On this episode, the whole gang gets together to trade brain recipes! Or not. Listen and see.
(From May 10, 2014…)
Today, we’re going to discuss everyone’s favorite cannibalistic flesh-consuming monstrosity, the zombie! Is there life after undeath? How can I keep up an active social life while avoiding the rampaging zombie hordes and fighting off invading bands of survivors desperate for food and basic necessities? We’ll find out! Or, maybe not. Whatever.
The origin of the concept of zombiism stems from Haitian Voodoo culture. The word zombie, which is just “zombi” with no ‘e’ in the original Haitian, means “spirit of the dead.” According to Voodoo folklore, a Bokor is a voodoo priest who studied and used black magic, and who can use their knowledge to resurrect the dead. (For more info about the science behind Haitian zombies, we recommend Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid episode on the subject. He breaks down the concept of a toxic powder being used to put people into a catatonic state, and determines exactly what science has to say about it.)
In a 2012 essay for The New York Times, Amy Wilentz described zombie lore as an extension of old African religious beliefs that had followed slaves of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. The zombie was essentially a slave trapped in a never ending existence of servitude with no possibility of returning to Africa to rest in peace. Suicide was a common occurrence in slaves who wished to be free of the brutality of near starvation, extreme overwork and cruel discipline on Haitian plantations. Suicide was seen as the only way for a slave to take control over his or her own body. From the essay:
“The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. It is thought that slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order and to warn those who were despondent not to go too far.”
The more conventional ideas of zombies have sprung from books and films, which we’ll talk more about in a bit.
The Feasibility of Real Zombies
Plain and simple, once a human body dies and the blood stops pumping, it’s not going to keep working. The muscles need oxygen to function, and with no circulation, they’re not going to get any. Actual undead zombies are fantasy – period. But we can’t let that spoil our fun.
Your traditional undead zombies just could not survive for long real life, and they would do a terrible job of spreading their infection. A huge number of factors are working against them – decomposition, natural predators, temperature, terrain, emergency response plans and… well, people with weapons. Duh.
If you bury a body in a coffin deep in the ground, it could take as long as 50 years for all of the tissue to disappear. But if a body remains exposed to the elements, it will decay very quickly. Exposure to air or water will speed up the process of decomposition dramatically because of the presence of bacteria. Animals and insects will feed on the tissue if a body is exposed, which also speeds up the process. Flies that land on a corpse will each lay up to 300 eggs on it that will hatch within a day. The maggots that come from the eggs will start on the outside of the body, and within a day’s time, they will have burrowed into the corpse. The maggots, moving as a single mass, will feed on decaying flesh and spread enzymes that speed the decay of the body. They can consume up to 60 percent of a human body in under seven days.
Extreme heat and cold are zombie-killers, too. In extreme cold, the tissues of the body would freeze, just like they would in a living person. This isn’t exactly conducive to a lot of walking around and brain-munching. In extreme heat, the process of decomposition will speed up to the point that, within a short period of time, the zombies wouldn’t have enough functioning muscle tissue to move, let alone gnaw on people. The buildup of gases caused by decomposition would make the zombies swell up and eventually burst as well.
A zombie plague would require a large victim population to sustain itself. If there aren’t many people around, the infected could decay to the point of ‘deactivation’ before they manage to infect a lot of others. So a zombie outbreak would likely be most successful in larger population centers like cities and metropolises. One-stoplight towns are likely going to be okay.
But there’s a problem for our brain-chewing friends in the big cities: we’ve designed them with people’s ability to see in mind. Within 24 hours of death, human eyes lose much of their internal pressure. Mr. Zombie is going to have some trouble navigating a city with partially deflated eyes; his vision would be obscured at best and totally useless at worst. Combine this with the fact that their brains are decaying and their sense of balance probably isn’t working, and you’re not going to see a lot of particularly coordinated (or even upright) ghouls. You’d probably be safe if you just went up a few floors into a tall building.
Even in smaller population centers, the landscape isn’t exactly suitable for letting blind, brain-damaged corpses wreak havoc. In small towns, there’s generally a much lower population density, which means you’ve got a lot of open space and not so many people. It’d be hard for a horde to form that you couldn’t escape; you’d have to be really unlucky to get overwhelmed in the backwater towns of Michigan, for example, where your nearest neighbor is a quarter mile away and there’s nothing but open fields between you and them. Even if a hundred zombies came trundling across the farm, you could hop in your pickup truck and be on your way without much of a hassle. Maybe you could be in trouble if you didn’t notice them coming, but the odds of something like this not coming up in the news on TV or the radio are pretty slim. Which brings us to…
Emergency Response Plans
Contrary to what you see in most zombie movies, where everyone panics and makes the dumbest decisions possible, in the real world, people tend to be much more organized and thoughtful in response to emergencies – even emergencies that hit much faster and harder than people might be expecting.
