Weird Science

Biology of the Living Dead

I love zombie movies, for the same reason I love the Alien franchise; the creatures freak me the hell out. With the Aliens, it’s their sheer viciousness. With the zombies, it’s their unrelenting pursuit.

With this in mind, I recently re-watched the 2004 re-make of DAWN OF THE DEAD (directed by some whippersnapper called Zac Snyder. Wonder whatever happened to him?), and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Some of the cameo appearances were fun (Tom Savini as a small-town sheriff was cool). Overall, I think I would have preferred the movie had I left as the credits rolled, since the stuff through the credits changes things dramatically.

The idea of zombies as fast and vicious instead of slow and shambling may strike some purists as heresy, but I think it’s adds an extra layer of terror to zombie mythology. Since the movie came out, the concept of “runners” and “shamblers” has been integrated into a number of books an game settings (usually by having “runners” be either freshly-infected living carriers of the disease or simply very newly dead, and “shamblers” being what a runner becomes when it re-animates or has started to decay).

One of the problems with being a geek is that I keep trying to puzzle things out logically, especially when it comes to movies. The way the zombies reanimated in this movie had me thinking about how they functioned, and what it was that was raising them.

Most zombie movies since Romero (I’m not including European movies like the Blind Dead trilogy or Demons here) seem to take place in a scientifically rational universe. There appear to be no obvious supernatural forces at work, and the reanimating factor is either radiation (often from space!), disease (either natural or engineered) or chemical (such as the gas 2-4-5 Trioxin in the Return of the Living Dead series or Herbert West’s re-agent in the Re-Animator series). Assuming it wasn’t a supernatural or chemical agency, that leaves some kind of virus. Only characters who were bitten became infected, and this is where the puzzle lies. In the opening few minutes, a nurse’s husband is fatally bitten, dying from shock and blood loss within a minute or so. He reanimates about 30 seconds later. That means that whatever turned him into a zombie had to have spread through his system  – or at least reached his brain, given how vital it appears to be to the zombies – with incredible speed, even though he was bleeding out at the time. Not only that, but it did whatever it does to reanimate the corpse with amazing rapidity. Now, other characters who are less severely bitten take quite a while to die, and they get sicker and sicker before they do. That I can buy, because it’s possible that the virus (or whatever it is) is restructuring their bodies for post-mortem activity before they actually die. It’s the sudden reanimation of people who minutes before weren’t infected that bugs me. Note that I don’t consider this a flaw in the film, merely something to be puzzled out.

Another thing I found interesting was that, despite the fact that the zombies were visibly decaying as time went by, it didn’t appear to slow them down at all. Logically, as their muscles began to liquefy and their tendons and ligaments rotted, they’d be slowly incapacitated. Also, since their intestinal bacteria would still be alive, most of them should have bloated up pretty rapidly. Personally I would have liked to have seen them succumb to rigour mortis between six and twelve hours after death, then regain their mobility once the rigour had passed (which could have led to some fun chase scenes if the heroes had assumed that, as many folks do, that rigour is permanent). Obviously, whatever raises them from the dead has an oddly selective effect on decay.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of where zombies get their energy from. As with the mystery of the missing mass, as mentioned in my post A Growing Problem, it has to come from somewhere. It’s less of an issue with shambling zombies, but it’s still an issue. Even if they’re not sprinting after you or leaping over obstacles to chase you down, the zombies are still burning energy in order to move and function. Where does it come from? Several movies and books make the point that digestion is itself a pretty energy intensive process, and it needs muscular peristalsis to move food through the intestines, circulating blood to get nutrients and oxygen to muscle tissues, functional glands to produce digestive enzymes…all things that zombies don’t have. A number of books even have zombies stuffing themselves so full of undigested flesh that their bowels burst, demonstrating that they eat, but do not digest. Wherever their energy comes from, it’s not from eating people. So where does it come from?

Some Useful Links

Discover Magazine – How zombie biology would work – An interesting view of how zombies might function in the “real” world.

The Science of Zombism – From the case files of the Federal Vampire & Zombie Agency

Zombie Biology – The Zombie Cause Dictionary – Guide to the Zombie Cause short films and ebook. Interesting because it posits a biological “nanotube matrix” as the means for the zombie pathogen to activate a corpse.

Zombies!!! The Biology and Philosophy of the Living Dead

The Biology of Real Zombies – Details on the way that voodoo zombies may work.

Culturing Science – The biology of zombies – Two parts of a proposed five-part study of zombie biology, including the bacterial synthesis theory and some zombie neurology.


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