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Overthinking Zombies

By Shamus
on Monday Dec 3, 2012
Filed under:
Nerd Culture


Whatever you think of The Walking Dead and how it handles choice / consequence / and decision-making, I have to give it credit for starting a lot of really interesting conversations.

Sadly, some of these conversations kind of dead-end because zombie lore collapses under analysis. When we discuss the particulars of a common zombie dilemma (Perhaps someone is bitten but still healthy and what do we do with them?) then we’re invariably going to end up trying to map out the variables. If we do that, then sooner or later we’ll end up in the same ditch alongside people who want to know where the energy comes from that enables the X-Men’s superpowers and where the toilets are on the starship Enterprise.

Obviously we’re not supposed to focus on this stuff too much. It’s a bit like Superman’s disguise: It’s just one of the givens that comes with the setting. On the other hand, we’d probably think about it less if stories didn’t always shine a spotlight on them. If we’re not supposed to think about infection vectors, then there shouldn’t be so many plot-points that hinge on the topic. Living dead stories seem driven to draw our attention to the very stuff that we’re not supposed to question. We never see any toilets on Star Trek, but “oh no commander Riker needs to take a piss and the lavatory isn’t available” isn’t a running plot-point, either.

So let’s look at this in detail. How does this zombie stuff work, anyway?

Dawn of the Dead

The “Living” “Dead”

Well, it doesn’t. When you die, the cells in your brain stop getting oxygen and are destroyed. This includes the brain cells you use for moving and eating. Okay, we’ll hand-wave that and say that somehow the brain continues to process input and generate output. This means that a few hours after death you’ll have a violent, ravenously hungry immobile statue due to rigor mortis. We can do another hand-wave and say that something in infected bodies prevent them from stiffening up. Great, but the thing is still immobile because the heart isn’t pushing blood around, which means muscles aren’t getting energy. They can’t move for the same reason a car engine can’t keep running once you cut the fuel line, even if there’s still a driver operating the controls.

Aside: Always with the car analogies. Ever notice that? Want to explain the parts of a computer? Car analogy. DRM? Car analogy. Government, the human body, or network routing? Car analogy. What was the universal car analogy before we had cars, I wonder? Anyway…

This energy problem is pretty hard to hand-wave, because you’re no longer hand-waving medical difficulties but physics ones. Maybe we need to give up on the whole “dead” thing and just say that we’re dealing with human beings who are physically alive but have suffered some sort of extremely specific brain damage that leads to cooperative violence and cannibalism. This is the route taken by 28 Days Later and Left 4 Dead. This lets us have infected that act like zombies without flagrantly breaking the laws of physics.

…at least, until they stop eating. Infected can’t get into cans and other well-preserved food sources. Once they run out of people to eat, they begin starving to death. If we’re talking about a violent, super-strong zed that doesn’t sleep and spends its time shuffling around listening / smelling for victims, then it’s going to starve to death faster than the more energy-efficient survivors who can rest, intuit where to find food, open containers, and sleep. A month into the infection we should have only waves of scrawny, feeble walkers.

If we want to fix this then we need more hand-waving. Perhaps there’s some mechanism that allows the zombies to cannibalize their numbers in a way that keeps most of them fed without simply ending in complete mutual annihilation. We’re going to have to do some really vigorous hand-waving to make this work, but if the infected just happened to be really efficient about when they ate each other and the ones being eaten didn’t try to eat back, then we might be able to come up with some numbers where the zed population would simply decline gradually over time. How long will it take for the entire population to burn itself out? Let’s say: “However long the author says it does“, and hope nobody in the audience decides to run the numbers.

Speaking of ghouls eating each other…

Shaun of The Dead

Why Don’t the Infected Attack Each Other?

Yeah, I have no idea. The “smell” thing never really worked for me, since you’re talking about them detecting the lack of stench, not the presence of one. If I’m standing in a group of docile, putrid zombies, how can they tell I don’t stink? Given their limited mental capacity, that’s some really precise bloodhound work on their part. What about guys like me, who have a reduced sense of smell? If I was zombified would I just nom all my fellow zombies indiscriminately? Would they turn on me, join me, or ignore this team-killing behavior? Or would I always be docile?

