December 22, 2012
Biotech Apocalypse Zombies Seem Easy To Stop

Seeing that there's a big zombie apocalypse fiction genre I decided to read one the zombie novels and I'm part way thru Apocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End. I've also managed to get thru the first episode of The Walking Dead TV show. Still reading and watching. But I've got an initial reaction: a bioengineered zombie-causing virus seems pretty easy to stop.

The human race doesn't seem lame enough to allow zombies to totally overrun civilization. Why would most people let themselves get bitten by slow-moving zombies? In both zombie stories I'm following one has to shoot the zombies in the head to stop them. Well, how hard is that? Really easy. Would we have a sufficient supply of guns? Yes, at least in America where there are about as many gun as there are people. That's without even bringing military guns into the count. My guess is there's some high ratio of bullets to guns. But for a substantial fraction of the zombies one wouldn't even need to use guns. Beheading would work. We wouldn't even need many people to operate the guns. A single sharp shooter could shoot a lot of zombies in the head. Plus, police and other people could wear gear that would make bites hard to deliver. In the Apocalypse Z story the main character (in Spain, so fewer guns available) dons a diving wet suit to make bites harder to deliver when he goes out to get a gun from a zombie soldier. Just locking your car door would hold them off.

A zombie virus infection would need to be able to travel airborne in order to infect a lot of people. Airborne zombie virus is harder to stop. But not impossible. We would just have to stay away from zombies. The key is to increase the distance between uninfected and zombies. First, lock all doors of all buildings. Second, erect lots of barriers that break cities and regions up into zones and make the barriers so formidable (with kill zone layers and sharp shooters who can kill zombies at a distance) that zombies can not get thru them. Third, require air filtration mask wearing.

In order for a zombie virus to spread widely it would need at least one of the following attributes:

  • Faster, smarter zombies. Far greater retention of cognitive ability and speed of movement among the infected. Otherwise they can't compete with the non-infected.
  • Really long incubation period. Probably measured in weeks.
  • Airborne transmission.

I do not think airborne transmission would be sufficient. I'm not sure about whether faster and smarter zombies would be sufficient. Probably in the most early infected communities this would work. But as the threat became more widely understood the smartness of the less numerous zombies would not be enough to allow them to succeed. We'd have a pretty brutal global civil war though.

Update: We'll be able to use UAVs to kill the zombies.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 December 22 08:11 PM 

Lyle said at December 23, 2012 6:01 AM:

In at least one of the stories, the "infection" was airborne, transmitted itself rapidly to everyone worldwide, and thereafter incubated until people had a natural death or were bitten. Natural deaths were the issue as half a million zombies appeared in the US alone in a 3-day period. Information was poorly disseminated at first and people thought bites alone were the transmission factor so they'd take sick grandma with them as they congregated. Then each day 200,000 zombies were naturally created (plus those they bit). In the first three weeks, ~3 million zombies were naturally created and those created another 20 million in an exponential fashion. Competition for resources led to panic, people shooting people (thereby unwittingly creating more zombies), etc., etc.

I found it an interesting transmission model.

David A. Young said at December 23, 2012 10:46 AM:

In "World War Z" one of the critical factors in letting the situation get out of control was that the various governments worked assiduously to keep the nature of the problem secret to prevent the populace from "panicking." This allowed the situation to get to a critical tipping point. I could definitely see governments reacting in that manner -- though I still agree that in America, at least, the problem would not rise to the level of civilizational collapse.

Randall Parker said at December 23, 2012 11:47 AM:


In the age of the internet that level of information control doesn't seem at all feasible. Too many medical doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, police, ambulance drivers, etc would take to the internet and describe what they are seeing. The world would know and rather quickly. People would upload videos to YouTube. The information would get out there and responses from all the learning would become very effective very quickly.

Lakeisha Mohomet said at December 23, 2012 11:56 AM:

Rather than taking the idea of zombies too literally, zombie appeal might be better seen as a type of metaphor for another sort of human that threatens to overrun the established order.

In Europe the zombies would be muslim and other primitive immigrants. Australia and New Zealand have both immigrant zombie groups and home-grown zombies. North America is a veritable zombie magnet.

The threat of being overrun eventually is real, but can be put out of mind and sublimated into a fictitious and unrealistic threat which can be laughed at and minimized.

All of the barroom, dorm room, and online chat time about surviving and killing zombies is simply a way of ignoring a phenomenon that is creeping up on you behind your back. Zombies are not massing in the banlieus or ghettos, raping your women or bullying your young boys. But zombies are more fun to discuss.

