the purists seem to say. George A. Romero invented the wheel, and how dare you change it for a few cheap scares to amuse the jump-cut MTV generation.

I LIKE the Dawn of the Dead remake. I think the story is well-written, intelligent, and did new and inventive things with the zombie mythos. It bums me out how often the remake gets brushed aside. Obviously, I'm not taking away from the original Romero work, which stands as one of the seminal horror movies ever made, but Pegg's comments seem to be taken as some kind of holy validation among traditionalists. I disagree with him, and I want to get on my soapbox and add my voice to the debate.

I tend to hear the arguments Pegg makes often from people of an older generation, people who saw the original Romero trilogy in theaters. I like to refer to the Dead movies as the Star Wars trilogy for the horror set, minus the reoccuring characters and creepy incest subtext. Romero created a world that was internally consistent, with clearly dilenated rules and a underlying philosophy people click into. It's the kind of world people want to live in, and those people don't like it when you mess with the walls holding up their fantasies.

The dead shamble. The dead creep. The dead moan.

They don't hiss like angry cats. They don't chase after you. They don't run you 'til you're ragged, then smash you down and rip you apart.


Another thing: speed simplifies the zombie, clarifying the threat and reducing any response to an emotional reflex. It's the difference between someone shouting "Boo!" and hearing the sound of the floorboards creaking in an upstairs room: a quick thrill at the expense of a more profound sense of dread.

Okay. But what if the amped up sense of terror never lets up. What if the audience never gets a chance to breathe, never gets a chance to find humor in the situation. What if you have to share the stress of the character, knowing at any second could be your last?

I own a copy of the Dawn remake and every time I watch it I feel like I leave the movie suffering from combat shock. The writers and performers do an incredible job creating characters I become emotionally engaged in, and we never get any sense of safety or comfort. The sun never comes out, the mall never feels safe, and any hope of rescue is clearly gone.

I've heard the arguments for the slow dead. Central to the argument is that the rush of panic is not as satisfying as the fine creeping terror of a wave of zombies inexorably staggering towards you. It's the horror epicurian's argument: panic is fast food and slowly escalating dread is fine wine. I generally believe this is true, especially in movies that rely solely on jump scares, but the best running zombie movies have so much more going on in them. Both DotD and 28 DL are not just a collection of jump scares. They're both absolutely effective because they never let up. Running zombie movie characters never get a chance to rest, never get a chance to plan, never get a chance to stare at their navels and wonder What It All Means. They are engaged in the purest example of survival horror. No rest. No respite. No heroics. Stay moving, stay alive.


One of the more interesting elements of Pegg's argument is the idea of the sympathetic monster:

The absence of rage or aggression in slow zombies makes them oddly sympathetic, a detail that enabled Romero to project depth on to their blankness, to create tragic anti-heroes; his were figures to be pitied, empathised with, even rooted for. The moment they appear angry or petulant, the second they emit furious
velociraptor screeches (as opposed to the correct mournful moans of longing), they cease to possess any ambiguity. They are simply mean.

Romero peopled his movies with zombies who seem to have died midway through their jobs or their hobbies. Dawn was filled with zombie cops, zombie housewives, zombie softball players, and zombie hare krishnas. Romero's characters would often stare at the zombies and ponder how thin the line between themselves and the walking dead actually was. Despite that, I never felt that Romero had much sympathy for most of his zombie cast (excluding Bub and Big Daddy.) They were more representatives of a world gone wrong, of your friends and neighbors turned against you. The "angry, petulant, velociraptor screeching" zombies have purpose. They are coming to EAT. YOU. ALIVE. Being reduced to prey is a frightening concept, like you're starring in one of those ghastly nature documentaries that show the gazelles being taken down by the lions. It's a very different kind of terror, I'll grant, but that doesn't mean it is worse.


At one point in the article Pegg argues the traditionalist's argument: that's not the way the rules work.

I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can't fly; zombies do not run. It's a misconception, a bastardisation that
diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I'll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.

This is the kind of argument I have when I go to the comic book store. I don't actually believe in magic and it's foolish to debate the semantics of magic, ha ha, but this work conflicts with my definition of magic so it is wrong.

