Failed Zombie Defense Techniques?
July 5, 2009 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Which zombie defense techniques have been established in movies to not work?

I'm giving what I hope will be a fun presentation on zombie defense techniques. I don't have time to watch a lot of zombie movies, but I'd like to talk about what clearly doesn't work, based on movies, before I go into more theoretical solutions, e.g. pirates, ninjas, robots.

For example, in Shawn of the Dead, as I recall, they hide in a bar together, and then it turns out one of them is a zombie, and the rest of the zombies eventually find them, so that would suggest hiding with your friends is a bad strategy.
posted by scottreynen to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Negotiations do not work.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:45 PM on July 5, 2009 [9 favorites]

Small arms, prayer, and nailing boards over windows don't ever seem very effective.
posted by rokusan at 3:54 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nothing works. Has there ever been a zombie movie where the zombies lost? At best, they suffer a setback that leaves an opening for a sequel.

I forget what movie it was, but even nuking the infected town didn't work. Sure, all the zombies were vaporized, but the essence of their zombieness wafted up into the atmosphere and came down with rain, infecting an even greater area.

Like with Cthulhu, your best bet is hoping that you die quickly.
posted by Flunkie at 3:54 PM on July 5, 2009

It's not that hiding with your friends doesn't work, it's that trying to hide with your friend who's been bitten doesn't work. Either they need to be more honest, or you do. They need to tell you they've been bit, or you need to understand that they're on they're way to wanting to eat your brains.

Other mistakes: hand-to-hand combat, entering a dark tunnel because you think it's the only way out (no, really, even if you're trying to escape England, there are better ways than the chunnel), hiding in places with undefendable entry points (say, a mall, a pub with glass windows, a lab in a complex where all locks are controlled by a computer who wants you dead), or, of course, spending resources you don't have to rescue a friend who's been mobbed by zombies. This is what kills nearly everyone. "We have to go back for Bob, it'll be fine," they say. Then half the team (the ones needing to man the entry points) get et.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:56 PM on July 5, 2009

posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:59 PM on July 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I forget what movie it was, but even nuking the infected town didn't work

Was that the end of 28 Days Later?

Ideally I'd like everything I mention to be sourced to a well-known movie. I wouldn't want people thinking I'm just making this stuff up.
posted by scottreynen at 4:01 PM on July 5, 2009

Shooting them anywhere but in the head seems to have little to no effect, from what I remember of the Resident Evil franchise, both films and games.
posted by elizardbits at 4:05 PM on July 5, 2009

Was that the end of 28 Days Later?
Possibly, but that's definitely not the movie I'm referring to, as I have never seen it.

OK, a little research shows that it was The Return of the Living Dead.
posted by Flunkie at 4:07 PM on July 5, 2009

The nuking was the end of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.

You can't keep them away with fire, because eventually the fire goes out.
Boarding windows is ineffective, as has been mentioned.
Attempting to study and understand them is a big failure (DAY OF THE DEAD).

Otherwise, most methods of zombie defense seem to be fairly effective, the problem is always fighting amongst the survivors or an attempt to rescue someone in danger or who has been bitten.
posted by paperzach at 4:10 PM on July 5, 2009

I thought it was the glass windows/lights/noise that got them in Shawn of the dead - not the zom within.

You have to wait until they starve. Or just fight them for years and years - as in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As far as we can tell, that works for the majority of the population.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:10 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want a fast primer I'd go pick up a copy of the zombie survival guide. Tons of useful suggestions on what to and not to do
posted by Redmond Cooper at 4:10 PM on July 5, 2009

I forget what movie it was, but even nuking the infected town didn't work

I'm pretty sure that was Return of the Living Dead.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 4:12 PM on July 5, 2009

Ooops ... too late.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 4:13 PM on July 5, 2009

I forget what movie it was, but even nuking the infected town didn't work

Was that the end of 28 Days Later?

Nope. Spoiler:
England was quarantined and they starved the still-alive plague-victim "zombies" to death.

Splitting up doesn't work, especially if you follow Left 4 Dead logic. It might just work if you can lock yourself alone somewhere with a food supply, but since zombies come in giant hordes you need at least one other person to beat the zombies off your back.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:16 PM on July 5, 2009

Negotiations do not work.

This was from Shawn of the Dead.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:20 PM on July 5, 2009

Lawnmowers DO work.
Bugmenot for Youtube.

Worst movie ever.

posted by salvia at 4:20 PM on July 5, 2009

the problem is always fighting amongst the survivors or an attempt to rescue someone in danger or who has been bitten.

