In some stories, victims of zombies may become zombies themselves if they are bitten by zombies or if a zombie-creating virus travels by air, sexually, or by water; in others, everyone who dies, whatever the cause, becomes one of the undead.
In some cases, parasitic organisms can cause zombification by killing their hosts and reanimating their corpses, though some argue that this is not a true zombie. In the latter scenario zombies also prey on the living and their bite causes an infection that kills.
In either scenario, this causes the outbreak to become an exponentially growing crisis: the spreading "zombie plague" swamps law enforcement organizations, the military and health care services, leading to the panicked collapse of civil society until only isolated pockets of survivors remain. Basic services such as piped water supplies and electrical power shut down, mainstream mass media cease broadcasting, and the national government of affected countries collapses or goes into hiding. The survivors usually begin scavenging for food, weapons and other supplies in a world reduced to a mostly pre-industrial hostile wilderness. There is usually a 'safe zone' where the non-infected can seek refuge and begin a new era.
An early inspirational work of the genre was Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend (1954), which featured a lone survivor named Robert Neville waging a war against a human population transformed into vampires. The novel has been adapted into several screenplays, including The Last Man on Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price, and The Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston. A 2007 film version also titled I Am Legend starred Will Smith, in a more contemporary setting. George A. Romero began the idea with his apocalyptic feature Night of the Living Dead (1968) from Matheson, but substituted vampires with shuffling ghouls, identified after its release as zombies.
The literary subtext of a zombie apocalypse is usually that civilization is inherently fragile in the face of truly unprecedented threats and that most individuals cannot be relied upon to support the greater good if the personal cost becomes too high. The narrative of a zombie apocalypse carries strong connections to the turbulent social landscape of the United States in the 1960s when the originator of this genre, the film Night of the Living Dead, was first created. Many also feel that zombies allow people to deal with their own anxiety about the end of the world. Kim Paffenroth notes that "more than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic ... they signal the end of the world as we have known it."
There are several common themes and tropes that create a zombie apocalypse:
- Initial contacts with zombies are extremely traumatic, causing shock, panic, disbelief and possibly denial, hampering survivors' ability to deal with hostile encounters.
- The response of authorities to the threat is slower than its rate of growth, giving the zombie plague time to expand beyond containment. This results in the collapse of the given society. Zombies take full control while small groups of the living must fight for their survival.
The stories usually follow a single group of survivors, caught up in the sudden rush of the crisis. The narrative generally progresses from the onset of the zombie plague, then initial attempts to seek the aid of authorities, the failure of those authorities, through to the sudden catastrophic collapse of all large-scale organization and the characters' subsequent attempts to survive on their own. Such stories are often squarely focused on the way their characters react to such an extreme catastrophe, and how their personalities are changed by the stress, often acting on more primal motivations (fear, self-preservation) than they would display in normal life.
Generally the zombies in these situations are the slow, lumbering and unintelligent kind first made popular in the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Motion pictures created within the 2000s, however, have featured zombies that are more agile, vicious, intelligent, and stronger than the traditional zombie. In many cases of "fast" zombies, creators use living humans infected with a pathogen (as in 28 Days Later, Zombieland and Left 4 Dead), instead of re-animated corpses, to avoid the "slow death walk" of Romero's variety of zombies.
|“||While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often.||”|
|— Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad, and Robert J. Smith? [sic],"When Zombies Attack!" (2009)|
According to a 2009 Carleton University and University of Ottawa epidemiological analysis, an outbreak of even Living Dead's slow zombies "is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly." Based on their mathematical modelling, the authors concluded that offensive strategies were much more reliable than quarantine strategies, due to various risks that can compromise a quarantine. They also found that discovering a cure would merely leave a few humans alive, since this would do little to slow the infection rate.
On a longer time scale, the researchers found that all humans end up turned or dead. This is because the main epidemiological risk of zombies, besides the difficulties of neutralizing them, is that their population just keeps increasing; generations of humans merely "surviving" still have a tendency to feed zombie populations, resulting in gross outnumbering. The researchers explain that their methods of modelling may be applicable to the spread of political views or diseases with dormant infection.
The Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies (ZITS) is a program through the University of Glasgow. It is headed by Dr. Austin. Dr. Austin is a character that has been created by the university to be the face of ZITS. The ZITS team is dedicated to using real science to explain what could be expected in the event of an actual zombie apocalypse. Much of their research is used to disprove common beliefs about the zombie apocalypse as shown in popular media. They have published one book (Zombie Science 1Z) and give public "spoof" lectures on the subject.
On May 18, 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an article, Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse providing tips on preparing to survive a zombie invasion. The article does not claim an outbreak is likely or imminent, but states: "That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this...." The CDC goes on to summarize cultural references to a zombie apocalypse. It uses these to underscore the value of laying in water, food, medical supplies, and other necessities in preparation for any and all potential disasters, be they hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, or hordes of ravenous brain-devouring undead.
The CDC also published a graphic novel, Zombie Pandemic, alongside a series of related articles.
On October 17, 2011, The Weather Channel published an article, "How To Weather the Zombie Apocalypse" that included a fictional interview with a Director of Research at the CDD, the "Center for Disease Development". Based on a seasonal attraction in the Atlanta area called The Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, Weather.com interviews "Dr. Dale Dixon" (subtle references to characters in AMC's "The Walking Dead") asking questions about how different weather conditions affect zombies abilities. Questions answered include "How does the temperature affect zombies' abilities? Do they run faster in warmer temperatures? Do they freeze if it gets too cold?"
- Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2010) by George A. Romero. Night of the Living Dead was remade in 1990, Dawn of the Dead in 2004, and Day of the Dead in 2008.
- Zombi 2 (1979), starts with a small group of zombies, which expands to engulf a city.
- 28 Days Later (2002), and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007), in which a man-made "rage" virus is unleashed in Britain, and then continental Europe.
- Resident Evil film series, based on the Resident Evil game franchise, including Resident Evil (2002), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016).
- The Zombie Diaries (2006), in which a virus creates a plague of zombies.
- Fido (2006), a zombie comedy set in the 1950s, where humanity is saved from a zombie apocalypse by a corporation who turns zombies into personal servants.
- Planet Terror (2007), a biochemical agent causes a worldwide zombie infection.
- Colin (UK, 2008), at the onset of an apparent zombie apocalypse, Colin is apparently bitten and is turned into a zombie, yet his point of view implies residual human memories of the recent past.[clarification needed]
- Zombieland (2009), a comedy where the United States is ravaged by a zombie plague caused by a mutated form of mad cow disease, but a small group attempts to survive while traveling across country to an amusement park in California.
- World War Z (2012), based on the book by Max Brooks.
- American Zombie (2007), A mockumentary about the daily lives of a small community of zombies who make their home in Los Angeles.
- Shaun of the Dead (2004), a British parody of the genre.
- I Am Legend (2007), Dr. Robert Neville is seemingly alone in a world of vampire-like creatures after a virus decimated the human race.
- The Deadworld comic series by Stuart Kerr and Ralph Griffith, which began in 1987.
- The comic series The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, beginning in 2003, chronicles the story of survivors in a world overrun by zombies.
- The 2005 comic series Marvel Zombies and its sequels: Marvel Zombies: Dead Days, Marvel Zombies vs. The Army of Darkness, Marvel Zombies 2, Marvel Zombies 3.
- The manga/anime series Highschool of the Dead, beginning in 2006, features a group of Japanese high school students caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
- The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) by Max Brooks that details how one can survive various sized zombie outbreaks, including a world-wide outbreak that collapses civilization.
- Monster Island, Monster Nation and Monster Planet (2004–2004) by David Wellington.
- World War Z (2006) by Max Brooks which details humanity's efforts to defeat a worldwide zombie apocalypse.
- Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009) by Carrie Ryan which is set over 100 years after the zombie apocalypse in an isolated village surrounded by a forest full of zombies. It was followed by two sequels set some years later, The Dead-Tossed Waves (2010) where the daughter of the first novel's protagonist returns to the Forest, and The Dark and Hollow Places (2011) which moves the story to a city on an island.
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith which combines Jane Austen's classic 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice with elements of modern zombie fiction.
- Warm Bodies (2010) by Issac Marion is set in a zombie apocalypse but is told through the viewpoint of a zombie known only as R who regains his humanity after developing a relationship with a human girl that he spared.
