Realism in Zombie Fiction

Is it possible?

By Brian Parker

I’m not going to attempt to convince you that the proverbial zombie apocalypse can or can’t happen, that’s been debated by every fanboy and even legitimate science for years, if not decades. So let’s start with a statement of fact: Zombies, as depicted in popular fiction, don’t currently exist in our world. That means that everything written, filmed or debated about this supernatural creature is pure speculation.

Don’t get me wrong, I love zombies and think that the genre is by no means “overdone” or past its prime as some believe. Zombies are fun to read and write about. They can be fast, slow or a combination of both. They can be a shambling, unthinking horde, or a highly developed killing machine. The outbreak can be an unstoppable global pandemic, or it can be a limited outbreak. I’ve even read books where the zombies were actually demon-possessed dead.

Possibly the most important reason that the zombie genre is so popular is that zombies represent the sum of our fears and breaks societal norms. We are afraid of germs and the spread of disease amongst the general population. Antibacterial soaps and disinfecting wipes are everywhere. People make disgusted noises when someone is sick and coughing or sneezes near them. Maybe one reason we really fear zombies is because the most common method of transmitting the infection is through a bite or scratch—the most base and vile method of attack, not to mention it’s the ultimate invasion of personal space!

A zombie apocalypse, spread person to person would devastate our cities rapidly and likely spread easily from one population center to the next. People in Western societies typically don’t like to follow rules, such as a quarantine order, so it would take draconian measures to keep the disease isolated and that brings along its own set of problems that writers have described in literature as the military turns on the population. This is probably a good time to mention that I’m an Active Duty Army author, so I don’t think the military is evil like so many of the books and films of the genre seem to depict. So, I want to examine at some of the unrealistic scenarios in the zombie genre and my belief that it can be better and more realistic.

If you’re like me, you likely roll your eyes at the stereotypical protagonist in zombie fiction. You know the type, it’s some guy or girl—devastatingly handsome or beautiful, but overlooked by the rest of society—who works at a video game store. When the shit hits the fan, they come out of their shell and use their secret level-84 ninja skills to become the unlikely leader who saves their friends and/or family. Everyone in the group is an expert shot and every time they pull the trigger, heads explode. Sound familiar? More on that in a moment. Don’t forget the quintessential part of a typical zombie novel: The main character’s love interest is unattainable before the zombies appear, but once their competition is killed, the guy gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after.

Okay, so that’s a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek view of the main characters in the genre and there have been plenty of stellar examples where this isn’t the case. Unfortunately, the good ones are harder to find than a teenage virgin to sacrifice to the Dark Lord on a full moon. Some of those books that I consider to be good in zombie fiction have elements of the stereotypes, but what makes the difference is realism. Whether that comes from life experiences or proper research, a book that combines realistic human personalities and capabilities with fantastic creatures that violate the laws of nature can be enthralling.

Now, let’s go back to those crack shots. You know the way it goes in the typical book or television series: a horde of zombies comes around the corner, the shooter pulls their rifle up and snaps off a few rounds… the undead fall in droves from the well-placed shots that hit them right between the eyes. Wow, those guys are superstars—and it’s not realistic in any way. A typical human head is about eight-to ten inches wide and around a foot or so in height. That’s a fairly small target that would be relatively easy to hit if the shooter was in a supported position and able to take their time, but in the scenario described above, it would be next to impossible to hit the “sweet spot” as the character backpedals away from the creatures and adrenaline is flooding their veins.

Don’t even get me started with how wildly inaccurate a pistol can be. The slightest bit of movement, such as a hard trigger pull, rapid breathing or just plain old jitters will make a shooter miss. How many internet videos have you seen where someone misses their intended victim at less than twenty feet? Don’t forget that a pistol lifts up and away after its fired, which makes the likelihood of accurate marksmanship decrease with each successive round. Even people who shoot their weapons often will tell you how easy it is to screw up a shot under duress. A more realistic scenario would be for a gunman to miss altogether, shoot the zombie somewhere else in the body, or run out of ammo trying to hit one creature. Even “high-capacity” pistol magazines only hold fifteen rounds…

So if there are all sorts of variables in firearms, what about melee weapons? How many times have we seen swords used in the zombie genre? Where do they get them in the first place and when did they find time in between college classes and video game marathons to train in their use? Granted, there are all sorts of decorative swords available in our world, but those aren’t meant to be used in combat and in reality, they’d break easily.

Let’s say a character does find a real weapon, a sword that was forged specifically for combat. It’s not a weapon that you can just pick up and master in a few cut scenes that are set to up-tempo training music (Eye of the Tiger, anyone?). Characters in books, television shows and movies use swords to slice off heads without regard for vertebrae or muscle. Highly trained experts in medieval or feudal times may have been able decapitate a moving target, but it’s unlikely in today’s times. A more realistic use of the weapon would be to stab into the brain, assuming that was the way to kill the creature, instead of attempting to behead the thing.

We’ve briefly covered weapons, what about the military? All too often in the zombie genre, the military is portrayed as either a bumbling group of screw-ups who allow the creatures to escape or they’re sadistic madmen, seemingly bent on enslaving the human population while allowing the zombies to exist. Left with those two choices, I’d strike out on my own too, but that’s simply not even close to realistic. Obviously, as a member of the military, I’m slightly biased about how the military would handle an outbreak.