You can play around with the parameters all you want: Maybe it’s driven by smell, or movement, or other behavioral factors. But in the end the living should be able to impersonate the dead because they’re a lot smarter. Sooner or later you end up with a boring story about people who put on zombie makeup before they go into the city to forage in complete safety, because this makes the zombies ignore them. That’s no fun.

Speaking of eating people…

28 Days Later

Infection Protection

I’ve always wondered why dry zombie teeth convey deadly infection but wet(?) zombie blood to the mucous membranes doesn’t. This is something 28 Days Later handled really well, and it made the infection crazy scary. Those drops of blood and saliva were infectious, and getting it in your eyes or mouth was a death sentence with a 30-second timer. Yikes.

But there are things that can only be contracted through open wounds and not through mucous membranes, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume the zombie plague can work the same way.

In any case, if bites are an infection vector, then what kind of idiot would walk around in street clothes? It doesn’t take much to stop teeth. Even allowing for the hand-wave that zombies are some degree stronger than your typical human, our teeth are mostly for tearing and grinding, not for piercing. Football gear, leather jackets, riot gear, hockey gear, hazmat suits – all of this stuff should rebuff all but the most prolonged gnawing. Some of that stuff is a bit exotic, but in a decent-sized group the odds are good that SOMEBODY knows where to find it.

And even if you can’t find that class of gear, there are lots of things you could cobble together when you’re not busy boinking your best friend’s spouse or starting pointless arguments. A simple tarp could be cut up and made into many sets of teeth-proof armor. The floor mats in a typical car survive decades of stomping without falling apart, so I doubt a zombie could chomp through one of those. Heck just CARDBOARD tucked between a couple of layers of clothing should be enough to prevent those pesky mid-battle “gotcha” nibbles. Sure, the compression might mash the hell out of the skin underneath, but that sort of thing can heal as long as you can avoid punctures.

So it’s pretty clear that most bites are preventable, and the only people to get bitten should be people who get pinned by a group long enough for the Zeds to chew through.

The Walking Dead


I am really skeptical of the idea that a zombie plague could get 100% coverage. Given that the typical incubation period is about a day and it only takes hours for the victim to become symptomatic, the spread would be limited to people who got bitten and didn’t seek medical help, even after becoming ill. How could something like that spread into rural areas? Or cross oceans? Or national borders with checkpoints? Or reach people out at sea?

You can contrive a way for one single-minded, obviously sick moron to get on a plane, for nobody to question him, and for him to turn and bite people who in turn don’t seek medical attention, but this infection can’t outpace the 24/7 news cycle. Remember the various illness panics of years gone by? People are actually really fearful of infections and disease, and tend towards caution. Most zombie infections depend on lots of people being very careless for a long time in order to get the critical mass of walkers required. In a zombie plague, the scenario where one sick, pale guy with a bite is ignored is very unlikely. Instead, most people would wear scarves and gloves and fear touching strangers, “just to be safe”.

The United States might be screwed (ignoring, for now, questions about how shuffling dead infect sparsely populated areas) but I’m having a hard time picturing how something like this could engulf Europe. If there’s a high death toll (or worse, if a major city “goes dark”) then all those countries will start closing borders. They don’t have large armies in Europe, but they certainly have enough people to secure the borders in an emergency. Zombies aren’t infiltrators. They will march along easy pathways (roads) and into the machine-gun nests of the military.

And speaking of the military…

Left 4 Dead

Biting People Who Carry Machine Guns

Even if we say that things happen just right and the infection jumps oceans and borders, I just can’t see how the shuffling dead could possibly overwhelm and turn a proper standing army. Their armor is pretty much bite-proof, they have lots of bullets, and military bases are fairly easy to secure. You might lose a few guys to unlucky hand-bites, or you might lose some personnel in the initial surge, but once there’s unrest a base should be able to fortify and hold them off basically forever. Heck, just closing the gate ought to keep the average non-climbing, non-intelligent zombies out.

