Could A Zombie Apocalypse Happen In Real Life?

It’s the question that’s haunted moviegoers since George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ crystallized the modern zombie myth in stark monochrome back in 1968: Does mankind face extinction at the hands of zombie apocalypse?

AMC’s ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ is the latest take on the fictional disaster that may or may not face mankind and Dr. Ben Neuman, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, says the idea of a zombie outbreak is actually not as far-fetched as you’d hope.

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“There are parasites out there that get close to making actual walking around zombies,” explains Dr. Neuman, “But the real weirdoes locked up in Mother Nature’s basement are the viruses. There are more viruses out there than we will probably ever discover and I bet that somewhere out there in nature something like this is happening.”

“If you look at rabies, it completely changes the way a dog behaves. It’s transmitted by bites, it leads to madness, convulsions, and so it’s not really that far-fetched.”

Where could it come from?

In ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ the dead are brought back to life by an unknown pathogen, but in the movies it’s often a tinkering scientist that unleashes a manmade virus. 

Fortunately, Dr Neuman says the technology to engineer a virus is actually a long way off in reality. But, he adds that the sheer volume of naturally occurring viruses already on the planet make that a much likelier source for a real zombie outbreak.

“There are about 10 viruses out there for every living plant, animal and cell on earth and every one of those can have strange, unintended consequences if it gets into the wrong place. The only way you’d find out is when it happens.”

“You want to watch out for is monkeys behaving oddly. If monkeys start going crazy and doing very strange things there may be an infection behind it and that’s the one we’d have to watch out for.“

How quickly could it spread?

Despite what films like ’28 Days Later’ or Zack Snyder’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake suggest, the reality of a zombie outbreak that spreads through bites, is that it would probably spread slowly like ebola. This would make containment a lot easier than you may expect.

However if the zombie virus was airborne like the common cold (It’s not clear how it’s transmitted in ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ yet), it could spread around the world once or twice within a year.

“In that case – look out!” Dr Neuman chillingly warns, “It would be bad news for humanity. We could live, or it could live, but both could not.”

Could you survive it?

Steve Hart, author of survivalist website UK Prepper’s Guide, says your only chance for survival in a zombie epidemic is to be prepared, be selfish, and isolate yourself far from other people.

“It’s about putting as much distance between yourself and the infected people as you possibly can, “ Hart says, “Don’t stand around to look; don’t stand around to try fight back.”

“Traditionally and inherently, the zombie virus dulls the brain and movement is slower, thinking is slower, vision is slower and lessened, so therefore if you put yourself in an isolated place that’s difficult to get to, and high up, so that it’s physically awkward for an infected person to get to you.”

“If they can’t find you they can’t infect you,” adds Dr Neuman, “This thing comes from other people so that’s the only way. Completely avoid human contact. It would be scary.”

If you were stuck in an urban location, Hart suggests a police station or prison would make a better base than a supermarket or mall like you see in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, simply because today’s glass-fronted shops make for poor defences against the living dead.

One thing he advises against is tooling up and attacking the undead, but if you have to choose a weapon, Simon Pegg’s character in ‘Shaun of the Dead’ had the right idea.

“If you’re backed into a corner attacking back is still not your first priority it’s getting out of their way. Start dodging and weaving to get around the zombies, get away from it, use something to push them away. In trying to attack a zombie, you’re leaving yourself open to being attacked and being infected yourself.”

“A cricket bat, a baseball bat, something like that which you can wield and attack the head area, that’s the only way to stop the zombie or even just stun it enough to give you time to run away again.”

Could it be cured?

In a worst case scenario, you’re holed up in Wandsworth prison, eating gruel, watching the zombies from your heavily protected cell, biding your time waiting to be rescued. But who will come to your rescue? Not the government, says Hart, you need to be prepared to survive alone.

Dr. Neuman says humanity’s best chance for a cure would lie with science, but it could take a long time to formulate a plan, by which time it could already be too late.

“Somewhere out there, there’s a solution for every kind of infection but it can take years of failed trials before you figure out which one of these many things actually works. Nature is definitely where we’d have to start looking for an answer.”

“There’s a chance there’d be people immune to it. But humans are a bottleneck species. We’re all really similar to each other a lot more similar than two blue whales are to each other for example. We’re all basically the same guy walking around doing the same stuff.”

Scary stuff indeed. 

For more tips on how to survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse, ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ is on AMC from BT, Mondays at 9pm.

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Image credits: AMC/BT/Universal Pictures/Waterfall Home Entertainment/20th Century Fox