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Zombies: Fact or Fiction?

Lili's picture

 As an avid horror film fan, I have watched my fair share of zombie movies. The first I ever watched was the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s classic, “Dawn of the Dead.” The movie scared me on so many levels – I was thirteen years old, afraid of the dark and virtually everything else in the world – not to mention the thought of bloodthirsty, cannibalistic zombies taking over the world. My adverse reaction to zombies evolved over the years, however, and my fear turned into sheer curiosity. Even though I understood that by no means are zombies real, I often wondered why the zombies of the movies were sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes stupid, and sometimes pretty smart. More than that, I wondered from where George A. Romero’s zombies were derived. Were there any diseases that were comparable to the zombie viruses of the movies? Where did the concept of “zombiism” come from to begin with?  

            The origin of the word “zombie” is debatable. Some attribute the word’s root to the Caribbean jumbie, or “ghost,” while others trace it to the Congolese nzambi for “spirit of a dead person.”[1] While the concept of the undead has been around for millennia, the zombie got its start in the Vodou culture of Haiti. In the Vodou tradition, zombies are said to be humans brought back to the human world by a sorcerer. Involved in the rituals is a potent powder created from the deadly paralyzing agent in puffer fish venom, tetrodotoxin. Tetrodotoxin is a neurotoxin that has been found in many different animals, from frogs to fish. After having been exposed to tetrodotoxin orally, a human will experience numbness at the site. Following numbness are paralysis, cardiopulmonary impairment, convulsions, a weakened mental state, and eventually death within 4-6 hours after ingestion.[2] In their undead state, the zombies are under control of the sorcerer and lack the ability to speak or act on free will.[3] The zombies of Vodou are quite distinct from the zombies of Romero’s horror flicks, though; there is neither mysticism nor spirituality incorporated into “Dawn of the Dead” and “28 Days Later.” Additionally, Vodou zombies are void of the cannibalistic tendencies of Romero’s zombies. So where did the ideas for those tendencies come from?
            Although the symptoms of the zombie virus vary from film to film, there are some commonalities between them. For instance, most zombies are under an altered state of consciousness – whether be it the loss of speech and human-like cognition or animalistic rage. Some zombies also appear to waddle, as if their limbs are stiff and or paralyzed. The transmission of the virus usually occurs by way of an open wound exposed to the saliva of the infected. Though there is no disease known to mankind that is remotely analogous to the zombie viruses of the movies, there are diseases that progress in similar manners. Rabies, as an example, is transmitted similarly; an infected animal (perhaps a raccoon or a dog) bites another organism (for our purposes, a human). As the wound is inflicted by a bite, the infected organism’s saliva enters it carrying the virus. A difference between zombie viruses and the rabies virus is that, while the zombie virus has a very short incubation period (the transformation from human to zombie takes place almost instantaneously), the incubation period for the rabies virus can last from 2-12 weeks.[4] Because zombie viruses are not actually real viruses, there is no way to compare their effect on humans to that of rabies. Whilst the symptom of periodic agitation is common in rabies patients, it does not remotely compare to the constant agitation seen in zombies. For that reason, it is safe to say that there are no true similarities between the two viruses, other than their methods of transmission.
            All that being said, what is the likelihood that we will actually have to worry about a zombie virus outbreak? I would like to say that it is pretty dubious that something of that nature would ever occur, but there is currently very little research on the topic. There is one study that addresses the issue, nonetheless. This study took place at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University and used mathematical models to predict the chance that the human race would be wiped out if such a virus ever erupted. Once again, because zombie viruses are not substantial, they were not able to draw any conclusions other than the fact that the human race would be in great danger if there were to be a zombie virus.[5] In my opinion, this was not a particularly helpful conclusion. Others have said that the chance of such a virus emerging is increasing due to global warming, because infectious diseases are more easily transmitted in warmer weather.[6] Nevertheless, until there is scientific evidence that the human race is doomed to become a zombie race, I do not believe that there is any cause for alarm.

[1]Tracy V. Wilson, How Zombies Work,
[2] Jim Johnson, Tetrodotoxin: an Ancienet Alkaloid from the Sea,
[3] Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad, Philip Munz, and Robert J. Smith, When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection,
[4] “About Rabies”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
[5] Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad, Philip Munz, and Robert J. Smith, When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection,
[6] Brian Merchant, “Would the Human Race Survive a Zombie Attack? Scientists Say it’s Unlikely”,


Paul Grobstein's picture

Romero's zombies

"I wondered from where George A. Romero’s zombies were derived."

Sounds from your discussion like there are phenomena Romero might have known about that contributed to his picture of zombies, but that his own brain built from those a unique/idiosyncratic vision of them?  One that in turn raised interesting questions in your brain?