I'm a big fan of zombie fiction, but one aspect that is rarely touched upon is how things look in the first stages of an apocalypse scenario. If you were an average civilian in the mid 90's when the internet and cell phones were far less ubiquitous than they are now, what would be the initial things you would see/read/hear that would indicate that something bad is on the horizon? The zombies in this scenario would be the fast type. A bite will turn you, but it's also the type of infection that turns you the moment you die, bite or not. A headshot is the only way to permanently take them down.

Would it be classmates/coworkers talking about seeing a psycho get shot by the police after rabidly biting people in the middle of the street?

Would it be a weird number of people at work or school not showing up?

Maybe a phone call (landline, of course) from your weird cousin saying that zombies are walking among us? You don't think anything of it until you get more calls from grandparents, then your uncle, then friends saying similar things.

Perhaps the CDC is on the TV and imploring people to stay in their houses, wash their hands, and wear masks when leaving the house?

Maybe you're driving to the supermarket and see a cop leaving the store with a bunch of water/food and a worried look on his face?

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    $\begingroup$ Lack of incubation period (as is often depicted) would make it easy to contain this outbreak. If it is obvious who is infected the moment they are infected then infected areas would be rapidly quarantined. $\endgroup$
    – Allan
    Jul 27 '21 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ For those who may be interested, Project Zomboid is a zombie game that takes place in 1993. In that game news abut the infection is told through radio and television. $\endgroup$
    – PausePause
    Jul 27 '21 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ I might have misread your question when I posted my answer - are you asking through what means someone might first learn of an impending zombie apocalypse (the channels of communication in the 90s)? Or are you asking only for what people might talk about or what actions might happen that could hint to a zombie apocalypse? (NOTE! The first question is on-topic, the second question is NOT, it's too story-based, having no way to judge a best answer.) $\endgroup$ Jul 27 '21 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ There would be emergency broadcast on radio and tv. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '21 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ See: The first 20 minutes of Shawn of the Dead. It's pretty much exactly this. $\endgroup$ Jul 29 '21 at 13:04

10 Answers 10


In 1991 in the United States we already had sensationalistic local TV news. In many American homes the TV operated constantly whenever anyone was home.

The first indication something was wrong would not be a carefully composed communication from the CDC or even the mayor. It would be when your local TV station broke into the regularly scheduled program to bring you a breathless report of murder and mayhem brought to you by a reporter standing with a microphone in front of yellow tape and flanked by police cars and ambulances with flashing lights.

There would be another interruption a few minutes later to report a second attack by a deranged person. At this point they probably would not go back to regularly scheduled programming and instead repeat everything and use the phrases "breaking news", "as it happens" and "here for you" a lot while waiting for further developments. People would start calling their friends telling them to turn their TV's on.

As attacks spread there would be talk of terrorism. They might assume that these were knife attacks. If word got out that these were bite attacks there would be on-air speculation as to what kind of weird terrorist resorts to biting people. By now news helicopters would be converging on the scene and covering the massive emergency response live from the air.

The public would be aware something bad was going on long before the authorities figured out that they were dealing with zombies. At that point they would activate the emergency alert system and might send police cars with loudspeakers to warn people. Later mayors and health officials would make statements, but they would be commenting on a situation about which most people had already known for several hours.


We used to read newspapers and watch the news.



June 5: The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) publishes an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR): Pneumocystis Pneumonia—Los Angeles. The article describes cases of a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia(PCP), in five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles...

June 5-6: The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle report on the MMWR article. Within days, CDC receives reports from around the nation of similar cases of PCP, KS, and other opportunistic infections among gay men...

The initial signs of a weird disease would come from the CDC and if spectacular enough, could be picked up by the popular press. This was the case for the initial cases of AIDS: reported by the CDC and then picked up by the LA times.

As regards a bigger deal like a swarm of zombies, we used to listen to the radio and watch TV. If something serious was happening everything would talk about it. When 9/11 happened in 2001 I turned on the radio to listen with breakfast and they were live, reporting on what was happening. After listening for a little while I went to the TV and there was live footage of the burning towers on every channel. I feel like the Dawn of the Dead remake did this very well, starting in a hospital emergency room as the main character is coming off of her shift, and people are talking about something weird happening.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you think it is likely that there will be attempts to downplay this virus by the government? For instance, even when it is known that those infected become violence, the government will still describe as just a dangerous flu or something of the sort? $\endgroup$
    – forgotenm
    Jul 27 '21 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Allan Citizens of those countries had learned to "read between the lines" :) For example, in 1991 in Soviet Union there was an attempted coup, and all regular newscasts were blocked and replaced with unscheduled recording of a ballet performance. Everyone immediately knew that something serious was going on. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 27 '21 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Allan same with Brazil in the times of the military dictatorship. Newspapers would replace censored articles with cake recipes (many of them bogus and completely inedible) and old poems to show people that the information that was supposed to be there was censored. And there is always underground press / pamphlets $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '21 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ @forgotenm Forget the government, a full 75% of the population will insist there is no virus. 50% as we see with COVID-19, and an additional 25% because zombies are pretty unbelievable. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Jul 28 '21 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ "We used to read newspapers and watch the news." Such an obvious answer... $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 30 '21 at 2:06

Shortwave Radio!

