In 2004, Zack Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead” hit theaters.  Although there had been innumerable zombie movies before it, Snyder’s take on a zombie outbreak would launch zombies back into the popular lexicon and spark the new golden age of zombie books, movies and TV shows.  Though the craze has waned in recent years, “The Walking Dead” keeps the idea of zombies roaming the earth alive and well in popular culture.  The problem is, most of these movies and TV shows are written by someone with no practical experience in dealing with biological attacks or proper security, and as a result, we’ve been fed a steady supply of terrible ideas and poor tactics for dealing with a zombie outbreak.

While seemingly harmless, this indoctrination of zombie strategy could cost you your life in any real-world disaster scenario.  Both the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Defense have elaborate plans in place for a zombie apocalypse (or zombocalypse, as I like to call it after a few beers).  The government devoted actual man hours to the fictional scenario for one very important reason: the tactics utilized to fend off a zombie invasion would work for a number of real world scenarios.

“The document is identified as a training tool used in an in-house training exercise where students learn about the basic concepts of military plans and order development through a fictional training scenario,” Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for U.S. Strategic Command, told CNN.

The CDC takes a similar stance on their own Zombie homepage… which you may be surprised to learn is a real thing: “Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC website? As it turns out what first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform.”

The U.S. Government isn’t trying to prepare you for zombies, but they see the popularity of zombies in culture as a means to get the kind of training Americans would need to survive a worldwide epidemic or an invasion of U.S. soil out to the public.  Unfortunately, they face an uphill battle because, no matter how witty the CDC may try to be, it’s hard to beat the sort of wish-fulfillment we see featured in most zombie movies.  After all, who doesn’t want to raid their local Walmart for ammo and supplies, skip work tomorrow and barricade ourselves in the basement with a DVD player and a skid full of Twinkies?

Maybe that’s just me.

So let’s take this opportunity to clear the air and identify three common tropes featured in zombie movies and television shows, and why they’re great examples of what not to do.

What not to do:

Raid your local Walmart/Gun Store.  When zombies show up, the first thing most protagonists need to do is load up on weaponry to defend themselves.  Because movies are often made in Los Angeles, where people think owning a gun makes you a monster worse than zombies, they’re left with no choice but to ransack the local gun shop.  In some movies, large retail stores that sell guns as well as food and first aid supplies make for an even better choice.  “Dawn of the Dead” took this concept to the extreme, and barricaded its main characters in a mall.  With all the food, ammunition and entertainment you could need, who wouldn’t start there?

Why it will kill you: You’ve seen this plan work out in dozens of movies and TV shows, and so has everyone else.  In a real life disaster, complete with infectious contagions or hostile actors, the gun stores, Walmarts and malls of America would be mobbed with every other “Walking Dead” fan in the area.  If the disaster at play is a viral outbreak, it takes only a handful of infected people who haven’t started exhibiting symptoms to infect the entire group, or worse, if people exhibiting symptoms show up, you may find yourself in the middle of a riot.

The best course of action, in terms of weaponry in such a situation, is to own a firearm and ammunition already.  A few cans of nonperishables in your basement can last you long enough for things outside to calm down, or at least until after the Walmart is finished burning.

Shoot your way out of trouble.  When the zombies show up, the first thing a movie protagonist does is start shooting.  Dispatching the undead with extreme prejudice is the best part of a zombie apocalypse.  Why did you risk your life at Walmart for that hunting rifle if it wasn’t to get some zombie-head target practice in?  Shooting a zombie in the head is the only sure way to keep them from turning you into one of them.  In a real life scenario, these combatants could be foreign military (Wolverines!), people infected with a virus that limits cognitive function to aggressive behavior, or simply other survivors that want your canned goods and DVD copy of The Gilmore Girls season 2.

Why it will kill you: Anyone that’s ever fired a weapon under duress will tell you that adrenaline and nerves can make firing accurately extremely difficult.  That means you are significantly less likely to hit the target the way you intend to when your life is in danger, and unlike in movies, ammunition will be an extremely rare and valuable commodity after the nation’s infrastructure ceases to function.  Anyone with a .22 caliber rifle can tell you how difficult it became to find ammunition for it in recent years due to concerns about increased firearm legislation.  My wife still buys any box of .22 long she comes across just because she went so long without anything to load her rifle with.  Even if you have the training and nerve to fire well placed shots and emerge the victor, you likely will have expended all of your ammunition in the fight, leaving you unprotected for any future dangers.

The best course of action in a survival scenario is to avoid direct conflict.  There’s a reason SERE School stands for Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion – at no point in the curriculum, or in the SAS survival handbook it is mostly based on, are you taught to treat hostile territory like the OK Corral.  Hide, sneak, run away and fight if you have to.  It may not be sexy, but it’s how Special Operations personnel have survived, heavily outnumbered, behind enemy lines for years.

Aim for the head.  Every zombie movie makes this clear above all else: there is no way to stop a zombie other than destroying its brain.  This is why every military unit in a zombie movie is immediately rendered useless while the hero, clad only in a five o’clock shadow and cowboy hat, manages to emerge the victor.  While everyone in uniform is confused by this new kind of threat that doesn’t stop when you shoot them center mass, the protagonist of the story is able to quickly discern the only feasible course of action: shoot ‘em in the head.

Veteran Marine explains how to survive a Zombie Apocalypse

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Why it will kill you: If you’re not a skilled marksman, hitting a moving target in the head, likely while you’re on the move yourself, is extremely difficult.  Zombie fighters unloading their pistols one-handed as they trot through the park and landing head shots from any distance further away than “already biting you” is pure fiction.  As a three times qualified expert with a pistol, I can attest that nailing a headshot while stationary at a distance outside of ten or fifteen yards can be downright tough at times with a nine millimeter, and re-acquiring the head as a target with the 1911 I now carry eats up valuable time.

The reason the real military would make short work of a zombie invasion is because we already prepare for scenarios where firing center mass won’t take down our opponents.  The classic “failure to stop drill” include two shots to center mass followed by one to the head or groin.  If I were instructing you on how to survive a zombie outbreak, I’d recommend aiming not for the head, but for the pelvis only.

A round through the pelvis won’t kill a zombie, nor would it immediately kill an insurgent, but if the only part of the zombie you need to worry about is its mouth, the lack of bone support a fractured pelvis provides would plant the zombie right where it stood and give you ample time to escape.  The pelvis, as far as targets go, is also about twice as wide as the head, and would be far easier to hit on the run.

The zombie apocalypse likely isn’t on the horizon anytime soon, no matter how much we’d like to do away with our credit scores, but using such a fanciful idea as the means to inspire you to consider what you might do in a disaster is an excellent way to make training fun and interesting.  In my house, we have a zombie preparedness plan we put together during a few nights of scary movies.  Funny as it may sound, I can rest easier knowing that if things ever do get rocky, I know my wife can take care of herself in my absence and that we’ll last long enough to see things through to the end of the movie, or at least until there’s another reboot of Red Dawn for us to pour over instead.


Image courtesy of AMC