The role of the zombie apocalypse in the demise of civilization has been a staple in pop culture for decades. It’s the common theme among almost all of the movies & television shows that feature the undead creatures. Whether it’s caused by a virus, bacteria, or something more alien it seems clear that the writers have always assumed that once the dead begin to walk, it’s the end of civilization as we know it. But is that really how it would go down?
During part of my professional career, I worked for a DoD organization called Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. In the past, they were responsible for manufacturing and storing nerve agents like mustard gas. Today however, they work on finding ways to defend our military from chemical and biological agents. I worked with people who study infectious disease outbreaks, how they spread, and the effectiveness of modern quarantine procedures. I’ve talked with some of these folks over the years about how the world would respond to a zombie outbreak of some sort. Our talks always come around to the same conclusions.
First of all, I need to clarify exactly which type of zombies I’m talking about here. Movies and television shows have created a wide variety of undead types. Although most classifications tend to focus on how the zombies were created, we need to narrow them down further based on their actions and abilities. This clarification is critical to what would happen to the real world if these things should suddenly came into existence.
Fast Zombies: The Infected Living
The zombies you find in World War Z and I Am Legend are good examples of zombies that aren’t necessarily the reanimated corpses of dead people. These creatures are in effect, living humans who’ve been infected by some type of unknown pathogen which controls them. They’re relentlessly fast, wild animal-like, and don’t always require a head-shot to be killed. The primary differences in the infected living type of zombie lie in their motivations for killing. While the degenerates in I Am Legend killed primarily for cannibalistic feeding purposes, those in World War Z were compelled to spread the infection and in fact only attacked for this purpose.
Fast Zombies: The Undead
The creatures from Zombieland are an example of fast zombies. Unlike the infected living, this zombie type are undead. They are humans who have died and risen or ‘turned’ as a result of being bitten. These zombies might have some mild intelligence and would be extremely dangerous. They require severe brain damage (head shots) in order to be killed.
Slow Shambling Zombies: Undead Intelligent
The zombie apocalypse as presented in The Return of The Living Dead involved one of the scariest zombie types (in my opinion). Some of these zombies are fast and also retain much of their intelligence and memories from their life alive. They can speak and communicate relatively clearly. They even operate machinery at times. The movie itself didn’t use these abilities for much more than comic relief, but the implications of an undead creature with this level of intelligence would be dire. Imagine an undead zombie that could hatch complex attack plans, drive cars, while still retaining the skills it had in life. Terrifying huh?
Slow Shambling Zombies: Undead (Non-Intelligent)
Likely the least dangerous of the bunch, the slow shamblers are the stars of the modern day zombie apocalypse. They’re not very dangerous alone or in small groups, but their power lies in numbers. These undead creatures are the result of a pathogen which resurrects anyone who dies. The Walking Dead & Z Nation have made this the most popular type of zombie by far. Because of their popularity, these are the ones I’m going to focus on when it comes to a real zombie apocalypse.
The Zombie Apocalypse: Slow Shambling Zombies – The World Continues
Fortunately for us, shows like The Walking Dead and Z Nation got it completely wrong. There simply would be no zombie apocalypse if the outbreak consisted of slow undead shamblers. There are multiple factors to take into account which bring me to this result. Let’s break it down.
Method of Transmission
Depending on your zombie apocalypse flavor, someone generally becomes infected when they’re bitten by a zombie or everyone is simply already infected and they resurrect after dying. In either case, none of them are actually dangerous until they’ve become an actual zombie. This is important because one of the things that make diseases dangerous is the incubation period at which a person can infect others but aren’t yet exhibiting symptoms themselves.
The flu virus is the most deadly virus in the world. It’s deadly because an infected person can infect others for days before they know they’re sick. The incubation period makes it extremely difficult to control the spread. With zombies, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is ‘sick’. Any untrained eye can pick out a zombie from a distance and avoid them. They’re not hidden among us.
Incidentally, if there ever is a real zombie outbreak, I’ll be quick to start up a clothing line that zombie teeth can’t bite through.
We Already Have Control Units
The slow shambling zombies are nothing more than wild animals who need a head shot to be killed. Humans have conquered all animal species on the planet forcing many of them to extinction. There’s no reason to think that these types of zombies would fare any better. The shambling zombie outbreak would result in the creation of “zombie control units” that could be called into a neighborhood to dispatch zombies much the same way that today’s animal control departments will remove rabid dogs. Heck, rabid dogs that we already deal with today could arguably be more of a danger than the zombies of The Walking Dead. It’s also likely that zombie hunting licenses and private organizations would be formed with special training to help control the problem. The Zombie Outbreak Response Team already exists.
We Already Have Prevention Procedures
Today’s modern handling of dead bodies would already be sufficient to render the damage required to the brain to keep a dead person from rising as a zombie. The embalming process uses chemicals that destroys the brain at a microscopic level. Even if that wasn’t the case, our customs would quickly change to accommodate the need to cause severe brain damage soon after someone dies.
EMTs, police officers, firefighters, and other first-responders would likely carry tools that allow them to ‘do the job’ should an injured person perish in an accident. Like today’s portable defibrillators found in glass cases in public spaces, tools that could be used by any citizen to affect the necessary brain damage would become commonplace.
Wrapping it Up: Even if There’s an outbreak – there will be no Zombie Apocalypse
For those of you who secretly look forward to the zombie apocalypse this might be horrible news. The reality is that at least when it comes to the slow shambling zombies popular in modern pop culture, dealing with them in a civilized way would just become part of life. We’d still have government & law. We’d still go to work or school and still have birthday parties. The only difference is that every once in a while, you’d look out the door and say, “Oh looks like old man Jones died in his sleep and is now wandering the street, I guess I’d better call 9-1-1 and wait for them come get him.”
There is a small silver lining here though if you had your heart set on a real zombie apocalypse. As it turns out, most biologists agree that if zombies ever did become a real thing, it’s not likely to be this type of zombie. The most likely scenario would involve the infected living – and life might not be so normal when it comes to that one. Stay tuned.