Worldbuilding: To Zom, or Not To Zom, Be

Zpoc this, end of the world that… why can’t we just have a good old-fashioned Undead Horde arising, terrifying the living because it’s an army that can’t be normally killed, instead of an existential threat to Life As We Know It?

No, seriously, why not?

(Yes, this writer is feeling cranky and contrary.)

I have a lot of gripes with zombie apocalypse stories, especially World War Z – movie or book, take your pick. That one specifically pulled a lot of… people needlessly being idiots and cruel, in order to punch up the horror factor. Did not like.

Oddly enough the Zombie Survival Guide by the same author has a lot more optimistic outlook in its several “recorded outbreaks”, including the memorable zombies-vs-gang-war that ended decisively in the gangs’ favor. Which if you look at it logically makes sense; after all, if humans throughout history hadn’t been able to end those outbreaks before they reached zpoc status, the book couldn’t have been written in the first place!

The problem is that the author doesn’t translate the human factor in the historical bits into a viable human response in the zpoc book. Almost nobody writing a zpoc does. And this is… highly frustrating to me as a writer. I don’t write tragedies. I don’t write grimdark. I write stories where bad things may happen to good people, yes, but said good people use their heads and sheer unalloyed grit to try and find ways to come out alive. Because stories are about people. If the stories are about the zombies and life-threatening despair instead, then your story has already failed.

I grant you, there are some people who find catharsis through drenching themselves in a horror that is Not Real. I am definitely not one of them. (For one thing I know too much biology; and guess what, in real biology zombies exist. Mostly on the insect level, but still.) I do like reading about human responses to disaster, but instead of humans pulling together to survive, almost all zpocs are about horror, gore, and the dying of the light.

…Here I’m going to point to Kingdom (2019) as a known exception to that almost. There’s humans being stupid, there’s humans playing politics, there’s humans who try to use the zombies and unleash disaster, sure. But there are a fair number of people, especially the heroes, who are simply trying to make the best of the bad hands they’ve been dealt. They fear the zombies. They dread them. But they also think.

And if you think, and have a little time to prepare, zombies can be handled.

The advantage zombies have is swarming you as a horde. Control the terrain; make it so they can only come at you one or a few at a time.

Zombies only have the weapons they had in life, and human teeth are really not that effective at tearing into a person. Wear armor. Leather is good, but wear even several layers of cloth, and it might be enough. Don’t let them break the skin.

Zombies don’t feel pain. But they also don’t heal. If you can’t immediately kill them, disable them. Break bones. Break joints. Dump rocks on them, preferably from a high distance. Use a freaking boar spear – it’s designed to keep a thrashing body from punching the spear on through so it can kill you before it dies. Humans are tool-users. Find tools. Use them.

I want to see stories that give readers hope. I want to see canceled zpocs. Think about it. It can be done!

49 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: To Zom, or Not To Zom, Be

  1. I think part of it is the same reason that folks who have never so much as taken a slap or shed a drop of blood in anger will go in for over the top war movie gore, while literal war zone veterans are fine with “grab chest and fall over” death scenes.

    So they need *more* to get the same zing– they also don’t really grasp how much damage a human can do, so the idea of zombies “only” doing as much damage as a normal, unarmed person? They don’t respect it.

    Basically, the same kind of idiots that don’t understand that four to one odds where the six don’t actually want to harm the one, or even just want the one alive, the four are going to get hurt. Possibly even killed, even though they do have greater numbers.

    Zombies are that guy-who-is-cool-with-killing-you-or-even-REALLY WANTS TO hurt you, but as a swarm.

    …they don’t get how terrifying that is.

    Liked by 9 people

      1. AKA they were never the kids mobbed in a beat-down in school, likely.


        If anything, they may have been one of the aren’t-trying-not-to-harm-the-target members of the mob. A horrifying number of the beating deaths, the attackers basically didn’t understand YES YOU CAN KILL PEOPLE BY KICKING HTEM IN THE HEAD. (:headdesks so hard:– notes that if they’d even done THAT, they’d have figured out as much)

        Which is one reason I want to see more stories teaching people under stress to think.

        Or at least encourage folks to think things out when their stress is low enough for it to do some good, yes! That’s the consistent thing that helps during active attacks, that the game plan in your head matches what will actually work.