The day before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the government issued a mandatory evacuation notice to the citizens. By nightfall, about 80-90% of the citizens had already evacuated safely. Some 112,000 of the city’s 500,000 people didn’t have access to a car; of these, about 10,000 ended up taking shelter in the Superdome, and another 10,000 or so rode the storm out at home. The Coast Guard wound up rescuing 34,000 people, and ordinary citizens organized themselves to provide boats for evacuation, as well as food and shelter for the people they rescued.
The response to Hurricane Katrina is generally held up as an example of failed government planning. Nearly 2,000 people died, and New Orleans still hasn’t truly recovered.; 7 years later, in 2012, the population of New Orleans had only just returned to 81% of pre-Katrina levels. However, the situation also shows how well people can respond to a disaster.
On a side note, the CDC has a zombie apocalypse survival guide website. They made it as an entertaining way to get people thinking about how they should prepare for and respond to a serious emergency.
Guns (or any weapon at all, really)
A dead body can’t repair any damage done to it. This sort of goes without saying. So now we can compound a bunch of decaying, near-blind corpses are stumbling around ineffectively, trying to find a single victim in a mostly evacuated area, with the fact that the people who don’t evacuate are most likely armed to defend themselves. Guns, knives, baseball bats, golf clubs, chainsaws – anything humans use to fight off the bumbling undead hordes would leave the monsters permanently damaged. Moreover, any wounds that people open up would add new holes for parasites and bacteria to enter, which would just make the zombies decompose even faster. Weapons could also permanently disable a zombie without even killing it. The whole “aim for the head” thing is kind of redundant; take out a zombies legs, and it’ll have to crawl after you. Considering that these things would be stumbling and tripping all over the place, they might even show you the courtesy of already being on the ground, at which point a swift boot to the head would probably do it in.
Other Kinds of Zombies
So what if we’re dealing with other kinds of zombies? In some movies, for instance, the zombies are actually just living people who have been infected with some disease or parasite that takes over their brain. In this case, the rules are all different. A horde of ‘infected’ is a much bigger challenge. Predation, decay, temperature, and terrain will be much less of a problem; when it comes to those factors, the infected would be on about equal footing with the uninfected as long as the infection doesn’t damage the brain too severely. Lots of books and movies show packs of infected moving and thinking as a hive-mind as well, which could make things more difficult for people trying to carry out any kind of emergency response plan.
And if they’re magical zombies? Well… forget everything we just said. There are no rules.
Zombies in Pop Culture
Victor Halperin’s White Zombie was released in 1932 and is often cited to be the first zombie film. In the movie, Bela Lugosi portrays a voodoo priest who falls for a woman and turns her husband into a zombie in an attempt to win her affection.
The 1818 novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (and the subsequent countless literary, film, and TV adaptations) features a reanimated rebuilt corpse, but the monster wasn’t what people typically consider a zombie (i.e., no brain-munching). The 1942 film The Living Ghost is another zombie movie with two examples of artificially created zombie characters.
The modern man-eating monster came about largely as the creation of George Romero, producer and co-writer of the 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Romero reimagined the zombies as mysteriously reanimated dead people who had an insatiable lust for violence and murder. Whereas some previous zombie movies imagined zombies as living people put into a sort of trance to enslave them to their zombifier, Romero explicitly wanted them to be the dead raised back to life.
According to Wikipedia:
Some critics have seen social commentary in much of Romero’s work. They view Night of the Living Dead as a film made in reaction to the turbulent 1960s, Dawn of the Dead as a satire on consumerism, Day of the Dead as a study of the conflict between science and the military, and Land of the Dead as an examination of class conflict.
Whether Romero intended them to work that way or not, I don’t know. Regardless, much of the sine qua non of modern zombie films came from Romero’s work: the survivors boarding themselves up in a building, a desperate attempt to get access to some sort of resource that would help them survive, tension and infighting among the living, a military/militia response, someone bringing a ‘sick’ person into the safehouse who turns out to be infected, and so on.