The only way for the army to lose is if the infection has some sort of incubation period. If exposure takes (say) 3 days to turn a person and they don’t realize what a hazard bites / blood / saliva is, and if the exposed are asymptomatic for the first couple of days, then it might be possible to have a critical threshold of soldiers get infected in the initial days of fighting. A super-fast 28 Days Later plague might also work, since it might spread faster than the military could respond. If most people were unarmed and in light clothing, then I could see the wave engulfing a base before they could fortify. Circumstances would need to be just right, but it’s possible.

But fine. We can say that the military is fortified in their bases and aren’t letting anyone in. Our heroes are still stuck outside and can’t raid the place for food or weapons. Speaking of which…



Pretty much any apocalyptic scenario has to deal with the food problem. Sooner or later the survivors will have scrounged all of the non-perishable food. Maybe that takes weeks or years, depending on some variables the author can change to suit their needs. But it’s got to happen sometime, and when it does it will be time to start farming. Actually, you need to start farming in the spring before the food runs out.

This can go really well or end in disaster, depending on who survives and what information they can find. Modern farming is highly mechanized, and not many people know how to operate those machines. You’ll also need seed. And fuel. And access to the machines in question. If you really want to do things the modern way, you’ll also need pesticides and fertilizer. On the other hand, you can probably make do without that stuff. Sure, yields will be lower, but with modern equipment a single farmer can make enough food for many, many people.

However, if you lack fuel then you might have to fall back on Ye Olde Ways. In the first world, there isn’t much between these two extremes. You’re either driving a $500,000 machine that can do all the work, or you’re not farming. If the machines fail, then you’ll have to fall back to plows pulled by beasts. The overwhelming majority of people don’t know how to do that sort of farming. They’re going to be learning as they go, which might make for some really low yields in the first few years.

Example: You’ve just taken some bags of industrial bulk seed and planted it and raised it to maturation. If you’re going for calories, then it’s probably some sort of grain. Congrats, you will eat this winter. But what part of the plant is the seed, how do you get the seed in bulk, how do you store it for next year, and how do you mill the grain to make it into food? Most modern farms just ship the bulk grain and those steps are done elsewhere on an industrial level. So even if you’ve got common farm machinery and fuel, you still don’t have the knowledge and machinery required to feed yourself.

I’ve read that it takes about four acres to support a family with pre-industrial farming, which is about the limit of what one family can manage. Remember that for thousands of years, 9/10 of all people were farmers. Nine people had to farm so that one person could do something besides farming. Those are bleak numbers, and that was with people who were experts at doing that sort of farming. Your average former venture capitalist / meter reader / electrician / sales associate / building contractor is going to have even less success due to their inexperience.

Even more dire than the food situation is the fact that this leads to non-zombie stories. There’s no reason to mess around with a zombie plague if you just want to tell a story about a small community of post-technology survivors learning to farm. In the United States (where most zombie stories seem to take place) it’s perfectly feasible to head out to the midwest where it’s nothing but farms. Neighbors have miles of space between them. Assuming zombies don’t migrate (which would raise more questions than it answers) then you ought to be able to find a house that’s perfectly safe because there aren’t any zombies around to threaten the survivors.

Again, the author might as well drop the whole zombie concept and write a story about a regular plague with a 99.99% fatality rate, since that’s where this sort of story will end up in a year or so. The zeds will be starved, shot, trapped, or far, far away from our survivors. It won’t be a zombie story anymore and we won’t be dealing with zombie themes. It’ll just be a regular apocalyptic scenario with some odd starting parameters that don’t hold up under scrutiny.

In the end, I think zombie stories are doomed to be about small groups of survivors in the first year after infection, because with larger groups and longer timelines the zombies can’t be a credible threat. Or at least, they’re less of a threat than starvation, and the zombies must then take a backseat to the story of “human beings learn farming all over again”.

And this is why you shouldn’t overthink zombies.

Comments (378)

1 2

  1. Kristian Madsen says:

    I love the deconstruction of zombies here. Perhaps, if we want to tell a zombie story that can be held up under scrutiny we just have to change zombies again, like how in Left 4 Dead they become horrifyingly clever and lethal killers, rather than just shambling idiots.

    Has anyone read Zombicorns by Hank Green? It’s not really a perfect solution, but it is a very interestingly different take on how zombies could function. (His zombies are smart enough to grow and harvest crops)

  2. Will says:

    I always liked the supernatural version of the zombie story, because gets right down to the monster survival/horror without a *dang science lecture.