        Liked by 8 people

  2. 100% Agreement here. I hate stories with characters getting hit with the Idiot Ball (or, in some cases, grab and run with it!) while dealing with disasters, and they often get the nasty end because of said idiot decision. And sure, grimdark is cool and all, but only if used sparingly with a chance for the characters to make it better, not just going back to it as if nothing happened. One of the rules of the hero’s journey is that you never return to the beginning because the beginning no longer exists.

    I also hate bittersweet endings. I want endings to be of over-the-top sweetness, darn it!

    I want stories where the good guys come out on top, the bad guys are part of the geography, and society fixes itself, so that said issue never happens again. Sure, something else will pop up, but dang it, if the people can do it once, they can do it again, and how many times after!

    Liked by 6 people

  3. There’s plenty of stories with sub-apocalyptic zombie armies.
    They’re found under the fantasy-adventure genre.

    The Dread Necromancer Joe is raising an army of undead unless the heroes can stop it!

    When it comes to the more modern ones, the assumption is that the zombie army is in some way self-sustaining.
    We don’t have necromancers, so the zombie army has to raise itself without one person being in change.

    That in turn means there isn’t one convenient off-switch.

    Endless army, that will fight forever, and replenished forever, and can’t be reasoned with = apocalypse


    I do think it would be interesting to have a story about winning the zombie apocalypse.

    They scattered remnants manage to hold on long enough to make a counteragent, and now have to produce and distribute it to take back places that were overcome and rebuild.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I’m working on a novel with necromancers right now.

      A few like skeletons. None like zombies. There’s so much more you can do with it. . . .


  4. Dang it, now I want to write a good zpoc. Because I have never been a fan of zombie books or movies for the exact reasons you gave, and I hadnt really realized it. Here you watched Warm Bodies? The reaction and info about zombies is easier to stomach, and makes a bit more sense than usual. Still not handled quite right, but better than most on the human reactions.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. *squints* Wasn’t that a spoof on Romeo and Juliet? Or am I thinking of something else?

      And while Zpocs are not my thing, mainly because the majority are copy-and-paste productions, I would consider reading one that was original, or at the very least, tied into the origin of zombies in the first place. With a clear off-switch.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Yes, it was a definite spoof of of Romeo and Juliet, but I think it is pretty well done. I have heard there is a book too, but when I like the movie version, I usually don’t like reading the book.

        And yes, zombie books are not my thing either, but a lot of what inspires me to write is the idea that a good book about “something” is not out there, so I tend to want to write one. I even discovered I had a partial idea with notes written down, and I shelves it because I was trying to figure out how to deal with some of the issues brought up in this post. Especially when it came to scavenging. Part of an image or scene I was Apparently working on is one of the characters, teenage girl, hiding under a roller converbelt in a food production wherhouse or something, arrow nocked and waiting for the zombie to turn a corner. I was trying to work out if a bow and arrow would be a good weapon for Zombies, and how that would work. It’s weird finding old stories that you don’t really remember working on. 😅

        Liked by 5 people

  5. I’ve been trying to keep the idiot ball away from the group in my z-poc fic. That and try to plan how to avoid some of the stuff in the Walking Dead that bugged the ever living out of me in the later seasons. Namely the bit where yet another human big bag shows up and the group gets run out of wherever they’ve settled.

    I want them to go from reinforcing the fences around the farm to keep the walkers out to fortifying them to keep human raiders out. Let them work on rebuilding society. And sure, there will be bumps along the way, but it doesn’t always have to be the same one. I actually liked the season where the group’s main problem was a regular flu/cold going through and they had to figure out a way to treat the ones who were sick.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Any vitamin D they could get would help.

      And this sounds like an awesome story, please let us know when it’s out!

      Edit: Oh! Stray thought, pay it no mind if it’s not convenient, but….

      Know about sky burial? If you’ve looked into the Air Nomad background inspirations for AtLA, you may have looked it up. I’ve been doing research on the whole Northeast Asia area from around 1300-1650 for book background, and, well…. Did you know that and a related form, tree burial (put the bodies in trees, take the bones back and wash them after a length of time up to years) run in an arc from Mongol territory through Korea and down through the west coast of Japan and much of the Ryukyus? Even deep into the Joseon Dynasty, people dying from disease were tree-buried to pacify whatever god they’d offended, and allow them to be reborn.

      Which could put some interesting twists on the zombies….

