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I'm writing an autobiography of my life in the post-Zed world. Now, I think the effects of the Zeds have been obvious – total obliteration of any worldwide infrastructure, severe depopulation, turning most or all major cities and even smaller ones into zombie-ridden hellscapes. Nowadays, any area with a population over fifty is either very well cleared or doomed.

Now, when the zombies emerged and conquered the world, I wasn't there; I was on a small island in the Pacific, starving to death. I only saw the aftermath from after a few months had passed, with zombies still covering the planet and only scattered enclaves. What I do know is this:

  • They can form packs, sticking together even when there's no immediate prey
  • They can be affected by just about anything a human can except poison and disease, though they don't feel pain. This means that e.g. tasers work to stun, as would cutting off its arm to kill eventually, and they eventually die of starvation or thirst if they can't find anything to eat or drink.
  • They can learn basic tasks (climbing stairs, swinging a crowbar, jogging badly) but not complex ones (firing a gun, using a sword well, talking)
  • They will, on their own, hunt for and scavenge food and water, though they won't share with members of the pack.
  • They all have pale green skin, and are cooler to the touch than humans (assuming you can touch one without dying!) so they're easy to identify.
  • They've never been seen to mate, and as far as our scientists can tell, are sterile.

If you think I forgot to mention something, feel free to mention it below.

Now, my question is this: How did the zombies win? You'd think that humanity would have pretty quickly organized an army and killed the zombies easily, given that we can do things like climb ladders and drive tanks and they can't. What happened?

Out of character:

I'm willing to change some aspects of how zombies work, but I'd much rather use what I've specified here if possible. If I didn't mention it, feel free to assume it can be whatever you want it to be.

Also, I don't need the zombies to stay alive, I just need the initial devastation. Specifically, I need:

  • Phone lines, internet, etc. down, though reparable
  • The power grid disabled/destroyed
  • Long-distance travel to be hazardous for a few years at minimum
  • Major cities to be emptied
  • Most places to be empty of humans, though other life is fine.
  • Only a (relative) few holdouts left of humanity

Anything extra is a bonus.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Serban Tanasa Mar 10 at 17:23
1) How is zombism spread in your world? Is it the classic bite (ie. blood borne) or is it the more virulent "28 Days Later" version where any bodily fluid contact will transfer? 2) If it's been months, and zombies need to eat and drink, what have they been eating and drinking? – Schwern Mar 10 at 18:19
@Schwern 1. "If I didn't mention it, feel free to assume it can be whatever you want it to be. " I have now bolded that phrase, since people keep not seeing it.2. Presumably, plants and animals, same as people do, and river water. They're immune to disease and, and I just realized I forgot to add this, poison, so as long as they get the required nutrients, they can keep shambling around. – QPaysTaxes Mar 10 at 18:22
Exactly how can a zombie die from starvation or thirst? Many of them don't even have the body parts to distribute the food/nutrients, let alone break the food down into something usable by the body. – Dunk Mar 10 at 20:31
@Dunk ...Because I chose a word that represents behavior rather than physiology. They're basically humans, except with no higher cognitive function, don't feel pain, and are resistant to disease. They're not rotted corpses. – QPaysTaxes Mar 10 at 20:32
up vote 37 down vote accepted

This is where the problem is:

You'd think that humanity would have pretty quickly organized an army and killed the zombies easily

If the problem requires large collaboration, beyond the scale that a single organization or nation can handle it, it probably won't happen. It especially won't happen quickly.

Most militaries on earth are relatively poorly equipped and even more poorly trained, their soldiers are likely to flee from combat. Unless your zombie outbreak is localized to an industrialized nation with a large army (say, the US) the zombies will overtake them easily.

Ordinary human disbelief will give the zombies a lot of time. Media might be reticent to believe in the existence of zombies, even if entire nations have collapsed.

Within a country, agencies often don't cooperate. Different branches of a military (or intelligence versus defense organizations) might not want to help each other out. Especially when organizations see themselves as rivals, they will point out how bad of a job the other does - possibly hoping to eventually absorb their functions (and prestige) themselves.

Between countries, the politics can be very tricky. On one hand, a zombie outbreak could show that a nation is weak. The country might deny it so that rivals don't see a sign of weakness, and swoop in. A disaster like this can also be a good cover-up for an invasion (How many peacekeepers could the US send to a zombie-infested China?).

