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The Reality and Realism of Zombie Apocalypse

December 4th, 2009
No word on whether the living dead will have the franchise in 2012.

No word on whether the living dead will have the franchise in 2012.

OK, I must admit that I have a completely immature interest in the genre of zombie entertainment.  I love the movies, the video games and even the literature.

Sure, I enjoyed Night of the Living Dead as a kid, but it wasn’t until the modern additions to the genre that I really started to get into it. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, in particular, opened my eyes to how intriguing the zombie (and zombie apocalypse) genre could be.  It wasn’t just the fast zombies, it’s the more evolved understanding of zombies.  Since then we’ve seen even more forays that challenged the genre, such as the recent low-budget UK film shot from the perspective of a zombie.

Well, despite the need to have some suspension of disbelief, there’s been some effort to actually look at the science of zombie apocalypses of late.

This post will examine some of the ways the zombie genre has turned more serious with looks at how new examinations review Historical Perspectives, Human Experience, Scientific Analysis and Finding Parallels to Actual Conditions.


Historical Perspective

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a book I caught some flack for from my older brother for when he saw it on my bed-stand.  Sure enough, I lent it to him and he is almost done and loving it.  It came on recommendation from a work colleague.  I read both it and The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, a companion work also by Max Brooks.  Whereas the Zombie Survival Guide is relatively boring and lacks any real cleverness, World War Z stands on its own as an interesting piece of oral history.

ibIn 28 Days Later, London is a ghost town... filled with the living dead./b/i

In 28 Days Later, London is a ghost town... filled with the living dead.

Although it is based on a fictitious problem, World War Z provides a truly unique study of human experience based on a reaction to a zombie apocalypse spreading across varying cultures and subcultures.  It reads like a worldwide examination much like Studs Terkel provided on a more guided level with The Good War: An Oral History of World War II.  It stands on its own as more of a story of human reaction to tragedy than a focus on the tragedy, in and of itself.  In that it succeeds and transcends the genre.

It’s not for everyone.  Much like Battlestar Galactica in the Sci Fi television arena, you had to be able to look past the need to suspend disbelief to get to the core human examination and real heart of the story and parables.  If you did, you saw real, worthwhile literature / television.

Human Experience

Also rejuvenating the genre is the graphic novel The Walking Dead.  I’ve not been a comic-book guy really at any point in my life.  Every once in a while, my brother, best friend and I would pop into Forbidden Planet and get a book, but I never really followed comics.  I did, however, take the time to read Watchmen before seeing the film version.  This helped legitimize the genre to me as an adult.

The Walking Dead uses start imagery and a striking storyline to examine the truly human (sans Deus Ex Machina element) experience in apocalypse.

The Walking Dead uses start imagery and a striking storyline to examine the truly human (sans Deus Ex Machina element) experience in apocalypse.

The Walking Dead is built on author Robert Kirkman’s belief that the zombie genre makes a critical error in restricting itself to the 2 hour limit of a feature film.  Instead it, like World War Z, addresses the idea of the apocalypse over the long term.  It examines, from a purely fictional perspective, the idea that as society breaks down, people change and what they cling to becomes more primal.  Of course, while The Walking Dead would be dismissed by most, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which is currently on my bed stand) does the same.

Kirkman removes the boundaries of violence and death that is acceptable on film or in a television broadcast.  In so, he allows himself to explore a darker reality.  Now, I don’t think anyone would mistake Kirkman for a sociologist or anthropologist, but his examination is interesting enough to have gained a significant following.  More importantly, for mainstream fans, the books have caught the eye of AMC and Hollywood producers.  AMC has obtained the rights to adapt the book into a TV series (a natural transition for a long-term series — Kirkland suggested that he didn’t intend to even contemplate an end to his series prior to 100 editions).  While I’m excited that AMC will do justice to the books (as they have shown an excellent production hand with Mad Men and Breaking Bad), but you have to wonder if the violence and rawness of the book can translate on basic cable.

All in all, I can’t wait for the 5th deluxe edition of the book (which includes the 12 issues of its 5th year) to arrive and can’t wait to see how AMC turns it out.

Scientific Analysis

While no serious papers have addressed actual “film style” zombie disease directly, a series of mathematicians and statisticians at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University have adapted, or rather adopted, the zombie genre for the advancement of infection disease modeling research.  In the study of infection disease modeling — in more layman terms, modeling how an outbreak of a disease might spread — the validity of the disease itself is irrelevant.  The symptoms and means of spread are variables to be played or toyed with.  As such, the science permits itself to use hypotheticals… even those hypotheticals which are, on their face, rather preposterous to the public at large.

The eighteen page paper, entitled “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection” (link opens as PDF), by Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad and Robert J. Smith takes a composite review of zombie disease in popular culture.  They identify symptoms, attributes and make biological assumptions for the course of zombie infection and its ability to spread.  They then review and model, from a statistical perspective, the most effective means to contain a disease outbreak that fits these assumptions.

Their conclusions?  Coincidentally, they arrive at pretty much the same conclusion reached by the world leaders in World War Z: only a swift, aggressive response can stave off total apocalypse.  Increasingly, some actual attention has been paid to the science of zombies.

Above is the video of Harvard Professor Steven Schlozman, PhD who actually did a presentation on the science of zombies.  Even then, it’s a bit tongue in cheek.  But it still does look at the neurology of zombie science.  He prefaces it with a big caveat: that its based on his limited readings in zombie culture (Romero based) and allows for scientific inconsistencies.  The companion article from The Phoenix also probably goes into the talk better than I can.

Finding Parallels to Actual Conditions

Be sure you get your seasonal vaccinations.

Be sure you get your seasonal vaccinations.

