Undead Reckoning: The History of Fast Zombies
The undead have gotten faster. Much, much faster. In the allegorical days of Romero’s living dead, zombies were slow, brainless clods. They ambled and rambled, hungry for flesh, but their threat was principally rooted in quantity, not quality. They weren’t especially imposing foes outside of their capacity to democratically assemble and wreak havoc on farmsteads and shopping malls. Even unsanctioned sequels, such as Fulci’s Zombi 2—a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, released in Italy as Zombi—borrowed heavily from the lollygagging undead template. They were cool and gory and visceral, yes. But they were also very slow.
It’s not hard to imagine zombies, slasher villains in their own right, having a profound influence on the decades of lumbering masked maniacs that followed Night of the Living Dead. In much the same way, trickery and strategy compensated for reduced dexterity and speed. Michael Myers had to rely on wit, not his interminable gait, to snag the teenage babysitters of Haddonfield, Illinois. Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 directorial debut Return of the Living Dead was technically among the first to imbue the brain-feasting baddies with considerably more zip. Though it was truly Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) that subverted decades of zombie expectations.
Infected by a rage virus, the ostensible undead (they’re not strictly speaking zombies, or undead for that matter) of Boyle’s 28 Days Later are fast, relentless, and physically visceral. They mow through the living with horrific precision and strength, all but dissolving the last vestiges of the slow zombie bulwark. Several undead releases since then, including follow-up 28 Weeks Later, capitalized on post-9/11 anxieties and fears. The convergence of digital technologies and the advent of accessible social media illuminated a world of villains who were, quite simply, not all that different than us. It was resultantly myopic to perceive zombies and brainless duds. They were smart, vicious, and agile.
It’s a curious development, not the least of which on account of ever-shifting trends in what the zombie viruses themselves actually are. There are rage viruses, limbic system malfunctions in the case of Rob Jabbaz’s The Sadness, and even demonic possession in Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC]. Not every movie has made use of such subversive twists. The likes of Zombieland are considerably funnier despite conventional undead, while others like Warm Bodies follow the Romero template with a wrinkle of The National-scored romance. Taken together as some form of zombie collective, however, it becomes clear that this century’s zombies are full of rage.
Not Boyle’s rage, or at least not exactly, but the result of decades of interminably slow progress and development. The contemporary global news is replete with case studies in regression and backtracking. For all the good that’s been done and cultivated, it hasn’t nearly been enough. The impending apocalypse, whatever it might be, is no longer best conceptualized by the ambling undead, slow and witless and kind of pathetic. Instead, it’s been supplanted by a fervent and enflamed populace. Collapse is no longer so inconspicuous.
Indeed, the political realignment of the walking dead has imbued the subgenre with renewed urgency and purpose. Far from the scariest thing, at least in part because zombies don’t exist, the 21st-century’s zombies are terrifying in their extremity. The likes of #Alive and Virus-32, for instance, aren’t necessarily fun movies. Sure, there are iterations like Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, but they’re few and far between.
Even The Sadness, marketed as a frenetic and engagingly demented return to form, is considerably bleaker than the trailers make it look. Good for a laugh or two, it indulges in the kind of depraved carnage the zombies of yesteryear could only dream of. The splinter to the eyeball in Fulci’s Zombi 2 is a fun death, not the least of which on account of the pretty stellar VFX work on display. This century’s zombies rarely indulge in that kind of fun.
Perhaps the aforementioned digital convergence contributed. With unfettered access to the tragedies of the world writ large, it’s less fun to fictionalize entire cities crumbling to the ground when all one needs to do is pull up Twitter to see it first-hand. Migrant crises render separation and reunion arcs painfully real, no longer an easy go-to for the zombie movie of the day. Pandemics, war, regressive legislation, and the full visibility therein have molecularly changed what zombies are and should be.
Zombies have gotten fast because the world has gotten faster. There’s nothing this decade that can’t be done quicker than it would have been in the decade before. Life is fiercer, meaner, and more perceptible than ever. Yet, the underlying theme among these all– as violent and dour as their narratives are– is hope. The zombies move quicker toward destruction, yes, but the survivors move quicker toward hope.
It’s an auspicious sign, one that genuinely reflects the world we live in. Communities, families, and individuals collaborate and connect toward good. In the face of insurmountable crises and tragedies, there is always hope. The zombies and evils of the world might be moving quicker, but so are the good forces. They’re still coming to get Barbara and everyone else. But the world writ large, I believe, is more prepared than ever.