Our imagined apocalypses (apocali?) are reflections of our fears, this much is clear. What is less apparent is what fear is being plumbed by each imagined apocalypse; they are typically stand-ins for various insecurities held by the culture and society in question. Zombies, for instance, often symbolize either the menace of foreign invaders or ideas (communism, desegregation, etc.) or some other loss of individuality in the face of overwhelming tides of “others”. Alien invasion is much the same thing (only clearer). Fear of world-ending pandemic is also a fear of foreign influence or, more simply, a fear of those considered to be dirty or inferior sullying your perfect, first-world existence. Then you’ve got the asteroids and giant monsters of the world, which are really just the manifestation of our insecurities as a culture (wait, what if we really don’t control the world? AHHHH!).
Most of our fears of apocalypse are exaggerated or simply baseless. Even our made-up ones don’t hold water under casual investigation even under their own rules. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the season, let’s just put together the craziest, meanest compilation of apocalyptic scenarios in one big lump and see what we get, huh?
Phase One: Aliens and Meteors, Oh My!
We start with Aliens. Aliens on meteors. The earth is pummeled by a non-stop barrage of asteroids, crushing cities and causing tidal waves. The world panics, global leaders marshal their armies to fight the alien threat, but while the fight eventually turns in favor of the plucky US Marines holed up in a school in LA, the war is far from over.
Phase Two: Zombies with the Flu
The aliens, you see, tested a new bio-weapon – a weapon designed to rid themselves of these pesky humans. It turned all the infected into mindless, human-brain-eating machines. Soon, hordes of zombies were seen marching across the land. Of course, the aliens are gone by that time, having all been killed by the flu. Since they were the commanders of the zombies, they gave the flu to the zombies. Now we have zombies with the flu.
Zombies with mutant alien flu.
Phase Three: The Robots Will Save Us…oh…
What kills zombies but can’t get the flu? Robots, of course! The remaining scientists of the Earth pool their remaining resources to create a super zombie-killing robot army run by a central artificial intelligence. All the conspiracy theorists, long since retreated to their underground bunkers, are not present to sound the alarm, and so it occurs to no one that once the zombies are all dead, who will the robots kill? Do we honestly think they’re going to happily hop into the slag pile when it’s all over?
Next thing you know, zombies and humans alike are rounded up by the Earth’s new metallic overlords and herded into death-camps. The funeral pyres burn all day and all night, leading to…
Phase Four: Carbon’s Revenge!
Ha, you silicate fools! Think you could incinerate the biological matter of the Earth without cost? The Death Camp Greenhouse effect takes hold. The ice caps evaporate. Cities flood. Drought is rampant. Hurricanes are devastating. The air has become a toxic fume. The robots, bereft of the existential joy they once derived from watching butterflies frolic in the meadow, decide they don’t want to live any more. Ctrl-Alt-Delete, my sweet adamantium princes.
Phase Five: But Wait, Who’s This?
As humanity slowly crawls its way out of the death camps and into the blighted landscape of their once fertile Earth, who do they find but Jesus, sternly waiting at the top of a hill with a desk, a pen, and a really big file cabinet. To his right, a pearly staircase ascending to heaven; to his left, a pack of mutated demonic flu-ridden zombie robots. At the front of the line, a starving young man approaches, hat in hand.
“Name?” quoth the Lamb of God.
Names are given; Jesus consults the file cabinet. “Sorry Mr. Johnson, you’re name isn’t on the list.”
And so it goes.
Centuries later, after the Earth is recovered and the apes rule the world in a benevolent utopia, Charlton Heston is cussing us all out on a beach somewhere. This is how it ends. This is always how it all ends.
(Assuming you don’t watch the sequels)
It has come to the attention of Vrokthar the Skull-Feaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes and Bane of the Help Desk Cult, that you wetlanders have grown anxious about thy impending doom. This at first pleased the might ears of Vrokthar, for he thought that the miserable wretches of those weak peoples had, at last, realized the futility of their existence and resigned themselves to glorious slaughter at the swords of Vrokthar’s mighty ravaging hordes.
But lo, Vrokthar was wrong! The outrage! The insult!
You limp-wristed fools fear the ravages of a horde of zombies? Zombies? What nonsense is this? Why should you pathetic weaklings be more menacing when infected with diseases and parasites? Vrokthar is no master of logic, but he does have considerable experience with parasites and infections and, take it from me, they do not make you stronger. Packs of diseased wetlanders would be as dangerous as an average pack of poxy swine – easily slain and a wondrous source of fine bacon. If you have not sampled man-bacon, I assure you it is delicious, and you puffy overweight un-men are a wondrous source of both plentiful bacon and the lard in which to fry it.
So, aside from providing Vrotkthar and his multitudinous progeny with unending supplies of bacon, of what consequence is your pitiful zombie apocalypse? Do you honestly think that you, fat lazy hog lounging on your plush divans and speculating upon the pelvic gyrations of your vid-trollops, are a mere infection away from dangerous weapon? I would gladly remove your zombie spine and wear it as a belt to prove your inferiority, whether dead or alive, but the spines of your people are notoriously difficult to find.