    Short of that I kind of liked “I am Legend”‘s explanation (movie not book). It started as a fast spreading, airborne virus that killed and zombified most of the population leaving a lucky (or unlucky) few genetically immune individuals to try and survive. It’s self consistent, but you do lose that dramatic moment where a someone gets bit, and their loved ones have to decide what to do with their soon to be zombie friend.

    In the walking dead version you only get zombified if you are first bitten, then you survive being completely eaten by the zombie/s that bit you, finally you manage to not get put down/locked up any fellow humans long enough for the virus to incubate. It seems unlikely to spread very far or fast that way. It’s probably why the author decided to have the protagonist sleep through the initial outbreak in the TV series.

    *(Somebody remind me how much swearing I can get away with on this site.)

    • newdarkcloud says:

      Actually, Walking Dead functions differently. Every single human in the world is infected. When they die, then they become a zombie unless their brain has been destroyed. Zombie bites only transmit other infections that kill people.

      • Will says:

        Oh internet. I write a post about how I don’t like science lectures in my pop culture. And of course somebody swoops in with a “Well.. Actually” and a science lecture.


  3. ? says:

    “Again, the author might as well drop the whole zombie concept and write a story about a regular plague with a 99.99% fatality rate, since that's where this sort of story will end up in a year or so.”

    This scenario could still use some zombies or other danger forcing the survivors out of the cities into the wilderness. Without it, foraging for canned tomatoes and rice in Wal-Mart is neither hard nor dangerous. It would take decades for 0.01%* of population to eat all preserved foods in the world. And through those decades nothing would be stopping smart ones from walking into library and researching this farming thing. Or figuring it out by trial and error on a football field.

    * Or any number around 1% probably.

  4. Chargone says:

    I seem to remember that zombies started life as a ‘magic’ thing… actually, a mind control sort of deally.

    on a different note:

    do and due.

    these are not the same word.

    i am aware that most Americans (silly yod droppers what they be) can’t tell the difference in pronunciation, but still. ‘due’ refers to a time when an event associated with the item is to take place (and usually refers to an arrival of some sort), Or labels something as the cause of something else. (when used as ‘due to’)

    ‘do’ is a basic verb. it’s exact grammatical role is quite complicated and tends to be associated with pronouns.

    ‘make do’ is a well entrenched idiom meaning something along the lines of ‘to do what one can with what one has’.

    ‘make due is a litteral statement (if a slightly weird one) meaning ‘to cause to become expected to arrive’

    kinda different.

    (not really a major issue in and of itself, but i’ve been seeing it all over the place from americans for quite a while now and it Annoys me. not only is it wrong, it makes no damn sense except as a hyper correction. ‘do’ is the simpler one, after all, so one would expect the error to crop up where ‘due’ was expected, but instead we get ‘due’ for ‘do’, particularly, though not always, in ‘make do’. an associated error (possibly plus spell check) gives us ‘adieu’ for ‘ado’. again, compleatly different words.

    but yeah, plague zombies = non-viable on any sort of meaningful scale in a real world enviroment.

    which… makes sense when you realise that they’re a magic based entity which only got tech attached to them because ‘evil corporation’ was a more popular villain at the time than ‘evil wizard’, so far as i can tell.

    • Shamus says:

      I know the difference between do and due. What I don’t know, is where the mistake is in the 2,500 word article I wrote. You don’t need to go off on “Americans” or give me a little condescending lesson. Just let me know where the mistake is and I’ll fix it.

      Most people just say:

      Hey Shamus, when you say “Its a great day today” in the middle of the article, it ought to be “it’s”.

      • Myself I try to write “it is” I found that (is it called contractions?) like “it’s” is not more readable than “it is” quite the contrary in my opinion.

        And do not worry about Chargone he(/she) has probably never typed faster than his fingers can keep up, and run a spellchecker over the TBOD (Text Block Of Doom) only to have it not pick up that “tan” is not the same as “than” (that actually happen while writing this paragraph).

