Thursday, 13 October 2016

Some tips for handling zombies

I wrote this ages ago for some reason and hey, why leave it in drafts forever?


A lot of hardware shops and builders' yards will have reasonable supplies of very hard-wearing gloves, steel-toed boots, face masks and possible even welding masks. This is to say nothing of the huge amounts of building materials. Garden centres will be another good source of protective equipment, as will certain types of factory. Usefully, both the latter tend to be built in relatively isolated places.


These and similar businesses also have trolleys of various kinds, which will be invaluable for transporting stuff. Forget cars.

This will probably sound silly, but supermarket trolleys are well worth acquiring in huge numbers; they are amazingly useful and flexible. You can store things in them. You can transport them easily. You can strip them for wheels and spare parts. As storage, they can protect valuable items from quite a few types of wild animals - dogs, foxes, sheep, basically anything than can't wriggle through, climb over or tip the trolley. Their slick metal frames are hard for many animals to climb, so even rats and cats will struggle to get through.

But that's not all! Grab every trolley in sight and and circle them into an instant zombie-proof fence! They should be able to slot together into a very large closed circle. They're far too tough to break with normal force. They don't tip easily (especially in a line, where the weight is multiplied and anchored at many points), and too high for zombies to simply blunder over. Only zombies intelligent enough to actively climb objects will get past these. If you're worried, pop padlocks, cable ties or just lots of string to link them on the inner side, so the zombies can't try to slide them apart and undo the circle.

You can transport kids in them safely, at least with a bit of adaptation, and they're also great if you get the chance to loot some poultry, or even the odd sheep or dog - it's potentially much faster than trying to lead animals along.

Dogs aren't a great bet for zombie-surviving, though. They need meat to eat. For watch purposes, you're probably far better off trying to keep poultry. Chickens can make plenty of noise, while geese are famously good sentries (ask Rome).

Other supplies

While you're at the builder's yard, grab pallets. In fact, grab everything. But pallets and their pallet-lifts are very useful in general. Get pipes, too. You can do an awful lot with pipes, valves and taps, in terms of making and fixing stuff. Rubber and other sealants? Yep. Glass? You betcha. With glass, pipes, rubber sheeting (or equivalent) and some containers, you have most of what you need to get water and grow crops. They might not be nice crops, but hey.

Did you know you can run basically self-contained aquaponics by combining crops with fish? Pop round to the pet store too.

There are some other, weirder options you might consider. If you have access to a very large supply of transparent plastic boxes - like those storage boxes for keeping things in the attic or under the bed - then fill 'em with sand or pebbles and you've got a pretty much impregnable wall (stacked two or three deep and six or seven high). Fill 'em with water mixed with strong bleach or something (to stop algae building up), and you've got a near-impregnable see-through wall. If you've got an opportunity to scavenge significant amounts of a town, you can probably find a decent number. Even rectangular ice cream tubs would do at a pinch.

Okay, near-impregnable with pummelling and general shoving. Obviously zombies intelligent enough to use implements can break the plastic.

Old tyre heap nearby? You can build something approaching a fortress out of tyres with earth rammed down inside them.


Despite the nonsense zombie stories like to suggest, there will be plenty of people surviving a conventional zombie-as-carrier outbreak, or even a waterborne one. Oil rigs and ships are full of people completely isolated from zombies, and many of those people have enormous expertise in the technical fields needed to rebuild society; there are also medics, geologists, and people with all kinds of interesting hobbies. Ocean survey ships, as well as any number of research stations, hold people with biological, ecological and agricultural training.

Zombies aren't like most other diseases, they require a bite to transmit the disease, which means lots of people in relatively isolated places are likely to be safe for a few days. And they don't have to be safe for longer than that, because of biology.


See, most zombies wouldn't last long at all. If they're rotting, they'll be devoured by insects. If they have any metabolic processes at all, they need water. Once water supplies shut down, zombies will mostly dessicate within a few days. Also, if they act as typically portrayed, they will accumulate untreated injuries and bleed out or succumb to secondary infections. If they don't have blood flow, they have no means of transporting oxygen to their cells, which means they cannot generate ATP to power cellular processes, such as the contraction of muscles, which means they cannot move at all. If they don't have any metabolic processes, they cannot physically move because that's how biology works and no, shut up, SCIENCE.

In other words, whether your zombies are living-but-mindless, or rotting-but-mobile, they won't last more than a week tops. And honestly, probably less, because they'll neglect important not-dying precautions like shelter.

You need only keep yourself alive for a week or so, and then venture out to reclaim the world, alongside large numbers of oil workers, ex-prisoners, the inhabitants of all those secret Antarctic research facilities, people attending spiritual retreats, quite a lot of islanders, and most of the population of North Korea.

If the zombie plague is insect-carriable, things are a little trickier. In this case, you will need to hide out long enough for all plague-bearing insects to have died. Most have quite short lifespans, so once all the zombies have rotted away and the insects' lifecycle is over, you should be fine. On the plus side, viruses and other pathogens are quite host-specific so only a few other species will carry the disease. That being said, in this scenario people living in high mountains and the poles, where insects won't reach, are really in with the best chance.

Supernatural zombies

Supernatural zombies are a different matter. These may be capable of remaining active and largely undecayed for indefinite periods because they contravene physical laws.