I can hear now your sniveling protestations: “But Vrokthar,” you whimper, snot dribbling from your rosy little noses, “there will be hordes of us! We will be too many?”
Think you that your numbers are of account? Bah! My blade has hungered for such an opportunity to test its edge. Your pathetic sense, so dulled by whatever infection hath corrupted your reason, will fall easy prey to me. I shall hack and slash my way through your miserable masses to utmost victory. You will have no organization, no leaders, no weapons, and no sense – thy doom will be assured.
So, speak not to me of the menaces of your ‘zombie apocalypse’. Such a worthless event, were it to come to pass, would not be frightening enough to make Vrokthar pass gas. He would simply bide his time in the bitter vastness of the north and then, when your pathetic culture had finally managed to laze itself into near collapse, I would blow my mighty horn, gather the hordes, and descend upon thee like the judgment of angry gods.
And then, the man-bacon would flow.
Having a busy week, so in lieu of my own musings, read this article by Paul Ford on Slate. You will like it, I promise.
In the meantime, I will be brushing up on my combat cycling skills.
So, say you’re interested in raising yourself an army of the undead. They have a variety of uses (as indicated here) and can be seen as a good investment if you have the proper materials and instruction in the unholy arts. I’ll decline to speculate on where you might get your necromantic training for a reasonable rate, but I think we can have a practical discussion on where one might acquire the dead people to get yourself started. Believe it or not, this is harder than it might seem.
Now, a novice might assume the obvious answer to your dead-body acquisition needs would be a graveyard. Well,
unless you have a backhoe, a lot of time, and are only interested in a small handful of undead minions, graveyards make poor locations to start. Why? Well, consider this: all your prospective servants are buried under 6-ish feet of packed earth (which is hard enough to dig out of to begin with, even for the undead), but are also usually encased in coffins. Coffins are very often made of steel, at least in this country. So, before you can actually use your new undead friends for scaring the neighbors, walking the dog, or conquering the local Wal Mart for your exclusive use, you’ve got to dig them up and spring them from a steel box. I don’t care how strong you think your undead buddies are, or even if the coffin is made of simple pine – that is no mean feat. You’ll be lucky if the undead make it out of the earth at all, let alone in any kind of useful condition or in a timely manner.
Okay, so no graveyards. Impractical and, hey, if it’s one of those consecrated deals, it might not even be possible to work your fiendish magic on the site, and todays marketplace is all about convenience, right? But where else can a guy with an itch for ghoulish minions find large supplies of the dead?
The next place on the list would be hospital morgues. These places have a number of advantages – the bodies are usually fresh, the conditions sanitary, and there are probably a few dozen bodies available on hand at any given time. In some places, there could be several hundred (though that is probably rare). There are a couple problems, though. Firstly, most morgue drawers lock closed like an old refrigerator door – you’d need to go around opening all the doors to let your minions out. Secondly, and probably more problematic, is that hospitals usually have a lot of personnel and security on hand to stop things like would-be necromancers running in and snatching their dead bodies (well, maybe not precisely that, but close enough). If you’re the black-hearted necromancer type, then maybe you don’t mind staging a bloody heist or some kind of clever theft, but this article presumes you’re more of the warm-hearted philanthropic necromancer which, I feel, ought to be more common.
Okay, so hospitals are good, but not ideal. What is, then? How can you get the stereotypical masses of zombies and skeletons emerging from the earth to do your bidding? Well, you pretty much need to find battlefields or mass graves. These, thankfully, aren’t all that common and this means not every necromancer in every corner of the Earth is going to have unfettered access to such things. Also, you can usually assume bodies that were dumped in mass graves will be in the worst condition possible and the longevity of their usefulness will likely be limited. You can’t have everything, can you?
Now, of course, there’s always trawling for bodies in rivers (optimally near high bridges), robbing funeral homes, or (God forbid) making your own dead bodies, but all of these methods are either obviously cruel and immoral or extremely inefficient. If you plan on committing a grave robbery, at least make sure you get more than one zombie out of the deal. Necromancy, as you no doubt are realizing, is a tough racket. Don’t despair, however – despair is something your enemies ought to feel, as your shambling horde descends upon them in the dead of a moonless night.
The world is a frustrating place. There are times, when in the midst of shaking my fist in rage at some perceived inequity, that I wish I had the god-like force to make things right. At these times, I am prone to mutter “If I had an army of the undead…”
Let’s face it: once you get past the ‘ick’ factor, there are few underlings more reliable than the undead. Granted, they aren’t much for improvisation or abstract thought, but they follow orders, they require relatively little upkeep (you know, provided you get the ones that don’t eat brains), are hard workers, and are even recyclable, provided you’re a necromancer of passing talent.
See, I don’t think of the undead as some inherently evil plague to be visited upon mankind. The dead are just dead–they don’t hate the living or wish to destroy life or anything. Dead things have no opinions; they are precisely as good or as bad as their master makes them be. Just imagine if you could marshal a large force of undead minions and put them to work for the public good! Think of it: legions of brightly clad, well-perfumed skeletal creatures on every street corner, insuring public safety and guarding the public trust. Ahhhh…utopia.