In short - we are really bad at organizing, even in the face of lethal danger.

share|improve this answer
Wow, there's a side I never considered -- instead of "why did the zombies overpower our defenses", "why did we never have them". Good thought! Also, good first answer! – QPaysTaxes Mar 9 at 21:57
I'm accepting this answer because it pretty perfectly captures the idea of a broken world, where everyone blames everyone else for the end of the world, which makes putting a nomad into it more interesting. I'll also be incorporating ideas from other answers though. Thanks to everyone! – QPaysTaxes Mar 10 at 12:14
This answer combines very nicely with the suggestion in other answers of the virus having a long asymptomatic contagious period. If anyone you meet might be a carrier for the virus, without showing any outward signs, that would contribute to a breakdown of trust and co-operation, and redouble the difficulty of a well-organised response. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Mar 10 at 13:51
Countries have a demonstrable ability to make large alliances when their survival is on the line. But that aside, I don't see how this problem actually requires "large collaboration" for success. Each army independently killing zombies would seemingly work fine. And while most national armies are poorly equipped, they would all seriously outmatch an enemy that can't fire a gun or even throw a rock. – dan1111 Mar 10 at 14:00
There is also the problem that in order to have a decent zombie outbreak, you need to remove all zombie pop culture. Cracked ran an article once stating that any zombie outbreak would fail quickly simply because everyone would see it coming. – Jake Mar 10 at 14:54

The only way for these zombies (aka infected, rabid humans) to overcome "civilization" is for the virus which causes this sickness to be insanely infectious, and be spread very easily - maybe even by other species, etc.

Realistically, it would have to be more infectious than pretty much any other virus we have ever encountered. If it has few symptoms, and a long incubation period (say, a few days) that will help it go unnoticed, and make it that much more dangerous.

Such a virus could be bio-engineered by a mad scientist (or a stupid, but well meaning one), or maybe it always existed under the thick ice of the Antartica - only now to be unleashed as the ice melts.

That way, while the zombies themselves certainly manage to kill a lot of people, the virus will have actually done most of the work, and really get in the way of humanity organizing an armed response.

After all, if your soldiers are infected before you even get a chance to organize them into a fighting force the zombies have already won.

The effects of this widespread infection would be devastating:

  • Power plants would shut down (some might explode, etc.)
  • All sorts of automated systems would shut down. Phone services? Nope. Internet? You're funny.
  • Most vehicles rendered useless (gasoline has a "shelf life" of about a year)

Without communications the few survivors would likely become very clan-ish, which would further impact the recovery aspect.

Eventually, however humanity would come out on top and maybe even rebuild civilization, as your infected humans would starve to death, or succumb to injury, illness, or simply cold weather.

share|improve this answer
Insanely infectious or spread by some insane group on purpose – Marky Mar 9 at 21:35
Gasoline having such a limited "shelf life" is a bit of a myth. – Wingman4l7 Mar 9 at 23:28
@Marky #chemtrails.... In all seriousness, chemtrails would be kinda interesting, and you'd appeal to a very limited market of conspiracy theorists. I see no downsides. – SethWhite Mar 10 at 0:02
@Wingman417 "I have had gas go inert in less than a year in plastic gas cans before, so this came as a total surprise to me. Especially since gas companies claim that their gas will only store for up to a year. Since moisture and temperature are the key enemies for gas storage, the air-tight metal container and mild California weather, must have preserved it much better than the cheap plastic containers I've had." This is one case of gasoline being preserved because of a limited set of conditions. – Daniel F Mar 10 at 5:24
@XandarTheZenon I have no knowledge of gasoline storage, but gasoline has substantial processing from oil – Daniel F Mar 10 at 5:25

You dont seem to address the most important factor, transmission.

If the virus a combination of the following

  1. Is highly contagious
  2. Is easy to transmit
  3. Can survive outside the host
  4. Does not kill the host before it can spread
  5. Is difficult to prevent
  6. Is difficult to kill
  7. Is difficult to detect while spreading (asymptomatic contagious period)

then it can easily take over anything it is designed to infect, regardless of what the disease actually causes. If the virus meets these criteria, it's hard to fight it since you aren't always sure who is infected.

I assumed direct transmission via food, liquid, kissing, etc. so with enough of a on-set delay after initial infection that people will be far too late to figure out if they're infected before infecting others. It increases the chances of it spreading greatly unless they completely separate the people around infected areas and leave them to die. If it takes a week for it to display symptoms, but you can transmit it a day after contact, by the time patient 0 shows signs, it could already have hit an entire country.

To balance out the world a bit afterwards (when you've rejoined them), you can assume some kind of basic medicine has been created that prevents the takeover if taken early enough, which prevents complete annihilation of the survivors, and maybe drugs to tell if a source is contaminated (or to clean it).

Another option is genetic immunity, which allows for a very diverse group of survivors, but that also means you'd have to be lucky enough to be one of them when you've returned to civilization unless you also want to use the drugs path or some other method of prevention.

This answer doesn't require warfare and makes it easy for the virus to spread. It's just a supervirus where the only option is to kill your race or to try and stop it's spread.

Here's how I see it playing out:

Wherever you want this infection to start from, that person would become patient 0. Assuming it is highly contagious and it has that asymptomatic contagious period, it should spread easily regardless of location.

