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You Can't Kill What's Already Dead

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"The inability to recognize and avoid pain is what makes the walking dead so formidable. Wounds will not be noticed and, therefore, will not deter an attack. Even if a zombie's body is severely damaged, it will continue to attack until nothing remains."
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When the dead walk the Earth, many of us will probably just aim for the head or burn them. However, sometimes that isn't enough. For some undead characters, they gain an odd (but sometimes limited) form of Nigh-Invulnerability, where because they do not actually rely on most of their internal organs anymore, they can take damage that would instantly kill or incapacitate them if they were alive and just keep on coming. They can take a shotgun blast to the chest, get completely dismembered, or even be set on fire and burned into a skeletal crisp, and they will continue to move and try to attack you.

Unlike traditional Nigh-Invulnerability, the level of durability can be stronger or weaker depending on the work in question. Some interpretations will allow the undead to be slowed down or disabled altogether by removing all of their arms and legs, completely paralyzed by decapitation, or even killed instantly by a bullet or blow to the head as a sort of Achilles' Heel. Skeletons, however, tend to get different treatment, often being able to reassemble themselves after being "killed" in the same manner as Pulling Themselves Together, making this a Super Trope. An intelligent undead character aware of this status may become a Fearless Undead.

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See also Perpetual-Motion Monster. Like this trope, undead characters just seem to generate energy out of nowhere to keep going.

Contrast Deader Than Dead and Undeath Always Ends.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Dragon Ball GT: While Goku is trapped in Hell during the Super 17 Saga, he finds himself facing off against Frieza and Cell. While he's more than a match for them without even going Super Saiyan, he soon finds out this trope is in effect when Cell quickly recovers from being vaporized by a Kamehameha, and when Frieza pulls himself back together after being dismembered by his own energy disc.
    Cell: Do you think you won the match, Goku? You fool! Here in Hell, our bodies are immortal!
    Frieza: You will never be able to beat me because I'm already dead!
  • In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Stands usually operate on the logic that if their user dies, they die, and vice-versa. Come Vento Aureo, and we're introduced to Notorious B.I.G., a Stand that activates after the user dies. The Stand itself is nigh-untouchable, and it's stated to have infinite durability on its stats page.
  • Rosario + Vampire: As a jiang-shi, Ling-Ling Huang is Nigh Invulnerable and has no fear of life-threatening feats; a Running Gag is that she can casually remove her own head, and pointing out that she's can't be harmed because she's already dead is her Catch-Phrase.
    Ling-Ling: Ahaha, it doesn't matter anyways, because I'm already dead.
  • This was the intention of Thriller Bark in One Piece; After his original living crewmates killed by the pirate Kaido, Warlord Gecko Moria decided to make an army of the undead. His logic is that zombies Feel No Pain and can't really tire out, so therefore they were superior. Even if the stolen shadows animating the corpses were removed, replacements can be found later on. Indeed, in order to defeat the Special Zombie Oars, the Straw Hats had to completely pulverize his spine, paralyzing it.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light, Joey and Tristan run into this problem when they kick and punch mummies' heads and arms off and they still keep coming.
    Tristan: These carcasses won't quit! How do you destroy what's already dead!?
  • Repeatedly played for laughs in Zombieland Saga, with the girls abusing medication (with a somewhat snarky Don't Try This at Home disclaimer that points out this trope), placing themselves in physical danger and going without sleep or rest, pointing out that as zombies they're able to get away with this stuff. Just to drive the point home, three of them have been subjected to the same trauma that originally killed them without serious injury.

