No other horror creature has undergone such a transformative evolution like that of the zombie. Originally portrayed as walking corpses of decaying flesh with little intelligence and an insatiable hunger, many modern depictions of the undead run and attack with rabid fervor. Owe it to originality or sensationalism, today's zombies seem a far cry from their initial design. What makes the first zombies so threatning is what they've lost over the course of their evolution on screen: their slow-moving lurch. In essence, by changing the speed with which these creatures move, we've undermined the very thing that makes them so incredibly terrifying.
When George A. Romero first debuted zombies in 1968, he depicted them as slow-moving remains of the deceased who are driven by a singular purpose: to feed on the flesh of the living. In Romero's second film, Dawn of the Dead, the humans think they have a strong chance of survival so long as they can keep some distance between themselves and the zombies by either running past them or beating them away with weapons.
As we've seen countless times, this is usually a decent strategy for short-term survival — plowing through hordes of the undead will buy some time. Ultimately however, their sheer numbers often overpower even the most skilled fighters or athletic runners. Shaun of the Dead creator Simon Pegg argues that, despite being largely avoidable,
Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.
The True Scares Are The Slowest
Due to their obvious weaknesses, zombies shouldn't be scary, so why have they become such a part of the #horror zeitgeist? In part, it's because of what they represent, paramount of which is mortality and death. The idea that humans are constantly moving towards an inevitable end is a frightening concept; one that zombies emphasize through their unyielding pursuit of the living.
Further expanding upon this idea that subhuman threats are what truly terrify us, American magician Penn Jillette shares an idea that the "constant crush" is the root of our deepest fears.
"It's not that to be heroes in our own lives we have to fight against wonderful, fast villains that are superhuman. What is horrible is that in our lives we fight against things that are subhuman, that constant crush, that slow-motion, overcoming of problems — that's what terrifies me."
In this way, it's not that zombies are particularly strong or threatening, but that they have strength in unrelenting numbers. Furthermore, we put ourselves at greater risk if we let our guard down even for a moment. Simon Pegg highlights this in his comments about how our fear of being taken by surprise is most disturbing.
However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares.
Eventually, we need to sleep or rest, and our inability to stop the inevitable will result in our demise. Moreover, the instrument of our demise doesn't blitz us with uncontrolled aggression, but with slow and purposeful intent; patiently and emotionless. Pegg goes on to further break down how the emotional disconnect of the zombie lends it a particular amount of depth.
The absence of rage or aggression in slow zombies makes them oddly sympathetic, a detail that enabled Romero to project depth on to their blankness, to create tragic anti-heroes; his were figures to be pitied, empathised with, even rooted for. The moment they appear angry or petulant, the second they emit furious velociraptor screeches (as opposed to the correct mournful moans of longing), they cease to possess any ambiguity. They are simply mean.
According to Pegg, zombies become a medium through which any manner of fears can be projected. This makes them not only incredibly versatile but capable of complexity in their simplicity. It's easy to forget that zombies were once living people who felt a whole range of emotions, and though they are reduced to a shell of their former selves, they still retain uncanny human elements. Their lethargic movements and mournful moans represent a deterioration of humanity and identity. For survivors, combating the undead is a face-to-face confrontation with the reality of this breakdown.
All of this horror is made more potent when digested slowly, giving time for anxiety and terror to feed the feeling of unsettledness. Conversely, fast zombies take away the time for this gestation of fear, diminishing our response to nothing more than a reflex. Though our reaction may be one of shock and surprise, it is distinctly different from true fear.
Fast Zombies Have Undone The Dread
Pegg argues that fast zombies undo the horror that they are meant to evoke. Much like the divisive "jump scare" trope, a change of pace effectively changes the way we perceive them as a threat. By granting speed to the undead, we've sterilized their effectiveness as an on-screen villain.
Speed simplifies the zombie, clarifying the threat and reducing any response to an emotional reflex. It's the difference between someone shouting "Boo!" and hearing the sound of the floorboards creaking in an upstairs room: a quick thrill at the expense of a more profound sense of dread.
Furthermore, depictions of "infected" humans like those in films such as 28 Days Later only blur the lines of distinction between the undead and the infected. Though they are meant to be separate creatures unfettered by the rules that govern the traditional #zombie, characteristics of the infected have bled over into the realm of the zombie and diluted its potency.
With so much crossover and current popularity affecting the onscreen portrayal of these classic villains, how can horror revive that sensation of dread that popularized the zombie from the 1960s?
Return To The Slow Threat
Modern #horror looks to return to the slow-moving zombies of old, particularly thanks to the rise of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, which depicts the walkers more like the undead of Romero's early films — slow, dumb and decaying. Even in their state of decay, walkers still pose a serious risk to the survivors, demonstrating their menace in spite of their otherwise pitiful appearance. In this way, walkers call back to their origins while offering what feels like a new take in a genre that's crawling with countless versions of these creatures.
Additionally, though not explicitly about zombies, films like It Follows attempt to recapture the essence of what made slow-moving threats so utterly terrifying, proving that the concept of an unstoppable force continually pursuing its target remains a very real fear among today's audiences.
This analysis suggests that our biggest fear is facing the reality of our own mortality — that there is no escaping it — and we are all bound by an inescapable fate. While we may not be able to cheat destiny, the choices we make in life can help us stave off the creeping dread that seeks to drag us into the darkness and consume us.
Which zombie movie do you think best captures the spirit of dread and fear over a fate we cannot avoid?