If someone approached you whilst you went about your everyday business and said “Do you like it slow or do you like it fast?!” would you know what they were hinting at or would you recoil in a bemused, disgusted manner at their implication? Only the fully initiated will appreciate this subtle address and if the imaginary horror of a zombie plague ever explodes across the globe, then understanding how to answer this question will be the key to your survival in the newly-undead world. To be able to dissect the subtle differences between movie zombies in order to discover why they are now firmly established and revered in our lexicon of post-modernity is a desirable trait and may just come in handy when you least expect it.
So, zombies. You’ve got to love the ideal a bunch of reanimated, decomposing bodies represent in our cultural folklore. Perhaps it’s the fact that they pinpoint some hazy, primordial memory we all share which has been passed on from our mammalian ancestors trying to avoid becoming a tasty morsel for the Dinosaurs, but the subconscious terror of being torn limb from limb by a pack of brainless creatures is the ultimate horror. Our base fears regarding Zombies stem from much the same as an animal attack: all our years of enlightenment, of chromosome superiority over our fellow animals comes to nothing when faced with vapid versions of ourselves. It means we cannot use our most valued possessions – our intellect and ability to verbally interact – to change the outcome of a potentially sticky situation and so, all we are reduced to is an offal-filled meat parcel, juicy and ready to slake a walking corpse’s appetite.
Of course, Zombies and their viral infection are metaphors mirroring particular worries from when in time their movies were made, such as Biblical “End-of-the-world” scenarios, unbridled consumerism, social division via class structure and racist policies. They can also be looked at as modern allegories reflecting current concerns, for example a societal pandemic of Alzheimer’s disease, the influx of ungoverned mass immigration or even ageism via the continual empowerment of youth and the gulf between generations. A quick look across this genre and we can establish the modus operandi that a zombie film’s narrative will follow thanks to previous pioneers’ established hermeneutic codes within the subject matter. Although the movie conventions would stay quite rigid until the early 2000’s, there has been another media tangent which allowed people to create exciting and experimental zombie subtexts in parallel to the film ideals and that is of course video games, but that’s for another blog entry at a later date, so let’s just explore the zombie Godfather and his influence…
George A. Romero practically invented the modern-day, slow shuffling Zombie experience and each of his films represents a specific symbolism prevalent at that particular time in our social and cultural history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) explored racial and social prejudices which mirrored the Civil Rights movement and youth music movements, culminating in the black protagonist being shot by white rednecks, a thinly veiled representation of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the ongoing battle of the Civil Rights Movement. Roll on another ten years and we then got Romero’s masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which introduces the viewers to a cross-section of people holed up in a vast USA hyper market, trying to survive against the zombies outside who are trying to break in and make them lunch. What follows over the next two hours is a magnificent metaphorical study of the thrusting grasp of consumerism within our Capitalist society; either we join in and go along with everyone else or get swallowed up by unstoppable greed. A spanner is thrown into the works in the form of the Hells’ Angels who arrive and rampage through the Mall as an alternative lifestyle choice, but even this symbol is torn to pieces eventually by a brainless materialism’s voracity.
Next up was Day of the Dead (1985), Romero’s opus that brought in survivors living under a military dictatorship in order to continue with life, trading off their humanity along the way in order to survive. The irony that arises from this selfishness is that one of the zombies, “Bub” has developed a post-dead humanity and thought process, which just goes to show how most of the remaining humans are worse than their dead counterparts. Following an extended hiatus of twenty years during which the whole zombie genre was turned on its head, the director finally returned with Land of the Dead (2005) an exploration of cultural division via a class structure of poverty and wealth, the haves and the have-nots behind fortified walls. We see that the Zombies have begun to revert back to their everyday memories, displaying that they can recall their previous lives and in doing so, perhaps have become the next rung on the evolutionary ladder of Humanity or at least a tangent which could co-exist with normal humans, although what the trade-off in the long term would be is anyone’s guess. So that brings us to Diary of the Dead (2007), Romero’s exploration of how the Zombie ethos evolves in conjunction with our own technological advancements in reality, namely the digital internet age we all take for granted nowadays. We as viewers are bombarded with a multitude of different media avenues, such as mobile ‘phone footage, video streaming websites, etc, and one of the earliest scenes shows a live news crew in-situ reporting the breaking story of the undead get killed live on camera, a metaphor showing this old medium is finished and the “youth” are now calling the shots via internet blogs, viral emails and social network sites.
Finally, we have a just-finished-but-not-yet-released new Romero zombie film, Survival of the Dead (2009) which further explores for the first time some of the characters from Diary… as they continue to hold out on an island off the coast of North America and strive to find a cure for the zombie virus to turn their loved ones back to normal…
No doubt Romero will continue to churn out his technologically updated Zombie vision with each successive youth generation, so in the near future expect Download of the Dead (20??). The usual protagonists are all holed up within the Large Hadron Collider’s miles of tunnels, their iPods and iPhones at the ready, not only fighting hordes of Zombies but also an escaped Higg’s Boson particle that revives the undead via miniature black holes once they’ve had their craniums fluted by the survivors, hence perpetuating humanity’s suffering for attempting to play God. Everything’s under control until the spoilt, never-done-a-days-work-in-our-lives brats discover their wireless internet connection’s gone down and then the emotional breakdowns ensue: completely cut-off from the rest of the World under a mountain in Switzerland, they begin to realise they’re turning into mindless Zombies already without even being bitten due to their complete reliance upon daily doses of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook being taken off them and thus crack up one by one.
