I want to do something set in the first weeks of a zombie apocalypse. I am using a viral, slow, infinite energy, 24 hours or so transformation time, zombie model. So I want to know, if a zombie were created, or even 100, could a zombie apocalypse theoretically happen? Wouldn't the military work its way through? I am planning on doing it in a receding/increasing way, so first everything seems safe, and then a zombie is missed on the search and it manages to start again.

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    $\begingroup$ 'Biting' is a horribly inefficient transmission vector. It'd take some people...but as soon as folk figured out what was going on, it'd get shut down pretty quickly. Ref: cracked.com/… $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding :) Are your zombies visibly different from uninfected humans? I can imagine it spreading, maybe, if they stay looking human and remain intelligent with a drive to spread the infection. Knowing what intelligence level and appearance they have will help narrow down the answers. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ xkcd.com/734 $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ It's just really hard to explain. Your best answer is to think about "what started it" and go from there. For example if it's a chemical everyone in the town was exposed to that caused them all to turn, that might work. Again the threat would be short lived but at least you can explain a whole town being taken over. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ Do you know why we have hunting seasons? To stop our people from driving every species in the woods to extinction. If we put open season on everything for a year there would be nothing left to hunt. Now imagine a decaying zombie trying to eat people. We wouldn't need the military to nip this in the but: just put open season on the infected. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 17:55

4 Answers 4


The best way to do this is to make a differential equation and look at the result. Some people have done this before and it really isn't that difficult math. This paper does definitelly leave room for improvement. If you are learning differential equations or want to remember, I highly recommend trying to make a model that works for practice.

There is a probability of interaction between a zombie and human proportional to the number of zombies and humans in the close region.

For each interaction between a human and zombie, there is a probability of 1 human leaving (Ph for human wins), 1 zombie leaving (Pz for zombie wins), or 2 zombies leaving (Pc for conversion). This is dependant on alot of factors but lets say it is constant.

There is the potential for spontaneous birth and death but lets say that is negligible.

$$\frac{\partial Z}{\partial t} = CHZ(P_C-P_H)$$ $$\frac{\partial H}{\partial t} = CHZ(-P_Z-P_C)$$

As the probability for humans is only negative, it means that in short periods of time with any number zombies and humans, non-zero probabilities for conversion, and some interactions: Human will die from zombies. If the value of $P_C-P_H$ is negative, however, the number of zombies will decrease too. In most cases, this means that a small group of romero zombies would die out very quickly. In order for a zombie appocalypse to happen, you need some way to manipulate this such that $P_C>>P_H$ but not high enough such that all human die too quickly.

28 days later does this by increasing $P_C$ to high levels with vomiting blood and decreasing $P_H$ by setting it in largely gunless London. Walking dead does this by making everyone turn into zombies at any death to create a probability of spontaneous zombie / human conversion without invocing the $CHZ$ zombie human interaction parameter. This also effectively bypasses $P_H$.
If you look, i'm sure you can find a good way to do this too.

The best way to do this seems to be to innoculate the system. A massive number of zombies upfront will collapse society increasing the chance for victory for the zombies in each interaction (group zombie attacks and sickly underarmed humans). This is best done by adding incubation times, invisible carriers who spread it without other's knowing, or an environmental source which kills most upfront. This means that you can have $P_H>P_Z+P_C$ but have it look like a traditional zombie apocalypse.

You also realistically need to include the ability for sections of either group to isolate itself/group up as it increases the ability of the weaker to survive. Some implementation of birth/natural death/ human-human killings would improve it as well. I would also find it fun to include a cyclic "night time" in which zombies have the upperhand while humans do in the daytime.

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    $\begingroup$ "When simple mathematics answers a complex question, the mathematics is either ludicrously oversimplified, or a work of genius." $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Salmoncrusher where is the quote from? I agree with the concept. This is a very oversimplified model but helps define concepts that are hard to describe without it. A complete model is not needed to draw some informative conclusions. This math is the work of genius... in other fields haphazardly applied to a fictional scenario. $\endgroup$
    – kaine
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 15:59

Unfortunately, zombie apocalypse scenarios run into a big problem with zombie propagation. Kaine already gave the simple version of the equations but note that there's a big problem here: Either the number of zombies goes up--and the humans are soon wiped out, or the number of zombies goes down--and the zombies are soon wiped out. In neither case do you end up with a zombie apocalypse scenario.