This needs to be underlined, because the concept of zombies is the literary concept of what you do against an unstoppable, mindless force. It's not about the zombies. It's about the people.

Every zombie story has people with different strategies, coping techniques and weaknesses. Some will pray. Some will fight poorly, and some effectively. Some will just want to steal shit from the mall.

In 28 Days Later, the scariest monsters weren't the zombies. It was the (spoiler alert) soldiers driven mad by the experience, and their absolutely ruthless commanding officer, who fights only for his own preservation.

It's not the zombies that scare us. No, what really scares us is Bob, the neighbor down the street. What will Bob be like when the shit hits the fan? Does he have a shotgun in his closet? Will he help me? Or, once the veneer of civilization is stripped away, will he try to rape my daughter?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:22 PM on July 5, 2009 [13 favorites]

that would suggest hiding with your friends is a bad strategy.

Holing up with anyone is a bad strategy. Every zombie movie ever that involves the zombie siege trope ends in blood and death and UUHHH BRAINS NOM NOM NOM.

The solution? Keep moving, stay alert, never get complacent, and always aim for the head.
posted by permafrost at 4:23 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you can abstract the survivor problem fairly easily to this:

Mercy does not work.
Civilization does not work.

"Civilization" here in the sense of simply, the habits and mostly unspoken rules of behavior for living in the company of others. Civilization is that which says that you don't simply kill the neighbor who's loud, unreliable, undisciplined, prone to bad judgment, and who is clearly endangering the entire group. Civilization is that which says you try to compromise, meet an agreement, go along to get along. Civilization doesn't work; that bad neighbor's unreliability and bad judgment will kill you all not matter how ideal and well-stocked your defense points are, will kill you all even if you have ideal exit plans should one defense point be compromised and you need to relocate (those are simply contingency plans, and while it's true zombie apocalypse lore is full of contingency plans constantly getting run over by Murphy's law, that's not inherent to them).

Mercy doesn't work. Mercy is that which makes you refrain from immediately killing and disposing of your bitten companions. Mercy ties into civilization, by being that makes you refrain from killing the emotionally shattered survivor who has passed their breaking point and is simply incapable of compartmentalizing and dealing with any of the string of immediate crises any survival situation is. Mercy is that which makes you protect the weak links even when there's no reasonable expectation they'll ever be strong links again. The weak link will break, zombies will get in, and you will all die.

Only a little tongue in cheek, really. That's the real horror at the core of zombie horror--the stuff about undead monsters tearing you apart and eating you as you're screaming is only incidental. The horror's the core message that civilization and mercy don't work.
posted by Drastic at 4:30 PM on July 5, 2009 [15 favorites]

Being the asshole in the group of survivors is worse than facing a jury in texas.

Getting seperated from your group only works if you're the hero with an escape route.
Shotguns only work with an escape route.
Chainsaws only work with an escape route.
_______ only works with an escape route.
posted by cmfletcher at 4:32 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Only thing that seems to work is decapitation. So everything else does not work. Is there a imminent zombie uprising you are planning for?
posted by fifilaru at 4:32 PM on July 5, 2009

Techniques that have been shown to be ineffective as a defense against zombies:

1. Pointing and laughing
2. Dancing at them
3. Negotiation
4. CBT
5. Mass-mailings
6. Tricking them with a bit of lint on the end of a coat hanger.
7. Tickling
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:33 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've always wondered why people just don't wear leather, or even a few layers of clothes.

Assuming you're only up against one zombie at a time, and the zombie can't bite through your clothes, what can it do, really, except stand there and gum you while you smash it's brain in?

I loved Return of the Living Dead because it was apocryphal in the sense that cutting off the dead (or even other limbs) didn't kill the zombie, and they could move fast. Also, the 80's punk soundtrack was way rad.
posted by elder18 at 4:43 PM on July 5, 2009

If an awesome book is an acceptable substitute for a well-known movie, World War Z taught me that the best way to go after zombies is with various implements meant to destroy or remove the head. Nuking just results in thoroughly irradiated zombies, dumping them in the ocean and freezing them just means you'll have to deal with them again in months or years, and many high-tech or non-lethal weapons that depend on tissue trauma or electricity or whatever will have depressingly little effect. Even guns are often dubiously useful; unless you have a lot of ammo and a good aim, they'll have depressingly little effect. Defensive formations, forts, etc. are only useful if they are well-made, if you have lots of supplies, and if you are lucky.
posted by ubersturm at 4:51 PM on July 5, 2009

28 weeks later has a good bit where a (not proper, I know) zombie goes straight through a boarded up door.

