Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why Zombie Fans Hate Fast Zombies

I'm reading "Day By Day Armageddon: Beyond Exile", by J.L. Bourne. It's the sequel to "Day By Day Armageddon", which is the tale of a virus that reanimates the blah blah blah civilization collapses blah blah blah lone survivor has to blah blah blah fortified against the living dead. Sorry if I can't seem to work up much enthusiasm for it, but zombie fiction has an unfortunate tendency to the formulaic, much like romance novels. People don't read zombie books for surprises, any more than they really expect the latest Danielle Steele novel to end with the couple deciding they really aren't right for each other, and giving up on the relationship because of all the obstacles in their way.

But I pressed on with the sequel nonetheless, and I noticed something while I was reading about the hero's daring rescue of his sixth and seventh fellow survivor. Namely, he doesn't actually seem to have much trouble dealing with the zombies. And it occurred to me that this is actually a pretty fundamental feature of the genre--the zombies are slow, unintelligent, and suffer from a weakness that makes them easy to defeat. The hero outfights what he can't outrun, outruns what he can't outfight, and outthinks everything else.

Which leads to the question, "How the hell did the zombie problem get so bad in the first place?" The zombies are slower than the walking pace of even a child, they don't use any kind of tactics or strategy, they are exceedingly gullible (in the "Day By Day Armageddon" series, they're attracted to any loud noises...set up a loudspeaker playing "In Your Eyes", and you've pretty much neutralized the zombie threat for half a mile around) and their only weapons are tooth and nail. And as Jonathan Maberry pointed out in his book, "Zombie CSU", tooth and nail are actually fairly sucky weapons in even unarmed combat. It's much harder to break the skin with a bite than it looks. So why is it that in zombie fiction, the zombies always overrun everyone and everything...except the protagonists, who never seem to have serious trouble with them?

I think the answer is that zombie fiction is exceptionalist fiction. The audience is encouraged to identify with the protagonist, the lone man (or, on rare occasions, woman) who rises in the brave new world of the zombie apocalypse. These people who were relentlessly average, stuck in a menial job and an uninteresting life before, they were just waiting for their chance to shine. The crisis might not be a serious one--it just requires a cool head, a steady aim, and a willingness to gun down one's former neighbors--but that's way too much for the sheep-like masses to handle. It takes a real man (or, on rare occasions, woman) to deal with this. A real man like (insert audience stand-in here)!

Of course, not every zombie story follows this formula (originally, Romero made his zombies non-threatening to emphasize the idea that the true threat is our inability to co-operate) but a surprising amount do. As a result, you can see why stories with the zombie as a fast-moving, genuinely lethal and terrifying threat tend to be viewed as a blasphemy against the formula. The harder it is to overcome the zombies, the more sympathetic and understandable the "failures" are and the harder it is for the audience to see themselves as so much better than everyone else. Fast zombies suck because they're a real danger, and that's not actually what zombie fans want.

10 comments:

Alegretto said...

While i see where you're coming from, and i largely agree on the dynamics of the intrinsic aspirationalism that's invariably present in most zombie stories, i personally believe that the biggest reason fast-zombies suck is the same reason shiny, not-really-threatening, actually-very-sweet-guys-inside-who-just-want-somebody-to-love "Vampires" suck: It defeats the purpose and symbolism behind the monster, so it's not that monster anymore (yet gets called that).

Monsters are concepts, stand-ins for "dark aspects" of humanity we try to deny. Vampires are sexual temptation and eroticism, Werewolves are savagery and unrestrained impulses. Zombies, as i see it, are simply being dead and the death we all run away from. It's slow, its predictable, we always know its coming, its even obvious or silly, but it will always get us in the end. Either by our own carelessness (say, we cross the street without looking, or alternatively, we forget to check the broom closet when we clear that last room) or inability to work with others, or even by the simple fact that we're all mortal beings, we will join the ranks of the dead eventually, walking or otherwise.

A fast zombie is not death. It's a rabid animal like any other and has no significance other than the obvious threat it represents (Not to mention they are less suited for horror and they're surprises and more suited for action/adventure and they're fast paced gunfights).
Slow, stupid zombies may not be as threatening in an obvious kind of way but are far more relevant to any narrative that's trying to do something worth people's time.

Alegretto said...

^^^
"...horror and their suprises"...

Agh.

And for that matter,
"...its surprises..."

John Seavey said...

I agree with you...but I think you're missing that fast zombies can have their symbolism too. Let me put it this way: I think there is absolutely no coincidence at all to the fact that the big rise in "fast zombie" narratives came after 9/11.

If we're to take it that the zombie is a symbolic representation of death--and I agree with that thesis 100%--then the fast zombie is the symbolism of unexpected, sudden death. It's the nasty, unpleasant surprise we didn't see coming, the sudden shock of turning on the TV and seeing an airplane crash into a national landmark. It's that terrifying feeling that the world stopped making sense before we even had a chance to process that it stopped making sense, and events are moving faster than we can keep up with. Fast zombie stories are 9/11 stories.

