Zombies are everywhere these days. Quite right too as they’re exciting, scary and a fantastic reason to grab your weapon of choice and go nuts with as much violence, bloodshed and all the last stands you can muster.
I’ve been a fan of the undead for a long time. I love reading about them and watching them on film and TV. But there’s one question that itches at the back of my head every time a character kills a zombie:
Why does it appear so easy?
It’s rare to come across a survivor who doesn’t make this look effortless.
And when I say easy I’m not only referring to the physical act alone, but we’ll get back to that shortly.
Naturally for the sake of drama and ease of story telling you can’t have every single character struggle to kill each member of the undead club they come across. Could you imagine how The Walking Dead would look if everyone took ages to kill a single zombie?
Zombie noggins are basically soggy melons. They burst, crack, splinter, explode and shatter at the slightest touch. That way the story-teller can get on with the pace, characters, tension, plot and so on. Fair play. I get that. You gotta keep the momentum going or you risk losing your audience.
I’ve done it myself in The Range (available on Amazon kindle btw. It’s a fab read. Just saying.) A few of my characters have waded through packs of flesh bags, hacking away like they’re cutting swathes of corn than actual people.
Have you ever hit your head on something?
Ever hit it hard? Drawn blood? Ended up in the emergency room?
Skulls are kinda hard.
So, for the sake of story telling the undead head has the same properties as a melon. Easy to cut, chop, sever, bash, explode, shoot, shatter, crush, pop, slice and indeed dice. Just like a melon.
But what about reality?
Woah! Easy there, Dave. Where are you going with this?
Hold your horses, dear blog reader. I’m not planning on researching this first hand. Mainly because there are no handy zombies around to practice on, but mostly because they don’t actually exist. Also I’ve no plans to locate real people and experiment with various weapons on how hard/easy it is to bash those skulls in.
No point really, not when I can write about it. That’s much more fun.
Side bar – check out this t-shirt.
The horror of witnessing the collapse of civilisation as we know it doesn’t appeal to me, but a future many years later once the living dead have been dealt with where mankind can return to a slower, more simplistic way of living, that’s an interesting concept. That’s what excites me. Modern conveniences and attitudes grind my gears.
Right, back to it.
What I mean about reality is that often overlooked place where zombie fiction has the opportunity to meet with an element of fact. There’s some evidence of physical struggle in the movie version of World War Zed, or Zee if you happen to own a Yankie voice.
For the record I enjoyed the movie which, though very different to the book, I liked as a standalone piece of entertainment.
Oh, spoilers ahead so be prepared.
In the movie Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, is running through a WHO building, zombies in pursuit, when he jams a crowbar into the skull of an undead. When another shows up and begins racing down the corridor toward him (a standard, yet enjoyable, OhCrap moment designed to raise tension even though the audience knows Gerry is in no danger) Gerry struggles to wrench his weapon from the head of the zombie on the floor.
I liked that. It made sense. If you shove something chunky and spiked into a human skull, it’s reasonable to expect some difficulty with extracting that weapon. Although what annoyed me was when he clearly left his only weapon outside of the virus room. Throughout the movie we’re shown that Gerry is smart, yet right there the script writer let the audience down with a dumb move simply because the plot needed Gerry to lose his weapon for the sake of the next important scene.
‘Yeah, forget that bit now. Look away. We’re focussing on Gerry and the room full of deadly unlabbled virus’s, and the dead research assistant who’s about to show up.’
Whilst I’m on the subject, every single label was blank! It’s the World Health Organisation. What’s up with that? They should have words on them. DANGER – DEADLY EBOLA! DO NOT USE! Gerry had to stick some in his arm, so what difference would it make if he knew what was inside? Also, how come the doctors are able to give him an antidote so easily when they didn’t know what he’d used?
Sloppy writing like that grinds my gears big time.
Back on point, again. Sorry. I remember years ago smashing up a rotten fence in the back garden with a big lump hammer. Every so often it made a hole in the rather thin wood only to get stuck and require a considerable effort to yank it free.
Fences are like skulls – stubborn, hard, brittle and prone to rot and decay when left uncared for.
