For our final session of 2015 my group and I tried a short run through the Fantasy Flight Games zombie apocalypse role-playing game The End of the World, a rules-lite system intended to simulate zombie survival in a collapsing world. I’m going to give a very brief summary of the game we played, and then a short review of some aspects of this game, which had some good ideas but I felt fell a bit flat at the end.

The session

Our group were a university academic, game designer and computer programmer, based roughly on our own careers (see below). The adventure started with us playing an RPG in our friend’s apartment in downtown Tokyo, only to be interrupted by his housemate showing us a news report of a disaster at a nearby infectious disease research institute. A huge fire had broken out, and in running away from the fire a scientist tripped and spilled some kind of virus over himself. He promptly exploded in a shower of bloody vomit, and very quickly the area around the research institute was shutdown, with everyone warned to stay inside. That included us, gaming inside the zone where everyone was required to stay inside.

After an uncomfortable night in the tiny apartment we gave up on staying inside and went to the convenience store for supplies, only to find it full of scary sick people. We returned home, and decided to get out. Our friend Jimmy and his flatmate’s girlfriend Saito san came with us, in a car we borrowed from the landlord (this is Japan, this kind of thing happens). Our plan was to head to the US base at Yokosuka, because our game designer was a base boy originally and had American citizenship, and we had heard that America was evacuating, and we hoped to scam a lift with them. By now things were getting scary – the news was on a loop, the convenience stores deserted, and normally mild-mannered citizens turning murderous, and we had seen more than one person dying in an orgy of bloody vomit.

By the time we got on the roads chaos was starting to break out, with people in cars being attacked by other people who wanted to get out, and dead people visible in many places. But there were no zombies, it just seemed like some kind of outbreak and every scared of getting caught up in it. Escaping from one such group of no-good people we damaged the car, and pulled over at an overpass to steal two empty cars (a Prius and a Mustang!) sitting near the shadows of the overpass. As we approached the cars we heard sounds of growling and hissing from the shadows of the overpass, and suddenly a bicycle came flying out of the shadows and hit our car with such force that it shattered the window. Jimmy panicked and ran away down a side street, where something came out of the shadows at lightning speed, hit him and carried him away. We didn’t need any more encouraging – we jumped into the cars and hightailed it out of there, though nothing followed us out of that overpass. We crossed the Tama river and drove on, through streets that were alternately deserted or combat zones.

At the Yokosuka army base we were separated. They allowed the designer, Ishiba san, in, but we two and Saito san had to stay outside. As we sat there in our car wondering what to do the sun started to sink, and suddenly from all across Tokyo rose a howl of primal rage, as if monsters in the shadows were preparing to come out. We’d seen a few of these things slinking around in the shadows, and we decided it was best to hole up somewhere fast. Fortunately the programmer’s house was nearby so we drove to that in about 20 minutes, and got inside just as the sun fell below the horizon.

After that the trouble really started. Two beasts tried to get into our apartment but we prepared and ambushed them separately. Our programmer was training in sword fighting so between us we had a real steel sword, a wooden sword, and Saito san with a frying pan – she was a member of her university tennis club, and a dab hand with a heavy iron skillet. We took out two, but the second one broke my shoulder[1]. Meanwhile Ishiba san found the base attacked from within, and had to flee in a humvee, driving over a couple of the zombie creatures as he went. These zombies were not shambling weaklings, but some kind of undead werewolf-like creature, that shucked off human flesh after its transformation and turned into a howling beast of rage and hunger.

The game finished with us waiting out the night and then driving away to the edge of Tokyo. I suggested heading off to the radiation-affected area to hide, and another player suggested we should hide at the outskirts of Tokyo, going in during the day to steal supplies. That is where the adventure ended.

The game

The game was fun, but in some ways it didn’t work. I think part of the reason it didn’t work was simply narrative – we all knew it was going to be a zombie story and so there was no surprise or tension when they finally came out to play. There are three books in the series and a fourth planned, I think, so it might be better to run the session without any idea of how the apocalypse is going to happen, or even if it will, and then build a campaign that floats around that idea. In fact I have long thought of running such a campaign, starting in the 1950s or 1960s and being uncertain from the outset whether it will be a horror, alien invasion, nuclear apocalypse or something else. This system seems like it would be ideal for that, though our GM told us the online community has been saying it won’t work for campaigns.

The system also suggests that you play yourself, i.e. make a character that is based on your own traits. The system is really simple – three traits divided into offense/defense and one good and one bad point for each trait – so it would be easy to do this, but who wants to play yourself? I role-play to not be a loser, not to watch myself get eaten by zombies. So I vetoed that flat-out, and as a compromise between my preference (play people who can do stuff) and the book, we agreed to make characters similar in career and situation to ours. So I played a deeply arrogant medical doctor who was under investigation for unethical research practices, and secretly welcomed the apocalypse because it was going to derail the investigation.

That was more fun.

The system is interesting and brutal. You assemble a dice pool of positive dice based on your attribute, and negative dice based on the challenge of the task; all dice are d6s. Positive and negative dice cancel if they get the same numbers, and any positive dice left over that rolled below your attribute are successes; any negative dice left over are stresses. For example if you have an attribute of 4 and a difficulty of 1 you roll 4 positive and 1 negative die; one positive die may cancel the negative die if they roll the same; any remaining positive dice that roll under 4 are successes, and if the negative die doesn’t cancel you also suffer 1 stress. Stress accrues on the same stress track as damage, and there is a separate track for physical, mental and social damage. This is why my character died; he could have survived a single blow from the zombie (just) but he had previously accrued stress from skill checks. We realized very quickly that stress was going to be serious, and avoided skill checks after that, but even a couple are a problem. Combat was also brutal – you don’t get any defense skill, so if your enemy is some kind of insane rage zombie it rolls 5 dice to hit you with no negatives to cancel them. That’s a serious amount of damage, so anything with any ferocity or skill is a death trap.

I think the game is intended to be played this way – survival is unlikely and you need to be ready to roll up new characters regularly. But the system is so rough and fast that I suspect it might chew up interest along with characters. It does somehow manage to give a feeling of ordinary people in an ordinary world gone crazy though, so it seems like it is well suited to a zombie survival epic. The book is also very nicely laid out and stylish, so it’s worth getting if you’re interested in such an epic. I think, though, that you shouldn’t start playing yourself, and you might find yourself rapidly house-ruling it to make it bearable.

I’m not sure if zombie survival role-playing is possible now that the genre has been so completely and thoroughly dealt with by popular culture, but if you are interested in trying a gritty, dangerous role-playing game with lots of resources for different types and styles of zombie apocalypse, that is quick to pick up and easy to run, I recommend it. But be prepared to make a lot of rapid changes to the rules as they’re laid out if you want to enjoy it – and start by playing someone a little more interesting than yourself!

fn1: in the mechanic of the game, it killed me, but I made a check to survive but come back severely mauled.

A new form of disaster tourism is born ...