    Comic Books 
  • Spider-Man: Subverted with Digger. He's both undead and takes extreme amounts of damage over the course of his debut without injury. However, this was actually due to the fact that he had a Healing Factor, as he was reanimated by gamma radiation from nuclear weapons tests near his grave site, and Spidey exploited this fact to kill him in his first appearance.
  • X-Statix: Dead Girl is extremely tough to damage or destroy because her body is a walking corpse.
  • Blackest Night is all about this. When the Black Lantern Corps is created, rings reanimate the dead (mostly meta-humans as well alien races) and the carriers gaining a quick regeneration and Nigh-Invulnerability. Discovered during the series that the only way to kill Black Lanterns are combining all Lantern powers or being a White Lantern.
  • Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges are incredibly hard to destroy for this reason. They tend to ignore Lawgiver gunfire completely (unless appropriately severe, like a hundred Judges at a time firing at will) and even incinerating their undead bodies inadvertently causes their spirits to break free. One of their Catch Phrases is "You cannot kill what does not live!"
  • Fiends of the Eastern Front: Constanta and his fellow vampires use their status as living dead to partake in numerous wars in search of prey, since most regular weapons are incapable of harming them or even slowing them down.
  • The Legend of Wonder Woman (2016): The Duke of Deception's Nazi Zombies are unaffected by small arms fire and all shown attempts to repel them outside of Wonder Woman's lasso of truth, which causes the spirits possessing the bodies to flee them.

    Fan Works 
  • Rosario Vampire: Brightest Darkness Act VI: In chapter 43, Ling Ling repeatedly brags as such, being a zombie.
    Ling Ling: They cannot kill me no matter how much they so desire, for I am already dead.
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    Films — Live-Action 
  • Evil Dead: Deadites as very tough, and generally shake off wounds like gunshots and loss of limbs. In general, it takes something major, like Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain or outright dismembering the body, to put them down for good; on multiple occasions in Ash vs. Evil Dead, Ash and co. chop up the bodies of slain Deadites to make sure they stay down.
    Ash: (looking at a "dead" Deadite) It's a trick. Get an axe.
  • Sleepy Hollow (1999): Lampshaded by Ichabod Crane during the film's climax, when his young ward, Masbeth, asks if he's succeeded in killing the Headless Horseman.
    [the group watches as the Horseman steps out of the burning windmill, unscathed]
    Ichabod: That's the problem: he was dead to begin with.
  • The Return of the Living Dead: Played for laughs when Burt and Ernie think that destroying the head will take care of the zombie they accidentally resurrected, since that's the way it worked in Night of the Living Dead. This just results in a headless zombie chasing after them.
    Ernie: You mean the movie lied?
  • Friday the 13th: Jason Voorhees was at first a regular human slasher villain (although Made of Iron), but after his resurrection as a zombie he starts to shrug off nearly all damage inflicted on him. The tenth movie hand waves this by explicitly giving him a Healing Factor.
  • The Mummy (2017): Zigzagged Trope. The mummies in the film are actually far more vulnerable than human mooks, as one might expect from a decaying body. However, they still ignore all pain and keep coming after losing one or more limbs.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: As part of the curse of the Aztec gold, Barbossa and his crew are undead skeletons who simply cannot die. During the final showdown, when Jack steals a piece of the gold and becomes cursed himself in order to even the odds, Barbossa remarks that due to the curse, they're effectively in a stalemate, neither able to kill the other:
    Barbossa: So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgment Day and trumpets sound?
  • In Van Helsing, the Vampire Monarch Dracula can't be killed by conventional means, and requires the bite of a werewolf to put him down for good.
    Dracula: You can't kill me, Victor. [Walks into the point of the sword] I'm already dead.
  • Dogma has a variant in Rufus, an Apostle descended (well, dropped) from Heaven to guide Bethany. As an incarnate soul, earthly sources of damage don't really apply to him.
    Bethany: ...I would think that the impact with which you hit the asphalt would have liquefied you.
    Rufus: Y'know, death is a worry of the living. The dead, like myself, only worry about decay and necrophiliacs.

