For reasons that can’t possibly have anything to do with current events, a lot of people are concerned about pandemics these days. And, like any time pandemics are in the headlines, zombie discussions are close behind. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen more social media posts about The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and World War Z than I know what to do with. Many people seem ready to declare Max Brooks their lord and savior for his divine prophecy about what happens when the dead rise.
This is hardly a surprise. Much of modern zombie fiction deliberately uses the shambling dead as a parallel for the spread of disease. Each zombie creates other zombies, leading to a chain reaction that overwhelms population centers. Many zombie stories also include disaster movie tropes, such as the scientist who tries to warn us and the politician who downplays the problem to avoid hurting their reelection chances.
Unfortunately, zombies aren’t actually a very good storytelling parallel for pandemics, and it’s time to talk about why.
Classic Zombies Aren’t Threatening
The first thing you notice about classic, Living Dead–style zombies is that they’re slow. After that, their second most prominent trait is lacking intelligence. They can shamble, grab, bite, and that’s about it. In exchange, the only way they can be killed is by destroying their brains, they don’t get tired, and they usually don’t need to eat.
This combo means that a classic zombie isn’t at all dangerous. Even if it takes a headshot to kill the undead, disabling them via leg shots is child’s play. I have a whole article about how modern weapons would completely shred zombies, but you don’t even need to go that far. A handful of disciplined humans with dog-bite suits and spears could hold off the horde indefinitely, since anyone with even the most basic armor is effectively invulnerable against a zombie.
The humans could also just run away. Zombie stories often claim that slow shamblers are threatening because they act as persistence hunters, tiring out their prey after hours and hours of running. This is a tactic humans are really good at, but the same cannot be said of zombies, because it’s super easy to lose them. They don’t have the intelligence to follow prey across even the most basic of obstacles, and they are incredibly easy to outrun. I won’t say there aren’t any stories out there that portray zombies as effective persistence hunters, but I haven’t been able to find one yet.
Zombies are so unthreatening that most stories about them can only generate conflict by putting the heroes up against undead hordes on all sides. The storytellers then politely ask that you not consider how there got to be so many zombies in the first place, since there’s no way to answer that. Even then, shows like The Walking Dead are notorious for having the characters make terrible decisions because that’s the only way they’ll be in danger.
Zombies Aren’t Very Infectious
So maybe zombies aren’t all that dangerous as monsters, but doesn’t their main threat come from how they spread as a disease? Unfortunately, our shambling friends aren’t up to the task there either.
Consider the infection characteristics of the zombie virus. In most stories, individuals are only contagious well after symptoms appear, usually once they’ve become a zombie. After that, the infection can only spread via a direct exchange of bodily fluids, usually through a bite.
This is a pandemic on ultimate baby mode. In real life, the diseases that we need to worry about are the ones that spread without showing obvious symptoms. The modern COVID-19 is one such illness. It’s difficult to contain because by the time you know one person is infected, they’ve likely spread it to several other people. Before it was eradicated, smallpox worked in a similar way.* And while bubonic plague can only move from human to human in its final stages, rodents and fleas spread it around way before that.
In contrast, the zombie virus is only dangerous to someone standing right over the victim at the moment of undead transformation, at which point a surprise bite has a chance of landing. So long as you can avoid direct contact with the undead, you’re safe. To be fair, zombies are slightly more mobile than the average plague victim, but as we covered earlier, not nearly mobile enough.
In real life, the zombie virus is much closer to something like Ebola. To be clear, Ebola is a horrific disease, but it isn’t any kind of existential threat to humanity because it’s so easy to spot. That’s why the worst Ebola outbreak on record has only killed about 11,000 people, compared to the millions who die in even a mild pandemic.
The only advantage the zombie virus has over its real-world counterparts is that in most stories, it’s 100% lethal. Not only is this not nearly enough to make it a serious threat, but it actually makes treatment easier in a particularly brutal way. Once someone is infected, no one will seriously argue in favor of risking healthy people to help the afflicted, since there’s zero chance of recovery.
Zombies Are an Immediate Problem
The main fallback of zombie defenders is the idea that no matter how easy the undead are to stop, governments will find a way to muck it up. They won’t take the threat seriously, or they’ll try to hide it so it doesn’t impact stock prices and election results. Standard villain stuff.
As an American, I understand why this idea resonates with people. Even in countries that aren’t run by incompetent wannabe fascists, responses to the COVID-19 outbreak have often been slow and inadequate, leading to a tragically high number of avoidable deaths. However, this isn’t what would happen in a zombie outbreak, because zombies are a fundamentally different kind of problem.