A new form of disaster tourism is born …

I don’t really think it’s possible to make a movie of World War Z, which is basically a kind of public policy review document. I also don’t think that the new movie is a particularly good first attempt, but it is a lot of fun. As an adaptation of the book it has so many obvious problems – not least of them that nothing that happens in the book is actually in the movie – that it clearly stinks. It changes the personality and job description of the main character, who is now some kind of crack investigator for the UN with experience in investigating troublespots (do these people even exist in the UN structure?); it changes the origin of the zombiepocalypse from a Chinese dam to a US military base in Korea; it has Israel collapsing near the beginning of the epidemic; and it presents a completely different resolution to the whole problem, one that is much, much less cynical than the horrible tragedy that unfolds in the book. It also doesn’t present a series of accounts from different protagonists collected after the fact, and the best we can do is pinch ourselves and pretend that this movie is a kind of prequel to the book, the story of what the book’s (unnamed?) narrator did during the first horrible days of the apocalypse. From memory we never find this out in the book, and indeed the narrator seems to have emerged from the zombiepocalypse largely untouched by it, unlike any of his interviewees.

It is in this, however, that the movie is most faithful to the book: where the book is a kind of disaster tourism, traveling from trouble spot to trouble spot and zeroing in (mostly) on people whose suffering was genuinely terrible, in the movie we travel from troublespot to troublespot and watch Brad Pitt somehow survive while all around him goes to hell. Everyone in Jerusalem gets eaten alive, but Brad is on the last plane out of there by the most extreme strokes of luck you can conceive of. Sure, he cops a beating and so do those with him (the few who survive, anyway); but compared to what’s going down as he runs away he’s veritably blessed.

And “Jerry” does do a lot of running for a crack investigator, not that you can really blame him given the (literally overwhelming) odds he faces in every circumstance. The movie has a very good pace, from the first encounter with the zombies to the last (slightly jarring) creepy encounter. The pace and frenetic efforts of the survivors are enhanced by slightly beefing up the zombies compared to the book: these zombies don’t shuffle, but run in chaotic gangs and attack with suicidal intent. They keep the hording properties described in the book, and in the movie they can behave like ants, forming self-organizing bridges to get at prey sources and overwhelming almost any defence with their weight and collective aggression. Street scenes with people running and panicking are great because you can’t tell who is what, and in amongst the chaos people and monsters are flying in every direction, getting up, being broken, giving up, fleeing and dying. The movie also focuses on those first few days when society is failing, rather than (as often happens in zombie movies) picking up once the damage has been done and the survivors are on the run. That’s very much what we saw in the book too, and gives a sense of coherence with the book when every individual aspect of the story is completely different.

The movie also completely changes the “ending” of the zombiepocalypse, coming up with a different solution to the problem and straying widely from the cynicism of the story. I guess the solution makes sense in a narrative and figurative (if not scientific) sense but it didn’t satisfy me, but I accept it was necessary – you can’t put the original solution into a movie easily because it was by nature a systemic and policy solution, not a magic bullet, and they don’t fit into a two hour movie.

Which brings me to a final point about this genre in general: modern television has killed the zombie movie. Specifically, The Walking Dead has shown that the best medium for zombie stories is television, not cinema. This is because zombie stories are primarily about the small desperation of ordinary people, gangs of survivors, not about big special effects, and the dramas unfold slowly over long times, as people starve and get alienated and fight and die. You can’t show this stuff easily in cinema, but you can unravel a group of desperate no-hopers over 12 brutal hours on television very nicely. Similarly, you could do a very nice version of World War Z on television, with a different account each week building to a broad story arc about both the original disaster, its causes and its solutions and even about the rebuilding process. You can’t do that at the movies, which is why this movie is a completely faithless rendition of the book.

Still, it’s a really fun movie. There are some clips on youtube (including an illegal 8 minute clip of the Jerusalem scenes) which should help to show the tension and pace of the movie. If you’re into zombie movies and don’t care about a great book being completely corrupted for cinema, then I recommend this movie. If you are one of those fanboys who gets irate if even the smallest detail of your much-loved canon is corrupted, then steer clear, because this one will make you pop a gasket!

Apparently Ian Livingstone has written a new Fighting Fantasy! adventure, entitled Blood of the Zombies. How appropriate! I discovered this fact through an article in the Guardian, which includes a suggestion that it will be mostly snapped up by 38 year old nerds reliving their childhood. Well, wrong, Grauniad! I turn 39 in a week!

The article also contains a link to the entertaining site You Chose Wrong, which gives examples of entertaining death scenes from a wide range of choose your own adventures. I never realized they were so popular – GI Joe ones and fairy adventure ones and all manner of comic-based ones! There’s even a web-based Greek Default choose your own adventure, which is quite entertaining to play. They all have in common a wide range of grisly endings (though at least there’s a chance you can win Fighting Fantasy!, not so likely for the Greek Default adventure…)

Since it’s my birthday next week I might buy this for myself. And I think Noisms at Monsters and Manuals should run us through it

It came from Mars … to ROCK!

Saturday night saw me at Ikebukuro Chop, a tiny underground live venue, to see a couple of bands. My partner’s friend’s friend’s husband is the singer for the band pictured above, The Lechery From Mars, whose style clearly begs to be described as Cthulhupunk. The music is a kind of raucous light metal, not really gloomy enough to fit the standard goth rock pattern of bands like Sisters of Mercy, and definitely with an edge of punk to it. You can hear it at the band’s myspace site. It’s a bit like a collision between Jello Biafra, the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I don’t know what they’re singing about but I get the impression they take a light-hearted approach to horror and occult topics.

A servant of the elder gods?

In style, this band resembles a carnivalesque distortion of Garden of Delight or Fields of the Nephilim, and I suspect that the themes of their songs are similarly light-hearted reinterpretations of the original invokers. Garden of Delight act as if they really do believe in the ancient Sumerian gods and creeping abominations that they sing about, whereas The Lechery from Mars are probably just a bunch of guys having fun. Though I guess it’s possible that the bassist really is a creature from beyond space and time.

Invoker or Invokee?

Anyway, they were fun. Sadly – and this problem followed all the bands this evening – even though they were clearly playing with gusto and had a lot of skill, it was impossible to get a clear sense of what their music was all about, because the sound system was absolutely appalling. In a small room with low ceilings it’s a really bad idea to turn it up to 11, and on top of that the mixing didn’t seem to be very clear. There was a huge amount of that low-key electric humming sound when the bands weren’t playing, so I think something was wrong with the set up. In the tight confines of this space, the extreme volume simply meant that you couldn’t make out any sound beyond a roar. Taking these photos actually hurt when I crouched near the speakers (though maybe that was another manifestation of the dark will of the Elder Gods). Live Inn Rosa is vastly superior to Chop, and if you go there you would be well advised to wear earplugs. Though last time I went the sound was fine, so maybe it was just last night’s technicians…

After The Lechery From Mars we made a switch to the band Baal, a three piece that could probably best be described as operatic hardcore: a kind of high-tension mix of bands like Insurge with good old fashioned hardcore power, Ministry meets ebm. You can hear them at their myspace page, and their website gives a nice range of promotional pictures that pretty much capture their style. Their visual style is very reminiscent of post-apocalyptic, mad-max style survivalist, but when they played Chop they had added zombie-attack style injuries to their necks. It’s hard to see in the photos I took but it really gives them a zombie survivor look. Have we finally stumbled onto Zombiecore?

Post-apocalyptic Magua got bit!

It’s a nice mixture of post-apocalyptic zombie survivor, punk, and basic hardcore aggression. I frankly thought that hard core was long dead, smothered by its own genre restrictions,  but it’s nice to see new things being done with it in the city of lights … hardly surprising though, considering the amazing quality of Japanese live acts. Which makes the terrible sound mixing even more of a disappointment – these bands should have been raising the roof with their style, aggression and skills, but instead we were all being stifled like experimental subjects for some kind of new sonic death ray. Hopefully next time I see them the sound mixing will be better, and I’ll be able to experience the full joys of this new musical genre, Zombiecore!


