Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Theory of Zombie Speed

I have just returned from seeing World War Z, and I nearly freaked out on the way home as a cop with flashing lights flew by me.  Given how the movie starts, with cops panicking, it seemed like an appropriate start for my trip home.  Anyhow, the movie got me thinking about Zombie speed.  Why?  Because as the trailers give away, these zombies are fast, faster than those in 28 Days Later.  So, beyond the break, I ponder Zombie speed.

To be sure, I am not a noted Zombie intellectual like Max Brooks nor on the advisory board of the Zombie Research Society like Dan Drezner, but I have read World War Z and the Zombie Survival Guide and participated in the initial debates about the IR of zombies.

In his seminal tome, Drezner addresses zombie speed but that the speed is largely inconsequential for the relevance of his book.  The basic argument, if I remember correctly (the book is on my shelf in my office with the rest of my IR theory collection), is that if the zombies are fast and have a fast incubation time, as in 28 Days later, the world will become aware of the crisis quickly but have to respond quickly via international cooperation (or fail). If Zack is slow, as in most classic Zombie fiction and science, then countries will learn of the outbreak slowly, react slowly, and then cooperate (or not).

Of course, Drezner may be (again, hazy memory) conflating speed of travel and speed of incubation.*  One could imagine a two by two (there is one in the book, but it contrasts fast/slow vs scientific/supernatural [thanks amazon for having that one of the pages we can see]) of incubation speed and the actual velocity of an unladen zombie (it does not matter whether it is African or European for our purposes).**
Classic Z
28 Days Later,
WWZ (movie)

* One could argue that incubation and velocity are related, as that would be logical.  But there is precious little that is logical about the way zombies actually function.  More research is obviously required.
** That the caged zombie towards the end of WWZ is black seems problematic to me.  Given the context, where the various folks point to the black zombie as a predator, is this consciously or unconsciously playing to racists fears as opposed to species-ist fears? 
So, we could have zombies that travel slow but their bites turn people into zombies quickly, and fast moving zombies whose bite only produces zombies after some time.  In the movie, except for in South Korea, the zombie bite pretty much kicks in ten seconds or so, and then the zombie movies far faster than in 28 Days.  Both these moves by the producers of the movie are mistakes.

Why?  Because an extraordinarily quick zombie outbreak means that the living cannot learn and adapt in many different ways.  The joy of WWZ the book is how every country reacts differently, and then with international cooperation eventually converge.  The slowness of an outbreak, both in terms of the incubation period and the movement of the zombies, gives room for fictional variation for the story teller.  While there is much truth in Drezner's review of the movie, he makes a mistake, I think.

once the lights come back on, I expect those people who attend ZomBcons or Comic-Cons will get up and mutter to themselves, "It used to be about the zombies, man." 
No, the only thing that really matters about the zombies is that if they are slow, then the humans can be interesting.  Drezner notes that the humans in the movie are largely not interesting.  Why?  Because the zombies are too fast, everything is flight or fight in the most unimaginative ways (ok, some imaginative ways).  Brooks indicates that he prefers slow zombies because fast ones are too scary, but I think the real key is that slow zombies allow for much more interesting stories to be told.  The WWZ book is a series of stories, vignettes, about how individuals within particular countries (mostly US) and among them reacted--some poorly, some well.  28 Days Later could get away with fast zombies because it was the first movie to do it well.  But the sequel was not so interesting.

So, a theory of Zombie Speed would go as follows: the quality of a zombie narrative (TV, movies, books, songs),  is inversely related to the speed of the Zombies (both incubation and velocity over land).  The faster the Zack, the less interesting the story.  The key causal mechanism is time--the more time there is for things to play out, the more ways that adaptation and learning can play out.  I did think the last few minutes of the movie were actually interesting--that the living learned to use the undead's weaknesses, like reacting to sound.  But that was only two minutes.  The real WWZ was mostly that.

So, where does this leave us?   More work should be done to ascertain how things work in the off diagonals of the two by two (slow incubation, fast zombie; fast incubation, slow zombie).  The one thing we can be certain of in the context of zombies is that speed kills .... drama.

I will ponder this more later, but first I need to go to Ottawa's Ribfest, which will make me feel like a very slow zombie: covered in red stuff, picking at bones, moving slowly due to a full stomach.  


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Simon Pegg had a great rant about fast zombies back when Dead Set came out:

Cheers, Phil