Q&A: Zombie Apocalypses

What if I wanted to write characters who are 10 and 8 years old in an zombie apocalypse defending themselves with krav maga and weapons? I’m not sure a 10 or 8 year old would have a strong grip on a gun or does it depend on the gun? I want them to be cute because looks can be deceiving. Is it too unrealistic? a form of self-defense and physical training, first developed by the Israeli army in the 1940s, based on the use of reflexive responses to threatening situations.

If they’re too young to use a firearm, they’re not going to be able to fight off zombies in hand to hand. If we’re talking about conventional zombies, Krav Maga is a pretty horrible choice. It’s fine for dealing with human foes you can incapacitate, but going hand to hand with a rotting corpse that can (eventually) kill you with a single bite is a spectacularly bad idea. Especially if we’re talking about fast moving zombies.

Zombies vary wildly depending on the fictional setting. Even the term itself is inconsistent. This ranges from, literal, reanimated corpses that are kept up and moving to actual viral infections of various descriptions.

Regardless of the situation, there are a few constants. You’re dealing with a former sapient creature (or sentient in the case of other animals, like dogs) that have been rendered permanently hostile. In the case of zombie apocalypses, the zombies need a way to replenish lost numbers. Finally, the zombie is significantly more dangerous than they were when they were alive, though this last one is a somewhat subjective statement.

All of those traits are necessary.

Fair warning, I’m going to use a lot of game references on this one. Horror works better when the underlying rules are left vague. This means, we don’t really have, “the rules,” for something like John Romero’s films. We have the inferred systems, but when you’re the author, you need to understand the rules, even if they’re hidden from the audience.

Non-hostile zombies don’t produce a zombie apocalypses. And, there are settings with non-hostile (or selectively hostile) undead. D&D’s Forgotten Realms comes to mind as the immediate example, though it’s not alone. Zombies, skeletons, and other forms of undead are sometimes used as burial guardians, Alternately, undead raised by a necromancer may serve them, without attacking anyone unless the necromancer directs them to. (Or, if I’m remembering the rules for Raise Dead correctly, much of anything really. It will just shamble around aimlessly, unless commanded. EDIT: I was not. Raise Dead is a weak resurrection spell, while I was thinking of Animate Dead.)

Zombies need to be able to replace their lost numbers. This doesn’t need to be from the zombie itself, though that’s often the case. The Walking Dead comes to mind as an example, where anyone who dies will rise as a zombie, whether they were bitten or not.

The bite, or some other direct infection vector is favored. It expedites the process and keeps individual zombies dangerous. Take that away and a single zombie is not much of a threat. I’ve said before, human bites are really nasty on their own, so transitioning that into a guaranteed kill in addition to creating a new zombie.

The problem is, if the zombies can’t be replaced, they can be cleared out pretty quickly. The image of a zombie horde is impressive and intimidating, but it relies on the zombies being able to produce more of themselves faster than trained combatants could deplete their numbers. If your zombies aren’t able to reproduce into full hordes, you’re never going to see a zombie apocalypse.

Looking back at the Forgotten Realms example, the reason you don’t see zombie apocalypses in Faerun is because Raise Dead Animate Dead is a fairly involved spell. Getting zombies who will serve you takes time and effort, as does maintaining your control over them. Directing them as an assault force is great, but it will take time and effort, and they’re not easily replaced. The best a power hungry necromancer can hope for is to unleash a bunch of uncontrolled zombies and hope they can do their damage before being wiped out by a party of adventurers on their way to godhood.

When it comes to military applications for zombies, I’d look at Warhammer Fantasy. Zombies are a disposable front line unit for the Vampire Counts. They’re something the game’s fans refer to as “tarpits.” These are fairly inexpensive, and ineffective, units that tie up enemy forces. You don’t field zombies because you expect they’ll kill anything. You field zombies to soak up shock cavalry charges, and tie up enemy infantry, while you get your elite units into position to flank. If you’ve got necromancers who can field armies of zombies, your zombies can become a very effective meat shield for your more dangerous units.

The real danger with zombies is numbers. It’s not enough that they can maintain those numbers, they need to grow the horde, or they’d never have gotten into this position in the first place.

If you have a zombie that can be beaten to death (redeath?) by a child, you’re never going to see an apocalypse from those zombies. No, seriously, never. It doesn’t matter if the kid knows Krav Maga. If a child can beat them, an adult can dispatch them. If the zombies are that toothless, there’s no way they chewed through standing military forces, impromptu militias, local law enforcement, or even angry blue collar workers. There’s no way this turned into an apocalypse.