- The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor (2011) by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga is set within the universe of The Walking Dead comic books, which were also created and written by Kirkman. It follows one of the most villainous characters of the comics, Philip Blake, a.k.a. "The Governor", as he, two friends, his brother Brian and daughter Penny struggle to survive in a world where an undead plague has rendered the human race outnumbered.
- Feed (2010) by "Mira Grant" (Seanan McGuire)
- The Enemy series by Charles Higson. The zombies are humans afflicted with a disease that only affects people above 16 years of age.
- The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) by M.R. Carey depicts a world 20 years after the spread of a fungal infection that turns humans into "hungries". It explores the tense relationship between the non-infected and the partially immune infected who retain consciousness, pointing to a post-human future.
- Dead Set (2008) involves a zombie outbreak and the real television show Big Brother UK.
- Highschool of the Dead (anime series), an anime based on the manga series of the same name.
- Masters of Horror, episode "Dance of the Dead" (2005), directed by Tobe Hooper, features a man-made virus causing a zombie outbreak after World War III.
- The CW television series Supernatural has Lucifer's ultimate plan being to unleash a zombie virus, known as the Crotoan Virus, upon the Earth, and to have humanity become ravenous, intelligent, fast zombies which devour and kill each other to cleanse the Earth of humans and to have Lucifer and his angels rule the Earth.
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- Z Nation, zombie/horror/comedy focused around saving a man with the only zombie vaccine from outside world, both living and dead.
- Abomination: The Nemesis Project, A real-time tactics/action video game.
- Dead Island, a first person action-adventure game with an emphasis on melee combat, set on a Pacific island resort that has become exposed to a zombie virus.
- Dead Nation, a shoot 'em up for the PlayStation Network.
- Dead Rising, and its sequel Dead Rising 2 made by Capcom. A sandbox adventure game in which the main character is trapped in a mall full of zombies and almost anything that can be found in the mall can be used as a weapon.
- Dying Light, a zombie parkour game known for its gameplay
- Fort Zombie, a third-person shooter where you have to search houses for equipment and secure locations.
- Left 4 Dead, and its sequel Left 4 Dead 2, a co-operative horror, first-person shooter where a rabies-like pathogen infects humanity.
- No More Room in Hell or shortly NMRiH, is a free-to-play source mod, that requires teamwork and cooperation in order to escape the horde of zombies, or defend yourself with melee weapons or guns, in specific scenarios.
- Project Zomboid, An isometric RPG which aims for a degree of realism. It is being developed in a similar way to Minecraft.
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- Urban Dead – a Free To Play HTML/text-based massively multiplayer online role-playing game.
- The Walking Dead - a graphic adventure series based on the franchise. The games have been credited with rejuvenating the adventure game format.
- Zombie Apocalypse, released as a downloadable title for the Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade is a shoot 'em up title. The player takes control of four survivors and may fight against hordes of mutated zombies as a team, rescuing other survivors and investigating the cause of the infection.
- Zombie Panic features a human and a player-controlled zombie team fighting against each other in a zombie apocalypse.
- ZombiU, a first-person shooter/survival horror game wherein the player assume the role of a survivor during a zombie outbreak that decimates London.
- All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a survival horror role-playing game (RPG) produced by Eden Studios, Inc.
- Yellow Dawn, by David J. Rodger, set in a near-future world ten years after a mysterious global pandemic fills the cities with vast hordes of hungry undead.
- Dead Reign, published by Palladium Books, set in a world where zombies of various varieties dominate the planet
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- Songwriter Jonathon Coulton's 2006 "Re:Your Brains" satirizes office culture and buzzwords using the zombie apocalypse theme. Incidentally, this song can be played on the various jukeboxes found in Left 4 Dead 2. As it plays, a zombie horde is summoned.
- Send More Paramedics were a horror film-influenced crossover thrash band from Leeds in the north of England. The band played in the 1980s crossover style, what they described as "Zombiecore...a fusion of 80s thrash and modern hardcore punk", with lyrics about zombies and cannibalism, and are heavily influenced by zombie movies. On-stage, they dressed as zombies.
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