As much as I hate to say it, everything that follows in this chapter is all technically “speculation” on my part. I’m not going to tell you that I have a friend who has a friend who has a brother-in-law who knows a guy who might work for a government think tank with initials nobody can figure out. Because even if that were true, which it is, you wouldn’t believe me.
So, let’s just pretend that everything we currently know is Hollywood’s version of fictional portrayals of zombies that actually go back to the freaking Epic of Gilgamesh in 2500 BC — because nothing we’ve been talking about for that long could possibly have a shred of truth to it.
Okay. Now. For you people who are struggling with the math? That works out to 4,514 years. And for those of you who are going “Gilga-who?” It’s the story Picard told Dathon in the “Darmok” episode of TNG. (If you’re not a Trekkie, but you actually passed high school English, it’s also an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia.)
That’s right, folks. References to the re-animated dead go back more than 4,500 years. Some screenwriter in Hollywood did not make the whole thing up no matter how much you want to believe that’s the truth. Denial might be comforting, but it won’t get you where you need to be in this situation.
Even going with the movie version of what a zombie is going to be like, it’s all a matter of picking your poison by this year’s hunkie movie star du jour. The zombies trying to take Brad Pitt down in World War Z were some pretty vicious, fast-moving antagonists because a dude like Brad can’t be taking on the wimpy undead. It’s just not a manly man thing, and Angelina wouldn’t like it.
Go rent the 1968 George A. Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead and you’ll find slow, stupid, lumbering zombies that are dangerous because there’s so many of them and they’re so mindlessly relentless.
Sit through several seasons of The Walking Dead on AMC and you’ll come to the conclusion that:
(1) zombies are always where you least expect them
(2) Rick really needs to get a Glock
(3) never trust what’s inside a locked barn
(4) I want to be Daryl when I grow up
(5) somebody you like is always gonna get chomped
(6) who figured Season 1 Carol for a Season 4 bad ass
Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Moving on.
Where is the real zombie apocalypse gonna land in the middle of all of those competing interpretations of what a zombie is and what it can and can’t do?
I already touched on this a little in the section on “Why Is This Happening to Me?” One thing I do think is a given. When the zombie plague does begin, it’ll spread like wildfire around the world in a very short period of time. Containment won’t be possible, in part because the proliferation of the disease will be exponential. We’re not talking epidemic. This will be a pandemic.
Every victim of a zombie attack becomes a zombie. I’m sure some pointy-headed math teacher could work a progression equation for us — in fact, they have, but I’m not supposed to know that — but I can give you the short answer.
And this is not a matter of just waiting around for the undead to rot themselves into uselessness. Don’t buy the “I’ll just say indoors until it’s over” line of reasoning.
Best estimates suggest that every single zombie has a “lifespan” of 3-5 years before they get too mushy, tattered, and just plain nasty to continue to pose a danger to the living.
Here’s what I think we can know about the apocalypse and zombies in broad strokes:
- Those who are infected will spread the infectionby unprovoked and spontaneous physical attack. The cause of the transformation from human to undead is likely a virus that is transmitted through the bite of an existing zombie.
- People who are wounded will likely run a high feverand be critically ill for some undetermined period of time before they die and then resurrect. It is not known if they are contagious during this stage of their transformation.
- The infected are driven by relentless hunger. I’m not sold on the whole “eat brains” thing. I think they’ll take whatever body part they can get. Zombies are cannibals, not discriminating gourmands.
- Destroying a zombie’s brain is, however, the only way to really put one down. You can blast his chest out with a shotgun and Ole Mr. Z will just get right back up and come at you again. If it weren’t so damned scary, it would almost be awesome.
All the studies I couldn’t possibly have read suggest that zombies have slow and shambling physical movements because their nervous systems no longer function correctly. Their nerves short-circuit every few seconds.
This looping malfunction makes the zombie’s physical motions halting and uncoordinated. Think of them like a flickering light bulb. It keeps trying to go out, but it never quite gets there.
Not to mention the fact that zombies take the idea of muscle atrophy to whole new levels. Even though they seem to keep moving until they look like dried out pieces of beef jerky, zombies still suffer from greatly decreased muscle mass.
Don’t convince yourself for a minute that a zombie can’t be strong, but they can be overpowered if you keep your cool because no matter what Hollywood tells you, they’re not fast on their feet and their reflexes are awful. Get over your initial revulsion and stay away from those snapping jaws and you can dance circles around one of these things.
