Zombies: Slow or Fast?The Dark Herald
Which kind of Zombies are the best kind, slow or fast?
Any wordsmith who puts pen to paper on the matter of a tale of the Living Impaired now has to consciously decide which one he’s going to use.*
The rise of the zombies** began just about the time Anne Rice ruined vampires for everyone. Since the days of Carmilla and Dracula, the vampire was the primary form of unlife you were meant to fear. The vamps had a good run for about a hundred years and then Rice had to process her grief for the death of her child and mix it with her complete obsession with male homosexuality and in so doing mutate the genre. The end result was a higher being that was impervious to ‘religious baubles’ and wooden stakes alike but was also the biggest Moaning Myrtle on the planet. The vampire as an allegory for sexual infidelity, (and in the case of Carmilla, lesbian deviancy) was always there but once our civilization degenerated to the point where these things were simply personal preferences and nothing to be at all condemned by society, the vampire lost his bite.
This happened around the time that Night of the Living Dead hit the drive-ins. George Romero made a film whose production values and budget matched that of Manos: The Hands of Fate. But in Romero’s case, he touched a nerve. His movie spoke to fears that were well below that of the rational mind.
Something in Night of the Living Dead reached the primal in us. Name a human culture and it probably has a legend about the dead who feed upon the living. From the Vetala of India and the Sasabonsam of Ghana to the Obayifo of Africa, these legends are so universal you almost have to wonder if this hasn’t actually been a problem from time to time, (it was that speculation that led to my first book).
There may even have been something to it. Let’s say a villager falls seriously ill and slips into a coma. His gross vitals fall below that which is easily detectable. His breath doesn’t fog a mirror and he doesn’t move when stabbed with a long needle, in the absence of the invention of the stethoscope and having failed these tests, it’s time to put him in the ground.
Our villager already had some brain damage and oxygen deprivation didn’t help, however, he arises after a couple of days, and if the grave was shallow enough he could make it to the surface and start shuffling around incoherently moaning. Whereupon his family and neighbors scream in terror and kill him for real this time.
That story would have spread far and wide and only grown with the telling for the next century or so. I’ve covered this in another post.
There is more to it, of course. Zombies strike a chord with us. There is a fundamental wrongness of that which shouldn’t be about them. Death is very much supposed to be an exit-only thing.
Okay, that’s why zombies hit a nerve, but the question of this article has to do with audience preference.
The zombie apocalypse audience is passionate and will turn out for your story but your story has to follow the tropes of the genre (I learned that one the hard way). Rule one, Zombies can NOT be creatures of the supernatural. Whatever created them must have a basis in science. Even if it is really, really bad science.
Which is a fundamental problem. Animated corpses just aren’t big of a deal. Sure the dead outnumber the living but I’m not that worried about my great-great-great-great-great grandfather popping out of the ground. Don’t get me wrong he was a six-foot-seven tough son of a bitch, who killed twenty Redcoats at the Battle of Trenton with a “long-handled tomahawk.” But he was reduced to bare bones a long time ago.
Cadaveric material loss would reduce the vast majority of true zombies to combat ineffectiveness in less than a month depending on the weather. The army of the walking dead would have a recruiting problem as it would be limited to those who passed and weren’t incinerated in the last three weeks. Worse still, autopsy and embalming would take out an even bigger chunk of them. After all, if shooting zombies in the head takes them down then the Medical Examiner will stop the recruitment process dead in its tracks when he removes the brain. The zombie recruiting problem is a critical one as the pool of new troops is limited to toe-taggers who haven’t seen the coroner yet and the freshly bitten.
This is a much smaller population base than the general population. The zombie uprising would be unpleasant but short. Remember that in Night of the Living Dead, the outbreak was largely in hand by morning thanks to local law enforcement and some trigger-happy rednecks. Albeit with some collateral damage. Realistically, that probably is about as long as it would last. A lot of people would simply sleep through it.
Consequently, unless you are doing a comedy like Return of the Living Dead, zombies must be the product of science and therefore must be LIVING dead. If you are playing fair with your audience then the zombies will have to be technically (if only just) “alive.”
After Romero’s films, the living dead shuffled along at a snail’s pace until 2002. That was when 28 Days Later created a new kind of zombie: The Rager. A zombie that while living was no longer capable of sapience. These things ran at top speed regardless of their (apparent) physical condition, however the rest of the time they appeared to slip into a hibernative state.
IF I was ever to go back to this subject again, I would probably start with a military research project that was trying to reliably induce a hibernative state in humans. Or private attempt to do so on the grounds that the DOD will absolutely have a few billion dollars with the name of any company on it that manages that trick.
Regardless, the Rager is a product of much harder science than any of the Romero vitality-handicapped. It was a new and improved zombie, but far from enjoying universal acceptance, it created a schism within the Zombie fanbase.
Fast or slow? Which is better?
From a writer’s perspective, each has something going for it.
The slow as molasse Shambler on the face of it, is easily dealt with one-on-one. Except it is never just one on one. Don’t get me wrong on that point. What makes them horrifying is not their numbers, it’s their inevitability. The Shambler hoard will never stop. You have to eat, you have to sleep, you have to grow food but the Shambler simply keeps shuffling toward you no matter what. There is a fatalism to the Shambler because no matter how long it takes you will never escape them in the end. One way or another they’re gonna getcha, getcha, getcha.
Personally, I don’t like the nihilism inherent in that kind of story. So, let’s move on to the new kid on the block.