The result should be that highly populated cities of the nearby area will contract it like crazy. Since these zombies can do basic climbing and can mob together, major cities will have to be emptied due to the sheer number of zombies that will develop and the lack of options for escape. These zombies will need food and should easily wipe out all signs of life nearby, short of plants (which will die afterwards since their ecosystem is destroyed).

The zombies don't seem to be particularly dangerous. They just have the basic instincts to survive and understand the power of groups. So they won't be destructive, which leaves facilities operable although abandoned and lacking maintenance. (Phone, internet, radio, transportation, power in general)

So this leaves the rest of humanity to hide out. The areas that will survive the best are the ones that could close their own personal borders for long enough and that are isolated enough to avoid being overwhelmed. The combination of isolated and fortified is not common. The best places to find this would be smaller cities that can build walls that are away from the initial outbreak.

Now, with power down, communication will probably be limited to direct contact with others. Long distance travel is a huge gamble since it is nearly impossible to gather enough materials for that travel since most animals and plants will be dead. This would require gathering food on the go, and where there is food there are zombies. The zombies can obviously only last so long, so after their lifespans are over it should be safe to travel again, but eating any unknown food is still going to require extreme caution.

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Comments moved to the answer. I quite enjoy zombie discussions :) – ChronoD Mar 9 at 21:50
Any chance I could get you to touch on how this gets the results I'm looking for? It's easy enough for me to figure it out, but I'd like a reference available :) – QPaysTaxes Mar 9 at 21:54
It's the last set of bullet points in the question. Even a general thing is fine; I'd just like a starting point. – QPaysTaxes Mar 9 at 22:01
Added elaboration on the final state as per your request. Any other specifics? – ChronoD Mar 9 at 22:18
Nope, that's it. Thanks a ton for the great answer! I'm gonna take a little time to decide which one's the best, but it'll probably be this one. – QPaysTaxes Mar 9 at 22:20

Simply that the zombies are an after-effect of the of a massive, multi-spectrum, coordinated worldwide attack.

A few zombies appearing in the modern 1st world would be quickly dealt with, as plenty of individuals have a “zombie plan” and local and national government resources could fairly easily handle small outbreaks, and they have a vested interest in preserving themselves. This might becomes a problem in 3rd and 2nd world where governments might not have as many resources available, but maybe not, I'm not familiar enough to comment.

I don’t believe that if it could reasonably happen if it was “just zombies” like the ones you described. They are simply put too vulnerable to things normal humans are (ex being perforated multiple times by a machine gun), and poses none of the advantages (cant effectively use tools). Even a slap-dash effort against them can be effective. The problem is there’s too much ability and too many resources for a coordinated, swift, response.

Enter “The Attack;” a massive event orchestrated by parties’ unknown that distracts or otherwise absorbs all the resources that would otherwise be devoted towards the zombies. The spreading of the zombies can even be a part of “The Attack.” If the news is covering all the falling chunks of the moon, and countries are flinging nukes around to deal with invading demons, deadly diseases are purposely released on population centers, and earthquakes and other natural disasters wrack large areas then a few zombies cropping up here and there will probably be missed… and the longer zombies are ignored the bigger of an issue they become.

In the “The Attack” scenario you give the zombies the boost they need by distracting and draining the resources that would otherwise be devoted against them, allowing you’re fairly vanilla threat to spread until it’s unmanageable.

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Let's keep talking about this in chat. – QPaysTaxes Mar 9 at 21:43
@QPaysTaxes sorry, cant make it there, company network is denying it – Marky Mar 9 at 21:48
That's... odd. Well, it's better to keep long discussions out of comments, so it'll be there when you're available. – QPaysTaxes Mar 9 at 21:48

The biggest issue with your plan is "...they eventually die of starvation or thirst if they can't find anything to eat or drink." If you remove that your zombies stand a chance.

The issue with starvation is that it makes the zombies part of an ecosystem. Zombies cannot exist without a supply of non-zombie foodstuffs or they die. This means there are non-zombies around to feed from. We are far more dense, population wise, than can be supported without a tremendous network of food shipments.

The traditional zombie tends not to be dependent on foodstuffs, so their numbers accumulate as people become zombies. They certainly do seem to enjoy tearing people apart and either eating them or messily pretending they're eating them in front of cameras because you couldn't pay them enough to swallow the sfx gore!

The terrifying part of zombie films is that, while any one zombie might be easily dispatched, zombiekind is virtually impossible to annihilate, and it is negatively affecting humans, preventing coexistence.

As Chris G points out, infectious transmission can help make these zombies a reality, especially if they don't starve fast.

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"eventually" may be after a very long periode of time -- tens of years perhaps. – Clearer Apr 3 at 13:00

It is an interesting question because I just had a small discussion about how long humans would last in a world that falls apart. Your question is about the zombies, my reply focuses on the humans.

