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.