Self-organizing Criticality is much preferable to Evil Hive Mind

Zombie hording behavior is crucial to decision-making after the zombiepocalypse. Assuming that our rotting foes are dumb beasts with no mind at all may be our downfall, but all the classic texts seem to contain two fundamental assumptions:

  • Zombies have absolutely no sentience or intellect
  • Zombies gather together in hordes

Some texts also assume that zombies retain a very very rudimentary and instinctive memory of their activities as humans (crowding to shopping centres, walking along roads, etc.) but this could be a mistaken conclusion based on their hording behavior. How zombies form hordes is a key part of the zombiepocalypse puzzle: consider the ending of The Walking Dead[1] season 2, where zombies see a helicopter, follow it, and when they lose sight of it just keep walking in a straight line. This is very specific hording behavior, not necessarily matched to any existing understanding of self-organizing behavior. Understanding what happens in these kinds of situations is essential to planning anti-zombie defenses.

In most of my posts about zombie survival spots here I’ve worked on the assumption that zombies are mindless moving objects, kind of like the famous physicists’ perfect point particle. They move slowly away from their point of origin in a random direction, so if one moves away from a city one can imagine the wave of zombies emerging from the city just like a supernova, in a perfect sphere disrupted only by objects. I’ve also assumed that they follow the path of least resistance, so move along roads and open areas in preference to built up areas and forests. This means that a well-designed fence or hiding in a large complex of well-sealed buildings will tend to direct zombies away from a small group of survivors, and once the main wave of initial infecteds has spread outward, survival will become considerably easier.

However, this doesn’t seem to be how hordes function in the seminal texts. They seem to stay together and move purposively. This means, I think, that they have some kind of hording technique – some sort of self-organizing criticality, like insects. I think that their moans of bestial hunger serve the same purpose as an ant’s scent – when a zombie hears a moan, it moves towards the sound and itself moans, drawing other zombies. In The Walking Dead they also comprehend the difference between zombie and human scent, so maybe they remain close together due to some kind of scent marking process. The nature of this behavior is crucial, because if we assume that zombies horde together through a signaling mechanism and move along the path of least resistance, our tactics change:

  • Staying hidden is essential when even single zombies appear, since the sound of their bestial rage may bring others
  • Staying away from major roads is a good survival tactic
  • As roads spread out away from cities, remaining out of sight in an area far from major roads will enable survivors to escape the worst hording behavior
  • Major cities and megacities (like Tokyo, Chongqing) will have hordes of zombies potentially in the hundreds of thousands in size. If zombies have any kind of hording behavior, getting out of cities before the worst of the epidemic hits is essential. Once a significant number of zombies has been created, attempting to escape a city will be close to impossible, since being seen by even a single zombie will likely draw others very quickly
  • If zombies can horde, tactics need to be developed to enable escape from a situation where a zombie sees the group before the group sees it. This makes choice of bases and camps much harder, and makes subterfuge much more important than weapon use

I think it is reasonable to assume that zombies adopt insect-like scent-marking and hording patterns, and to find ways to fool or avoid them. The best use of this behavior is in setting up traps from which large numbers of zombies can be easily culled, or establishing distractions which enable survivor groups to flee. Understanding zombie hording behavior is essential to identifying good survival patterns. Is it an insect-like self-organizing system, some kind of voodoo, vestigial human behavior that is easily fooled, or simple particle mechanics?

fn1: which I consider to be the seminal text, much more knowledgeable than earlier efforts at Zombie science

picture taken without permission from Detrain C, Deneubourg J.Collective Decision-making and foraging patterns in ants and bees. Advances in Insect Physiology,35; 2008: 123-173.

A cold planet ... a Zombie planet!

Ikaho is a hot spring resort in the mountains Northwest of Tokyo, about an hour and a half from Tokyo by bullet train and local train and bus. It is famous for being the historical summer home of emperor’s, and also for having a huge flight of stone stairs that runs from the bottom of town to the top. This flight of stairs is lined with shops, and at the top is the source of the town’s hot spring water. I’ve been told that even today, hot spring water is allocated from this source in strict accordance with the degree of nobility of the recipient’s heritage, though I don’t know whether that’s true or not. The town is essentially a resort town, with no other business to be found except tourism. It’s also slowly crumbling, as are many rural towns in Japan, as the population ages and the young people leave for the cities. A good proportion of the buildings in this town, that used to hold thriving businesses, are now derelict. In fact, you can’t see it from the second rate photo I took from my second-rate hotel room, but in front of my ageing hotel there was a wide patch of scrub grass on a slope, essentially untended and growing very tall, in amongst which a few crumbling sheds were being slowly reclaimed by nature. A room with a view indeed … However, Ikaho’s fading charms aside, it does make quite an excellent mountain fastness from which to weather the zombiepocalypse.


Defensibility: Although Ikaho is accessible from several locations, much of the town consists of multi-storey buildings on slopes accessible only through a single road or steps. In some cases (such as my hotel) the area in front of the buildings is open space, and some of these buildings may have an exit to the hillside that is above the entrance (e.g., my hotel had an emergency exit on a higher level than the main entrance, and the exit emerged from the opposite side of the hotel). In other cases, buildings may be quite isolated from the rest of the town and surrounded by quite thick forest. This makes them potentially quite defensible (Japanese forest at its thickest is impenetrable for people). At the top of the town is a long flight of steps, perhaps 200 m long, lined with small souvenir shops and restaurants. These steps are joined at regular intervals by narrow side streets, but these side streets would be easy to block. At the top of the steps is a kind of hotel or administrative building, surrounded by walls and a gate, and near that is the source of the hot spring water. By blocking the streets and closing off the buildings one can establish a quite defensible redoubt – live at the base of the steps and, if a zombie horde encroaches, flee up the steps, drawing them into the natural death trap formed by the souvenir shops – then roll rocks down on them, or close off a single barrier and use stakes and spears to destroy them. In this sense the town is defensible in quite a low-tech way.

Escape routes: In addition to the obvious ways in and out of the town, at the very top of the steps after a short run one can reach a river in a kind of canyon, that is crossed by two small bridges. If one were to park a car on these bridges they would become essentially uncrossable, but there is a road on the far side that – I guess – leads out of town through a little-used route. This gives a good escape route from the town, assuming a zombie horde came from the lower reaches (i.e. closer to the nearest towns) and not from the mountains. By establishing a small car pool on the far side of this bridge and preparing mobile barriers for the bridge itself (or, better still, a means of knocking the bridges down) one would have a fairly reliable escape option. As far as I can tell the only other way across this canyon is through the riverbed, but like most rivers in Japan it is concrete-lined and hard to scale. Ikaho also features a rope way leading up to a mountain top, so another option could be to establish a flying fox mechanism from their back into town – then, lead the zombies up the mountainside, and when you get to the top use the flying fox to rapidly get back down the hillside, leaving them lost and confused on the mountainside.

