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Speed Kills: The History of Fast Zombies

  When is a zombie just too fast? If they are moving quickly, are they really zombies anymore? For some horror purists, it's not on to see the massed hordes of the undead traveling at anything other than walking, or shambling pace, but the appeal of seeing our hero or heroine speeding away from a huge group of antagonists who are not shuffling along but actually have the potential to catch them up is an arresting image. George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead and afterwards assured his fans that running zombies would not work out since their ankles would break if they were too rapid, but that hasn't stopped filmmakers increasing the rate at which they move, so it could be that Romero was not where they had the idea to capitalise on the fear of being persecuted by a large, unthinking mob. Indeed, should you go back to the days of silent cinema you would see Buster Keaton got in there first with his classic 1922 two-reeler Cops.

The premise of Cops was a series of misunderstandings which started with Buster being told by his fiancée that she would not marry him unless he became a successful businessman. Being who he was, he proceeds to go about this the wrong way, at first helping out a man who has dropped his wallet, then when he turns out to be obnoxious about it, Buster opts to keep the money anyway, adding a roguish element to the story. One thing leads to another, and by the second reel he has acquired a cart full of furniture which he thinks he's bought, but in fact doesn't belong to him, and after an anarchist throws a bomb at the policemen's parade, the lawmen believe Buster was trying to kill them and give chase. It is these scenes that are the most famous, gag after gag about our man escaping from a furious crowd of black-uniformed cops, brilliantly staged but with a serious observation: Keaton had been inspired by the unjust treatment of his good friend Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle who had been in a sex and murder scandal of which he was entirely innocent, yet the public would only listen to the gossip of the gutter press.

That sense of not having done anything to justify your targeting by the rampaging pursuers was fundamental in the fear the horror movies found when they got hold of the idea, but it would be many decades later before they truly capitalised on it as an inspired reason for frightening the audience. In 1962 one hit wonder Herk Harvey created Carnival of Souls, where its heroine was tormented by images of ghouls, including scenes where they ran about in macabre merriment through the ruins of an old ballroom and hotel, one of the most potent visuals of its era, but come the nineteen-seventies Romero was adapting his zombie idea to non-undead threats in 1973's The Crazies where an outbreak turned a community into murderers, though this was not strictly in the format of the zombie movie. It fed into the idea of mass hysteria that would assist the fast zombie flick's sequences of ordinary people going nuts for whatever reason, but perhaps here was the reason for the contention: they were not really flesh-eating, reanimated corpses.

It took Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg to truly capitalise on this notion, first with his surprise 1975 hit Shivers which offered a swanky new apartment complex that in a development oddly reminiscent of J.G. Ballard's contemporary novel High Rise saw its residents break down as a society and resort to savagery, though in Cronenberg's case this was down to a parasite which turned them into sex-crazed maniacs. This meant they wanted to rape rather than eat, but with 1977's Rabid, as the title suggested, the masses were now giving in to their bloodlust, here in Montreal where an outbreak of a powerful strain of rabies had an unusual cause. Porn actress Marilyn Chambers, she of Behind the Green Door notoriety, was given the role of the film's Typhoid Mary, a victim of a motorcycle accident near a cosmetic surgery clinic who is nursed back to health within its walls. After spending a month in a coma, she wakes up to find her procedures to make her whole again have added a little extra: a penile attachment in her left armpit which when aroused will pierce the skin of its prey and suck the blood, the only way in which Chambers' character can sustain herself.

As if that were not bad enough, once infected her victims are keen to bite and chomp anyone in their vicinity, and the disease is spreading which in typical Cronenbergian fashion is observed with a clinical interest, no matter the harsh stings of brass on the soundtrack every time Marilyn strikes. If Rabid lacked the hallmark of the fast zombie movie, the visual of the infected swarming down a street after their targets in the Keaton-pioneering manner, it made it clear in other ways that this was a citywide disaster that involved the public spiralling out of control and attacking their fellow citizens left and right, as witnessed in sequences that started mundane, such as one on a packed subway train carriage where Chambers' best friend notices a woman acting strangely, then abruptly plunged into insanity as, for example, that strange woman launches herself at a fellow passenger and rips out his throat with her teeth. Perhaps the most famous part involved the armed cop who uses a machine gun to kill a rabies sufferer and accidentally slaughters a department store Santa Claus as well.

