All the Terror Gone in a Flash

by Jen Spencer

Jen Spencer identifies a disturbing trend in zombie horror. Braaainz (that's not the disturbing trend, it's just you can't talk about zombies without saying it).
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Though my experience is limited, I am a fan of zombie films. I love the creeping menace of the undead hordes, driven by a base desire to consume brains or flesh, with no connection to the life they only recently had. However, recently the phenomenon of the running zombie, or "Zoombie" as I like to call them, has arisen. This is, in my opinion, a step backward in the generation of terror in audiences.

Zombie have some key aspects as to how they generate fear: you don't hear them coming, they just keep coming, and there is an emotional wrench in seeing someone you once knew and loved as a shambling, broken body. The modern zoombies have only two of these characteristics. The fast zombie generally sprints up onto his victim, snarling and screeching, or runs them down, and then devours them like a rabid animal, tearing and gouging until the victim is dead. The shambling zombies of old would, completely unintentionally, sneak up on victims, sometimes only realising they're there by accident, and then ever so slowly (due to the decaying body and lack of mental coherence) start to bite or grab what it could off a victim. The terror in the shambling zombies comes from the surprise of the initial sightings when they're not expected, and from the silence of their motion. When you don't know if your hideout is as secure as you hope it is, it's scary. When something can creep up on you and be right behind you before you feel its fetid breath, it's scary. The modern zoombie, in comparison, will be heard coming a mile off, from the pounding feet and the hissing and snarling. This is no different from being chased down by an axe-wielding maniac, a werewolf, or even a pissed off cat. Replacing the near-silent shuffle and occasional soft moan with screeching and pouding feet has taken away a foundation stone of the zombie identity.

Another key part of zombie identity is that, while every single zombie used to be a living person, they are more often then not found in huge hordes, and are perceived as great masses of terror. In so many doomsday sceanrios, the horror comes from the realisation that the zombies are *everywhere* and in such vast numbers that humanity is in a war of attrition and we start off from a significantly weaker point than the zombies, who do not need food, water, or sleep. Generally the speed of shambling zombies means that survivors can stay safe long enough to find somewhere to hide, and then stay under siege until they make a desperate break for freedom once their supplies run out. This is a very emotive idea, and is very frightening. The zoombies do share the horde characteristic, and I am not denying that being run down by any kind of ill-meaning crowd is not frightening, however it is a different kind of terror. The knowledge that a zoombie could run you down one on one, makes them a much more immediate threat, and takes away the growing the desperation that accompanies facing a foe who, on his own would be so much more weaker than you, but in his hordes chokes the land you need to exist in. Ironically it is the weakness inherent in being a slow zombie that aids it being so terrifying in terms of being a horde. If I was being chased down by a pack of wolves, and being chased down by a pack of giant snails, and each had completely taken over the surrounding area, personally I'd be more frustrated in my fear and desperation with the snails, whereas with the wolves it's a totally different, and much less sinister survival calculation.

A single zoombie could easily run down most people, whereas the shambling zombies were only successful because a single bite was enough to eventually kill someone (something that's totally irrelevant to modern zoombies which tear your face off while they bite you), and from the fact that they were usually found in mighty groups of hundreds, which more often then not caught people just by weighing them down and closing off all routes of escape. Another way that the slow zombies triumph over their quick counterparts in terms of terror is in the fact that once they get a hold on you, their weak, slow movements of mouth and hand mean that your demise comes slowly, and painfully, and that you might actually have a chance to struggle free if you're not overly mobbed. This is removed with the speedy, coordinated, leaping over fences zoombies, who, with all the coordination and speed of fully fit athletic people will run you down and bite you fifteen times before you can get a slap in on them. Again, the sinister encroaching threat is removed, and replaced with an immediate problem. If a gang of quick zombies get their hands on you, you're pretty much dead, whereas, with slow zombies there's just a glimmer of hope you could get free, and that's where a great deal of their terror generation comes from. A slow zombie gives you glimmers of hope, from the fact it is a slow and weak creature, and we see people valiantly cling to that hope and try to exploit it, and we get drawn into their situations and hope against hope that they will find somewhere to finally escape to. The quick zombie survivors, however, know they're pretty much fucked, as do the audience. The only hope for zoombie survivors is to find heavy ordinance and heavy armoured vehicles and blast a way out. If you cannot hide well enough, or if you do not have enough fire power, you are fucked, and that takes away a lot of the fear that their situations can generate. There's nothing for them to cling to in the same way that there is for the slow zombie survivors, and that means we as an audience get drawn into their stories a lot less than we could do, and hence, because their plans had that much less chance of succeeding, we are affected by it a lot less when things go wrong.

The final destruction of the terror generation created by a zoombie, is the dehumanisation of them. The zoombies are fast killers, even a person who was severly over-weight in their life will become a full on snarling sprinting zombie in the modern day films. This creates a tremendously less sympathetic image that the slow shambling zombies of old. Every zombie is dehumanised, but the fact that the slow zombies are so slow and weak makes us feel sorry for them, because they still do look like people, and we all hate to think of our loved ones in such fragile states, whereas a zoombie just runs people down. The reason so many zombie plagues have spread in films have been because people have not been able to face destroying loved ones they thought they lost, even though that person is now just a green shambling wreck. It's a lot harder to have that kind of emotional attachment when your former loved one is screeching at you and sprinting at you full tilt with a determined look of "I want to eat your face". Zombies tap into our heartstrings because they were human once, but when people become more powerful killing machines we just can't feel sorry for them, which is not the case when they become pathetic wandering hungry souls slowly stumbling over the land.

Modern film-makers seem to think audiences have ADD. They give us loud, quick zombies which we can't feel an attachment to, and give us survivors in situations that will either cause many explosions or that we've already foreseen have no hope within the first half hour of the film. I miss the thought-provoking terrifying menace of the eternal creeping threat; the horror of everyone you ever knew slowly and eternally seeking you out to bring about your destruction. I prefer the heart-wrenching tales of survivors, who know they might just be able to escape if they're cunning enough. I love the fact that a single shambling zombie is no match for a person with a baseball bat, but when his five hundred mates show up, the person will have a chance, but it could all so easily go wrong. It's not scary to see our streets swamped with what are essentially insane cannibals, we get enough of that in modern war zones, or areas of hatred and rioting. What is scary, is to see the landscape full of people, taken from their everyday lives, and stripped of everything human about them, until they are just husks, wandering around with a sad hungry look, and with no more meaning to their lives than perhaps to find some warm flesh to eat. The quick zombies' eagerness to run people down makes them almost seem like they enjoy the violence of their attacks, whereas the shambling slow zombie is drawn inexorably on from a deep insatiable hunger. The slow zombies are tragic, they are slow, weak, sympathetic, and terrifying. The quick zombies are hyper-active killing machines, and, to my mind, so much less frightening for it.
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