Western militaries today are extremely flexible and adaptive. General Charles Krulak (USMC, Retired) coined the term “Three Block War” in the late 1990s and it’s been adopted by militaries worldwide as we face our current crop of enemies who are interspersed with the local population. The concept of the Three Block War means that a military unit can be conducting full spectrum operations—another words, fighting against an armed enemy—on one block, then on the next they’re conducting peacekeeping operations and then just one more block over, that same unit is providing humanitarian aid. Talk about a flexible organization. Today’s military conducts that broad spectrum of missions every day when we’re deployed, so the US and our allies have gained a little bit of experience at this over the past thirteen years of war.

The military isn’t going to be overwhelmed and have no idea how to stop the spread of a virus. We’d adapt and figure out at least a short term solution rather quickly until a long term or permanent fix could be applied. We’re also not going to get overrun because we chose to defend the proverbial line in the sand. In reality, if we were faced with overwhelming odds, we would fight a delaying action, bounding from prepared fighting position to prepared fighting position, utilizing obstacles to allow the population to evacuate ahead of the horde. At the risk of using military jargon, we’re a “T” (trained) at adapting to enemies who don’t care whether they live or die.

That brings me to the concept of a brutal and uncaring military. Do I think that there is a potential for that sort of thing to happen? Of course there is, especially in the later days of a pandemic. However, the military is just a cross-section of the population from whatever country they represent. We don’t join and then suddenly become some type of heartless automaton who follows orders blindly. In Western militaries, we rely on the strength of the individuals who make up our units and there have been plenty of examples throughout history where the group chose to disobey an order to do something that went against their morals—and, unfortunately, there have also been several examples where the group committed atrocities, but those are not the norm in today’s military.

That’s not to say that the draconian measures I’d mentioned earlier may not be required. For the good of the population, anyone showing the signs of infection would need to be segregated from everyone else. And, at some point, there would have to be a “no-penetration line” established around the quarantine zone. Anyone who did not evacuate would be left to their own devices. In order to stop the spread of an infection, you’ve got to contain it first, treat it second and then prevent further outbreaks. Unfortunately, in the case of zombies, the treatment always entails a one-way trip to Hell.

Alright, so what’s the point of all my ramblings about books and movies not being realistic versus real-world scenarios? One of the things I’m known for is trying to write scenarios that seem plausible with outcomes that reflect how things would go in the real world. In my book Enduring Armageddon, which is available from Permuted Press now, a type of zombie that is plausible threatens the characters. The zombies in that book are people who’ve been driven mad by radiation, they don’t care about any injuries that they sustain and they’re starving—which means they’ll eat anything that comes within reach. But those creatures must still follow the basic rules of nature. They can die from exposure, or injuries resulting in blood loss and must they sleep. More importantly, for the characters in the book, they can by killed, just like any other human, except their damaged brains don’t register pain, so they’re don’t stop coming until their body physically gives up on them. In my mind, that’s a more realistic type of creature than something that can only be killed with a bullet to the brain.

Another book of mine, GNASH, Book 1 of the Washington, Dead Cityseries releases from Permuted Press on February 9th. It was originally released as a self-published book in 2013, so I’ve had plenty of readers give me feedback over the years. The overwhelming majority of readers have loved the book and the way GNASH feels like something that could actually happen.

One of the keys to what makes the book so realistic is that the characters certainly don’t have everything figured out and they make mistakes. It happens, no one in life is perfect and real life MacGyvers are extremely rare. The characters in GNASH are flawed, some of them are weak-minded and make poor, but realistic choices, sometimes with disastrous results, other times with heartbreaking outcomes. But through it all, the characters’ actions seem plausible, like something that normal, everyday people would do given the scenario that I’ve placed them in.

The premise behind GNASH, Book 1 of Washington, Dead City is that a terrorist organization attacks the G-8 Summit and the Pentagon simultaneously, assassinating several heads of state at the Summit and unleashing a virus in the Pentagon. As a result of the attacks, new and untested leaders now make the decisions for their nations—with catastrophic results. Meanwhile, Delta 378, a US Army special operations unit, tries desperately to contain the zombie threat inside the Pentagon before they escape to wreak havoc on the nation’s capital.

Terrorist attacks on American soil…sound familiar? GNASH, Book 1 of the Washington, Dead City series is available for pre-order now at the link below. REND, Book 2 comes out in March and SEVER, Book 3 releases in April. Add this series to your To Be Read list and enjoy the apocalypse!

US Link:
UK Link:


A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brian Parker was born and raised as an Army brat. He moved all over the country as a child before his father retired from the service and they settled in a small Missouri town where the family purchased a farm. It was on the farm that he learned the rewards of a hard day’s work and enjoyed the escapism that books could provide.

He’s currently an Active Duty Army soldier who enjoys spending time with his family in Texas, hiking, obstacle course racing, writing and Texas Longhorns football. His wife is also an Active Duty soldier and the pairing brings its own unique set of circumstances that keep both of them on their toes. He’s an unashamed Star Wars fan, but prefers to disregard the entire Episode I and II debacle.

Brian has authored several books across multiple genres, including post-apocalyptic fiction, zombie horror, paranormal thrillers and children’s fiction. He self-published four books before signing a 4-book contract with Permuted Press. His novels GNASH and Enduring Armageddon were previously self-published and his military-themed zombie apocalypse series Washington, Dead City will be released by Permuted beginning in February 2016.