- Slow zombies:
- Night of the Living Dead
- Shaun of the Dead
- The Walking Dead
- Resident Evil (the first and second movies)
- State of Decay (Video game)
- Fast zombies:
- World War Z (the movie)
- Army of Darkness
- Evil Dead
- Pet Sematary
- Resident Evil (the other movies)
- We’re Alive (the podcast)
- 28 Days/Weeks Later
- White Zombie
- I Am Legend
- Zombieland (technically just humans with a ‘mad zombie disease’ virus)
- Left 4 Dead (the game makes a point of saying that they’re infected with a pandemic, not actually dead, and that your characters are immune to the virus)
- The Last of Us (the ‘zombies’ are people infected by a mutant strain of the Cordyceps fungus, which takes over their body and brain, changing how they look and behave)
- Magic zombies:
- Weekend at Bernie’s 2 (resurrected by voodoo)
- Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament (first-person comedic romance novel about a man who finds himself reanimated after a car accident. They say it’s some sort of genetic anomaly that makes people reanimate, but this is clearly a ‘magic zombie’ situation – people are up and moving around without a functioning circulatory system, as they continue to rot like any corpse. Eating human flesh allows them to slowly return to life – moving faster, healing wounds, etc.)
- Nazi zombies:
- Zombies of War
- Oasis of the Zombies
- Shock Waves
- Zombie Lake
- War of the Dead
- Dead Snow
- Call of Duty DLC
So let’s dispense with the realism for a bit and have some fun with zombie apocalypse planning, shall we? It bears noting that when drawing up your zombie contingency plan, you would be wise to bear in mind that you don’t know for certain what manner of zombie you’re dealing with. (i.e. Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, etc)
With that in mind, an adaptable plan that best fits the most common elements of all manner of zombie infestation is likely the best. One could of course just run with what they consider the most likely though.
I’d like to note that I’m of the idea that in a zombie apocalypse, you’re basically just fighting the clock and that you’re going to lose eventually. Survival for another hour/day/week/month/year is the goal in itself.
Groups vs. Solitude:
Let’s discuss the benefits/risks of banding together versus going it alone.
Now we should discuss a list of items that would be both useful and possibly easily transportable (if one were on the go).
Location (static vs roaming):
Which is a better strategy for long term survival? Is it a fortified survival palace, or a nomadic and sparse existence? … discuss
A huge fortified truck? A fast yet exposed motorcycle? A bicycle? Your own two feet? Let’s talk for a few minutes about what would likely be the best mode of transportation.
MREs? Foraging and hunting? Farming? How will you feed yourself when Zeek the Zombie is looking to fill up on your brains?
Loud, attention grabbing guns? Less noisy projectiles? Up close and personal with a blade or bludgeoning implement? How can one be best prepared to confront the menace of corpses who don’t realize they’re supposed to stay dead?
There’s a fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis which attaches itself after its spore falls upon an unsuspecting ant. This spore builds pressure until it’s enough to punch through the ant’s exoskeleton, then begins the infestation. Via chemical manipulation it directs the infested ant to a very precise point in the forest.
The ants “are manipulated to bite onto very specific locations on the underside of a leaf, the main vein of a leaf, leaves orientated north, northwest, roughly 25 cm off the ground,” said David Hughes, a behavioral ecologist at Penn State. “And all of this happens with a remarkable precision around solar noon, making this one of the most complex examples of parasite manipulation of host behavior.”
Once the ant attaches to the leaf, it perishes and a stalk erupts from the back of its head. This stalk then rains down spores upon the now deceased ant’s fellow workers, beginning the process over again.
“Zombie” Roaches Lose Free Will Due to Wasp Venom (this was mentioned in the Parasites episode of Radiolab)
The Emerald Cockroach Wasp or Jewel Wasp injects its venom initially into a thoracic ganglion and injects venom to mildly and reversibly paralyse the front legs of its victim. The roach, now being temporarily immobilized is then stung in a precise spot on its brain, in the section that controls the escape reflex. As a result, the roach will groom extensively, and then become sluggish and fail to show normal escape responses.
The wasp then chews off half of each of the roach’s antennae. The wasp then leads the roach to its burrow by pulling on the antennae, lays an egg on the roach’s abdomen, then blocks the entrance of the burrow with pebbles, more to keep predators out than the roach in.
With its escape reflex now inhibited, the roach just lays about while the larva chews its way into the roach’s abdomen, feeds on the internal organs and emerges VICTORIOUS! … or something.