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What is a Zombie?

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

It seems like a fairly straightforward question, right? A zombie is one of those rotting, decaying corpses shuffling around looking for brains, isn’t it? I’m not so sure that even that simplistic explanation is enough. I mean we classify a wide variety of films as “zombie” films, even if the creatures prowling the land don’t resemble the type of monsters I have described. I mean, if the simplest description of a vampire is that it sucks blood and the most direct synopsis of a werewolf is that it changes form into a beast, what is the most essential element of being a zombie?

Will I stumble across the answer?

I’d almost argue that “zombie” is a word probably best used to apply to a particular type of film rather than the creatures in it. I mean, a “zombie film” is a story of survival against a horde of inhuman aggressors who act like a force of nature – they can’t be argued with, bargained with, reasoned with or negotiated with – they just attack from all sides. For example, I’d argue that although The Road didn’t contain shuffling groups of undead flesh-eating monsters, it felt like a zombie movie – an exploration of what individuals will do to survive when under siege from faceless groups of violent and anonymous attackers. Sure, the cannibals were capable of speech (and of other heinous atrocities), but the themes, ideas, motivations and setting were all there.

Even ignoring a controversial example like that – and assuming that we take a zombie movie to be a movie featuring zombies (which is a reasonable proposition) – a lot of viewers (myself included here) would argue that the British films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later are prime examples of zombie movies. However, despite the fact that they use the synonym “infected” to refer to these predators (and they are infected with “rage” – a weird hybrid of ebola, mad cow disease and rabies), there are two factors which distinguish the creatures featured here from more traditional zombies. The first, which we’ll return to in a moment, is the fact that these creatures run rather than stumble. The second is that these things are – at least technically – alive. They aren’t “undead” and they are “reanimated”. They are normal folk, just driven completely loopers.

I can understand the argument – if the defining feature of a zombie is that it is a reanimated corpse, then it can’t be a zombie if it is still technically alive. I could argue that the individual themselves is dead – the “self”, personality or soul, depending on your euphemism of choice – and the thing on the prowl is certainly not “alive” in the more spiritual or philosophical sense of the world. After all, you could make a case that, assuming the common theme of these movies is how much humanity has in common with the beasts, removing the “they’re literally reanimated dead bodies” point makes the debate so much more interesting. Because “they’re literally reanimated dead bodies” tends to trump any “they’re functioning on instinct” or “they have no conscience observations”. We can only be so similar to things that crawled out of their graves, after all.

I don't want to start a flame war...

However, moving away from the airy-fairy argument, there’s the simple fact that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you might as well call it a duck. These things are aggressive to humans. They consume human flesh. They are (usually) fairy easy to handle in small numbers, but if you get a crowd of them you ‘re in trouble. They are relentless. They have no personality. They function solely on instinct. They aren’t capable of independent thought.

But, the zombie sticklers out there will remark, they run. Zombies don’t run.

I am actually surprised that this is as big a point of contention as it is. I actually thought that being dead would be a bigger sticking point, but it seems the capacity for these monsters to sprint and chase prey at startling speeds is the fact that counts most against these sorts of zombie-esque creatures. In recent years the “able to run” brand of zombies have become incredibly ubiquitous, popping up in the quite good remake of Dawn of the Dead and the much less good remake of Day of the Dead. In zombie-dom, there’s a strong opposition to these sorts of creatures.

In fairness, Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead offers a fairly compelling argument for why zombies shouldn’t run:

More significantly, the fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety. As monsters from the id, zombies win out over vampires and werewolves when it comes to the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster. Where their pointy-toothed cousins are all about sex and bestial savagery, the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.

Even the father of the genre, George A. Romero suggests that running zombies are a stupid idea:

Partially, it’s a matter of taste. I remember Christopher Lee’s mummy movies where there was this big old lumbering thing that was just walking towards you and you could blow it full of holes but it would keep coming. And in the original Halloween, Michael Meyers never ran, he just sort of calmly walked across the lawn or across the room. To me, that’s scarier: this inexorable thing coming at you and you can’t figure out how to stop it. Aside from that, I do have rules in my head of what’s logical and what’s not. I don’t think zombies can run. Their ankles would snap! And they haven’t yet taken out memberships to Curves.

However, despite quoting Romero, one should keep in mind that the godfather of the genre has ignored this edict himself on occasion:

Even George Romero, the godfather of zombies, bent the rules from time to time. Witness the very first zombie in Night of the Living Dead, which moves at a fair old whack and even picks up a rock to try to smash a car window. Or the two kiddywink zombies in Dawn of the Dead, who burst out of a room and run – yes run – towards Ken Foree.