As often with this director, you were not wholly sure if he was finding this amusing or intellectually stimulating, and with bits like the Father Christmas killing that the line was very thin indeed. With the sexual angle still present, as the rabies was more like a venereal disease if we were to accept Chambers' new addition as a phallus, the problems with science out of control were there too, a staple of science fiction for decades of course, but the themes remained the same: everything in the modern world was getting too hot to handle and it was going to drive people around the bend, be they diseased of the mind or body. That the authorities were powerless in the face of this was bad enough, but when they were susceptible as well only tightened the screws: take the scene where a surgeon in the operating room goes berserk after cutting off his nurse's finger, then proceeds to take on the rest of the assembled staff. And when it was all over - it wasn't, they just left the hapless Chambers to one of the most ignominious fates in horror as we heard the chaos continuing in the background.

It was not only the movies that were feeding into the concept: horror paperbacks did as well, most memorably James Herbert's bestsellers The Fog (1975) and The Dark (1980). In the former, a chemical leak of dangerous gas (again, blame the authorities for losing control) turns the people of Southern England into violence-crazed murderers, getting up to all sorts of horrible deeds, though it affects animals as well - one character is even eaten by a herd of suddenly carnivorous cows (!). In the latter, evil becomes an actual force that transforms its victims into the kind of savage, unthinking monsters which these chillers tell us genuinely lurk beneath the surface of civilised society. They even showed up in games, such as Zombie Zombie, Sandy White's follow up to his ZX Spectrum classic Ant Attack which featured the undead plodding along until they noticed you and broke into a run, ultimately turning you into one of them once you'd run out of lives. There was a disclaimer on the title screen from White that he did not approve of the supernatural, oddly reminiscent of Michael Jackson's Thriller video of the previous year where the zombies were so active that they strutted their funky stuff to the title track of his huge-selling album, though some preferred Lenny Henry's take on the same material in his sketch show.

Trust the Italians to really get to grips with sort of bedlam; in the late seventies and eighties they embraced the walking dead subgenre, but it was Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City that took the bull by the horns and delivered the craziness that running zombies would deliver. And yet, again, it was not actual undead we were presented with, as the villains were the product of a radioactive waste spill that we are told is only spreading, ordinary folks twisted into homicidal, blood-drinking monsters with overcooked hamburger faces by the effects of science gone mad. Some things never changed, and although the police and military were the source of suspicion, firing off their weapons in often futile attempts to stem the flow of maniacs on the loose, it was either the scientists who were at the heart of the trouble, or those vulnerable minds taken over with a deadly ideology, in this case the belief that mass murder was a great way to deport yourself in polite company, or even impolite company, for that matter.

No situation was above or below being interrupted by - well, if they were not zombies what were they? They behaved like them, but on fast forward, and featured a more can-do attitude to wiping out their fellow humans, not simply eating because they were hungry, but with something approaching an anarchist philosophy where they may have been out of their minds, but part of their reasoning remained so they had a vestige or two of ingenuity, even if it was only working out the best method of despatching their victims. Did this make them more of a threat? They had the strength of numbers no matter how quickly they moved, but our hero (Mexican star Hugo Stiglitz, for there was Spanish and Mexican money in the budget too) would find himself continually struggling to outwit what should have been moronic killers but were actually having a habit of showing up when least suspected, or least wanted. Unless you had seen a few such movies before, naturally, in which case you’d be ahead of Lenzi's mayhem.

Like with Rabid, he staged a setpiece in an operating room, the setting of a hospital becoming a favourite location of horrors and thriller in this era, as Stiglitz's screen wife Laura Trotter works there as a doctor, though this being Italian is still reduced to jelly and has to be slapped by her husband when push comes to shove and has to pull herself together. If anything marked out Nightmare City it was the gusto with which Lenzi went about his violence, yet so did Cronenberg, and somehow he was far more respectable than the Italian. This was probably down to the Canadian's cinema of ideas, not ideas that everyone would like to contemplate, but more cerebral than Lenzi's extrapolation of Romero's "They’re coming to get you, Barbara!" that effectively kicked all this off. Also, here it was men mostly perpetrating brutality on both genders, as opposed to Rabid seeing a woman at the basis of the bloodshed, and that makes a difference. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, Nightmare City was enjoyable because it was absolutely ridiculous and hard to take seriously, with many unintentional laughs combined with its verve to create a trash favourite rather than something to intellectualise over.