Location: Ikaho is located far from Tokyo, but it is not in as secluded a location as Hakone. It is a short bus ride from the town of Shibukawa, a typical sprawling (by Japanese standards) rural supply town. The most likely approach will be through Shibukawa, with a stop to get urgent supplies; this would be dangerous. There are bypasses which take the intrepid survivor group through smaller country towns, and this is the best bet if one wants to guarantee rapid and safe access to Ikaho. Ikaho’s slight remove from Shibukawa is useful though, because it gives survivors the option of raiding Shibukawa’s shopping centres (“doing a run” as they say in The Walking Dead) for essentials. Looking at the map of the area, I notice that there are quite a few golf courses nearby, which at least provide a wide range of clubbing weapons and possibly a clubhouse to raid for supplies. However, the nearness to Shibukawa and the main roads running north from Tokyo means that Ikaho may be a target for random zombie encounters and/or hordes. Remoteness is a useful property in a survival location.

Concealment: Like Hakone, Ikaho is largely invisible from the larger towns, so zombies won’t congregate on its distant lights or the sounds of habitation here – it will only draw zombies who are already just wandering through the mountains aimlessly. Assuming zombies radiate outward from Shibukawa randomly once they’ve eaten all its residents, it is likely that they will mostly miss Ikaho and wander into the wilderness. Establishing a solid barrier at a suitable juncture – such as in front of the visitor’s centre at the edge of town – might cause them to turn down a different road leading away from the area long before they receive any indication that there are humans in the town. Thus even small hordes would be less likely to approach the town, and defending it would likely consist of keeping an eye out for occasional lone wandering zombies. Unfortunately, these zombies will still have many places to hide and cause trouble – the crumbling buildings and scrubland make it easy for a zombie to be missed even from the best vantage points in town, so patrols might be necessary in order to ensure the town’s safety.

Sustainability: As a remote tourist town, Ikaho boasts a lot of restaurants and a small resident population. It’s likely that in the short term there would be a large stock of fresh and preserved foods to consume while preparing defenses. It’s worth noting here that tourist towns in Japan contain a lot of souvenir shops selling food, and much of this food is preserved food – dried and pickled fish are very popular souvenirs, as are low-sugar sweets (dumplings and cakes) that are designed to last for up to a month after purchase. So upon arrival, the group could establish a simple consumption order: first the fresh food that can spoil, while the fridges are still running; then the frozen goods once the electricity dies; then move onto the preserved foods. Potentially in a place like Ikaho one would have as long as a month to establish a mechanism for sustainable food supplies, and maybe even longer. There would likely be huge stocks of rice on hand, and these would be easy to cook – one can establish a steaming mechanism using the onsen (hot spring) water from the top of the hill, and in fact there is a little restaurant at the top of the town which serves eggs boiled in onsen water, so the mechanism has already been established.

Most importantly though, Ikaho comes with a supply of fresh meat and a potential farming area pre-prepared. Near the bottom of the town is a tourist ranch, holding cows and sheep and goats, that will likely still be functioning if the survivors arrive fast enough. In addition to holding the animals, the ranch is intended as an educational enterprise so likely contains basic information on how to milk and herd them. If the ranch staff are still there they could even be convinced to participate in establishing the long-term survival of the community. The nearby golf-courses can be converted into rice paddies, as probably could the stepped slopes of the town itself, and there is ample scrubland for planting potatoes and vegetables. Just a short drive away from the town is Haruna lake, which in addition to a source of fresh water for the town (through the aforementioned stream) also probably contains fish. Haruna lake is unlikely to be thronged with zombies, being even more remote than Ikaho, so a pair of people visiting the lake could fish for the group with relative impunity.

Ikaho’s main sustainability problem is its lack of fuel and distance to the local town, but this could be easily solved by bringing a large number of bicycles, and using them to move to and from Haruna lake. Then fuel can be conserved for visits to the town of Shibukawa – and that fuel need only be used for the drive back, since cars could coast to the town. With such mechanisms in place it is likely that Ikaho could provide a good long-term survival spot from which to weather a few seasons of the zombiepocalypse.

Natural hazards: The main risks to life in Ikaho are the possibility of collapsing buildings, forest fires and of course the ever-present risk of rock falls and landslides. Ikaho is far removed from the centre of Japan’s typhoon zone and unlikely to flood, but one problem it does have is winter. Being north of Tokyo and in the mountains, it will have a long, harsh winter. Even in early April when I visited there was no sign of a single new leaf on even one tree – it was barren as far as the eye could see. With potentially 6 months where nothing grows, winters will be harsh if one does not arrive with a very large stock of rice and tinned goods. The local stocks of rice – particularly in the hotels – would likely last a whole season, but the work in the next summer to secure sufficient rice and potatoes for a second winter could be hard. Staying warm in winter would not necessarily be a challenge – in addition to the ample local wood supplies, the onsen water could be used to warm houses, or one could just sit out the winters in an onsen. Winters of this severity also offer the opportunity for a respite from zombie incursion, as zombies will likely freeze, and this gives the residents potentially a three month period in which to work freely on establishing defenses, preparing the ranch, and so on. Winters after the first could be lean times, but provided some farms could be established in the first year, they will be survivable.


In fleeing to the countryside one should remember that Japanese rural towns all have many automatic rice-dispensing facilities, which can carry hundreds of kgs of rice. Before the electricity runs out these will be easy to use – take a large supply of money and sacks, and just feed the money in! One great thing about vending machines is that they can’t profiteer, so while the rice sellers in town will soon be hiking up their prices, unless the companies are very organized and somehow immune to the general societal collapse, these rice hoppers will continue to sell rice at peacetime prices. Money isn’t going to be relevant, but a good supply of rice is going to be priceless. If one wants to survive long-term in Japan after the zombiepocalypse, the first thing one should grab is a very very large stash of sacks. Every hopper you come to, loot for everything its got. Then you have both a barter good for dealing with people you meet, and a source of long-term survival that, if treated carefully, may last more than a year.

Ikaho’s defenses are not so intuitive as in Takao, so to prepare a proper defense of the town – with its winding streets and multiple possibly inter-connected crumbling buildings – would require poring over a map, establishing choke points and defensive layers, and preparing fall back positions. It’s probably also not such a good place for a very small group of survivors – I would guess that with less than 20 people in your group you won’t be able to set up the required defensive positions quickly. Upon arrival the best idea is probably to establish a redoubt at the top of the stairs, and to fan out from there securing the rest of the town once the group has its first base intact. Because it’s a tourist town, it’s easy to pick up maps and guides when one arrives, and the town is self-contained and small enough for new arrivals to quickly get a sense of all its ways and byways. Starting from a small base, one could slowly secure the town and establish defensive rings and tactics.


Ikaho is not as defensible as Takao but offers better long-term sustainability options, and is further removed from the hordes of Tokyo. With its local ranch and nearby golf courses, as well as a nearby fishing lake, it offers both short term and long term food supplies, and the presence of a strong and reliable local onsen source reduces the need for electric power for cooking and heating. Provided that some degree of farming can be established within a year and mechanisms put in place for weathering the worst of winter, it may be an ideal spot to weather the initial storm of the zombiepocalypse, and a good base from which to reclaim at least a small part of the world for human habitation.

Your zombie getaway vehicle...

As a holiday location Hakone is a little over-rated, but as a zombie survival spot it has some good points. It lacks the defensibility of Mount Takao, but its relative remoteness, inaccessibility, climate and water features offer some survival opportunities. It’s also quite a beautiful spot to be torn apart by zombies in, though that’s not our intention here. Hakone is located about 2 hours’ journey West of Tokyo (if you catch the bullet train part way) in the province of Kanagawa, and consists of an ancient volcano caldera, with a lake in the middle of thickly forested hills. From some locations within the caldera it is possible to see Mount Fuji, though the weather around here is quite bad and it is often cloudy or obscured. The nearest large town is Yumoto, which is on the far side of the hills from the lake. Hakone itself is accessible through one or two twisting, winding roads that ascend and then descend the caldera. There is also a train and a cable car. The lake is a tourist resort in spring, summer and autumn, and features a rather amusing ferry fashioned on a pirate theme (see below), as well as a variety of paddle boats and smaller cruisers. There are three towns on the lakeside, linked by a single road that winds through thick forest, and by the pirate ferry.

