Everybody knows that it’s easiest to just cut to “six months later” and show a ravaged landscape of zombies and survivors, where everybody mostly knows all the rules and the stakes are super high. And that’s fun and all, sure! But if you’re not a little prepared, you’re going to be one of those people getting munched on in the prologue. Here are some different ways your zombie apocalypse might begin, and some things to watch out for.
Before we get into the different possibilities for your zombie outbreak scenarios, let’s go over a few general signs to watch out for at the outset:
Emptying Streets – When zombie stories aren’t holding a mirror up to our economic blindspots or standing as a metaphor for our collective social hangups, one of the takeaways is that people dumb about emergencies: we are usually slow to react, tend to rule denial better than Cleopatra and stubbornly refuse to change with the times. As such, at first it’s just gonna be a lot of people dying in certain places and most people pretending it’s a short term problem. If you start noticing a large amount of absences, especially familiar signs to your day life out on the city street, you might want to look into it.
Influx of Unannounced Family Vacations – I don’t care who you are, if you see more than two families suddenly stuff a bunch of stuff into a car and drive off, especially if they are doing it looking slightly panicked and not interacting with their neighbors, you should just consider getting out of town. Even if it’s not a zombie outbreak, clearly people know something you don’t. We can get a little selfish in dangerous times, and so a bunch of jerks who catch on early might not say anything on their way off the block in fear of getting out ahead of the end-of-the-world traffic nightmare that is about to turn your city into a parking-lot/zombie-buffet.
Vanished Animal Life – It’s a fifty-fifty shot whether or not your zombies will eat anything alive or just concentrate on people, but if your undead do munch on fauna you’re going to see that fauna leave the area right quick. Like when animals go to high ground before a tsunami, or even how your dog might tense up long in advance of an earthquake, animals know stuff, man. If you see hordes of rats fleeing the city or notice there are suddenly no more crows, it might be happening.
All the Barking – Even if your zombies are only going after Homo sapiens, dogs are the best people and will probably hate zombies. So if all of the dogs start losing their minds consistently, start paying attention. (Seriously if you are at all prepared for the zombie apocalypse you will have a dog. Get a dog.)
If one or more of these warning signs are occurring, you may be experiencing the origins of your zombie apocalypse! But what kind will it be?
We really like to weaponize things, and one day it’s gonna get us killed. Whether we’re trying to make some supervirus to be used in warfare or opening mini-black holes right next to where all our stuff is, somebody’s going to do something really bad. Of course, blinking our planet out of existence isn’t something you can really react to, but that’s probably way less likely than creating a plague that brings people back from the dead as reanimated brainless cannibals (sure, saying it that way makes it sound more farfetched, but the planet is really big). In this scenario, your zombie apocalypse will either feature the dumb shambling hoards, or the super aggro screaming runny guys (and you can say “they’re not really zombies” with your hands on your hips all you want, they won’t understand you anyway and just eat you).
The Mad Science Scenario could come about because a lab tech spilled a vial of something during a big-wig site visit or because they tested it on some subjects and underestimated the virility of their concoction. Because that’s how humanity will probably go, not with a bang but with an “Oops.”
Signs to watch out for: Hazmat suits; your government being mum on the cause; a manifesto showing up somewhere on the internet; high officials being evacuated before reports of carnage
Staying human: If it’s airborne, you’re out of luck my friend. Otherwise duct tape magazines onto your arms and legs and wear a lot of layers. Don’t worry about the smell, that’s the new norm.
Chance of civilization recovering: Moderate. The government might retain enough control of the military to sweep in eventually. General principles apply, shoot ‘em in the noggin, hope for the best.
If our species ever gets a tombstone, our epitaph is going to be one of two things: “No Pepsi Isn’t Ok” (which isn’t relevant to the conversation), or “They meddled in things they couldn’t possibly understand.” We’re talking about a species that watched Jurassic Park and still tried to clone extinct life, or in general thinks using HIV to cure cancer is a good idea. There’s a high likelihood scientists won’t purposefully try kill us all, but pave a path right to hell trying to manufacture a little slice of heaven. It’s not a stretch to imagine a bunch of whitecoats trying to microscope their way to a drug that gives us an extra seventy years of life and a lot of extra bounce to our hair, and instead wind up creating a mutant virus that turns us all against each other. In some ways, it amounts to semantics, the difference between Mad Science and Accidental Science, but it would certainly be cheerier to think that if we are inevitably the architects of our destruction that at least our hearts were in the right place. Before you know. They were eaten.
Signs to watch out for: Hazmat suits; governments shutting down whole areas of country- or cityside while still acting like everything’s fine; spokespeople talking a bunch of transparently downplayed gobbledygook but using the word “reanimated”; 24 hour news cycles circling around the irony like vultures
Staying human: Don’t get bit, mainly, but also be wary of water and food supplies. With accidental science you can never truly be sure. Get used to boiling.
Chance of civilization recovering: Moderate-to-Low. Without somebody masterminding this intentionally everybody could get caught off guard and never recover. Usual rules apply, aim for the head and stay hunkered down.
Crazy Space Invasion Virus
Picture this: you’re part of an evil and nefarious alien race that wants to kill all the monkeymen living on that third rock way out there. You have the choice of either like, getting up, and putting a suit on, and training, and then getting in a ship and travelling all that way; or you can just send a meteor or something with a disease in it that will do the work for you. You get to watch space television and hang out with your weird tentacle buddies and relax while you commit genocide from a distance! Of course you’re going to go with that option.