        Spellcheck and reading over the text (at least once, more if it’s a really important or permanent piece) is something I always try to do.
        Then again, I hate editing something, if it’s written then it is written, so on my own site I only fix really stupid typing mistakes I should have caught or not done originally. But I always try to minimize the editing as the temptation to start rewriting is always there, at which point I (and the readers) are better off if I actually write a new article on the same topic again (nothing wrong with that).

      • Mark says:

        (not to be a dick but)

        CTRL+F “make due” would have found it. It’s in the second paragraph under “Survival”.


        Apparently it’s used often enough to be slowly gaining acceptance.

      • Chargone says:

        Wasn’t being condescending. I’ve encountered so many people who honestly don’t know the difference/understand such things that I explain them out in full by default. … that and I get somewhat paranoid about being misunderstood if I leave any aspect unexplained ( The story behind which amounts to ‘stupid childhood events’ + aspergers) … and didn’t go off on ‘Americans’ … I noted that a lot of Americans have trouble with this due their dialect and that I understood that (with joking aside as to What the trouble with it was.)

        … I even included disclaimer paragraph in there basically pointing out that it didn’t even matter that much… which, admittedly, got tied up with a minor rant against the evils of ‘hyper correction’ due to my slightly obsessive nature when it comes to grammar and things which make no sense. (Like the auto correct on my tablet which keeps making me retype entire words when it auto-corrects correctly spelled words halfway through and simply highlights the ones I actually get wrong. Grr.)

        And yeah, pointing out where it was would have helped. My bad on that. Pretty sure I was using the tablet at the time, in which case I offer the partial excuse of ‘finding the place again is an absolute pain in the arse and I got distracted’. Note I say Partial excuse. I really should have realised that at the time…

        Hopefully that clears that up a bit…
        (Oh joy. Now I’m freaking out about This being misunderstood somehow too… )

  5. Zaxares says:

    And THAT’S why I’m 100% confident that a “zombie apocalypse” will never wipe out humanity. There are just too many variables standing in the way of the zombies for them to succeed. The main killer is the zombie food issue; zombies are never shown eating anything but humans, which means that their bodies would be running out of energy within a week, tops, since zombies don’t have the intelligence to hunker down and preserve their energy when they can’t find food, instead just continuing to shamble around and waste precious energy.

    So in truth, all you’d need to do to survive the zombie apocalypse is make sure you have a well-fortified safe room in your house, fill it with enough food and water to last you a few months, and then just barricade yourself in and wait out the zombie plague. I guarantee that such a zombie outbreak will be over within two weeks. Maybe a month, at most, and that’s only if the government doesn’t wise up quickly and lock down borders/transit points to keep the infection from spreading. (And they can do this pretty darn fast. Look at the way the world reacted to the SARS outbreak for a good example of how they can keep new pandemics from spreading.)

  6. Sometimes people or intelligent life exhibit rabdomancy, while actually rabdomancy never indicate normal guise!

    Now I challenge someone else to do the same.
    To not make things too difficult you are allowed to use: SPOILER, Spoiler, WARNING, Warning, SPOILER WARNING, Spoiler Warning.
    Case variations are allowed if the normal words (non-code words) look like part o a normal sentence, and no other characters (No “,” or “.” except a space (between “Spoiler Warning” or “SPOILER WARNING”) is allowed.
    The word or (multiple words if sentences rather than a single word per letter is used) must be findable either on http://dictionary.reference.com or on Wikipedia for verification.
    The letters do not have to be from the start of a word.
    It does not have to be every first or every second etc. As long as it’s mathematically correct; you can use Pi or Prime numbers, or a math equation, like increasing the letter position by one per word for example. As long as it’s logical.

    And what is the point of this? None really other than some word fun. Although maybe as nice “intelligent game” idea for Shamus to play with the kids (use pencil and paper) while they wait for all that Xmas food to be made by mom. *laughs*

    Edit: And no this is not a memory mnemonics trick. This is actually code. In my example it is “The first letter in each word!”

    Edit: Added WARNING (OK! Not the best use of words but you try doing better then! :P )
    And Shamus, if you want to nick this idea and use it as a “filler” post for a slow day, by all means do so. :)

    Edit: change the case rule to make things easier.