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Thank you.
        I’ve got some pre-series and the first half of season one posted on AO3 - I’ll say flat out that part one is a downer, because a bad guy had to win to kick off the z-poc in this ‘verse, but the ending I’ve got planned for the series as a whole will be hopeful.

        Proper nutrition is going to be important for the group. I’ve been researching different ways to preserve food and what would be the best for them to grow as a late summer crop for their area. I do some canning and dehydrating in RL, but not on the scale they’re going to need to do. I’m putting their future settlement around Talking Rock, GA (I was feeling puny at the time and gargoyles in Talking Rock just amused me). They’ll already have established apple and peach orchards near them since they’re so close to Ellijay. Plus at least one neighbor kept bee hives, so that will help with the sugar they need for some kinds of preserving. Salt is going to be the main issue once all the radiable places are picked clean.

        I’ve heard of sky burials, but not tree burials. That’s really cool!

        Speaking of trees. I wonder if creating rope bridges through the trees wouldn’t be one way to avoid zombie herds on the ground. That way the group wouldn’t have to create a giant fence around everything at once, but smaller ones, and then they could travel between them.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. Noted for later reading!

        And I don’t see why rope bridges couldn’t be a thing. One of the images in my head is of a concrete fortress (repurposed prison?) where someone’s built a metal walkway around the outside of part of the wall… about 20 feet off the ground. So if things start shambling near, the survivors can have one person running on that walkway to draw all the zombie attention to their designated killing ground….

        Liked by 4 people

      3. They had the group set up in a prison in season 3 and they were there until the start of season 4, but I’m thinking about having them set up at the farm from season 2 for as long as possible.

        My tentative plan, until I can do some more research on a better way to do this, is for them to reinforce the fences that already surround the property that are there to keep the cattle and horses in. Maybe by using all the abandoned vehicles they can tow off the road to kind of circle the wagons.

        This would be just to buy themselves time while they work on their permanent walls since those cars and fences might stop/slow down the zombies, but they won’t stop humans. Most of what I know about forts are Roman palisades and their military camps and even that isn’t much. So, at the moment my end plan is a double stake wall with earth from a dry moat on the outside sandwiched in-between. The materials for the stake walls will come from where they clear the trees well back from where the perimeter and anything they can take from hardware stores and the like.

        The biggest problem will them building all of this in a timely manner will be man power.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Sounds like a good tentative plan… may I recc’ Osprey books on fortresses?

        If they’ve got any access to a library, their odds of being able to find Civil War stuff, for example, could be high.

        And I don’t know if they’d be able to find this book, but you might like it!

        Long story short – don’t neglect adding rocks where you can.

        As for withstanding sieges….

        Awesome. They built a mini-version of the actual fort for the movie!

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Some Amerindian tribes do sky burials too. In the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” the protagonist is forced to lead a force through the mountains, including through a sky burial ground.

        Long story short, the tribe didn’t appreciate this and murdered the man’s family, who then spent years getting back at them, and then both sides finally decided enough was enough.

        Liked by 3 people

  6. The trouble with Zombie Apocalypse stories is that it’s usually *not* about the Zombie Apocalypse. The Zombie Apocalypse is used as a way to critique the society it’s happening in in some way. And most societies are massive organizations that can’t be toppled by one group of people. This is especially obvious with something like “World War Z” where the point of the story is tearing down how society *used* to work and replacing it with something better that does work. Even something like Shawn of the Dead has shades of this where yes, order is restored in the end, but the zombies are still around and now do all the menial tasks like they’re robots.

    Zombie Apocalypse stories tend to run into the same problems dystopia stories run into… they have to assume people in general are idiots for the problem to become so big it couldn’t be stopped. And people really don’t work that way. Of secondary issue to both the Zombie Apocalypse and Dystopia stories is how the world *realistically* got to be the way it was (as well as how people would realistically function once a status quo is established). And that all has to be ignored for many of the key plot elements to be put in place.

