The great zombie movie conspiracy

clownI have two major pet peeves… what?  I’m supposed to introduce myself?  Fine, then.

Hello, my name is Justin and I have two major pet peeves when it comes to horror films.  The first is that nobody ever seems to treat vampires as repugnant bloodsuckers who aren’t even alive when the same people who swoon over Edward and Lestat freak out when a mosquito bites them.  The second pet peeve is that pretty much every zombie movie completely skips over the first month or so of the outbreak so that the characters can just jump right into a zombie apocalypse with no waiting.

Ugh, this makes me so mad.  Why?  Why does it make me mad?  Because it’s lazy, lazy story writing that just omits the fact that for a successful zombie uprising to happen, it would take a LOT of explaining.  You don’t just go to sleep one night, wake up in the morning, and 99% of the world’s population is either dead or zombiefied.  These things take time and a chain of events.  But that’s never explained, leaving us with the great zombie movie conspiracy: the catalyst of the apocalypse is merely referred to but never shown nor given a reasonable explanation.

The Walking Dead?  Dude wakes up a month after the zombie uprising.  30 Days Later?  Dude wakes up a month after the zombie uprising.  Resident Evil?  Jill emerges from the underground fortress to find that somehow the zombies have trashed the planet.  Zombieland?  Guy’s just playing video games for so long that he doesn’t realize that the world’s ended until he does.   Dawn of the Dead (original)?  Gang just hangs out in a mall while the world goes to hell in a zombiebasket.  I Am Legend?  A few flashbacks but mostly it starts months and months after the bad stuff happens.

My problem with this is that this format comes from two assumptions: that the zombie wasteland is the more interesting story and that the audience doesn’t really care how it happened, just that it does.  Maybe that was OK for the first hundred or so zombie films, but it’s 2013 and I want someone to put a little effort into this.

It is understandable why screenwriters do this, however.  Explaining how the zombies can tip the world in their favor is a really difficult task that requires all manner of logical leaps and suspension of belief.

Let’s start with the how: How does the zombie plague begin?  Sometimes we’re given a reason, such as a military toxin (Return of the Living Dead) or a virus, but usually it just… happens.  And that’s a step of faith to ask of your audience, since they don’t often see reanimated corpses shambling round.


Another question that’s rarely answered: Do the former dead come back to life once the zombie uprising begins, or is it just the freshly dead?  Because if it’s the former, then it could explain why we’d get outnumbered so quickly, although you’d also have to explain how corpses can tunnel through wood, metal, and six feet of earth in the RIGHT direction to join the party.

What about animals?  Are they included in the zombiefest?  Often they’re not, but why not?

So unless something (cosmic storm?) turns everything dead on Earth into a zombie at the same moment, then your typical movie zombie uprising is going to start very small and have to spread very, very fast.  It’s the plague model, and this is probably the most common backstory hinted at.  Someone is infected (how? why?) and they start infecting others, and it spreads out of control.  Quarantines fail, evacuations fail, the economy crumbles, the world falls.

Except the plague model doesn’t work.  It’s interesting, but it wouldn’t work at all.  CDC and other organizations freak the heck out anytime there’s an even moderate outbreak of something lethal, so can you imagine if a few people died, came back as animated corpses, and tried attacking others?  It would be the hardest, fastest lockdown in history.  And it’s not like zombie symptoms can fly under the radar so that it can spread globally, which is how pandemics function.  You’re undead and people are going to notice.  You’re not going to get through airport security, my friend.  They’re anal about belts, how do you think they feel about casually gnoshing on a fellow passenger’s arm?

It also doesn’t work because biting — the primary method of spreading the zombie-plague — is just about one of the worst ways to make a contagion go global.  If it was airborne or waterborne, then sure, I’d accept the premise of a threat.  But biting?  Yeah, there are going to be precautions and elaborate methods of dealing with bitten people, but that’ll be it.  Life as normal.


Here’s another problem: Zombies aren’t smart.  They’re savage and disturbing and eat people for no good reason whatsoever, but they’re not smart.  Their single-minded focus on prowling, bashing windows, and trying to gut us makes them great cannon fodder in the “world after.”  It does not, however, make them formidable foes against a world armed to the teeth with practiced militaries and about a billion nerds who have been salivating for a chance to prove themselves in a zombie uprising.  People would fight back, hard, and zombies would find themselves outnumbered, outgunned, and outsmarted.

I mean, yes, get enough zombies and you’ll swamp the world in undead.  That’s a terrifying prospect.  But how do you get to that point without anyone noticing or stopping the threat?

This is where screenwriters are at a loss, because the two greatest answers that they’ve been able to come up with to arrive at a point where zombies dominate is (1) an unrealistically fast spread of the zombie plague and (2) make the zombies run really, really fast.  Obviously, these are solutions sprung forth from the intellects greater than Einstein and Newton.

The running thing, often mocked in geek circles, deserves every note of derision tossed its way.  At first it was lauded as a great (running) step forward for the genre, but it really isn’t.  Making zombies faster makes them a greater threat, but hey, we can run too.  You know what we can also do?  Drive cars, fly planes, pilot boats, operate construction equipment, lock doors, turn on electric fences, shoot sniper rifles, and survive indoors thanks to Netflix and pizza delivery.  A faster stupid threat is still stupid, and until we see zombies racing F1s down the highway, I think I’m going to feel like we’d retain the upper hand.

