Once upon a time when someone floated the phrase ‘zombie apocalypse’, the mainstream masses who utter a collective “Huh?”, and then we zombie pop-culture geeks would have to explain. We’d reference Romero, maybe throw in a little Fulci (just so we seemed like we knew stuff), then explain the basic apocalyptic plague scenario. If this was a cocktail party and we were around ‘real people’ (as my redneck uncles used to call them), we might try and wow them with some cultural awareness by explaining the difference between Romero zombies and the creatures who are a cultural phenomenon of the Haitian religion of vodou. We would be snooty about it, too.

But that’s so ten years ago.

Now you hear ‘zombie apocalypse’ on Jeopardy. They use it on news programs to describe any potential panic situation. (I heard a stock market analyst squeeze it into an assessment of the dollar’s stability in the global currencies market. Seriously). The zombie apocalypse is known now, it’s a thing. You can say it and people get you.

But, what exactly is it and if it happened who would survive it?

I’ve cooked up a Zombie Apocalypse Survival Scorecard for ya. An earlier version of this was included in my nonfic book, Zombie CSU, but I’ve made a few necessary tweaks. So, next time someone mentions the zombie apocalypse, you can still dazzle them with your insider knowledge of how we’d fare as a species depending on what kind apocalypse came to bite us.

SLOW ZOMBIES RISING AS A RESULT OF A PLAGUE. This is the most common variation on the standard George Romero model, and it’s a far more plausible and practicable one. These zombies are the slow shufflers. They have very little brain function; they have poor balance; they fear fire; it takes a headshot to bring them done.

  • POTENTIAL FOR GLOBAL PANDEMIC: Very high, but it would follow well-established epidemic spread patterns beginning with a Patient Zero and then increasing exponentially. Each vector would have the potential for unlimited contamination of human victims; each victim would become a disease vector upon reviving from human death.
  • LIMITS TO DISEASE SPREAD: Depending on where the infection begins, the spread of disease may be easily containable. If the disease begins spreading in a small town there is the possibility of quarantine and purification (read: nuking the crap out of the town). However, in my new novel, Dead Of Night, controlling the spread of the disease is hampered by a supercell storm system. Imagine what would have happened if the zombie outbreak occurred during or directly after something like Hurricane Katrina? Oh, wait … Joe McKinney wrote a whole series of novels that explored that (start with Dead City and roll up to Flesh Eaters, which was just nominated for the Bram Stoker Award!)
  • LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESSFUL HUMAN OPPOSITION: Humans are smarter, faster, capable of using technology, and the possess the ability to share information and form cooperative resistance. (Though in the movies they fail miserably at all of this so the movie zoms can ultimately win. Though this was a brilliant if cynical view put forward by Romero in Dawn and Day, the apocalypse-due-to-petty-humans theme has been way overused.) Considering the efficiency of military and local law enforcement, and the sophistication of their weapons and tactics, there is a solid chance that we would stay ahead of the undead tsunami and eventually win. Based on the information from my experts I give humanity a survival likelihood of 85-95%.
  • LIKELIHOOD THAT WE’RE HAPPY MEALS FOR ZOMBIES: A lot of things would have to go wrong, more than just pettiness and in-fighting, for us to screw the pooch so badly that we’d all become dinner for the dead.

SLOW ZOMBIES RISING AS A RESULT OF TOXIC CONTAMINATION: A number of films, with both slow and fast zombies, play the toxic spill card, as shown in films like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, The Grapes of Death, and Toxic Zombie,

  • POTENTIAL FOR GLOBAL PANDEMIC: The severity of the outbreak depends on the number of people initially contaminated. If something gets into the water or major food source of a large population, then the outbreak could spin out of control.
  • LIMITS TO DISEASE SPREAD: Very little except that beyond the initial contamination of one or more Patient Zeroes the disease would spread by one-to-one bite attacks.
  • LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESSFUL HUMAN OPPOSITION: Even if an entire city is infected there would be slow-down points, such as bridges, tunnels, rivers, mountains, etc. Each of these could be used as a combat zone for hard-fire elimination of the infected. If more than a 5% population of a large city becomes simultaneously contaminated then the military would need to use nuclear (or nuclear equivalent) weapons in order to sterilize large geographic sections. Continental survival following a 5%-plus infection would be 50-50. Oceans would stop the global spread. If, however, the toxic contamination affects a very small group (such as the staff at a toxic dump site or the population of a small and/or moderately isolated town) then our chances of survival jump to 95% or better. In either cases there will likely be a high percentage of non-infected fatalities during the sterilization process.

SLOW ZOMBIES RISING AS A RESULT OF UNEXPLAINED RADIATION. This results in all of the recently deceased coming back to life. This is the classic George A. Romero Night of the Living Dead scenario. These zombies are the slow shufflers. They have very little brain function; they have poor balance; they fear fire; it takes a headshot to bring them done.

  • LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESSFUL HUMAN OPPOSITION: Zero, except in isolated pockets.
  • LIKELIHOOD THAT WE’RE HAPPY MEALS FOR ZOMBIES: Virtually 100%. For storytellers interested in spinning a truly apocalyptic zombie story then the classic Night scenario is the way to go. But it’s so completely unwinnable as to almost inspire a ‘who cares?’ response. In the later Romero films he subtly backed off from this stance. It may still have been part of his mythology, but he didn’t belabor the point, or even raise it again as it negates the point of all resistance. Everyone dies, therefore everyone will become a zombie … whether now or in forty years, so what’s the point of fighting for survival. It would be the same as taking a week’s worth of food and locking yourself in a radiation-proof room during a worldwide nuclear war: sure, you’d survive for a week, but so what? The futility of this was eloquently explored in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend; but even here the author relents from total fatalism by providing a new ‘humanity’ to inherit the earth once the original tenants have all been evicted. When writing the script for Night Romero was undoubtedly not thinking of launching either a franchise or a genre, and from a creative standpoint the “all recent dead rise” mythology painted him into a corner. In the following films he concentrated more on the spread-through-bite theme, which allows for a great deal of creative freedom and flexibility.

FAST ZOMBIES RISING BECAUSE OF A PLAGUE. This is the premise of the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Something starts the plague and it spreads very, very fast. Victims who die as a result of bites reanimate within seconds.

  • POTENTIAL FOR GLOBAL PANDEMIC: Less likely than shown in the movie unless a lot of folks with bites suddenly hop onto airplanes to visit foreign countries. Once the disease becomes known in one country the governments of neighboring countries would immediately start pointing missiles and very likely pressing buttons. If things got out of hand it would be a race to see whether the plague or radioactive fallout would claim the most lives.
  • LIMITS TO DISEASE SPREAD: Most likely it would become an overwhelming disaster within the confines of connected continents. North and South America would fall within days or weeks if the infection starts there. Same with Australia. Since Europe and Asia are connected by shared borders any plague that starts there would consume that land mass.
  • LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESSFUL HUMAN OPPOSITION: Slim to none. The disease spreads too fast to allow reaction, study, preparation and response. It’s the same nihilistic view as the radiation raising all the dead, and from the storytelling point of view there is one story to tell. At best you can try for episodic survivor tales, but that’s it.
  • LIKELIHOOD THAT WE’RE HAPPY MEALS FOR ZOMBIES: There are two views on this. If you stick to the mythology as shown in the Dawn remake, then yeah, we’re toast; but since the disease in that film doesn’t operate the way any disease is likely to act, then we probably have a shot. No matter how virulent and aggressive a disease is there has to be time for it to spread through the bloodstream. The thought that an infected person reanimates after hours or days is plausible; and the fact that they reanimate quickly makes some degree of sense, especially in justifying why they are fast and more coordinated: they are not in rigor yet and they’ve suffered significantly less damage to the brain. Fewer brain cells have died and therefore more of their motor cortex is working even if cognition is diminished. But the thought that a person who is bitten to death immediately reanimates and as a completely infectious vector is less likely. If they die from a bite to the throat (as does Anna’s husband in Dawn) and bleeds out from a torn artery, there won’t have been time for the disease to have taken hold throughout the entire body. The mouth won’t yet contain a sufficient (if any) amount of the pathogen to make them an instant carrier for the disease. So, the whole scenario where the disease spreads out of control and everyone immediately becomes a murderous zombie doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Makes a helluva movie, though.

FAST, THINKING ZOMBIES RISING BECAUSE OF A GOVERNMENT EXPERIMENT GONE WRONG. This is the Return of the Living Dead model, and it has other tweaks on the model. The infected die over a period of a few hours and then reanimate as fully cognizant zombies. They can think, talk, strategies and work cooperatively. They also have a desire to eat only human brains, and their own bodies are remarkably difficult to kill. Even severed limbs are active, as if every cell in the body has become a separate being. How this works with an arm detached from the central nervous system, not to mention the supportive and cooperative structures of the rest of the shoulder’s tendons and bones, is a bit hard to explain (which is why even as a kid I always thought that films like The Crawling Hand were just plain silly).

  • POTENTIAL FOR GLOBAL PANDEMIC: If we accept the mythology in its entirety, then the spread of the disease begins as a standard one-to-one outbreak with pandemic potential; but when we add to this a deliberate and hostile intelligence then it becomes a battle on the level of ethnic genocide.
  • LIMITS TO DISEASE SPREAD: Whomever has the best weapons will win; but with an enemy that can never be completely destroyed (even ash from incineration is a contaminate), there is no foreseen limit to the spread of the disease.
  • LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESSFUL HUMAN OPPOSITION: Unless it starts on an island or in some place that can be contained without using incineration (and that depends on how fast we can erect a fifty-foot high concrete wall around an entire town), then our chances of stopping it would be very small.
  • LIKELIHOOD THAT WE’RE HAPPY MEALS FOR ZOMBIES: Might as well cover yourself in steak-sauce and get right with Jesus.