Pirates vs. zombies!


Location: Hakone is reached by only a small number of winding roads, which feature many switchbacks and narrow, easily blockable chokepoints. The road is, of course, lined with towns, but these are small and easy to pass through and mostly lower down the mountain – also unlikely to be zombified before the larger towns closer to Tokyo. It would be quite easy to pass beyond a certain point and block the road against zombie encroachment, forcing them to work around the blockade and struggle up through densely forested steep mountains.

This brings us onto a new aspect of zombie hording theory: how do zombie hordes proceed? I presume they flow along the path of least resistance, which in an urban setting would mean that they flow along roads, with more zombies on wider roads. Furthermore, all the work I’ve read and seen on zombies suggests that they have very limited, if any, information exchange. This leads to some interesting dynamics, because it means that they don’t behave like ants or bees – they don’t lay paths and follow them. So it seems reasonable to suppose that as they leave cities they are more likely to move down major roads, and if they don’t find prey they will slowly disperse. Thus, only small numbers can be expected to proceed along narrow, winding, low-prey-density country roads, and at some point they can be expected to stop and mill around – as we see in quite a few scenes from the major documentaries. This suggests that a remote location reached only by narrow, winding roads with low-density settlements sparsely located (as is the case on the higher reaches of Hakone) is likely to be missed by the majority of zombies.

Defensibility: Hakone has a harsh winter – right now, in mid April, the cherry blossoms have not yet bloomed, for example, which must mean that between December and March it is very cold – it even snowed when I was there last weekend. A lot of people think that zombies freeze in the cold, which in the case of Hakone evokes the possibility of a kind of “zombie line,” above which zombies can’t pass. Defenders of Hakone could venture into the snows of late winter/early spring and slaughter frozen zombies on the slopes of the mountains. Additionally, this winter cold, though harsh on people living in Hakone, offers the possibility of a three month respite from zombie attacks – surely a valuable haven of stability in a zombiepocalypse.

Also, Hakone has the lake, and the pirate ships. In a pinch, one could sail one of these pirate ships to the middle of the lake, dragging a couple of pedal-powered swans with it, and set it up as a safe haven far from the zombie hordes. The pedal boats could be used to travel to the shore for supplies. At least in the short term this offers an opportunity to ride out the worst of the initial period of the apocalypse, and to work out what to do next. Then, there are many areas of the shore which are so thickly forested that they are almost impossible for a zombie horde to enter rapidly without making a noise. One could clear a section of this forested area and set up some fields and a house, combining potato crops and potentially a rice field or two with fish from the lake (and seabirds). If zombies attacked, a quick hop onto a pedal-boat would get one out to the pirate ship and temporary safety. There are also, of course, buildings higher up the hillsides, which could be quite easily fortified. Unfortunately a lot of these are large hotels, which offer the advantage of being able to hide deep inside, but the disadvantage of being extremely difficult to secure.

Concealment: Being in a bowl, most of the locations inside Hakone are visible when one enters the valley, so things like smoke and lights at night might be visible to zombies cresting the mountains. However, from the valley base each town is largely disconnected from the other towns, with the bulwark of the mountains and thick forests preventing zombies in one town from seeing another. Setting a barricade on the roads between the towns, it would be quite easy to ensure that the only zombies that approached the town did so along a narrow and defensible road – those that entered the forest would likely soon lose sight of human habitation and wander listlessly, losing their horde properties and becoming less threatening to a community.

Sustainability: Hakone has a lot of tourist establishments, offering short-term sources of food, and it has a guaranteed supply of water (the lake and its tributary streams) as well as the opportunity to fish for food for most of the year. However, the steep mountains and harsh winter weather may make long-term survival here difficult, and it is likely that, outside of fire wood, there are no more reliable sources of energy – perhaps a dam could be built, but it would be a significant engineering task. Enterprising survivors could turn the many onsens in the region into a power source, but this would likely require the support of some skilled engineers. Thus, if one wants to make Hakone sustainable as a survival location, one would need to ensure that one had at least one engineer and someone with a fairly robust knowledge of farming when one arrived. Otherwise, it is likely that Hakone would serve best as a winter redoubt, somewhere to retreat for the first winter after the apocalypse while one attempted to work out a long term survival strategy. Things could get bitter here in winter, and not all survivors could be guaranteed to emerge at spring, depending on how well stocked the hotels were and how many survivors fled here.


Hakone offers short-term survival opportunities, the chance to build a home and spend a winter free of zombie harassment while a group of survivors tries to develop a long-term plan. The steep hillsides, harsh winter and lack of local power supplies mean that it may not be a viable long-term survival location, but its secluded location and the presence of many hotels means that it may be a suitable location for a small number of survivors to sit out the worst of the initial stages of the apocalypse. It’s worth remembering that in the first stages of the apocalypse, 30 million or so Tokyo residents are going to zombify and head into the country – having a secluded location to wait for this process to stabilize is a very useful first plan. So there are worse places to go than Hakone, but it is potentially less defensible and more difficult to survive in than Takao. It lacks one significant aspect of Takao – height, and the ability to make low-tech zombie traps. But it has one significant advantage – the opportunity to retreat to the lake centre if a horde approaches. As a short term survival choice, it is not perfect, but definitely better than attempting to survive within Tokyo.

Not exactly the last of the Interceptors, but...

It’s the little things that can do you in, and watching The Walking Dead recently I noticed that the group have made some serious mistakes in choice of vehicle for their road trip. Who is responsible for their vehicular management? That sanctimonious old meddler, Dale, of course. They really need to start viewing him as “just another mouth to feed.” Here is why they have made bad vehicle choices, and what I consider to be good choices for the zombie apocalypse road trip.

The Winnebago, the hi-tech liability and the chopper

The Walking Dead‘s group drive across America in a Winnebago camper van, a couple of urban runabouts and a Harley Davidson. Three of their four vehicles are bad choices: the Winnebago, the modern urban runabout, and the Harley. Their overall group transport strategy is flawed because the Winnebago is carrying too heavy a load and they haven’t built in any redundancy to account for it. Specific reasons for the flaws in each vehicle are easily identified.

