Fast zombies or slow zombies? I’m sure this question has been raised time and again fueled by alcohol and rabid horror fans. Any true zombie fan has a strong opinion one way or the other and, as one who has spent more time than I would like to admit debating it, I will add my voice to the discourse of the horde. This is, by no means, an attempt to have the final word on the subject, far from it. My aim is merely to state my case and, possibly, win a few brains over to my viewpoint.
Fast zombies came to the fore with the Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) reboot. The canonical series fathered by Romero got a shocking facelift with the introduction of speeding undead. One of the earliest scenes in the movie has the recently turned husband of a young, pretty nurse bolt after her as she drives away. As the car gains some distance, he gives up the chase in favor of a neighbor, caught unaware, in her bathrobe on her own front lawn. They inspire a different kind of adrenaline-fueled, pulse-pounding fear. There’s the instinct to flee, but it’s the same instinct that would kick in whether it’s a grizzly bear on your heels, a lava flow heading your way, or a sprinting zombie. They’re all equally life-threating and that’s the problem. There is no assessment beyond the need to flee. True terror lies in the comprehension of just what it is that wants you dead. Of course, the audience is not the one being pursued, safe and comfortable on the sofa or in the theater, yet there is an involvement and identification with the protagonist that produces a shared experience. The fast zombie does not allow for time to look in the rearview.
There is also a question of viability. I am willing to accept a fictional premise so long as the author or director adheres to their own established rules. The dead can walk. For the purpose of a zombie movie, I can accept that so long as the rest of our understanding about death is supported. Flesh decays upon death, ergo no speeding zombies. It simply does not make for good science. That is, until I saw the Vampires vs Zombies episode of Deadliest Warrior where it was pointed out that we can push ourselves to extremes if we ignore pain receptors telling us to rein it in. With that removed, it is conceivable that a zombie could briefly outrun a sprinter or outleap a high-jumper until the muscles are damaged. So, it is possible that zombies could start out fast and that speed would simply cause them to burn out even faster.
Slow zombie roots run deep with their first appearance in Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). They have more cinematic possibilities with the opportunity to zoom in on the individual members of the approaching horde. It is that up-close recognition that gives the undead their ability to inspire fear. They could be your friends or neighbors, your children or your spouse. That is what I find most terrifying – the recognition that a loved-one is now mindlessly gunning for your flesh. Fast zombies do not allow for that realization to sink in. They are simply more poetic. The gradual, slow plodding step of the tenacious zombie lets suspense build to a cinematic crescendo as the threat grows from a lone zombie to a groaning horde. It also gives our heroes an escape opportunity. Failing that, they can stand and fight and might get some stunning zombie kills. There is no time to set up a truly satisfying kill with a fast zombie. Slow undead give you a chance to drop a grand piano on their heads, like in Zombieland, which leads me to my next point. Fast zombies just are not funny. There is no opportunity for comedy with the quick undead. A drunk stumbling out of bar could mistake a shambler for a friend, whereas a fast zombie would simple rip his throat open without any time for drunken repartee.
It was the opportunity for comedy that is what led us to decide on slow zombies for our filming efforts in our ForZombies productions. We needed to stay in front of the camera and try to communicate with our viewers rather than run off at every possible zombie snack. The slack-jawed shambling, we think, helps to emphasize the not-too-bright meanderings of our zombie alter-egos and, we hope, make for fun, silly and enjoyable films.