THE UNDEAD: MYTHS AND REALITIESHe comes from the grave, his body a home of worms and filth. No life in his eyes, no warmth of his skin, no beating of his breast. His soul, as empty and dark as the night sky. He laughs at the blade, spits at the arrow, for they will not harm his flesh. For eternity, he will walk the earth, smelling the sweet blood of the living, feasting upon the bones of the damned. Beware, for he is the living dead.
-Obscure Hindu text, circa 1000 B.C.E.
ZOM-BIE: n. also ZOM-BIES pl. 1. An animated corpse that feeds on living human flesh. 2. A voodoo spell that raises the dead. 3. A Voodoo snake god. 4. One who moves or acts in a daze "like a zombie." [a word of West African origin]
What is a zombie? How are they created? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their needs, their desires? Why are they hostile to humanity? Before discussing any survival techniques, you must first learn what you are trying to survive.
We must begin by separating fact from fiction. The walking dead are neither a work of "black magic" nor any other supernatural force. Their origin stems from a virus known as Solanum, a Latin word used by Jan Vanderhaven, who first "discovered" the disease.
SOLANUM: THE VIRUS
Solanum works by traveling through the bloodstream, from the initial point of entry to the brain. Through means not yet fully understood, the virus uses the cells of the frontal lobe for replication, destroying them in the process. During this period, all bodily functions cease. By stopping the heart, the infected subject is rendered "dead." The brain, however, remains alive but dormant, while the virus mutates its cells into a completely new organ. The most critical trait of this new organ is its independence from oxygen. By removing the need for this all-important resource, the undead brain can utilize, but is in no way dependent upon, the complex support mechanism of the human body. Once mutation is complete, this new organ reanimates the body into a form that bears little resemblance (physiologically speaking) to the original corpse. Some bodily functions remain constant, others operate in a modified capacity, and the remainder shut down completely. This new organism is a zombie, a member of the living dead.
Unfortunately, extensive research has yet to find an isolated example of Solanum in nature. Water, air, and soil in all ecosystems, from all parts of the world, have turned up negative, as have their accompanying flora and fauna. At the time of this writing, the search continues.
The timetable below outlines the process of an infected human (give or take several hours, depending on the individual).
Hour 1: Pain and discoloration (brown-purple) of the infected area. Immediate clotting of the wound (provided the infection came from a wound).
Hour 5: Fever (99-103 degrees F), chills, slight dementia, vomiting, acute pain in the joints.
Hour 8: Numbing of extremities and infected area, increased fever (103-106 degrees F), increased dementia, loss of muscular coordination.
Hour 11: Paralysis in the lower body, overall numbness, slowed heart rate.
Hour 16: Coma.
Hour 20: Heart stoppage. Zero brain activity.
Hour 23: Reanimation.
Solanum is 100 percent communicable and 100 percent fatal. Fortunately for the human race, the virus is neither waterborne nor airborne. Humans have never been known to contract the virus from elements in nature. Infection can occur only through direct fluidic contact. A zombie bite, although by far the most recognizable means of transference, is by no means the only one. Humans have been infected by brushing their open wounds against those of a zombie or by being splattered by its remains after an explosion. Ingestion of infected flesh (provided the person has no open mouth sores) results in not infection but, rather, permanent death. Infected flesh has proven to be highly toxic.
No information-historical, experimental, or otherwise-has surfaced regarding the results of sexual relations with an undead specimen, but as previously noted, the nature of Solanum suggests a high danger of infection. Warning against such an act would be useless, as the only people deranged enough to try would be unconcerned for their own safety. Many have argued that, given the congealed nature of undead bodily fluids, the chances of infection from a non-bite contact should be low. However, it must be remembered that even one organism is enough to begin the cycle.
4. Cross-Species Infection
Solanum is fatal to all living creatures, regardless of size, species, or ecosystem. Reanimation, however, takes place only in humans. Studies have shown that Solanum infecting a non-human brain will die within hours of the death of its host, making the carcass safe to handle. Infected animals expire before the virus can replicate throughout their bodies. Infection from insect bites such as from mosquitoes can also be discounted. Experiments have proven that all parasitic insects can sense and will reject an infected host 100 percent of the time.
