Saturday, March 7, 2009

Slow v. Fast Zombies?

By Steve Evans

Slow, shuffling zombies all the way, baby. The best zombie films always feature lethargic undead. It adds to the horror. Herein, I focus my thoughts about the modern zombie film, building on a conversation that began with a fellow film aficionado earlier today.

Lumbering zombies increase our sense of dread because we know that no matter how far we run, or how fast, or for how long, the leg-dragging ghoul…Will…Not…Stop.

A good comparison would be The Mummy. He’s just gonna keep coming — he’ll get ya eventually — and in the meanwhile, you must deal with the psychological terror (which is arguably worse) of knowing that sonofabitch is on his way, step by excruciatingly slow step.

Cinematically speaking, the slow zombie is more suspenseful than the sprinting species of undead who seem to be gaining traction in contemporary horror films that favor action over nail-biting anticipation. This is on a par with dashing to the climax without leisurely foreplay; a great lover knows better than to rush into the midst of the action before savoring the journey.

As for the appeal of these pictures, which are admittedly an acquired, um, taste, I tend to look at zombies as satirical representations of our society — specifically those I refer to as “the sheeple” who shuffle along mindlessly through life, craving only the most base consumer goods (Romero’s Dawn of the Dead from 1978 remains the gold standard for this satirical interpretation of the zombie flick). Zack Snyder's exciting 2004 remake with sprinting undead is essentially an action film that dispenses with the sociological and philosophical questions that lurk as subtext in the Romero zombie movies.

The cannibalism aspect alone would provide thesis fodder for half a dozen grad’ students (and probably already has). On that note, I've never understood the (admittedly predictable but still puzzling) outcry over the outrageous violence in contemporary zombie movies, especially criticism of violence against the zombies themselves. Aestheticized violence against dead things forces a certain amount of introspection in the viewer. After all, that skull-shattering zombie headshot in grisly color is merely a depiction of something that is not alive, something that is essentially mindless (back to the sheeple again), and much worse, something that is trying to eat us. When it comes to self-preservation, putting down a zombie is nothing personal, it's just good business.

Moreover, we have all been trained from childhood not to speak unkindly of the dead. Perhaps the uneasy sight of a zombie mutilation spurs some sort of abstract sympathy, since everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Zombies, bless 'em, are already dead -- and still they get no peace! But zombies are also a pain in the ass, thus we have a paradox that heightens our sense of discomfort.

For some, the violence in zombie movies might also provide a vicarious thrill as they imagine the exploding head of a loathsome boss, a vile politician, perhaps an obnoxious ex. Ka-blam. Excellent. Ah, but we musn't speak of such things, for it is impolite.

That's all foo-fa-raw for a discussion in psychology class or, more likely, it's just an exercise in harmless catharsis. As Brother Ray Charles sang, “Come on baby, let's have some fun/you only live once and when you're dead, you're done/so let the good times roll -- yeah -- let the good times roll.”

And what is life without a little macabre humor now and again?

That said, sometimes a zombie movie is just there to provide good, old-fashioned chills & thrills. Two of my favorites are White Zombie (1932) with Bela Lugosi (reportedly the first zombie movie), and I Walked with a Zombie, from the famous Val Lewton cycle of horror films produced for RKO in the 1940s.

Cteve sez, “check 'em out.”

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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