Brraaiinns! Or How To Survive When The Zombies Arrive

So, let’s say that it has finally happened. The zombie apocalypse that we have all been secretly hoping for has arrived. The ravening hordes are shuffling slowly up your street, intent on feasting on the flesh of the living. What do you do?

PPPPP: Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Be prepared, like a good Boy Scout. I’m obviously not suggesting that you have a ‘Zombie Emergency Kit’ stashed in your garage, just plan ahead and make sure you have all the things you might need within easy reach when the inevitable happens. Make sure that the car has at least fifty miles of fuel in the tank and is in reasonable running order. Ensure that your wardrobe contains at least one suit of hard-wearing clothing that covers all areas (leather is good and tough – it’s also wipe clean and sexy as hell). Maintain a good few days worth of tinned food in the cupboard and keep a few clean plastic bottles to fill with drinking water. And a first aid kit is a total necessity, packed with bandages, needles, broad-spectrum antibiotics, painkillers and so on. Water purification kits are also a good idea, in case you get lost out in the wilderness, many miles from Starbucks.

Of course, if you are an American (or a similarly unhinged nationality), you will have relatively easy access to firearms. You should therefore ensure that you are well tooled up in terms of your projectile weapon of choice. May I suggest something in a fully automatic shotgun?

Some people really shouldn't have access to this kind of firepower.

On the other hand, if you live in a country that has slightly more rigorous gun control, the best you’re likely to get is a knackered old double-barrel, and even then only if you happen to live on or near a farm or gun shop (which are few and far between – gun shops that is; there are lots of farms). If you live in the city, you could wait for the armed response units or the military to rock up and get eaten, thus leaving lots of shiny, military-grade weapons and ammo lying around, but then you’ll have to deal with all the zombies enjoying the al fresco soldier buffet.

One thing we can be sure of: melee weapons are a bad idea. If you’re that close, you’re probably already dead, and no amount of stabbing or pummeling is going to make a difference.

Have An Exit Strategy

Ok, you’re all prepared to get the hell out of Dodge. But where are you going? If, like me, you live in a big city, you are surrounded by a couple of million other people, of which a large proportion will be trying to dine on the brains of the remaining few, while those few are trying to also flee the carnage. If we assume a 99% infection rate, that still leaves 78,000 people trying to leave London, 20,000 trying to leave Birmingham. New York? 82,000. Shanghai? 178,000.

That’s a lot of traffic. Panicking traffic.

Beep beep!

You think normal rush hour is bad? Wait until you’ve got zombies stumbling into the flow of traffic, beloved family members zombing out in the back seat of the Zafira and the antics of the kind of people who have been looking forward to a zombie apocalypse just so they could play Mad Max on the ring road.

May I recommend staying at home? At least for a day or two. The zombies are unlikely to target you if you draw no attention to yourself. Lock doors and windows, turn out all lights and make no loud noises. Let the terrified and unprepared draw the danger away. Make sure that there is at least one secure exit to your home, one that will cause difficulties for pursuing zombies; a route across rooftops, or a series of lockable doors (zombies have trouble with doorknobs anyway), just in case the zombies do figure out where you are.

Once the roads have cleared a little, get the hell out of the city and head for a safe place in the country. Which leads us to our next point…

Drive Carefully!

This may be a minor point, but I think it bears close examination. The roads will be filled with abandoned vehicles, discarded rubbish and corpses, both shambling and otherwise. These can be problematic when driving, as I’m sure you remember from your own driving tests. The natural reaction will be to wait until nightfall before making your move. DO NOT DO THIS! At night, you will need to use headlights to avoid the dangers in the road. You will therefore be more obvious than a transvestite at a Klan rally. Drive during the day, you’ll be less noticeable.

And as for running over the zombies, well, check out the windscreen on this car after it hit a pedestrian.

Imagine hitting more than two zombies. The third one’s going to be sat in the car with you.