The Winnebago

This is the big mistake in the road trip plan. The Winnebago has many flaws:

  • It carries too much material, which means that if it breaks down in a high-risk area (near a town or an obviously infected area) the group won’t have time to empty it before they need to move on. They’ll have to leave a lot of important gear behind if they’re in a hurry, because they have too much stashed in one vehicle
  • It’s not manoeuvrable, so when they reach traffic jams or narrow roads they have to go around. Worse still, if they see trouble ahead and need to turn around in a hurry, they need to do a three point turn rather than a u-turn. To avoid this they need to stay on large, wide roads which are likely to be heavily infested.
  • It’s inefficient, so that despite its large size it only really carries a couple of passengers and beds. As a hospital vehicle it’s little better than a normal van, but it also carries less people than a mini bus. Furthermore, all the heavy fittings and camping style are simply a waste of space. They won’t use the toilet, and they could get by perfectly well with camp chairs rather than heavy fixed tables. All this stuff is taking up space and using fuel but providing little comfort. As a source of shelter it’s not large enough for the whole group, yet the whole group is constrained in road choice by its size
  • It’s noisy and has high wind resistance, meaning it draws attention to the group and uses a lot of fuel. Fuel efficiency may not be a long-term issue in a world depleted of competition, but in moving between gas stations and fuel sources it is crucial. If you’re going to use a heavy, fuel inefficient vehicle you need good reason
  • It’s heavy: hard to push out of the road, hard to replace wheels

The worst case scenarios involving the Winnebago arise from the combination of its lack of manoeuvrability and its excessive storage usage. On a narrow road, if the group see zombie trouble up ahead they will need to turn the Winnebago around, running the risk that it will get bogged off-road. This could potentially trap other cars between the Winnebago and the zombie horde, meaning loss of those cars too. But even if this doesn’t happen, bogging the vehicle down will mean having to empty it into the other cars. This will take a long time, and as the zombies approach the group will have to choose to abandon large amounts of stuff. This wouldn’t happen if that stuff had been distributed between more, smaller vehicles.

The urban runabout

The group also has a green hatchback, quite modern, that is probably highly fuel efficient, comfortable, reliable and quiet. This is overall a good choice of vehicle, but it has a significant downside: it’s too modern. Modern cars can’t be easily repaired by unskilled users, and often require computer diagnostics and specialist service centres, sometimes affiliated with the company that sells the car. Also, parts are often specific to the car and can’t be scavenged. This means that any breakdown more serious than a simple puncture will put the car out of action. That’s fine if your group has significant redundancy, but the group in the Walking Dead don’t have this luxury.

The Harley Davidson

The Harley is probably a good idea for long road trips – I get the impression that these bikes are designed for comfort in long journeys. It also has the potential to carry a rider fairly comfortably on pillion, and carry a small amount of luggage, so is a good survival tool. But it suffers from the drawback that all motorbikes do: it’s uncovered, so dangerous. However, it lacks the advantages of other smaller bikes: it doesn’t have the speed, manoeuvrability and acceleration of a road bike, nor does it have the off road capabilities of an off-road bike. It’s also likely to be noisy and less fuel efficient than other bikes. What’s its use? If it is to be used for long range reconnaissance, a road bike – extremely fast, highly manoeuvrable and quieter – would be a better option, since it will be able to travel far ahead of the group in a short time, and escape any trouble. If short-range off-road scouting is necessary, then a standard farm bike would be better. This can be used to get through partially-obstructed regions (e.g. old road blocks and traffic jams) easily, is highly manoeuvrable so can be turned around quickly to escape sudden gangs of zombies, and can go off-road to investigate old houses and farms. In the hands of an experienced motor-crosser it can even potentially go over some obstacles, though at high risk. A Harley is only good for open-road cruising. But you can do that much, much more safely in a car, which at least has the advantage of seat belts.

The problem of redundancy and overloading

Another significant problem arises for this group from the combination of lack of redundancy and overloading of the Winnebago. If the Winnebago breaks down irreparably, the group will need to move all the stuff out of it into just two urban runabouts, which also need to transport all the people in the group. Short of the obvious solution – shooting Dale for the sanctimonious moralizing loser that he is and using his seat for storage – the group is going to face a hard choice between supplies and people, because their two small cars won’t have enough room for both. This choice is going to probably have to be made in a hurry, and will lead to the loss of a significant amount of important material. If one of the other runabouts dies, the problem is not so severe but they will be immediately forced to hunt for a new car, even if the only locally available cars are in very dangerous settings. They have no choice in this – if one of their runabouts fails and then the Winnebago breaks down in a dangerous place, they won’t have sufficient capacity to take the whole group to safety and will have to repair the Winnebago under pressure. Bad move.

Furthermore, lack of small vehicles means they don’t have the ability to circle the vehicles at night – not a perfect defense tactic but an important part of safe camping techniques. And of course, they don’t have a spare vehicle to use to block a street or set alight as a barrier.

The ideal road trip strategy

Cars offer the benefits of mobility, shelter and security. However, on a road trip one runs the risk of becoming stranded between locations with no source of supplies, so the key to any safe zombie apocalypse road trip is redundancy. Ideally you need lots of small cars with the following properties:

  • Fuel efficiency
  • Good storage space
  • Manoeuvrable
  • Easily pushed, for jump-starting or getting out of the way
  • Disposable
  • Easily accessible (four doors!)
  • Readily accessible spare parts

The thought of hooning along post-apocalyptic open roads in a Nissan Fairlady may appeal, but it has very few advantages. The group should choose cars that meet most of the above conditions, and ideally some of these vehicles should be able to be used as excess storage spaces, shelters, or hospital vehicles. Thus a good combination would be VW kombi vans (for space, shelter and repairability) or similar vans, four-door utilities (for storage and convertability), and older four-door hatchbacks. For the utes, ideally they would be the sort of ute that gets used as a “technical” by somali warlords – so an older Toyota or Subaru, something reliable and trustworthy that can use parts from any old car and can itself be cannibalized.

The group should have more vehicles than it needs to carry all its materials and all its people, and some of them (the kombi vans) should be sufficient to provide shelter and security in a pinch (bad weather, sudden unexpected zombie onset). All of them should be able to turn easily to get out of trouble, and be pushable by two adults. All the vehicles should carry enough supplies to be self-sufficient for a short time: basic materials for the engine (pipe, radiator, spark plug, battery, jump cables); a couple of days’ food; water; fuel; basic medical supplies. This means that if any one vehicle needs to be abandoned its contents can be stripped out quickly and moved to another vehicle, but can also be abandoned un-stripped without catastrophic loss of vital materials. All back seats should be left empty and the doors unlocked, for rapid transfer of people from broken cars in an emergency. The utes can be used to carry excess material that isn’t so important and can be dumped where necessary; the utes can also be used as emergency evacuation vehicles or even ambulances where things go wrong. All vehicles should be given a priority (High, Medium or Low) and this should be painted on bonnet and doors so that everyone knows which vehicle to head for if not all vehicles can be saved. The group should travel at the optimal speed for fuel efficiency, well spaced out, and stop regularly to rest and check maps – you never know when you might need to turn around, so it’s good for everyone in the group to be aware of potential hazards in the road behind. All vehicles should be driven with at most 2 people in them (to ensure redundancy) and single occupancy vehicles should be avoided – it’s not fuel efficient and it opens the risk of loss of communication. Ideally some kind of radio contact should be maintained between vehicles – hourly checking in, regular reports, etc.

All vehicles should also be fitted with a usable sharp piercing implement such as a sharpened iron spike by every door, so that zombies that break through window glass can be dealt with easily. When driving, everyone should wear seat belts – what’s the point of surviving the apocalypse only to die in a low-velocity car crash? Or worse, survive but be put down like a dog by your comrades because of a lack of suitable medical equipment to handle serious injuries… Finally, motorbikes should only be used if the group really sees a need for single-person reconnaissance. Otherwise they’re a dangerous luxury vehicle that should be avoided.

I think if a group follows these principles it will be able to survive longer on the open road and escape from even quite dangerous and pressing situations without significant lives or material. As it stands the group in The Walking Dead are one breakdown away from either losing a significant load of supplies and/or having to abandon people; or becoming lunch. Don’t make their mistakes, and instead adopt an industrial design approach to your post-apocalyptic convoy: share the load-bearing and ensure redundancy.

