Thoughts on Zombies

I’ve been thinking about zombies a lot lately because we’ve been watching The Walking Dead (which I quite like). I’m going to criticise the show a bit and the zombies and stuff. SPOILER ALERT. I’m up to the end of Season 2 and I’m going to talk about it right up to the last episode.

Like vampires, every new show that deals with zombies will interpret them a little differently. Great writers like @simonpegg capture the essence, even in a comedy like Shaun of the Dead. And it’s OK to make it your own.

In The Walking Dead I’ve got a few gripes about the zombies. They’re fast, cooperative, and silent when they need to be.

Silent noisy zombies

As the audience, we always see the zombies shambling about and they always moan or growl or breathe heavy or something. Now you’d think that the characters who have lived in this traumatic world would be super sensitive to anything vaguely like zombie noises. I only started watching in season 2, but I would expect people to pull a gun on someone if they were snoring, because it sounds like zombies. Quite the opposite. Half the time, the characters seem unable to hear the zombie who is right behind them.

Time after time the zombies get the drop on main characters. Out of nowhere they just suddenly appear with shambling and full-on moaning. There’s a scene where Glenn and Maggie are in the pharmacy and they’ve been having a nice long conversation and then suddenly out of nowhere a zombie jumps out and grabs at Maggie. How did it do that? How did it shamble up all quiet to get within arm’s reach and then suddenly jump on her?

Sneaking zombies happen a lot in season 2. There are several scenes where entire herds shamble up and are completely unnoticed until they create a panic. Early in the season the group has stopped on the highway. They’ve even posted a lookout. Nobody notices dozens of zombies until they’re practically right on top of the group. Nobody saw 40 or 50 of them way down the highway 30 minutes before they attacked. Likewise when they’re searching for Sophia in the remnants of the suburban town. It’s totally silent and there’s no sign of zombies, and then suddenly they’re everywhere.

The most egregious silent herd happens in the last episode. Rick and Carl are out in the open on the edge of the woods. A herd of HUNDREDS of zombies is going through the woods. They shamble. They drag their feet. They are crashing through the woods. There are HUNDREDS of them. They are moaning. Hell, these things can’t see any better than humans can, and they certainly aren’t more coordinated than humans. Humans trying to pick their way through that forest at night would be tripping and breaking limbs and getting stuck in mud and stuck on ravines they can’t scale and so on. So the zombies must make quite a racket and it must be hard for so many of them to get through. Did I mention there are HUNDREDS of them? Somehow this herd manages to navigate acres of woods in the pitch dark of night and come out suddenly and surprisingly. They are within a few dozen yards of Rick and Carl before they’re noticed.

Contrast all this with the closing scene of the final episode of season 2. The main characters are sitting around a camp fire and they hear a twig crack in the woods nearby. Everyone gets on edge and they all look around worried what it might be. If you can’t hear a herd of hundreds of zombies crashing through the woods 10 yards to your left, how do you hear a twig crack!?

Cooperative, Gentle Zombies

I guess this makes sense, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a movie where the zombies were not cooperative and gentle, but it irks me. What do I mean cooperative and gentle? To EACH OTHER. When there’s 500 zombies and 1 human, there’s very little pushing and shoving to get to him. You never see a zombie push another zombie off a cliff or rip another zombie’s head off or something in an effort to get all the food to itself. In fact, there are lots of scenes where 4 or 5 zombies are going to town on one hapless victim, but they seem to find some way to share, share alike. No zombie grabs the victim’s torso and runs off with it. This seems consistent in The Walking Dead, Legend, and Shaun of the Dead. In this case The Walking Dead is just going along with zombie canon. It still irks me.

You also never see zombies eat each other. They’ll eat cattle, chickens, anything alive (it seems). And since they’re dead, they can go an indefinite amount of time without eating at all. But they never get hungry enough to eat each other. I like the orcs and the uruk-hai from the Lord of the Rings in this regard. When they squabble amongst themselves, and it’s settled through a chaotic fight that ends in some cannibalisation, that feels authentic and satisfying. But they’re thinking creatures and alive.

Two Speed Zombies

Let’s get this straight. Zombies are SLOW. That is one of the most important things about them. Legend wasn’t really a “zombie” movie, but hypothesized something significantly human and only vaguely zombie-like, so it’s allowed to have them be fast, strong, organized, etc. Shaun of the Dead gets this right. All the zombies are uniformly slow. The Walking Dead speeds them up when necessary. It’s a bit like bad, old Kung-Fu films where the film speeds up during a fight scene. One minute they’re shambling like they barely have enough energy to move. The next minute they’re animals: flailing fast arms and teeth and claws. It should be pretty trivial to outrun a bunch (say, less than 10) zombies. If there’s a herd of them and they’re all around you, that’s different. Ten of them all to one side of you, though, should be no big deal.

And how coordinated are they, anyways? Can they climb stairs? (Pretty sure they can) Ladders? (maybe sometimes). What about swimming and/or crossing water? On the one hand, you’d think they could just go all Pirates of the Caribbean and walk on the bottom of the water. But apparently they have some animalistic self-preservation thoughts (see below).

How Many Senses?

It would appear that zombies have a sense of touch, a sense of sight, and a sense of hearing. We really don’t care if they can taste. What they don’t seem to have is a sense of smell. The main characters must  reek. They rarely shower, they’re often sweaty, and they’re alive. You’d think that zombies would be able to sense heat, life, or some kind of scent. Apparently not. When Rick hides under a zombie and some zombies pass him by, that seems to do it. When main characters hide under cars and let the zombies shamble by, they’re essentially safe.

In a strange thought: could zombies be affected by pepper spray, tear gas or the like? What about some of these new, non-lethal sonic weapons where the sound is painful to humans?

How Much Memory and Cognitive Ability?

How much thinking can a zombie do? They seem to be able to follow some meat. They seem to be able to apply crude force to things like doors, windows, and trapdoors (Shaun of the Dead). And how much do they remember? Let’s say you managed to jump up and catch the bottom rung of a fire escape ladder, and you climbed up onto the roof and just laid down quietly for a while where they couldn’t see you. Would they forget you and eventually wander off? Could you throw a rock across to another building and get them to go towards the sound, even though they most recently saw you on the fire escape? This implies decision making.

Self Preservation?

And they seem to avoid things that are dangerous to them. Burning barn? They seem to understand the danger of fire and don’t just wander blindly in there. They cannot smell the gasoline or anticipate the effect of the falling zippo, but they seem to know they should avoid an already-raging inferno. This makes it all the more strange that they walk towards the fire (e.g., because it is light and implies activity and maybe meat), yet don’t go right into it because it’s dangerous.

Likewise about water. Do they know what deep versus shallow water is? Do some just wander off the beach out into the ocean and end up floating in the tide? Probably not, but why not? They don’t mindlessly walk off the edges of bridges or rooftops or other things that will damage or kill them, but they don’t know enough (or care enough) to get out of the way of a car (will directors EVER tire of that plot element?).

Zombie Canon

I’m going to have to google around some time and see what the zombie canon is, anyways. I am frequently annoyed when watching The Walking Dead.