Here would be some of the tasks to which my army of undead would be routinely assigned:
- An auxiliary of zombies clad in flame-resistant shrink wrap would be on hand for the fire department to dispatch into burning buildings judged too dangerous for living firefighters to enter. Rescues would go up, firefighter injuries would go down!
- Much of the staff of the MBTA (bus routes excepted) could be quickly and easily replaced by skeletons with, I imagine, little notable loss in the quality of service.
- I would employ wraiths and other ethereal creatures to serve warrants and pursue fugitives. The odds of folks running when they know the cold, dead hand of death is liable to follow them would be rather low, I imagine.
- Need a lot of volunteers to systematically search an area for a missing person or body? Hmmmm…I seem to have a couple thousand zombies sitting around with nothing better to do…
- Disaster relief? Well, seems to me my legions of skeletons can carry plenty of water and supplies just about anywhere, given enough time. They don’t mind much if they’re getting electrocuted by downed power lines or covered over by sewage-filled water.
- Bomb squads suddenly have anthropomorphic bomb-defusers that can be commanded via remote. If the bomb goes off, who cares?
- Need Witness Protection? Want to secure your property from vandals? Want to scare the crap out of those punks painting swastikas on your synagogue? Boy, have I got the ghouls for you!
Sure, sure, I can hear all the negative nellies now–something is bound to go wrong! What if the dead get hungry? Stuff and nonsense. I know exactly what I’m doing, okay? Nothing is going to go wrong, and when a zombie pulls you out of your burning car wreck because I had thoughtfully stationed a team of them on the shoulder of the Mass Pike, picking up litter, you can thank me later.
(Or, for that matter, you can thank your Great Aunt Patrice, whose corpse I reanimated and put to work)
The following was excised from a KGB black ops facility by CIA deep cover operatives in the winter of 1971. It is an incomplete fragment of what is apparently a much longer work, and it is uncertain how, if at all, the Soviets intended to use or had used its contents or, indeed, who the author is. It is the advice of this translator that this file is some kind of fiction or the rantings of a lunatic. There is, however, far too much associated KGB and CIA documentation to discount it entirely. Something was going on here, though what is terrible to contemplate.
What is often misunderstood is this: all sorcery is black sorcery. There is no other type. The flashy tricks and dramatic swoops of the stage illusionist are charades, nothing more. Likewise, the mentalist and the so-called psychic are nothing but talented charlatans and liars. Sorcery—true sorcery—is dirty and abhorrent to so-called cultured men. This I know.
The irony of black sorcery is that it is as old as God Himself. Its power derives from His own, at least in part. We may not cast back the waters of the Red Sea, nor may we transmute staff into snake; these miracles are beyond us, just as they were beyond Pharaoh. We know, however, a deeper secret. It is one more subtle and every bit as powerful.
Sorcery is the power of Life and Death.
The great Gift given to the world by the Almighty and wielded by Jesus over the body of Lazarus is the power which we manipulate, though to a much lesser degree. If Eden were the great bonfire that began it all, that which we toy with is but the sputtering embers and errant sparks of that great conflagration. Still, with sparks one may do much, if one is clever.
Sorcery involves the viscera and fluids of living creatures to be enacted. If you are opposed to shedding of blood and disturbed by the touch of dead flesh, you will never be a sorcerer. Indeed, one should not wish to be a sorcerer at all; it is no blessing. Perhaps in the courts of ancient Egypt our skills were esteemed, but now we are reviled, abhorred, or simply denied. Only upon the tiny island of Hispaniola can you find members of our order practicing their art openly, and even then they are met with derision. The societies of mankind deny what they know is true—life is a power beyond the simple physics of anatomy. Were it not, every doctor could bring life where there is death; every scientist would have a Monster like Victor Frankenstien’s.
I am one of the last, true necromancers. I write this to explain myself and my work, but I do not seek your forgiveness or pardon. I have done nothing wrong. Raising the dead is no crime if the cause for which they are raised is just, and I am a just man. Or I was a just man until recently.
My captors—these wretched, drab bureaucrats who fawn in Stalin’s wake and worship the fiction of their Party—they have made me do what I would not have done otherwise. I have created things for them and I know that they will be misused. I have given eternal life to the unworthy and the vicious; I have raised the innocent to obey the guilty. These are crimes, but I will make amends. I have all the time in the world, though they refuse to believe it. I was old when Tsar Nicholas II was a boy, so what do they know, these children of Lenin?
It may come to pass, however, that they will somehow destroy me. If this were to happen, it would be unwise for me to leave this world without laying out the weaknesses of those things which I have created. Heed me well:
Your enemy is not the servants—what the bokor of dark Haiti call zombi—for, while they have many uses, their power is brief and worthless without direction. No, it is the masters you must fear—those who have never passed the lychgate or similar after their deaths, those bodies that still live. They are the lych [editor’s note: this word originally written in the Latin alphabet; it is presumed the author was not satisfied with its Cyrillic equivalent for reasons I can only infer. It should be noted that the word is most probably derived from the Old English ‘lic,’ meaning ‘corpse’ or ‘body’ and nothing more], and they are the only ones besides our Lord and those who have passed into His Kingdom who have achieved eternal life. This life, though, is a shadow of its former self.
