Take 28 Days Later. I rarely go to the theater anymore, but I was ecstatic that a new zombie movie was coming out. And, initially, I wasn’t disappointed, even though the zombies were awfully fast. Like many other enthusiasts, I felt like I wasn’t really seeing zombies, just some infected folks who want to eat other people. While my zombie hopes were whisked away, I was still having fun until the trio of survivors were rescued/captured by a military unit. I told myself, “Please don’t let this become Day of the Dead.” But it did and then I wasn’t having fun anymore.
At least I knew where I stood. With the Dawn of the Dead remake, I couldn’t ever even decide if I was having fun. To be fair, I’ve seen the original more times than I’ve seen any other movie; I mean, I’m giddy from the first head explosion to the last disembowelment. For me even mentioning the movie is treading on sacred ground, and zealots are not always the most logical or friendly of folks. In other words, it was doomed from the start with me. Here, for the first time, I was confronted with the fast zombie, which is different from the Continental, usually Italian, zombie that can be rather agile and has been known to fight sharks and ride horses (Fulci’s Zombie 2 (1979) and de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) respectively). Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but the new zombie doesn’t grab me the way its lanky cousin from Pittsburgh does.
At least the mall was in the movie–for a while, anyway. And like their mall-wandering forebears, these zombies come back to what is familiar to them, although nowadays it appears that that means they have run out of ADHD medication and have started raiding Starbucks shops and Pepsi machines. And that’s really the difference between the fast and slow zombie for me: cultural environment. We are not part of a slow, cold war anymore, unless you count the seemingly endless “war” on terrorism. Where it used to be effective to allow films time to build suspense and anxiety as zombie hordes increase, it is now more important to go for sensation and speed. We are a part of a hyper-paced, information overloaded, caffeine-fueled mega-machine where films have to move as fast as the beat and editing of an Aphex Twin video, and now the zombies are grinding to that up-tempo beat.
A type of information overload is portrayed in the beginning of 28 Days Later, when scientists are filling chimpanzee minds with several screens of mostly violent images. These information and violence-laden chimps soon infect humans. I see the infected as extensions or intensifications of all the day-to-day aggravations we all deal with: driving, standing in bank and shopping lines, and watching movie trailers where everything explodes– including the credits. It’s like all these sensations and aggravations bombarding someone’s consciousness at the rate, amount, and intensity with which we are all bombarded with information. And, like all of this information, it doesn’t go away and you can’t get rid of it because any attempt to destroy it is likewise turned into information.
And information itself is now being looked at as a cause for health problems. In his Information Anxiety (1989), R.S. Wurman writes that, “A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.” Imagine what CNN with split screens and news tickers could do to the same person. David Lewis, a psychologist, has proposed the term “Information Fatigue Syndrome” to describe the symptoms of increased tension and ill-health felt by two thirds of managers who were part of a 1996 world-wide survey conducted by Reuters. Other symptoms included anxiety and reduced attention span, which in turn cause additional stress as people are required to adapt to ever-changing situations.
Since technology and change have now been scientifically shown to increase stress, it is interesting to look at how animals deal with stress. Instinctively, animals react to stress in three ways: fight, flight, or fright. Usually, the aggression that is part of the fight reaction cannot be sustained for long periods of time. In the new zombie movies, the catalyst for maintaining this aggression could be the virus that infects and people and turns them into the raging undead. In other words, there is a “Starbucks Factor” to the fast zombie analogous to our use of caffeine to increase our sharpness or to simply wake up.
The ravings of new undead and the not-quite-dead in a rapid-paced world were in many ways predicted by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock (1970). Instead of the symptoms of helplessness and inadequacy caused by the acceleration of change in modern life that Toffler describes, the zombie represents the accelerated environment itself. The zombie, instead of embodying the slave laborer or the mall-walker, now exemplifies a cultural environment of information overload, crippled attention span, and caffeine addiction. Is this the technological utopia that people had in mind before and during the Space Age? Anyway, this all takes me away from what is nearest to my own heart: zombie movies and the fact that George Romero has a new one coming out this year.
The word on the street is that Romero is using the slow Pittsburgh zombie for Land of the Dead. I expect the Pittsburgh zombie to become a rare species. But maybe it’s just time for the zombie to crawl, or sprint, into the twenty-first century like his often overhauled cousin, that dandy of the undead, the vampire. Given caffeine addiction, ADHD, information overload, and constant exposure to multi-frame per second editing, it is no wonder that a quicker dead are chasing this generation. Even zombies cannot escape the makeover craze or American progressivism. It’s a different time, and reluctantly, a different zombie.