Supernatural zombies are amazingly useful .

If you have a creature capable of indefinite mobility without the need of metabolic inputs (such as water or a source of glucose), you can construct something approaching a perpetual motion machine. You should (once you have constructed a suitable facility) strive to acquire as many of these zombies as possible. The exact construction required will depend on the behaviour and capabilities of the zombies, but a simple welded steel treadmill, impregnable to most zombies and possible to make with relatively available materials, should do the trick. There are undoubtedly more sophisticated machines available to a trained physicist or engineer.

The infinite supply of free energy provided by your zombie generators will allow civilisation to rise again from the ashes, indeed with a new and brighter future offered by the end of entropy and the abolition of fossil fuels. Zombies save the world, and humanity!


  1. While I thought it was *mostly* correct, I thought I'd run the numbers on zombie-power as a post-apocalyptic energy solution, because I suspect it's not as good as it's cracked up to be.

    You are, of course, right that if zombies can violate the first law of thermodynamics then that allows us to create a perpetual motion machine, which sounds cool but fossil fuels aside, it isn't actually the *supply* of energy that's the real problem - wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal power are all functionally inexhaustible, the problem is energy *density* (or, more simply, output power). A zombie can turn a treadmill forever, but that doesn't mean that they can run a lightbulb if they can't turn it fast enough.

    Since we're talking about supernatural zombies, and since the sources of raw numbers for supernatural zombies are fairly limited, I thought I'd go by the D&D rules.

    A PHB zombie has Strength 13. By RAW this means it can "push, drag, or lift" a weight in pounds up to 390lb at a rate of 5ft a round, or a weight of 195lb at its full movement rate. In terms of power output, 195lb at a rate of 20ft per round is better, so let's go with that.

    195lb is 88.45kg or 884.5N of force (which is the important number here). The "rules physics" of D&D is a bit weird here in that it makes no distinction between pushing something horizontally and lifting it vertically, but we'll assume that this means that a zombie can basically exert 884.5N of force and still move at its full movement rate.

    20ft is 6.096m. Assuming a single combat round lasts six seconds, this means that the zombie has a velocity of 1.016m/s.

    We can calculate the power output of the zombie by multiplying its output force by its velocity. This gives us an output power of 898.7W. This is actually slightly more than one horsepower (745.7W) although, confusingly, the power of a D&D horse calculated by the same method is somewhat higher (a horse is Large and has Strength 18 and a speed of 60ft, meaning it can drag 540lb at 3m/s giving them an output power of 7350). So it might be fair to say that a zombie has a power equivalent of somewhere between 0.1 and 1.2 horses, with the admitted advantage that it doesn't need to be fed, and can work 24 hours.

    In a D&D universe, zombies are at least competitive with horses as a source of power, but in a modern technological world, they are far outstripped even by renewable power sources. A wind turbine has a power output of 2-3MW, or between 2225 and 3337 zombie-equivalent (2.2-3.3 kilozombies - and indeed we can usefully say that 1MW is approximately 1.1kZ). A coal power station, meanwhile, runs at 500MW or about 550kZ.

    The total power output of UK power stations is something in the region of 50GW (55MZ) - this means that it would take a number of zombies approximately equal to the current population of the United Kingdom to meet the energy needs of the United Kingdom, suggesting that zombie power may have viability issues. Of course, in a post-zombie-apocalypse future, energy demands would be lower, but it still seems probable that a single wind turbine would be easier to control and maintain than 2200 zombies.

    I may have put too much thought into this.

  2. I'm not convinced about trolleys - they don't cope at all well with rough ground. Not too bad if you're staying urban, and that's where the good looting is, but soon enough all those corpses of people who didn't run away fast enough are going to start either stinking or rising.

    In GURPS of course it's easy to work with zombie-power. A generic zombie has ST11 (so it can drag 24lb behind it, or carry that much without slowing down) and Move 5 (5 yard/second), or about 488W - let's call it 500. That's surprisingly close to your D&D zombie! When it decays to skeleton form it'll drop to 16lb but speed up to move 6, call it 400W. So 8 energy points generates a long-term 400W mechanical energy source.

    That same 8 energy points fed into the Create Fuel/TL8 spell will turn a pound of rocks of fuel-grade uranium. Assuming it's enriched about 10% U-235, and ¼ of it is used up in the first fuel cycle, that will provide 400W for about 74 years.

    Now, I realise some may disagree, but I tend to feel that a nuclear reactor is probably safer than a giant zombie treadmill.

    1. You make a good point, trolley-wise. Wheels are going to be an issue, especially with lack of road maintenance and stray bones everywhere.

      I'm pleased that it's possible to calculate zombie power effectiveness so tidily. From the numbers, I can see it might be useful in a few niche applications probably involving direct power with no particular need for speed - mills or pumping water, for example - but not as an overall solution to energy needs. On the other hand, I think the advantage it does have is that if your post-apocalypse is struggling to maintain technology, it's probably easier to tie a zombie to something than restart most power plants.

      "Now, I realise some may disagree, but I tend to feel that a nuclear reactor is probably safer than a giant zombie treadmill."

      I now await with considerable interest GURPS Disasters: Zombie Treadmill Maintenance.