Here are a few considerations.

In the Netherlands where I live we don't have easy access to firearms. We depend on the police and armed forces to protect us. So if the police and army can't cope because they are spread to thin, who is going to protect us? People might perhaps resort to tools converted to melee weapons, but fighting up close with a relentless zombie is something few would be able to do, especially if it happens to be someone you knew or even loved.

Another consideration is our food and fuel supply. Most of the supermarkets are stocked on a daily basis. This system will likely break down early on. What food is left will not last long, most of it will have gone bad after a month. So it is likely that in a months time famine will be a common thing weakening survivors and hit double hard because we are not used to hunger.

Now imagine a world where you lack food. What could you do? You could try and grow your own. And where would you do that? On large open fields that are hard to defend against roaming zombie groups.

This breakdown will hit the health services, the water supply and the sewer system too. All these common services break down if not regularly maintained. Add to it corpses littering the street(and the water supply and sewers!) and disease will be much more common. And we in the west aren't used to illness.

Then next we will suffer from the lack of energy. In the winter we would be dependent on wood and such to keep us warm. But our country is mostly deforested. So next to hunger, illness we will be exposed to cold and rain.

Even worse for my country is that we are dependent on a well operated draining system. If the water isn't pumped out on a regular basis it will rise several meters and flood a sizable part of the country. I think some country might also be dependent on such services that we aren't aware of but are crucial.

When food, clean water, medicine, fuel are in sort supply what usually happens is that they become very expensive and eventually people want to control these and thus eventually start to fight over it. Hence the best ally for the zombies would actually be humans fighting among each other over the scarce resources.

The zombies will not need to not win in open combat. They win because their presence makes it harder to get the things people need to live simply by being there. And the humans take care of the rest. :P

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Very good first answer, and I like how you decided to be specific and precise instead of general and vague. Many thanks for the good answer! – QPaysTaxes Mar 10 at 19:37
Fishing, hunting and gathering are skills most people can learn very quickly and a lot of people already know, even in western societies. About 3% of the population in DK are registered hunters and a lot more have basic fishing skills. I estimate there are about 1 long firearm per 5 or 10 people, here -- most in rural areas which are less likely to be infected. Then there are the illegal guns and the ones still in the shops -- my local gun shop probably has a few hundred guns lying around. Fishing becomes easy once you know how to make a fishtrap; you don't even have to stay. – Clearer Apr 3 at 13:14

There's a point of critical mass beyond which the thin blue line turns into a thin brown streak, the police know this, "policing by consent" as we have in the UK often depends on people not working this out, it's well known that very few of our coppers are armed. This applies to normal people, never mind zombies. If you release a zombie into the morning rush hour crowds at Oxford Circus, it's all over. You've passed critical mass in minutes, the city is as good as lost. I'm sure there's an equivalent point in every western city, somewhere people can barely move except with the flow of the crowds.

With respect to getting the army in: Our army is in Germany. It's a long story but the army never left Germany after WWII. What's not in Germany is in Salisbury Plain. By the time either of these groups gets to a big city there probably won't be any survivors to speak of, by the time they manage to get over their years of training to shoot at people who are ostensibly civilians, they're going to have a good few casualties of their own and now they have to shoot their friends. Also there aren't actually all that many of them compared to the 60 million zombies wandering around and they're certainly not carrying that much ammo.

Infrastructure will collapse due to lack of maintenance and power, it could be brought back up with suitable expertise but that's going to take a while.

In terms of most places being empty of life, this may or may not be true. You could have a Chernobyl/Pripyat situation where nature takes over. The animals run wild, dogs and cats revert to being hunters, the wolves and wild boar move back in, the cows run wild. These animals would have no trouble evading a pack of slow moving human hunters in the wild. Is the zombie plague infectious to animals? If a pack of feral dogs started bringing down zombies for meat would they be affected? How long would it take cougars/leopards/lions/tigers/wolves/wild dogs/hyenas to start chowing down on this slow moving meat with no survival instincts? If they're unaffected then you'd get a massive global surge in predator numbers and they're going to consider people to be food. How's that for making travel dangerous.

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Most wild animals probably wouldn't eat rotten zombie meat. – Clearer Mar 10 at 10:47
@Clearer, crocodiles can and will eat anything, but they're special. From the specifics here it doesn't sound like they're actually rotten while still ambulatory. – Separatrix Mar 10 at 10:51
Hence "most" and "rotten". There are certainly other creatures besides crocodiles who will eat rotten meat and I'm certain a lot of creatures who won't normally do so, will resort to eating rotten meat if there's nothing else available. – Clearer Mar 10 at 10:58
Whoops, I meant "empty of human life". I'm editing the question to fix that. – QPaysTaxes Mar 10 at 17:27

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