on Dec 3, 2012
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?
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…
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…
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.
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…
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.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.