Zombies

Are we really going to talk about Zombies? Why the hell not? They’re all over TV and the movies. They are the coolest thing going in the way of horror and survival enthusiasm. Their gruesome presence is even the ultimate test of government crisis response. What could be more devastating than a bunch of dead people trying to bite and eat anyone who is not? Lets take a very short look back at their origin, ’cause they weren’t always the Walking Dead.

Zombies originate in African culture, mixed with voodoo and other spiritual teachings. The exact origin isn’t clear, but the culture most at home with our undead friends comes from the slave environs of Haiti. The African slaves, dragged in to work the sugar plantations, were more often than not worked to death. The zombie was a further enslavement meted out to those who had done something so awful only an eternity of slavery was punishment enough. It also became a tool for witch doctors or bokor to have slaves of their own as labor or to do more nefarious tasks. The zombie wasn’t trying to eat other humans, but was a slave, trapped in a dead and soulless body, unable to do anything but the will of another. He could not return to his home and would remain in trapped in his dead body. That’s pretty terrible stuff.

That thinking and culture developed over several hundred years and didn’t just go away when Haitian slaves were freed. Then Hollywood got hold of it and effectively killed it. Of course there are still people who believe in and practice voodoo and similar religions. The zombie zombie has shrunk in popular culture, becoming a mindless, human and brain eating ghoul. Most of the current zombie shows can trace their roots back to a 1968 classic in horror films, “Night of the Living Dead”. This little movie, shot on a shoe string budget, initiated the recurring rage that has become the zombie genre. In that movie, the living dead weren’t referred to as zombies, they were called ghouls. The source of their reanimation was suspected to be a massive radiological incident. The movie ended without clarifying the cause. Is it really important what the cause was?

Night of the Living Dead spawned a number of similar movies transitioning the ghouls to become zombies. Over the last 40 years, casting voodoo aside, the zombies are the victims or creation of all kinds of different sources. Later versions drift toward some kind of viral infection, some disease that moves so fast no cure can be developed. Humankind essentially loses all ability to fight the source and everything becomes a matter of survival. That has some appeal. Who hasn’t wished that the world would change and become more basic, more survivalist than day to day business grind?

TV’s most recent classic, “The Walking Dead” does a fair job at presenting scenarios of what might happen. Of how society might change, and how people might be forced to survive. Unfortunately the zombie genre, by now it has become its own genre, has been victimized by Hollywoodism, relying more on visuals than story. The zombies are getting better and better (better make up, better effects), the stories, unfortunately are getting weaker and weaker.

The story line for “Walking Dead” stated well. There were a lot of dynamics, human interaction and conflict, and they weren’t afraid to kill of a regular character or two. Over the last couple of seasons, the conflicts aren’t fresh anymore, just replays on the same variations. The heroes confront some bad guys; fight off zombies along the way; run into another group of seemingly good guys who of course turn out to be bad. I’m not faulting the writers or actors, but there is only so much story in the post-apocalypse. Most everything has been destroyed. By now the story is secondary and fans are watching for the thrill and scare factor of the zombies.

Zombies themselves keep changing, sometimes even within the shows. Seems writers can’t make up their minds — are zombies slow and weak, or are they fast and strong? Are the fresher zombies fast, the older (more rotten ones) weak? Seems no one knows for sure, but they don’t pay any attention to basic human physiology. That bothers me.

Let’s presume that zombies can happen. So the dead can walk, maybe even run, and have some senses to be able to detect us poor, living saps, walking around and waiting to become dinner. Not all dead could actually walk, however. It’s just not possible. Only the freshest of corpses could “reanimate” with any chance of movement. The physiology required to make people move, the tendons, sinews and muscles, quickly deteriorate and become unusable once we die.

So we’ll go a little further. Lets assume that the necessary muscles and support systems remain functional for an extended period and the body can be reanimated. There are still problems with these shows. Even if a zombie doesn’t feel pain, and presume let’s presume he can’t, you still can’t walk on a leg that is snapped in half. You sure as hell can’t run with it.

Speaking of running: can zombies do that? Most of the zombie fans would probably say they can, but I’d disagree. Even the bodies of “fresh” or recently zombieized people would deteriorate to some extent. Once blood stops flowing, everything starts rotting fast, and you need all that connective tissue functional to be able to run. Therefore I favor the slow, or at least slower zombie.

Strength is another factor frequently overstated and misused. How strong are zombies? Does their deadness give them some super strength? I would argue it can’t. If anything it should make them weaker since the breakdown of the body begins at death. The other part of this is something that most horror films just get completely wrong. The human body is at once fragile and yet extremely resilient. While predatory animals are able to tear pieces off their prey, people are not. Some might talk smack about tearing someones head off, but they would probably not be able to accomplish this feat, never mind arms or legs. Skin on its own is quite tough and the aforementioned items holding the human body together (muscle, sinews, tendons), are very resistant to tearing. So when we see zombies ripping pieces off people, I have to wonder from where they get this super human strength.