And then you’re lunch. And talking of cars…

A Decent Set Of Wheels

What are you driving? Something quick? A big V8, maybe the last of the V8s? Probably not a lot of use, considering the state of the roads in the post-apocalyptic world (roads in the pre-apocalyptic world aren’t all that great). One fire will fuck up the tarmac so much that a low-slung muscle car just isn’t going to cut it. You want something with four-wheel drive, something rugged, something easy to fix. Basically, you want one of these:

 

Proper motor!

There’s a reason that the British Army have been using this baby for about sixty years. And that reason is that it’s virtually unbreakable. The bodywork is made of solid hardness and the chassis is constructed from girders and stiff-upper-lippedness. It can be fixed in the field by squaddies with sticks and it can be converted to run on just about anything that will burn. It can also be fitted with riot protection really easily, which means you can actually drive through a bunch of zombies without being eaten. They may be noisy, thus attracting zombies to your location, but they are tough, and can protect you while you make your escape.

Have A Place To Go

There is no point in running if you’re just running away. You need to have somewhere to run to. Somewhere safe, but where is that? What constitutes ‘safe’ in world mostly populated with wandering, hungry corpses? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, water and sleep are right at the bottom, with property and bodily security right above them. So you want a good, solid and well-defended base, right? Somewhere with just one way in, so it’s easy to barricade, right?

Wrong.

One way in is one way out, and if it’s crawling with zombies, you’re not getting out that way. You’re trapped inside. Still, as long as it’s safe, right? Wrong again. You’re surrounded by zombies. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to get out for more food. How long does it take for a zombie to starve to death? Or get bored and wander off, especially if it knows there are tasty people inside? Want to risk it?

Your best bet is to have a number of bolt-holes scattered about the countryside. Look at what you need. Food and water easily accessible, so a river or lake with plenty of life in is a good start (unless the fish are zombies – I don’t recall any literature dealing with undead trout, but keep your eyes open just in case). An independent power supply, such as a petrol driven generator or effective renewable energy sources are essential – how else will you practise zombie slaying on the Xbox? Farms are good, especially if they are built on reasonably open ground, as are nice, large and fertile islands; this gives you multiple escape routes and lots of land for growing food and raising livestock in the long-term. Open ground also allows excellent sight-lines for picking off the odd wandering zombie.

So, you’ve got a place to hide out, without hordes of zombies, with good sight-lines for…

Neca Eos Omnes…

Ok, I mentioned guns earlier. This is the bit that all true zombie fans are really interested in. What’s the point in having a world over-run by zombies if you aren’t going to spray their internal organs all over the place with fully automatic weaponry? So let’s just assume that you have the pick of any firearms that you could possibly want: which ones do you carry?

"We need to get bigger guns. Big fucking guns!"

We need to remember that, despite what video games would have us believe, one man cannot carry that much in the way of guns. A typical handgun weighs a couple of pounds, fully loaded. A submachine gun weighs in at around eight pounds. An assault rifle, twelve. Shotgun, seven. Add in a reasonable amount of ammunition for the guns and you’re talking between three and ten pounds per hundred rounds. A soldier may carry up to ninety pounds into combat, including water, first-aid kits, GPS, radios, a belt of ammo for a squad support weapon and so on. And they are trained to do it.

Go to a mirror and take a long, hard look at yourself. Reckon you could manage it?

Thought not. Realistically, an average person could probably carry a pistol and an assault rifle or auto-shotgun, plus enough ammo to be useful, for any extended period of time. Of course, you can load up the 4X4 with extra weaponry, but each additional gun is a couple of days worth of food or water that you don’t have room for.

While we’re on the subject, how good a shot are you? Do you practise often? And I’m not sure how much Time Crisis counts. The point is, headshots (the traditional method of dispatching the zombie menace) are tricky, especially in a high stress situation. The good news is that you don’t need to kill them. Blowing their legs off would allow you to get away too. Ok, so you’ll be leaving an extremely pissed off zombie lying around with no legs, just waiting for the next poor sap to stumble past, but fuck him! At least you’ll get away. Don’t waste time and ammo on fancy shots. Take out chunks of zombie with some massive tissue damage and simple engineering principles will do the rest. It can’t run after you if its femurs are shattered. Of course, if you’ve got a safe, elevated position and a sniper rifle, then knock yourself out!