More than that, I think the most wonderful thing Romero has done is to refuse to allow his own image of what a zombie is to crystalise, and I think that is simply fantastic. Myths change – sometimes vampires need to sleep in the soil where they were buried, sometimes you need to invite them in, sometimes they are allergic to religious symbols and sometimes to garlic, however none of these ideas are necessarily applicable across the board.

Romero practically invented zombies. The creatures have their origins in voodoo. Local shamans would drug individuals, bury them alive, wait for the lack of oxygen to damage the brain permenantly, and then dig up the bodies and use them as slaves. There are even Hollywood movies based around this concept, such as the classic Night of the Zombie or the more recent The Serpent and the Rainbow. They were the dead reanimated, but they had no hunger for human flesh and answered to a human master.

Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead changed all this. Zombies now hungered for human flesh. All the dead were reanimated, not just those “cursed” by voodoo lords. In fact, a recurring difference between various branches and types of zombies is whether you need to be bitten by a zombie to turn or if all dead turn. Romero’s films embrace the latter (to the point that his opening newscasts in Land of the Dead explain this rule to the audience), but the association between bite and zombie-ness comes from the fact that zombie bites are almost always fatal. So a zombie bite kills you, and a dead body becomes a zombie (it just becomes easy to skip the middle step). However, some continuities skip the second part – characters who die from non-zombie-related causes don’t have to worry about turning.

Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

By the way, the stereotypical image of a zombie craving brains (“brains! braaaaains!”) doesn’t come from Romero’s work. When he wrote The Night of the Living Dead, his co-writer Russo branched off to create his own series of sequels and follow-ups. The Return of the Living Dead series features undead who solely seek brains; Romero’s zombies will eat any part of you (and frequently do for gore value).

However, Romero himself has moved away from what would be considered generic zombie fare. If one considers the notion that zombies are an inherently identity-less swarm as a core aspect of their personality, one could argue that his films have gone beyond that. Both his original Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead feature individual zombies – in the form of the “domesticated” Bud and the “zombie leader” (as much as that isn’t an oxymoran) Big Daddy. These were zombies that could fire guns, and feel compassion. They weren’t mindless monsters, they had moved beyond that.

To me, the notion that a zombie is mindless and identityless is a far more fundamental part of their nature than whether they are literally dead or if they can sprint, but I’d still argue that all of these films are zombie films. I suppose I don’t know how to define a zombie aside from “I’ll know it when I see it” – and even then I accept that my view will likely be distinct from the consensus. Still, maybe the genre is young enough that we don’t really have as firm an idea as we might think. Vampires and werewolves have existed in Western culture for generations, whereas Romero only coopted the zombie from Caribbean culture a few decades ago.

6 Responses

  1. It was amusing listening to Kai and Nick debate this on the MILFCast the other day. I think the issue really comes down to which of the various arguments, as you eluded to, people use in defining zombies. Often times these big debates get out of hand because both people will be using a different argument to support their viewpoint, not realizing that in doing so they are both supporting their own view point and disregarding the other’s view simultaneously.

    The real argument, in my eyes, is – does it really matter? Society has a long standing tradition of altering myths to suit their own narrative needs. Dracula isn’t a vampire if you go by their original foundation, but one hardly sees countless articles online debating it. In my opinion it really doesn’t matter. As long as you can justify why you choose the define something as part of that category in a reasonable manner I’m willing to accept it.

    Great post 🙂

    • Thanks Univarn, much appreciated. And you’re right – vampires are so hazily defined that it’s hard to give them a core characteristic beyond “drinks human blood”. Can they transform into animals, for example? It varies from telling to telling. I think the mindless horde in this century is distinct from that of the seventies. in the seventies, the lumbering zombies were “the silent majority” seeking to smother and consume you with an unerring determination – slow and steady, you couldn’t fight them off. Today, it’s a violent world outside our doorstep, with horrible acts carried out for no reason and everything falling to pieces so suddenly.

  2. Compelling arguments, but I tend to agree with Romero. Zombies must be slow, mindless, and dead. Otherwise they’re just really pissed off bagboys.

    • I think “mindless” is the key one to me. Subhuman and incapable of rational thought, basically incapable of displaying individuality or forming a complex society – these are the defining characteristics of a zombie to me. The rest is just packaging.

  3. Personally, I like the fast ones. Much scarier and intense than the slow ones which are basically useless unless you are cornered and there is hundreds of them lol. If it looks like a zombie, then it’s a zombie to me, I really couldn’t care less about the technicalities of it…

    • Yep. If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. I get what Pegg is saying about the slowly suffocating outside world, but sometimes you need to know that – no matter how fast you are – it can still catch you.

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