Which Is Scarier: Fast Zombies or Slow Zombies?
Netflix's new movie 'Army of the Dead' has both, which prompted us to think: Which would we rather be chased by?
Whether they're running, jumping, crawling, or simply walking slowly out of the mist, we can all agree that zombies, corpses brought back to life with spreading their contagion as their only goal, are pretty scary. Pop culture has separated the undead over the years into two distinct types: fast zombies, which can sprint after their prey and usually possess superhuman strength, and the more classical slow zombies, which trudge towards you, inevitable, dribbling pieces of flesh in their wake.
Army of the Dead, the new zombie apocalypse casino heist movie from Zack Snyder, has both: the mindless, sluggish "shamblers" that go dormant when they're not ambling around Las Vegas, and the intelligent "alphas" ruled over by a zombie king and queen. Pretty much everyone has an opinion on which type is scarier, and both kinds of zombies are frightening in their own right. The Entertainment team decided to have a go at this debate, choosing once and for all which kind of zombie we'd be least thrilled about being pursued by.
Emma Stefansky: I've seen a lot of zombie movies in my time, not to brag, and I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, anything that can run, and especially anything that can run faster than me, is plenty scary. On the other hand, there's just something effortlessly chilling about something that should be dead walking around as if it's not, and walking towards you. I think Hollywood has kind of forgotten that what makes zombies frightening is the inherent wrongness of their existing in the world, period, and not necessarily how fast they're going. But maybe I'm galaxy braining too hard. Guys, what do you think?
Esther Zuckerman: Here's the thing. Fast zombies scare me because I myself am slow. If I were being chased by a horde of fast zombies, I would get bitten in a second because I hate and am very bad at running, so that certainly factors into my opinion. I'll admit that I haven't watched The Walking Dead, which probably disqualifies me from commenting on this, but recently movies have used slow walkers for comedic effect like in Shaun of the Dead. When zombie movies want to be scary like 28 Days Later, World War Z, or Army of the Dead they go for the fast boys. But we're reaching a saturation point when it comes to speedy zombies. The Army of the Dead scenes featuring the shamblers are far more terrifying because of the unpredictability of the monsters. The alphas just sort of move around like modern dancers.
To be honest, the most terrifying piece of zombie pop culture I've consumed in recent years is the novel Severance by Ling Ma. In Ma's world, the infected repeat actions from their former lives over and over again. Some tap their phones, others set a table. I worry that if this book ever gets adapted, the filmmakers won't be able to capture how existentially frightening Ma's descriptions of these actions are. That behavior could easily be goofy, but she makes it so sad and haunting.
Dan Jackson: Esther, I think you're onto something. This is a broad generalization, but I tend to think this debate really comes down to a question of genre. Many of the movies that feature "fast" zombies, like Train to Busan or World War Z, lean more into the action divide of the "action-horror" territory. And that makes sense: fast zombies are exciting and make for good chases with lots of frantic running, shooting, and yelling. They're all about kineticism.
The zombie movies that tilt more towards the horror side of things—with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead sitting atop the heap of rotting flesh and brains—feature slower zombies because they're more unsettling and surreal. Why do they get under my skin so much? Because they operate as these often nebulous metaphors, like the infected you mentioned from Severance, and also have a recognizable loopy dream-logic to their movements and behavior.
This brings up another zombie question that I had after Army of the Dead. Are you scared of "smart" zombies? Besides a handful of gross-out moments, I have to admit I thought the "alphas" were silly and not especially frightening. Like, a zombie deciding to wear a little helmet to protect his fragile head is just goofy.
Emma: I don't think "zombie purist" is the exact way to describe what I am, but I definitely think zombies and monsters like zombies are scarier the less embellished they are. A zombie is scary to me because it is dead yet moving around as if it is not, and because one bite or scratch or graze is all it would take to turn me into one, which is something I don't want to happen. That's all you need! If a zombie is shown to be thinking and reasoning and forming plans, it's less of a zombie and more of, well, a very evil person. Which is scary, sure, but then your movie is an evil person movie, and not a zombie movie. When I think of "smart" and "undead," I think of vampires, not zombies.
In my opinion, zombies work best when they're more of a visual metaphor for disease, as they are in Severance, as Esther mentioned, or for some other sort of inevitable corruption. One of the most chilling zombie movies I can think of in recent memory is The Girl with All the Gifts, which ends on a positive note for its heroine, a young girl who is able to survive a fungal zombie outbreak that decimates the world's population due to her unique condition, but on a downer for everybody else, implying that the world no longer belongs to us regular humans anymore.
Esther: I think we're all coming around to the side of slow zombies are better, but mainly because the use of fast zombies in cinema has gotten, frankly, pretty lazy. To return to what Dan was saying, the alphas in Army of the Dead are just really silly. They sway around dramatically! They are horny! They have a dumb headwear! But let's not underestimate the power of a fast zombie that combines that speed with what Emma's talking about. This is why I think Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is still possibly the pinnacle of zombie entertainment. It's a pandemic movie, where the fear of death and illness pervades every frame, and it utilizes the horror of not being able to outrun disease in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
Dan: Yeah, 28 Days Later also has such a strong sense of place, particularly in the opening where Cillian Murphy wanders around a desolate London. Even more than the relative speed of the undead, I think the success of a zombie movie often hinges on location, location, location. (Think of the Pennsylvania mall in Romero's original Dawn of the Dead.) That's part of why I had relatively high hopes going into Army of the Dead: The Vegas setting feels like a potentially perfect fit for a stylized, cynical zombie romp and for Snyder's slow-mo, razzle-dazzle sensibility. But the movie felt a bit too consumed with its own convoluted mythology to really make effective use of the city outside of the (quite good) opening sequence.
Emma: It definitely loses itself to its own concept eventually. And it was so promising! All right, I think we agree on a few things: Zombies are scary; they're especially scary when they're moving towards you at any speed; and there are plenty of other factors that go into crafting an effective zombie tale besides the mere rate at which they travel. I think we can safely consider ourselves zombie experts by this point, which is great news for me, since now I know who to call the next time there's a casino vault in the middle of a zombie nest in need of robbing. You guys are with me, right?