A note on the zombie road-trip of the future

As the world shifts to a low-carbon future, cars are going to become electric. In the further future they may even become robot driven. This means that sometime in the far future, the apocalypse will see a collapse from a much higher-tech society than we have now, to a much lower-tech society, with no pause in the Mad Max zone. Isn’t that interesting?



Too Lazy for Monster-hunting

I and the Delightful Miss E both have colds this weekend, so we decided to have a lazy weekend in the house, watching monster documentaries. We weren’t quite as lazy as the pictured monster, who couldn’t even be bothered lifting his head through most of the weekend, but about the only time my pulse rose above resting level was when I learnt about the kinds of horrors that ordinary citizens in Madrid have to endure. And my god, were they horrible. It’s nice to sit safe in your home learning about the kinds of troubles that people in the Western Hemisphere face, being reminded of how much more civilized life in Asia is. Although I must say that I sometimes got the impression that the third documentary I watched wasn’t real. Sometimes it just seemed, well, acted. Here is my review of the three documentaries I watched.

Rec: Violent zombie bio-containment in Madrid

Rec is an accidentally-shot documentary about an incident in a Madrid apartment block, filmed a few years ago. The film starts off as a simple TV show, with a presenter and her cameraman planning to spend a night with the Madrid fire brigade filming their activities for a show called While You Were Sleeping. I think they must have changed the name of this show for the documentary because I can’t find any evidence that it’s real, but it is an excellent idea for a TV show so I think people should make this kind of show. Anyway, after a few hours of boredom the team are called out to an incident in an apartment block, where a woman appears to be locked into her apartment, and the documentary crew go with them. When they arrive they are greeted by the apartment residents, who are in the hallway, and two policemen. The “normal incident” turns out to be a monster situation – some kind of zombie in the apartment attacks one of the policemen, and mayhem breaks out. However, before they can do anything to flee the building is surrounded by police and health inspectors and sealed off, and they are warned that any attempt to leave will have “drastic consequences.” They are then required to stay in the apartment block while, one by one, the residents and visitors turn into zombies. The whole thing is recorded by the documentary crew.

This documentary is genuinely one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen, after The Descent – which we all know was just a movie. The people are so ordinary and unprepared: the residents consist of an uptight mother and her daughter, some Chinese migrant textile workers, a seedy older man who thinks he still has it, and an intern from the local hospital. No one has any idea what’s happening until the dead start coming to life, and they all start blaming each other (until they settle on the Chinese as scapegoats, of course). They can’t agree about a plan, refuse to follow the orders of the policeman, and don’t have any community feeling to bind them together in adversity. Meanwhile, they’re being lied to by the police outside and hunted down like animals by a terrible beast inside. The panic builds towards an incredibly tense and terrifying conclusion, and much of the action happens in claustrophobic, tangled spaces, or in the dark or just the light of a single spotlight. It’s one of those situations where everyone needs to understand the basic principles of zombie theory, be ready to apply them, and be ruthless and steadfast in sticking to them. Sadly they don’t do this and every time the group fragments or fails to get it fast enough, someone dies. The editing of the documentary is very well done too so it’s sparse with extraneous details, doesn’t make you feel sick or confused from the jumbling images, and gives you a clear sense of what’s going on. It’s so good it could be a movie, and indeed I did feel like I was watching  a movie as the facts were being unveiled. Unfortunately a few years later an American director made a movie, Quarantine, based on the events in Madrid, and in watching the preview for that movie I got a spoiler showing me how the situation finally is resolved. My advice is not to watch the trailer for Quarantine. Why do people put the ending in the trailer? That’s crazy.

This documentary is hard going but very powerful and educational, and it again reinforces the lessons learnt in The Descent: if you’re up against a countable number of undead/generally grey-skinned opponents, and your resources and strength are limited but you have a couple of good weapons, absolutely the best thing to do is to take a stand in one, strong, defensible position and destroy them as they come at you. Do not attempt to run and hide, do not try to find out more about what is going on than you immediately need to know, do not split up and most of all destroy them before you start to run out of energy, light, or esprit de corps. Especially if you are in a building surrounded by police, so all you need to do is survive until they can work out what to do. And most of all, don’t go creeping around in dark hallways and rooms trying to work out who is still alive and what is going on. The lessons of this movie will help anyone who is faced with a supernatural or viral zombie threat of the kind we all need to prepare for.

Trollhunter: The truth about Norway’s troll control program

Trollhunter is a found-footage documentary, based apparently on 283 minutes of footage that turned up at a Norwegian TV station and was verified and pieced together by its editors. The documentary was filmed by some college students who were originally on the trail of an unlicensed bear hunter, only to discover that he is actually a troll hunter. Initially cold, he finally opens up to them and allows them to follow him in the troll hunt. Apparently Norway has always had trolls, but they are confined to specific territories and if they escape those territories the troll hunter, Hans, is sent to kill them. These trolls aren’t like D&D trolls: they’re up to 100m tall and enormously powerful, and they can smell the blood of a christian. The documentary tells us quite a bit about their biology and habits and so we learn that they aren’t supernatural at all, though they can be killed by exposure to sunlight: they’re just very big, very old predators that have been driven into the wilderness by humans. Unfortunately, the government is keeping their existence and the existence of the troll control program a secret, which might explain why the documentary is based on found footage.

This documentary isn’t terrifying like Rec but it is a fascinating, occasionally violent and disturbing, and very exciting kind of animal documentary, like going in pursuit of 100m tall lions or something. It has a good pace, although they do sometimes spend too much time filming shots of the fjords, and it unveils the truth of the situation in the same way that the filmmakers themselves learnt it, which is an excellent technique for documentaries about monsters: by giving this point-of-view style, the documentary maker encourages the viewer to feel like they have themselves stumbled upon these hidden facts about the supernatural world, and so makes the viewer more likely to believe the truth of the story – though obviously as an avid RPG player, I didn’t need any convincing as to the existence of trolls. I just didn’t realize they were so big! Or so well controlled by the Norwegian government, which is apparently up to its neck in conspiracy and cover-up to prevent panic and chaos. Usually when people talk about the dark secrets behind the Scandinavian success story it’s something about suicide or youth unemployment, but I never realized it was actually troll control. A fascinating insight into how the government handles supernatural problems in a stable, social democratic society and well worth watching.

Diary of the Dead: Badly made Zombie hoax

This “documentary” is really, really hard to believe. First of all, although it’s easy to believe that I could miss news about a single weird situation in an apartment in Madrid, it’s really hard to believe that the kind of chaos this documentary describes could have happened in the USA without my noticing it. For the brief period of the documentary it’s as if the world has ended, though obviously that can’t have happened since, well, I’m sitting here writing this and the person who filmed this documentary openly admits that she was able to edit it and release it to us. I really hate it when documentaries about serious subjects like zombie incidents try to exaggerate the importance of them, like the world has ended or something. The second hint as to the falsity of this documentary is its title, which is clearly a play on the names of the famous zombie movies – I even have a suspicion that Romero had a role in this. The third clue that it’s a hoax is that it appears to be acted, and badly acted at that. It’s like a bunch of student actors thought they could reproduce the success of the Blair Witch Project, but through a hoax zombie outbreak. Only they did it really badly.