I’m sure there are other examples in both written and visual mediums. That tricksy situation must have crossed the mind of writers from time to time.
Circling back to an earlier point, how easy is it to kill a zombie?
I see two main hurdles here.
- First – the physical act itself.
- Second – the mental and emotional impact.
Since the physical act has received enough page and screen time by many artists I’ll skip over that part.
What I’m interested in the second hurdle. Zombie culture shows it’s easy to kill a zombie in a gazillion different ways. It’s rare to see the emotional side of such a horrific ordeal. One springs to mind in The Walking Dead when Daryl finds his brother, Merle, has gone full zombie.
Even with their love/hate relationship, when Daryl faces his undead brother the anguish is raw and brutal. He didn’t want his brother to die, but worse still is having to kill him permanently. It’s a fantastic scene that highlights the human traits of both the inbuilt need to survive and the desire to protect others.
The Walking Dead writer’s can’t have every character go through a shit storm of emotions every time they put down a walker. Their audience would be exhausted in no time. However, it was good to see that emotional aspect explored.
There’s a reason why I’ve asked the question.
I’m about half way through writing my second novel in the Bloodwalker Legacy trilogy, The Holt. It’ll be considerably longer than The Range and focusses on key characters and how they cope with a terrifying new world of violence, death and fear.
Whilst there are exciting scenes of head splatting zombie gore and a decent dose of tense “ohshitohshitohsit!” moments, I’m concentrating on making sure the characters don’t fall into the trap of behaving like one-dimensional cut-outs.
The story is driven by the characters, not the plot. Sure, there’s a plot, but it’s the decisions made by the characters that drive it forward. And because of that I want them to act like real people. I want them to agonise over the deaths of the infected because they were once people.
Zombies are still people, whether they’re undead or infected with a virus like 28 Days Later. There’s something of a balancing act between chopping, shooting, bashing and slaughtering the bad guys, and the emotional torment about killing people.
In order to write how one of my characters kills an infected person I’ve been trying to work out how I would cope with such a horrendous choice.
Part of me thinks I could do it. I’d be tough. I’d bury any emotional or mental stress deep down and do what I must for the sake of my survival and that of my family.
Yet another part questions whether I’d have the courage to do it.
Try this scenario out.
For the sake of argument let’s say there news is reporting a lot undead folk out and about. It’s not gone full-blown bonkers quite yet, more the burning ember at the end of the fuse and there’s an undercurrent drifting toward a tipping point where things might go very bad very fast.
There are two options at the top of the tree. Everything else you do follows as a result of choosing one over the other.
What’s important in this thought experiment is that you concentrate on one choice only because in real life you don’t have time to evaluate them both. One excludes the perception of the other. Once you make it you move to the next branch in the tree, leaving behind any chance of choosing the alternative.
Let’s get on with the show.
Right now, here, sat in front of your screen, a member of your family, or even a friend, appears beside you. They look sick. Very sick. They’re mumbling and moaning. Then something wet and heavy lands on your keyboard and your heart stops.
Option 1 – Everything will be okay.
They’re fine. Just sick. They need help. I’ll help them. I’ll get a doctor. It’s not the same thing that I’ve seen on the news. It’s the flu. It has to be. I’ve never seen flu work like that before, but to think anything else is crazy. What about their fucking arm! No. Don’t think about that right now. Find bandages. Call the ambulance.
The ambulance never comes and they suffer through horrific pain that ends in violent death. Another family or friend is infected also. You grieve. The loss is unbearable. But in a quiet moment of despair you find them back on their feet. You start thinking they weren’t dead after all. They’re fine. They’re going to make it.
But something is wrong. They turn nasty and attack you. There’s only one thing you can do. You have to stop them before they hurt you or someone else.
The agony is tearing you apart. There’s the physical confrontation to deal with. Don’t let them get too close to you. Oh shit. What if they’ve already infected you? Will you go through the same ugly process? But can you bring yourself to do what you must? The emotional ordeal has weakened your physical abilities to kill them.