Mum! I got an ouchie!

As I mentioned earlier, melee weapons are asking for trouble, but explosives of various types can be useful. Molotov cocktails, if you have a plentiful supply of petrol, will crisp a zombie up nicely, but leave the more tricky ones to the experts. Grenades are fairly simple to use, but hard to get hold of unless you’re in the military, and homemade explosives are just a cheap way to blow your own arms off.

Old school defensive structures are surprisingly useful against zombies, because they don’t have the sense to spot them. Pit traps, log falls, even mechanical bear traps can all be used to keep zombies away from your perimeter.

Who’s With You?

The final part of this article deals with the people around you. How do you decide who you band together with? The obvious answer goes hand in hand with the ‘planning’ suggestion earlier; figure out before the apocalypse who is going to be a useful addition to the team. Mechanical skills, medical skills, survival skills are all useful, and don’t forget someone who can make tinned food not taste like week-old arse. Once you have a good idea where you are going, you can figure out whose skills will be most useful to you. The temptation will be to save family members and other loved ones, but you may not have the luxury of compassion in the zombified world.

Unless they are plump and slow-moving, in which case you might want to take them along in case you need a distraction. Working in groups is a good idea, though. Safety in numbers isn’t just a cliché, it could save lives. Ideally, contact other potential survivor cells before the apocalypse and arrange to meet up at a secret location and form a super-commune, to help repopulate the world.

But remember to invite some members of the opposite sex…

Blood-sucking Parasites!

[WARNING – CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS – And a mention or two of Twilight. Sorry.]

For the second in my series on monsters, I’ve decided to look at what is arguably the most popular of all of them: Vampires. Unlike zombies, who are still basically the same as they have always been (aside from speeding up a bit, and different ways of creating them), vampires have undergone a succession of major transformations over the centuries. Legends of blood-sucking demons have existed in almost every country and culture, from ancient Assyria, through India, Africa, the Americas, Greece, Rome, and all the way to the Eastern European legends that most of us associate with ‘modern’ vampires.

Vampires get people in a flap

Modern vampires really get their wings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This followed a couple of centuries of increased belief in vampires, occasionally flaring up into bouts of mass hysteria, with corpses being dug up and staked or beheaded, police and government officials filling in reports specifically naming vampires as the cause of deaths, and entire villages swearing that a dead neighbour has returned from the grave to drink the blood of the living. With the creatures of the night so firmly in the public consciousness, vampires began to infiltrate literature in the form of the writings of Stagg, Shelley and, of course, John Polidori. Polidori was an associate of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, novelist and all-round degenerate Lord Byron, and it is assumed that he based the main character of his novel The Vampyre (1819), Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself.

The Vampyre is the first appearance of the suave and charismatic vampire in literature, so is arguably the birthplace of the modern vampire myth. This fusing of the romantic and the macabre became known as Gothic literature, famous for such classics as Frankenstein (1818) – written as part of the contest between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, that also produced Polidori’s The VampyreThe Fall of the House of Usher (1839), by Edgar Allen Poe, and, obviously, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, probably the most famous of all vampire novels.

Gary Oldman pimpin' it as Dracula

Soon after the release of Dracula, vampires began crawling onto the silver screen. The most notable of these early vampire films (if not the first) was Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s rip-off of the Bram Stoker classic that somehow became a completely different take on vampirism. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is monstrous, a twisted, inhuman predator (the film is often accused of anti-Semitism due to Orlok’s appearance being so similar to the stereotyped look of the Jew), although the character clearly has strong sexual overtones, being destroyed by feasting sensuously on the virginal Ellen Hutter until the sun rises.