Randall Parker said at December 23, 2012 12:30 PM:


Yes, zombies are more fun to discuss than real problems. That's why I'm discussing zombies. I want to have a fun discussion. What about you? Fun or not?

Russ said at December 24, 2012 6:57 AM:

I agree that internet trumps "information control" in this case, because there's not a single crime-scene which can be bottled up and made "reporters only."

On the other hand, if bites are at all involved in transmission, then "zombie evolution" becomes inevitable -- those zombies which retain the most powerful characteristics post-mortem will by definition trend towards greater numbers of bites inflicted, barring being locked in a jail cell or "turning" after having suffered catastrophic physical damage.

Brett Bellmore said at December 24, 2012 8:51 AM:

A serious question has to be asked: Presumably the zombies are obeying the laws of physics, (Because otherwise, all bets are off.) and must run off the biological energy contained in the body, and any additional energy they can access. IOW, they can be starved to death. Assuming they don't have functioning circulatory systems, (They don't bleed to 'death' if injured, in any zombie movie I've seen.) they're limited to anaerobic metabolism in their muscles, so they'll 'starve' pretty quickly, too, especially if you can keep them moving.

Natural dead bodies decay, sometimes quite quickly. Obviously something is at least slowing this in the zombies, but there ought to be potential for biological warfare against them, selecting for decay organisms which can defeat the zombies' defense mechanism, and spreading them widely.

Randall Parker said at December 24, 2012 10:18 AM:


Blow their heads off with a shotgun and they won't bite anyone. If they get near enough pull out a Glock 23 .40 caliber 13 shot and empty it into their heads.

In most encounters with zombies will we come across them at such short distances that pistols would be preferred? I'm guessing most will be seen at such a distance that rifles with scopes will work better than shotguns or pistols.


Regardless of their metabolism if you shoot off their heads you'll be safe. Severe thigh damage would probably incapacitate them.

I'm thinking in case of a zombie apocalypse one should make one's way to an area with lots of hunters. They'll have the bullet supplies needed. Or a military base in a rural area.

Ideally, get yourself to a ship and then to an island that has no zombies. It would be good to kill all the zombies on Maui and then live there.

bmack500 said at December 25, 2012 2:40 AM:

Flamethrowers. Disinfect and kill in one swipe. Can't understand why nobody in the shows has done this - is it too common sense?

Easy to make, too.

Randall Parker said at December 25, 2012 11:01 AM:


Flame throwers: Excellent idea. There are just so many ways to stop zombies. I do not see how they could overrun civilization.

I think a pathogen with long incubation time, airborne and surface transmission, with fatal outcome would be much worse than zombies who have to bite you to kill you.

rob said at December 26, 2012 1:51 PM:

Flame throwers might not incapacitate zombies immediately. Zombies coming to eat you become flaming zombies coming to eat you. Chances are that lots of fires would start early in the zompacalypse even without using flamethrowers, and drive survivors to the countryside without much shelter or food. Then they become zombies. I'm hoping the WWZ movie covers the very early

I think a big part of how zombies could reach a critical mass is how long would it take to actually believe that there are really zombies, and only head shots work? For Walking Dead, (over)reaction probably made the problem worse. This is not much of a spoiler, but there was a flashback scene of soldiers shooting patients, and maybe nurses and doctors, in a hospital: well that just creates more zombies.

Randall Parker said at December 27, 2012 7:16 PM:


Ever seen flame thrower film clips? Some of them shoot pretty far. I'm having a hard time believing a zombie would get far once dowsed.

But it would make sense to mount the flame throwers on tanks and APCs so they can go into urban areas with enough fuel to clean out the major roads. What would cool about flame throwers from that perspective is that the flames wouldn't go as far and therefore would cause less damage to structures. Go thru the main roads and roast zombies. Sounds like fun.

Only head shots work: Well, 50 caliber machine guns will rip apart a body so thoroughly that walking up to a head to put a bullet in its brain would not be risky expect for possible meat spray.

What we would need to slow the spread of zombies has a big overlap (frame throwers and machine guns aside) with what we would need to do to stop any other highly lethal pandemic. We would need ways to separate out people and create isolation zones and buildings so that not as many get infected.

bmack500 said at January 5, 2013 2:58 AM:


But as soon as they are flamed their eyes would instantly boil. No vision, it'd certainly make it harder on them!

libfr33 said at January 20, 2013 4:07 PM:

Why a wetsuit? I'd put my motorcycle gear on. Try biting through Kevlar!

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