You know that weird dude that never leaves his house down the street with that gigantic antenna? That guy's more important than you think.

Ham radio operators, or amateur shortwave radio operators, are more than just hobbyists who stay up late at night chatting with other ham radio operators around the world. They're also part of an unofficial but better-organized-than-you-think network of emergency communications.

Amateur Radio operators set up and operate organized communication networks locally for governmental and emergency officials, as well as non-commercial communication for private citizens affected by the disaster. Amateur Radio operators are most likely to be active after disasters that damage regular lines of communications due to power outages and destruction of telephone, cellular and other infrastructure-dependent systems. ...

Amateur Radio operators have informal and formal groups to coordinate communication during emergencies. At the local level, hams may participate in local emergency organizations, or organize local "traffic nets" using VHF (very high frequencies) and UHF (ultra high frequencies). At the state level, hams are often involved with state emergency management operations. In addition, hams operate at the national level through the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), which is coordinated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and through the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), which is coordinated through the American Radio Relay League and its field volunteers. Many hams are also involved in Skywarn, operating under the National Weather Service and provide emergency weather information to the NWS for analysis and dissemination to the public. (Source, see also)

In the Internet era, it's easy to forget these important volunteer heroes. If a zombie apocalypse were imminent anywhere on the planet, you can bet every ham operator on the planet would know about it within 24-48 hours — and probably a whole lot less.

But would they be alone? Heck no!

Usenet and BBS services

You're in the 90s, and that means you're deep in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, PC gaming, AOL... and both Usenet and BBS.

Usenet (/ˈjuːznɛt/) is a worldwide distributed discussion system available on computers. It was developed from the general-purpose Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) dial-up network architecture. Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived the idea in 1979, and it was established in 1980. Users read and post messages (called articles or posts, and collectively termed news) to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. Usenet resembles a bulletin board system (BBS) in many respects and is the precursor to Internet forums that became widely used. Discussions are threaded, as with web forums and BBSs, though posts are stored on the server sequentially

Email today is not just ubiquitous, it's beginning to actually die out as people live their lives on their phones through social media. But in the early-to-mid 1990s, email was still very much the province of colleges, businesses, and the military. It wasn't that uncommon that people communicated more through Usenet than they did email. Whatever social media may be today, it can give its thanks to Usenet for creating the basic threaded conversation context.

But Usenet was a UNIX-oriented system, so you generally found more technically-oriented folks there. Where did the average high school teenager go? Dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs).

BBSes once numbered in the tens of thousands in North America. These mostly text-based, hobbyist-run services played a huge part in the online landscape of the 1980s and ‘90s. Anyone with a modem and a home computer could dial-in, often for free, and interact with other callers in their area code. (Source)

Organizations like America Online (AOL) were very much commercialized BBSs. But before they became popular, there were gazillions of grassroots BBSs that shared everything! But it was a somewhat short-lived fad (unlike Usenet, which is still going strong today).

Then the internet came along in the mid-1990s. Like a comet to the dinosaurs, it upended the natural order of things and wiped BBSes out. My system was one of the casualties, a victim of the desire to devote all my online time to the internet. The same scenario repeated itself on thousands of computers across the country until, one by one, the brightest lights of the BBS world blinked out of existence. (Ibid.)

There are still a handful of operating BBSs today, but it's a dying culture. But, believe me, those were the days!

And news of a possible zombie apocalypse can probably be found on any of these services right now.

But there's one more: the EBS

There's something you very, very, very rarely hear about today, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). I grew up regularly seeing and hearing tests like the one I just linked to.

The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), sometimes called the Emergency Broadcasting System or the Emergency Action Notification System (EANS), was an emergency warning system used in the United States. It replaced the previous CONELRAD system and was used from 1963 to 1997, at which point it was replaced by the Emergency Alert System. (Source)

The EBS has been replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which can (and does) operate through cellphones. The EBS was used more then 20,000 times (though never for anything big like a nuclear... or zombie... attack). The EBS would be the official way of hearing the announcement.

  • $\begingroup$ "email was still very much the province of colleges, businesses, and the military" It's still the province of colleges and businesses. A lot of official company/university correspondence goes through your company/university email account. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Jul 28 '21 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ For better or worse, a very US-centric answer. $\endgroup$ Jul 29 '21 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ @AhmedTawfik That's true. It's the only perspective I have to work with. The OP would be greatly benefited if you can expand to a greater worldview. Will you post an answer? Such an answer I'd gladly upvote. $\endgroup$ Jul 29 '21 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ There used to be ham radio operators all over the world---not just in the US. It was a very cosmopolitan hobby by its very nature, because a major attraction of that hobby was the excitement of communicating with someone halfway across the world, in some exotic place. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jul 30 '21 at 10:33

You may have remembered hearing headlines about COVID in China back in November 2019, and then slowly watched as it spread worldwide.