Once a human is infected, little can be done to save him or her. Because Solanum is a virus and not a bacteria, antibiotics have no effect. Immunization, the only way to combat a virus, is equally useless, as even the most minute dosage will lead to a full-blown infection. Genetic research is under way. Goals range from stronger human antibodies to resistant cell structure to a counter-virus designed to identify and destroy Solanum. This and other, more radical treatments are still in the earliest stages, with no foreseeable success in the near future. Battlefield experiences have led to the immediate severing of the infected limb (provided this is the location of the bite), but such treatments are dubious at best, with less than a 10 percent success rate. Chances are, the infected human was doomed from the moment the virus entered his or her system. Should the infected human choose suicide, he should remember that the brain must be eliminated first. Cases have been recorded in which recently infected subjects, deceased by means other than the virus, will nonetheless reanimate. Such cases usually occur when the subject expires after the fifth hour of infection. Regardless, any person killed after being bitten or otherwise infected by the undead should be immediately disposed of. (See "Disposal, page 19.")
6. Reanimating the Already Deceased
It has been suggested that fresh human corpses could reanimate if Solanum were introduced after their death. This is a fallacy. Zombies ignore necrotic flesh and therefore could not transfer the virus. Experiments conducted during and after World War II (See "Recorded Attacks," pages 216ff) have proven that injecting Solanum into a cadaver would be futile because a stagnant bloodstream could not transport the virus to the brain. Injection directly into a dead brain would be equally useless, as the expired cells could not respond to the virus. Solanum does not create life-it alters it.
1. Physical Abilities
Too often, the undead have been said to possess superhuman powers: unusual strength, lightning speed, telepathy, etc. Stories range from zombies flying through the air to their scaling vertical surfaces like spiders. While these traits might make for fascinating drama, the individual ghoul is far from a magical, omnipotent demon. Never forget that the body of the undead is, for all practical purposes, human. What changes do occur are in the way this new, reanimated body is used by the now-infected brain. There is no way a zombie could fly unless the human it used to be could fly. The same goes for projecting force fields, teleportation, moving through solid objects, transforming into a wolf, breathing fire, or a variety of other mystical talents attributed to the walking dead. Imagine the human body as a tool kit. The somnambulist brain has those tools, and only those tools, at its disposal. It cannot create new ones out of thin air. But it can, as you will see, use these tools in unconventional combinations, or push their durability beyond normal human limits.
The eyes of a zombie are no different than those of a normal human. While still capable (given their rate of decomposition) of transmitting visual signals to the brain, how the brain interprets these signals is another matter. Studies are inconclusive regarding the undead's visual abilities. They can spot prey at distances comparable to a human, but whether they can distinguish a human from one of their own is still up for debate. One theory suggests that the movements made by humans, which are quicker and smoother than those of the undead, is what causes them to stand out to the zombie eye. Experiments have been done in which humans have attempted to confuse approaching ghouls by mimicking their motions and adopting a shambling, awkward limp. To date, none of these attempts have succeeded. It has been suggested that zombies possess night vision, a fact that explains their skill at nocturnal hunting. This theory has been debunked by the fact that all zombies are expert night feeders, even those without eyes.
There is no question that zombies have excellent hearing. Not only can they detect sound-they can determine its direction. The basic range appears to be the same as that for humans. Experiments with extreme high and low frequencies have yielded negative results. Tests have also shown that zombies are attracted by any sounds, not just those made by living creatures. It has been recorded that ghouls will notice sounds ignored by living humans. The most likely, if unproven, explanation is that zombies depend on all their senses equally. Humans are sight-oriented from birth, depending on other senses only if the primary one is lost. Perhaps this is not a handicap shared by the walking dead. If so, it would explain their ability to hunt, fight, and feed in total darkness.
