It's no mystery that the way Zombies are portrayed in the media has changed. In the old days, Zombies were slow festering walking corpses, stumbling around, searching for human prey to devour. Modern times has seen a change to what it is to be a Zombie - where they were once sluggish and uncoordinated they are now deadly killers capable of running at breakneck speeds. Whether these new breeds can actually be considered proper Zombies is a subject of some debate, the shift in the portrayal of the living dead causing turmoil. The key element of this opinion storm is beautifully simple: can a Zombie run?
Certainly Hollywood would seem to think so as it is now almost impossible to find decent quality movies featuring the classic slower Zombie - World War Z and the remake of Dawn of the Dead being two notable examples. However, many people disagree with the concept of fast Zombies. Simon Pegg, star of the outlandish comedy hit Shaun of the Dead, insists the dead do not and cannot run stating: "It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.". In addition George Romero, director of the original Dawn of the Dead, was mortified when they made the Zombies run in the 2004 remake - "What did they do - wake from the dead and immediately join a health club? I don't get it.".
It's time this argument was settled with an indisputable certification of truth from The Dead Times. Both sides will be evaluated, all corners will be considered. A conclusion will be drawn and the truth will be known.
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Zombies are humans, or rather each Zombie was once a regular peace-loving human before they, for some unknown reason, were taken by the Zombie plague. So in order to answer this ancient question, we first need to examine how living humans run and the physical properties that allow humans to run.
Running, as far as I am aware, is basically a one-two punch. First, you run; extending and contracting your leg muscles. Second, when you start to become tired or your body simply cannot cope with anymore running, your muscles trigger electrical signals interpreted by your brain causing your legs to feel heavy and telling the body to gradually end the run.
With that simple explanation in mind, if we apply the same process to a brainless Zombie, immediately we can see a problem. The corrupted mind of the poor corpse who has just risen from the dead is simply not going to be strong enough to comprehend the signals it receives from muscles after a run is performed (assuming of course that a dead, non-functioning circulatory system can even carry these signals to the brain - itself very unlikely). This means that, if a Zombie was capable of running, it would continue pumping through the pain barrier, never tiring and never stopping. This has a profound effect for our hopeful sprinting champion; Undead Fred.
Running is defined as, and I love the ultra-descriptive first part of the definition, 'like walking but faster'. The special case that separates the two forms of travel is that when running, a person, for a brief instant, has both feet off the ground. This essentially means the runner is jumping, albeit by a very small amount, several times a minute. This is going to take its toll on joints - especially knees and ankles. Humans heal so, provided the person does not run forever, stopping when they get tired and their muscles start to ache, any damage done is going to correct itself - strained muscles are going to get better after some downtime and so on. Zombies, on the other hand, are re-animated dead beings - there is no blood flowing round their bodies and as such, they cannot heal. Imagine a corpse getting up post-death and constantly sprinting, every bound causing cartilage to crash against jagged bone, leg muscles triumphantly taking the strain of each stride from the start but, eventually, with no mental trigger to stop the Zombie running, those muscles become taught, overstretch and eventually snap. In an unhealing Zombie, after the muscles required for running are gone, they are gone forever - further sprinting would be impossible and even simple walking would be difficult.
Now, some people may consider this the end of the story - if a Zombie's muscles cannot support running, Zombies cannot run. However, there are more factors to take into account. Yes, I've explained why the undead cannot run for large amounts - their finite 'run period' governed by how long it takes for their leg muscles to snap, their ankles to buckle or their legs to break - but this explanation implies that undead Zombies can indeed run for a short time. It is possible then that the risen dead speed into a gallop early on in their unlife only slowing due to the resulting restrictions on their decaying bodies. Perhaps Zombies are only capable of short sprints when food is nearby, driven on by the delight of a proximate meal.
This gives rise to a question, and a perplexing one at that; if a dead Zombie physically has the ability to run, at least for a short while, why does it not do so - pounding away at terminal velocity until it literally crumbles? Due to a Zombie's dumb "give me food" mental state, I find it very hard to believe that the re-animated individual consciously decides to hold back, fearing post-death death by running for too long. The answer requires some guesswork and assumption.
