The Dead Walk

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.)

Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White


  1. Yehoshua says

    Well then you're aware that L4D doesn't have zombies, it has people infected with some sci-fi strain of the rabies virus.

    I recently read an interview with one of the developers explaining how they first decided on the type of gameplay (quick melee-only opponents harassing a team), and then cast around for a suitable identity for those foes.

  2. says

    Everybody knows zombies cannot run. A running zombie is a an absurd mythical creature, something out of Lewis Carrol perhaps.

    And I think this was my favorite post of yours at SSFC, Patrick.

  3. says

    Fast zombies take it in a different direction. As you say, it is not about decay and the numb pushing of inevitability. It brings in animal fears, pushing it more towards vampire horror. I need to see/read 30 Days of Night sometime to compare. The rabies note is germane: most versions of the fast zombies I have seen appeal to some version of rabies. The Cell pushes the "loss of identity" angle with a hive mind.

    Maybe it is that vampire thing. "You got vampires in my zombies!" Not everyone likes the combination.

  4. Chris Berez says

    "…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."

    Thank you for this. Day of the Dead is probably my favorite movie of the trilogy, and it baffles me that it gets as much hate as it does.

    Also, I can safely assume, as a Zombie enthusiast, you've read World War Z, right?

    Re: Zubon: You should read 30 Days of Night anyway, as well as the direct sequels, Dark Days and Return to Barrow. :)

  5. says

    As an aside, I'm not a 30 Days of Night fan (I've read the first 3 graphic novels and thumbed through the short story collection that included the astronaut story; I've no interest in going further).

  6. Patrick says

    Yeah Chris, as a fan of Romero and Terkel, I loved WWZ. Bad news: the director of A Quantum of Solace, which I rather heartily disliked, has signed on to direct the film adaptation. I'm still optimistic with J. Michael Straczynski having script control.

    I should probably post this comment exchange, from the original blogpost, as I thought it improved the post:

    Frequent Popehat commenter Al wrote:

    “Anytime reality gets in the way of fun, fun wins.” – Warren Spector.

    Left 4 Dead with shambling zombies would be dull and a dull game that’s true to its roots is still just a dull game.

    Admittedly, Left 4 Dead could have worked with a theme other than zombies but in all likelihood that would have meant ripping of Aliens instead of instead of Romero. Do we really need another game featuring the Bald Space Marine? Especially one coming out so close to Gears 2?

    I responded:

    Au contraire. There have been a couple of great games featuring shuffling zombies: Dead Rising and (when it works) Resident Evil. Admittedly those are third person and not strictly shooters, but they take advantage of an aspect of zombies I neglected to mention above: that zombies don’t just come in packs; they come in hordes.

    Zombies, while not individually formidable, must either be products of an easily transmissible contagion, or some other environmental factor which guarantees quick spread of the problem. The dead will always outnumber the living.