I was at a conference on the 22nd talking about pop culture. Specifically, I was talking about The Castle of Otranto and Night of the Living Dead (which have some weird similarities, all things considered), and after reading excerpts from a paper I wrote about the two, the other presenters and I were asked questions about what we had written about. One of the questions directed at me was, “Do you prefer fast zombies or slow zombies?”
I hate fast zombies. I think they’re a cop-out, and while there is a certain fear that can be encouraged by their existence, they’re not as scary for me. For one thing, they don’t really make sense: If zombies were people once, and they’re literally the “living dead,” decaying and all, why would they be able to run fast? If they’re in rigor mortis, their limbs would be stiff, unable to move with any kind of fluidity, and if they’re older, if they’ve been eating people for a while, they probably wouldn’t be able to move very well at all assuming their tendons and muscles have decayed—as is what happens.
But for another thing, think about the effect that we get from slow zombies. What do they represent? Why do we dislike zombies, and why do they keep popping up with more and more frequency now than ever before? There’s our general fear of death, which is why we don’t like the things that creep around in the dark in the first place, and that extends to almost every monster. But zombies are in a similar class as vampires in that there is a disease fear about them, and we do not like the idea of coming into contact with literal decaying bodies because we’re afraid of disease. The whole pathogen of zombie creation means that to become a ghoul you’re going to be infected. We keep making advancements in medicine, but because some people won’t vaccinate their children, we’re also seeing a resurgence in avoidable deadly diseases like mumps and measles. As a culture, we praise antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer and we’re generally very afraid of getting sick, which is understandable.
Disease can move quickly, but it’s much more frightening when it’s inevitable, when everyone around you is getting sick, is decaying, and creeping towards you at a slow crawl. Eventually, even when you’re being chased by something moving so slowly, you’re still going to get tired—and they might not.
There’s also a lot of room for stuff to happen when zombies move slowly. You can get more character development in, you can get more social commentary in, and you can make things more suspenseful. It’s more frightening to be trapped than to be chased, in my opinion.
Fast zombies on the other hand appeal to a much more machismo kind of horror; that is, they remind me of that dude-driven need for a lot of action, a lot of movement, and a lot of violence, and there isn’t as much room to develop any kind of concern for the people who are being targeted by the zombies—they’re there and then they’re dead. So I don’t really like them; I think they kind of defeat the purpose of a “zombie” to begin with. Even ghouls are better when they’re slower. They don’t make sense in the physical way—what kind of decaying body can bolt forward? Vampires have the excuse of stagnated process—you never grow old, even though your heart isn’t beating—but zombies don’t. They also remove a lot of what’s good about zombies to begin with: That is, the slow anticipation of getting killed, rather than a quick and immediate devouring.