Saturday, May 10, 2014


One of the strangest, most annoying and perhaps most heated debates amongst genre fans, second only to re-boot-a-go-go, is the one concerning slow or fast zombies! Should they be a fast running death machines, or should they be as the rules originally stated, slow shuffling deadly predators.

If we look at it from a historical point of view, the debate really exploded with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later 2002, where the undead, filled with what in that specific case was referred to as “The Rage” ran like hell making escape almost impossible for the unfortunate bastards trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. They also shrieked terribly loud, but nobody that I've met so far ever wants to talk about moaning versus shrieking zombies. Then Zack Snyder’s remakish Dawn of the Dead, 2004 – fast zombies. 28 Weeks Later  and REC both 2007, sported faster, harder, shrieking zombies. Both movies adding fuel to the debate on fast versus slow. TV show The Walking Dead, mixes them both all depending if they want to kill someone off or not. All through this Romero hit back with Land of the Dead 2005 with zombies walking under water, but still, slowly…  Diary of the Dead 2007 on camera in found footage style, but slowly. Survival of the Dead 2009, that saw the undead feeding of horses… but again, slowly moving around the world.
It looks to be a close shut case, right? The living dead in the way Romero created them take it easy and shuffle along at slow pace. But with the revival of the zombie genre in early 2000, the undead could move with great speeds. But that’s not entirely true. This is merely when genre fans started reacting to fast versus slow, and bickering about it in the way that only genre fans can. It actually started much earlier than that. In the 1985 film Return of the Living Dead, with a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon (who also directed the epic horror comedy), and a story by Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo and Russel StreinerRusso being one of the original writers of the groundbreaking masterpiece of horror cinema, Night of the Living Dead and Streiner and Ricci both starring in it too, it is fair to say that they quite possibly might be the creators of the “fast” zombie. John Russo in more ways than one. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

I’ve heard grown men argue loudly their reasons to why the undead shall not, will not and can't run on their dead limbs, and vice versa, why it is possible. I’ve been to seminars where physicians have discussed the possibility if the dead would shuffle or run, I’ve seen pseudo-documentaries that discuss stagger or speed.  I’ve even sat less than an arms length apart from the originator of the modern zombie, Mr. George A. Romero as he sternly told me, "No, Dead Men Don’t Run!" (and no, I didn’t ask him, it was amongst his artillery of answers, because he get’t that question all the time.)

BUT… and there’s always a but, even though the granddaddy of the genre, Romero himself says that the dead are dead and cant’ run, he’s busted his own theory on more than one occasion…
Let’s start at the beginning, with the Romero / Russo connection. Romero and Russo wrote the screenplay to Night of the Living Dead, the original 1968 black and white independent horror flick that stands as the genesis point of the modern zombie.

You only have to get to pages 9-10 of the script to see how the slow zombie already is evolving.

The old man freezes and looks up. The girl raises her club and rushes toward him. He jumps into a half-standing position, like an animal hunched to spring... Barbara stops in her tracks. The man is breathing heavily. She starts to back away. The man holds very still. She backs further... Faster... total fear. The man starts to move slowly... cat-like. He steps over the body.

Barbara drops the club and breaks into a dead run down the path. She screams. The man moves after her, but he is considerably slower that she, with seeming difficulty in moving. He appears almost crippled.

In a flailing run, Barbara reaches the car, sobbing. She yanks open the door. She can hear the man drawing nearer. She scrambles into the front seat and slams the door shut ... No key. The man draws nearer, seeming to move faster, more desperate to reach the girl. Barbara sobs ... she clenches the steering wheel.

At first the “Old Man” moves slowly, cat-like.  He moves slower than she, seeming to have difficulty moving. Then he draws nearer, seeming to move faster! “Seeming to move faster, more desperate to reach the girl.” We can guess that the hunger is what makes the undead man move faster, and we all know what happens next, he smashes the car window forcing Barbara to let the handbrake off and smash into the tree forcing her to leave the possible safety of he confined space.

Page 11 of the script:

She struggles with the door handle; the button pops up ... the man draws nearer ... she breaks from the car. The man keeps coming, desperately trying to move faster ... Barbara runs, off the roadway and onto the turf of the cemetery. She falls ... kicks her shoes off ... gets up and keeps running. The man is still after her.

“Desperately trying to move faster… “ So already here in the earliest source material there’s a hint of fast animation amongst the dead.

Six years later, 1974, John Russo published the novelization of Night of the Living Dead and the same passage reads as follows.

(Page 26) 
  "The attacker looked at her. And she was startled by the sound of his breath – an unearthly rasping sound. He stepped over Johnny’s body and moved towards her in a half-standing position, like an animal hunched to spring."

Same page a few lines later:

  "The attacker was moving closer, faster, more desperate to reach the girl."

(Page 28)
  "She struggled with the door handle – but it wouldn’t budge until she remembered to pull the button up - and as the attacker drew nearer she yanked the door open and bolted from the car.
  She ran.
  The man behind her kept coming, desperately trying to move faster in his shuffling, staggering gait – as Barbara ran as fast as she her legs could carry her up the steep grade of the gravel road."