    Kingdom (2019) and it’s prequel Kindom: Ashan of the North work because while yes, they are about society (particularly Ashan of the North), they never forget that they’re about zombies either. Also relevant is that Korea’s take on society is very rarely completely bleak; it can almost always be made at least *better* so long as you can get the competent people in charge and get the incompetent people out of positions of power. (There’s probably a bigger discussion here about how Korea knows what the closest thing to an actual dystopia looks like IRL…) This then naturally leads to figuring out “who is good at stopping the zombies” and everyone getting behind that person (assuming what they actually care about is staying alive and keeping other people alive). It doesn’t hurt that we see how they figure out what makes the zombies “work” and act accordingly. These are people who have been through war not long in the past and they know how to think under pressure already. And that skill transfers to stopping a zombie apocalypse.

    “Kingdom: Ashan of the North” is a much more typical Zombie Apocalypse story in a lot of ways because it’s about how the Zombie Apocalypse in Kingdom got started and was set-up. It also has a downer ending. But it’s a much different downer ending than your average Zombie Apocalypse tragedy because we know that by the time Kingdom (2019) happens, people will have figured stuff out about the zombies and will know how to stop them. This is also coupled with the social reason for why Ashan starts the zombie apocalypse on purpose. The same people who can stop the zombie apocalypse wouldn’t have let the situation get to be what it was because they’re decent leaders… and they weren’t the ones leading society when all this was going on…

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Tools I’d want in a zpoc? Farm equipment. There was a tumblr post – and you might know intellectually how big a combine harvester or thresher is, but until you see a picture of someone average sized standing next to one of those things? Just trundle along at a top speed of 10mph or so and leaving nothing but pieces behind you… Someone would probably have to follow and clean up, you don’t want zombie pieces getting into the ground water…

    Or a dump truck a la Mythbusters finale, where they armored it up and added a giant cow-catcher in the front. A mob of any kind wouldn’t stand up to that thing!

    Zpoc itself doesn’t really appeal, mainly because of all the gore and violence that tends to go with it – same reason I’m not into slasher-horror. But if there was a book that dealt with it where the zombies are like the zombie-bugs we currently have, where the problem isn’t that they’ll attack you but that the infectious agent could get into the food supply and there you go… I’d read that. Just look at the rat-lungworm carrying slugs in Hawaii. Anything touched by the slug slime is no longer fit for consumption…

    Liked by 6 people

  8. I recently tried to re-watch The Walking Dead when I saw it on Netflix, and i struggled to complete the first season. I think the real sticking point on a re-watch was just how utterly unprepared the people at the tent camp were for the inevitable swarm. Sure, the can strings were a good idea, but what the hell? You’ve been up there for weeks and not even an attempt at fortifications? Not even something as simple as taking the cars and forming a ring around the tents? Why weren’t the children, at least, sleeping in the RV? Why didn’t anyone try to build platforms in the trees to sleep on?
    I feel like as I’m getting older, i have less and less patience for narrative stupidity. I want to follow a story about the Plucky Survivors using their wits to find a way out of the situation. We need less idiots in the zpoc genre and more people like Ikoma from Kabeneri of the Iron Fortress (and I’m still salty that show never got a second season)

    Liked by 7 people

  9. You will never catch me reading zpoc stories. Never. I don’t even want to read the good ones. Not my thing. Not my thing at all.

    I do understand your frustration, however. The mind-numbing stupidity that needs to happen for the story to work? Yeah, I have no patience for that.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. “Today, we are canceling the Apocalypse!”

    Best line in *Pacific Rim* and the main reason I would not watch the sequel. I love mecha as much as the next person, but I will NOT watch a show that unravels all the hard work the heroes put in to save the world. No. Just *NO*.

    I want stories where the apocalypse is cancelled. I *like* stories where man-made (or alien) attempted apocalypses are cancelled. ‘Cause the real end-of-the-world-and-universe is beyond human control or knowledge and even the knowledge of the angels, good and bad (just roll with me here – I’m not saying anyone has to agree, I’m coming at this from a story perspective). THAT apocalypse is The End for the world as we know it and that’s fine. C.S. Lewis did his version in The Last Battle.

    Zpocs aren’t related to that, and they *shouldn’t* be related to it. Which means they’re either man-made, or they’re some natural bug gone berserk (which again implies man-made, even if by accident). That means they’re *survivable.*

    So let’s see mankind *survive* already, darn it. I want more *Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress* stories and less Walking Dead or World War Z. Not sure if I’m up to writing such myself (generally not a fan of the genre), but I’m open to reading them when they’re written. Which reminds me – Karina Fabian has a series on a female zombie hunter that’s a spoof series (available here: I need to check it out….

