The Walking Stupid

"Brains!"

Spoilers everywhere!

A couple of my wife’s grad students put me onto The Walking Dead, an AMC TV show* about a small town sheriff’s deputy who is badly wounded in a shootout, falls into a coma, and then wakes up in a world overrun with zombies. Eventually, he joins and quickly assumes leadership of a rag-tag, ethnically diverse band of survivors — although as of the end of season one, I think they’re all out of black and brown people.

This rant is based on watching the first season on Netflix. Let me just say, from the outset, that I found this show utterly compelling despite all the complaints that follow. It’s very well-made, well-cast, well-acted, and the story works well (too well sometimes) at an emotional level. It’s also possibly most intensely gory thing I have ever seen (and I’m a Cronenberg fan), but hey, it’s a zombie story.

Note: right now AMC is responsible for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead which, by my count, puts it ahead of HBO in terms of compelling original content for the moment.

What is it with zombies?

The world of The Walking Dead is, as far as we can tell at the end of season one, pretty much completely overrun. In the course of the first season the survivors have never picked up a radio transmission from anyone else. The thing that bugs me more and more as the series progresses is just how stupid absolutely everyone had to have been in order for the characters to: (a) have gotten into their predicament, (b) be in their predicament, and (c) remain in their predicament. It particularly bugs me because I find the story so compelling and like many of the characters so much and I feel sad when they die, and yet their problems could so easily have been avoided, mitigated, or solved.

The zombies in The Walking Dead, like zombies in general, defy the laws of physics. As far as we can tell, they can operate on virtually no sustenance for ridiculously long periods of time, and have superhuman strength. (The former fact prevents the human race from taking the obvious approach of waiting them out.) But zombies are slow, unperceptive, and stupid. (They can’t operate vehicles or heavy machinery or use weapons — they can, however, turn doorknobs. Ominously.) It seems that zombies are created by humans being “infected”, generally by being bitten by another zombie. (Reading ahead in the Wikipedia article on the graphic novels on which the series is based, this seems to be at least slightly incorrect, but the actual vector has not been revealed.) Whatever the cause of the zombie plague, it doesn’t appear to be terribly contagious, and it’s not like someone is going to transform from healthy human to zombie fast enough to catch anyone by surprise (a corpse can come back to life in as little as three minutes, we discover in the final episode the end of season one).

So, how the heck did this get out of hand?

  • Only dead people become zombies. Until you’re dead, you’re not turning into a zombie. (I suppose it could have infected some living people originally but everyone still alive is immune. But there’s zero evidence for this.)
  • Zombies are easily identified (e.g. they can’t talk); all the zombies we’ve seen so far look gross, but that may have to do with how they died; perhaps early on some zombies looked OK.
  • Zombies are slow moving (again, their weird gaits may be an artifact of how they died, but they don’t seem to move like living people)
  • Zombies can’t use tools or drive vehicles
  • Zombies are easy to cripple, but it requires a hit on the brainstem to “kill” them; assuming the characters live in a world without zombie fiction they may not have known, initially, that you need to hit the brain stem, but it seems like a pretty obvious thing to try, and zombies are easy targets. So it’s simply implausible to imagine trained soldiers with military gear having any real trouble with them.
  • Zombies appear to be a lot stronger than people (but it’s TV/comics so strength varies with situation) — still let’s assume they’re pretty damn strong

The cliche, of course, is that zombies shuffle around, arms outstretched, rasping the word “Brains!” But in The Walking Dead, the zombies say nothing, and it’s the living who desperately need brains.

What happened to the police?

Over and over we see cases where people supposedly made a heroic last stand against apparently overwhelming numbers of zombies. I don’t get it. As of 2006, according to answers.com, there were just under 700,000 police officers in the USA. Assuming the police aren’t immediately turned into zombies that’s 700,000 people sworn to uphold and protect, and carrying around — let’s be conservative — one fully loaded pistol, at least one spare clip of ammo, a shotgun (with extra ammo), and probably a rifle (with extra ammo) each. (Incidentally, I did a little research indicates that when you buy a Glock it comes with four clips each holding 15 rounds, many police in the US are being issued AR-15s, typically with two 30 round magazines.) We can conservatively call this 120 rounds of ammo per police officer. That’s 84,000,000 rounds of ammo being carried around by police officers on a daily basis. Now, zombies move slow and don’t shoot back — they’re basically slow moving target practice. So let’s assume 2-3 rounds per zombie. That’s enough ammo to deal with over 20 million zombies with no advance warning or preparation.

And the well-regulated militia?

