“If a zombie apocalypse broke out in Middle-Earth during the Third Age,
would they overcome Sauron’s forces?”
For the purposes of tackling this question we make the following assumptions:
1. That the zombie virus originates in food supplies and is transmitted by bite
2. That zombies move at half-speed and are killed by removing the head
3. That zombies are mindless and immune to the call of the One Ring
4. That all living races, including Elves, Orcs and Men, can become zombies
5. That the Armies of the Dead and the Nazgûl cannot be come zombies
Scenario 1: Outbreak in Hobbiton
Infected grain arrives in the Shire. The Hobbits waste approximately no time in demolishing it, immediately turning a third of Hobbiton into zombies. Caught off guard and with no forewarning to call up defences, the rest of the Hobbits, including Team Frodo, are quickly turned as well. Though wearing the Ring on its chain when he is turned, zombie-Frodo is now immune to its powers and therefore has no inclination to take it anywhere. As Hobbits have basically no inclination to go anywhere anyway, the spread from this point on is slow. One or two Hobbit survivors are able to flee on horseback and warn the Men of Bree, who march back on the green pastures, slay the reanimated halflings and successfully quash the outbreak. But despite the escapees, the halfling race has taken a blow from which it is unlikely to recover; it is expected that Hobbits, of the Shire at least, will be extinct in the next decade or so. Meanwhile the Ring lies dormant at the bottom of a heap of chargrilled Hobbit, waiting for the unfortunate Gandalf to arrive and seek Frodo’s remains from those of a thousand identical cremated zombies.
Short-term outcome: Gandalf must find a new Ring-bearer or risk the Ring, through him, wielding a power too great and terrible to imagine.
Long-term outcome: Hobbits become extinct; less pipe-weed in the world.
Scenario 2: Outbreak in Moria
The Great Halls of Dwarrowdelf are more or less self-contained with little to prevent the speedy spread of a zombie outbreak. Swiftly and quietly a whole ecosystem is transformed into an undead horde, with neither resistance nor outside awareness.
When the Goblins descend on Moria, they are not expecting this shit.
A horde of Dwarvern zombies quickly becomes a horde of international zombies. When the Fellowship finally arrives, everything is much the same, except that the entrance hall is not so much littered with dead Dwarves as crawling with them. Balin’s Tomb goes from skirmish dungeon to full-on boss level, complete with reanimated Lord of Moria. The race to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm runs roughly the same but with twice as many monsters. Frankly, the appearance of the Balrog is something of a relief. They make the bridge, Gandalf falls into shadow (spoiler alert) and Aragorn leads the remaining party out of the undead-infested halls.
Short-term outcome: The story continues as standard, except the Fellowship probably levelled up a bit quicker.
Long-term outcome: Moria becomes a renowned zombie grind for thousands of adventurers to come.
Scenario 3: Outbreak in Lothlorien
The Elves are a sharp bunch. When the first of them start to fall prey to unassumingly green-tinged Lembas, they swiftly conclude the possibility of biological warfare on the part of Sauron. Unwilling to sacrifice their regal dignity to a mindless shambly fate, they quarantine the infected and bolster the security around their borders. Their quick-thinking and swift-acting successfully contain the outbreak, but the arrival of the Fellowship coincides with this heightened security and prevents the party crossing the borders. Frustrated and grief-struck, Aragorn gives in to Boromir’s insistence to simply move on and head for Minas Tirith; thus the journey southwards takes place along the banks of Anduin, minus boats, cloaks, supplies and the Phial of Galadriel. Saruman’s forces bypass Amon Hen and instead run into the party further north. Having missed their supply stop in Lothlorien, the hungry and exhausted party are no match – all but for Boromir, who, encouraged by the increasing chances of making it to Gondor, takes advantage of the ambush and springs upon Frodo. Leaving the Fellowship to their fate, he walks away alone and alive with the Ring in his hands.
Short-term outcome: Boromir delivers the Ring to Minas Tirith, and immediately proclaims to the city that he will use the weapon of the enemy to overcome Sauron.
Long-term outcome: Sauron quickly locates this highly-publicised weapon and its new bearer, and sends his Nazgûl to eat him.
Scenario 4: Outbreak in Gondor
Denethor is too proud to eat of the same grain as his subjects. He is the first to turn.