The lych persist in this world in full possession of their mind and willpower (so long as the one can maintain the other), but they rest within a body that is physically dead. They are sorcerers almost without exception or, at the very least, they know something of sorcery otherwise they will not be long for this world. They should not be underestimated under any circumstances.
You cannot murder a lych. They are already dead. Stab them and they will only bleed insofar as their blood is still present. Shoot them and you create a hole and nothing more. Cut off their head and their body and their head will seek to find one another. They do not feel pain, or at least not strongly—many come to miss the sensation; it drives some mad. Break their bones and you damage their vessel, but you do not harm their resolve or their intelligence.
It has been suggested that the lych may be killed by fire or by utterly obliterating their body. This is only partially true. Destroy the body and you rob the lych of his vessel, but his spirit will not dissipate. He will lurk and fester in the place where he was struck dead—for an eternity, if need be—until he is either truly released from this life or a new vessel presents itself. This is most easily accomplished with another dead body. It may be accomplished otherwise, as well. Possession is a very risky endeavor for the lych, but bears with it proportional benefits. I digress, however—more about possession later.
The lych is sustained by the captured essence of his life force. This is contained in his phylactery or phylacteries, known also as zombi to the bokor of West Africa, though this should not be confused with the servants the lych often employs. The process for preparing a phylactery is long and complex and requires much blood. It is a process I will not share with you, nor with my captors. What is important is that the phylactery or phylacteries are the only true weakness of the lych and their only bond to mortality. If it cannot be found and destroyed utterly, the lych can never truly depart this world for his final reward or punishment, as is appropriate to his actions.
The weapons of the lych are numerous and mysterious, and vary according to individual. To list them all here would be pointless—there are always exceptions. I have mentioned their sorcery, and that is enough for you to know their power. They have spent many mortal lifetimes perfecting their arts, and they are more skilled in them than any other save another of their kind. In general, it is enough to know that the lych have power over the dead and the living, the spiritual and the physical, and can learn and do much with the simple application of certain rituals. Their intelligence is their weapon, and it is a potent one.
Of their weaknesses, however, I can speak more directly. I have already mentioned the phylactery, but this is as much advantage as it is weakness—a lych may hide his phylactery anywhere on the Earth, even many thousands of miles from himself, and make his foes despair in hoping to defeat him. There are those lych who have buried theirs deep in the darkness of continental forests and jungles, never to be found again, and lived for ages without fear of compromise. The lych who wears his phylactery about his neck is a fool, but few of them are fools.
The greatest weakness of the lych is his body. It is dead, rotting, and weakening with every passing day. If they sustain injuries, they never heal. If they contract diseases, their body falls away to rot around them. This is of great concern to the lych, as he is then less able to blend into society and also less physically capable of interacting with the world. The ancient Egyptians embalmed their immortal high priests so that this rotting process would slow itself, and most modern lych do so as well. This, however, leaves them gaunt and thin—very corpselike in appearance and physically weak—but enables them to live in relative stability for long periods. They will cover up their gaunt appearance with make-up and wigs (the lych loses his hair very quickly) and wear concealing clothing. They will also seek to avoid infection and exposure to bacteria with ruthless attention, as the simple germs common mortals encounter on a daily basis are sufficient to devour the lych’s body. They will need to moisten their eyes and tongues often to prevent them from drying out and withering (though it should be noted they do not need these organs to see or be heard). Finally, they will avoid bright sunlight, as even minor burning from the sun is irreversible and leads to further complications. The lych values his body, even though he does not need it to persist—it is his primary tool for interacting with the world, and he spends much of his time caring for it.
There are those lych who seek to maintain some of their vitality through the consumption of fresh blood. This has its uses for a lych, as he is typically in need of fresh blood to engage in sorcery (which can, in turn, be used to delay his gradual decay). This habit among some is undoubtedly the origin of the so-called vampyr, but the lych is considerably more dangerous, if physically less potent.
Another important weakness of the lych lies with purified salt. Salt is an element that connects humanity with God and is a symbol of His various covenants with the faithful throughout time. Salt, particularly if pure and consecrated, interferes with the connection between the lych and his phylactery. If you were to make a ring of pure salt around a lych, the body would fall inert and the spirit banished back to his phylactery, as the link cannot pass a barrier of pure salt. Likewise, a lych may not pass onto consecrated ground. It should be noted to the fanatical that this is not an indication of the wickedness of the lych, but rather a regrettable fact of their existence. Throwing salt on them does not hurt them anymore than it would hurt a mortal person.