Now, Russo does indeed point out that this is dead flesh and that it has difficulty moving too. But there are still several suggestions that the undead move faster when approaching food, just like “an animal hunched to spring”, “desperately trying to move faster”. It’s apparent that there is a conscious attempt to move faster with more speed. If they have the strength to smash car windows, tear entrails out of a stomach – where the flesh, fat and muscle are pretty thick, then why shouldn’t they be able to run?

Sure, what is in text in a script can come off in a number of ways on set and in the final movie. Now think back to that scene in the landmark movie. You recall it as a slow swaggering “old man” [Bill Hinzman] that shuffles off after Barbara [Judith O’Dea] after smashing in Johnny’s [Russell Streiner] head in the cemetery don’t you? But take a look at the scene in the clip below.

Now ask yourself if that’s a slow staggering, slow zombie, or a fast, rapid zombie?

Fast forward eight years. After trying his hand at genres outside the horror realm, George A. Romero returns to expand on his world of the undead and bleak future for mankind epos with the sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead. This is undoubtedly one of the definitive shuffler flicks of all time. There is no running or case of speedy undead here at all… or is there?
Again, let’s start by looking at the script for Dawn of the Dead.

Silence for a moment. Peter still holds his gun high.

Then, with a great crash, the closet door flies open into the room. Two small children burst out. One has no left arm; the other has been bleeding from a great wound in his side. They are dead. They move directly toward Peter. Their heads are at least a foot shorter than the bullet holes in the closet door.

Peter stares down at the creatures, revulsed.  He is so startled that he cannot react quickly enough, and they are on him. The moment he feels their clammy grasp, he regains his survival instincts. He cannot effectively aim his rifle. He kicks and thrashes around. One creature flies against a wall. The other is about to bite the man's arm. The big Black grabs the small Zombie and flings it physically back. The other creature pounces on his back. He throws it over his shoulders and it crashes against its brother.

Now Peter raises his gun. As the children try to scramble to their feet the man fires several shots in rapid succession. First one creature falls; then the other.

“Flies open”, “Burst out”, “Scramble to their feet”, all of these are characteristics of something moving with force, speed and determination. Not really slow, sluggish and shuffling in any way at all.

Take a look in Romero and Susanna Sparrow’s 1978 novelization of the screenplay and the same passage reads:

(Page 82)
   "All of a sudden, a great crash sounded, and even the calm, collected Peter flinched at the noise. The closet door flew open and two small children, a girl and a boy, burst out into the room."

A few lines later …

   "As if by instinct, they ambled towards him.  He was so startled by their actions that he did not react quickly. Before he knew it their clammy grasp was upon him."

Just like in the Night of the Living Dead script and novelization, there’s a suggestion that these specific undead moved faster than the common zombie. Again, it’s the force of which their actions are described, “great crash, “flew open”, “burst out” that all hint at fast force. And if you shuffle at such a pace that you startle a special task force police officer of the scale that the Peter character is, they you must be shuffling at quite a speed.

Let’s take a look at the scene as it takes place in the movie.

What do you say… slow or fast zombies?

Now before you get your pants in a knot, this is in no way an attempt to trash George A. Romero, the universe of his undead, or the rules he indeed did establish there. I hold nothing but outmost love and respect for that man and what he's done for genre cinema. Instead I suggest you look at this as an interesting entry into the ongoing debate if the undead will shuffle or run. As you see, not everything we take a granted and as being stern rules of the genre necessarily apply, even if it is claimed to be so even in source material.

It’s also important to point out that even though Romero still to this day solidly stands by his statement that dead men don’t run, he has pointed out that he may not have had a natural evolvement of the undead in mind whilst writing Night of the Living Dead or even Dawn of the Dead. There is a scene where one of the undead tries to grab Stephen’s [David Emge] rifle away from him, which could be seen as coincidental or as a deliberate act - a call to arms. In Day of the Dead, Bub [Sherman Howard] fires a handgun and salutes a fellow soldier. Land of the Dead has its lead zombie character Big Daddy [Eugene Clark] take to arms and make a deliberate decision to invade the tower of antagonist Kaufman [Dennis Hopper]. Even building a small army of undead along the way. You can find examples of this evolution of the undead in the entire series from Night up to Survival of the Dead. Anything is possible in a universe where the undead are evolving, and who can tell where it will end, because if you can get zombies to feed of horsemeat, then they will need speed to catch their prey. 
Only the future will tell if Romero zombies will stay slow, or if they need to up the pace. But in the meantime let’s just stop debating details and falling out over stuff like fast or slow zombies, and instead just enjoy the movies as they are, in their own universes; because sometimes a zombie movie is just a zombie movie and nothing else.

Stay alive, stay cool, stay one step ahead of the undead!

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Pocket Fiction Edition, 1981
DAWN OF THE DEAD, Dawn Associates, 1978, SPHERE ed. 2012
Script excerpts from

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