zombie

In an article that hits very close to my own interests, Slate’s Josh Levin explores the surprising speed at which the modern zombie movies in relation to the older, classic Z-films such as Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The article is a reprint, owing its repeat performance to the smash success of I Am Legend, which also features the speedy undead.

Levin touts this new, improved zombie as a result of technological advances that allow the cheap film to be made without having to resort to slow-witted buffoonery on the part of the zeds – it adds yet another element of horror where previous filmmakers had to make due with a slow-witted, hardly mobile stiff.

Of course, the article is intended as a tongue-in-cheek review of zombie mobility in movies; descriptive, but not prescriptive. I believe that he, like all authors I’ve read, overlooks the importance of Frankenstein’s monster in the role of zombification.

Yes, the zombie ideal comes to us courtesy of voodoo priests of Africa and later Haiti. But you’ll notice that the movie version of zombies more accurately imitate (blatantly rip off) the archetype of Frankenstein’s monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff.

In the novel by Mary Shelley, the monster is as articulate, flexible and dexterous as you or I – his main monstrous features are his grotesque appearance and his reaction at being shunned/hated by the world around him. However, as he made the leap to film, the monster almost universally loses his ability to speak (and, one assumes, reason cogently) and adopts a very stiff-legged, arms-oustretched gait. It’s very much a zombie style of walking. The main difference between the monster and your average zombie is one of size, with the monster towering over everyday mortals and undead daemons alike.

But the individual zombie is not all that terrifying – if Shawn of the Dead taught us anything (and it did), it’s that one-on-one zombies are no match for humans. Their power lies in numbers, giving them the greater strength that the monster enjoys on his own.

However, in the modern era even brute force cannot strike fear into the hearts of men so easily. In an age where machine guns, automatic weapons and even contrivances like flame throwers (for weeds in the garden, of course) are plentiful, facing a mass of stupid, barely-mobile scarecrows doesn’t have quite the same effect it used to. And, since there’s no easily believable reason why zombies would enlarge after death, the easiest way to increase their potential for killing is to speed their acceleration and mental faculties up a notch.

You may also note the lack of Frankenstein-style monsters starring in movies recently. I do not think this is mere coincidence: With the aforementioned firepower, the hulking monster is no longer as big of a threat as he once was. And, barring some sort of replicator machine (which means once nanorobots are a more accepted part of popular culture, you’ll see this), an army of such monsters is infeasible. Thus, we are forced to merge that which gave us so much fear in Frankenstein’s monster and zombies in order to give us the best fright.