  7. Maldeus says:

    What I think is a cool concept is a show or game that was sort of a cross between the first three seasons of Lost, Left 4 Dead, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The apocalypse strikes because the Hellmouth opens. Militaries worldwide mobilize to try and contain massive supernatural threats, things like kaiju and body-snatchers and other things that could legitimately bring down nations. No one has to come out and admit that these things are magic, but despite pretensions of medical accuracy, zombie plagues are basically magic already so whatever.

    There is a very large number of these to begin with (let’s say 666), and on the way out, the global militaries are able to take down most of them, but not all, and now there are, say, thirteen remaining. This is basically just to establish plausibility, because if there were thirteen big huge baddies to begin with and the militaries of the world couldn’t bring down even one, it raises the question as to how a bunch of rag-tag post-apocalyptic survivors could possibly do the job, and that question will probably be answered with some McGuffin plot.

    Regardless, the zombie plague doesn’t take hold until after civilization has already fallen, and they become the shock troops of the big baddies. The baddies can’t actually direct them, but have some method of scaring them away, and can thus funnel the hordes in the general direction of their enemies while leaving their own nightmarish citystates where humans are kept as cattle free of zombie attack (perhaps this defense mechanism is seriously just a great big wall).

    This all sets up the premise of the show. Over yonder is an evil and oppressive citystate basically run by the Combine. If they find us, we are all in big trouble. Over here is a swarm of zombies that function basically as we’ve grown to know them; transmit infection via bite, victim succumbs within 2-3 days. We must try to rebuild a sustainable civilization in spite of not only these two major threats, but also monsters of the week that can crop up whenever because the premise of our media allows for all kinds of kitchen-sink mythology bad guys. As the plotline progresses, things like establishing trade lines with other survivor settlements, finding people who know how to make pre-industrial farming work, and securing vital tools and supplies from before the fall can seriously be plot points.

  8. Michael says:

    So it turns out a good way to tell you’re spending too much time with video games is if (like me) you read the word “rebuff” and your first fleeting thought is “re-apply the buff?”…

  9. rayen says:

    I may have been ninja’d on this, but a couple of points.
    -Considering that the brain uses upwards of 80% of your energy intake, if it was shut off and only a few functions still worked, make heart pump blood, make legs go, process hearing, process smell, keep balance, you almost are asleep, or at the very least aren’t using more energy than you would be if you were (especially of you’re dreaming). If they only used large portions of energy to attack and eat victims, it stands that they would have enough energy to survive for a long period of time.

    -Lack of smell is a thing. Animals have been using it for a long time. For example look at ants. The “guard ants” that protect the anthill, smell each ant in turn, if they aren’t giving off the right smell they attack. Pheromones are already produced by humans, if the infection affects the glands that create pheromones and hormones it is possible for Zeds to tell whether a living thing nearby is or isn’t a zed.

    However my biggest problem with zombies isn’t energy, it’s decomposition. Zombies usually are shown to retain wounds after injury, so they obviously don’t regenerate lost or damaged cells. After Four days putrefaction begins. The organs inside the body have stopped regenerating lost cells and begin to rupture and break apart. After the Stomach and intestines break, everything begin being broken down by the acids. The bacteria and other decomposers already inside your body right now will begin to break down things as well. Every zombie has a ~1 week lifespan. Zombies would need a constant supply of new victims inside a ~1 week walking range, otherwise they’d just wither away.

  10. ehlijen says:

    I feel as though this is all missing the point of zombies.

    In the original zombie movies, they were just another unstoppable serial killer. Not a plague to think your way out of. They are meant to be scary because you know that eventually you’ll have to lie down for a rest and then they’ll get you. Like Krueger haunting your dreams, there is only so long you can postpone an encounter.

    The living dead: How does Krueger work? Why is Jason immortal? How does the T1000 metal work? These are the ideas zombies should be compared against.

    Why don’t they attack each other: Why doesn’t the T1000 split and attack from two sides? Because it’s scarier if they behave the way they do. They are meant to be slow, menacing, but also implaccable.

    Infection protection: The characters aren’t supposed to be aware of how the infection spreads, but even if they do, there is no way to be 100% protected from bites and not get exhausted trying to run from a group of zombies that will hold you down if they catch you. If they don’t bite you, they’ll *just* kill you.