Here’s another popular myth a lot of people latch on to. “Oh, if the zombie apocalypse hits, I’ll just find me an island somewhere and I’ll be perfectly safe.” Okay. Work with me here. They’re dead. Dead people don’t breathe. Therefore, dead people can’t drown. Come on. Do the math with me here.
Zombies don’t have to swim. They can just walk in the lake and eventually walk out on the other side. They’re not going to be strong enough to fight a good current, so getting washed downstream is likely, but sooner or later, they’ll either get out in shallow water, or just get snagged on something on the bottom and gurgle while the fish have fun with them.
Never assume that any body of water, including shallow offshore ocean water, isn’t also zombie infested. I wouldn’t be going for any swims in murky pools if I were you, and do not be drinking that stuff without excellent purification — like boiling — unless you’re just hankering for a heaping helping of Cream of Zombie Soup. (More on water purification later.)
The undead can see and they track movement with their eyes, but primarily a zombie is drawn to sound. If nothing is going on around them, they kind of just stand there and rot quietly. Unless something attracts their attention and triggers their hunger, they have no motivation to do anything. All of these qualities can be used to your strategic advantage.
Three Things You Can Never Forget
Zombies are like cockroaches — and thank God there are no zombie cockroaches because those nasty bastards are scary enough in their own right. My point is, if you see one zombie, expect all his little friends to show up for a play date sooner or later. Maybe you can’t see them right now, but they are definitely there.
Getting yourself in a situation where you have to deal with multiple zombies is bad, bad, bad. You know that rule, “There is no such thing as an unloaded gun?” Well, with zombies, there is no such thing as just one. You are always outnumbered. This is now a fact of life.
Avoid confrontations with herds, hoards, whatever the heck you want to call them. In any equation where there’s one of you and more than one zombie, the math is not in your favor.
Zombies feel no pain and are impervious to physical damage that would kill the rest of us instantly. They’ll spew all kind of nasty, putrid fluids, but they don’t bleed to death and they’ll happily keep shambling along dragging a broken leg behind them until it’s nothing but a bony stump.
Nothing but catastrophic damage to the brain puts them down. They can keep moving with a hole the size of a bowling ball blown clean through their chest.
And as if all of that weren’t bad enough, they never get tired and they never get bored. If a zombie gets you cornered somewhere and has to beat down a door to get to you, he’ll just keep clawing at that door until he get through. And the worst part? The noise he makes with all that mindless determination attracts his pals, so then he has reinforcements and pretty soon you’re screwed by the massing effect.
Never forget these fundamentals of zombie physiology.
- They’re rotting Energizer bunnies on speed.
- They exhibit single-minded determination and fixation because they feel no painand experience no fatigue.
- In volume, they will overpower you. Pun intended.
Understanding what zombies can and cannot do is the foundation for all your decisions about how and when to confront and kill them, and when to stay far, far away.
Zombie Strategy 101
All strategies are based on available resources. If you’re holed up in a solid, defensible location with tools and raw materials at your disposal, you have a lot more actionable options.
Survivors stuck on the streets or wandering the countryside face limited resources and constantly shifting terrain and logistics as well as being completely at the mercy of prevailing weather conditions.
You have to learn to read the lay of the land and work with what you have. For instance, I get real ticked off at the people who will argue endlessly on discussion boards about the “best gun for the job.” Dude. Seriously.
The best gun for the job is the one in your hand! Are you really gonna say to a snapping, snarling undead biker who is about ready to rip your head off, “Wait! Let me get my Desert Eagle Mark XIX.”
(Yeah, yeah. I know you’re jonesing for the gun talk. Fine. Are you out of your freaking NRA loving mind? A .50 cal hand gun? First off, it kicks like a mule with a bad case of hemorrhoids. If you’re in L.A., the zombies in Pittsburgh will be able to hear the damn thing. Suppression is a joke. Where the heck are you gonna find the ammo? The dang thing is 15 freaking inches long and weighs just shy of 5 lbs. Get over your Dirty Harry self already. — And he carried a .44 mag anyway.)
There’s no way I can possibly work through every strategic scenario with you. I can give you some basic information so you can start thinking like a survival strategist, because that’s what you are now. This is not a video game. You have to make good decisions, or you won’t be making any decisions at all.
So, to recap our discussion so far, here’s the intel on zombies that we realistically have to work with going into this thing. These characteristics and traits are reliable givens for encounters with the undead.