Unlike with sound, the undead have a more acute sense of smell. In both combat situations and laboratory tests, they have been able to distinguish the smell of living prey above all others. In many cases, and given ideal wind conditions, zombies have been known to smell fresh corpses from a distance of more than a mile. Again, this does not mean that ghouls have a greater sense of smell than humans, simply that they rely on it more. It is not known exactly what particular secretion signals the presence of prey: sweat, pheromones, blood, etc. In the past, people seeking to move undetected through infested areas have attempted to "mask" their human scent with perfumes, deodorants, or other strong-smelling chemicals. None were successful. Experiments are now under way to synthesize the smells of living creatures as a decoy or even repellent to the walking dead. A successful product is still years away.
Little is known about the altered taste buds of the walking dead. Zombies do have the ability to tell human flesh apart from that of animals, and they prefer the former. Ghouls also have a remarkable ability to reject carrion in favor of freshly killed meat. A human body that has been dead longer than twelve to eighteen hours will be rejected as food. The same goes for cadavers that have been embalmed or otherwise preserved. Whether this has anything to do with "taste" is not yet certain. It may have to do with smell or, perhaps, another instinct that has not been discovered. As to exactly why human flesh is preferable, science has yet to find an answer to this confounding, frustrating, terrifying question.
Zombies have, literally, no physical sensations. All nerve receptors throughout the body remain dead after reanimation. This is truly their greatest and most terrifying advantage over the living. We, as humans, have the ability to experience physical pain as a signal of bodily damage. Our brain classifies such sensations, matches them to the experience that instigated them, and then files the information away for use as a warning against future harm. It is this gift of physiology and instinct that has allowed us to survive as a species. It is why we value virtues such as courage, which inspires people to perform actions despite warnings of danger. The inability to recognize and avoid pain is what makes the walking dead so formidable. Wounds will not be noticed and, therefore, will not deter an attack. Even if a zombie's body is severely damaged, it will continue to attack until nothing remains.
F. Sixth Sense
Historical research, coupled with laboratory and field observation, have shown that the walking dead have been known to attack even when all their sensory organs have been damaged or completely decomposed. Does this mean that zombies possess a sixth sense? Perhaps. Living humans use less than 5 percent of their brain capacity. It is possible that the virus can stimulate another sensory ability that has been forgotten by evolution. This theory is one of the most hotly debated in the war against the undead. So far, no scientific evidence has been found to support either side.
Despite legends and ancient folklore, undead physiology has been proven to possess no powers of regeneration. Cells that are damaged stay damaged. Any wounds, no matter what their size and nature, will remain for the duration of that body's reanimation. A variety of medical treatments have been attempted to stimulate the healing process in captured ghouls. None were successful. This inability to self-repair, something that we as living beings take for granted, is a severe disadvantage to the undead. For example, every time we physically exert ourselves, we tear our muscles. With time, these muscles rebuild to a stronger state than before. A ghoul's muscle mass will remain damaged, reducing its effectiveness every time it is used.
The average zombie "life span"-how long it is able to function before completely rotting away-is estimated at three to five years. As fantastic as this sounds-a human corpse able to ward off the natural effects of decay-its cause is rooted in basic biology. When a human body dies, its flesh is immediately set upon by billions of microscopic organisms. These organisms were always present, in the external environment and within the body itself. In life, the immune system stood as a barrier between these organisms and their target. In death, that barrier is removed. The organisms begin multiplying geometrically as they proceed to eat and, thereby, break down the corpse on a cellular level. The smell and discoloration associated with any decaying meat are the biological process of these microbes at work. When you order an "aged" steak, you are ordering a piece of meat that has begun to rot, its formerly toughened flesh softened by microorganisms breaking down its sturdy fiber. Within a short time, that steak, like a human corpse, will dissolve to nothing, leaving behind only material too hard or unnutritious for any microbe, such as bone, teeth, nails, and hair. This is the normal cycle of life, nature's way of recycling nutrients back into the food chain. To halt this process, and preserve dead tissue, it is necessary to place it in an environment unsuitable for bacteria, such as in extreme low or high temperatures, in toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, or, in this case, to saturate it with Solanum.
Copyright © 2003 by Max Brooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.