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When people die, their bodies become stiff. In brief, this phenomenon is caused by skeletal muscles contracting and, because of the departed no longer breathing or feeding the muscles oxygen, those muscles cannot relax again. This effectively locks joints in place - an effect called Rigor Mortis. The joints remain this way for approximately 24 to 72 hours, which as readers of Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide will know, is longer than the 23 to 24 hour reanimation time for those infected by the Zombie virus (itself much longer than the almost instantaneous "turning" seen in most movies).
What this all means in relation to Zombiism is that an undead Zombie is going to be more than a little stiff when it "wakes up" from death. All movements are going to be erratic and "clanky". Running is going to be very difficult for the tortured soul, plagued with unlife. Occasionally, when a living source of meat gets close to the Zombie, the insistent drive to eat flesh may prompt the Zombie to run - the Zombie would probably have no knowledge of its faster movement, it just hunts for the living. When the Zombie finds its prey or gets lost and stops, the next time it moves, the undead monster will return to its ultra-simple "Move forward" command - however fast or slow the body allows.
This does indicate the interesting possibility that Zombies that have survived for a long time, long enough to escape the rigours of Rigor Mortis, could indeed run - death posing no hindrance on body movement. There are many reasons this would not be true, though I will leave this unorthodox idea for another time. My favoured solution to this hypothetical problem is that the Zombies could indeed run, they are just too stupid to know they could run - the rotting carcasses blindly moving forward relentlessly, their endless search for the living leaving no room for the concept of speed.
However, there is yet another side to the "can Zombies run" question - that of living Zombies.
Living Zombies, as I'm sure all Zombie fans know, are regular people that have been infected with a mind-altering disease such as seen in the hit films 28 Days Later and Zombieland. Now, it's clear from these movies that the Zombies do run - and at a worryingly fast pace - but is this really possible, giving all we have just learned? Well, yes as a matter of fact and here's why.
More than simply being possible, it is actually more likely for living Zombies to run than stumble along with their undead brethren. You see, a risen dead Zombie has no option but to stumble after its prey - it's the fastest it can go. Since a living Zombie can run - it's joints are as supple and as free as when they were human, plus with no signals to inform the brain to slow the body down (or a brain not capable of interpreting them), provided the prey remains "sensed", the living Zombie is going to sprint on constantly. There is no element of choice involved, no decision being made by the Zombie - living or dead - based on what it thinks best. If it can run, it will run.
Simply having the capacity to run does not mean the infected individuals will run however. Viruses are strange beasts and have multiple different effects ranging from simple fevers to organ failure. It is perfectly logical for a mysterious virus to cause muscle degradation, limiting the living Zombie's movement to the slow stumble of the undead.
The second argument I will put into text form is that of intelligence and really how the human mind affects running. We've already stated that the brain is key for knowing when to stop running - keeping the average runner within a critical "safe zone" where any damage that occurs can heal. The brain's involvement in running is much more than that though. If you think about the process of running in super-basic terms - you have to lift your leg, push it forward, observe the ground for a safe spot to land then brace for impact as your leg hits the tarmac - running is a really complex procedure. Not only that but your brain has to make these decisions and more in thousandths of a second, a huge number of times until the run ends. For an example of just how much the brain has to cope with, consider the difficulty humans have had making a robot capable of running like a human. Some pretty clever people from all round the world have been battling this technological (and mechanical) enigma for decades. Robots that run on a predefined path - that's quite straight forward. Running on terrain the robot has never seen before, however, is extremely complex requiring not only a full range of movement but also advanced artificial intelligence. ASIMO, the miniaturized human-style robot developed by Honda, is the most common example of a mechanised automaton that can run anywhere, on an undefined route (despite having to pause while the electronic chip in its brain crunches the required numbers).
My convoluted and possibly obscure point here is that if a task is so difficult that thousands of very brainy people cannot simulate it in a mechanised creation, what hope does a mindless (or at least severely brain-damaged) rampaging corpse have, driven only by the need to feed?
Running requires intelligence. Predators in the natural world have to have intelligence and focus to be able to catch their prey - they have to gauge distance, be ready to cope with unpredicted events and immediately react to them, avoid obstacles that come up during the killing charge and so on. As a counterpoint, hunters in the animal kingdom need to catch their prey when they start running - they absolutely must get out what they put in or they will become weak and die at the claws of a bigger hunter. Zombies don't have this problem - they will never become any weaker than when they rose, they will never die (despite technically being dead already). So this would give credence to the theory that if Zombies do run, they bomb it around all over the place - they have nothing to lose from sprinting constantly and everything to gain.
