It is with love that I say this, but most zombie stories are essentially the same. A contagion emerges. The living die; the dead awaken and crave the living; warm-blooded buffets ensue. A ragtag group of increasingly grimy survivors attempt to evade the undead’s clutches. Civilization falls.
In Army of the Dead, which hit Netflix last week, director Zack Snyder tweaks this cinematic formula: His latest entry is a heist movie within a zombie movie, featuring a cordoned-off containment zone; the only part of civilization to have fallen to zombies is that of the Las Vegas Strip. But this is not Snyder’s most significant alteration to the zombie canon. He also introduces ur-zombies called the alphas, a super-fast, super-smart group of the undead that rule over their slower, brain-dead brethren, with whom they share the strip. Say what you will for the film itself, but it has shuffled where no zombie flick has shuffled before, giving us a whole new kind of zombie.
This got us to thinking: How do Army of the Dead’s zombies compare to all of the undead who’ve graced—grimaced?—the screen before? And more importantly: If you were a grimy survivor in a zombie apocalypse, which zombies would you realistically stand a chance against? So, naturally, we created a pop culture zombie matrix.
Before getting to our results, a few ground rules:
- The zombies in this matrix have been evaluated on two attributes: speed and intelligence. Both were scored on a scale of negative-5 to 5, with zero representing the average, unbitten, un-undead, living and breathing human being. The aggregate of those two scores provides a sense for how challenging a given zombie foe might be; the higher the total score, the higher the odds of your flesh being eaten.
- This matrix is limited to zombie depictions in movies and television. Zombies depicted solely in video games, books, and other media have been excluded, though adaptations are kosher. Apologies to The Last of Us (for now).
- We’ve restricted the zombie entries to just English language movies and shows, because (a) we had to create a cutoff somewhere, and (b) if a zombie apocalypse breaks out while you’re in South Korea and you don’t speak Korean, sorry, but you’re an absolute goner.
- This matrix is focused on zombies, not all iterations of the living dead. For zombie status, we demand the classic man-eating creature of old. Apologies to Frankenstein’s Monster, skeletons everywhere, and Chuck Charles. And just so we’re clear: I Am Legend is definitely a movie about vampires.
- If I have left your favorite zombie out of this matrix, please know that I did so to spite you, personally.
- Beware: Spoilers for a great many zombie tales, including parts of Army of the Dead, follow.
Without further ado, here is the “Could You Survive This Zombie Apocalypse?” matrix:
The True Neutral
Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
Speed score: 0
Intelligence score: 0
Total score: 0
OK, so Bill Murray isn’t really a zombie in 2009’s Zombieland. But when he first shows up with his hair unkempt and his face a ghastly gray, he seems like he might be. Instead, we learn that he is simply trying to blend in.
This is effective at duping the undead. It is a little too effective at also duping his fellow survivors, who mistake him, promptly and fatally, for the real thing.
Making Murray our true neutral may feel like a bit of a stretch, because he’s not exactly your average human. Zombieland’s 2019 sequel, Double Tap, features another Murray cameo, this time revealing how he survived the initial zombie outbreak: with a low-key escape from a Garfield promotional junket in which he dispatches no fewer than eight zombies, using such varied tools as a folding chair, a pair of ceramic plates, and a Garfield: Flabby Tabby 3 poster:
But Murray also feels like the perfect true neutral because, well, he’s Bill Murray. After surviving the Garfield attack, he apparently made it home to his Los Angeles mansion and continued to live the good life until Jesse Eisenberg and Co. turned up. While Murray may have been pushing 60 when Zombieland came out, he proved himself to be a whole lot better than most of society at outlasting his undead foes.
Optimal strategy: Follow his lead.
The Classic Zombie, a.k.a. the Very Slow, Very Dumb Zombie
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The human zombies in the Resident Evil film series (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2016)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The Walking Dead (2010-present)
The shamblers in Army of the Dead (2021)
Speed score: -5
Intelligence score: -5
Total score: -10
If the zombie genre is the house that George A. Romero built, these goobers are the original occupants. They are slow. They are not much for problem-solving. They want braaaainssssss.
The Classic Zombie derives its strength from numbers, and those numbers seem awfully easy to increase. While all of the shows and movies listed above have slightly different depictions of how long it takes to go from the inaugural “Jim got bit!” scene to Jim turning on his fellow survivors, the zombies in these entries are virtually identical. They’re generally easy to defeat in one-on-one combat, unless you’re throwing records at them.
Optimal strategy: Avoid malls, bars, and casinos. While I have you, have I mentioned taking the stairs?
