Ever since the zombie boom in fiction, just about everyone has a zombie survival plan these days. It’s even gotten to the point where certain data centers and hospitals have even added them into their official emergency procedures, justifying it with the argument that while reanimated corpses might not be an issue there could still be other disasters that might require the staff to hole up and wait for rescue.
So it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that I actually get people asking me what my survival plan is a fair amount. After all, I’m a science fiction writer who straddles the narrow divide between hard and soft sci-fi. I get paid to come up with contingency plans for the absurd. Unfortunately my answer is always the same confession: I don’t have one.
The reason might not be what you think it is. Sure, Zombies are far from my favorite supernatural horror, but I don’t hate them by any means. There has been some excellent work, even outside the old standby of Romero, which has managed to use the shambling undead horde to great effect in terms of both horror and social commentary. They also tap into our fundamental apex predator’s fear of being eaten, which I suspect is perhaps the single biggest thing that has kept the Zombie firmly planted as such a terrifying concept.
No, the reason I don’t have a survival plan is that before I can come up with one, I have to be able to come up with a scenario in which the zombie apocalypse actually happens. And so far, I haven’t really been able to. What’s more, I’m not sure many others have either.
Let’s face it; there are plenty of zombie narratives out there these days that approach the idea more like a science fiction concept than a supernatural horror. The most common theme is zombies being created as a result of some virus rather than a necromancer for a start, and furthermore it’s a virus that with a few notable exceptions behaves in exactly the same way as a real world virus. And yet in almost all of these more “grounded” narratives, we hop straight from an initial outbreak to the post-apocalyptic swarm. There are vague references to what we missed more often than not, sure, but I’m honestly hard pressed to think of any that showed us something substantial about how civilization actually managed to fall.
Before I go on to more thoroughly analyze this of course, it’s time for a few definitions and ground rules. Zombie narratives are pretty varied these days, even now as they are starting to be phased out of vogue in favor of a new monster to terrify us.
First and most important is the fact that for the purposes of this exercise, a zombie is a non-sentient, near brainless animal. The creatures from I Am Legend, for example, are not truly Zombies in this definition. Ghouls, or perhaps vampires, sure, but they’re definitely not the kind of shambling undead that we associate with a good zombie story. Zombies aren’t tool users, they don’t know how to communicate with each other, and they don’t have the capacity to outsmart our survivors unless one of them has recently taken an extremely nasty blow to the head.
Second is that we’re assuming that the virus or other infection vector is not airborne, and cannot survive exceedingly long against a functional immune system. Another very common trope in use these days establishes that the zombie virus itself is not lethal, but the secondary infections stemming from being bitten by another human are. If the virus can pass through sneezing on someone or being bitten by a zombie mosquito apocalypse is more likely, but the possibility of survivors also rapidly diminishes to almost nil. Unless of course we’re going off of Left 4 Dead rules, where the survivors are immune and thus in no danger of being turned no matter how often they get bit, clawed at, or otherwise mauled. Which we’re not. Survival plan for that contingency is never lose track of a pipe bomb and never be on point, which would make for a much shorter article.
And the third and final requirement here is that the zombies are, in fact, made up of animate but necrotic flesh. In short, they’re dead and decomposing even as they advance on their prey.
Shoot for the Head
First thing to tackle is perhaps the most obvious. While fortunately most people have caught onto this, it still is very annoying how many movies, shows, and books still feature a scene of the well meaning police officer or lone man/woman with a gun continuing to pump bullets into the chest of a zombie as they advance until, finally, they’re overwhelmed.
Okay, so let’s forget for a moment the odd fact that no one in zombie movies has ever seen one. It’s a rotting corpse that’s just taken a half pound of lead to the chest cavity without flinching, and there are very few things that can survive a bullet to the head. Is it really such a mental leap to conclude that a headshot is called for?
The typical response to this oft raised point is that it’s really hard to actually make a headshot. And okay, that’s true, especially if you’ve never fired a gun. But we’re not talking shooting range distances here. Usually you’re talking ten or twenty feet tops. At that range you don’t have to be all that good at aiming to hit something the size of a watermelon, and I’ve yet to meet a single person who couldn’t figure out the theory of using a gun’s sights in about three seconds. Sure, some people would probably be paralyzed with fear and end up being munched on all the same, but in a real world scenario we’d be seeing a LOT more headless zombie corpses lying around in the street. After all, if they liked eating other zombies, wouldn’t they spend more time eating their neighbors than the survivors?
The Military Tried, But They Couldn’t Stop Them
Yeah, it’s not a zombie apocalypse until the military has been brought to its knees by the relentless horde. Expect lots of scenes of soldiers in full combat gear firing over barricades but then being overwhelmed by the horde.