Now assuming that the police didn’t have to deal with more than twenty million zombies without any warning, there’s the extra ammo in the trunks of their police cruisers, back at the stations, firing ranges, homes, Wal-marts, sporting goods stores, outdoor centers, and so forth. That’s in addition to the heavily armed populace (especially in the South where the story takes place), national guard, and army (much of which is housed in Southern states). Now, if I heard one whiff of zombie apocalypse news I’m heading to my local sporting goods store and getting some guns and a ton of ammo, and in the US there’s a lot to go around. I might add we have a couple months supply of barely edible emergency rations at home just in case of natural disaster along with, conservatively, another couple of week’s supply of food in the pantry and the house is pretty defensible (good lines of sight all round). So exactly how did the national guard and police protecting the CDC get overwhelmed? And how did it get to that in the first place?

Bear in mind, the zombie apocalypse didn’t come with zero warning. (We know this from flashbacks and discussions of what happened between characters.) Some people were caught unaware, but presumably the majority of the police had some warning and thus some time to get more ammo before “SHTF”. So, again, exactly how did the police and military run out of ammo? Bear in mind that guns are really easy to shoot people with if they’re shuffling slowly towards you and you’re not afraid of them shooting back. (I learned about The Walking Dead when we were at paintball — my first time ever — and from a marksmanship point of view I would have no problem head-shotting zombies from a safe distance with a weapon as woefully inaccurate as a rented paintball gun.)

And something that didn’t really strike me until I lived here, but the South is a freaking disaster area. It is subject to regular tornadoes, hurricanes, horrific thunderstorms (if you’ve never seen “blinding rain” you’ve never lived here), and — in winter — ice storms. (Actually it’s still Autumn and we just had a minor ice storm yesterday.) A lot of people here prepare for the worst as a matter of course. After the tornado hit Tuscaloosa earlier this year and caused lots of power outages, the nearest Costco had diesel generators stacked to the ceiling, and sold them all very quickly.

And the easily fortified buildings?

Then there’s the buildings that can easily be secured against physical assault by non-tool-using zombies, like stadiums, banks, post offices, armories, hospitals, jeweler’s stores, high-end apartment buildings, mansions on private islands. Sucks they all got taken out. Then there’s those facilities that have guards, concrete walls, and barbed wire fences surrounding them. You know, like nuclear reactors, and important military bases. How did the zombies take them out? (Consider air force bases in the middle of deserts — relatively isolated, strong active and passive defenses, excellent communications, on-base medical facilities, and lots of weapons and supplies. Exactly how did all of these get taken out?) And bear in mind many military bases house the families of the soldiers on-base or nearby, so there’s not even the “I’m gonna go get myself killed heroically rescuing my loved ones” excuse.

And the folks with armored vehicles?

How do guys in tanks get turned into zombies? Seriously. If it gets that bad, don’t you close the hatch and shoot yourself? I mean really. But hey, wouldn’t you have kept enough fuel in the tank to drive out of town? Or did you maybe let your buddy siphon off your tank so he could try to find his girlfriend in the worst hit part of town? I guess every tank had some guy with a girlfriend in the worst part of town who needed their emergency reserve gas.

An M3 Bradley — we see a lot of them abandoned near heroic last stands — has an operational range of 250-300 miles (it gets about 1.5 miles per gallon) and carries 1500 rounds of machine-gun ammo (did you know machine-guns can fire single shots?). That’s a lot of zombies you can shoot and run over before driving to safety. (I have this vision of a tank crew circling a gas station and leveling all the buildings and flattening all the zombies before rolling up to a pump to refuel.) Remember they move slow and don’t shoot back. Seriously, how did these guys die?

Oh and there’s the abandoned helicopters. You know where helicopters ran out of fuel during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975? Not in downtown Saigon. So many helicopters were landing on the carriers that they were pushing them overboard to make room for more to land. If you have a helicopter and you know how to fly and you’re not an imbecile, your helicopter is not going to be found in the aftermath of a heroic last stand. But maybe you siphoned off the gas for your buddy whose girlfriend was in the worst hit area. That’s the ticket. (Of course some of those helicopters must have inadvertently carried zombies onto warships. Oops!)

And the navy?

Boy, it sure was tough defending nuclear powered aircraft carriers from the zombies. Those last desperate broadcasts from the bridge of the Nimitz as the surviving crew, equipped only with the pitiful weapons available (you know, assault rifles and stuff), struggled to survive as their zombie shipmates beat through metal hatches — designed to stop seawater sinking the ship in case of a hull breach — using, we assume, their heads was awful. Or maybe they starved to death. Whatever. Let’s not even get into the tragic deaths of nuclear submarine crews. Sad, sad times.

And our plans to deal with global thermonuclear war?