- virulently infectious bites
- relentless hunger
- indiscriminate cannibalism
- physically slow
- death by brainshot only
- can’t swim, but water is not an obstacle
- drawn to sound
- depend on external stimulusfor motivation
How do we use this knowledge to our advantage? Well, for starters, don’t get bit and don’t think there are any “good” zombies out there.
- All zombies bite.
- All zombies will try to eat you.
You can’t domesticate the undead.
The “not getting bit part” should be stating the obvious, but I’m trying to make a really serious point here. Avoiding bites is a proactive process.
When you have to go into an area infested with zombies, don’t just protect yourself with the biggest baddest gun you can find. You need some kind of personal shielding.
Sooner or later, you will have to enter some location – on purpose — where zombies are present. Hence the idea of purposeful preparation. At the very least go in with your extremities (read “arms and legs”) protected.
Trust me. The new “greeters” at that trashed Wal-Mart chocked full of useful supplies will offer you a warm welcome — right before you join the ranks of the undead Walmartians for eternity.
(If that happens, and for the sake of what little bit of tattered dignity you may have left, I hope your tattoos are spelled correctly.)
Once you’re over the initial panicked reaction and you’re a little more used to the undead, you won’t find it all that difficult to evade a single zombie when you can see it coming at you. In fact, they can be fairly predictable.
But if you come around the Mountain Dew display and run right into the undead Duck Dynasty crew? Chances are good one of those warmed over hillbillies will take a hunk right out of you for the simple reason that they took you by surprise.
Go into this kind of situation with as much personal shielding as you can rig and still stay mobile to avoid being taken unawares. It happens to everyone. The element of surprise isn’t always something you can control, but trust me, your reflexes and reaction time will improve the longer you do this.
Personal shielding doesn’t have to be prefabricated or all that elaborate. Even thick corrugated cardboard strapped to your forearms with duct tape can serve as makeshift gauntlets and could give you just enough time to fend off a zombie attack.
If you can swing it, actual riot gear would be a huge advantage, but it’ll set you back better than $600 a suit. Now, for that you’ll get hard shell panels over your back, chest, forearms, thighs, and knees with flex at key points. That includes a helmet and protective goggles.
It won’t make you RoboCop, but you’ll be close enough to live to die another day.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The strategy of hiding in plain sight is highly questionable and in my opinion way too risky. I think the undead can smell the living. Just trying to fall in with the hoard and mimic their uncoordinated shuffling won’t let you blend in.
Even if you try to make yourself smell dead by rubbing zombie goo all over your body, you still have a beating heart. You’re breathing. They just know.
I don’t care how good it looks in the movies or on TV. Zombies are dead, their nervous systems are shorted out, they don’t think, and they’re not very fast, but they can spot their next Happy Meal a block off.
Whatever is left in them that constitutes instinct or a “mind” works well enough to tell the difference between fresh meat on the hoof and day old road kill. They don’t go around eating each other. They’re looking for something with a pulse — you.
Use Sound Diversions
Thanks yet again to the movie industry, a lot of people expect to spend the entire apocalypse running and screaming with hoards of zombies chasing after them.
If that were true, you’d have the luxury of dropping dead from a heart attack instead of getting eaten. Go back and look at that list of zombie capabilities, Nimrod.
Zombies are attracted to sound, especially run-for-your-life girly screams. Done correctly? The apocalypse is gonna be your ultimate “quiet time.” You actually want to avoid the whole running screaming thing because it makes you look like what you are, prey.
While you are doing do everything possible to move and live silently, the zombies are going to be stumbling around chasing down every rusty screen door banging in the wind.
Their behavior doesn’t constitute high level hunting, but it’s hunting all the same. Use that understanding of what they do and why they do it to your advantage.
If you need to be at Point A, which is completely surrounded by the undead, rig something that makes noise to get them interested in moving over to Point B.
Now. A warning. Every single zombie in the vicinity that hears that noise will start dragging their stinking selves over to see what’s for supper. Do whatever you were planning to do and get out of there because you will have a herd on your hands in nothing flat.
Remember, one of the greatest threats zombies pose is sheer numbers coupled with tireless single-mindedness. You can deal with one or two if you’re adequately prepared, but if 50 back you down an alley? Game over.
Regardless of where you ultimately settle down or for how long you plan on being there, build obstacles that capitalize on the fact that zombies are uncoordinated and lack the muscle mass or dexterity to perform fine motor functions.