As a final caution, those who would combat the unrighteous lych must be made aware of certain misconceptions about the living dead. Holy water and holy symbols are of no worth against them, except perhaps as psychological weapons. Running water does not stop them anymore than it stops another man (though the embalmed lych is a poor swimmer and usually too weak to cross any great breadth of water). Burning them destroys their body, but has no effect on their spirit (though it should be mentioned that those lych that are embalmed with certain alcohol-based chemicals will occasionally explode as much as burn—be warned). With proper sun protection, a lych has no compunction walking about during the day, and even direct sunlight, though bad for their body’s long-term duration, does not harm them. To rely upon these superstitions in your battle against the lych is to court your own death.
That is enough for today. My captors are coming—I can smell them. I am interested in how they will choose to motivate me this time; they have given up on torture, of course. There are still things they cannot make me do. What evil they have compelled me to commit is only a fraction of my potential; I only hope they do not suspect this. I hope I am strong enough to endure longer than this new Union of theirs. I must be, even if I must live on as a spirit in this dismal place forever.
(Author’s note: in the vein of posting stuff here I’ve posted elsewhere, just to get ‘up to date’, here’s my little argument against the sci-fi zombie and its corresponding ‘apocalypse’, posted on facebook some months ago. Enjoy. Or not, I suppose.)
Okay, so this whole zombie obsession of the past few years has really started to drive me bonkers. It hit a head a week or so ago when my wife, Deirdre, came home from work at BU with a flyer that was being handed out regarding ‘what to do in case of zombie attack.’ Obviously farsical, the pamphlet nevertheless frustrated me beyond reason, and I need to vent. My blog strikes me as a pretty good place to do this, so here it goes. I should note that this rant is in no way personally targeted at anyone.
I am a self-avowed enthusiast of things fanciful or science fiction-esque and, as a general rule, I do not begrudge other groups their obsessions with whatever ghost, goblin, or android currently catches their fancy. Do I like Twilight? No. Do I begrudge the fans their interest in Twilight–no, not really. Indeed, my problem with zombies is very specific. I don’t mind that zombie films are popular or even that some clever little student group is distributing bogus health information to no-doubt confused international students. My problem is that the modern zombie, in its current incarnation, makes no internally consistent sense and, therefore, fails to enable me to suspend my disbelief.
This is a by-product of the ‘science fictionization’ of zombies, primarily. If we want to stick with necromancers chanting foul rituals to raise hordes of the undead, I have no problem with the concept whatsoever. By dint of involving magic, you are consciously waving away any and all of the concerns I voice below. However, science fiction, as the first word indicates, needs to pay a certain homage to science as we understand it. It can bend and stretch the rules of physiology just so far before an idea ceases to be plausible and, therefore, becomes ridiculous. The science fiction zombie is one such entity.
The Science Fiction Zombie
The sci-fi zombie has a series of characteristics that set it apart from its fanciful cousin. In order to critique the trope, it only makes sense that I lay out what I see as being included in that trope.
Premise #1: Zombies are created by some kind of disease or biological agent that, once it infects its host, transforms them into a zombie over a variable period of time (from a few minutes to a few hours, depending upon dramatic license). This agent is almost universally transmitted via bodily fluids of some kind, chiefly blood and/or saliva.
Premise #2: Zombies suffer from extreme behavioral modifications, primarily limited to the following: rabid aggression towards other humans, the complete destruction of human empathy or compassion, erasure or curtailment of the capacity for problem solving or creativity. Thus, they tend to stagger around stupidly, attack on sight, and show no mercy.
Premise #3: Zombies are extremely strong due to their lack of restraint and are resistant to damage due to the fact that they do not feel pain. This makes them hard to stop.
Premise #4: The only sure-fire way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain somehow or otherwise cut it off from communicating with the body.
Premise #5: The zombie plague spreads so quickly and is so unstoppable that, inevitably, the entire human race will succumb, ushering in some kind of apocalypse or reasonable facsimile thereof.
There you have it–the basic set-up. I am aware that there are distinctions between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ zombies, but I would contend that the difference is immaterial to the heart of my critique, except to say that ‘fast’ zombies make somewhat less sense (who in such an addled state of mind actually *improves* coordination?) and is somewhat more effective (see below).
The Problems with Premise #1 (Transmission)
Okay, let’s make this one easy. I want you, right now, to try and bite the nearest human being so it breaks the skin. Go ahead.
You hesitate, I’m guessing. Let’s entertain why that is:
Firstly, you rightly conclude that to do this would result in some kind of physical struggle. You, in the role of zombie, will be attempting to use your teeth to bite someone while that somebody will be using their fists to pummel you and their legs to run the hell away. Here we can see that an *actual* zombie (were such a thing to exist) will be at something of an advantage, seeing how they don’t feel pain (so punching doesn’t help in most cases) and they are in a state of near-permanent adrenaline rush (so they will be trying harder).
Secondly, and perhaps not consciously, you must be aware of just how poorly suited the human jaw is for the purpose we have assigned it. Human jaw muscles are fairly weak, human teeth are not especially sharp, and the human head/neck is not designed to tear flesh from something that’s still wiggling around. Even were we to grant you the extra aggression needed to *really* try to bite somebody so hard you draw blood, it won’t be easy at all. Keep in mind that a drooling zombie is likely to incite an intense adrenal response from the victim, too, rendering them comparable in strength. Then there’s the simple possibility that the victim in question is wearing, say, a leather jacket–good luck biting through that. I suppose we could grant that zombies ‘benefit’ from the kind of intense muscle spasms that are caused by siezures, but even in that case we have to mitigate their effectiveness as biting things with the fact that such muscle siezures are (1) exhausting, (2) hard to control with any agility, and (3) seldom so strong as to allow you to bite straight through leather, cloth, and skin with ease.