Between that and the 21st century, zombie movies went quiet then found a new lease of life, or undeath, as the cycle began again, and this time the menace was more likely to break into a mad dash after you. The British Danny Boyle-helmed, Alex Garland-scripted apocalyptic shocker 28 Days Later was the one that made the idea worth considering once again, though again the killers this time were the infected, thanks to a virus that escapes from a top secret lab (science taking the blame once more) and wiping out most of the human population of Great Britain, leaving the odd survivor and pockets of murderous, mindless attackers. Cillian Murphy was the man who wakes up much as the protagonist of that classic yarn Day of the Triffids did, alone in a hospital to discover the world has changed dramatically since his coma, and picks up a few compatriots in the form of Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns who become a sort of family, representing the makeup of what that unit had turned into by that period. Naturally they are under threat immediately in what is often a panicky portrayal of how fraught with danger the average citizen now believed their stability to be.

The ultimate result of that would be, according to this anyway, that even the most peace loving individual has to be forced to act in a violent way to ensure not only they can make it through to the future, but that they can continue the concept of civilisation and general decency towards your fellow person, something of a hollow victory when so much of that achievement will have been fuelled by basically slaughtering anyone who is against you. It was very much an all or nothing scenario, and Christopher Eccleston showed up in the latter half to demonstrate that counterculture point of view that there's not much to love about a man in uniform, even one who purports to have the best interests of the community at heart. This was a bit rich when it was that same counterculture who unleashed the virus in the first place, thanks to activists breaking into the lab and cack-handedly releasing infected chimps to infect them in turn, so perhaps in its soul 28 Days Later was less a commentary and more indebted to the Lenzi approach towards its threat, though the budget dictated they only appeared sporadically.

When the remake of Dawn of the Dead showed up in 2004, the grumbling turned to a barrage of protest that it recast Romero's shufflers with sprinters, which tended to obscure the finer points of what was not bad at all, and certainly a work that Zack Snyder could be more proud of than some of his later efforts. Considering there's no such thing as zombies, not the movie variety at any rate, you would have thought filmmakers could have carte blanche to make up whatever rules they wished on the subject, as seemed to be the case with Paul W.S. Anderson's adaptation of the Resident Evil games, but such was the stranglehold that Romero had on the style that whenever fast undead, or something very like them, came biting and clawing their way onto the screen there had to be a number of caveats to explain why they were not authentic, never mind that they were a feature in a pretty decent horror movie. Case in point: 28 Weeks Later, the Boyle and Garland-produced sequel to the above, which with a more generous budget made the most of the groundwork laid by its predecessor to craft a far pacier, action-oriented experience that again rang the tills at the box office.

As the title suggested, a few months had now passed and the American Army was seeking to bring the population back to Britain, starting with London, or a quarantined zone therein. But we have seen the superb opening where father Robert Carlyle has been forced to abandon his wife at the farmhouse they were holed up in, Night of the Living Dead style, leaving her for dead and suffering a great weight of guilt at his enforced cowardice. The rest of the movie didn't quite live up to the intensity of that sequence, but it assuredly had its moments as it again considered the family, but in this instance the dysfunctional one of Carlyle's, as his kids (Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton - his sole acting appearance) struggle with returning home to bad news that just never stops. With more cash to spend, the setpieces were grander, and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo proved an adept handler of suspense and the more gore-soaked elements, the best friend a fast zombie could have when it came to promoting their justification. As it was, they have reappeared intermittently since as the hugely successful The Walking Dead on television restated the case for the shambling peril, as its title suggested, and while the Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z showcased the speedy variation, it was notably drawn from Max Brooks' book that made a big deal of its zombies being slow. So which was best? Could we call it a draw?
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006