To Rot or Not…
Zombie month! A whole month dedicated to my favorite monster…and deservedly so. Zombies have been scaring us since The Epic of Gilgamesh was scratched into a stack of clay tablets. But devoting a month to these creatures begs a question: just what are zombies?
More and more, zombies are portrayed as insanely fast folks with really bad head colds and an appetite for brains. Less and less (and disappointingly so), we are presented with Romero zombies, ghouls resurrected from death.
Why and how did we fall so far from the standards established by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead?
It’s hard to say, but my guess is that writers and directors believe it’s easier for fans to suspend disbelief if they think zombies are just really sick folks with a hankering for human flesh. And it is a pretty big leap of faith to accept that the dead have been reanimated.
Or is it?
Death is something beyond a single temporal event, something beyond a sheer moment in time: the heart stops, and with it, blood flow; deprived of oxygen, brain cells die; the body cools, blood settles, then other cells, like muscles and skin cells, die, disintegrate, and decompose at varying rates.
But what happens if something hijacks that process, not necessarily reversing it, but suspending it?
That’s the starting premise of my novel, Dead Things. But if science can explain the process of reanimation, it must then also explain the other mysteries of a zombie’s existence.
For instance, why is it that zombies don’t entirely decompose, rotting away to oblivion? Their soft tissue—skin, hair, and sinew—remains intact for years, much like a mummy. And therein is the answer. When the conditions are right, anthropogenic, or natural, mummies can be created.
The human body needs precious little to be preserved. The Egyptians and Peruvians positioned dead bodies on an incline or totally upright, allowing gravity to drain away fat and fluids. Since zombies are ambulatory and remain standing, it’s possible the liquid inside leaks away like an upended bottle. Bacteria and fungi are responsible for decomposition. But without moisture, neither can grow and decay is stunted. And without subcutaneous fat, there can be no maggots either.
Further, the pathogen that causes “necroanthrophagism”—a term I coined that literally means “the dead eating their own”—may outcompete bacteria and fungi or create an inhospitable environment for parasites through elevated pH levels.
If zombies don’t breathe (they have no working lungs), how is it that they moan?
Here’s one possible explanation. Severe bloat is characteristic of putrefaction. Dead bodies cannot expel gas because they don’t have working stomach muscles of sphincters. The small intestine seals off, creating a “gut balloon.” But a zombie is different. Kinesis and vertical alignment allow these gases associated with decomposition to vent. The expulsion of gas over the vocal chords could be what gives zombies their monstrous voice.
And is it really so strange that a pathogen could control our minds, driving us to bite others? No, it happens all the time, especially in the insect world. But there are diseases that impact higher order animals as well, controlling behavior like mastication (rabies) and risk-taking (toxoplasmosis). These types of behaviors promote the spread of disease.
Parasites not only influence the “how” of transmission, but the “when.” That could explain why zombies seem so prevalent at night.
For example, spores from a certain fungus infect flies. It sends tendrils deep into an infected insect’s body. The fungus ravages the fly for several days, reproducing in its stomach. It takes over the brain, forcing the fly to attach itself to a high place at sunset. There it will die. At dusk when other flies are resting, the fungus erupts from the dead fly. Tendrils spout spores and shower the sleeping flies below. Sunset is the perfect time, the only time, for the fungus to infect other flies. The air is cool and moist just before nightfall, maximizing the likelihood of infecting other insects.
Nighttime conveys advantages to the zombie microbe too: under the cloak of night, victims are much more likely to be taken by surprise, thereby allowing further proliferation; also, the decay of the human body may be somewhat stayed by avoiding direct sunlight, humidity, and intense heat.
In a time when superheroes are more popular than ever, suspending disbelief shouldn’t be that hard. So why is Hollywood (with a few notable exceptions) so afraid of the living dead? I, for one, am hoping for the rise of traditional Romero zombies again.
After all, it’s not just what we want, it’s what science dictates.
Matt Darst is the author of the zombie novel, Dead Things (Horror-Web review forthcoming). For more information about the book, please visit www.deadthingsthenovel.com