Thirdly, the zombie virus presumes a 100% infection rate (hardly comparable with any real disease known to man, even the man-made ones) and that the person thusly attacked by a zombie won’t immediately go to the hospital because they’ve been attacked by somebody with rabies (which is a rather large presumption) and, once there, be appropriately isolated. Also, the prospect of this zombie being able to pull off a successful bite in public is very slim. A rabid lunatic trying to maul somebody is likely to engender a collective response. Our ‘first zombie’ might be able to bite one or two people, optimistically, before he is sat on by a bunch of other people and the police are summoned.
The Problem with Premise #2: Zombie Psychology
Tightly tied in with the reason a zombie plague wouldn’t go very far is because of what it does to zombie victims. From what we can ascertain from the source material, it is evident that the zombie plague does massive neurological and psychological damage to the victim. In some cases it is explained as a kind of ‘rage virus’, in others it messes around with brain chemistry to the point where the victim is in a rabid-like state or some other form of irrational fugue.
All of this presents an enormous problem for the viability of a zombie as a credible threat to civilized society. It dovetails nicely with the problem with Premise #1–it makes it really, really hard to bite somebody. It would be one thing if you were riding next to some dude on the train and he, out of the blue, turned around and tried to bite your face/hand/whatever. This, though still not likely to break skin, is infinitely *more* likely than the prospect of the drooling, moaning, blood-covered dude getting the drop on you. He is, by his very nature, a pariah to all ordinary people. He sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ve seen a *lot* of zombie movies make the assumption (admittedly for the purpose of drama, but still) that zombies are able to sneak up on people. Sorry, folks–a ‘rage’ virus doesn’t have an off button. If your brain is so screwed up that you are a mindless cannibal, you aren’t going to be using subterfuge. Subterfuge requires planning, a degree of reasoning ability, and an element of restraint and judgement that zombies clearly lack. There is a *reason* all of the predatory species of the world have, on average, much larger brains than their herviborous cousins–hunting, sneaking, trapping, and so on require *thought* to manage. Zombies ain’t got it, so they will suck at catching you off-guard.
This problem snowballs with a huge number of other none-too-unusual obstacles that would face your average zombie in an urban locale. They aren’t thinking creatures in the same way that a guy who murders his wife and kids in a red-tinged rage-filled haze is. They are going to do stupid things, like walk through plate glass, swim after you until they drown (What? Zombies can’t drown you say? Bullshit–see part 3), get hit by cars, fall down open manholes, electrocute themselves on third rails, and, perhaps most importantly, be unable to find you.
Yes, that’s right–zombies would suck at hide and seek. They aren’t thinking beings anymore. They lack curiosity, creativity, problem-solving skills, etc.. All you’d need to do to survive a zombie infestation is lock your doors and not go out. There–problem solved. Hell, climb a ladder atop a roof and then vandalize the rungs and you’d be safe forever, provided you didn’t starve (don’t worry, though, since zombies aren’t going to be able to topple society, somebody will be along sooner or later).
For all their ferocity, zombies are morons. Morons are not all that dangerous, ultimately, especially when they’re trying to spread disease with their mouths. Look at it this way: if you could pick out somebody with the flu at ten paces without fail, would you ever get the flu? If the guy with that nasty cold going around ran around groaning and saying ‘cold…cooooold…COOOOOOLD,’ would you shake his hand? Of course not. The ability for the disease to transmit itself would be immediately and instantly curtailed. No zombie would be able to get on a plane, drive a car, sail a boat, which means the simple geography of the earth would keep them bottled up in one tight area, even *presuming* they were able to spread the disease with ease, which they can’t. Even if somebody were to manifest as a zombie on a plane, they would be quickly restrained and those one or two people they bit would be quarantined/checked out. Somebody bitten by a rabid person doesn’t just get to walk away, folks. Hell, they don’t *want* to walk away–they want antisceptic, bandages, and a consultation with a doctor.
Anyway, even if I were to grant everything I just refuted, the zombie apocalypse *still* wouldn’t happen. Why? Well, simply because every physical capability ascribed to zombies is complete nonsense.
The Problems with Premises 3 and 4: Zombie Physiology
Right off the bat, lets get one thing straight: the science fiction zombie is created by a plague/disease/pathogen of some sort. It doesn’t much matter if it comes from a spacecraft or a secret government lab or the garage of an apocalyptic lunatic, it’s still a mircoscopic thing designed to invade the body and do something to it, presumably for the purpose of self-propagation (its creators, of course, have alternate goals, no doubt, but the bug itself doesn’t). The reason this is important is because there are some things a disease just *can’t* do.