The 1930s gave us the Universal Studios version of Dracula (1931) with the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi as the opera-cloak wearing vampire gentleman. His ‘Transylvanian’ accent would slip into the collective unconscious as shorthand for ‘vampire’ for decades to come. Again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual predator, suave and handsome, albeit with some monstrous features and habits!

Later still, Britain’s Hammer House of Horrors version of Dracula (1958) introduced the world to another iconic performance, that of the great Christopher Lee. His imposing six foot five frame created a physically powerful vampire, as well as sexy, despite his supernatural powers being reduced to immortality: he could effectively resurrect himself endlessly – handy for a run of sequels. Again, this vampire was a strong sexual predator, feasting on a succession of scantily clad and buxom wenches.

This subtext of sex has run through the vampire legend since those early Romantic versions, surfacing again and again. The original vampires were monsters, attacking and killing, feasting on the blood of the living to sustain their damned half-life. When Polidori used Byron as a model, sex couldn’t have been far behind. After all, Byron famously had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb (wife of the 2nd Viscount Melbourne), Jane Harley (wife of the Earl of Oxford), and Augusta Leigh (his own half-sister, although this affair was only a rumour, possibly spread by the obsessed Caroline Lamb). Vampires feed by biting their victims, the most vicious and primitive sort of attack, but the mouth is also sensuous. Love bites and kisses, especially on the neck, are hugely intimate and sexy. In addition to this, we have the penetrative aspect of those fangs, and the passion (not to mention the menstrual connection) of blood.

Vampires are creatures that we love. But why? What is it about them that we find fascinating? Dr Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist, suggests a number of reasons, including the simple fact that vampires are loners. According to modern sources, vampires either live alone or in hierarchical packs, led by a single, powerful vampire. Dracula had his vampettes, Max had his punk son and his friends, Jesse had his crew. They are outsiders, unaffected by human values, morals or laws. Often, things fall apart for them when they accept a new human into their ranks – Dracula fell for Mina and was killed as a result, Max told David to ‘turn’ Michael so he could get his fangs into Lucy and was killed as a result, Mae ‘turned’ Caleb and the whole crew died as a result. The outsider archetype is a strong one, especially in American literature and film. The outsider is strong, self-reliant, driven by their own code. They typify the ideal of the American West, of the outlaw. Near Dark (1987) was pretty explicit in this regard, having Jesse (Lance Henrikson) played as a veteran of the American War of Independence, in which he “fought for the South…We lost”.

Near Dark: Rebels without a pulse

Near Dark also used sex as a weapon of the vampires. Vulnerable and elfin vamp Mae seduces and ‘turns’ farm boy Caleb, inducting him into their psychotic road crew of killer vamps, including the aforementioned Jesse, his squeeze Diamondback, leather-jacketed, fun-loving crazy Severen and old-man-in-young-boy’s-body Homer. They are played as anarchic serial killers, driving the endless highways in a series of stolen vehicles and feasting from losers in roadside bars. Love ultimately wins out over sex, and the vampires go out in a blaze of glory (literally).

The Lost Boys (1987) also presented the vampires as rebels, this time apparently led by the superb blond mullet of a young Keifer Sutherland. It echoes the ideas of half-vampires suggested in Near Dark, and runs with the ideas of juvenile delinquency. Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move to Santa Carla, the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ and soon find it under the sway of David’s (Keifer Sutherland) gang of teenage vampires. Less sex, although Michael is attracted to the gang by Star (Jami Gertz), and more drugs and rock-and-roll, The Lost Boys is a cult classic for good reason. It isn’t hugely innovative in terms of the vampire mythos, but it does add a heavy dose of cool, which, like Near Dark, made the vampire something that a certain breed of movie-goer would relate to.

A film that took the myth in a different direction was Tony ‘brother of Ridley’ Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Although it features a sex scene between the vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and Sarah (Susan Sarandon), the film approaches vampirism as an addiction. Miriam feeds on clubbers, extending their life span as a result, only to leave them to rapidly age and die when she moves on. David Bowie gives a surprisingly strong performance as John, Miriam’s dying ex-lover, suffering the painful symptoms of withdrawal. The sensuousness of the film is almost an expression of a drug-induced ecstasy, rather than the fulfilment of sexual contact.