In the end, even if we accept the premise that zombies could be a thing and that anything that died would come back to life as one, there has to be a huge string of extremely unlucky events that would need to happen to make such an apocalypse happen:

  • People would have to ignore or stall out on reacting to UNDEAD SHAMBLING CORPSES until it’s too late
  • A zombie plague would have to start up simultaneously worldwide and within 12-24 hours overwhelm local authorities and the military
  • Everyone would have to forget to use the weapons and makeshift weapons they have lying around
  • Zombies would need to travel in packs while people would avoid massing their forces together
  • Zombies would have to know how to open doors and navigate the many natural and man-made obstacles that are everywhere
  • Zombies would have absolutely no weaknesses that humans have, including a need for sleep, lactic acid buildup, the inability to see in the dark, avoidance of pain, and being susceptible to bullet wounds

So it’s just easier to start 30 days later than have to explain those 30 days.  I get it.  Doesn’t mean I have to like it.


  1. This is the thing tat got me when they made 28 Weeks Later. In 28 Days Later one of the characters (the guy who Selena was teamed up with) tells Cillian Murphy about how he got separated from his family at the airport when the rage Not!Zombies come in. It one of my favorite scenes in the movie and when they were talking about doing another one I was hoping it’d be a prequel to show that side of it.

    As for your argument I think this makes Night of the Living Dead probably the most plausible zombie movie given the ending. One night of undead walking around while banded groups go through and systematically clean up the mess.

  2. I agree, 28 hours later would have been a better sequel. Soldiers and refugees holing up in the White Tower hosing down zombies from the safety of the walls and trying to figure out how to rescue folks trapped in buildings throughout London. That is the movie I wanted.

    Thing about World War Z I really noticed was the lack of tanks and armored vehicles. A single tank would hose down so many zombies as to make the outbreak very unlikely. Get a couple of tanks together, loudspeakers to draw the zombies in, and a Spooky Gunship overhead in case the tanks start to run out of ammo and need resupply and Manhattan is secure in an hour or less.

  3. There is another inherent difficulty with the ‘dead rising from the grave’ apocalypse that many overlook, too. Simply put, in most advanced countries, most of the dead are either cremated or embalmed and quite a few are autopsied. If a hard shot to the head kills a zombie, then any that have been embalmed or autopsied could not rise since the brain is usually severed from the spinal cord and often removed completely. That takes a lot of ‘recently dead’ out of the picture, so to speak.

    I agree with Eunice about Night of the Living Dead, and I would add that in the cities, every cop, gang banger, and gun enthusiast would be out there having themselves a good time. I hate to say it, but an opportunity for legalized violence would make a lot of folks happy. Also like in NofLD, I would hate to see how many non-zombies would take friendly fire, though.

    Nice article, by the way. I’ve considered the same thing at times, although I almost never watch zombie movies anymore.

  4. You could use religious fuckups as the reason for a global zombieoutbreak under the radar of authorities. It seems probable that certain people would see zombies as the second coming and would try to help god do his thing. its hinted in Dawn of the dead at the beginning were the priest hides zombies in a building. In general religions tend to react not so jolly wen you dispose of corpses by shoting them in the head und try to reason with them.

  5. In the original night of the living dead the zombies were put down. Even in Dawn of the Dead the National Guard was shown to be winning. It was simply the stupid folk refusing to deal with the new reality that doomed the cities in those movies.

  6. An essential premise of zombie movies is that no one in the universe has ever heard of a zombie before until the outbreak starts. People are confused as to what they are dealing with, and that’s why good-minded folks try to help the zombies, help those bitten by zombies, etc. You are correct that in real life, a zombie outbreak would be dealt with in days, but that’s only because most people “know” what a zombie is and would immediately say “A zombie! Shoot it in the head!” instead of “Look at that poor man shambling on a broken leg! I need to go over and help him!”

  7. What makes me laugh is folks think they know zombies and they go “brains” but if Return of the Living Dead is really your model (where that Brains thing came from) you’d be seriously concerned because those zombies were unstoppable.

  8. Here’s the way it works. When you start learning about the world, you realise things are not what you have been taught. You realize the truth is right in front of you, but you can’t get anyone else to see it. They are unthinking walkers to you. So, yes, you do just wake up and its there. It’s also a legal definition of “capable of mature thought” that also just hits you. And some other people are like the sixth sense guy, who wake up and realise they are dead. Commonly after a head mri that shows what is inside the head instead of the brain. Again it’s pretty instant.

  9. Six years later, and we finally get an answer to the question of “How could this possibly happen?” Simply put, a large portion of the population refuses to admit that it’s a problem, accuses the government and the CDC of lying to them, and gives a huge middle finger to the quarantine guidelines. Instead of staying away from the zombies, they actually throw parties at the cemetery! “Gotta get a herd immunity” they claim. Once both coasts and the majority of the south have fallen, the rest is easy pickings.

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