The problem with this is that… well… is anyone in the military really stupid enough to fight them like this? Modern militaries are pretty good at counting, and can generally tell when they’re looking at a hopeless disparity in numbers. And in a major zombie outbreak the soldiers will generally be woefully outnumbered. Rather than simply draw a line and fill it with soldiers, they’re going to start thinking in terms of tactics. As soon as that happens, things are going to go extremely badly for the zombies.
I’m not entirely sure why, but most movies (aka the source for the majority of military knowledge for the layman) tend to greatly undersell the capabilities of military hardware and tactics. One might have thought that in today’s explosion happy climate the exact opposite would be true. As such, people often underestimate just how far machine gun technology has come since World War 2. Often machine guns aren’t actually used to mow down enemies en masse. Rather they’re an effective means of forcing the enemy to stay under cover while squads advance.
Zombies, however, do not understand the concept of cover. They move in tight groups and en masse. They are basically cannon fodder without the shock troops coming in behind them to do actual damage. Get a few SAW’s going and it doesn’t matter if you’re aiming for the head or not, you’re going to be filling the streets with Zombie goo. Admittedly there is the risk that they’ll eventually run out of ammo, which is where the other great advance of machine guns comes in:
These days, we mount them to helicopters. And I have never seen a zombie capable of taking out an apache gunship making strafing runs.
Think about it: you’ve got a horde of thousands of undead crammed into the streets below, shoulder to shoulder and barely moving at a rate that could be charitably called a shuffle. This is the very definition of a target rich environment. A single pass would disable or kill hundreds of undead, allowing them to be slaughtered in job lots with absolutely no risk to any soldiers on the ground. What’s more, the noise of the slaughter would most likely draw zombies into the kill zone.
Some cordons might still be necessary of course to keep stragglers from getting out, but the military could do a pretty good job handling that with liberal use of tanks, artillery, and landmines, which most western countries have in abundance (little known fact: the USA, despite vocally condemning the use of landmines more than once, has repeatedly refused to sign any treaty banning their use or manufacture.) The only conceivable way a zombie could take out a tank would be if a few hundred dog-piled on top of the thing and broke its suspension and it’s doubtful they would have the intelligence to figure this out. And if this were to happen… well, wonderful thing about tanks is the fact that their armor is more or less impervious to small arms fire. You know, the kind that you get from helicopter mounted machine guns.
Honestly this makes me think that we need to have more zombie outbreaks set during the time of the Revolutionary War. Modern zombies really have the deck stacked against them.
The Enduring Horde
Okay, so at this point the zombies have to be wondering what went wrong. Rather than ruling the earth, all they’ve succeeded in doing is given every member of the NRA the best day of their life and demonstrated exactly why full on frontal attacks on Gatling guns never took off. But there’s still a chance for them, right? After all, zombies are already dead, they don’t really need to eat drink or sleep, and there’s no way the army can get rid of all of them. If a few of them can get out of the city they can spread out to other communities, rebuild their forces, and eventually stretch the army too thin to manage it.
Well, there are two problems with that. First off is the fact that nukes would probably come into play if the Army thought it was losing containment. And you know, that doesn’t really need me pedantically explaining things to make the point. Second is the fact that zombies are, well… dead.
I know I’m not the first to make this point, but it bears repeating. Zombies are animated corpses. Their necrotic flesh is being rapidly consumed by armies of bacteria and insects intent on turning them into disgusting smelling goo. Their shelf life is rather sharply limited by this fact.
So, given that anyone with basic access to the news has already bought a gun and is on the lookout for the undead and the army is killing them by the hundreds in the cities, where are the few stragglers actually going to go? Any that make it to a city are going to be immediately gunned down, and those wandering the countryside are more likely to dissolve before they can spread the infection much further. They’d likely have difficulty reaching the next major metropolis, never mind migrating to another continent.
The conclusion is fairly simple. For the Zombie Virus to prosper, it needs a ready and massive supply of humans to spread to, and its very nature precludes it having that for very long. So long as containment is even moderately effective, the zombie menace will basically sort itself out in a week or so, at least locally. That’s not even enough time to properly starve to death. It would be a smelly, hungry week to be sure, but at the end of it you’d probably be able to walk out alive with a minimum of effort. Simply finding a multi-floor building with fire doors you can barricade and a water cooler would probably be enough, and those are hardly uncommon.
Based on all of this, again, I can only come to one conclusion: A zombie outbreak in the modern would indeed be dangerous and likely lead to a massive loss in life in several cities. But the odds of it actually wiping out our entire civilization are extremely low.