Your other sources for failed zombie strategies is literature: Zombie Survival guide and World War Z. Both sources also have successful and imaginative strategies.

Bad ideas:
Human charity: Take someone in and they will either be infected and in pre-zombie stage (see 1 example in every zombie film ever) or will lead zombies to you (See opener to 28 weeks later). This actually leads to the destruction of Europe in 28 weeks later. Taking in animals can also lead to stupid decisions, see Dawn of the Dead remake for silly girl following dog.

Swimming for it: zombies can lurk underwater indefinitely as no need to breathe.

Soldiers digging in: zombies have no artillery, better to build barricades, but be sure to have a way to withdraw as bodies build up into ramps

Napalm: Leads to charred fleshy zombies, not dead zombies.

Big store of food to outwait zombies doesn't seem to work well with proper zombies, since they decay at very slow rates.

Stabbing implements are rubbish. If no guns (for headshots only, naturally) available then clubbing implements superior. A rake and vice may be helpful in temporarily incapacitating a zombie.

Trusting Dennis Hopper.
posted by biffa at 4:53 PM on July 5, 2009

and, for the record, the monsters in 28 days later are not zombies... they aren't dead, they are infected...
posted by HuronBob at 4:56 PM on July 5, 2009

If you're going to show a clip to make a point, show the bit from early in 28 Days Later where Selena kills Mark immediately when she sees that he's bleeding and likely infected. You can drive home the point that executing your friends with brutal quickness is an absolutely necessary survival trait. That can set the darkly humorous tone for the rest of it.
posted by fatbird at 5:03 PM on July 5, 2009

Best answer: When faced with zombies, the most important thing to establish is what kind of zombies you're dealing with:
  1. The Romero/World War Z - These zombies are your classic slow-moving, generally mindless undead. Strong but stupid, they drop from a headshot or other massive brain damage. These can be outlasted, but you're looking at a timeline of years-to-decades, depending on your climate. Very cold (Canadian/Russian) winters make them easy pickings, hot and swampy gives them places to hide but rots them faster, while deserts will mummify them and keep them going for decades (all from World War Z). If you can can create a secure perimeter (concrete walls, 2' thick and 10' high), and cull them stealthily, you may be able to outlast them. You have to keep the from buiding up to overwhelming levels, though.
  2. Return of the Living Dead Zombies - This is really your worst case scenario. They're fast, they're smart, nothing kills them, and anything that still has some tendons and muscles left will turn ambulatory, even if it's been dead & buried for 3 or 4 years. Nuking them only spreads the animating agent faster. The only successful strategy is to take your shotgun/pistol/whatever, put it in your mouth and pull the trigger.
  3. The Infected - 28 Days Later features infected/insane people who act as zombies. For these, holing up somewhere and keeping quiet is your best bet because they don't seem to eat. They must drink, however, because the blood-puking and massive exertion would kill them via dehydration in a couple of days. 3-6 weeks will be all you need to last for, but bear in mind these f*ckers are fast.
  4. The Hybrid Zombie - some zombies combine the other types. In the excellent Walking Dead comic, basically everyone who dies will come back, even if they don't die by zombie--they're all infected. Otherwise, these are Romero zombies, dropped by brain trauma. The fabulous re-work of Dawn of the Dead takes the Romero zombies and makes them runners, which means you can't outrun them (they don't get tired).
Know thine enemy shall be the whole of the law. Anything that doesn't fall into these parameters will likely fail.

I actually sublet an awesome apartment about a year ago in a 4-building complex that would have been great for surviving a zombie outbreak. You could pour concrete to block the stairwell doors and kill the elevators, and there was a central, elevated courtyard & greenspace where you could grow food for a few people. Below that was the carpark, which (once secured) could be used to house septic tanks filled with rainwater. There was forest all around, which provide a mixed blessing of zombie cover and winter firewood. The trick would be to keep the survivor numbers low enough to be sustainable.
posted by Decimask at 5:14 PM on July 5, 2009 [20 favorites]

Yes, I'm a bit of a Zombie nut. Why do you ask?
posted by Decimask at 5:17 PM on July 5, 2009

For giggles, here's something I thought was a great idea until they actually figured out the biology involved last year: make the zombiegen reside in the appendix, not the brain. It'd be a great movie scene when the survivors suddenly realize the reason they're all still alive is that all of them have had their appendices removed.
posted by Decimask at 5:25 PM on July 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Zombie Survival Guide
posted by MesoFilter at 5:27 PM on July 5, 2009

Response by poster: Is there a imminent zombie uprising you are planning for?

