The Terror Test: Test Prep #18

Posted on April 19, 2018 by


Run, Zombie, Run: Or, There and Back Again

“You loved hugging him cause he made a noise, a happy loving noise, as he squeezed the breath out of you.” ~ Tom Savini

Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned me into a movie-obsessed ghoul. For years I collected VHS tapes, organized them by either alphabet or chronology, tormented by which directors I should give their own sections. Romero and his playful, giving spirit spawned my interest in behind-the-scenes material. He balanced a matter-of-factness with humor, even when disgruntled about the business of moviemaking. His energy and demeanor, and–of course–the movies themselves, inspired me. It wasn’t enough to collect movies. I started reading about filmmaking, and intended to make my own, though that never panned out. Have you ever tried to edit VHS?

Still, Night and Dawn of the Dead (1978), are two of the most important films in my life. I think Night is superb–not just as genre–but as filmmaking in general. Duane Jones is fantastic. Dawn of the Dead, for me, is just incredible fun, from every Savini gore gag to Goblin’s proggy score, to the zombie nurses, Hare Krishnas, and shoppers. The same way peers idolized athletes like Michael Jordan, I idolized Ken Foree, Savini, and Romero.

For a few years, roughly between 2005-2007, before I started teaching full-time, I worked on a book about zombie movies. I went chronologically film by film, reviewing and analyzing everything from the underwhelming King of the Zombies to zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead (2004). It seemed like zombies were hitting a mini-renaissance with movies like Shaun and Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide, but I had no idea how the Walking Dead TV series and other works were going to infect popular culture. The first few years of teaching high school are particularly difficult, and I couldn’t find time or energy to work on the book. I started playing music more frequently and the whole thing died.

All that I have left is what follows, an essay that appeared in American Nerd. Beginning as a comparison between fast and slow zombies, I realized it wouldn’t be that useful and one major article had already done a fair job of that. I mainly dealt with the zombie as symbol of its present culture, an idea I related to the historical definitions of utopia.

Thanks to Keith Pille and American Nerd Magazine who originally published this in 2005.

Run, Zombie, Run

In the wake of 28 Days Later (2002) and the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), there has been considerable debate among horror enthusiasts about fast zombies versus slow. These two films have inaugurated a new era of the very quick and the dead. For some fans, the fast zombie is an oxymoron: if a zombie is dead, it shouldn’t move very fast. Others say, hey moron, fast or slow, the living dead do not exist, so who cares?

Well, I do.

Zombies have played a considerable part in nightmares throughout my life. These nightmares populate the Big Brotherhood of 1984 with zombies. The strange thing is that they started before I had read 1984 or sat through my first of many screenings of zombie films. For years, I didn’t know what to make of all this, except that I didn’t like crowds and I feared brainwashing totalitarian states. Probably spurred on by all of the new movies about the walking– and sometimes racing– dead, I recently began analyzing my nightmare zombie-utopia.

I always thought utopia meant “good place” and dystopia meant “bad place.” The Greek translation for utopia is actually “nowhere” or “no-place” and it is a homophone for eutopia, which actually does mean “good place.” I always thought eggheaded sci-fi geeks started the whole dystopia thing so that they could be smarmy when they talked about Blade Runner (1982). Unfortunately, I found out that in the late 1800s John Stuart Mill had invented the term and that he also used cacotopia, an even more annoying word coined earlier by Jeremy Bentham. Regardless of when the term was created (and don’t think I am not above the thought of a Blade Runner conspiracy), the importance is in the word itself. Every utopia, starting with Plato’s Republic, is a dream for some and a nightmare for others. Therefore, the term expresses both ideas. Anyway, the significance for me is that the undead inhabit a “nowhere” between the living and the dead. In fact, I consider the zombie film a utopia of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Zombie films, like utopias, are grounded in social and economic concerns. The first zombie film, White Zombie (1932), features Bela Lugosi as a witch doctor and owner of a Haitian sugar mill exploiting the undead as a means of economic gain. Here the zombie is slave-laborer. This is pretty interesting, given that for over 100 years Haiti was a slave colony. But the film also depicts the cultural significance of zombies within Haiti itself.

In Haiti, Voodoo priests are able to make their own zombies by using a coupe poudre, a poison that causes the victim to die and to rise from the dead–sort of. The coupe poudre is religious magic for Haitians, poison for some, and possibly a really bad buzz for others. According to Wade Davis, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow, and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie the active ingredient is tetrodotoxin, which is found in some organs of the puffer fish. So, in an odd way, zombies do exist, but Davis stresses the socio-cultural concerns and environment of their existence.

In other words, zombies can exist within certain shared cultural environments and situations where everyone knows what a zombie is and does–everyone including the “zombie.” A Japanese man who happens to get a little tetrodotoxin in his puffer fish soup wouldn’t rise from the dead; he would go to the emergency room. Still, it is interesting to note that a formerly enslaved country still sees the torment in the “undead” worker and the power gained in his ownership. Supposedly, witch doctors still gain status through their power over zombies.

For me, the films carry these concerns into the latter part of the twentieth century, especially when understood within the cultural framework of the Cold War and imminent Communist invasion. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), depicts the dead coming back to eat the living. Why do the Pittsburgh zombies (Romero’s undead are lovingly named after the city of their, um, birth) rise? The film doesn’t explain, but there is mention of a satellite crash. Coming just six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it wouldn’t be too hard for viewers at the time to come up with their own ideas about plague-infested or irradiated satellite components sent over from a Communist state.