The Zombies Who’ve Figured Out Tools
Day of the Dead (1985)
Land of the Dead (2005)
The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
Speed score: -3
Intelligence score: -3
Total score: -6
Jane Goodall’s 1960 discovery that chimpanzees shaped twigs and leaves to fish for termites was once controversial: Until that point, it was believed that only humans—with our big, delicious brains—understood the concept of using tools. In the animal kingdom, creatures capable of working with tools are considered to be in a class of their own, intelligence-wise. So let’s just say that however slow the zombie, any version of the undead that has worked out what was long believed to be mankind’s singular intellectual hallmark is a distinct threat.
There are a handful of these types of zombies in pop culture, including those in The Dead Don’t Die, who drink coffee and smile at one another. One of the zombies in Day of the Dead, the third entry in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series, is named Bub; he listens to music and tries to shave, among other things.
2005’s Land of the Dead, the next film in Romero’s series, isn’t quite so cheery: In one scene, a zombie uses a damn machine gun.
Optimal strategy: These zombies are still awfully slow, so the usual defenses should suffice—just don’t leave any ammunition lying around.
The Fast, but Still Pretty Dumb Zombies
28 Days Later (2002)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
28 Weeks Later (2007)
World War Z (2013)
The first-generation hungries in The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)
Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
Speed score: 1
Intelligence score: -5 (-4 for the zombies in Zombieland: Double Tap)
Total score: -4 (-3 for the zombies in Zombieland: Double Tap)
You might quibble that some fast zombies—e.g., the ones in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, widely hailed as an innovator in the zombie horsepower category—are basically human speed, which is true: They’re scary because they can run like non-zombie people.
Yet I give them an edge over their human brethren, because they’re not limited by things like endurance. They go for broke every single time. Check out their wheels in the sequel 28 Weeks Later.
In Zombieland: Double Tap, released a decade after its precursor Zombieland, we learn that a mutation has led to an even faster, stronger, and more resilient type of zombie: the T-800. These zombies also aren’t geniuses, but they probably still will feast on you—after all, a grizzly bear doesn’t need to know differential geometry to win fights, uh, more often than Americans seem to think.
Optimal strategy: Cardio.
Wait, How Much Do They Know?
Speed score: -3 (“Thriller”) and -2 (Re-Animator)
Intelligence score: -1
Total score: -4 (“Thriller”) and -3 (Re-Animator)
The music video accompaniment to Michael Jackson’s smash hit was always intended as a short film: Jackson hired director John Landis after seeing his film An American Werewolf in London. Its zombies, therefore, are our zombies.
And while the zombies in the “Thriller” video might not be the speediest undead creatures around, they memorize a whole dance routine! As you might expect, we have several questions:
- Did these zombies take choreography lessons?
- Do they speak English?
- Is dancing outside of graveyards their hobby or their job? If it’s the latter, are they being paid?
- Is this these zombies’ first time emerging from the grave? Or is this a regular thing for them, à la cicadas?
- How does Michael Jackson also know the zombie dance?
- Did he get bitten?
- Is this particular zombie disease spread by aerosols?
- Who will explain all of this to these people’s poor families?
Re-Animator, meanwhile, is a particularly ghoulish part of the zombie canon. It’s also one of the only entries in which the undead can speak.
Optimal strategy: There’s no zombie outbreak—yet. You know what you have to do.
Have You Considered a Very Large Wall?
The Human Wights in Game of Thrones (2011-19)
Speed score: 1
Intelligence score: -3
Total score: -2
Wights are dangerously fast, but let’s just say they don’t offer much in the way of critical thinking: They follow White Walker orders, and that’s that.
You can make an argument that the Night King himself is a zombie: After all, he was once human. Given the millennia and the mythology involved, however, I think of him more as the product of an enchantment (or curse). His zombie buddies got him right to the precipice of defeating mankind twice—but tragically for the Night King, they don’t respond well to dragonglass.
Optimal strategy: Uh, Valyrian steel?
These Zombies Are Beginning to Raise Ethical Questions
Billy in Hocus Pocus (1993)
The second-generation hungries in The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)
Speed score: -2 (Hocus Pocus) and 2 (The Girl With All the Gifts)
Intelligence score: 0 (Hocus Pocus) and 1 (The Girl With All the Gifts)
Total score: -2 (Hocus Pocus) and 3 (The Girl With All the Gifts)
Billy in Hocus Pocus might be slow and stinky, but he certainly has a mind of his own:
The second generation of the hungries in The Girl With All the Gifts, meanwhile, have superhuman strength and superhuman intelligence, a combination that does not go great for the humans who aren’t on their side.