    Literature 
  • Discworld:
    • Zombies are much more resilient and stronger than humans, with watchzombie Reg Shoe taking a crossbow bolt through the chest and only complaining of the puncture holes in his armor. They are, however, very vulnerable to fire.
    • In Pyramids, Teppic's father notes that the mummification process seems to have made him stronger, due to the extra weight provided by the straw.
    • Werewolves are apparently considered undead by the narration, with one surviving a fatal bullet wound as the bullet wasn't silver.
  • The Zombie Survival Guide: The book mentions that part of the reason why zombies are so dangerous is because their pain receptors have ceased to function, therefore most damage inflicted on them will just be ignored. Only incinerating the body completely will stop a zombie.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Subverted in the second season of Torchwood after Owen is reanimated. True, blood loss or damage to vital organs can't kill him anymore, but he doesn't heal either and doesn't feel any pain to prevent him accidentally damaging himself. As demonstrated when he accidentally slices his hand open with a scalpel and has to sew it back together. However he can't be killed, which saves the day when faced with The Grim Reaper, whose method of killing people has nothing to do with physical injury.
  • Lexx has Kai who, in addition to being undead, is a cyborg whose body is "de-carbonized." As long as his supply of protoblood lasts, he is indestructible.
  • Game of Thrones: Season 8 reveals that the revived/possibly Technically Living Zombie Ser Gregor Clegane (already a hugely tough Black Knight in life) is now capable of taking a sword through the gut and a knife to the eye without collapsing (although the eye bit does slow him a bit). It takes a Heroic Sacrifice and falling several stories through a wall and into a sea of dragonfire to end him.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer:
    • Nurglite troops (including Plague Zombies) are inhumanly tough because most of their body is made of dead flesh, rotting tissue or hideous scars, and their wounds are sealed by cancerous growths.
    • Subverted with 40K's Necrons, who take the role of zombies in the series... but their resilience comes from the fact that they're robots made of regenerating metal and teleport away for repairs.
  • Zig-Zagged in Dungeons & Dragons: Undead are just as susceptible to Hit Point damage as anyone else, but their lack of bodily functions makes them immune to Critical Hits, sneak attacks, and other effects that rely on the target's anatomy — only gross physical damage gets the job done. They also often have some form of Damage Reduction, making certain weapon categories less efficient.
  • Old World of Darkness/Chronicles of Darkness:
    • In both Vampire: The Masquerade and Vampire: The Requiem, this is the reason for vampires to be Immune to Bullets (and, starting with Blood & Smoke, Made of Iron in general). It's not that bullets actually cause less damage to their body than they do with humans, it's just that vampires don't actually need vital organs; all they actually need is the blood inside, and the supernatural force animating them makes sure said blood doesn't leave their body when they are injured. They are still vulnerable to things like fire or losing limbs, but weapons like bullets will only do superficial damages which they can easily heal.
    • New World of Darkness: Antagonists provides rules to design various types of Zombies, including ones who follow this trope. If you use the proper rules, the zombies will be immune even to their classic Boom, Headshot! weakness, and keep going until nothing is left of them.