That's what it would be like.

Really, COVID was a great thing for zombie apocalypse writers - it provides an easy reference for how something can spread worldwide so quickly.

Sure, this might be in the '90s, but there was enough world-spanning media back then that you'd pick up on it at roughly the same rate.


The police car driving slowly down the street blaring an announcement

"Ladies and gentlemen, an emergency curfew is now in effect. Return to your homes immediately. Your lives are in danger. Lock your doors and windows. Do not open your doors to anybody exhibiting unusual behavior. Turn on your radio or TV for more information. All businesses are closed until further notice. All stores are closed until further notice. All members of the National Guard, report to your armory. All members of the Police Auxiliary, report to the precinct. Ladies and gentlemen..."

Of course, it's already too late. The few days spent denying the Zombie Plague --and infighting to downplay the severity-- before finally going public have given the Zombies too much time to spread.

Going public occurs during that brief interval of time when it's obvious to the Mayor that all hope of containment is lost (and that his or her career is over), but a day or two before the Zombies are numerous enough to be seen on every street.


We also had telephone trees, a way for a group of people to pass a message to mostly everyone. The more frequently used would be a local church's prayer request chain, but any organization could have one for things like cancelling a baseball game. Even when there were power outages, often the phone lines still worked.

Truckers did a lot of talking on CB radios and anyone can listen to those on walkie talkies. Also, it was common for people to have police scanners in their homes and leave them running all day and you could get very local information that way. You could also get absurdly bungled information due to catching only the last few words of something.


In a pre-industrial world, the signs may be:

  • suddenly not getting any travellers/trading visits to your village from a particular road/direction
  • rarely, a zombie wanders onto a farm and is killed by the farmer
  • scouts are sent out to investigate and return saying the next village over is deserted. Some don't return
  • more roads/directions go silent
  • more zombies start appearing
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, come on. The 90s might seem long ago to you but I'm not that old. $\endgroup$
    – 16807
    Jul 28 '21 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @16807 Maybe they interpreted the "90s" to not mean "the 1990s" but the "0090s"? I mean, the idea of using 2 digits to name decades has faded since 2000, so maybe Bohemian is a child of the millennium... $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Jul 29 '21 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ As long as we're going this far back, the first groups of refugees showing up on the road would usually be the earliest sign of a major FU (war, Viking raiders, zombies) in neighboring villages. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jul 30 '21 at 10:36

One major mechanism not yet mentioned is civil defense sirens and similar systems — national networks of sirens (or loudspeakers, alarm bells, or similar), set up in as many populated places as possible.

Different versions exist in different countries, but surprisingly many countries have some form of them. If they’re often little-known, it’s because they’re generally reserved for the most serious emergencies — direct military attacks, and similarly urgent crises. They’re designed so that when they sound, you know something serious is happening, even if you never knew they existed before. They may broadcast a message, or they may just be a massive siren, telling you that something serious is happening, prompting you to other sources to find out more — turn on the radio or TV, or equivalent. So, as an active alert mechanism, they complement the information-dissemination networks described in other answers.

Well-known examples are the air-raid sirens used in the second world war, and the tsunami warning systems set up in many countries since 2001. The one I know best is the Swedish Hesa Fredrik — huge sirens/loudspeakers set up on tall buildings in all neighbourhoods/villages around the country, tested on set dates, sounding like this.

Such systems have existed in roughly their current form since the early/mid 20th century. In earlier times, church bells were sometimes used similarly as warning alert signals for their communities, at least in Western Europe; I imagine other parts of the world had analogous traditions.


Look at Covid-19

There were news articles about it for weeks before it actually "hit" the US. First mostly-ignored report about some flu that sprang up because somebody ate a bat. Then (to people that were paying attention) somewhat ominous silence from Chinese media. Then a lockdown in china as cases started popping up elsewhere overseas. The first wave of lockdowns in my area started in February 2020, but there was increasing concern going back to November. Presumably a zombie virus would be somewhat similar, except that it's so much easier to track zombies (as opposed to a COVID-19 carrier) that the news would be more alarmed/focused early. Because "virus taht makes you eat people" is a lot more interesting than "1919 pandemic mk2."


Assuming that the press doesn't report it by breaking in to normal programming (presumably because they don't believe that such an event can possibly be occurring, or because the government has throttled the press) information like this would first begin to circulate by long-distance landline call, after which it would explode into wild person-to-person rumor. The reaction to those rumors would vary by person, and could become quite extreme.

For a semi-comic rendition of what that might look like, I would recommend the 1988 Anthony Edwards movie Miracle Mile. The movie is about a rumor of imminent nuclear war hitting Los Angeles, but it has a nice take on how hysteria might develop in a pre-internet era.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure the TV news will cover it no matter what. I have written an answer which expands on this idea. $\endgroup$
    – David42
    Jul 30 '21 at 15:57

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