As a species, humans are really good at solving immediate problems with obvious consequences because we’re so damned smart. We’re really good at fighting fires, inventing new technologies, and rescuing people from collapsed buildings. What we’re less good at is solving long-term problems with indirect consequences.*
Global warming, infrastructure repair, and pandemics all fall into this second category. They usually require an upfront cost for something that won’t pay off until much later. Worse, it’s often hard to notice the benefits, since we measure them in how many bridges didn’t collapse and how much global temperatures didn’t rise. Pandemics are the same. They’re easy to ignore at first and costly to stop. On top of this, a lot of the measures needed to stop them are incredibly unpopular.
Zombies are the opposite. A zombie outbreak is more like an invasion of angry bears than a traditional pandemic. What’s more, zombies can be stopped through violence, something humans are incredibly good at. No politician, no matter how incompetent, would miss this chance. They’d flood the internet and airwaves with images of brave soldiers mowing down zombies. It’s an opportunity for good PR and a boost to the arms industry. If anything, the danger would lie in politicians overstating the threat to squeeze out some extra popularity.
Can Zombies Be More Threatening?
Plenty of storytellers have already realized everything I’ve just told you, and they’ve responded by trying to make zombies a more dangerous threat. This is doable, but it does have pitfalls of its own. There are two main ways storytellers try to upgrade their zombies: physical power and infection rates.
While this seems like an obvious option, it has serious problems. First, no matter how strong you make zombies, it’s unlikely they’ll be strong enough to defeat humans in open warfare. The increasingly popular “fast zombies” are not nearly enough, since all the added speed does is make zombies about as fast as a running human. This still leaves zombies in a position to do nothing but charge human firing lines like it’s World War I on the Western Front.
Even the more powerful zombies of games like Left 4 Dead aren’t enough to seriously threaten the world’s militaries. You can make a zombie resistant to small arms fire, but how well can they resist Hellfire missiles fired from a Predator drone at 10,000 feet? In fact, by beefing up your zombies, you may simply draw attention to how impossible it is for them to win a war against humans. It’s like how certain Star Wars tie-in stories have characters who make their lightsabers longer so they can have better reach. The moment you encourage the audience to think about how lightsabers actually work, the whole house of suspended disbelief comes crashing down.
But let’s say you do somehow manage to make zombies that can credibly defeat Abrams tanks. Now you have a new problem: how is your ragtag band of survivors going to last two seconds against that kind of enemy? They’ll be overwhelmed in the first chapter. I won’t say it’s impossible to square this circle, but it’ll take a lot of work on your part.
Your other option for making zombies more dangerous is to up their infection rate. Most stories that do this employ some combination of making the virus more contagious and increasing the time between the initial infection and the manifestation of symptoms. That way, the plague can spread far and wide, no matter how vulnerable the undead are to machine guns.
With this option, you take a pandemic parallel and turn it into a literal pandemic. With a contagious enough illness and a long enough incubation period, your pandemic can easily sweep over the entire world. Such diseases are incredibly unlikely in real life, but they’re perfectly plausible in fiction.
The downside is that in this scenario, the actual zombies are something of an afterthought. A serious enough pandemic, something way worse than COVID-19, is more than capable of wiping out most humans all on its own. At most, zombies would be the final straw on an already overstressed healthcare system.
Still, this does provide a good setup for why your protagonists need to navigate a wasteland full of zombies. Whether they’re immune to the infection or just have very good protective gear, this creates a plausible explanation for how most of humanity was wiped out while still leaving the zombies weak enough for a scrappy band of survivors to deal with.
Zombies and the Real-World Fallacy
Anytime you hear someone defend a bad story by saying that’s what happens in real life, you’ve encountered the real-world fallacy in action. This fallacy is especially likely to pop up for parallel stories when the thing they’re paralleling is actually happening in real life.
We’ve been seeing this with the Star Wars prequels for the last several years. Those movies are an incredibly bad attempt to show how democracy can be undermined and destroyed by opportunistic demagogues exploiting a crisis. Now that Americans are witnessing that exact scenario firsthand, some of us are looking back at the prequels and wondering if we judged them too harshly.
A quick rewatch will confirm that no, we did not judge the prequels too harshly. They’re still terrible films, even if the thing they tried to describe is actually happening. Now, with a global pandemic on everyone’s minds, there’s a risk that zombie stories will get the same rose-colored treatment.
Of course, zombies represent an entire subgenre, not just one set of bad films. There are good zombie stories and bad zombie stories, but the entire undead conceit has certain weaknesses that storytellers need to account for. If we get caught up in the idea that classic zombies are automatically plausible because our governments are doing a bad job combating COVID-19, we risk producing bad work.
I like to think that bad stories are worth avoiding for their own sake, but there’s also a self-interest angle to consider here. People may be extremely forgiving of zombie stories now, but that mood will disappear once the current crisis ends. The same is true of any real-world event that temporarily changes people’s tastes in fiction. Unless you’re a true speed demon, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a novel or other long story ready before the market moves on. And even if you somehow do, any sales benefits you see will only be temporary. So if you’re inspired to write about the pandemic, make sure your parallel will hold up even when people aren’t excited about zombies.
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