In 1976, Anne Rice published the first in a series of vampire novels, in which she explored the curse of longevity. Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview With The Vampire (1994) introduced the world to Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis, as Louis wandered around New Orleans bemoaning his fate, while Lestat (for some bizarre reason) refused to let him leave. It ignored many of the traditional vampiric weaknesses (garlic and religious symbols) although sunlight could kill them. The ‘Vampire Chronicles’, as the books became known, sold very well and influenced a large section of the Goth community. They also had an influence on the role-playing scene as well; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade owes a great deal to Rice’s portrayal of vampiric society.

"Look me in the eye, Tom, and tell me you aren't standing on a box."

There is no way I can talk about vampires in pop culture without at least a passing reference to the long-running (six years) television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What began as a tongue-in-cheek tale of an air-headed valley girl being chosen to fight the forces of evil developed into a surprisingly detailed world of monsters (both human and otherwise), love, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, death, rebirth, family, friendship, school, life and on and on and on! Originally created by Joss Whedon, it was written with wit and a deep understanding of the trauma of high school. The characters were engaging and the storylines solid. It gave us the evil vamp forced to turn good (Spike), the evil vamp turned good by love (Angel), and every type of truly evil vamp you can think of, from the one shot monsters to the sneaky evil geniuses. It was a cool update to the mythos, and introduced a whole new generation to vampires and the supernatural.

Vampires became rich and powerful in the last years of the 20th century, but were hunted down by the brutal martial-arts stylings of the Daywalker. Blade (1999) featured Wesley Snipes as the titular half-vampire, high-kicking his way through the ranks of Stephen Dorff’s minions. The film takes a pseudo-scientific approach to vampirism, seeing it as a disease, although the pounding soundtrack, sick moves and black leather detract from that somewhat. It’s an action movie that spawned a handful of less successful sequels, but the original is worth a watch. The vamps here represent a kind of neo-Roman decadence that the uptight Blade fights against as he struggles to rebel – but this time the rebellion is against his own vampiric nature.

"I really hate that Stephen Dorff. Oh crap. He's right behind me, isn't he?"

In recent years, we have seen a slight return to the animalistic predator form of vampire in movies like 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend (although the source novel presents them in a very different light), but we have also seen the sexual type flourish. I am loathe to mention the Twilight series, but feel my hand is somewhat forced. The popularity of this teeny-goth best-seller is all about the sex. It’s the longing for the sensitive and moody emo type, represented here by concave-faced Robert Pattinson. However, it’s about NOT having sex. Oh yes, Stephanie Meyer’s first book showed a clear Christian message, with family values and their strength coming from what they believe in (some sources suggest a veiled metaphor for Mormonism – not having read them or seen the films I’m not sure how accurate these accusations are. Please tell us in the comments if you know!). This is a direct contrast to the savagery of the 30 Days of Night/I Am Legend style vamp. These are inhuman looking, with super quick reflexes and little in the way of social skills. These are the monsters under the bed; no sexual subtext here, just the innate fear of being eaten alive. Television shows like Ultraviolet (sadly short-lived) presented vampires as secretive, trying to live within human society and manipulate us, controlling the way we think in subtle ways. If nobody believes in vampires, surely that just makes it easier for them to move among us, undetected.

So the vampire presents us with a dichotomy. On the one hand, they are virtually unkillable predators, repelled only by the glory of God (holy water, consecrated earth, sunlight), out to drain our life’s blood to sustain their night-time half-lives. On the other, they are sexy, strong, charismatic and eternal. They ooze sensuality, leave you begging for more, turn you into a desperate addict. They are cool, turning their backs on a repressive human society and living by their own rules, taking no shit off anybody and killing anyone who pisses them off. Or they are the elite, sitting at the top of human society, breeding us to be ignorant of their existence, like cattle, ripe for the taking.