    Containment: If this is an issue, you’re telling an apocalypse story, not a zombie story as such. Zombies were meant to be about personal horror; facing your mortality, deciding what to give up to stay alive for just a little longer (friends, ethics etc).
    A worldwide apocalypse isn’t neccessary, but if desired can be handwaved without affecting the small scale setting too much.

    Guns: Whether guns work depends directly on how many hands are waved in the ‘how do they move’ question. If they are dead bodies and the classical ‘headshot’ rule applies, guns are fairly useless; their main effect is tissue shock which doesn’t bother dead bodies; you have to hit the head, which isn’t all that easy when you’re not playing an FPS. But assuming guns do work, the miliary could still be handwaved to be outnumbered by too much, or have too low supplies if the infratstructure is hit…
    But mostly, if you want zombies and want them to be scary, you don’t add any easy countermeasures to the story. Just set it where guns are not in ready supply.

    Survival: Yes, trying to tell the story of the plucky survivors long after the apocalypse is pretty boring. Which is why no one does it and it’s not the intent of zombie stories. The very possibility of survival is meant to be fleeting at best. If you don’t turn, you’ll get eaten or starve. Death, it’s inevitable.

    Decent zombie stories are samy in the same where most slasher horror movies are samy. You watch them because you enjoy that kind of story, or you don’t.

    Trying to outthink the zombie apocalypse is like trying to think your way out of of one of those ethical dilemma psych questions: a fair enough thing to do if it was real, but it defeats the purpose of the thought exercise. A better ST analogy would have been to pick apart the physical impossibility of the warp drive. It’s central to the setting, yet it shouldn’t work. But we accept that it does because we want to see what happens if it does.

    If you don’t like stories about small groups of survivors hopelessly trapped without supplies by hordes of living dead, zombie movies aren’t for you. The original Night of the Living Dead didn’t even have a single survivor (even though the rest of civilisation was just fine). Granted, the last one didn’t die to zombies, but the theme of inevitable death was pretty clear.

    • Shamus says:

      “I feel as though this is all missing the point of zombies.”

      I feel as though you are missing the point of the article. I gave it away in the title!

      • ehlijen says:

        True. My apologies.

        I just took slight issue with the phrasing
        “I think zombie stories are doomed to be about small groups of survivors in the first year after infection”

        I guess I read more into the choice of the word ‘doomed’ than was really there. Sorry.

  11. Jeff says:

    To pick up on a single sentence in your article, I assume the bathrooms on the Enterprise (which have been shown, including sonic shower scenes (hubba hubba)) have toilets.

  12. Dork Angel says:

    For all it’s flaws, I think Dead Island is a very enjoyable game. I love open word games which is what put me off Dead Space. (Follow this corridor to the end and come back. Now the other door opens. Follow this corridor and back, Repeat). In Dead Island you could explore and do what you wanted. Paying money as part of upgrading and creating weapons was stupid but it was still fun to create the weird and wonderful contraptions. Car mechanics weren’t brilliant but it’s not a driving simulation, it’s a drive round running over zombie’s simulation. I love the way it makes you behave. Kicking a dead body to make sure it’s not moving. Taking down a lone zombie is easy, but you find yourself having to check there’s not more you can’t see as a group will take you down. Luring a group of zombies together so you can take them out with a grenade or molotov. Looking round frantically for that infected you hear screaming and if there’s more than one knowing you’re in trouble. Running round the rooftops trying to find more supplies or even a safe way down. The in your face quick-time event if a zombie gets close enough to grab you when you aren’t expecting it still makes me jump. I have not played another zombie game that gives the same feeling and hope they make another.

    • WJS says:

      I tried that, but there were too many problems for me to really enjoy it.
      – Zombies made of concrete, taking far more punishment than seemed reasonable
      – Weapons made of styrofoam, that break after killing like two zombies with them
      – Respawning zombies, so I had to do it all over again every time I visited an area

  13. Jon says:

    My answer to all of these objections (save the medical/physics ones which are quite legit) is go read World War Z.