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes, you explained perfectly what bugged me so much about the second pacific rim! Sure, the actors were cool and the CGI was passable, but they undid all the hard work and sacrifice from the first movie! I don’t think the director from the first movie was involved either, but if he was, I am very disappointed. And I will also agree with another comment, this is also the main issue I have with the new Star Wars trilogy. The first one was not as bad as the rest, (Although I think would have loved it if they had used Mark Hammel’s idea for the end of the first movie) but the minute they completely changed what Luke was all about and what he had done, it ruined it for me.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hmmm… Independence Day counta as a cancelled Alien Apocalypse. I mean, humanity lost dozens of major cities and cultural centers and millions of people, but in the end, they won and, ultimately, benefited from it.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. Book rec! “Night of the Living Trekkies” by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall. Zombie outbreak at a Star Trek convention! Not grimdark or tragic or despairing at all. Quite a bit of hope and humor, actually. A group of intrepid cosplaying survivors successfully evacuate the doomed city, before it is bombed to contain the outbreak. They also (spoiler) discover and destroy the one intelligent zombie that’s leading the zombies’ hive mind. The MC even gets to save the Love Interest from infection after they learn that it’s sometime possible to save a recently-infected victim with a large enough, high enough, dose of electricity, at the end of the book.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Took the words right out of my mouth. “Target rich environment, all the living civilians are either inside, evacuated/evacuating, or using the opportunity for target practice – let ‘er rip!!! Oh, and call the Coast Guard while you’re at it. No telling if everyone aboard the boats will *stay* on said boats.”

        Liked by 3 people

      2. *Should,* absolutely not. But someone will. As was observed in the Muppet film with the name that escapes me at the moment: “Peoples is peoples.” Even in a zpoc, people will be people. There is no escaping it…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. …hmmm…. Can I up the nightmare factor? Just for sh!ts and giggles? Z-poc starts in Florida, z-virus can be transferred to anything that will eat infected tissue. Crocodiles and alligators will attack any thing that moves like food. Ergo, Zombie Crocs.


      4. Imagine the zpoc Florida during a highly active hurricane season. I don’t imagine rotting bodies will stand up to hurricane force winds every well.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. The Black Tide Rising series had a reason the toe of zpoc being used did collapse civilization: the instigator utilized infectious incubation periods sufficiently extended enough that by the time the zpoc started kicking off there were millions of people ticking down their own clocks to going zombie.

    You’d try to isolate yourself with people and then one or more would turn because they’d been infected days or weeks prior.

    Combine with world wide spread via airports and critical mass hit hard and fast.

    Props to the author for working out a zpoc method without needing supernatural means to animate dead bodies too – the “zombies” are all living people still but their minds have been irrevocably savaged by the disease cocktail and reduced to mindless savagery.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Black Tide Rising” had, IIRC, what was basically genetically engineered airborne rabies, which is a DAMN scary idea. The rabies bit was “packaged” inside a nasty variant of the bog-standard flu, and just as contagious. Gave me flashbacks when COVID hit….

      BTR zombies die from regular bullet wounds, but takes a while, since the “zombies” are running on a mindless adrenaline high — no pain, no fear.

      And Vathara would probably enjoy one of the short stories in that universe, where a team of farmers really do mount up their combines, threshers, and sprayers (turns out agricultural pesticide is a civilian-owned chemical weapon), and their biggest issue is the machinery eventually bogging down after mulching *literally thousands* of infected.

      Perhaps the biggest “classic horror” element in the series is what it takes to make the only known effective vaccine: harvesting the brain/spinal tissue of infected victims and processing it similar to the “live” Polio vaccine. Which is *another* reason the infection spread so far — a lot of people and governments kept treating the infected as *victims* rather than *zomnies* (totally understandable) until it was too late, and the virus was engineered to spread and infect *incredibly* fast.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. A friend of mine is working on a zpoc story where the zpoc is set off by neural-link tech that someone incorporates a mind-altering virus into via a standard software update.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I see that this generated a lot of conversation, I certainly haven’t read all of it. I just wanted to share my amusement that I literally just had a conversation with someone about zombies being unusual/under-used *plot devices* so that people are in the right place/time to have the conversation that you actually want them to have. I only watched the first couple of seasons, but I think AMC’s the Walking Dead was really good at that. Focusing in on people, not the zombies.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s