Besides, the equations assume humans were stamped out by a cookie cutter. To end up with an apocalypse scenario you need to look at humans in a more complex fashion:

You have your average city dweller. Few have much combat capability, Ph will be low, Pc will be high. The zombie "virus" will spread through them like wildfire unless the infection cycle is too slow. For zombies like we saw in the World War Z movie you'll get near total conversion very quickly.

You have some combat-capable city dwellers. Unless they are lucky to realize what's up in time and find someplace zombie-proof to hole up they aren't going to fare better but they'll thin the herd a bit before going down. While their Ph is high they will face so many encounters the numbers will get them in the end.

Finally, you have the country dwellers. The population density is much lower which means prepared individuals won't have nearly the threat of being swarmed and both firearms and the skill to use them are much more widespread. The lower population density also means more time for a warning. Ph is high and they won't be swarmed.

This latter group is the only path I see to an apocalypse scenario. Much of the world becomes fully converted, the survivors are mostly farmers and ranchers.

There is also the approach used in John Ringo's zombie novels--the zombie virus piggy-backs on a flu virus. (Some lunatic's genetic engineering.) The flu spreads like flu always does (especially when the lunatic places dispensers in places like airports), the disease is pandemic before anyone realizes it's more than just a nasty strain of flu. With so many infected at the start society collapses before the government gets it's act together. Since his zombies aren't actually undead they don't meet the parameters you set out, though.

  • $\begingroup$ There's also Andrei Kruz novels where virus actually boosts one's immunity and in small doses is generally beneficial, except for side-effects in recently dead flesh. Disease becomes pandemic before anyone actually realises that there is a disease. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 19:04

Well with zombies you would need to shoot or hit them directly in their brain. Since they are undead creatures we can safely guess that a wound, even loss of limb wouldn’t stop them, they also wouldn’t burn easily. So for even a single zombie to go down, it would need to take a hit to the head. Granted they also wouldn’t recover from wounds but that’s it.


Zombies are stupid

Zombies are by nature extremely dumb creatures. Given time, folks will work out fairly reliable ways to herd zombies with noisemakers and spotlights (or, for style, disco balls). If this reminds you of the (as it turns out made up) story about lemmings, that was my point.

If significant parts of the world are relatively unaffected for long enough to develop a real plan, their militaries will be able to muster the resources to clear areas by (for example) having helicopters fly over an area with loudspeakers blaring, dangling live bait (cows, probably) which will build an enormous swarm following it right where you want it to go. When you've got the horde where you want it, just drop the bait, have the chopper speed up and leave - then shell the area, have snipers mop up remnants. Lather, rinse, repeat.

People in zombie fiction are also stupid

They never take any realistic steps that could staunch the bleeding. Layered defenses for the win. I won't belabor the points from that answer too much, but in general - the answer is no. There would not be a zombie apocalypse. The death toll would be almost unimaginable, but compartmentalization, travel lockdowns, and cleanup operations would be enough to keep everyone from dying.

A new world, compartmentalized

Zombies would probably never go away. Cities would have to be designed to account for zombie attacks. The goal is to prevent throngs of zombies from being able to overrun them by compartmentalizing damage. Roads would be closable in ways that block all traffic. Where possible buildings would contain few entrances at ground level, instead relying mostly on retractable staircases leading to the second floor.

Major arteries (such as today's expressways) would be at a lower level than the rest of the city, so they could be sealed off should it become necessary.

Damage would be catastrophic but not apocalyptic

Modern society relies on mass production machinery and the ability to move things around the world in days. Getting enough food into (say) Chicago without roads being clear would become a major challenge very quickly, because the supply chain would be depleted fairly rapidly.

And making new computers and cars and power tools would likewise be very hard. Modern assembly lines have precision tools that are used to make all this stuff. Without those tools, and the knowhow to make them, the ability to make complex machinery with interchangeable parts goes away.

Much of these capabilities reside in major metropolitan areas, the most likely to fall. But even if every major city fell, enough would still be left that people would be able to restart civilization. Tech might be set back quite far, but enough would remain usable for long enough to prevent people from forgetting how stuff used to work. And people will have (for instance) archival copies of Wikipedia. It is likely that tech levels would, in time, recover - significantly faster than we developed said tech originally.


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