FAST HUMAN ZOMBIES RISING BECAUSE OF A VIRUS. This was the model used in George A. Romero’s The Crazies (and its remake) and 28 Days Later. An event (a government experiment gone wrong in Crazies and a rage virus accidentally released in 28). The infected humans, especially in recent films, are incapable of controlled or rational thought and are, for all intents and purposes, fast zombies -even if they are technically alive.

  • POTENTIAL FOR GLOBAL PANDEMIC: Like Dawn the premise requires that we accept that infection spreads instantly and completely through the entire body within seconds of contamination.
  • LIMITS TO DISEASE SPREAD: While this premise is frightening, it’s unlikely. More likely the process would take hours during which the infected would experience a decrease in rational behavior and an increase in hostility. Triage and quarantine would come later once order is restored.
  • LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESSFUL HUMAN OPPOSITION: Since the disease would have to have a lag time of a few hours this would likely spin out of control for a while and then it would smash into the kinds of disaster-response protocols that all governments have in place. Losses would be high, and among them would be many uninfected who would be killed because the initial military responses would have to take a big-picture view of containment.
  • LIKELIHOOD THAT WE’RE HAPPY MEALS FOR ZOMBIES: If things were handled with the lack of military efficiency shown in the movies, then the whole world would go down in less than a year, except for isolated islands and fortified pockets. But I doubt that any military would crumble as easily as the occupying U.S. military does in 28 Weeks Later. A buddy of mine, Captain Dick Taylor, US Army (retired) put it this way: “Knowing the potential for a global disaster, anything…and I mean anything flying out of that country, especially after a known outbreak, and not heading directly to a secure quarantine spot, would be shot out of the sky before they cleared the outbound coastline. There is not the slightest doubt about it.”

DEMON ZOMBIES: Movies like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series and books like Brian Keene’s The Rising and City of the Dead use demonic forces as the reason the dead rise. The demons of Evil Dead possess dead (and sometimes living) bodies and turn them into raging, bloodthirsty killing machines that can only be stopped by cutting them into harmless pieces. In the Keene novels the demons inhabit all dead things, including insects and animals. Destroying the body of one does little since the demonic force can just switch to another host.


Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and Marvel Comics writer. He’s the author of many novels including Assassin’s Code, Dead of Night, Patient Zero and Rot & Ruin. His nonfiction books on topics ranging from martial arts to zombie pop-culture. Since 1978 he has sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, and textbooks. Jonathan continues to teach the celebrated Experimental Writing for Teens class, which he created. He founded the Writers Coffeehouse and co-founded The Liars Club; and is a frequent speaker at schools and libraries, as well as a keynote speaker and guest of honor at major writers and genre conferences. Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara and their son, Sam. Visit him online at Jonathan Maberry and on Twitter (@jonathanmaberry) and Facebook.

Here’s the book trailer for Dead of Night:

Praise for Dead Of Night:

“Jonathan Maberry is the top gun when it comes to zombies, and with Dead Of Night, he’s at the top of his game. Frankly, I’m shocked by how effortlessly he moves between the lofty intellectual heights of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and the savage carnality of the kill. Dead Of Night develops with the fevered pace of a manhunt, and yet still manages to hit all the right notes. Strap in, because Maberry’s latest is one hell of a wild ride. I loved it.” -Joe McKinney, author of Dead City and Flesh Eaters

“Jonathan Maberry has created an homage to death itself and an homage to the undead that is as poetic as it is terrifying. It’s a brand new and intriguingly fresh slant on the zombie genre that we all love!” -John A. Russo co-screenwriter of Night Of The Living Dead

“Maberry is a master at writing scenes that surge and hum with tension. The pacing is relentless. He presses the accelerator to the floor and never lets up, taking you on a ride that leaves your heart pounding. It’s almost impossible to put this book down. Dead of Night is an excellent read.” -S.G. Browne, author of Breathers

“It would be enough to say that Jonathan Maberry had topped himself yet again with an epic zombie novel that is as much fun as it is terrifying. But that he has also created a story of such tremendous heart and social relevance only further cements his place as a master of the genre. It also doesn’t hurt that in Dead Of Night he has created one of the most compelling heroines I’ve read in years. Dead of Night blew me away!” -Ryan Brown – Author of Play Dead

“Once again, Jonathan Maberry does what he does best; Take proven science, synthesize it and create something truly terrifying. In Dead Of Night, Maberry lays the groundwork for a Bioweapon that could very well create zombies in the real world. Combining great characters (I fell in love with Dez Fox from the moment she was introduced) and taut, blindingly fast action, Dead Of Night, is a runaway bullet train of a ride. This is Jonathan Maberry’s best writing yet.” -Greg Schauer, owner Between Books, Claymont, DE

Dead of Night stands drooped head and lurching shoulders above most zombie novels. The nightmare increases exponentially – from minor outbreak to major crisis with unstoppable speed, building to a heart-stopping climax you won’t be able to put down.” -David Moody, author of the Hater and Autumn books

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