The documentary claims to be the work of some film students who were out in the woods making a horror movie for class when a huge zombie outbreak occurred in the USA. As the social fabric breaks apart they travel across Pennsylvania in a Winnebago, first to find their families and then to find a friend, while one of the students films everything that happens. It is this film that becomes the documentary. Thus the documentary makers claim to have been in position to film the situation as it happened, though they admit that they edited a little and added soundtrack and effects “to scare you: because perhaps if you’re scared you won’t make the mistakes we made.” Unfortunately, I was really unconvinced that they were doing anything except making a B-grade movie. The acting is so bad as to be self-evidently badly acted, and the narrator tacks on this self-important moralizing about the role of the cameraman and the media, as if they were a seasoned (but tedious) war photographer, rather than a jumped-up student; and this moralizing is almost begging you not to take their “documentary” seriously, especially since in between the moralistic voice-over we’re constantly being reminded that they have no choice in doing what they’re doing. Also they all seem emotionally really shallow compared to the behavior of the people in Madrid. I know those people were Spanish, but they reacted more realistically and emotionally to the deaths of strangers than our student documentary-makers do to the deaths of their own family and friends. While it takes the people in that apartment a good half the movie to work out that they’ve stepped out of ordinary life and into a horror movie, these kids figure it out as soon as they hear a radio broadcast about a single dead person coming back to life. After that, they’re acting like survivors in a zombie movie with nary a whisper of complaint. It just doesn’t work. As a documentary, this movie is uninformative, overblown, overly moralistic and shallow. As a work of fiction (which is what I think it really is), this movie is badly acted, self-referential, poorly scripted and sentimental.

It’s also really cheap to portray a movie as a documentary without warning the viewer. Honesty is essential to the production of documentary film: how are the people desperately trying to tell us what happened in Madrid or Norway going to be believed if there craft is undermined by movies  posing as documentaries? People should know what they’re seeing from the start, or the educational and important messages of a film like Rec will be missed amongst the dross. So, give Diary of the Dead a miss but watch Troll Hunter and Rec if you want to educate yourself about how to deal with the ever-present zombie and troll threat.

Extreme Fishing ...

In comments on my review of Mt. Takao as a zombie survival spot, commenter’s Claytonian and Paul raised the complex and controversial issue of Zombies and water. Claytonian even went so far as to raise the radical (but in my opinion very interesting and challenging) notion that zombies might retain some human instincts:

come to think of it babies can swim so zombies might have the instinct left

This raises a lot of issues for zombipocalypse survival planning, since there are a lot of benefits to establishing a water barrier. In this post I’ll describe these benefits (essentially rehashing my response in comments) and then look at some of the possible planning problems that arise from consideration of zombies and water barriers.

The benefit of water barriers

Water barriers aren’t just good because of their ability to keep out zombies. If the barrier has freshwater, it provides a potentially unlimited source of water and sewage for a small community (only the latter if its seawater). Water barriers offer an uninterrupted view which, while it may be useless against zombies on the sea floor, is very useful for identifying incoming human threats – and these are not to be discounted in the post zombie world. If the water is flowing, it offers the potential for long-term construction of energy systems (water wheels). But perhaps most importantly, a water barrier contains fish, which means that in addition to establishing a buffer zone, a community on an island can use this water barrier as a source of (potentially unlimited) protein, which can be obtained with limited skills and without needing to make a great deal of noise or effort. Furthermore, it’s fairly likely that fish don’t attract zombies, whereas mammals might, so as a protein source fish are a much much safer option than farming. By finding a suitable island within a reasonable distance of a city, it may be possible to establish a sustainable community, with easy access to valuable resources in the city, that is relatively well protected from zombie assault. The biggest problem the survivors are likely to face is then going to be marauding groups of survivors: islands will be in high demand after the zombiepocalypse, and people will kill to take them.

Can zombies swim?

Water barriers will be most successful if zombies can’t swim, but the definitive text (World War Z, 2006) suggests that they can walk underwater, and that they will slowly spread out under the sea as they seek human prey. This means that eventually zombies will arrive at your island, and that in the science of that textbook, they will appear randomly and intermittently without warning. This means at the very least you will need to keep a constant watch, though a random process of diffusion suggests that the further your island is from shore the lower the rate at which zombies will arrive. Obviously some system of inshore nets or wires may help in the watch process, but these may require a lot of work and be hazardous to establish. Claytonian’s swimming suggests that Zombies will have a more purposive process of attacking islands, choosing to swim towards them if they sense food but otherwise not swimming – if one assumes that zombies function according to some kind of basic laws of energy conservation, they will presumably prefer the least energy inefficient method of movement when there is no reason to use a more intensive one. Of course, it may be that zombies aren’t governed by such constraints, and that hordes or individuals will occasionally choose to swim and can potentially swim huge distances without effort. This problem can still probably be partially managed on an island, since if it is more than a few hours from shore the action of wind and water will likely disperse hordes sufficiently to render them much less threatening if they stumble on an island.

So then, an important question arises: can zombies communicate and form hordes underwater, and do they retain the ability to hone on prey when travelling by water?

Zombie hording patterns

It seems reasonable to suppose that zombies find movement underwater more difficult than on land -there are special obstacles and the water impedes movement, not to mention the issue of currents – and that they require some kind of sensory function to identify prey. This suggests that even if a horde encounters evidence of humans living in an island within sensory distance of shore (e.g., light on an island 300m out) they won’t necessarily be able to approach it as a horde. Seeing the light, they enter water as a horde but once underwater they are disoriented, blind, no longer able to see the light, and the horde begins to break apart. Walking along the bottom they will soon enter lightless zones, and won’t be able to communicate; presumably then the horde begins to disperse, but furthermore, in those zones they will have no knowledge of where their target is. This suggests that the horde will then behave as a random entity, with zombies heading in all directions. Assuming they entered on a straight line path to the island, some will likely wash up ashore, but their arrival must surely be staggered and incoherent. The only way they can arrive en masse is if they are both attuned to each other through a supernatural force, and attuned to supernatural emissions from quite distant life forms. But there is no evidence from any of the extensive research on zombies that this is the case: they seem to require some sign that a human is there, and can even be fooled by smell (The Walking Dead, 2011) or by convincing acting (Shaun of the Dead, 2oo4) or by various forms of stealth and silence (28 Days Later, 2002).

This suggests that even if they can walk underwater and cross very large distances under the sea, zombies will not be able to attack an island as a horde with the same ferocity as they can attack a survival spot on land. In remoter areas this may mean it may be possible to run lights and sound at night, with relatively little fear of intrusion, even on an island relatively close (say, 500m) to shore, because even a large horde will be broken up by water and arrive in a staggered and easily destroyed fashion.


The obvious benefits of islands as a long-term sustainable community setting, combined with the potential for a water barrier to disrupt zombie horde accretion even when located quite close to land, suggests that islands are ideal survival settings regardless of the particular level of aquatic adaptability of the undead, and that even islands quite close to land – within sight of occupied areas – may be suitable survival settings in a zombiepocalypse. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you will be safe on an island 30m from the shore in Tokyo bay, but it does mean that a reasonably well placed island with no direct land access provides a very strong base to establish a community of survivors in relative safety. The value of islands as a survival location increases significantly if the survivors are fleeing in an area of very dense population (e.g. Tokyo or New York) since even if ultimately the island is overrun, its facility in slowing down hordes will provide survivors a location to regroup and gather supplies before moving on to a more distant island.

The most significant problem in choosing an island to escape to is likely to be human survivors, who will defend their location ferociously precisely because of these benefits. The best advice is to get there first, and heavily armed.