Walking Before Running

Long has this debate raged, and I’m sure that each of you has an opinion. Some may put more effort and conviction into deciding this answer than who you vote for in any given political arena. Perhaps it has caused you to lose friends, or make new allies. Maybe you keep quiet, out of fear of being judged. Either way, unless if you live off the grid or strictly don’t consume pop culture, there’s a good chance you’ve entertained it.

I’m referring to the age old question: Walking or running zombies? Not: Which would you stand a better chance of surviving against? That riddle is easily solved by scrutinizing the athletic conditioning of most North Americans. Clock your average Joe or Suzy in a sprint, and then add nimble zombies. Better yet, take it to the length of a marathon. Even with adrenaline pumping fight vs. flight juice through your veins, you’ll still not last long. This is instead a question of your favourite brand of the living dead.

The first zombies to hit the big screen were George A. Romero’s, in Night of the Living Dead–though at the outset he referred to them as ghouls. His goal was to come up with something similar to I Am Legend (the book, not the movie), and wanted to share the experience at the beginning of an outbreak, rather than from the perspective of the last man standing. Vampires were taken, so he went with something similarly horrific. My wife and I were fortunate enough to attend a live event where he spoke and fielded questions at the 2014 Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. Most interesting was his outspoken distaste for current zombie franchises, like The Walking Dead. His zombies were satire. They poked fun at the growing idiocy of our culture. Current series’ create consumers–zombie-like fans for the genre, in effect working in the opposite direction of his message. But, anything that popular becomes mainstream, and is then dilluted into various version and forms by other creators. To quote Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park: “You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.” Thus, in a rush to make money off their popularity, we forgot the political purpose of zombies and now, ironically, they’re everywhere.

Romero’s zombies were shamblers. They slowly moved across fields and grew in numbers where people were holed up. They weren’t horribly disfigured, rotting to the bone. Rather, due to constraints of budget and time, they were as off-colour and gangrenous as week-old cadavers. They walked with arms out in now stereotypical fashion, moaned, scratched at doors and broke windows–but that was the extent of their physical prowess. Mindless, dumb, and very hungry, Romero’s zombies were probably the best case hope for survivors of such an apocalypse. That fact still didn’t spare many of the movie’s farmhouse inhabitants.

Next up would be the zombies of Resident Evil. Not the video game that spawned a multitude of generally bad movies, but the first film itself. The zombies of Resident Evil seem average paced. They can run, but aren’t over-the-top. That status is reserved for the mutant monsters and zombie dogs which are also found in the underground Umbrella facility. Umbrella, a nefarious corporation with its hands in all manner of weapons development projects, is responsible for creating the Tyrant Virus (better known as t-Virus) that kicked-off the outbreak. By this point in movie-making it seems as though zombies are cultural enough that they don’t need explaining. From the get-go our protagonists inherently know or learn how to kill zombies. I suppose it might seem natural to brain one rather than picking body shots, but the effect does downgrade any sense of danger. As well, against a well-armed assault team the zombies themselves feel as though they pose little threat. Rather, the facility and an artificial intelligence running it do a better job of playing the real villain. Judged on the quality (makeup, effects, tone) of the zombies we do see, I’d rate Resident Evil’s undead among the worst.

Worth adding to our list is the low-budget (the best ones always are) 2002 cult classic: 28 Days Later. Here, later imitated by The Walking Dead, our protagonist wakes up from an injury to find the world overrun. He wanders empty London streets before other survivors discover him. The zombies of 28 Days Later are far removed from Romero’s. They run full tilt, screaming. This version of the zombie virus, often spread through blood or a bite, is a biohazardous infection called “Rage.” Rage is the Red Bull of zombie viruses. As seen in later movies, victims will repeatedly bash their heads against windows to get through, and run without stop for as long as necessary. The second movie of the franchise features a truly terrifying scene where zombies are chasing Robert Carlyle across a field and all hope seems lost. Even when he manages to jump into a moving boat and escape, they dive into the water and follow him along the river banks.

Though there are dozens of other variations I could mention and will miss (like last year’s phenomenal Girl With All the Gifts), we’ll instead finish with something fantastical. In wholly opposite direction from Romero’s zombies we find World War Z, whose living dead not only run maniacally down streets and fling themselves spider-like at victims, but who will even slam en masse into walls and pile up on top of each other in order to climb. These zombies behave in insect-like ways, swarming together towards a target. Of all the zombie attacks I’ve seen in movies, a scene in Jerusalem where they doggie-pile right up a massive wall sticks with me to this day, as it effectively removes the most basic protection humans have in surviving such an outbreak: high walls. It’s also one of the most cringeworthy moments in a zombie movie, because who didn’t scream at the screen for the city’s inhabitants to stop playing music and making noise? The below video is the result:

What is my personal favourite brand of zombie from the above selections? If it wasn’t obvious yet, I would have to go with the very first one mentioned: Gory, hungry, and slow Romero ghouls. Though similar in design to what we find in The Walking Dead, the reverse is true when trying to kill them. Give one of The Walking Dead’s survivors a crowbar or a knife and even the least-competent among them has no problem offing a dozen zombies in a pinch. Piercing a skull and brain, even with a sharp object, should probably be a little harder than that, but I don’t work in the business. Personally, I prefer zombies that function on an even playing field because at the end of the day I can cheer more for a fair fight. This also allows the focus of the narrative to move. The best horror movies are about exploring the relationships and motives of the victims rather than the monster hunting them. The monster acts like a psychologist, allowing us to have uncomfortable conversations. Here, Romero’s message is about the nature of consumerism, evidenced in any video of a Black Friday sale, as people trample and crawl over each other to reach the last sale flatscreen television on a display.

What’s your favourite zombie? Sound off to let me know if you agree or disagree with my choice, or prefer a version unmentioned.

Featured Image Credit: The Verge

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