It has recently come to my attention that zombies are the dumbest of the undead creatures and that people who indulge in zombie apocalypse hypotheticals are less than what Darwin might consider prime breeding material.
This was the essence of an angry rant that was posted in the comment feed after I posted the results of a quiz that ensured me that it could tell just from looking at my Facebook page how far I would travel, how long I would last, and what would get me killed in the event of a zombie apocalypse (Yorktown to Golden Gate, CA, 12 days, faulty shoelace). Now, I take a lot of those dumb quizzes, primarily to ascertain how wrong they can be about me, but I usually don’t post results. Why? Because the results are often embarrassingly wrong. Like, how could my “book husband” be anyone besides Mr. Darcy? The quizzes are dumb, frequently easily manipulated to get the answers I want or far too simplistic to be trustworthy. How exactly can they know what my dream life is based on 10 questions? Especially when 5 of the questions are about my favorite color, my “spirit animal,” or my favorite way to spend a rainy day. I mean, dumb. But they take up my time, of which I have a lot, and they keep me entertained to a degree. They also act as a platform for discussions on interesting subjects. Which is why I posted the zombie quiz results. I have pretty set ideas of my apocalypse strategy and it in no way involves a crosscountry trek or faulty shoelaces. It was fun seeing people’s responses, especially from those who also took the quiz for equally bizarre results. It was an intellectual exercise, which was ruined a bit when someone decided we were being serious. There was some trolling and I had to dress down the troll, which took some time and effort, but which was certainly better than name-calling. But it got me thinking, mostly because the troll’s argument was pretty weak, but his overall point was relatively valid if poorly defended. And since I’ve done posts on vampires and werewolves, it seemed only right for me to complete the horror trinity.
First things first, we need to define our zombies. Like all monsters, they have evolved over time. I haven’t done much deep research into the origins, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I know of general knowledge, zombies started out in voodoo (probably far earlier, though) and they were primarily individuals risen by a powerful magic practitioner to be slaves. I have read some versions where they are used as assassins, essentially given the name of a person whom they will tirelessly hunt down. Once they have your name, there is no escape. You could call it an allegory for the inevitability of death.
This is a far cry from modern zombie interpretations, except for the undead bit. Modern zombies are more frequently the results of a disease and, of the undead trinity, have the least to do with supernatural forces. This might explain their general appeal for hypotheticals. Vampires and werewolves are steeped in mystical lore, but zombies are more and more scientifically explainable. There is even some scientific basis for the original zombies (something to do with a neurotoxin n a plant or animal that can induce a zombie-like trance in living people). Furthermore, while vampires and werewolves are popular, they aren’t good vehicles for apocalypse theorizing because they rarely come in the form of a pandemic, which is a genuine concern. Just look at the panics we had about Ebola, bird flu, and AIDS. The Zombie Apocalypse is the Black Plague of the modern age. Here you have a disease which has no known cure, is extremely virulent, and the corpses are just as dangerous as the live carriers. Plagues have a long history of being how population levels are reduced when they get too high, so as the planet gets more and more crowded, the basic anxiety about such acts of God become more and more realistic. Furthermore, in cases where the virus is man-made, zombies represent the dangers of scientific hubris. Someone is trying to play God to a disastrous result. So zombies are a very thorough representation of the conflict between science and religion, while vampires and werewolves are more indicative of the conflict between emotion/instinct and civilization. Zombies are our modern Prometheus tale. Which says a lot about our society. In every zombie story, there is a moment where the protagonist sees someone they care about turn from a rational, thinking person into a mindless monster. This is something we can all relate to, right? Any time a friend or family member succumbs to addiction or mental illness, we stand by and watch, feeling helpless. When the victim is someone you know, you can instantly empathize. If it isn’t a stranger, then it could be you. Just think back again to the Ebola outbreak, which no one gave two figs about until some of the victims came here for treatment. Suddenly, it wasn’t a disease in some faraway place. It was on our soil and that much closer to being in our homes. Panic.
Psychologically, zombies are an interesting subject. The people who tend to get pulled into zombie stories are not your typical heroes. There isn’t a Van Helsing leading the charge against an evil foe. It’s usually just people running for their lives, trying to survive. So the story isn’t about the monsters at all; it’s about how ordinary people handle crises. The whole reason I watch The Walking Dead is because it isn’t really about zombies. Yeah, they’re there, and it gets gory and violent. Still, the journey and struggle of the humans is why I keep watching. And World War Z (the book, DEFINITELY NOT the movie) is fascinating because it goes so far beyond the initial crisis which is usually the whole scope of the movies. This is the plot of a standard zombie story: Group of people at the beginning of the outbreak running for their lives and either getting overrun or getting rescued by the military or something. It stays on a very individual level to make the peril seem more immediate. But TWD and WWZ both look at the further implications of an outbreak on the civilized world.
