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How to Survive a Zombie Outbreak According to the Movies

How to Survive a Zombie Outbreak According to the Movies

Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with DIRECTV and the zombie comedy, LIFE AFTER BETH, which is available exclusively on DIRECTV.

Each and every zombie movie seems to add its own flourish to the preexisting mythology. Sometimes, after rising from their earthy graves, zombies shamble slowly; other times they sprint. Sometimes they’re nearly indestructible, other times they’re soft and squishy. A24’s charmingly lovesick "Life After Beth," (available now on DIRECTV), suggests that zombies can be mellowed out with the use calming music like smooth jazz or adult contemporary. (Also: when they first come back, zombies are pretty horny.)

READ MORE: How a Zombie Movie Ended Up in the Sundance Narrative Competition

There are some constants, however, no matter what the zombie movie is, so we figured we’d run down five things that movies have taught us to keep in mind in order to survive a zombie outbreak. These are five things that could keep you alive, should the world devolve into apocalyptic, flesh-eating madness. So you might want to remember them.

1) Run!
George A. Romero’s masterpiece "Night of the Living Dead," largely credited with the modern introduction of the zombie, featured zombies that walked very slowly (although some are more spry than you’d remember). The thinking was simple: these are reanimated corpses so there is probably some stiffness and rot present. This was the prevailing mode for zombies until 2002, when Danny Boyle introduced the "fast zombie" in "28 Days Later" (a movie that he still claims isn’t actually a zombie movie.) These were zombies that could sprint after you, charged up thanks to a viral outbreak, and were widely adopted in larger pop culture, in everything from Zack Snyder’s "Dawn of the Dead" remake and reached its apex in Brad Pitt’s global zombie epic "World War Z" (most memorably in a sequence set in Jerusalem). In "Life After Beth," the zombies are chatty and forgetful more than anything else. The point is: no matter how fast a zombie is moving, you need to move faster. If a zombie is one of the turbo-charged "28 Days Later" variety, you’re going to have to locate your inner Kenyan marathoner, and if they’re the slow type, you’re still going to have to move quickly: they always find a way of catching up with you, even if most of them are a shambling bag of bones in an ill-fitting suit.

2) Enclosed Spaces Might Not Be Your Best Option
The climax of "Night of the Living Dead" famously took place largely in a dusty basement… And that wasn’t enough to get away from the insatiable flesh-eaters. In "Shaun of the Dead," the goofy survivors of a British zombie plague hold up inside of an old pub, to equally disastrous results. And "The Walking Dead" seems to be structured around its band of unaffected humans shuttling from one location to the next, until, of course, some rotting interlopers crash the party. ("Land of the Dead," Romero’s fourth zombie epic, is built exclusively around this idea, and is, of course, riddled with corresponding Bush-era political commentary.) Just because you think that locking yourself inside some building, barn, attic, or basement will prevent interaction with the ghoulish undead doesn’t mean that the same ghoulish undead won’t find a way into wherever you are. Wide open spaces might be your best bet, especially if the zombies are the slow moving, original Romero variety. Many of the "happier" endings to zombie sagas end with our heroes in some idyllic outdoor setting ("28 Days Later," "Planet Terror"). At the very least, zombies are a little less scary in the wide open.   

3) Aim for the Head
If there’s one thing virtually every zombie movie can agree with, it’s that even if the zombie is a ghostly version of its former, human self, putting a bullet (or ax or, in the case of Peter Jackson’s immortal "Dead Alive," lawnmower) through its brain will still shut that shit down. (And, yes, this is still the case in a movie as ostensibly warm and fuzzy as "Life After Beth." Headshots are not exempt from rom-zom-coms.) It’s unclear why, if everything else about the zombie is basically muscles working from weak physiological memory or synapses firing thanks to the work of a nefarious virus (zombies seem to be closer to jellyfish than humans), the brain would still be the command center of the body. But hey, it allows for some spectacular sequences of heads being blown apart, diced, impaled, detonated or, in the case of Romero’s original "Dawn of the Dead," as well as "28 Weeks Later" and "Planet Terror," being mowed down by the blades of a helicopter, and, really, that’s what should matter the most. If you find yourself staring into the milky dead eyes of the legion of the damned, just aim for the head.

4) They Can Change
One of the more controversial aspects of zombie-hood, first introduced in Romero’s underrated (and totally bleak) "Day of the Dead" is the idea that zombies can change. They can feel, understand, articulate and occasionally remember. Romero would explore this further in "Land of the Dead," before veering wildly off-course with "Diary of the Dead" and "Survival of the Dead." And in last year’s weirdly under-seen "Warm Bodies," this idea was taken further, with a budding relationship serving as the cure for the zombie outbreak. So just because there is a crawling mass of undead corpses coming after you, doesn’t mean that you can’t appeal to their innate goodness and potentially turn the tide. They were, after all, human beings, once upon a time.

5) Be Just As Wary of Human Survivors
The final, profoundly disturbing note in "Night of the Living Dead" is one in which Ben (Duane Jones), survivor of the titular night from hell, emerges from the farm house only to be shot by white boy yokels who mistake him for a zombie (or are just fucking racist). In movies like "Day of the Dead" and "28 Days Later" humans are often just as scary and fearsome as the zombie menace, and at the end of "Return of the Living Dead" (maybe my single favorite zombie movie ever), the powers that be decide to nuke a town that has been infested with a zombie outbreak. It’s probably good to remember that just because the person isn’t infected doesn’t mean that they’re not sick.

Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the television premiere of the zombie comedy LIFE AFTER BETH which is available exclusively on DIRECTV. A guy (Dane DeHaan) discovers that his girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) has returned from the dead, but his joy turns to horror as she slowly undergoes a horrible transformation. Find our more and how to watch here.

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And now you can protect your home by growing a real zombie plant!
The Zombie plant will PLAY DEAD when you touch it!
Minutes later it comes back to life!

Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg

As a world renowned zombie expert, the "Doctor of the Dead" (yes, there are such things), I just wanted to add a couple things:

1) Fast zombies were first introduced in an Italian film, Nightmare City (1980), as well as in Return of the Living Dead (1985 – your favorite!). In fact, even in Romero's Night, the first one we see – the so-called "Cemetery Ghoul" – jogs along at a pretty fast clip (which you DID note here). So 28 Days Later did not introduce the fast zombie, but it sure did popularize them! And I absolutely agree with you; Boyle can protest all he likes, but it's a zombie film. After all, the genre didn't begin with reanimated corpses but the living controlled by Voodoo (such as in 1932's White Zombie, for all intents and purposes the first-ever zombie movie). Replace Voodoo with Boyle's "Rage" virus, and you have a creature arguably more like the genre's origins than the Romero reinvention. The more zombies, the merrier I always say. :)

3) While that's *usually* true, it's most definitely not the case in the aforementioned Return of the Living Dead (there's that favorite film again!). Wound them, dismember them, aim for that head – nothing will stop those zombies short of cremation, and even then the ashes just spread the toxin-infused material to create more of them. As I mention in the EPiX documentary DOC OF THE DEAD, they're the most indestructible zombies in the genre, so if you find yourself in the Return of the Living Dead universe…give up.

Great piece, and if you ever need more zombie input, I'm an e-mail away!

Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg
Doctor of the Dead
Professor, Zombies in Popular Media, University of Baltimore
Co-Author, Zombiemania (and forthcoming new edition, Zombiemania Rises)
Commentator, DOC OF THE DEAD (EPiX)

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