Which is it? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. We like them for all the same reasons we fear them. We created them millennia ago as blood-drinking demons that came in the night. We have turned them into the beautiful, sensitive loner, powerful and magical.

But they still don’t bloody sparkle.

When There’s No More Room In Hell…

This is the first in a series of blogs about famous monster types from literature, film and folklore. I thought I’d start with a common creature that mostly appears in movieland: The Zombie.

"Anybody got a Band-Aid?"

As you all know, the name ‘zombie’ originates from Haitian and West African traditions of Voodoo (or Vodun, or Vodou), where a zombie (or zonbi, or nzumbe – thanks Wikipedia!) is generally regarded as a re-animated corpse, brought back from the dead to do the bidding of a practitioner. Some have argued that zombies are the result of pharmacological compounds, consisting of pufferfish venom among other things, but this is generally dismissed by the medical community. Although the word is linked to Voodoo, the creature appears in many different cultures, fulfilling different niches in folklore. The draugr (recently seen in Skyrim) are the living dead from Norse mythology that guard the burial chambers of heroes, while revenants are European spirits that return from the dead in physical bodies, mainly to pick on their living relatives or take revenge on their killer. The German nachzehrer (basically ‘devourer from the afterlife’) was linked to deaths from epidemics, predating recent ‘infected’ zombie types.

Zombies have gained popularity over the last few decades, mainly down to the stirling work of film-makers like George A. Romero, Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright (as well as the less stirling work of a veritable horde of others). There are a number of takes on the zombie, ranging from the shambling, groaning undead (the ‘classic’ movie zombie) to the sprinting and leaping ‘infected’ (the ‘new-wave’ zombie), but they all have a relentless hunger for human flesh – and often brains – in common. A zombie can be created by a disease, often spread by bite or other bodily fluid, by magic or by radiation, as well as a range of other possibilities, so it seems that the existence of zombies is of far greater importance than what caused them. In fact, this is often the case with these movies – ‘where did they come from’ is far a less important question than ‘how the hell do we get away from them?’

So why are they so popular? Why do they make such a good monster?

Well, firstly it is a force of numbers thing.

The queue for the new iPhone was getting out of hand

The idea is that there is an endless supply of hungry, angry, cannibalistic corpses. On its own, a single zombie isn’t that much of a threat – it’s slow and stupid – but they don’t tend to attack on their own. As the great bard himself said, “When zombies come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions”. And because they are technically already dead, it’s a bit tricky to actually kill them. In movieland, the destruction of the head is usually the way forward – sever the connection to the brain and the body will die. This leads to a series of cool special effects as zombie skulls are exploded across the screen in a variety of inventive ways and bloody showers of gore.

Of course, if the horde does get its hands on you, it’s a painful and violent death. We have an in-built horror of being eaten by something – it triggers a primal fear in us – and zombies are an embodiment of this fear. They keep coming. They have no remorse. They will eat you alive. It’s a predator/prey thing.

Om nom nom

Typical zombie films consist of a group of – usually mismatched – strangers banding together for protection as they try to find a safe place to escape to. This gives the film-maker good scope to include the frictions between the disparate characters as well as the stress from thousands of relentless killing machines bearing down on them. Themes of racism, sexual politics and growing up are common in these films, although the learning is often interrupted by someone’s intestines being pulled out through their anus, followed by hysterical screaming and a lot more running away.

The image of the zombie horde has lodged itself so firmly in the collective consciousness that the internet is full of sites dedicated to the creatures, from artwork to fan fiction, from (de)motivational posters to scholarly – and not so scholarly – articles on how to survive a zombie apocalypse. Even The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has posted an article on what to do in the event of an outbreak of zombies in your town. Admittedly, its tongue is firmly in its cheek, but it raises some good points about general emergency preparedness.

Are you prepared? What would be essential kit for your zombie survival kit? Let’s see if we can get a definitive kit worked out.