You find the strength to kill them. It was the worst thing you’ve ever had to do. You cry. Sob until your heart almost explodes. You’re going to hell. Or prison when the authorities find out what you did. You have to call the police. How are you going to explain everything? How will you cope when it happens again? There’s no way you’d have the strength to kill another person and not go crazy. What do you tell the kids/parents/siblings? They’ll never understand. Nothing will ever be the same again. You’re a different person now. A killer.
Option 2 – You know what has to be done.
You make the connection instantly. They’ve got the same God-damned bug the news has been talking about. They’re infected with that virus. It’s here. In your home. There’s no way an arm just falls off. It was chewed right through. Think! What did they say to do? Kill them immediately. Damage the brain. Find something big and heavy. Do it now!
You’re numb. There’s a dead body in your home. Blood is soaking into the carpet. What have you done? No time to mourn right now. You have to dispose of the body. At least no one else in your home has been infected. Small mercies.
No more thoughts come. There’s no emotional turmoil in your head. You work quickly and quietly to get the corpse out of your home. People will ask questions, but you’ll get to that when the time comes. You realise you have to focus on the here and now. You have to get prepared. It might be too late. But you have to try. You can’t lose it now, you have to protect those under your care.
In moments of solitude you question if you did the right thing. Maybe they would have been okay. There could be a cure any day now. You question everything. It’s not long before you wonder if you’re losing your mind. But you struggle on. You have no choice. You have to be strong.
In the days, weeks and months that follow until you no longer know or care what the day or date is, you are forced to kill other people. Not just those who are infected but other survivors who want to hurt your group and take what you have. You’ve done unimaginable things to survive.
At some point you break down. The constant sensation of never being settled and safe has driven your mental and emotional state to a dark place. You try to console yourself that you did what was right.
There was no one else. You had to do it. You’re justified in your actions. You do well to hide the torment that wants to rip your spirit apart. You keep on going. But deep down you know you’ve become a different person now. There’s no going back. You’re a killer.
No way to win is there?
Faced with those that scenario I don’t know how I’d react.
Forearmed with the knowledge of a thousand different fictional apocalypse plots I like to think I’d go straight for Option 2. I’d suffer to protect those under my care. But then again I’d consider the positive possibility that it’s just the flu. They’re just sick, not infected with a deadly virus.
I guess until anyone faces that sort of decision it’s never easy to know for sure.
Either way you’ll forever know you’re a bad person.
Cheery thought, right?
Recently I’ve spent time inside my character’s heads trying to work out how each of them would cope with irreversible decisions like that. Movies and books make it look so simple and easy, whereas I want my characters to suffer. I want them to feel the weight of their decisions, and indeed suffer from indecision because sometimes there’s no good outcome to be had.
The Holt deals with the emotional and mental battle my characters must fight in order to survive and protect others. As with The Range it’s about courage, friendship, overcoming adversity and the fear that deep down we’re all just winging it even though we don’t tell anyone.
Something of an admission here – whilst I’m having an insanely fun time writing it, I am frequently exhausted from exploring the emotional decision trees I force my characters to endure. The Range was easier because I wrote and rewrote it a bunch of times over the course of a few years. It was from a single perspective. I became comfortable with Samantha and knew her strengths and weaknesses.
With more characters in The Holt it takes additional concentration and time to shift from one emotional state to another.
Yeah, I see his point.
But I’m not crazy like some of my characters.
Not yet anyway.
Leaving on a jolly note…
Today I finally found a decent ecigarette to replace the smokes. It’s been a long time coming. I’m totally fed up with chugging away. I tried to quit cold turkey using patches and will power.
I did it about 5 years ago and managed to go 12 months without filling my lungs, but this time I wasn’t successful and that pisses me off. I felt a bit stupid with my smug proclamation I was quitting smoking on my 40th birthday only to be sucking down the same shit a few days later.
What a dumbass.
Now I have a Cool Fire 4. It’s pretty funky, as far as fake smoking goes. And it’s pink. The liquid I’ve got in at the moment tastes like a banana smoothie. Lovely jubbly.
I love it. It’s not exactly quitting I know. Baby steps, Dave.
Happy nightmares, dead blog reader!