Next week is zombie week. Valve software, the maker of Half Life and Team Fortress 2, finally releases the game I've most anticipated this year, Left 4 Dead, a multiplayer cooperative shooter featuring hordes of the hungry, risen dead. Even with the Prince spelling, I'm charged.
But I was most disappointed to hear, courtesy of my friend and sometimes commenter Andrew, that Left 4 Dead will feature perhaps the most annoying fad of the past decade: running zombies.
Zombies, quite simply, cannot run, and in my perfect zombie apocalypse certainly do not. As a Pennsylvania sheriff put it, "They're dead. They're all messed up."
When well made, zombie films are the gold standard in horror, and the gold standard in zombie films is the work of George Romero, whose first three films in the field, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (which has undergone a critical reassessment after a poor initial assessment, an assesment that was always unfair) are among the best horror movies ever made. Romero's work is set in our own world, but one where the dead have begun to walk for reasons never quite explained (a viral infection of the living which kills and reanimates, and radiation brought back by a space probe, a la H. P. Lovecraft but with man going to meet the things which should not be known rather than them coming to us, are suggested but never confirmed). Being dead, their brains are damaged. They have no rational thought, but they do have full use of the lower portions of the brain, which are all about aggression and hunger. So they want to eat us.
The terror these films inflict is not just because they feature graphic and disturbing images of cannibalism. Death carries its own terror, as does isolation. A world in which one is isolated among the dead carries the two worst fears, death and being utterly alone, to an extreme, as Richard Matheson's short story I Am Legend, a 1950s vampire novella which is at the root of all of these films and which still packs a punch today despite the best efforts of Will Smith, attests. Romero, to the extent he improved on I Am Legend, did so by making its ideas explicit and by adding a jolt of social satire, which is quite evident if one can look beyond the gore.
But included within the fear of death is the fear of decay, the fear of aging run amock. Slow zombies, the dead that walk, don't remember, don't learn, embody the fear of aging as well as death. Recent remakes of Romero's work, however, feature zombies who can run and can learn. They miss the point. A zombie that can run, rip doors off their hinges, and learn how doors work is not a reflection of our own fears about ourselves, and the future that awaits us all in which we consume ourselves if we're lucky enough to live into ripe old age.
Simon Pegg, the star and creator of Shaun of the Dead, a hilarious comedy which pays tribute to Romero's films, yet is also quite scary in its own right and ultimately faithful to Romero's horrifying work, has much more to say about why zombies must not run.
(Note: If you think you've seen this post before today, you have. It was written last November at another site, where some of the content will eventually wind up here as reruns. I quite enjoyed Left 4 Dead, but haven't been able to play it as much as I'd like.)