Yes, actually. Every year in Denver (where I live) there's a zombie crawl. That's the context for my presentation.

Thanks for the great input, everyone. I'm still reading through it.
posted by scottreynen at 7:04 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure that the main strategy that doesn't work is barricading oneself in a supposedly secure place in the hope of waiting out the crisis. This is a classic blunder committed by the characters in almost every zombie movie out there.

The second blunder is getting the size of the group wrong. There must be some kind of sweet spot between having too small a group (also a problem in every zombie movie I can think of), and too large. My instinct would be something along the lines of 100-odd people max - or about 3 or 4 platoons.

Also, when the zombie apocalypse arrives, I'm joining up with Drastic. I'm pretty sure he's the kind of person who, if I were to be bitten on the hand, would have absolutely no compunction about hacking off my arm at the shoulder.
posted by Ritchie at 8:19 PM on July 5, 2009

I think the rain scene you mention was from Undead.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:53 PM on July 5, 2009

(I wonder if anyone has done the math on how long the Romero universe would contain anything other than zombies?)
posted by maxwelton at 1:24 AM on July 6, 2009

Soldiers digging in: zombies have no artillery, better to build barricades, but be sure to have a way to withdraw as bodies build up into ramps


I'm pretty sure that the main strategy that doesn't work is barricading oneself in a supposedly secure place in the hope of waiting out the crisis. This is a classic blunder committed by the characters in almost every zombie movie out there.

I've put loads of thought into this over the years, the problem is that all of our 'normal' strategies for keeping things out are designed for the 21st century.
Civilian buildings are built to keep casual intruders out, or to keep an aggressive attacker out while the police arrive. They rely on the world remaining orderly to work.

Modern military defense strategies are also problematic. The state of modern weapons is such that our weapons are much more powerful than our armor. We react to this by building defense in depth and by relying on mobility over static defense. The modern defensive position has roads and communications as its most important features and will extend over many kilometers, tanks and aircraft will move to intercept intruders.
Zombies are a totally different problem. They're more akin to a horde of rampaging peasants. (not accidentally - zombie stories draw deeply on white American or European fears of the rampaging mob of the inferior 'other'. Individually weak and stupid, they eventually overwhelm with their relentless savagery and huge numbers)
We can learn from our history here, old (intact) European castles would be outstanding zombie fortresses because they were built to keep a similar enemies out.
A metre thick granite curtain wall is a joke to a modern army, they'll blow it to bits with artillery and air strikes, or isolate the castle as an irrelevance.
But against zombies, well, here the castle comes into its own. No matter how many zombies there are, they're dumb and without technological power multipliers, they'll never get through your wall.

This might not be useful for surviving a sudden outbreak, but if you know that the zombie war is coming, you'd want to do the following:

Build an outer perimeter wall of thick concrete, make sure it is smooth to prevent any climbing.

You'll need a source of energy, without energy you lose your technological advantage over the zombies. I think a radiothermal generator or a sealed fission pile (I think a Japanese company is developing these), that would provide you with heat and electricity without taking the risk of exposure to the outside.

You'll also need a source of water, preferably from the rain or a spring.

For food, you'll want greenhouses. I'm not sure about fertiliser and pesticides, you'd only be able to store a limited amount of those, and I doubt that it is realistic to make either. Take that into account when you plan the greenhouse space you'll need to feed everyone. Any spare space within the perimeter probably needs to be turned over to food production. If you build near the sea (can zombies swim? an important question...) then aquaculture or even just fishing is a possibility.

As you can see, the difficulty isn't keeping the zombies out. A 20m smooth concrete wall will do you just fine, the difficulty is maintaining yourself in the perimeter without leaving it. Every time anyone leaves and comes back in, you run the risk of introducing an infected individual, and if you do that, you're screwed.
posted by atrazine at 4:37 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

According to "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" by Kelly Link (in "Magic for Beginners"), some things that do not work are:

Don't panic. Remain calm.
Call the police.
Take them out to dinner. Get them drunk.
Ask them to come back later.
Ignore them.
Take them home.
Tell them jokes. Play board games with them.
Tell them you love them.
Rescue them.
posted by jcrbuzz at 4:45 AM on July 6, 2009

(I wonder if anyone has done the math on how long the Romero universe would contain anything other than zombies?)

You can run the simulation yourself
posted by MesoFilter at 11:41 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind about the World War Z zombies is that the virus that turned people into zombies had a preservative effect. So deterioration took over hundreds of years.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:42 AM on July 10, 2009

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