So, yeah, zombies are popular for good reasons. But like all monsters, there are serious flaws in their mythos. The first and most immediate issue is that they are actively decaying monsters. It adds to the gruesomeness, sure, but also to the improbability of them as a serious threat for long. I mean, how could they be that dangerous against whole, healthy people with full use of their limbs and fully functioning brains? Well, numbers help. That’s a major factor in every zombie story. The living have limited resources and have to do things like eat and sleep, while zombies tend to keep going without either for long periods of time. It’s the classic race between the tortoise and the hare. The hare loses, though he is the faster animal, merely because the tortoise just keeps going. Zombies have no higher brain function so they are driven by base instinct. Nothing else matters, not pain nor exhaustion nor severed limbs. And they will continue to be driven until the brain is destroyed, regardless of origins. Even though scientific zombies still need some form of body to function, as long as the brain is functioning, they are driven until the body is burned out completely. Zombies are obsession, the meth addicts of the undead. Which is why it doesn’t actually matter if they are “fast” or “slow” zombies. It isn’t really the speed or numbers that make them effective. It’s the inevitability.
Still, as decaying monsters, that draws the question of the outbreak itself. In many older stories, the zombies all rise from their graves (this is most often a mystical rather than scientific outbreak). Now, this is very gross and creepy, but seems to imply that zombies have super strength since they are able to not only escape from their coffins but up through six feet (at least) of packed dirt. Now, there is some validity to this argument, which is probably why modern stories are skipping graveyards entirely, but it does speak to a degree of ignorance about coffins. Yes, we build them out of steel as well as wood but trends are leaning more toward environmentally friendly coffins which decompose with the body, so they’re not impregnable. Moreover, as stated above, zombies are driven by base instinct, not higher brain function. This doesn’t give them super strength, per se. It’s more like the strength a normal person can get under a surge of adrenaline. And since they don’t feel pain, any injury incurred while escaping the coffin that would cripple a normal person is simply shrugged off. And, since this kind of outbreak is more likely of mystical origins, the bodies are not being operated by muscles and sinew but by willpower. Regardless of how far the body is decomposed, if some of it is left it will strive to reach the surface. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be a bunch of bodies stuck below, just that the assumption that none of them would make it is based on the strength of coffins is a weak argument. The freshly dead, at least, would surely make it because they are the most intact and the dirt least packed. Also, there is the question of people not buried properly. I imagine the desert around Vegas would be swarming with victims of the mafia. And finally, escaping from the grave is, if not an easy feat, then at least a probable means of survival for people in movies (think Kill Bill Vol. 2). Right, that’s in movies, but if we were talking about reality, the topic wouldn’t be zombies, would it? To be fair, though, the super strength does not seem to be limited to escaping the grave. Zombies are capable of ripping a living body apart with their bare hands. Usually this is seen when an individual is mobbed by a horde of undead (so strength in numbers), but individual zombies are apparently just as capable of detaching limbs by just pulling and biting though just about anything wrapped in flesh. Part of this can be attributed to that “adrenaline” strength, however mostly this is movie magic bringing the expected gore. Humans are no longer equipped to be carnivores and it takes more than brute strength to accomplish a dismemberment. Without sharper teeth and claws, it is unlikely that they could be so very effective at this particular feat.
When the source is viral or scientific instead of mystical, coffins aren’t really a problem at all. Most people aren’t buried immediately after death. It takes a couple of days, which is more than enough time for someone to “turn” by most sources. According to WWZ the movie, it takes 10 seconds from being bit to turn, but only if you don’t cut off the bitten limb in less than that. TWD clocks it at no more than 2 hours from death of the host. This is about the standard for the zombie films I’ve seen. It takes an indeterminate amount of time for the infection to kill the host, but turning is within hours and even minutes of death. This helps to explain the swiftness of the outbreak to some degree, but isn’t fully satisfying to me. See, even in cases of normal diseases, the outbreak needs just the right conditions to spread as fast as zombie outbreaks do (usually from a single case to global pandemic in a matter of days). The virulence of zombie-ism is mostly an expression of fears, like globalization and the dangers there of, but isn’t all that realistic, especially if you consider how obvious the symptoms would be. Yes, some people would be able to hide bites for a time, but it’s not a disease that spreads before symptoms are apparent. The worst diseases are spread through the air before anyone even knows they’re sick, so the fact that the zombie host has to die to become an active vector is a bit of a drawback. AIDS is a far more effective disease and, while it is still a big problem, it didn’t take over the world despite years of free reign on society. I mean, it passes the same way as zombies (usually interpreted as an infection via bodily fluids like saliva and blood, with the bite being just the most likely means of transmittance), but the initial spread happened because people didn’t have symptoms until later stages (HIV-positive to full-blown AIDS). This simply can’t happen with zombies. Even in cases when the infection has symptoms like fever, hallucination, etc, the person is not contagious until they die. Plus, the point of plague is more than just population control. The Black Plague in the 1340’s wiped out an estimated 3rd of the population and is the major reason civilization moved from the Dark Ages into the Enlightenment/Renaissance. Besides having a major effect on how man viewed the world and how society was shaped, it did what all plagues do in nature: it made a stronger herd made up of survivors. It wasn’t deadly to everyone, after all. Despite how quickly it spread and the lack of medical understanding of the cause, some people were naturally immune. Those capable of surviving or remaining immune to infection passed on their genes to the next generation. Standard survival of the fittest. Logically, the zombie disease would have the same natural drive and some people would be immune. This is never the case in the movies, though this could be because the disease is most often a man-made one rather than something brought on by nature. Again, this is evidence that a zombie outbreak is based solely on fear rather than real science. The only source that seems to find a loophole is TWD. If you haven’t seen the show at all, I’m sorry to give away spoilers. In the show it is soon revealed that everyone living or dead is infected. So even if you die of natural causes, you turn. This is a brilliant way to explain the global decimation of the population. There is no way to stop the infection, no way to avoid or contain it because everyone is a carrier. There wouldn’t be a Typhoid Mary. Just one day, there would be 56 million zombies worldwide who died of natural causes. This is a level of horror unheard of in any other story. It does return a bit of the mystical back into the zombie mythos (how else could the entire planet by infected all of a sudden?), which to me is a bit refreshing after all the strained attempts at “scientific” explanations. But without that aspect of the myth, there is little chance of a genuine global pandemic, whatever the fear monger media says.
