Zombie Purism: My Creepy Creature Can Beat Up Your Creepy Creature!

Continuing with the theme of terrifying creatures – how about them zombies?

Particularly, how about the representations of zombies in film? Even more particularly – should zombies walk, or should they run?

Now, the debates about walking vs. running are at the surface of zombie purism, yet at the heart of it also lies the eternal question of dead vs undead. For example, certain people will scoff at you and refuse to invite you to their garden parties if you call the infected in 28 Days Later & 28 Weeks Later “zombies.”

This is because zombies popularized by George Romero (and ancient legends) have all reanimated. They were once alive, then dead, now they’re neither alive nor dead. Those infected with the Rage virus, as presented in the aforementioned movies (the idea of a Rage virus was initially conceived by the brilliant Alex Garland, of course, and it feels eerily plausible), are very much alive, just murderously enraged. And some people get murderously enraged when they get lumped in with Romero’s creation and the distinct tradition he’s coming from.

Questions about reanimation also involve the idea of who gets reanimated – all dead people? Some dead people? Dead people who died from zombie bites? Dead people whose funeral rites were not properly observed? A lot of the people working in the genre are vague on this, perhaps intentionally, because vagueness inspires a whole new level of dread.

Reading a book of early Slavic myths, I was struck by a story of a man whose body, upon death, is left in the house with his family. In the middle of the night, he reanimates and eats one of his children. His wife and other children are able to escape because they are hiding on the top level of a kind of old-fashioned bunk bed (this reanimated corpse is not particularly intelligent).

The story can be read as a kind of parable highlighting the importance of disposing of dead bodies in a timely fashion. A rotting corpse, after all, spreads disease. Yet this is just a tiny example of international zombie lore, and why it exists.

The idea of zombie-hood as an infection is also, on one level, a public health issue, and one that is especially pertinent as biological warfare seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Max Brooks, the author of such modern classics as The Zombie Survival Guide, sticks to the idea of zombies as undead creatures, yet also specifically points out that reanimation is caused by a virus. Brooks’ zombies shuffle, awarding him extra brownie points from many of the zombie purists.

Zach Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” meanwhile, sticks to the idea of reanimated zombies, yet, learning from the success of “28DL,” makes the creatures cheetah-fast. Snyder strove to preserve genre convention, but he also realized that the zombie-as-Olympic-sprinter works well on film. My friends the zombie purists are split on Snyder – I have seen him both criticized and praised for this.

Maddox, the world’s leading authority on everything, thinks that Snyder is a genius for incorporating racing zombies into the narrative while not allowing the zombies to die of starvation as the infected do in “28DL.” After trawling a variety of message boards on the subjects, I’ve discovered that some people think that Snyder is just buying into the idea of instant gratification – people’s lives are speeding up, and so, consequentially, are the zombies. Though these same people tend to respect Danny Boyle’s “28DL,” as long as you don’t use the title in the same sentence as the word “zombie,” of course (and even though I just did that, I have to agree that the infected are not zombies).

A zombie is uncanny (here I go with that word again), because it was a person, it still is a person, only not really. A plot-arc of a zombie movie (or book) usually utilizes the idea of societal chaos as people face confusion: why is my next-door neighbour coming at me with teeth bared? Are my dandelions annoying him that much? By the time the populace figures things out, they’re toast (or chow, rather).

Zombie purism has inspired one of the most colourful flame-wars I’ve ever seen on the Internet. I sh*t you not, my fair friends. I’d love to point you in the direction of this particular discussion on a sci fi forum, but the discussion was erased, and the moderator specifically asked me not to mention the forum by name. That thing got so ugly, someone wished rape on someone else.

I am both a zombie purist and a zombie heretic. I *prefer* slow-moving zombies to the cheetah-legged ones (notice that in the beginning of the latest tale from George Romero, “Diary of the Dead,” young student filmmakers get into an argument about whether or not an undead mummy can chase its victim quickly), because slow-moving zombies, to me, are less scary. But people will argue that slow-moving zombies have their own entertainment value, because you can actually do close-ups of them, while the fast ones result in frenzied, disorienting action. Frenzied, disorienting action scares me more than close-ups. Similarly, viruses infecting living people scare me more than reanimation. The former is just a little too realistic for my tastes.

It should be noted, however, that while the undead need a bullet in the head to put them down, the infected are not that supernatural. If only they’d stand still more.

Now, within the horror genre, scary = likeable. So I guess I like athletic zombies which are the product of science experiments gone wrong. I prefer them to the lumbering, undead hordes. But I also think it’s cool to be able to combine the different elements of zombie lore as one sees fit.

Then I come across reassuring articles like this one, and start thinking about investing in a grenade launcher/personal fortress/pet dragon trained to kill on command. Considering the fact that zombie purists also differ on whether or not the zombies can act intelligently (although I hope that we can ALL agree that the z… I mean, the infected dad having some sort of Rage GPS to track down his offspring in “28 Weeks Later” was lame), it might be good to enlist a trained general or two as well. Which is why I wish my granddad was still around.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Tatiana Panteleevna Antonova, who turns 81 today. She’s not an expert on the undead, but she did specialize in infectious diseases.

5 thoughts on “Zombie Purism: My Creepy Creature Can Beat Up Your Creepy Creature!

  1. Faster the better. The slow, shuffling zombie has to rely on too many cheats to be effective… plus I like the idea of a zombie retaining something from its life as a human, and it’s hard to justify a kickass soundtrack when the threat moves just faster than an elderly man using a walker.

    I’m a big fan of Zach Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geug16EbjGc

    You didn’t mention any of Bruce Campbell’s Evil Dead/Army Of Darkness movies. Slightly off-topic… you should try to find Bruce Campbell’s “Bubba Ho-Tep”, it’s Elvis vs. The Mummy… from IMDb: “Elvis and JFK, both alive and in nursing homes, fight for the souls of their fellow residents as they battle an ancient Egyptian Mummy.” Awesome.

  2. I know this is a year late so no one’s reading this, but, oh my God, fast zombies are better. Slow zombies are just laughably implausible threats! I can’t be scared of an apocalypse I think a planet of four-year-olds could avoid.

    God bless Italian horror films and their ridiculousness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSPG9QQg4C0

    Love your blog. I started reading a month ago and decided to go through the archives. You’re a fantastic writer!

  3. I’m really particular on my zombie fiction. I prefer zombie media where:

    a. The cause is a virus (NOTLD is ok with the “radiation cause” however)
    b. They are not very intelligent (Sorry no “Bubs”)
    c. They can run or walk (I’m ok now with the running ones)
    d. Only destroying the brain takes them down (exception: Return of the Living Dead cause I have a soft spot for that comzom)

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