The startling development from Romero’s creeping zombie ethos arrived in a flash during his generational retirement between Day… and Land… when Danny Boyle’s 28 days Later (2002) came along and we were introduced to the next evolution in the Zombie phenomena: the sprinting dead. Although not technically true Zombies – the protagonist hordes in the film are not actually dead but are infected with a “Rage” virus which has escaped an animal test lab due to Animal Liberation do-gooders – they are perceived as “zombified” due to three key points: their inability to communicate as normal people; the fact they attack able-body people with a lust to kill; and finally a transmission of their bodily fluids, in this case blood, will turn a normal person into an infected. Once this idea of rapidly-moving-whilst-decomposing living dead was released into the media domain, a zombie-revival explosion took place and purists began to take a stance behind their own personal preferences so we ended up with the two opposing camps as strong as one another: slow-moving, creeping horror or fast-moving, rapid terror as the choices for a perfect zombie experience.
Zack Snyder’s re-imagined version of Dawn of the Dead (2004) dives straight into the new “accelerated” corpses theme but keeps the basic premise of the original film and creates a rebooted, horrifyingly fast-paced version for the “Kidult” of the noughties generation: great for newcomers to the genre and still faithful enough for followers of Romero’s earlier, sacred classic. However, Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) sticks with the rotting, unhurried feet-draggers to add a comedic slant to the standard zombie outbreak, all tied-up in within the restrained and eccentric approach residents of the UK would utilize to tackle the problem. We then have to collate all the other film-related stuff before and since this division, so things do start to get overly complicated due to the amount of media out there. How do we decide what makes a zombie movie – whether good or bad and there’s more bad than good in the realm of the undead – when faced with such diverse narrative examples as the following:
- Zombi 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters (Cursed island)
- Return of the Living Dead (Toxic waste spill)
- Zombie Holocaust (Medical experimentation)
- Brain Dead (Sumatran Rat-Monkey)
- House of the Dead (Immortality serum)
- Resident Evil (T-Virus infection)
- Doom (Demonic possession)
- Dead Set (Big Brother reality TV mass infection)
- Zombieland (CJD/Mad Cow disease)
- Dead Snow (Nazi Zombies)
- Colin (Filmed from a zombie’s perspective)
What all these films do achieve is to galvanise opinion about the most interesting ways to dispatch hordes of zombies and this usually entails bigger and better guns to create greater and more cavernous headshots or makeshift, everyday items adapted into something which will annihilate multitudes of vicious, putrid stiffs. Of course, we British will be royally buggered if a Zombie outbreak ever does occur due to the lack of guns and ammo for the common man, unless of course you’re a gangster or a game warden, in which case the survivors are going to be governed by drug-dealing pimps built like brick s**t-houses or men dressed in Barbour and wellies with a brace of Pheasant over their shoulders. This problem means most people will have to utilize their imagination with what they can find at hand to construe a weapon from for dispatching the rotting cadavers and as we’re all aware of our country’s sensibilities and peculiarities, there could be some interesting choices past the normal bladed weapons. Perhaps we’ll see someone running around with a tweaked leaf-blower in the hope of knocking the Zombies off balance in order to then make their escape; maybe someone will adapt a fishing rod to cast out a 5 ounce lead weight into their heads, thus braining them via nylon line and pin-point accuracy; or what about a pack of trained, savage dogs, tearing the Zombies apart, though this would probably only make more Zombie dogs with each bite and then of course more Zombies in a perpetual cycle, so maybe not really a good idea after all.
Let’s face it, in the first week or so about 90 percent of all society will just crumble with the brevity of a zombie holocaust, much the same as if faced with a Matalan sale they can’t attend or missing the live crowning of the winner of X-Factor: complete hysterics, followed by a mental and digestive collapse, which then extends into going foetal in a corner and uttering gibberish whilst covered in your own faeces. It’s just like banging a giant gong for the attention of the undead and screaming “dinner’s served, come and get it!” So with just the stronger 10 percent left to try and kick some fetid arse into touch, we’d have to be looking at long-term survival with right places to hole-up and the correct ratio of males to females in order to restart the Human race once again, much in the vein of Dr. Strangelove’s hypothesis after the Bomb’s been dropped at the end of that particular movie. Either way, we better get used to our undead future because whether they’re flat-footed, sluggish as a snail or fleet-footed, swift as the wind dervishes, then zombies are here to stay and are now an integral part of our cultural and psychological make-up, even to the point that some people believe that the walking dead are a real possibility in our impending reality.
So remember, if someone comes up to you in the street with a nudge and a wink then asks you in a hushed whisper “Do you go fast or do you go slow?!” they might be asking you a very important question relating to your zombie preference and your future allegiance, not just trying to find out if you’re interested indulging in public toilet action, although you should always be on your guard for that eventuality as well.