Optimal strategy: You probably don’t want to fight these guys! In fact, you should befriend them.
The Semi-Neutral Zombies
Santa Clarita Diet (2017-2019)
Speed score: 0
Intelligence score: -1 (Santa Clarita Diet) and 1 (iZombie)
Total score: -1 (Santa Clarita Diet) and 1 (iZombie)
Santa Clarita Diet and iZombie both feature main characters who turn into flesh eaters and then attempt to carry on their regular lives and careers: Drew Barrymore as a suburban real estate agent, and Rose McIver as a medical examiner. They can do this because little beyond their appetites (and their use of spooky eye makeup) changes once they become undead: Their speed and intelligence remains the same as it was before, only now they have a sudden thirst for blood.
Optimal strategy: Hire them, maybe?
The Recurring Nightmare of My Childhood
The dog zombies in Resident Evil (2002)
Speed score: 3
Intelligence score: -1
Total score: 2
I would, frankly, greatly prefer acquiring Resident Evil’s T-virus to encountering one of the terrifying undead Dobermans known within this universe as Cerberus. While humans infected with T-virus have a Classic Zombie waddle, the zombie pooches run at normal dog speed and seem to have the usual (albeit unusually murderous) dog smarts. No thanks!
Optimal strategy: Stay away from any windows, perfect the art of zombie fetch, and maybe learn how to do 360-degree jump-kicks, just in case.
The zombie tiger in Army of the Dead (2021)
Speed score: 5
Intelligence score: 0
Total score: 5
Like Bill Murray, our zombie North Star, Army of the Dead’s zombie tiger seems to have a functional command of language (or zombie shriek, at any rate) as it marches into battle with the alphas. Also like Bill Murray, it knows how to enjoy the good life, lounging on a car hood at its first opportunity. Less like Bill Murray, its response to being woken up is to eat the offending party’s face.
Optimal strategy: It is said that you do not see or hear a Bengal tiger in the wild before it attacks. I think we can assume that strategy is beside the point here.
Army of the Dead (2021)
Speed score: 5
Intelligence score: 5
Total score: 10
As in The Girl With All the Gifts, there are two kinds of zombies in this world: a traditional—which is to say, dumb and slow—type that’s called shamblers, and the alphas, who are personally zombified by the zombie king (and patient zero), Zeus.
The alphas are much smarter, faster, and stronger than their shambler counterparts. While the heist crew’s interactions with the shamblers go the way of usual zombie capers—make noise and they’ll try to eat you, but you can tiptoe right past the nincompoops if you’re careful—things are rather more complicated with the alphas. In fact, the situation presents an ethical dilemma. Do the alphas even want to kill anyone?
On the one hand, Zeus opens Army of the Dead by slaughtering a bunch of soldiers and then leading his new zombie lackeys into Las Vegas to begin the rampage. Las Vegas has north of 2 million residents; once you take into account the many tourists and commuting workers who would have been on the Strip when the bloodthirsty bois showed up, that’s a whole lot of blood on the alphas’ hands. Zeus and his pals are killing machines.
But following that atrocity … again, I must ask, do the alphas even want to kill anyone? The conventional zombie trope is that the creatures need to eat the living to survive; a lot of the, ahem, distinguished literature about the undead holds that zombies gradually starve absent the requisite brains. But while we see a lot of chomping in Army of the Dead, we don’t see any hunger—and this comes some unspecified-but-lengthy amount of time after the zombies overtook Vegas. For the most part, the group seems to attack only when protecting and avenging itself.
And, well, Zeus and Co. are so intelligent that they seem to be running a functioning society. They have a zombie government (or at least a zombie military dictatorship with willing acolytes; all hail Zeus, etc.) and a zombie language: The alphas seem to understand each other’s growls and howls. They participate in a form of commerce, as seen when a human smuggler knowingly offers alpha sentries a live human in exchange for allowing the rest of her group to pass through the outer regions of the containment zone unharmed. And they seem to have some kind of interior life that is, dare I say … recognizably human. Setting aside the deep and uncomfortable weirdness of this part of Army of the Dead, how else can we explain Zeus mourning the death of his zombie queen and their unborn (and undead) baby, whose in utero kicks he had celebrated earlier in the movie? Zeus likely refers to the inciting incident as lovemaking.
What I’m saying is you probably don’t want to fight the alphas, but maybe you don’t have to. This is a society! But really. It is.
Optimal strategy: It’s the alphas’ world. We’re just living in it.