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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."

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.

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.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Bleach: This becomes Komamura's tactic against Bambietta during the final arc: use his clan's Dangerous Forbidden Technique to temporarily become human again in exchange for sacrificing his heart. As a result, his Bankai, Kokujou Tengen Myouou, gains a new form, Dangai Joue, which grants it a body comprised of pure reiatsu that is invulnerable to physical damage. This gives Komamura the power to tank Bambietta's explosions long enough to defeat her, after which he irreversibly turns into a normal wolf.
  • 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. Indeed, it's only "defeated" by sending it into the Bay of Naples, as the sea currents confuse the Stand too much for it to escape.
  • This was the intention of Thriller Bark in One Piece. After his original living crewmates were killed by the Yonko 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.
  • 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 Catchphrase.
    Ling-Ling: Ahaha, it doesn't matter anyways, because I'm already dead.
  • In Sailor Moon Crystal, Calaveras says this when Sailor Venus attacks Petz's ghost. The attack simply goes right through her incorporeal form.
  • 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.
  • 2000 AD:
    • 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!"
      • Averted with Sabbat's zombies in the Judgement Day storyline: "Bullet seems to work." Sabbat himself is a different story. Being decapitated merely pisses him off.
    • 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.
    • Averted completely in the Zombie Army tie-in strip currently running in the Megazine; the zombies can be taken out by single bullets.
  • Wonder Woman:
    • Wonder Woman (1942): In the closing arc the shades of Hades attack Paradise Island and despite the Amazons being demonstrably better fighters they are killed in droves (and then turned into zombies which turn on their still living sisters) because even cutting a shade in half or beheading it with conventional weapons is a minor setback for the things. Diana eventually figures out that turning the purple healing ray on the shades disintegrates them.
    • Wonder Woman (2006): Zeus' army of Gargareans cannot be killed by conventional means which makes them horrifically effective at what Zeus raised them to do: slaughter all humans who are part of an army or have taken steps to defend themselves.
    • 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.
  • Simon Dark: Played With. Simon is at first the only undead thing in the comic and is effectively immortal, to the point that he is shocked to learn that humans cannot just have their heads stitched back on after being decapitated and recover since his earliest memories are of his own head being reattached. Later it is revealed that Tom was also brought back from the dead and has regenerative abilities but not to Simon's extent and the various unfortunates that were killed and possessed by the cult have differing levels of abuse their bodies can take before they expire.

    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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Creepshow: Shown in the Something To Tide You Over segment; after Richard has his wife Becky and her lover Harry buried up to their necks on the beach, leaving them to drown when the tide comes in, they return as completely unkillable revenants who don't even flinch when Richard tries to shoot them. After getting revenge on Richard by burying him the same way he did to them, they return to their watery graves.
  • Death Becomes Her: A variation; the main characters are given an immortality serum that restores their bodies to their physical prime, but with one severe drawback - it renders anyone who takes it unable to ever fully die, even when their bodies do. As such, any immortal who dies are stuck inside their own corpses, trying to maintain an increasinly rotting and unusable body. The ending, set 20 years after the climax, has the characters reduced to still-sentient disembodied heads after falling down some stairs.
  • Evil Dead: Deadites are very tough, generally shaking gunshot wounds 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. Evil Dead Rise takes this even further, even the classic dismemberment doesn't stop them, they will figure out a way to keep attacking no matter how many limbs are cut off. Even after the Final Boss is fed into a wood-chipper, pieces of flesh can still be seen vainly twitching.
    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 raised by Ahmanet 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. Ahmanet herself is much tougher, in no small part thanks to her magic.
  • 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.
  • Candyman: Helen tracks down the undead Candyman to his urban lair and attempt to stab him through the neck while he's sleeping. He just pulls it out without issue, and moments later it becomes obvious why: most of his upper body is a rotten patchwork swarming with bees.

  • 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.
    • In Witches Abroad, Baron Saturday isn't just a zombie, he's also channeling the power of the entire swamp, able to shrug off not just physical attacks, but also powerful magic:
    Lilith: "You fools, this is how you kill a dead man" (throws blast of magic)
    — Saturday (unharmed): Lady, there ain't no way to kill a dead man.
  • In The Zombie Knight, it's almost impossible to kill a reaper servant because their brain and body are sustained entirely by their connection to the reaper, with actual life processes strictly optional. Pain can be deferred until a later date, wounds can be casually regenerated, muscles and neurons function regardless of blood supply, and even a headshot won't keep them down for long. The only way to stop one long-term is to kill the reaper, freeze the servant solid, or encapsulate their severed head to block regeneration.
  • 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.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has a variant when a basilisk with a Deadly Gaze is prowling Hogwarts but miraculously only manages to Petrify people (which is reversible). The trick here is that your eyes have to directly meet the monster's gaze for it to actually kill you—which did happen once in the backstory. But at the time the book takes place, the only character to look this thing in the eyes is the Friendly Ghost Nearly Headless Nick, who gets Petrified by default because the guy can't exactly die again. The other victims include a student who glimpses the basilisk through Nick's translucent form, another student who sees it through a camera lens (destroying the camera in the process), and a few students (and a cat) who see the creature's reflection.