(Annoying auto-biographical connection: I was working graveshift, and was actually asleep on 9/11 when the towers collapsed. I woke up, still groggy, to an all-music station that wasn't playing music, and even before I registered what they were saying, I knew it was a disaster. When I saw the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, with the opening where Sarah Polley's character wakes up and finds out the hard way that the dead have been rising for several hours, I had a tangible flashback to that day.)

j$ said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head. There's a basic difference in the kinds of horror presented by the two kinds of zombies. Slow zombies represent inevitably creeping death which, despite being easy to dodge in the short term, will always eventually overtake you. On a long enough timeline, the life expectancy of everyone drops to zero. Fast zombies on the other hand represent immediate, adrenaline-filled, fight-or-flight danger. They are designed to elicit a different fear response in the viewer.

People who complain about the purity of the genre are really complaining that it can't be limited to just one kind of horror. It's too bad, though, because there is definitely room for both. For example, take the movie Terminator. Obviously it's a robot, not a zombie, but it's a soulless, animated monster bent solely on killing the protagonist. It exhibits both aspects of slow, creeping terror and inhumanly fast, violent action. Obviously the Terminator movies go a very different way than zombie movies generally go, being rooted in sci-fi instead of horror, but you could conceivably make a zombie movie with a similar plotline.

You know, one where zombie Schwarzenegger learns the value of human life while protecting Linda Hamilton's brains from a terrifying, and hungry, liquid-metal zombie from the future.

Kate Holden said...

This was always something that bothered me about Zombies, the fact that the victims in horror flicks are always less capable than you'd expect an average person to be. They can't run without tripping, they can't cooperate, they can't hop over a wall or lob a rock at the zombies, and they never seem to think to try kicking! What, is nobody in the world trained in martial arts in zombie film land?...it's ridiculous!

The other thing is always the question of why are there so many? If you consider that it takes about 8 years for a body to decompose, meaning that you'd only have zombies from the non-cremated dead of the past 8 years. Considering that most people die in their 70s or over, the zombies would largely be fairly weak without much muscle mass. A determined taskforce of healthy adults dressed in leather jackets and helmets armed with gardening implements could take down their town's zombie infestation, and that's without the army getting involved!

I guess in order to make the 'average joe' protagonist look impressive, you have to suspend disbelief that in reality an average person is average and there are plenty of people far more capable mentally and physically who'd realistically cope better. As you said, it's about making the average person who projects themself into that role feel good.

faustusnotes said...

haha, that second to last paragraph summarizes the Shaun of the Dead parody perfectly.

The Mud Puppy said...

While you certainly make an excellent point, one of my own personal reasons for not being a huge fan of fast zombies is much more straight-forward:

Suspension of disbelief.

Fast zombies are silly, and I don't mean they're "less realistic" because ultimately how do we know what a realistic animated corpse would look like? I mean that a fast zombie tends to look like exactly what it is--a human wearing make-up.

The same can be said of traditional zombies, of course, and indeed either one can be undone by sloppy make-up or a bad actor. But there's something fundamentally alien about the shambling, moaning zombies that move inexorably toward you even as you easily out-maneuver them. A sprinting, snarling zombie tends to look like just a pissed-off human being.

That works fine for something like 28 Days Later where they're not really dead, or Return of the Living Dead where the zombies retain an alarming amount of their humanity. But when your zombies are just the standard model--but fast!--it somehow doesn't work as well.

Bill the Butcher said...

I'll be quite frank about this: I despise zombie fans far more than I'd despise any zombies. I keep hearing authors on fora like the Home Page Of The Dead whining that the zombie genre is dying. Well, big surprise; of bloody course it's dying and the fault is that of the idiot fanboy club. They want pap fed to them, are utterly unable and unwilling to use what passes for their imagination, and are almost without exception immature males with a serious case of masculinity doubts sublimated into gun worship. They are more brain dead than the zombies they want to hunt down.

I'm a writer of stories in numerous genres. The thing about the zombie genre is that it's the only one where I write only because I despise my readership. I write SF for discerning and intelligent people; the same for general fiction and other horror fiction. But where zombies are concerned my only desire is to send up the genre for all it's worth and to mercilessly mock the fanboy brigade, for whom my contempt is unfathomable.

infinite_cognizance said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I like both fast and slow zombies. The fast paced zombies also represent how our humanity and interest in being full social creatures in close communities is being quickly replaced at a speedy rate. We are all overall more disconnected from our fellow man, with shiny rectangular lights making us all gaze stupidly. The man / woman who doesn't buy into the explosion of tech is the lone survivor in a sea of sub-humans , all looking at what their little screens are doing.

Www.WhitehawkStudios.webs.com