Similarly, biting through skin is not that easy. Human teeth are not made for cutting through skin. We use knives and forks for that, but can’t well expect zombies to carry tableware. To even break skin, takes considerable effort. So all this ripping flesh with teeth is way over the top and only serves an effect and bad script. The same goes for biting people in general. In one “The Walking Dead” scene, Rick is trapped in a bear hug by his opponent. He leans in, bites the other guy’s neck and tears out his throat. No.

The same goes for the opposite when we want to kill the zombie. This is where most shows and movies go awry. We all know by now you have to hit the brain to kill a zombie. Understood. The skull is a pretty hard nut to crack, literally. It can take a beating and still protect the brain. You can’t smash a skull by closing the trunk lid on a head. Even a body builder or weight lifter, would have to have a tremendous amount of leverage and just the right angle to succeed. You’d certainly need more than just one shot. Stab a guy in the head with a knife to kill him? Not likely, my friend. Again, unless you have a tremendous amount of power, you are not getting that knife through the skull. Even with a crow bar or some similarly heavy, sharp tool, it would still take considerable effort to get through the skull. Running the head over with the car could, but likely would not crush the skull (unless of course you’re using a giant truck or tank). Real people have had their heads run over and still survived.

Worse yet Michonne, “The Walking Dead” chick with samurai sword, cool as she is, is completely wrong. You are not cutting a piece of skull off with a sword. That’s just not going to happen. Your odds would be better with a traditional western two handed sword, though it would still be unlikely. The advantage of the samurai sword is that its very light, flexible and usually portrayed to be much sharper than is realistically possible. These very characteristics make it a bad tool for cutting into hard bone. It would either bounce off, or get stuck on the bone without penetrating through. The western swords, heavier and less flexible, would have a great chance at success. If nothing else, it might actually smash the skull enough to cause the necessary damage.

Why do we turn into zombies when we’re bitten by one? Is it venom, viral, or just bad breath? In many films, all it takes is that bite, and nearly instantly you become a zombie, provided of course you aren’t torn apart and eaten. The fact that the bite is infectious makes the cause of zombieism a disease, and my friends, diseases are never “instant”. There is always a gestation period. The infection has to get from the wound to some other body part (most likely the brain in the case of zombies), to cause change. That is not instant. If you’ve ever seen an x-ray of blood moving through veins and arteries, you’ll see it’s pretty slow. A snake bite, depending on the type of snake and the amount of poison, still takes up to an hour to begin the killing process. A zombie infection should take at least as long. Admittedly, “The Walking Dead” have found a neat solution to at least this aspect. We are all infected, and unless we get that killing headshot right away, the reanimation process is quick, though not immediate. Those bitten die slowly, lending some realism to the problem. This is one of the better solutions I’ve seen.

It also is a wonder that there are so many zombies running around. One of the things zombies do, is eat their victims. Apparently not all of them, or even many of them. Why some get eaten and others do not, only to join the zombie hordes, is never explained. There are plenty of scenes where the victims are torn limb from limb (which of course would keep them from running about). Why are there then so many that become zombies? To take it a bit further yet, zombies are supposedly — at least in most of the movies — after our brains. One would then think that the head would be a prime target for zombie attack. Yet they seem happy to chew on the middle and legs, foregoing that delicious grey matter between our ears.

Sometimes zombie films like to include the already buried as part of the zombie apocalypse. They come digging themselves out of graves, grabbing the legs of those passing by from beneath the ground. That, is truly bad scripting. Most people are buried in coffins. The coffins are then covered by 5 or more feet of dirt. How exactly, and with what tools, are these dead making their way out? Did someone bury that toy back hoe so they can clear from beneath? By the time you are in the ground for a while your body would have deteriorated too far to be able to reanimate. What exactly got through all that dirt to get you going again? Germs couldn’t have done it? The sun doesn’t get there? Nah, that’s just silly. If your buried, you aren’t coming out.

World War Z had some cool effects — the zombies climbing up on each other like ants to get over the wall, as an example — but people aren’t ants. Ants can do this because they are small, have exoskeletons and weigh nearly nothing. People aren’t any of that. You pile a bunch of people high enough, the ones on the bottom will be pudding. Conceivably you could pile up enough pudding to get over the wall, but it would take a lot, and certainly wouldn’t be done in a matter of minutes. And that was one very high wall.

Of course we suspend believe and reality when we watch these films or read the books. That’s not the issue. Books tend to be a little more careful on these topics while Hollywood goes only for loves effect. It would be easy enough to make both effects and story solid so we’re not left wondering where they come up with this crap.

Like this article? Feel free to leave comments and feedback. I’ll respond or edit to respond. Thanks