How did movie zombies get so fast?
It's not for nothing that zombies are called the walking dead. In George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), a group of shut-ins sits in terror, watching television for the latest updates on the creeping undead menace. "Are they slow-moving, chief?" asks a reporter. "Yeah," the cop says wearily, "they're dead."
Romero's canonical trilogy, which also includes Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), emphasizes the zombie's drag-ass nature. Corpses shuffle so slowly that a potential victim can fall, brush herself off, remove her pumps, and set off again without being touched by a necrotic finger. Max Brooks' book The Zombie Survival Guide, a tongue-in-cheek tutorial for surviving the living dead, notes, "Zombies appear to be incapable of running. The fastest have been observed to move at a rate of barely one step per 1.5 seconds."
But in Zack Snyder's new Dawn of the Dead remake, the zombie has a newfound vigor. In the film's opening scene, a vacant-eyed zombie girl chargesthrough a wooden door and into a couple's bedroom. After the zombie savagely bites her husband in the neck, Ana (Sarah Polley) escapes and drives away, only to have her recently deceased-and-undeceased husband keep chase with a full-out sprint that calls to mind Terminator 2's superhuman killing machine.
It wasn't long ago that the cinematic undead obeyed the first law of corpse locomotion: A zombie might bleed on you, bite you, or rip out your ribcage, but wouldn't beat you in the 40-yard dash. Along with the Dawn remake, this new breed of souped-up zombie has appeared in recent movies like 28 Days Later (2002), Resident Evil (2002), and House of the Dead (2003). Why, all of a sudden, are the walking dead in such a rush?
For years, the fast zombie was by definition an oxymoron. The word itself can be traced to Creole and West African Bantu and the legend that a voodoo priest could hypnotize a corpse to obey his commands. In Hollywood's not-so-culturally-sensitive early zombie flicks, magically induced catatonia was featured more prominently than reanimation. Bela Lugosi's evil sorcerer "Murder" Legendre hypnotizes Haitian sugar harvesters in White Zombie (1932) so that they grind cane into the wee hours without complaint. Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943) centers on a woman who's either the victim of island voodoo brainwashing or just really, really frigid and unresponsive.
The zombie would soon stretch its legs beyond the Caribbean and become an all-purpose horror creature. But with very few exceptions (most notably 1980's Nightmare City), the undead were weighed down by rigor mortis. Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979) has a fightin' corpse who attacks a shark, but the film ends with a long line of zombies walking ever so slowly across the Brooklyn Bridge. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985), and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) brought over-the-top humor and splatter to the genre, but the zombies still walked. In Michael Jackson's long-form Thriller (1983) video, the zombies are walking when they're not line dancing. And just like in the Romero original, the heroine of the 1990 remake Night of the Living Dead is shocked by the pace of the undead hordes: "They're so slow. We could just walk right past them. I wouldn't even have to run."
The oft-repeated image of a slow, walking line of zombies is the best representation of the zombie's place in the scary-movie food chain. In horror, zombies behave more like a creeping plague or a disease than singularly terrifying monsters like Dracula or the Wolfman. Zombies have no individual identity, but rather get their power from membership in a group: It's easy to kill one, but 1,000 indomitable flesh eaters may just overwhelm you.
The creeping zombie column is an effective horror device both because it's a great visual and a good way to wring scares out of a low budget. But, as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later proved, an independent film shot on digital video no longer needs the slow zombie crutch. When a sputtering, rage-filled priest chases Jim (Cillian Murphy) from a church, or when the survivors outrun a chasing cadre of pallid-looking sickies in a dark tunnel, the rapid-fire action feels authentic, not cheesy or far-fetched. (Some purists argue that the "infected" in 28 Days aren't technically zombies, but the mindless biting and bleeding out the mouth get them well over the bar.)
Rapidly improving CGI technology has had a similar effect on high-budget zombie fare. For instance, the devilishly spry undead dogs who attack the jugular with quick bursts make Resident Evil look more like the video game it's based on than an old-school zombie flick. The effect of corpse-heavy video games is all over the nascent fast-zombie genre. In first-person shooter games, the undead's usual pack mentality is necessarily replaced by zombie exceptionalism: Each creature that jumps out from around the corner has to be an individual—fast, strong, and threatening. Even more so than Resident Evil, the movie version of House of the Dead follows this model, as filmed sequences of running, jumping, and swimming zombies are actually intercut with parallel scenes from the corpse shoot-'em-up video game.
It will be ironic if Snyder's Dawn remake represents the tipping point that makes fast zombies the mainstream. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, more than any other creature feature, hammered home the slow zombie's metaphorical possibilities. In the first Dawn, scores of shopping-mall-bound corpses ride escalators in an endless loop and wobble listlessly to Muzak. This new Dawn, though one of the best scare movies of the last few years, is far more concerned with zombie style than zombie substance: While Snyder's zombies may be mindless, they're less a consumerist mob than a bunch of high-strung car chasers. Maybe, as blogger Tim Hulsey argues, the obsolescence of the slow zombie signals the decline of "mobocratic" culture in favor of a modern taste for individualism. Or maybe his background as a commercial and music video director makes Snyder constitutionally incapable of creating slow monsters. Either way, the plague of the fast zombies is upon us. Beware!