So make no mistake, if aliens decide to take us out they’re doing it with a space plague! There are lots of examples of this in nature; funguses get into insect brains and make them get intentionally eaten, viruses cause species to take more risks – it’s not a stretch to see an otherworldly pathogen that spreads like wildfire and really only expands our preexisting if dormant desire to gnaw each other’s faces off.
With this apocalypse option, your zombies might look more weird and infected than dead – and be careful, they might have marginal problem solving intelligence. Zombies we might be able to handle, but zombies that can open doors and retain object permanence? We’re doomed.
Signs to watch out for: Things crash-landing from space; all of the military suddenly coming home (U.S); the rest of the military you thought was already tapped showing up in your country unannounced (rest of the world); radio transmissions of taunts from Andromeda; strange growths showing up on people’s skin even before they turn
Staying human: Hazmat suits or natural immunity, there’s not a lot else you can do.
Chance of civilization recovering: Moderate. Sure, space disease is scary, but biology is a hard science to master, especially from a distance. Some of us will probably be immune, and never underestimate some crazy individual who manages to Jeff Goldblum themselves a cure. Plus, aliens are always messing up when it comes to humans: remember that movie where they invaded Earth but failed because they were allergic to water? Honestly we might be fine.
Oh, man, magic. Nobody should mess with that stuff. You’re out having a good time making a rabbit disappear and suddenly you’ve opened up a netherportal to the umbra and a contagion ghoul pops out and starts causing mayhem. Please don’t read aloud from the Necronomicon. I know it’s not a real book, Brad, but just in case. Stop messing with magic. Staying away from the mystical stuff doesn’t mean everybody else will, of course, so even living a virtuous life of raisin bran and science, the voodoo nonsense may come to get you.
With these kinds of zombies, it’s a total crapshoot. You could have the portal scenario, or some meddler could raise an undead slave but pick somebody who died with the flu and things go haywire, and you get your shambly-idiot-type zombies. Maybe some gypsy brought a loved one back to life and it didn’t go right, so your zombies are kind of people like and can even talk, but still end up eating you. It could even be some curse that brings everyone who died with hate in their heart back from the dead to get revenge or something, only on a global scale. You know how boring all of those Crow sequels got? Imagine a new one every day, only for real. That would be by far the bleakest timeline.
Signs to watch out for: Protection circles; an influx in people wearing robes; weird mystical sculptures being made out of wicker like the first season of True Detective; magical residue that causes other unnatural events to occur; the constant aftertaste of Twinkies in your mouth (this has been proven, it’s what dark magic does to the atmosphere, study it out).
Staying human: The good news is with a magical zombie outbreak you’ll probably just get eaten, not infected, so that’s good. Really you don’t have a lot of options for this one, except going out and learning magic, but it’s not like Dumbledore is going to be hanging out the café after this all gets out of hand.
Chance of civilization recovering: Low. Because magic. All bets are off, at that point, because trust me once people realize they can just sort of wand-wave themselves into food or money or a better physique, I can’t imagine even a legit function society to stay cohesive for very long.
Nondenominational Omnipotent Vengeance
Look gods get angry sometimes, it’s sort of their thing. Don’t judge them, they’ve got god things on their plates, you can’t even imagine! I’m surprised there aren’t more tantrums, frankly. But every now and then there’s just a good cleansing. You know, a flood, a huge sweeping fire, the sun disappearing for a while, the land and the oceans changing places real fast a few times, Justin Bieber, or sometimes even the dead rising from their graves and walking the earth again. Maybe it’s to just not be in the ground anymore, but it could be to cause a lot of harm.
These zombies might be your shuffling dumb kind, but they could also be their old selves with a divinely-programmed mission to slaughter and chew their way through Las Vegas. And be warned: this kind of zombie apocalypse usually signals something worse, end times, big climactic wars, maybe a giant mouth eating the universe. There’s only so much you can do about these things.
Signs to watch out for: Crazy weather that defies reason and possibility; an excess of horns blowing in the distance; horses flying around the sky; big heads, eyes or other body parts orbiting your field of vision; skeletons
Staying human: This probably won’t be a problem, it’s everything else you’ll have to worry about.
Chances of civilization recovering: Nah dog.
Everyone always forgets about robots. First off: never forget about robots. Second off, robots are tiny now! Nanotech! And when you add that to Artificial Intelligence, you might end up with a technological virus where some super computer sneaks into all of our brains and takes control of our motor cortex, or slaves us all into a sort of hive-mind-hybrid thing a la the Borg.
These zombies will probably be shambling and shuffling types at first, but watch out: the better Skynet gets at understanding how we tick, the better it will be at controlling us! So these zombies that start off stupid and barely mobile might end up becoming fierce predators. Soon, the only thing you’ll have to tell apart human from hybrid will be whether or not your target has a sense of humor. It’s a bleak landscape, telling each other knock-knock jokes as verification of humanity. Plus, with some of the stuff on television, you start to wonder if we’ll be able to tell the difference.
Signs to watch out for: Increase in metal detectors triggering; people going all dull-eyed and still after answering their cell phone; a spike in trash and post service efficiency if they try to blend in at first; a campaign against knock-knock jokes
Staying human: It’s nanotech, so not a lot. Magnet hat might do the trick, but it might cause more problems than it solves.
Chances of civilization recovering: High. The robots never take over without some messy time travel plot that keeps kicking the apocalypse can down the calendar. Either it already happened and was over before it started, or you just gotta stay frosty and wait for John Connor. Good luck out there.