‘Remove the Head or Destroy the Brain’: A History of Zombie Slaying

Ahead of ourScience of Zombie Killing’ talk this October, we brush up on the many different ways to defend ourselves in the event of an outbreak of the living dead with Royal Armouries’ Curator of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson. 

Centrefire repeating shotgun - Protecta (about 1985-2001)
Centrefire repeating shotgun (PR.8711)

Is this the ideal zombie weapon? Well, not really…

It wasn’t the intention of the late George Romero, a progenitor of modern zombie culture best known for his zombie apocalypse films, but a lot of us seem to enjoy the killing of zombies. Relentlessly aggressive and violent, with little trace of humanity left and even some comedic value, zombies have become a sort of cultural stress toy. They’re still a threat en masse, but we’ve gone from running away from them to hunting them and even fantasising about the zombie apocalypse in some cases.

The evolution of zombies

Image (1) Halloween_2013-revised.jpg for post 2507

The original zombies of folklore were mindless servants to a Voodoo (Vodou) slavemaster; something to be pitied, not killed. Just the idea of being the zombie was scary enough.

In Haitian folklore, they had to be fed salt to ‘die’ or be removed from the influence of the human magician (bokor) controlling them – in which case they might revolt against him as they so often do in the movies – though they stay zombified.

When Hollywood borrowed the zombie myth for its movies, the threat had to be more active and so the zombie slaves were weaponised as a creeping mass of grasping hands (no biting until Romero adapted aspects of vampire lore). To stop them you had to stop the human magician controlling them.

In White Zombie (1932) gunfire fails to even slow them down, just as in later movies. Later, the zombie became a self-contained threat; the bokor reflected in the mad scientist trope, or absent entirely. But they retained their resilience, either because they’re the walking dead, or because some virus or other has augmented them in some way (and yes, living zombies are still zombies!).

The movies of George Romero crystallised their ability to take a licking and keep on ticking with the classic quote ‘…remove the head, or destroy the brain’, which is my title here and for our forthcoming evening of zombie combat. So, ethical issues of zombie rights aside, what is the best defence against zombies (for the sake of argument, Romero’s version)?

The practicalities of firearms use

Whatever their political views, I think most people assume that the most effective weapon in a fantasy scenario like a zombie apocalypse will be a gun. Why wouldn’t it be? Well, mainly because zombies (mostly) can’t shoot back. Guns are used in real-world wars, civil conflicts, law enforcement and self-defence situations because both sides have access to them, can use them, maintain them, and ‘feed’ them with ammunition.

Guns are used in real-world wars, civil conflicts, law enforcement and self-defence situations because both sides have access to them, can use them, maintain them, and ‘feed’ them with ammunition.

When you’re facing countless numbers of the unarmed undead, they actually make very little sense unless you’re also defending yourself from the living (which is another kettle of fish). You’re going to run out of ammunition very quickly, and keeping even a simple firearm operational over a period of years takes skill. Finding ammunition of the correct type that’s in good enough condition to use and not cause a stoppage is another problem.

Think more ‘Mad Max’ than ‘Dawn of the Dead’; even if you find a spare shotgun cartridge, it might not go off, depending on how it’s been stored and how many years out you are from the end of the world. Zombies add another level of difficulty; actually hitting the head. The history of conflict and law enforcement shows that headshots are extremely difficult to pull off, especially whilst the shooter and the target are both moving. Pistols make matters much, much worse.

Historically, cavalry would fire their pistols at contact range to ensure a hit. With zombies in groups, getting close would be a really bad idea. So our zombie fighter would need a shoulder-fired weapon like a rifle or shotgun if he/she insists on a gun. These, and especially any ammo you might scare up, add weight to your personal burden, as soldiers understand all too well. Finally, they typically make a lot of noise, which may be an issue if you’d rather not attract the attention of several thousand hungry corpses.

This Chinese mace (c1350) may be more like it…

Mace (1300-1399)
Chinese Mace with wooden shaft covered with ray-skin (XXVIC.82)


So perhaps guns aren’t ideal for the living dead. Other options fall under what we at the Armouries call ‘edged’ and ‘impact’ weapons, commonly referred to as ‘melee weapons’ (a result of role-playing games).

Some of the longer edged weapons like swords or machetes are a much better choice than firearms. ‘Blades don’t need reloading’ as aficionados like to point out. This is quite true. However, what they do need is a lot of skill to use effectively. They also do require maintenance, especially swords, which rely upon their blade and edge profile to effectively cut.

Most historical edged weapons (the ones that have survived) would have seen relatively little battlefield use by comparison with the lifetime of daily cutting and slicing that the typical zompocalypse scenario would demand. This is where a more robust edged weapon or even an edged tool like a machete, or better yet an axe like Rick’s hatchet would be a better choice.

Also, despite what we see in ‘The Walking Dead’, human skulls are not made of jam (or jelly, if you’re reading in the US). The human cranium has evolved to be extremely thick where they need to be and are also sloped all the way around. You simply can’t push a knife into a head (thankfully!), rotting or otherwise. Studies of historical wounding consistently show that it was possible to survive cutting head wounds, even before modern medicine was available

They might take a human being out of the fight, but a zombie isn’t even going to notice. You could perhaps blind them, or remove their jaw, or cut off a grasping hand or two. But so much for ‘destroying the brain’. Even ‘removing the head’ is (without getting too gruesome) extremely difficult to pull off. Then of course in the present day, there’s the problem of finding a suitably strong reproduction or antique weapon to actually use.

This was the major drawback with my previous recommendation of a medieval/Renaissance-era bill; the simple staff weapon with a steel axe/spike head. That was my choice for a zombie apocalypse weapon from our collection. If we’re talking the ‘best’ full stop, then we have to consider the impact weapon; anything from a beautifully crafted medieval flanged mace, to a simple 2×4.

Bill (1500-1599)
A 16th-century English bill (VII.1493)

Grab a lump of wood of your choice, and (to borrow from a different genre) ‘swing away’! Of course, handling and durability are concerns, but you can always just stop by the local sporting goods shop to grab another Shaun of the Dead-style cricket bat.

On paper, weapons like this seem to fit the bill. But would they really do the job? And how do other weapons stack up against zombies instead of their intended targets? You can find out more at our evening event on 30 October, in which we’ll be giving a live demonstration using realistic zombie heads. We may not come up with a definitive answer, but it’s a fun way to think about the design and effectiveness of historic arms.