In honor of the recent conclusion of this season of The Walking Dead, I offer you this thought:
Zombies are stupid.
I don’t mean they’re mindless, shambling creatures of pure appetite, although there is definitely that to take into account. Rather, I mean that they are the result of very lazy storytelling, resulting in plots and themes that are full of more holes than their antagonists!
Now I should mention that most of my ire here is going to be directed at zombies as they appear in popular culture, movies like I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, or written fiction like World War Z (which, admittedly, I really enjoyed) or Feed. And, of course, The Walking Dead is a TV phenomenon about zombies in the “modern” vein. These modern zombies are supposed to be disease carriers, or possibly druggies, as opposed to creatures created by magic, evil spirits or other supernatural forces. I dislike supernatural undead, too, but this isn’t the set of posts for that particular gripe.
So what, exactly, are my gripes with the zombie plague horror story?
Let’s start with the zombies being disease ridden plague carriers. At some point, and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it was some kind of reaction to the incredible campiness of The Evil Dead franchise (DISCLAIMER: I’ve never watched these movies but there are stories…), it was decided that zombies as the result of sorcery or other supernatural meddling wouldn’t be taken seriously anymore. So people settled on this disease idea.
And that’s probably not a terrible idea, since people with rabies are likely the source of the zombie/vampire/ghoul/wraith ur-legends. The problem is, people insist on keeping the trappings of sorcerous zombies, like the person actually being dead, impervious to pain and not having body heat (to name a few). Problem is, these “more real” zombies are actually less believable than zombies that result from occult forces.
You see, moving takes energy. Living people get the energy to move around chemically, by metabolizing sugars from the food they eat. Zombies get energy by… well, no one ever bothers to think about this, because zombies are the result of writers being lazy and their audience letting them get away with it. Seriously, they don’t have a working metabolism so they can’t actually eat food or burn body fat. And if they did burn old tissue for fuel they’d quickly run their bodies down to nothing, because they never do more than sink their teeth into a victim before they run off after something else and a new zombie rises to take their place in the ranks of the horde. A “real” zombie would have to strip it’s victims to the bone to get enough calories to keep going, there wouldn’t be anything left to add to the ranks.
Which brings me to another aspect of lazy writing: with the exception of Feed, I’ve never read a zombie story where zombies went after anything other than humans. Why is that? There’s all those calories out there, waiting to keep the zombies going, and they ignore them! Likewise, how can zombies tell that other zombies are already plague carriers and should be left alone? Why not eat them, too?
At least drug addled zombies theoretically keep enough of their wits about them to recognize that they need food and water, but that doesn’t explain why they would desire to add to their ranks or why their drugs would spread to people bitten by them. The endless swarm is one of the defining characteristics of zombies, you can’t make one without the ability to spread the plague. I think that’s why you see so few plots with drug zombies in them.
And that reminds me of another thing. How do dead things move around, anyway? A juju zombie is a puppet for whatever evil is keeping it going, but a zombie that results from a disease? Most viruses and bacteria only have enough room in their DNA for mechanisms that allow them to replicate themselves and infect hosts to help them do it. Zombie fiction frequently tries to foist off zombie behavior as part of the infection’s reproduction drive but that’s just ridiculous.
It’s one thing to say that a virus can cause increased mucus production by settling in the sinuses, as a cold does, as part of it’s survival process. Rabies is the same – it infects nerve tissues, eventually causing inflammation of the brain that leads to violent behavior and biting attacks (which infect others) and death. These things are the results of the body’s normal attempts to fight off the disease, processes that just so happen to result in the disease spreading to other people as well. But when the body is dead there are no natural processes to spread the disease.
The zombie virus has to be doing all the work itself – firing the neurons that make the limbs move, processing visual and audio input to locate prey and then telling when you’ve successfully bitten the victim and it’s time to move on. The virus has to do all of that, and still be a small enough organism to be transmitted from one person to another by saliva. Are you starting to see why I find this idea so absurd?
Oh, and let’s not forget zombie resilience. Another thing that makes no sense. The human body is fairly delicate, people. Cut a muscle and all those around it become strained. The muscle fibers around the wound become overworked, pull apart and stop working and pretty soon you have a chain reaction that leaves the body immobilized. Sure, zombies won’t feel the pain – although I’m not sure why they won’t since they can still see and hear and sometimes smell – but that just means they won’t realize the body is breaking down, not that it’s still functional. Because it’s not.
And then there’s the 100% infection rate. No one ever survives a zombie bite. Why? It makes no sense. No one ever tries to justify it. We’re just told that’s the way it is. The writing is so lazy it’s infuriating.
I could go on. (Why don’t zombies get infested by maggots?) But the fact is, people are going to go right on creating novels, TV shows and movies based on zombies and ignoring the fact that they make no sense because they keep making money. Only a very few people will be turned off by the absurdities of the concept because a story with the right themes and good technique can overrule both logic and sense using style and humor.
My real problem with zombies runs a little deeper than that. Hopefully you’ll come back on Friday, when we dig a little deeper into the problem – maybe deep enough to bury it for good.
Hey Nate. I’m a Walking Dead fan. The “walkers” actually go after animals too, not just humans. And they seem to deteriorate over time because you can tell the difference between the newer ones and the older ones. From the CDC episode — the “walkers” supposedly have base brain function. And at this point even the “survivors” are infected, so when they “die” they will automatically become a “walker” unless their base brain is destroyed. I’d have to watch the episode again to remember it all. There are plenty of holes, but I find a lot of holes in other stories too. Essentially, they’re asking you to suspend a few biological “rules” for the sake of taking you to a different reality — not so different from other fictional leaps. Once you get past the gore, there are so many things to love about the Walking Dead that make up for it. It has some great characters and situations. A good study on what it means to be human or not, alive or not, good or not, part of society or not, normal or not, hope or not. Who changes when the bottom falls out. Who stays the same. What’s better. What’s helpful. And are they the same thing? What’s acceptable when society is broken. You should give the series a try. But you should start from the beginning. And as a writer, it’s interesting to watch how they introduce new characters and kill off main characters and still keep their following.
You make a very good point about the believability of plot points, one I kind of mentioned at the end of the post – it’s all a question of how much disbelief you want to suspend. Everyone has things that rub them the wrong way, that they’re less willing to be lenient about. For some it’s rubber forehead aliens, for others it’s crazy action sequences or people with superpowers. For me, one of the things is the undead (as a group that includes vampies and ghosts, not just zombies). They rub me the wrong way. It used to be a monolithic thing, all undead were the same in my eyes, but over time as I’ve read fiction and watched TV Shows or movies focusing on them, trying to understand the appeal, I’ve come to have very different opinions on the most used kinds of “living” dead. That could probably be its own post, so I’m not going to go into it further, suffice it to say I’m not sure I’ll ever warm up to them as a premise.
I’ve actually read the first volume or two of The Walking Dead trade paperbacks (several years ago), which I’m told are different from the show, and I do recognize that the writing there is really very proficient. I’ve got another post on the subject of zombies coming on Friday, and I don’t want to steal its thunder, so suffice it to say that it’s not just the details of what keeps the zombies twitching that bugs me about them.