The hurdle for zombie apocalypses is critical mass. You need creatures that are individually dangerous enough to overpower the foes they’re facing until their numbers are sufficient to overwhelm everyone. In a conventional fantasy setting, if you have zombies picking picking off peasants and growing their horde before going into combat against the actual military forces, that makes sense.

In the modern world, it makes significantly less sense. A zombie will provoke a law enforcement response, and get shut down. Even if we’re working under head shot rules, that’s still going to stop the zombies at their initial outbreak. Any secondary outbreak from injured police will be in a contained environment, and that will be the end of it.

Think about it. You have some sheriff’s deputies called in to deal with some, “weird druggie,” and they lunge at the cops, they’re going to get put down. If the succeeded in biting one, that officer’s going to be taken to a hospital. Even if they turn, there would be an immediate and overwhelming police response to that, and the infection wouldn’t get out of that hospital.

The only way you could see a zombie apocalypse in a modern setting is if it starts with overwhelming numbers. The Walking Dead‘s scenario where anyone who dies returns, would set up a scenario like that, as you’d be looking at a vast, dispersed, base of infections. With no way to wipe it out, as any human who dies returns as a zombie.

Even then, zombies need to be dangerous enough to pick off a human. If they’re fragile enough that a child can beat them in hand to hand, there is no way they’re dangerous enough (even in numbers) to progress into a apocalypse. A zombie outbreak like that would fundamentally change the world, but you wouldn’t have an apocalypse. Zombies would become a kind of persistent pest that needed to be cleared out when discovered.

I’m going to make a quick aside here, wanting the kids to be cute for shock value has severe diminishing returns. It’s not going to work the way you want. The zombies don’t care. Any post-apocalypse zombie world is already going to be extremely jaded, to the point that, the kids standing out like that is actually a warning sign for any group of competent survivors. “How did these kids survive out here? Something’s not right.” It would work with survivors who aren’t wary enough to pick up on it, but that’s doomed group, because they’re also going to miss critical cues to other threats as well. Meaning, this only exists for your audience. Even then, it won’t reliably work for your audience, because they’ve seen this before.

The problem with Krav Maga is that (like all martial arts) it was designed to fight humans. Living humans. It’s a very aggressive fighting style that’s designed to quickly incapacitate and kill. It is not designed to decapitate the foe. It isn’t designed to deal with a foe who has been dead for six weeks and doesn’t feel pain. It will put your limbs in chomping distance, because most humans aren’t always trying to eat you. Krav Maga was not developed to fight zombies. It’s designed to operate in very tight quarters, with a lot of strikes that a zombie simply would not care about.

To be clear, military Krav Maga, is an excellent urban combat martial art. It was designed for use in tight spaces. If you’re dealing with a human, and you want them dead, it will work. If you’re fighting zombies or other supernatural threats, it’s utility diminishes sharply. If two kids can incapacitate a zombie with basic Krav Maga, imagine what the IDF could have done. That’s the problem.

I’m not even touching on the firearms thing. Guns work. I nearly lost a knee to a kid with poor muzzle and trigger discipline. Unless you’re talking about something stupid, like a Desert Eagle or a S&W .500, it doesn’t matter. Of course, if guns work, how the zombie outbreak get this far?

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh, I’m not a fan of zombie media. I like Dead Space, I enjoyed The Walking Dead comic, until it just got too bleak to continue. I enjoy the hell out of Resident Evil, but that’s more of an unintentional parody of zombies at this point. I can’t point to a single zombie movie I liked. I respect the Romero films, even while I don’t enjoy them. Zombies in prose don’t work for me. It’s probably quite telling that the first favorable reference that comes to mind is, “zombie adjacent,” rather than a conventional zombie series, and this is coming from someone who really does love horror.

Romero turned zombies into a commentary on consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978.) I’m not saying anything original to observe that if you wanted a monster to embody the self-destructive impulses of modern consumer culture, the zombie is a natural fit. I’m sure there are other potential metaphors that could be applied. However, Romero’s version of Dawn of the Dead is an excellent film, and if you want to work with zombies, it’s probably something you should study it closely.

The problem is, zombies are bland. They’re boring, and I don’t say that about entire genres lightly. If zombies are your thing, I’ll help you to the best of my ability, but the genre has (basically) never worked for me. It’s a variety of monster that works best as a background world element. If zombies are the focus, then you really need to have something to say about them.

-Starke

Um, in D&D terms, Raise Dead brings someone back to full LIFE. You’re thinking about Animate Dead, which creates a skeleton or zombie.

pomrania

You’re 100% correct. I completely derped that one up. For reference, there’s at least three spells to bring people back from the dead in D&D’s core books, and probably more that I’m not remembering.

Thank you for reminding me.

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