In their studies, the University of Ottawa and Carleton University team pointed to certain real-world conditions from which the zombie lore originated or from which parallels could be drawn.  They are not alone.  Among the others doing so are the blog The Undead Report, whose January 2008 “Statistical Analysis of Real Life Zombies” appears to have been greatly influenced by Cracked’s more reader friendly “5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse Could Actually Happen.”  I didn’t have the patience to dig further to identify additional sources, so lets just looks at what has to say.

They identify five real-world conditions which inspired zombie stories or show actual ways in which zombies or even a zombie apocalypse could become reality.

Brain Parasites

Cracked identifies the parasite toxoplasmosa gondii as one brain parasite which has caused rats to act in a manner which greatly resembles certain characteristics of zombies (e.g., survival instincts are suppressed and new instincts are embedded).  In theory, parasites could have similar impacts on the human nervous system.  What makes it more fun?  Cracked notes that about half of all humans actually are infected with toxoplasmosa gondii already.  Let’s hope it doesn’t mutate into a more powerful strain… or that a more powerful strain doesn’t rise on its own.


The origins of the zombie legend are not solely from Afro-Caribbean culture, but Haiti and the DR, in particular, have played a huge role. Perhaps no literature has had a greater role than the based on freaking true stories Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic, both b Wade Davis.  For those who are trying to place it, The Serpent and the Rainbow was adapted into the Bill Pullman movie which made you very, very scared of hammers and chisels.

We all feel for Bill Pullman right now and are immediately turned off from trying to discover the truth about zombies.

We all feel for Bill Pullman right now and are immediately turned off from trying to discover the truth about zombies.

The tactics of zombie creation in Haiti are real and they have happened.  The story of Clairvius Narcisse cited by Cracked is very real.  A man buried in 1962 and declared dead had been poisoned and essentially chemically lobotomized (or zombiefied) so that another could use him as field labor for 18 years.  As I like to say, shit just got real.

Of course, these zombies are no more harmful than a lobotomized regular person.  So while they are zombies, they’re not screaming brains or stumbling… rumbling… fumbling towards you.

Real Rage Viri

Both 28 Days Later and Zombieland identify a virus as the cause of the outbreak.  In 28 Days Later, it’s a mythical “rage virus”, while Zombieland goes out and identifies a high grade level of Creutzfeldt-Jakob drawn from eating beef from a cow suffering from Bovine Spongiform encephalopathy.  Cracked notes that although C-J disease rarely produces severe symptoms, but those symptoms, when manifested, actually do include some that might be associated with zombies.

No J-C symptoms are directly linked to rampaging mobs, but again the possibility of mutation is great in any disease.  That said, the chemistry of the brain is not immune to reactions that could lead to such murderous rages.  In fact, there are certain instances of adrenaline rushes which might mimic the same murderous rages that could be caused by serotonin receptors shutting down or other chemical pathways shorting out.


This one is more scientifically stimulating than really zombirific.  It basically, as Cracked lays it out, involves the fact that stem cells can regenerate dead cell.  Theoretically, you can regrow brain stems and keep the basic functions of the body going, even without a conscious operator.

Ironically, Cracked calls it the most zombie-esque.  I yawn.  Yes, you could create a real world zombie, but it’s no fun if its by a method that gives the political religious right even more ammunition to oppose stem cell research.


Looking up isnt always conducive to looking ahead.

Looking up isn't always conducive to looking ahead.

I somewhat bore of the fear of nanotechnology.  Much like the large hadron superconducting super-collider at the CERN laboratories, there’s a lot of panic and not a lot of science to back it.  Notably the grey goo theory is pretty much the lamest global apocalypse scenario of all time (essentially it is that nanobot clouds will consume all matter on the globe in replicating themselves).  Anyway, in the oddly weak Michael Crichton novel Prey (which I ashamedly admit I enjoyed on a long trip to India two years ago), nanobots gain consciousness and start acting on their own in controlling and/or replicating people.

Cracked puts forth the idea that nanobots could and perhaps are being used to replicate neural pathways and keeping brains or other organs operating at higher levels.  Functionally allowing dead tissue to keep going and keep moving.  AKA being zombies.

I dunno… maybe I’m just a purist and want my zombies to come from diseases, toxins or voodoo priests.  The last two just aren’t working for me.

The Long Run

In the meantime, there are additional steps being taken to legitimize zombie studies, even if done tongue in cheek.  For example, the blog Zombie Research Society and the aforementioned Undead Report use varying degrees of realism to look at zombies.  Personally, I prefer to limit the scientific input on zombies and just enjoy the fun of it all.  Resident Evil movies may be bad, but they’re fun.  Same with any George Romero “classic.” If I want to learn my zombie survival skills, I probably won’t return to the Zombie Survival Guide, but will instead train for a few hours with my brother on my XBox 360 with Left 4 Dead or Left 4 Dead 2.

Worst comes to worst, I’ll fashion some weapons and gladly kick some arse.  And maybe stay entertained by reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!.

  1. Marcia
    December 4th, 2009 at 12:13 | #1

    I dreamed about zombies last night, so this post is very apropos. Weird. I agree with the scientific conclusion: if someone I know dies and comes back to life, I’m shooting him right away. I’ll ask questions later. By the way, Zombieland was pretty good. I especially liked the start.

    Random comments:

    1) The Road is awesome.
    2) Zombie Survival Guide is clever and very funny. You’re wrong on that count, sir.
    3) I want Walking Dead now.
    4) How much time did you spend writing this?

  2. admin
    December 4th, 2009 at 12:21 | #2

    1) Agreed, though I’m trying to finish another book before I jump headlong into the Road.
    2) ZSG dragged from time to time. It’s good for a Zombie-phile, but not great.
    3) Walking Dead is very cool. I can’t wait for the show, but really wish HBO had picked up the rights.
    4) Too much time.

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