    • You mean the ones with zombies who were magically resistant to artillery? The military using weapons with ranges of several horizons away in visual range? The truth about African Rabies being largely unknown, yet a placebo medication making a guy a gajillionaire? Yonkers alone requires more stupid mistakes than literally any military has made in a single engagement in human history, such as the military not knowing about “chain swarms”, despite having anti-zombie black ops. And being in open conflict with them for some time. And all the data Israel must’ve collected.

      Then we get to the fact that every animal besides humans can somehow tell zombies are poison. And the zombies are vulnerable to standard human-inflicted trauma, but oddly resistant to wear and tear, artillery (via magic zombie goop), and ocean pressure.

      Heck, just skim this thread;


  14. Speaking of Europe, Switzerland is a heavily militarized, mountainous country that’s built its infrastructure around fending off attack. Literally every home has some kind of bunker, or has to pay into a community bunker fund. There’s also mandatory service, and automatic rifles are extremely common.


    So when World War Z tells me Europe fell…

    Also, Brooks had the zombies magically be resistant to artillery and explosives.

    Fast zombies are slightly more of a threat, but that just means they get detected faster.

  15. Exasperation says:

    I think there’s probably an interesting story to be told about a rebuilt society post-zombie-apocalypse where the zombies follow rules somewhat like TWD’s: everyone is infected, but the virus (or whatever) remains dormant until the host dies from something else. Then the zombies can burn themselves out for lack of a sustainable food source, or get wiped out by the military, or otherwise be completely destroyed and still remain a constant background threat for as long as there are still people alive.

    Of course, this would probably not be a story about surviving, but about what sort of society would develop under those conditions. Would people still sleep in the same rooms as their spouses, knowing what dying peacefully while sleeping would cause? What systems for handling death would develop (and to what extent would ‘preventing zombie outbreaks’ override concerns such as privacy)? How would people with terminal illnesses be treated? What about the elderly? Maybe there would be some sort of Logan’s Run style system for people whose actuarial tables present too high a risk of death? (And so on…)

  16. These are all things I’ve had to consider when researching for a few zombie tales I’ve worked on. (I think the Walking Dead hit a stroke of genius by making literally everyone infected. So there’s at least a steady supply of walkers once people die of natural causes. A lot more people are dead than alive, after all.)

    I settled on just setting stories in a particular place that was quickly quarantined, and just follow the perspective of those who weren’t able to escape(or still had business in the quarantine zone). Things can get out of hand, bureaucracy and simple human stupidity can help make things spin out of control, but for the most part I think human beings could overcome a zombie outbreak pretty quickly.

    Unless it were airborne, then everyone’s f***ed.

  17. […] Overthinking Zombies – Twenty Sided ← More than you’ve ever wanted to learn about music recommendation services […]

  18. Matt Hunt says:

    In the WWZ book, there were “slow burners”, a small percentage of the infected took over a month to start showing symptoms which is how it spread. By the time governments realized this, the infected that had escaped the initial outbreak in China had already spread across the world.

    If it was just a virus, it would have to stop the purification process or at least slow it down considerably. A virus would probably infect neurons, and just force muscles to move. Really, the virus would also need some kind of “pesticide” too for keeping flies / magots away which would consume all the dead within a few months.

    A “scientific” approach IMHO would be some type of fungus as opposed to a virus. We have real-life examples of fungus that can control living creatures (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis specifically) so it jumping to humans wouldn’t be out of the question. Even more likely is some mycoviruses, which is a virus that can infect a fungus. Imagine OU that is infected by some rabies-type virus…something not “strong enough” to kill a living host, but immediately after death takes over the nervous system and “reboots” many low-level functions. It wouldn’t need to actually breath, the fungus could provide “food” if needed to keep the “body” going.

  19. WJS says:

    Personally, although I really like zombies, I have no illusions about them being at all realistic. This seems to be relatively uncommon; most people (who have a particularly strong opinion one way or the other, at least) either hate zombies because of how unrealistic they are, or get quite indignant when you suggest that zombies are unrealistic, and will go to great lengths to try to convince you otherwise (there are quite a few WWZ fans doing that in these very comments). Liking the genre, but accepting that zombies are just something you have to accept like FTL drive in Space Opera, seems to be less common.
    Personally, I prefer supernatural zombies like in the original Living Dead movies. Trying to make them seem “realistic” with pseudoscience is not a good thing, IMO.

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