We’ll just ignore all the precautions we took against all-out thermonuclear war, like Cheyenne Mountain, designed to withstand direct hits from hydrogen bombs and keep out radioactive fallout. Somehow, the zombies got in. And don’t think too hard about people living on private islands, motor yachts, say. Sometimes you just need to go shopping, I guess. (Should I mention that the kinds of people most likely to live securely also have the best access to comms and independent sources of fuel and power? Shhhh.)

But, OK, somehow because mistakes were made early, often, repeatedly, and by everyone, the situation got totally out of control and then the police and military became demoralized and — OK I give up. Everyone died! Just accept it.

And our other fortified underground bunkers?

But now, the scientists in France and the US who were in fortified underground class 5 research facilities (where you need to wear a double-layered spacesuit in a negative pressure chamber protected by airlocks to do low risk experiments, and work in a glove box or using robotic arms to do high risk experiments) all died because of … power failures? Of course, they had to run out of diesel eventually (although France gets 80% of its electrical power from nuclear but shhhh.) After just a few months? And remember, this disease is not terribly contagious. You can blow a zombie’s brains out at point-blank range and be splashed with rotting gore, blood, and brain matter and not get infected. They could just have moved to the roof of a building to continue their research safely. But, OK, they’re all dead too.

Having survived all those mistakes, we’re still fucking stupid.

Oh, and the survivors’ communications systems suck. They have a total of two walky-talkies, no spare batteries, and don’t even think about satellite phones. (Did the zombies take out our satellites too? It was sure horrible hearing the screams on the International Space Station when a zombie somehow got onboard. Bastards!) Given that the US is awash in gadgets, including hand-cranked radios, solar battery chargers, batteries of all kinds, generators of all kinds, and cheap and extremely capable portable radios this is plain stupid.

The stupid runs deeper though. The ragtag band of survivors chooses, as its base of operations, a small clearing in a forest that can be approached from almost any direction without being seen. (There’s a guy who hangs out all day on top of his trailer, watching for trouble, but not at night.) Shockingly, zombies sneak up on them at night and kill several. Look guys — your enemy is stupid, slow, and restricted to walking (they’ll chin drag if you shoot off their limbs, but won’t choose to crawl for purposes of stealth). Find a place where you can limit approaches and see anyone coming and you won’t be taken by surprise. It’s not like the zombies know how to sneak or rappel down the sides of buildings. In an early episode, our heroes come across a group of survivors operating out of a nursing home in Atlanta, who have fortified their building with whatever materials came in handy such that it has only one entrance. (They’re doing fine, thanks — despite caring for all of the patients in a nursing home) It’s a shame the military, police, national guard, etc. didn’t try to physically barricade vital facilities and people like that, but who would think of such a clever idea? (Incidentally, standard tactics for urban warfare involves turning buses and trams into barricades to block roads.)

You could explain everything a lot more easily if the zombie contagion is much worse or more insidious than we think. It could be airborne. It could infect healthy people, kill them, and turn them into zombies. Initially, zombies might not look different from people — until they bite you. But if these things are true then either it’s a very low risk or our heroes would all be dead by now. And if it’s a very low risk, then it again doesn’t explain anything. OK, perhaps it’s something some people have a natural resistance to, but when you get bitten that natural resistance is overwhelmed. That means that initially aerosol transmission did happen a lot, but if so some people would (a) have remembered this happening, (b) mentioned it at some point, and (c) still be paranoid about it. Just for example, the underground labs full of scientists who devoted their last months to studying the disease but died having gotten nowhere and left no record of any such discoveries.

Oh well, maybe they’ll eventually bump into a group of survivors riding bicycles along interstates, each carrying a walky-talky, rechargeable batteries, solar cell, flare gun, and plenty of ammunition, and keeping in touch with the US Navy via satellite phone. Maybe everyone in Canada is just fine but they can’t be bothered helping the US.

Aaargh!

I’ll try to resist watching season 2.

  • Laure McElroy

    Oh thank heavens! So this means we’ll WIN the zombie apocalypse when it inevitably comes to pass, so I don’t have to be terrified anymore, so I can actually watch this show (which I keep hearing is great, I’ve just been too scared to watch). Thanks, party pooper guy!

  • David Bofinger

    It’s a classic dilemma – anything that takes down civilisation is likely to take down your band of plucky heroes as well. In a movie you get saved by suspension of disbelief and keeping the audience distracted, but in a TV series everyone has a long time to think about it and have negative refrigerator moments. John Wyndham’s The Triffids had a pretty good solution, the flashes made nearly everyone helpless while leaving them hungry and reservoirs for disease, then the triffids get out of control against the survivors. And all the threats are explained as probably artificial. I can’t think of anything better offhand. It helps to have something that makes it hard for large groups to work together, like in Spider Robinson’s Telempath.