May 23-29, 2007

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Cult Leader

Dawdle of the Dead: Vs. fast zombies in '28 Weeks Later'

By Steve Palopoli

NOTICE HOW NO ONE ever says they prefer fast zombies. I thought of this again while watching 28 Weeks Later, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's sequel to Danny Boyle's 2002 film 28 Days Later. The original film ushered in what seemed to most fans to be a new, overcaffeinated zombie for the 21st century. It didn't matter that, being victims of the "rage virus," it wasn't totally clear if they qualified as living dead. They drooled on themselves, seemed brain dead, stalked human prey and made the classic "rar!" noise. If anything goes "rar!" that's vaguely shaped like a person and it's not Frankenstein or the Hulk, it's pretty much a zombie for sure.

But these were not your classic Romero zombies. They did not do the Undead Shuffle. They did the Hustle. In fact, they were pretty much breaking land speed records for monsters right out of the gate. They were fast zombies. Then came 2002's lame Resident Evil adaptation and 2004's gutmunchingly good remake of Dawn of the Dead. The latter in particular also featured zombies that any country would be proud to be represented by in an Olympic track event.

Many zombie fans liked 28 Days Later. Many liked the Dawn remake as well. Liked them as movies, that is. Deep in their hearts, however, diehard fans just could not get down with the fast zombies. For the first time ever, zombies experienced retro cool. Romero's zombie trilogy—Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead—has always been the alpha and omega of the modern zombie mythology, but now they suddenly had even more cache, just because their zombies were slow. Shambling was hip.

This makes sense, in a way. Slow zombies seem to have an intrinsic quality of social commentary to them. They don't chase you, really, they squeeze you out. They win because they hit critical mass, as anyone who's ever played the Zombie Infection Simulation online knows all too well. Fast zombies, on the other hand, are as tiring to watch as they most certainly are to be chased by. They give a zombie movie the feel of an action movie, and that's an uneasy mix. It hardly seems fair for zombies to be fast, and let's face it: no one likes to be menaced by the living dead or get exercise, let alone both at the same time.

But I think there are a couple of misconceptions in play. First of all, fast zombies aren't really new. The victims of the plague in Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, the inspiration for Night of the Living Dead, can move quickly. The zombies in Umberto Lenzi's 1980 film City of the Walking Dead are action-ready, too—and seem like forerunners of the 28 Days Later model in more ways than one. In fact, for such a bad movie, Lenzi's Walking Dead has been incredibly influential—it was certainly one of the main inspirations for Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" segment of Grindhouse.

Second, slow zombies aren't really ipso facto more meaningful. They just had great PR, in the form of Romero. There are plenty of meaningless and stupid movies featuring slow zombies, too. But there's something so powerful about Night of the Living Dead that you can project just about any cultural critique onto it and it will stick. Is it about the revenge of the Third World? The American underclass? Everyone's got their own reading, and the movie will support most all of them. It made zombies the powerful symbol we see them as today. And where Night was a critique about why society deserves zombies, Romero's equally ass-kicking sequel Dawn of the Dead was a satire about how society is already zombified.

But watching 28 Weeks Later, it's easy to see that fast zombies can have the same symbolic power as slow zombies. It's not a perfect film—for one thing, it uses that terrible ultra-shaky-cam technique that ruined the Bourne series. Note to filmmakers: Making it impossible to tell what we're looking at for entire action sequences does not make them edgier or more exciting. It makes them very boring. But the undercurrent of contemporary paranoia is more potent in this film than anything I've seen in a long time. It poses the question: Why do you trust an authority to protect you from outside threats? And does it really have your best interests in mind?

Ironically, it's a theme that was explored previously in Romero's most recent film, Land of the Dead. The guy's zombies are as slow as ever, and yet he still has an uncanny ability to stay ahead of the curve.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your pick for best zombie flick here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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