For starters, let’s dispel this nonsense that states that zombies, in their science fiction capacity, are ‘the living dead’. No, they aren’t. They aren’t dead at all–they’re alive. They are people with a disease that modifies their behavior, and that’s it. They can’t be dead because dead things don’t (and can’t) move around. No disease imparts motility on inanimate matter. No disease can. The disease’s function is to attack the brain, primarily, for the purpose of altering behavior in a specific way (see part 2). Viruses don’t have muscles to move things, even collectively, and even if they did there is very little likelihood they could coordinate together on such a massive scale as to operate a human body in even a rudimentary fashion. Hell, they don’t have *eyes*. Good luck spreading a zombie plague without eyes, super-virus. Sorry, but zombies are living people.
They have to be alive *unless* we aren’t dealing with a plague but rather an *extremely advanced* series of parasitic entities (likely nanotechnology based, or perhaps part of some alien collectively intelligent organism) that can replace the human musculo-skeletal system for locomotion with their own alternative. If we are going to grant that this is possible (so we’re dealing with aliens far more advanced than ourselves–goodbye any ‘government lab’ scenario), that begs the question ‘why’. I would presume that the purpose is to use a human host to somehow infiltrate society. There are easier ways to do this than transforming dozens of people (yes, dozens) into mindless, drooling idiots. I would imagine that a species with technology advanced enough to create the kind of thing that would create the living dead would have access to such methods and would employ them, since any species that intelligent wouldn’t do things the hard way.
So, we pretty much *have* to assume that zombies are alive, since that makes the most sense. Now, if zombies are alive, they can be killed just like anybody else. Sure, they don’t feel pain, but pain is simply an alarm system alerting the brain to damage done to the body. Not feeling pain doesn’t mean you don’t suffer damage. The whole ‘must destroy the brain’ thing also plays in here: the brain doesn’t make the body work all on its own. The brain gives orders, yes, but it needs the things it’s ordering to be functional. It needs the heart, lungs, arteries, veins, muscles, joints, and so on to be functional enough to operate the complex machine that is the human body with sufficient skill to manage to bite somebody so it transmits the disease. If a zombie’s heart stops, it dies just as quickly as you or I would (well, perhaps marginally slower, but still). It doesn’t matter if its addled brain is still ordering the heart to beat; if the heart is busted, no amount of neural impulses will keep it running. If you apply the brakes when your brakes are out, you don’t stop, do you?
What this means for our zombie scenario is that, for all their ferocity, zombies aren’t going to last very long or do much damage before they render themselves inoperative. They can be shot dead as easily as anyone else (bleeding out will kill them, too), they can drown, they can suffer debilitating injury, they can be beaten unconscious (with sufficient head trauma), and so on. Furthermore, since they can’t feel pain and their survival instincts are removed, they are far more vulnerable to simple things we might not consider. They don’t blink–blinking is a pain response to dryness in the eyes. The result is zombies will let their eyes dry out, hampering their vision (remember what I said about blind zombies?). They could be influenced to stare at the sun, for crying out loud. They don’t rest, meaning they are going to exhaust themselves, cramp up, run their feet raw until they’re bleeding, leading to infection and death. They could die of exposure (from heat or cold), dehydration, and all that other stuff that our very useful brain ordinarily wards off as a matter of instinct. Killing zombies would be arguably easier than killing regular people, since regular people would know not to walk into potentially deadly hazards and would periodically stop to rehydrate.
“Ah,” says the zombie enthusiast, “but what about their enhanced physical strength?” My response is to ask “what enhanced physical strength?” Okay, so we can grant zombies a state of constant adrenal surge (no matter how exhausting that may be–again, zombies don’t last long), but this doesn’t mean they can punch through walls or tear down locked doors with their bare hands. I would bet any of you anything you like that, were you in a state of mindless adrenal-fueled rage, there is no way you could kick in my door while the bolt was thrown. Not happening, especially not if you weren’t in your right mind and weren’t using your brain or simple tools. It’s a thick door; I live in the city.
The reason zombies can’t go past this goes back to the limitations of disease. A plague doesn’t build muscle, even one that attacks the brain. I suppose, were we to grant that this plague is so advanced that it interferes with or otheriwse influences growth hormones (but, again, this is stretching the likely possibilities), a zombie might be able to grow more muscle. The emphasis there, however, is *grow*. Zombies don’t just get muscle mass for nothing–they’d need to eat. The more growth you want, the more you’d need to consume. While this might combine nicely with an appetite for human flesh, it also means you’d need to eat your victims, which means they don’t become zombies themselves since they’re dead. It also means it would take some time (numerous hours, if I’m being charitable) before their zombie muscles are in place. It also indicates that (if my nascent knowledge of biology bears true), rather than a singular virus, we are dealing with a condition made up of a cocktail of viruses–one to alter behavior, the other to alter the endocrine system. This would necessarily reduce the frequency of successful transmission and would probably result in some zombies having the behavior without the physique while others would have the physique without the behavior (in other words, they wouldn’t be zombies at all, but closer to superhumans like Captain America).