Maybe Night of the Living Dead depicts a proletariat uprising in the form of a zombie invasion. Picture an American neighborhood. Out in the yards, you have your socialist zombies–all made equal in undeath–storming the houses of the bourgeoisie. Inside the houses with survivors, you have diversity: blacks, whites, men, women, and children. You also have survivors competing to “sell” their ideas for survival in a form of free-market capitalism: “We need to board up those doors and stay up here;” “Hell no, you idiot, we need to get in the basement and wait this thing out.” The Pittsburgh zombies as proletariat are not that far removed from their Voodoo kin.

Romero didn’t stray too far from these kinds of social concerns in his sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Here, Romero uses a zombie-ridden mall to comment on consumerism. The capitalist is now the slave; the undead want to shop, even if they have no reason to. Romero suggests disappointment with blind consumerism and has voiced displeasure with a film industry where creativity and independence are not as important as bank accounts and star power. But, even with his displeasure and lack of funding, he has been able to make Day of the Dead (1985) (he actually only filmed about half of the script because of funding problems) and the upcoming Land of the Dead (October 2005). Romero’s last Dead movie was made twenty years ago, before the multi-frame-per-second MTV editing of films like Run, Lola, Run (1998) and equally rapid-paced video games began influencing the genre, and it will be interesting to see if these current trends will affect Romero’s film the same way they’ve taken root in some of the recent additions to the genre.

Take 28 Days Later. I rarely go to the theater anymore, but I was ecstatic that a new zombie movie was coming out. And, initially, I wasn’t disappointed, even though the zombies were awfully fast. Like many other enthusiasts, I felt like I wasn’t really seeing zombies, just some infected folks who want to eat other people. While my zombie hopes were whisked away, I was still having fun until the trio of survivors were rescued/captured by a military unit. I told myself, “Please don’t let this become Day of the Dead.” But it did and then I wasn’t having fun anymore.

At least I knew where I stood. With the Dawn of the Dead remake, I couldn’t ever even decide if I was having fun. To be fair, I’ve seen the original more times than I’ve seen any other movie; I mean, I’m giddy from the first head explosion to the last disembowelment. For me even mentioning the movie is treading on sacred ground, and zealots are not always the most logical or friendly of folks. In other words, it was doomed from the start with me. Here, for the first time, I was confronted with the fast zombie, which is different from the Continental, usually Italian, zombie that can be rather agile and has been known to fight sharks and ride horses (Fulci’s Zombie 2 (1979) and de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) respectively). Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but the new zombie doesn’t grab me the way its lanky cousin from Pittsburgh does.

At least the mall was in the movie–for a while, anyway. And like their mall-wandering forebears, these zombies come back to what is familiar to them, although nowadays it appears that that means they have run out of ADHD medication and have started raiding Starbucks shops and Pepsi machines. And that’s really the difference between the fast and slow zombie for me: cultural environment. We are not part of a slow, cold war anymore, unless you count the seemingly endless “war” on terrorism. Where it used to be effective to allow films time to build suspense and anxiety as zombie hordes increase, it is now more important to go for sensation and speed. We are a part of a hyper-paced, information overloaded, caffeine-fueled mega-machine where films have to move as fast as the beat and editing of an Aphex Twin video, and now the zombies are grinding to that up-tempo beat.

A type of information overload is portrayed in the beginning of 28 Days Later, when scientists are filling chimpanzee minds with several screens of mostly violent images. These information and violence-laden chimps soon infect humans. I see the infected as extensions or intensifications of all the day-to-day aggravations we all deal with: driving, standing in bank and shopping lines, and watching movie trailers where everything explodes– including the credits. It’s like all these sensations and aggravations bombarding someone’s consciousness at the rate, amount, and intensity with which we are all bombarded with information. And, like all of this information, it doesn’t go away and you can’t get rid of it because any attempt to destroy it is likewise turned into information.

And information itself is now being looked at as a cause for health problems. In his Information Anxiety (1989), R.S. Wurman writes that, “A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.” Imagine what CNN with split screens and news tickers could do to the same person. David Lewis, a psychologist, has proposed the term “Information Fatigue Syndrome” to describe the symptoms of increased tension and ill-health felt by two thirds of managers who were part of a 1996 world-wide survey conducted by Reuters. Other symptoms included anxiety and reduced attention span, which in turn cause additional stress as people are required to adapt to ever-changing situations.

Since technology and change have now been scientifically shown to increase stress, it is interesting to look at how animals deal with stress. Instinctively, animals react to stress in three ways: fight, flight, or fright. Usually, the aggression that is part of the fight reaction cannot be sustained for long periods of time. In the new zombie movies, the catalyst for maintaining this aggression could be the virus that infects and people and turns them into the raging undead. In other words, there is a “Starbucks Factor” to the fast zombie analogous to our use of caffeine to increase our sharpness or to simply wake up.

The ravings of new undead and the not-quite-dead in a rapid-paced world were in many ways predicted by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock (1970). Instead of the symptoms of helplessness and inadequacy caused by the acceleration of change in modern life that Toffler describes, the zombie represents the accelerated environment itself. The zombie, instead of embodying the slave laborer or the mall-walker, now exemplifies a cultural environment of information overload, crippled attention span, and caffeine addiction. Is this the technological utopia that people had in mind before and during the Space Age? Anyway, this all takes me away from what is nearest to my own heart: zombie movies and the fact that George Romero has a new one coming out this year.

The word on the street is that Romero is using the slow Pittsburgh zombie for Land of the Dead. I expect the Pittsburgh zombie to become a rare species. But maybe it’s just time for the zombie to crawl, or sprint, into the twenty-first century like his often overhauled cousin, that dandy of the undead, the vampire. Given caffeine addiction, ADHD, information overload, and constant exposure to multi-frame per second editing, it is no wonder that a quicker dead are chasing this generation. Even zombies cannot escape the makeover craze or American progressivism. It’s a different time, and reluctantly, a different zombie.


The next episode of The Terror Test will feature Night of the Living Dead and Mother! (2017).