What Is A Zombie Apocalypse?

10 Jun

I sat down today intending to write an article on the different ways a zombie apocalypse could come to an end, but almost immediately I ran into a problem: before I could consider how it would end, I’d first need to know what exactly what I was talking about when I said a ‘zombie apocalypse’. As I thought about this, I realised that even though I commonly use the phrase, I’d never come cross a definition of what a zombie apocalypse actually is. So, in this post, I’m going to try to come up with some sort of definition.

One Zombie Does Not An Apocalypse Make: The first thing to sort out is whether all occurrences of zombies are indicative of a zombie apocalypse, and I think the answer here is a resounding no. If you only have a single zombie or small groups of them then, while it might be scary, it’s not an apocalyptic event. For a zombie event to be apocalyptic, it needs to involve a large number of undead, shambling around, or, if you’re into the more modern zombies, running.

Contagion: The second thing to consider is how the number of zombies changes over time. If zombies are just the dead risen and walking around, but normal people are not turned in them, then I would argue it’s not an apocalyptic event. This is because it can only become a truly apocalyptic event if it spreads through the human population, bringing civilisation to its knees as it does so. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be an infectious disease, though, instead it could be caused by some sort of environmental contamination that increasing numbers of people become exposed to over time. This means that uncontrolled growth in the number of zombies over time is an important characteristic of a full-blown zombie apocalypse. This is number five of my phases of a zombie apocalypse.

Location: I think the third thing that is needed for something to be considered a zombie apocalypse is where the zombies are found. Just as zombie-ism has to spread to more and more people for it to be apocalyptic, it also needs to spread geographically as well. This means it can’t be something that’s contained in a single place.

In these three characteristics, we have the basis of a definition of a zombie apocalypse: it must affect a large number of people across many locations and there must be an uncontrolled increase in the number of zombies over time.

Based on this definition, some zombie events, such as that seen in Dawn of the Dead, are apocalyptic right from the start. This is because they start with many people all becoming zombies at the same time. However, others, while they may become them, don’t start out as apocalypses. Instead, they start as more limited events that develop into apocalyptic ones because we can’t get them under control. For example, in World War Z (well, in the book at any rate), the zombie outbreak starts in China with a single village. At this stage it’s not a necessarily an apocalyptic event. This is because it’s confined to a small group of people in a single location. Instead, it only grows to become a zombie apocalypse once it starts to spread in an uncontrolled manner through the human population and out to other locations.

When dealing with non-apocalyptic zombie events, if sufficient measures can be taken fast enough (such as containment, vaccination or treatment), it’s possible to prevent them turning apocalyptic. Indeed, attempting to stop a zombie event turning apocalyptic is often a key element of zombie fiction. For example, in The Crazies, the entire premise of the movie is the attempt by the authorities to contain an outbreak of a disease that it causing people in a single small town to go mad and start attacking each other. Thus, we arrive at the situation where we have to accept that not all zombie events are necessarily apocalyptic, although most may well develop into one if they are not properly controlled.

Of course, this is all academic, and if you’re being chased down the street by a pack of slavering zombies, it’s not going to matter to you whether the zombie event you find yourself suddenly thrust into is apocalyptic or not. Instead, all you’re going to care about is staying alive!


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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2 Responses to “What Is A Zombie Apocalypse?”

  1. Jack Flacco 10/06/2013 at 15:32 #

    Hurray, Colin! Great post 🙂 And you mentioned one of my fav movies, The Crazies!

    You know, disease-laden zombie apocalypses are the staple item nowadays. Gone are the days when zombies roamed the earth from their graves due to unknown and unexplained supernatural phenomena. One thing’s for sure, it’s keeping everyone busy in Hollywood! I just hope this craze doesn’t die soon and the vampires take over again. Alas, more than likely it will happen again (a vampire takeover), but the zombie will live again. For now, let’s enjoy the zombie apocalypse sweeping the media!

    • cmdrysdale 10/06/2013 at 15:57 #

      Yeah, I think a combination of 28 Days Later and World War Z really changed the game for the zombie genre from the dead driven from their graves by something supernatural to the whole disease-ridden corpses thing. I wonder if this represents a shift towards people wanting a more scientific explanation for zombies rather than a spiritual/quasi-religious one? Either way, it shows that zombies have adapted and changed to remain current more than 40 years after the birth of their modern form.

      In terms of Hollywood, I think the zombies will be around for a while, and I don’t think we’ll see vampires re-emerging until someone can come up with something new, and I suspect a bit more intelligent, than the current Young Adult type stuff that’s all the rage.

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