Given all this stuff, zombies would be more sad than dangerous. They would likely dehydrate and die within a few days at maximum, probably less time. If you thought to bring a gallon of water and some granola bars up on your roof with the sabotaged ladder, you’d outlive the lot of them.
The Problem with Premise #5: Zombie Apocalypse
Okay, so I have thus far established why sci-fi zombies wouldn’t function like zombies are portrayed. They would not transmit their disease as easily as imagined, they aren’t smart enough to capitalize upon their aggression, and they aren’t anywhere near as strong or tough as they are represented.
But what, you ask, about the zombie horde?
It is true, indeed, that a giant mass of zombies would theoretically be a dangerous thing. Every bit as dangerous as a giant mass of regular people, actually, except infected with a dangerous pathogen and, overall, more violent (certain mobs of soccer fans excluded, of course). It is also worth noting that in almost all zombie movies, the mass of zombies is the primary danger–the thing that shows up somewhere in the second act to finally put the heroes out of their misery, and that it takes the third act for them to figure out how to solve. The zombie horde is what ends the world, destroys civilization, and lead to Will Smith wandering the streets of New York alone with his dog.
There is, of course, one major, overriding problem with this scenario: the zombie horde would almost certainly not develop. Some of the reasons why are already inherent in the flaws of the previous premises. Since zombies would have trouble transmitting the disease efficiently, you really wouldn’t get that many zombies. You’d get them, sure, but in the dozens or possibly scores; almost certainly not in the hundreds or thousands. Those dozens or scores would probably develop in closed quarters where there is a lot of distraction keeping people from noticing the rabid zombie attacks. In particular, I’m thinking nightclubs and bars, wherein the music is loud, the lighting is dim, and the patrons are drunk. Still, there *are* bouncers in such places (usually), and it’s pretty likely any drunk person bitten by a drooling lunatic would *still* wind up at the hospital, but you never know–people are stupid.
Oh, and just so I can settle this: a zombie plague stops at the hospital. Zombies are clearly out of their minds, would arrive restrained, and would remain restrained. Zombies can’t escape from full hospital bed restraints without injuring themselves to the point of incapacitation. People who haven’t turned yet will get treated, inspected, etc., and even if there is no cure and the hospital doesn’t know what’s going on, they aren’t going to let somebody attacked in this way walk, most likely. They *might* (people *are* stupid), but even in that case we’re dealing with dozens or scores of zombies, all told, not *everyone*.
More important than the transmission problem, however, is this simple fact: how do the zombies know to gather in a horde? There are no zombie organizers. There is no zombie Facebook page informing everybody to gather at point A to go gathering up the humans. Also, why don’t zombies eat or attack *each other*? They are mindless, aggressive, flesh-eating machines and, as it happens, zombies are made up of flesh. Seems to me that two zombies in a room would spend just as much time tearing *each other* apart as they would normal humans. a great pack of zombies would just become a hyper-violent mosh pit, likely resulting in the zombies killing one another. Bingo–no horde.
The only way a horde might happen is if, again, we are working on the assumption that the zombie plague also creates some kind of pheromonal IFF signal (Identify Friend-or-Foe). Not only is this ridiculously complex (and thus unlikely), it also reduces the likelihood of perfect transmission, meaning *splat*–again no hordes.
In essence, the zombie apocalypse simply wouldn’t happen, couldn’t happen, and (obviously) won’t. This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be zombie *disasters*. We could imagine perfect storms of human error, stupidity, and environmental factors that might result in hundreds of deaths in some small community or part of an urban center, but it wouldn’t topple the government of anything important. State of Emergency declared, perhaps; National Guard called in, possibly. End of the human race? Not a chance.
Conclusion and a Note on Origins
In the end, I think I’ve made pretty good case for why I find the sci-fi zombie scenario so hard to stomach. It’s patently ridiculous on the face of it. If we want to have magic powers involved, well then I have no problem. Beyond that, though, its, frankly, lazy sci-fi. This doesn’t mean zombies *can’t* be done well, it’s just that, lately, they haven’t been. Personally, I blame Charlton Heston and The Omega Man. That started this whole zombie-apocalypse nonsense.
And, as a final swipe at the trope, let me ask this question: who the hell is designing this zombie plague? Why? If the objective is to create a devastating biological weapon, why make zombies? A hyped-up version of the flu, anthrax, or smallpox would kill *far* more people, be easier to deploy, and, what’s more, give you an easier time when you came in to mop-up and claim territory (which is what all good weapons are supposed to let you do, you know). If the objective is to make some kind of super-human soldiers, why make it transferrable? You don’t want your opponents in a conflict to ‘catch’ your super-power, do you? If the objective is to infliltrate or control society, why make zombies? Zombies are freaking useless slaves. Why not simply infiltrate society with very *appealing* creatures and take control that way. Society is compelled by smiles and pretty faces, but repelled by blood-stained, drooling monsters.
Okay, I’ve said enough. Thanks for reading, if indeed anyone has, and I promise that, if you start chattering about the latest zombie-related property, I won’t say anything. I won’t even roll my eyes. I’ve said my piece, now. I’m done.