Undead on arrival: should zombies run or lurch?

From 28 Days Later to Army of the Dead, fast zombies are everywhere – but aren’t they supposed to be slow and unsteady?

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it

You used to know where you were with zombies. Normally it was 10ft ahead of them, watching them lurch pathetically towards you. This afforded plenty of time to find a baseball bat, something sharp, maybe even a chainsaw. If The Walking Dead, which wraps up after 11 seasons this autumn, has taught us anything, it’s that zombies only really become a problem if there’s a horde of them.

It is almost certain that the venerable Swedish-American labour activist Joe Hill wasn’t thinking of zombies when he said “there is power in a union”, but the principle remains the same, regardless of whether we’re talking about workers’ rights or the rise of the living dead. Then zombies started to run, and everything got much more complicated.

The debate over whether they should sprint or lurch has raged ever since. It is often said that the arrival of the fast zombie came in 2002, with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. (Pedants might make a claim for 1980’s Nightmare City, a gory hit for Umberto Lenzi, although before his death in 2017, the Italian director would insist that his creatures were irradiated mutants and not zombies.)

Before Boyle’s box-office hit, there was no debate about the fast zombie. Afterwards, it often felt like a dam had burst that could never be rebuilt. The fast zombie is frenzied, it never tires, it’s a more visceral enemy. Pandora is out of the box, and she’s hungry for brains. The traditionalists remained, with the zombie movie auteur George A Romero sharing his own thoughts during his 2008 press tour for his latest film Diary of the Dead.

“I remember Christopher Lee’s mummy movies where there was this big old lumbering thing that was walking towards you and you could blow it full of holes but it would keep coming,” said Romero. “To me, that’s scarier: this inexorable thing coming at you and you can’t figure out how to stop it … I don’t think zombies can run. Their ankles would snap!”

The debate has been reinvigorated by last month’s release of Zack Snyder’s saggy zombie heist movie, Army of the Dead, a film that should be better than it is, as any film featuring a zombie tiger should. Against the backdrop of a ruined Las Vegas, Snyder’s zombies hop, skip and jump at speed. Snyder has form at this sort of thing. He made his film-making debut in 2004 with a fast-zombie remake of Romero’s very own 1978 shambler Dawn of the Dead (the troll!). Yet Romero was hardly puritanical in his vision of the undead. Prior to his death in 2017, he was reportedly working on Road of the Dead, a film in which zombies have learned how to drive.

Let’s leave the final word to British film-maker Jed Shepherd who, as the co-writer of 2020’s best horror movie, the Zoom-based chiller Host, knows a thing or two about the ominous. “If you go back to the origins of zombies in Haitian folklore,” he says, “they’re slow because they were designed to be submissive slaves that did the hard work for the people with the skills to create them. Fast zombies aren’t zombies at all.”

So what are they? “They’re infected.” Solved!


James McMahon

The GuardianTramp

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