A recent post on the zombie in popular imagination gives an excellent general sense of what we talk about when we talk about the living dead. But there’s a conflict inherent in the system. We basically think of zombiism as a virus, transmitted by zombie bite. We do think that zombies eat brains. But we also think that zombies are pretty much mindless. And we do think that they are dead.
As Matt pointed out, this last point doesn’t sit terribly well with the “virus” argument. It also doesn’t sit all that well with the original zombie folklore! But no one ever accused the popular imagination of being consistant. The definitive zombie movie will always be Night of the Living DEAD, and that idea isn’t going anywhere.
The conflict between the zombies-as-corpses and zombiism-as-virus isn’t actually all that hard to resolve. A virus, after all, is a living thing that takes over the body of another living thing. All you have to do for zombies is imagine a virus that can take over a dead body. That way you get zombies that are dead, but a zombie virus that is alive (at least in so far as viruses are alive). But there’s another conflict, and one that’s not so easy to resolve.
Why do these dead bodies eat? All other biological processes have stopped: Zombies don’t breathe (at least, they don’t need to), their hearts don’t beat (you never see blood gushing from their wounds), and they don’t heal. Their hair doesn’t grow. What are they doing with all this food, be it brains or otherwise? (I reject out-of-hand the idea that brains work like zombie Vicodin. That’s just stupid. Be serious, guys.)
As you can probably guess, I do have an Overthought™ explanation for this. It’s a little radical, but I think it makes sense. The first thing we have to do is reject the idea that zombies are “eating” as we understand it. Most higher forms of life put matter into their mouths in order to eat, but we shouldn’t be tricked into thinking that zombies are a higher form of life. They’re a virus: they do the things that viruses do. And viruses don’t eat, as far as I’m aware. Pretty much all they EVER do is reproduce. That should be our first clue.
And it actually makes a lot of sense. The goal of the zombie, in essence, is to make more zombies. They do this by biting people. Whenever you see a zombie chowing down on a person, the zombie is reproducing. (The unpleasant implication is that every zombie attack is also a sexual assault.)
That explains the biting thing. But what’s with the brains?
Here we need to fall back on another piece of standard zombie lore. As Belinkie put it, “You kill them with a headshot.” The classic formulation – although I don’t know quite where this came from – is “the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its brain.” That’s interesting, isn’t it? The zombies hunger for brains, and yet the zombie’s biggest weakness is its own brain.
And from this point on, my argument is Natural Selection 101. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its brain, right? So quick: what’s the WORST trait that a “newborn” zombie could possibly have? If you answered, “a weak, flimsy skull, that could be opened even by the rotting fists of another zombie,” you’re absolutely correct. When zombies eat their victim’s brain, they are culling the herd, ensuring that the next zombie generation will be comprised only of the thickest-skulled individuals.
Zombie Charles Darwin, eat
your heart my brains out.
My wife Sue, who runs a lab in Cambridge, MA, has just hired a postdoc to determine whether zombie-like disorders can in fact be attributed to prions. Here’s his most recent article:
Life is good when you’re funded by HHMI.
More prion-related goodness:
I do believe the brain phenomenon was added by The Return of the Living Dead (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Return_of_the_Living_Dead). hat’s also where the concept of zombies eating brains as a way of coping with the pain of being dead comes from. As much as it’s a funny/ridiculous movie, it clearly abandons the traditional zombie as these zombies can talk, think, etc… but it is where we get the zombies moaning about “BRAAAAAAAIIIIINS”. It’s always interesting when parody goes on to influence the genre it was meant to add reflection to. I like the idea of the survival of the thickest skull concept, but most zombie purists disregard the brains-as-the-goal concept and consider warm flesh to be the canonical zombie food.