Sure, a gang of zombies can push down a fence, but they won’t climb it per se. The ones in back of the “line” may pile on top of the ones in front though. That’s actually one threat scenario they got right in the World War Z scene when Jerusalem is overrun.
Zombies don’t say, “Excuse me.” They will trample right over one another and keep coming. If you let the bodies pile up, you have a problem. Fences are good, but it’s essential that the perimeter be policed daily.
Yep. That’s right. You have to clean up after yourself during the apocalypse. (And you thought Fido’s poop bags were bad.)
I’ll talk about this more later, but as soon as you smell a zombie, you’ll know why taking out the garbage is not only a necessary chore for health and safety, but also something you’ll actually want to do.
From just the standpoint of trying to achieve some new normal, looking at decaying zombies all day is well beyond demoralizing. Beyond that matter of post-apocalyptic aesthetics, however, there are still plenty of deliciously deadly illnesses and diseases you can pick up from parasites that have fed off those rotting corpses. Ditto for drinking fouled water.
Pitfall traps are excellent, but they do require work on your part. You don’t need anything sophisticated for tripping up and capturing zombies. Just dig a hole deep enough that once they fall into it, they can’t get out.
There’s always the option of burying upright sharpened stakes on the floor of the pit, but since only a brain shot actually takes out a zombie, that’s just wasted work in my opinion — and it makes the pit harder to clean out.
The school of thought is divided on whether you cover the trap or not, but I wouldn’t take the chance of some latent instinct kicking in and the zombies going around.
Cover the opening with a thin overlaid mesh of branches and leaves. Remember, this is just camouflage to obscure the pit, you don’t want it to be able to take a human’s weight.
You do, however, have to consider what kind of human might fall through the trap: living or dead?
Unless you know for certain there are bad people in your area and you wouldn’t mind catching them, too, mark the four corners of the pit and put up a warning sign. Zombies can’t read, in case you hadn’t figured that out already.
Clearly, there is one problem with this little bit of ethics. If you have managed to lay low and not betray your position to other survivors, the warning signs will give away the fact that you’re in the area.
I’d rather risk letting other people know my whereabouts than be responsible for some poor schmuck falling into a pit of the undead, but I’ll leave that one up to you and your conscience.
Cheval de Frise
Yeah, okay, I didn’t really know what to call it. I had to go online and search for “sharpened stake defenses” because the only French I speak is followed by the word “fries.” But that doesn’t matter.
This cheval de frise thing has been around since medieval times when it was used as an anti-cavalry measure and it works great against the undead.
The one shown here is made out of a drilled central block of wood with crossed iron stakes. Doable if you have the tools, but you can just use a log for a central frame and lash smaller sharpened stakes to it to form the “x” shapes.
Put these around your perimeter and the undead will stroll right into the nice sharp points without batting an eye. Just like that. Zombie-ka-bob.
Of course you’ll have to come along and put ’em down and pull ’em off, but better that than have your defenses breached.
This approach is much more effective than rolls of barbed wire, by the way, because the first zombies will pile up on the wire and make it solid enough for the second wave to make it over.
Also, you can get the materials to make a cheval de fries more readily than you can come by enough wire to really make a solid perimeter barrier.
Always think in terms of maximum return for your effort. The only man-hours you may have at your disposal during the apocalypse are your own. That makes sweat equity a whole lot more valuable and personal.
Watch, Look, Listen
Hopefully you’re starting to get the idea. The more you observe zombies in action, the better you’ll understand what they can and can’t do.
SunTzu, the Chinese military strategist, best known for The Art of War, said,
“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles . . . if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
For the most part, surviving humans won’t rely on offensive strategies. By definition, an apocalypse is more or less a defensive engagement.
I mean come on, war of attrition? Wearing down the enemy? Not gonna work with millions of undead shambling around. You can’t exactly bleed an enemy dry when he doesn’t bleed in the first place.
But getting conversant with basic defensive strategies can help you to start thinking like a savvy survivor. It’s good to know about things like:
- The boxing maneuver where you “box in” your opponent and come at him from all sides. (You obviously will have to be part of a survivor group for this one to work.)
- Using a geographic “choke point” to concentrate the enemy in a confined area.
- Building fortifications and defenses, which we’ve just talked about.
And the one you should never think twice about using? Withdraw!
Know when to throw in the towel and back off. I call this the “we need a bigger boat” moment. If Quint had listened to Brodie in Jaws he wouldn’t have been reverse sushi. I’m just saying.