One myth that can be completely dispelled is the success of amputation to stop the spread of infection. The zombie disease is blood-born and your heart pumps blood too quickly. The time it would take you after a bite to remove the limb is far too slow to stop anything. Even if you manage it in under 10 seconds.
Conclusion: Zombies are not real. They, like other monsters, are allegory for common, widespread fears. They are rife with improbabilities and scientific inaccuracies. They are obviously fantasies. And when normal people engage in discussions about fantasy topics, they aren’t being stupid. It is really only worrisome when people start building zombie shelters in their yards and stocking up on MREs. And being a fan of something is an indicator of taste, not intelligence. Which is why I try not to hate on other fandoms, even of those I find abhorrent. I may have good reasons to despise them, but the minute I start throwing shade, I leave my own fandoms open to attack. Amazingly, there are people out there who do not love everything I do. That doesn’t make them dumb or inferior. Just makes them different. So even if they start hating on something I love, even when it would be so easy to make insinuations about the childishness/stupidity/inferiority of their own fandoms, I resist the urge. Even when I can attack them on a personal level, I don’t. Part of the problem with our culture is that we don’t argue. If someone disagrees with us, we get defensive and immediately take the stance that the other person is stupid. Instead of having a discussion which can enrich both sides even if they never come to an agreement, we attack the person in a downward spiral to hurt feelings. Nothing is learned, nothing is gained, we are all reduced to assholes. I admit that I don’t always act the adult, but I am trying to become more open to other viewpoints. I may not like your stance, but I will endeavor to see the validity of it.
And in case of a zombie apocalypse, I would steal an LMTV or MTV from the Transportation Museum on post and head for the Appalachians, since I’m on the east coast. I know most people argue for heading to the nearest coast, but since the traffic to VA Beach is impossible on a normal day, I’d rather not get stuck in tunnel traffic with a horde on my ass. The Appalachians are ideal because they have a lot of low-population areas, they are fertile, and they aren’t as treacherous as the Rockies. They still can have harsh winter conditions, but looting a Dick’s Sporting Goods on the way out of town would be a means of attaining winter survival gear, all of which would fit easily in my LMTV. My vehicle choice is built on a few factors. First is familiarity. I need a vehicle I know how to drive. Second, both vehicles are high off the ground, ideal for off-roading, fording, and relatively safe from attack from the ground, making them good for temporary shelter until a more permanent defense can be managed. They’re large enough to plow through a great deal of debris/road blocks/traffic jams and can hold a great deal of cargo and personnel. Finally, they’re older vehicles and I’m assuming that the local military would be using the more modern troop carriers to fight the zombies. Drawbacks include how slow they are compared to commercial vehicles and they are not fuel-efficient. However, given enough of a head start, I should be able to stock up on enough diesel fuel to get us to safety. And you better believe the cab is gonna be packed with MREs and empty bottles for stocking up on water. What about guns? Nope. While guns are highly effective for sharpshooters, I am not a sharpshooter. They also make a great deal of noise, which can draw more zombies, and they run out of ammo. I prefer swords and axes, though I might rig up a lawn mower shield ala Dead Alive. If I have my husband and cats, we might make it a year or more. Without my husband, I wouldn’t leave my house. Then again, depending on the situation, we might be smart to just stay on post.
Honestly, though, I’d probably die in the initial outbreak for no other reason than disbelief.
Sources/Favorite Zombie Stories:
The Walking Dead (AMC)
World War Z by Max Brooks (book only, eff the movie => it sucked)
The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore (A Tale of Christmas Terror)
Shawn of the Dead (Simon Pegg/Nick Frost)
Dead Alive (Peter Jackson) => you will never look at pudding the same way
Zombie Strippers => don’t ask.
Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez)
MythBusters (Season 11, Ep. 11: Zombie Special)
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Mercy Thompson Series by Patricia Briggs
Romero Zombie Movies (haven’t seen them all, but I have general knowledge)