Boromir and Faramir arrive at the throneroom for Isildur’s Heir dream therapy. Their father is waiting to strike like a coiled undead python. Boromir slays him, but not without suffering a mortal wound. With his dying breath he beseeches two things from his beloved brother: 1) to ride in his stead to Rivendell to seek help and answers from Lord Elrond; 2) to paint the walls of their father’s throneroom with his blood. Faramir preserves his brother’s honour and dignity by beheading him at the foot of the throne of Gondor, then rides north with all haste, while behind him his people slowly succumb to their zombie fate. He requests a place in the Fellowship, on the initial grounds that the Ring might help reverse the evil which has awoken in Gondor. However, his good-natured little-brotherly mindset helps him to understand the plight of the Ringbearer, and instead of making an attempt on Frodo at Amon Hen, he instead warns the Fellowship to avoid Minas Tirith at all costs.
Short-term outcome: The Fellowship escapes the Uruk-Hai and they cross the Anduin together, cross the Dead Marshes, barrel into Mordor and save the world in brothers-in-arms-y glory.
Long-term outcome: The epidemic of zombies spills out of Gondor, replacing the recently-solved Sauron problem with a brand new undead problem. Sequel trilogy probable.
Scenario 5: Outbreak in Isengard
Luckily for the Hobbits, that infected grain all happened to be contained in the Isengard shipment. It arrives sometime between Amon Hen and the Ents. Poor Gríma Wormtongue has the happy job of poison-testing Saruman’s food, so the Wizard himself is safe to sit on his balcony and watch as Man, Orc and Uruk alike slowly sicken, die, then rise again to fill the pits of Isengard with their groaning and biting. Encircled by walls and out of reach (because everyone knows that zombies can’t climb), Saruman placates himself with his Palantír and waits for all this to blow over.
That is, of course, until Wormtongue shuffles up behind him teeth-first. It turns out that come zombies, floods or big walking trees, Saruman is probably still going to end up with Wormtongue’s knife in his back. (Or teeth in his neck.)
Short-term outcome: The Hobbits arrive home to a lovely homely un-Saruman-ized Hobbiton, removing two or three chapters from Return of the King.
Long-term outcome: Zombies are contained within Isengard’s walls and become an interesting tourist attraction.
Scenario 6: Outbreak in Mordor
An Orc falls ill. He is slain instantly for not pulling his weight.
A second Orc falls ill. Slain instantly.
Third. Fourth. Fifth. Slay, slay, slay.
A fighting Uruk-Hai falls ill. No one is sure what to do, so they avoid his heaving body lying prone at the side of the road for a few days until it finally falls still. Then the prone body lurches back to its feet.
Across Mordor more Uruk-Hai have turned, and the Orcs are not strong enough to slay the zombie-Uruks. While they are busy becoming Zuruk-bait, Orcs start to succumb without being routinely beheaded for insubordination. With no grunts to keep them in check, the Mûmakil begin to wreck havoc, smashing towers and bridges and generally causing a scene, until one of them seizes a zombie-Orc as a snack. At the same time, rampaging Trolls with no agenda start fights with Orcs, Uruks, Mûmaks and each other without prejudice, and eventually some zombie or other lands a bite.
Very quickly the legions of Mordor are decimated, and the rest become a full-force multi-cultural fighting zombie horde.
Mordor is almost completely sealed, with the Black Gate no longer manned. The outbreak spreads like wildfire, and within a week, all that is left of Sauron’s army are shambling around and shuffling into each other and bumping into walls again and again. The Nazgûl pop back to see what the hell’s going on - bam, zombie Fell Beasts. And all the while, King Elessar and a host of Men, Elves and assorted Dead warriors are fast becoming an unencumbered pain in Sauron’s disembodied neck. Eventually, Sauron makes the best of a bad situation and opens the Black Gate, unleashing tens of millions of zombies onto the Free Peoples.
Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam slip through an empty and desolate Mordor, swiftly outrunning Gollum, and triumphantly slam-dunk the Ring into Mount Doom.
Sadly, Sauron’s downfall has no effect on the battle outside except to release the Army of the Dead from Aragorn’s control, removing the only thing causing a vague inconvenience to the zombies and leaving an unstoppable force of undead Uruk-Hai, Orcs, Mûmakil, Trolls and Fell Beasts to swarm out over Middle-Earth in all their biting, smashing, trampling, winged horror. There aren’t enough Men, Elves or Dwarves to withstand the zombie-Orcs or Uruks – not to mention the backup of zombie-Aragorn and zombie-Free Peoples – and not even Legolas, zombie or otherwise, could decapitate a rampaging zombie-Mûmak. And even if the remaining forces of Middle-Earth did put aside their differences and band together to make one final heroic stand, what good could they do? This shit’s just been given wings.
Short-term outcome: Frodo and Sam have a long and lonely walk home.
Long-term outcome: Short-term outcome unlikely to be relevant for long.