“The Walking Dead” returned for the second half of its 10th season Feb. 23, outliving most genre shows (and the majority of its major characters). While I enjoy the series, I have long couch-critiqued TWD and other apocalypse shows for the things they don’t show us that would certainly happen if civilization collapsed. I can guess why: sometimes because those things don’t serve the narrative, sometimes because the F/X would be prohibitive, but also, sometimes, because they’re things nobody wants to see.
So here are my Top 5 Problems of the Apocalypse You Won’t See on TV:
1) Things Go Boom
The world is a volatile place. And once humans stop maintaining machines and systems, a lot of things would simply blow up. Among them:
— Nuclear power plants: They’d start to melt down after about 10 days, poisoning the air, land and water around them for a very long time. Radioactive clouds would blow around the globe, poisoning everything they touched.
— Refrigerators: Unrefrigerated food spoils, spoiled food emits flammable gasses, flammable gasses expand. If they’re in an enclosed space, like a refrigerator, they will eventually explode. Every refrigerator would be a ticking time bomb that would blow up randomly, without warning.
— Natural gas: It’s used in almost every major city, and once pipelines, ovens, water heaters, storage tanks and the like began to leak, a single spark – from lightning, say, or an exploding refrigerator – would create a huge boom-boom. Resultant fires would burn unchecked, destroying most cities.
— Oxygen tanks, soda cans, spray-on deoderant, fire extinguishers … anything with a “contents under pressure” label is apt to go ‘splodey if exposed to sufficient heat, like burning cities or wildfires.
It’s not just volatile things that need human maintenance, either. Without people manning the pumps, many subways and parts of some cities would flood. Roads would become impassable in a few years without repaving projects. Long-forgotten diseases would escape research labs.
2) Lord of the Flies
Flies would multiply like crazy, given the number of unburied dead. And if they like zombies – and why wouldn’t they? – the hordes would provide a mobile buffet.
Of course, all insects would reproduce exponentially, including those that are a bane on humans, like lice (everyone would have them), mites, bedbugs, horseflies, ticks, mosquitoes, etc. And the cockroaches. The many, many cockroaches.
It wouldn’t just be insects. With man knocked off his perch at the top of the food chain, and his numbers (and habitat) vastly reduced, all animal life would expand, resulting in dangerous dog packs, skies blackened with birds and vast herds of small mammals the dead couldn’t catch (rats, mice, squirrels, etc.).
Growing with those populations would be the diseases they carry, from rabies to the black plague. Which brings us to …
3) For Lack of a Walgreens
In most wars, it’s disease that it is the biggest killer. Famously, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 killed more people than World War I. In the Civil War, only a third of casualties were due to combat – the rest were downed by illness. This would be true in the war against the undead.
That increases by orders of magnitude without modern medicine. The flu, rheumatic fever, polio, syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, mumps, measles, various poxes – dozens of diseases would once again become global killers. (In the case of STDs, a slow death of pain and madness.) With large numbers of animals living close to man, more diseases would jump species. Pandemics would be frequent and unstoppable.
Add to that medical ills that come from simply living in a primitive world. A cut or scrape can kill, if you don’t have access to a tetanus shot. Without medical care, a rabid animal bite – or ingesting its meat – means death. A simple brawl could result in a broken hand bone, internal bruise or dislodged tooth that, without modern care, could allow something opportunistic to kill you.
Toss in the chronic conditions we would no longer control, and the list gets longer. Millions of Americans have diabetes, many of whom might survive the apocalypse in a bunker, only to die for lack of insulin. People with asthma, COPD or other respiratory illnesses would die without inhalers (or from not being able to run from zombies). Cancer would almost always be fatal, should you live long enough to get it.
And that brings us to skin lesions. Not fatal, necessarily, but pock-marked, pustulent faces are something no filmmaker wants to shoot, so we never see what would surely be common. Almost everybody would have unhealthy skin (and hair) to some degree, from sunburn, malnutrition, exposure, poor hygiene, radioactive clouds, etc. Add to that chronic conditions that would go untreated – eczema, seborrhea, psoriasis, etc. – and the living would look an awful lot like the dead.
4) Food for Thought
Oh yes, people would be thinking about food a lot. Because they wouldn’t have much of it. With the collapse of the modern distribution systems and farming nigh-impossible, humans would spend almost all of their time hunting and gathering (and running from zombies).
But that’s just the obvious problem. Starvation might be avoided well enough, especially if your group has some hunters or you find a large cache of canned chili. But what about malnutrition?
The hardy survivalist might be able to bag all the deer she can eat, so the protein and fat of a healthy diet would be solved at a stroke. But where’s she going to get her vitamins and minerals? The right kinds of carbohydrates? Unless you happen to live in Florida or California, vitamin C is going to be hard to get – resulting in scurvy, ricketts, beriberi and before that, bad skin, bleeding gums, tooth loss, weak bones, swollen joints, easy bruising and slow healing.
And that’s just vitamin C! Other common deficiencies would include vitamin A (dry eyes, night blindness, increased risk of infection), zinc (loss of appetite, stunted growth, slow healing, stomach issues), iodine (thyroid problems, growth issues) and potassium (weakness, fatigue, tingling, numbness, muscle cramps, heart palpitations, digestive problems). Life would be an endless series of symptoms that they talk through quickly on those pharmaceutical commercials.
And then there’s water. Drinking out of a stream would likely result in vomiting, as modern man isn’t equipped to deal with unfiltered water. If you’re not in a position to boil water – like if, say, you were on the run from a horde of zombies — you might die of dehydration.
The upshot is this: Getting enough food would be a problem. But if you didn’t get the right kinds of food, you’d end up too crippled, blind or weak to do anything but die.
5) Potty Humor
Poop. OK, done laughing? Because it wouldn’t be a laughing matter in the apocalypse.
Bathroom breaks would have to be done in teams of at least two, so one would always be on guard. In settled conditions, some sort of waste-removal system would be necessary (buckets?), and trips to the latrine (you’d have to dig one anywhere you settled for a while) would also require the buddy system. Camps wouldn’t smell very good, latrines are petri dishes for diseases and their presence would alert the ever-present (on TV) human predators to your location. Privacy would be a thing of the past.
So there are my Top 5. I’ve got more, but I’ve already painted a picture of a world where half of your group would routinely die from pandemics, another third would die from pre-conditions, some more would kick off due to malnutrition, everyone would be covered in bugs and skin lesions, and every time you went to the bathroom you’d have company.
Frankly, the survivors on “The Walking Dead” seem to have it pretty good.
(Contact Captain Comics by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on his website : captaincomics.ning.com
©2020 Andrew A. Smith