    Video Games 
  • Diablo III: Once certain undead enemies take enough damage, their torsos will be severed from their legs and they will crawl towards the player with only their arms.
  • Halo: Subverted. Flood Combat Forms can be eliminated with a precise shot to the Infection Form "piloting" the body. When this happens, the Combat Form will fall over as if dead, and a gaping hole will be seen where the Infection Form once was. However, from Halo 2 onward, another Infection Form may wander over at any time and take control of the Combat Form again, with the Combat Form having the same amount of health it had before it was "killed." This means that in order to prevent dead Combat Forms from coming back to life in this manner, the player either has to either kill every Infection Form in the room or manually dismember each Combat Form killed by a "headshot" after it hits the ground.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, Darth Sion is kept alive entirely by the Dark Side of the Force. He has been "killed" many times, leaving his body nothing but a mass of wounds and rotting flesh, but arises each time. Beating him in the game requires Talking the Monster to Death.
  • Played for Laughs in the manual for Quake in the description for Zombies:
    "Thou canst not kill that which doth not live. But you can blast it into chunky kibbles."
    • In game this meant that only rockets and grenades could put a zombie down for the count - downing one with any other weapon would result in the Zombie getting back up after a few seconds.
  • The zombies in Nox get back up at full health if "killed" unless you burn their bodies while they're down.
  • Invoked in Warcraft III's expansion, where the Death Knight's Animate Dead spell brings up six invulnerable (meaning they can't even be targeted) corpses to fight for him. In the first game, they weren't invulnerable but they lasted longer.
  • In Metal Slug 3 and 4, the player character can get infected by Zombie Puke Attacks and turned into a zombie themselves. As a zombie, they're completely immune to most attacks — not even enemy gunfire, grenades or tank shells will harm them. However, getting hit by zombie puke when they're already a zombie, or certain other attacks (like yeti ice breath or the level boss' attacks) will kill them. This only applies to zombified player characters, enemy zombies do have a lot of health, but aren't indestructible.
  • Though it's actually due to shenanigans involving a healing factor and nanomachines, Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty likes to claim this trope and gloat that he can't be killed because "he's already died once" and "Hell had no vacancies". However he painfully learns the hard way that he absolutely can die in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots when he's injected with something that shuts his nanomachines off...
  • Super Mario Bros.
    • You can't kill Cortez in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door as he just keeps coming back with new flashy forms and finally just ends the fight to gloat that nothing you can throw at him will kill a ghost. It leads to one of the game's funnier moments where Mario just politely informs him that all they want is the Crystal Heart and asks if they can have it, and Cortez just gives it to them after brief consideration because "what's one jewel to a guy like him?" Even the flavor text of the Crystal Heart in the status menu tells you it was earned "by not really defeating Cortez".
    • In earlier Super Mario games, there're the Dry Bones, skeletal versions of Koopa Troopas mainly found in towers and castles. These undead Koopas often collapse when attacked, but they soon revive themselves and become normal once again (however there are some methods to permanently defeat them). Dry Bones first appeared in Super Mario Bros. 3, in which sprites of them are edited Koopa Troopa sprites.

    Western Animation 
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012):
    • In "End Times," Shredder is revived as a zombie by Kavaxas, and is practically unstoppable; Leo chops off his head and arm, and he just reattaches them both. In the end, he's only killed when he willingly jumps into the portal to the Netherworld, dragging Kavaxas down with him.
    • In "The Curse of Savanti Romero," the Turtles face off against a cursed mummy, who is unfazed by everything they throw at him. Leo chops his head clean off at one point, and he just plops it back on.
  • Becomes a recurring theme in a two-part episode of South Park when, after the events of the movie, Satan has dumped Saddam Hussein and killed him (don't ask). Of course, since Saddam was already dead and in Hell, he pops up the very next day right as rain, much to Satan's chagrin:
    Saddam: Hello, Satan! Did you miss me, Buttercup?
    Satan: Saddam?! How?! I killed you!
    Saddam: Yeah, you killed me! So? Where was I gonna go? Detroit?
    • This culminates in Saddam and Chris, Satan's new boyfriend, repeatedly killing each other because if a dead person in Hell dies they just come back the very next day. When Satan dumps them both, Chris takes it well but Saddam taunts him, saying he won't let him no matter how many times he's killed for it. Satan has him Dragged Off To Heaven to get rid of him, as since Heaven is full of Mormons it's a fate worse than Hell for a non-Mormon.

    Real Life 
  • A non-zombie version is used in metallurgy to prevent some metals (notably titanium and aluminum) from oxidizing. By deliberately oxidizing a thin layer of metal on the surface, further corrosion is greatly slowed: the oxide, being, well, already oxided, won't react to further oxygen atoms, and even a few microns is thick enough to make it difficult for the oxygen to get through and bond with the metal behind (and the oxide has sufficiently similar properties to the metal that the overall performance remains the same). While the same principle applies to iron, iron oxide has nowhere near the same properties, so different measures involving inserting more reactive atoms like chromium to deflect the oxygen need to be used.

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