The Rager is difficult to deal with even one on one. This allows for a good deal of high-speed action. There is a huge power imbalance between the Rager and his lunch (meaning you). The Rager can use 100% of its strength and endurance. It will keep going regardless of any prereferral damage it takes. Even if you are a marathon runner the Rager will likely take you down once you finally run out of juice. And even though the Rager is “alive” you are still allowed necrotic skin tissue. After all, zombies really should be rotting at least a little bit.
That said, the Rager has to play by some rules that the Shambler doesn’t. The science is nominally harder, which means a great many of them are going to die of stroke and heart failure. Even with hibernation, they are going to die in no more than three months’ time unless you, the author are a science retard (see: The Last of Us).
So how do you fight them?
Shambler zombies are vulnerable to long swords, katanas, kukri knives (I expect the zombie uprising to be particularly short in Nepal. Even Nepalese children are murderous with those. choppers), or just the ax in your tool shed. Anything that can swiftly take off a limb will work fine on them but their advantage is always in numbers.
The Rager isn’t quite as easy to kill as the Shambler. However, whatever martial skills the Rager had has been burned away by its case of Zombitis. It’s just going to charge you, sure the thing is going to put everything it has into its charge but you have the option of thinking, it doesn’t. You can select the ground where you can fight it, (uphill is always suggested). Even if all you have is a hammer, you can shatter its knee from the side. Just keep your cool and you’ll get through this.
Darklings: I’d rather use a gun, Chief.
Dark Herald: Understandable. Me too. That said…
… guns are more of an issue. It isn’t just any shot to the brain that will do it, you will have to destroy the medulla oblongata, and that is a target about the size of the human eye. Although transecting the spinal cord will also do it but that’s also a pretty small target. For once, magnum force is preferred as it is likely to pulp the entire brain. I’ve heard arguments for targeting the pelvis, if that is broken (especially in more than one place) it is physically impossible to keep walking. Bonus: There are huge veins and arteries down there, cut those and a Rager will succumb to hydraulic failure (AKA bleeding out).
There is one other issue with ‘me and my gun against the zombie world.’ Do you remember how easy it was to find ammo during the lockdown? That is the part that movies and TV breeze past. You are not going to be finding ammunition every time you walk into an abandoned house. How much ammunition do you have on hand versus how long is the zombie problem likely to be going on?
Which leads directly to the next problem. Can the authorities suppress the undead uprising and if so, how long will it take?
It basically comes down to how large the initial outbreak is. Honestly, cops are a lot smarter and better trained than you see in movies and TV. If it’s just one patient zero, the situation will be quickly contained and you’ll have a really boring story on your hands.
The police have organization, discipline, good lines of communication, access to labs, and are in daily contact with medical facilities. Also, they are used to people trying to bite them and are good at avoiding it. The outbreak is going to have to escalate quickly if the cops can’t lock it down. If SWAT can’t handle it, the military is going to be called in.
Which takes us back to the question of, how big is this problem?
If you are going to have any kind of story, then the outbreak has to be fairly big and overnight. At that point, you have to make some guesses about how big a percentage of the population is infected. Truthfully it doesn’t take a lot for things to break down. Civilization came pretty close to falling apart during Covid and that was mostly due to panic.
You have to be careful about the percentage of people turned.
If you make it 90% infection and turn overnight, then humanity is over and done with. It’s only a matter of time before the last human joins the other side. Frankly, I dislike that kind of story. It’s just too dreary for me. Also, the author of that kind of tale tends to cheat. Look at The Walking Dead, the primary rule of that show is, science does whatever the story needs it to do and the rules don’t matter. Need a helicopter? How does it get fuel? Where is the fuel pumped and refined? How did they manufacture spare parts? How has the pilot retained his flight skills despite a lack of practice? None of that matters, because the writer decided he needed a helicopter in one scene. That show has always been like that. Side rant concluded.
50% infection. Likely this means that urban centers have fallen to team Zulu. Can they be retaken?
Sure the US military can turn undead hoards into sticky red paste but for how long? Military resources are not infinite. Not in the US, not in Russia, not in China. Eventually, more ammo has to be made somewhere by someone. Consequently, none of the militaries are going to waste their ammo like that. Not when there is a faster way to take care of the problem.
In Return of the Living Dead, the outbreak was dealt with by cauterization. In all the discussions I’ve ever read about that movie in the nearly 40 years (god, I’m old) since its release the view across the entire political spectrum has always been, “Nuking that city was justified.” The military knew what the problem was and knew there was only one way to deal with it. There will probably be some objections if there is still a civilian government but if the order isn’t given there won’t be a civilian government anymore. Screw what the Generals want, the troops will shoot them and take care of things themselves.
20% infection society collapses but civilization won’t. Cauterization won’t be needed except in the worst population centers. Rural centers can probably take care of local infestations themselves. Possibly neighboring counties will take care of each other’s problems, I mean you know cousin Jimmy needs to get the Old Yeller treatment but he’s still your cousin, better if a stranger handles it.
Finally in answer to the question of which is better, slow zombies or fast? I can understand why slow zombies appeal to some storytellers. As I’ve said countless times a story succeeds or fails by the style of its telling and if Shamblers are the way you can best tell your tales of Zombie Apocalypses then that is the way you should go.
But you’re bad and you’re wrong because fast zombies are always better.
Okay, I’m done here.
*Unless like me, you are god’s perfect idiot, and use both.