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Okay, reading that title you may think I am unable to form rational thought but this is a deadly serious point that must be considered. Putting it in more general terms: Is it possible, even plausible, that some Zombies are just naturally faster than others when they join the ranks of the undead?
This question is not that 'out-of-the-box'. There have been, and continue to be, a plethora of books, films and games referencing the fact that Zombies re-enact common actions from their previous life, even retain memories post-death. The Zombies from the movie Dawn of the Dead flock to the shopping mall, a former memory guiding their steps. The game Dead Rising 3 features former policeman, taken by the Zombie plague, their undead hands somehow remembering how to pull a trigger (luckily aiming is beyond their intellect). In the film Survival of the Dead, we bear witness to Zombies re-enacting all sorts of meaningless and monotonous tasks from their pre-death life. Why could a undead athlete not "remember" how to run? It is almost definite that the deadhead would not make any conscious decision to run or move faster than a regular shuffling undead heading to a mall - it would just "default" to a faster speed. A Zombie has very limited control over its actions - it simply obeys ultra-basic 'get the food' instructions and its body lurches towards that food.
However, the physical limitations still apply so, while a Zombified athlete is likely to be more conditioned for sprinting due to their former lifestyle, every undead Zombie is going to break eventually.
The idea of mindless Zombies learning new skills would seem complete nonsense at first reading. However, some movies do portray the undead as having a very basic learning capacity. Usually this ability is restricted to only certain individuals such as the iconic "Bub" from Day of the Dead or the black petrol station attendant Zombie from Land of the Dead. It is possible that when one of these 'clever' ghouls sees a human survivor running they will instinctively mimic the action - turning their normal slow shuffle into a jog and eventual sprint. Again physical limitations apply and, unlike Zombified Athletes, the undead's body will not be able to stand the forces of heated pursuit for long - leaving their body crumpled and broken.
Land of the Dead also hints at the run-of-the-mill dim-witted Zombie learning (at a very slow rate) from these fortunate few advanced learners. It is possible, however unlikely I may think it, that even the dullest of the dull eventually learns how to run simply by observing their less mentally-challenged counterpart. This would obviously have dire consequences for any initial survivors, transforming the entire Zombie population from easily out-runnable shamblers into death-dealing sprinters. Conversely it could also be a boon for humankind. If decaying bodies that can physically move no faster than a painfully slow shuffle suddenly start running about all over the place, they are eventually going to break their legs and snap their muscles rendering them easy pickings for Zombie clean-up crews.
This article has hopefully proved to any avid Zombie lover that true undead Zombies cannot run. Physically, their decaying bodies simply cannot manage it, breaking under the pressure of frequent strides and having no way to heal damage taken. This does not mean all Zombies do not run though. Living Zombies, unfortunate souls that have been infected with a behaviour-altering syndrome, can probably run, largely because they are not actually dead. Moreover, as running requires basic intelligence and the still-living brain of a living Zombie remains functional, provided they can run, these sprinters from Hell are more likely to do so constantly.
Also, I posed two hypotheses that are not usually spoken about - Zombified Athletes and Zombies actually learning to run.
© Tom Clark | Made using Pivot Animator
But whether Zombies can or can't run is, I'm pained to say, not really the issue anymore. It appears movie-makers and, to a lesser extent, book-writers have already made their decision, reason be damned. Virtually every Zombie movie released after 2005 has seen Zombies relentlessly running down human survivors. The Zombies in these movies are often explicitly stated or implicitly implied to be re-animated dead - and this just disobeys the set-down instructions of Zombie law. I'm not ruthlessly condemning every Zombie movie that breaks the rules, I am just fearing that everything sacred to long-term Zombie fans is eventually going to be lost. The slow-moving, shambling Zombie that George A. Romero introduced to the world way back in 1963 with the movie Night of the Living Dead is in grave danger of being replaced by super-fast runners in Hollywood's unwavering pursuit of instant gratification and extreme action.
Can Zombies run or are they doomed to slowly shuffle everywhere? It is not a very complex question but it has divided audiences the world over - some believing only in the rules set out by George Romero, Godfather of the Dead, and some believing that Zombies must move at frantic speed, former humans still capable of running. In this scientific article, The Dead Times considers the question in inescapable detail. Its mission; to prove, once and for all, whether Zombies can or cannot run.