    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 attack 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.
  • The heroes of Kamen Rider Ex-Aid all get their transformations from various game cartridges of different genres. One of the villains, Kamen Rider Genm, uses the Dangerous Zombie Gashat, which also grants him the power of undeath, rendering him nigh-invulnerable. This is shown by the Rider Gauge on his chest constantly being cracked and empty. Any attack thrown at him, including finishers, barely even faze him. It takes Ex-Aid using the reprogramming ability of his Mid-Season Upgrade to finally get rid of Genm's invincibility and render him vulnerable.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: There are various nigh-invincible undead soldiers, but of course this is subject to Gameplay and Story Segregation, or they would just be a Game-Breaker on the tabletop.
    • 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. There's also the sheer amount of damage required to put a standard human zombie down. A normal human has around four hit points. In Fifth Edition, a zombie typically has twenty two hit points and can have up to thirty-three - around eight times the hitpoints. A typical sword blow will kill a normal human, but it it will take eight of these to put a maximum hitpoint zombie down for the count.
  • 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.
  • Rapture The End Of Days: The Walking Dead are dead bodies being animated by a demon or satanic cultist. Being dead, they can only be stopped by completing destroying the body, or defeating the controlling entity.

  • In Jasper in Deadland, souls who enter Deadland still have organs, but they don't need them; Gretchen is able to rip her own heart out like it's nothing, and Little Lu threatens his slaves with Cessation of Existence due to the obvious fact that they're already dead.

    Video Games 
  • In the Dark Souls games, the protagonist is cursed with a form of Resurrective Immortality that means that they revert to their undead "Hollow" form and teleport to the last Bonfire they used upon death. They cannot be killed in a way that matters, although canonically, they'll go insane if it happens too often (probably the point where the player chucks the controller through the nearest window).
  • In Dead Space, the Necromorphs, the host creature are already dead, and the pieces of meat usually connecting the sharpened limbs are the parasitic tentacle creatures that animate the body.
  • 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.
  • In Quake, the zombies will simply get back up after a few seconds if you just shoot them like anything else. The only way to kill them permanently is to turn them into Ludicrous Gibs by whatever means you can find which will do so (usually grenades or rockets, but environmental hazards can work, too). The manual almost name-drops the trope using Ye Olde Butchered English, describing them as "Thou canst not kill that which doth not live. But you can blast it into chunky kibbles."
  • 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.
  • Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty likes to gloat that he can't be killed because "he's already died once" and "Hell had no vacancies". However, he isn't actually undead and 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...
  • Pathfinder: Kingmaker: Party member Jaethal is an elf revenant who serves Urgathoa, goddess of undeath, as an inquisitor. Being undead, she's immune to death effects and ability damage, meaning she's great to bring along to the "Varnhold Vanishing" chapter and can use two pieces of cursed equipment with no ill effects.note  On the flipside, however, Revive Kills Zombie so she has to be healed using inflict wounds spells (the devs added potions of them to the game specifically for her in an Obvious Rule Patch).
  • Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous: Dhampir Player Characters are immune to level drain due to their partial vampire ancestry, though there's some Gameplay and Story Segregation this time: Part of Ascended Demon Arueshalae's redemption arc involves her lusting after the PC but refusing to act on it, both out of fear of rejection and of killing them in the act because she's a succubus, but mechanically this is a level drain effect to which the PC should be immune.
  • 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 Star 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 are 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, with attacking them while invincible from using a Star-type item being the most reliable). Dry Bones first appeared in Super Mario Bros. 3, in which sprites of them are edited Koopa Troopa sprites.
  • In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the Headless, due to having already lost their head, cannot be decapitated again, resulting in their Nigh-Invulnerability and their dreadful presence throughout Ashina. Being apparitions, the Headless are almost immune to ordinary swords and pikes. Thankfully, they can be killed by using Divine Confetti, which is imbued with a divine blessing made for driving away apparitions.
    Temple Posting: Turn back if you value your life. You can't behead the headless. Our swords and pikes did nothing.

    Visual Novels 
  • Tubal Cain from Dies Irae can be ridiculously difficult to put down as he is just a hollow corpse being controlled by the souls in the false lance of Longinus that he wields. Chopping off his head or cutting him to pieces will just slow him down a little at most. Even completely disintegrating him will technically not kill him as long as his weapon is still intact, as it will just look for a new host and repeat the process.

    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.
  • South Park:
    • Becomes a recurring theme in a two-part episode 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, and since Heaven is full of Mormons it's a Hell of a Heaven.
    • Parodied in "Make Love, Not Warcraft" where one overpowered griefer is dominating the title game and going around whacking players to their recognized detriment — visually represented in person as an obese nerd whose sole focus is the game before him — and the question about how to stop him is phrased (with a Japanese Ranguage accent) as "How do you kill what has no life?"
  • The very first Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon actually does this. Casper, depressed that all of his attempts to make friends just scare everyone away decides to lay down on the railroad tracks when he sees a train coming. Of course, the train just passes right through him.