Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Zombie Shuffle - A Bone of Contention

Slow shambler from Night of the Living Dead (1968)

By: Gus Victoria

The zombie creature has a short history in this country when compared to other types of undead. Our modern zombie has evolved from its West African Roots to become, like many other legendary creatures, divorced from its mystic origins and explained by a sober, logical, scientific methodology that replaces spirits with disease as the cause. Though there still remain supernatural stories of the traditional revenant (a body returned from the dead to assault the living) our zombie has gravitated steadily toward a tendency to be a walking scientific mutation; the physical embodiment of mindless disease and decay. While those topics are worthy of study and indeed will admittedly be discussed soon in future posts, today we focus on one aspect of this change that perhaps runs deeper than any philosophical debate on the nature of the dead and un-dead. There are very passionate supporters on either side of the aisle and this is my humble entrance into that debate.

What is proper zombie locomotion? Ought they be fast or slow? That friends is the real question.

The earliest zombie films of the 30’s and 40’s were still very much encased in their African and Caribbean trappings of Voodoo and depicted the zombie as a mindlessly obedient person devoid of what had made them an individual but not yet definitely dead. In other words the earliest zombies were not, in fact, part of the undead. Their bodies yet lived even if their personality or soul was missing and were otherwise possessed by an evil sorcerer.

Then along comes George Romero and gives us the modern zombie; a mindless flesh eating undead abomination. These creatures resembled more the ghoul of medieval folklore and literature than the zombie of the 20th century. However the name stuck and forever these creatures that were neither fully ghoul nor voodoo in nature were to be known as zombies. The chief characteristics of these new creatures were that they were a re-animated human corpse, they held no qualities of the person to whom the corpse belonged to aside from the physical, and they preyed on living humans. For a long time their locomotion was also uniform in that they always moved in a slow, shuffling manner carrying their bodies clumsily as decay set in and continued unabated.

Then came a slew of video games and movies in the 90’s and 2000’s that further demystified the zombie and introduced us to a new species; the runner. Somehow the hallmark shuffle of the zombie was replaced by the hallmark pace of an Olympic sprinter. No attempt was made to explain this, but to be fair none was needed. It was a directorial choice that served and continues to serve a specific purpose. 

Sprinters from Dawn of the Dead (2004)

I have a problem with this! Some may call me a purist for insisting that real zombies be slow clumsy shufflers. Sprinters are, as depicted in film, physiologically impossible. They cheapen the scare by substituting a slow build up of tension and inescapable fear with quick cheap shock thrills. Where a catharsis may be possible with the slow unhalting horror there is little chance for that when the zombies are fast and the conflict is over in moments. Further I contend fast zombies are not zombies at all unless we are willing to redefine, once again, what a zombie actually is.

If indeed it remains true that a zombie is simply the re-animated corpse of a deceased human then Olympic zombies are simply impossible. Now there is a caveat here of course and perhaps in that room for compromise. Because the fast zombie is impossible in the strictest sense of undeath it does not mean the shambler is the only other option nor that fast speeds from some other zombie-like animation and/or mutation of tissues is not also possible. Many people point out rigor mortis as proof irrefutable that the fast undead is simply not possible. The problem with this is that the chemical process (or rather the ceasing of said process) that causes rigor would also make these corpses impossible to re-animate. You need all these systems – circulatory, nervous, etc. - to operate within the body in order for it to move. With re-animation the rules binding the body and enabling its locomotion are modified, whether by magic (spirits) or science (cellular mutation). It would be silly then to suspend belief on all other systems save the one whose cessation would cause rigor mortis and stiffen the corpse denying it world-class speed.  

Even so I insist that though rigor is not the cause of the slow walk it is a slow walk indeed that moves the undead creature. Let us assume that it is a pervasive virus or bacterium that causes widespread irrevocable cellular mutation allowing it to bypass and render other living systems obsolete once re-animation is achieved. Blood becomes unnecessary as well as the oxygen that blood carries and so forth. The virus or bacterium finds other ways to turn the corpse into its own personal meat-puppet. This is one of the only ways to explain the phenomena without resorting to magic and mysticism and the preferred explanation in recent film and literature it seems.

Throwing rules of anatomy and physiology out the window we must admit that fast or slow both types of zombies remain physically possible. I admit this begrudgingly. And even so I still hold on to the purist notion that the only proper zombie is a slow zombie.

The reason is because although we have admitted that with the explanation of unknown cellular mutations anything is possible I still believe that such a disconnect and subsequent re-wiring of the human machine from its source motor controls leaves a less than efficient creature. And if the virus is key is must take time to adapt to its host so that though physically possible at the point of death before decay, the replacement mechanisms aren’t in place to cope with the exchange of control as smoothly even if individual areas are indeed stronger than in life. For example the zombie may strike harder than any human but it does so dumbly and clumsily because of the lack of efficient sensory input and  motor coordination. These may come in time as the virus becomes more entrenched, but from the point of death on the re-animated is on a countdown; in a race with decay and without the natural means of regeneration it had in life. Yes, the virus may make up for some of this, but it will be a losing battle that will have some sort of time table; days, weeks, or months dependent on a variety of factors.

Therefore, for the reasons stated above I amend my purist stand somewhat. I enjoy the horrifying aesthetic of the slow unrelenting corpse crawling and clawing its way to introduce you to your doom but must admit that is simply the Romantic in me. Realistically (as far as we can take the word here) I believe the undead would carry a modified “deteriorating model” of locomotion. In other words upon death there would be no rigor mortis and the corpse would be free to be re-animated with its anatomical structures in the same condition they were at death. There would be no slowing save for that allowed by the adaptive virus as it takes control or replaces the systems that allow locomotion. Shortly after reanimation the zombie reaches maximum speed and strength. Then, even if the virus becomes better at controlling the undead pieces of the human puppet, decay begins to set in and there is a gradual slowing of the creature until either the virus is eradicated or the corpse is destroyed.

What do you think? Vote and comment below!

1 comment:

  1. If we're talking classic zombies, as in just crawled out of the ground and hungry for brains, then yes, George Romeo's slow pokes take the cake.

    BUT. The zombie has evolved. Ever since the big epidemic scares in the past few decades (SARS, Mad Cow, Bird Flu, etc.), the idea of a zombie as one of millions who are infected, rather than dead, is much more terrifying because it is much more realistic and in the realm of possibility. And yes, they can run, because if the virus can control even slight brain activity, such as hunger, it can most likely control bursts of adrenaline when the smell of food goes running by. If the hunger for brains really is as strong as it is supposed to be, as in the only purpose of a zombie is to eat flesh, then it's hard for me to believe that they wouldn't run after their meals.

    And this comment is most likely full of spelling and grammar errors, but it's 4 am and I'm seeing double!