Other blogs may be focusing on the production headaches that dogged the film adaptation of Max Brook’s World War Z (reshoots, script doctoring, etc.) finally opening this week, but we see a much bigger issue at hand. Clearly, the real controversy hanging over World War Z is a zombie one… more precisely: the fast vs. slow zombie conundrum.
Ever since the first World War Z trailer dropped last November and presented a literal waterfall of rabid undead flowing over a toppled bus, there’s been heated discourse amongst critics and zombie-film aficionados regarding Paramount and director Marc Forster’s choice to take fast-moving corpses to Ferrari levels of acceleration.
The film is bursting at the seams with millions of undead clamoring to get at the living in hordes the size of small countries. This immediately reignites the simmering debate about what really makes a zombie scary – how they won’t give up getting at your pulsing veins no matter how long it takes, or that they might get at you so quickly because of the imaginary rockets up their undead keesters?
Let’s look at both sides…
Slow Zombies: Night of the Living Dead
In 1968, director-writer George Romero basically created the modern film zombie in Night of the Living Dead by mashing up the voodoo undead with his take on novelist Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Romero’s monsters came from the grave and had two advantages: 1) surprise (there were no zombie outbreaks for the victims to put one plus one together) and 2) the walking corpses were slow yet relentless. Once they trapped you, it was only a matter of time before you became their gory dinner. While the effects might be quaint by today’s standards, Night of the Living Dead in all its black-and-white, horrific glory still remains a frightening standard bearer for the genre and the potency of the slow zombie.
Fast Zombies: World War Z
Despite the massive success of slow zombies in TV’s The Walking Dead, it seems like speedy zombies are sexier when it comes to the big screen. World War Z adds its own tweak to the torque by making the undead come together so fast there’s no time to outrun, outwit or outplay for your life. The infected congregate so quickly and so overwhelmingly that worldwide governments can’t assemble their armies or get to the uninfected masses quickly enough to do any good against the sea of hungry death. Just how effectively that comes off visually in CGI we’ll leave up to you to argue, but it’s certainly a planning wrinkle that would make even the most confident zombie-apocalypse survivalist gulp in fear.
Slow Zombies: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
In 1978, Romero upped his own horror ante with the sequel Dawn of the Dead. Romero was now shooting in color, using modern society as the contextual backdrop, and utilizing some truly horrific makeup effects to bring the zombie apocalypse to life. Trapping uninfected humans inside a suburban mall not only made for great allegory, but it also created a beautiful claustrophobia that elevates the scares. These zombies are still slow and have cognitive limits, but their sheer numbers are a palpable threat. It also forces the humans to remain vigilant and clever. When they relinquish their guard, the evil gets in and that makes us as culpable for our demise as the rotting flesh that wants to eat us.
Fast Zombies: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
In 2004, director Zack Snyder pulled from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later playbook and applied the fast movements of that film’s “rage virus” to the traditional undead for his Dawn of the Dead sequel. Just like Romero’s Dawn, the central action happens within the confines of a suburban mall as humanity outside succumbs to death and then reawakens. However, there's no shuffling or shambling towards food sources. No, Snyder’s zombies run and climb like they each drank a case of 5-Hour Energy. What you lose in slow zombie dramatic tension, you now gain with fast zombie pop-up scares and sheer velocity of attack.
Slow Zombies: Shaun of the Dead
Yes, Shaun of the Dead is a comedy, but that doesn’t mean cowriters Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg don’t take their slow zombies very, very seriously. Both massive aficionados of the genre, they know their undead tropes inside and out and stick within Romero’s biological constraints of how a zombie should exist. Even as Shaun and his mates pick apart the inherent absurdities of the walking flesh bags they try to outsmart, they don’t negate the dangers of the undead’s singular need to feed. As one of the millennium’s greatest zombie film offerings, it says something that the slow zombie can get ribbed yet not lose any of its ultimate power.
Fast Zombies: Zombieland
Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer poses the alternate comedic argument in the fast vs. slow détente waging strong show of support for the fast undead. In the opening seconds of the film, Fleischer lays down the rules (literally) visually letting us know that this is an apocalypse where timing is everything. Narrator Columbus and his surviving state-named friends cross the country taking down speedy, undead eaters pretty effectively. How do they avoid the quick, attacking undead? By adhering to the rules of carefully cultivated observations -- like 1) Cardio, or 25) It’s a marathon, not a sprint, unless it’s a sprint, then sprint -- in order to stay alive. Break the rules and it all goes to hell in a hand basket. Of course, Columbus learns the value of spontaneity too, but a plan will take you far when the threat is amped up.
Now that you’ve seen the evidence, which zombie do you think truly prevails when it's time to come a-chomping?