Tuesday, 4 November 2008


In today’s G2, Simon Pegg may come off like an obsessive purist whingeing about the rule-bending in more recent zombie flicks. (“I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist but this genuinely irks me. ZOMBIES DON’T RUN!”) But he’s right to be irked! He’s right to point out that, when George Romero set the zombie template to lumbering mode, he knew just what he was doing.

By co-incidence, I’d just been reading the zombie-themed issue of the horror comics fanzine From The Tomb, and noted how often Romero’s name came up as the recognised father of the zombie mythos. And this despite the fact, as semi-acknowledged by contributor Alan Richardson, comics adaptions of his films are generally ill-suited and fall flat!

Now parents of horror genres are supposed to hail from the Gothic era – Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and the like. Yet Romero’s first zombie film was made in 1969! Zombies had existed before then, but almost always as drones – labouring for a mastermind. Despite this division between mental and manual labour, they were really concerned not with wage-labour but slavery. Horror became a symptom of the old world, a nightmare which scared us through reminding us of times past.

Romero first of all got rid of the controlling brain, and let his zombies lumber loose in the world. Then he let them loose in a deliberately contemporary world. Perhaps part of his films’ standing comes from spacing them a decade apart, giving each a new set of contemporary trends to pick up on. Made back to back, they would have risked repetition. (As it is they rise above the schematic by sheer iconoclasm and effort of will.)

In these films we are not just given all the advantages, we’re tauntingly given all the ones that we imagine make us so modern and special – we’re smart, we’re quick, we’re adaptable. These are then slowly trampled and revealed to us as useless by a remorseless horde. But the films’ real triumph is to appear as though they’re just telling us something we really knew all along. The best monsters are always those we stare into and see first the other but then ourselves.

The thing which separates us from these lumpen masses of motor functions, the thing in which we invest so much, turns out to be merely a flicker – something so faint and fragile it can be snuffed out in an instant. Perhaps we only ever imagined it was there, to feel better about ourselves. Perhaps the zombies are really just us stripped of our pretences. (Hence the dangling accoutrements of humanity with which Romero always decorates his zombies.)

One of the chief gags in Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead, that he doesn’t notice when the world gets zombie-hit, is therefore double-jointed. First, it’s telling us as a character he’s somewhat dumb. But at the same time is there really all that much to notice? Our world could reach this state in but a flicker. Yet Pegg can only have this gag through slow-moving zombies, lunging clumsily at him as he passes by obliviously. He’s right to compare quicker zombies to fast food – their only advantage is that they’re over quicker.

More by me on Romero’s zombie films here and here


  1. Great points. In fact the whole fast zombies strand (started by 28 Days Later) is symptomatic of modern film making in general. everything is jump cuts, people shouting and action, action, action. The idea seems to assault people's senses and allow little or no time for characterization to build.

    Watched the first 10 minutes of Armageddon on TV the other night and (after enjoying it in the cinema) was amazed at how puerile it really was, with lots of shouting people and things exploding. There was no attempt to build a story gradually and to build empathy. We were thrown into the middle with bang, bang, BANG!

    Fast Food Filmmaking indeed. Made feel sick and my brain sluggish.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Tim.

    Too many modern action films are just hop on, hop off. I'd say they were like fairground rides, except I've been on fairground rides which were better scripted.

    After posting, I realised my take on zombies wasn't quite the same as Pegg's. He clearly sees them as representing the remorseless inevitability of death. It's like that stumbling figure in horror films which the girl runs from. She's so much faster, but yet he always catches her up.

    I see them as representing base instincts. Like all we are is a bunch of primordial drives and reflex actions dressed up in fashionable clothes. Hence the oft-repeated line about the humans in Romero films behaving more and more like the zombies. Still, I don't suppose the two ideas are incompatible...

  3. So we both see zombies as anti-life, but while Pegg sees them as standing for the annihilation of life, to me they represent the reduction to brute existence.

    (Dammit, took me three goes to say that!)