Same formula all the time. Something happens. Experiment...accident...mutation... Something happens that creates the thing that creates a million vampires that go on a rampage and kill millions more- swelling an army of undead. The world endures this epic Z-Day and everything is thrown back into a quasi-medieval state.
Except...this could never happen. Not on the extreme global scale. Why? Well, for the old school slow and stumbling zombies, they are SLOW and STUMBLING. No matter how many there are, people would instantly recognize the symptons of a dead-looking mo-fo stumbling around on the street lurching after people. People always say, 'Well, it's the numbers that make them dangerous." but they would never reach these numbers. People would definitely be shocked at seeing them, and their would definitely be fear, but not the panic that leads to the dissolving of order. They are so slow and weird that they would be judged more on a cautionary scale than a terror scale, like a disease. Something to watch out for, but nothing to go running to the hills over.
But the fast ones... That is a different story. I LOVE the movies 28 Days and Weeks later. I thought 28 Weeks had some epic zombie scenes, like the beginning scene and the helicopter chopping zombies in the field. But these zombies were far more terrifying because they didn't just lurch about and catch you unawares. These were olympic predators who- upon notice- would hound you into the ocean and the turn over rate from human to zombie was swift. Under those conditions, a flash epidemic in a crowded place is definitely imaginable, but not on a global scale. Because...zombies are dumb and we- if not all of us- have some pretty clever bastards here and there.
For instance...how does the military lose to these guys? No way.
Zombies could be drawn out merely with noise. Just bang a bunch of pots and pans in the middle of the city and have men in full armor armed with axes and swords do a massive hack job. When they tire, remove them, disinfect, and have a fresh wave of people come in and continue the job. You don't need nukes or ammunition. Hell, you could have a caged goat or even a person in a cage dangling over them as bait. It would be good ol systematic slaughter on the part of the worlds armed forces. Just like WWII, the zombies may get the initiative, but when the momentum settles it's only a matter of time. That and with zombies caroding and all, how long could they last before nature itself just crippled them to...well...cripples. Their blood dries up, the muscles rot. Without these things, their is no motion. Without blood, they have no fuel to power these muscles, movement, senses...They would be the epitome of blind, deaf, and dumb...but with immobile to boot.
Of course...that's taking the fun out of it. But this is an age where people seem to rely on a scientific explanation to explain what's going on- even if it's psuedoscience. The whole "well, it just is and that's the way it's always been" doesn't roll over as well. So what would make zombies truly terrifying? Make them super contagious. The zombies, themselves, while dangerous, are not really the most terrifying aspect. What would make me truly scared of them is that they are the walking, stalking carriers of a disease that would rob me of everything and of which there is no possible cure. What if you didn't just have to get bitten to become a zombie? What if it could be passed merely by touch. That the disease saturates them and whatever they touch, wherever they have been, it remains there, hibernating and immune to exposure to the environment until some living thing with a body temperature comes along and reanimates them. THIS would make them truly terrifying. Because no it's not so simple as running away. You have a pyschological fear of EVERYTHING. How do you know a zombie wasn't here before you and that everything you are touching, the water you are drinking, or the air you are breathing hasn't somehow been infected? You would always have to fight a zombie at range because- as any forensics person knows- close contact always leaves an exchange between the two and just being near enough to them may put you in grave danger. This also means it would be a daunting task to reclaim any territories lost. Not only would you have to clear the area without being infected by these super-carriers, but everything around you is almost bound to be infected by the time you do manage to do something. The clean-up effort would be enormous, and all it would take is one missed spot to start the whole thing over again. To add an even more sinister effect, make it so that while animals are not turned by the disease, they do become symptomless carriers of it as well. And we all know wild animals- as they surely would become- migrate and so outside of assured, domesticated animals, one would haeve to kill every dog, pup, and bird they saw, and the risk of having a personal pet is too great because at some point, they could be exposed and you wouldn't know it until it was too late. Imagine having a person or pet come down with the flu during this time. You, hiding around the corner to their room, torn by grief and paranoia- concerned, but with an axe in your hand not knowing if every second you let them live puts you at risk of being infected. Survival instincts are STRONG and I wouldn't underestimate them. A person could be crying their heart out and lay waste to their entire household under the suspicion of such a thing. Oh yeah...did we forget about ticks...mosquito's...rats?
Well...that's my whole spiel on zombies. At the most, under pure scientific possibilities, they would probably be able to spread considerably and cause considerable alarm and havoc, but no where near global shutdown levels. Eventually, people would become informed and the fight would eventually turn over for the better. Except in the case of that super-bug scenario, and the impossible fact that they did not simply just die out from decomposing. At that point, they become an enduring menace just lurking.
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