And, like comic book universes, an overly rigid need to conform to continuity can throw off new and innovative work. But there are people in fandom who would rather their gardens remain unruffled and pristine rather than let people enjoy things their own way.

Hey you kids, get offa my lawn!


One of the most important things to remember about the traditional slow moving zombie is that they tended to be much less of a threat than the disorganized, terrified, angry, ignorant humans they attacked. Both NotLD and the original DotD had the vast majority of the characters killed by other humans or by their own mistakes. A lot of somewhat overblown philosophical junk gets laid at NotLD's doorstep, but I think the movie captured a certain vicious hopelessness that existed for during the Vietnam war. The Romero stories are essentially nihilistic: we could have pulled ourselves out of the zombie apocalypse if we just learned to work together.

All this is well and good, but it comes from a generation that dreaded things inside their culture. Slow moving zombies was an apocalpytic crisis, and Romero's movies showed how we fail as a species to meet the challenge. The real danger in Romero movies come from within. Running zombies represent threats that come from without.

I'm a big believer in the horror genre's ability to capture the zeitgeist of an age by showing us distorted, funhouse mirror reflections of the things that frighten us as a society. I think DotD's remake captured the degeneration of the (forgive the dreaded cliche here) post-9/11 America better than Romero's movies. The opening scares in the remake are absolutely relentless. As Ana makes her escape, we see her neighbors gets butchered around her before they can even understand they are under attack, cars crash into each other, people are dying along the edges of the frame, and the law enforcement officer she runs to sticks a gun in her face. The terror here comes from a very clear place. We are being attacked, We don't know why, we aren't prepared, and no one is coming to help us. As a young, liberal American, this resonates with me.

Also, put bluntly, I find it kind of strange that Pegg attacks running zombies as not being scary when he made a comedy showing that slow moving zombies don't pose much of a threat. Sure, the last half-hour turns into a nasty horror flick, but most of the movie treats the walking dead as gory slapstick props. Even Romero's original Dawn had the outlaw biker gang slamming pies into the ghoul's faces. In the Romero-penned remake of Night of the Living Dead, Barbara looks out at the wave of oncoming zombies and whispers "We can just walk past them." We're too familar with traditional zombies, we're too aware of the rules, and that affects the way we engage with the story. Humanity can contain a slow zombie, but would be wiped out by a running zombie wave.

If you want to keep the nihilism of the zombie mythos relevent, the running zombie has a place in the horror pantheon. Great works are still being done in the classic genre, specifically Max Brooks' terrific World War Z series, but I'm not going to condemn a new idea out-of-hand because it doesn't mesh well with tradition, particularly after strong work has already been produced within the new genre.

Long live the running zombie!


West said...

Delightful analysis. I'm on the fence myself, and it's good to see some of the merits of either side laid out like this.

I run a site that collects zombie apocalypse fiction of all stripes, including both traditional and non-traditional zombie characters. If you're interested, take a peek at Tales of World War Z.

Again, thanks for the read. Well done.

Creature said...

Thank you for your kind comments.

I really like zombie stuff. I grew up on the Romero trilogy, and I think the zombie reemergence fits with the times we're living in. But I have an issue with the way zombie fans tend to cling too tightly to tradition at the expense of innovation. I haven't seen too many good running zombie movies, but I see the potential.

I will check out your website and, time permitting, will submit stuff.

Jeff said...

There's a similar debate spawned in the resident evil franchise.

The slow moving, shamble moan of the original trilogy


the weapon wielding, intelligent, can flank and corner and gang up on you ganados and mojini in Re 4 and 5.

I agree with you, I'm a fan of tradition, but there is something really terrifying about the running ones.

The scene in 28WL where the dad violently thumbs out his wife's eyes stands as one of the only scenes to make me cringe in hundreds of horror flick.

The violence of it, the uncontrolled rage was breathtaking.

I've seen Michael Myers and a handful of others do that trick, but never to such powerful effect.

You can't get that from the shamblers.

Creature said...

I once saw Max Brooks, writer of the Zombie Survival Guide, speaking at San Diego Comic Con. He was talking about running zombies and he said that they don't cause dread, just a panicked terror. To prove his point, he moaned into the mike slowly. The man's got a point, but everything thinks they're some grand master killer.