Sunday, April 19, 2015


Zombies are Fantasy/Horror, not Science Fiction

I went to the Geek Festival and watched a member of the cast of The Walking Dead take (and field well) softball questions from the audience. I sat through the puffery trying to formulate my question. I still don't quite have it but there's the rest of this posting to try to get to it. Here goes:

According to Franklin, death is one of the sure things in life. And death means the body of the deceased will not get up and move toward you. In fact it will never move again. On that we can certainly rely. So zombies break a clear rule of biological science. In the literature that exists about the breaking of set scientific rules, there are two ways to go: 1) Explain through scientific means how the formerly clear rule can be broken (Science Fiction); or, 2) Don't explain (Fantasy, Horror). In the latter, the author says "there is no explanation, suspend your disbelief and deal with it." I've never been too big a fan of the latter one.

Most of us remember the high school biology about what it takes to run our muscles and nervous system; and (to reduce it to the most basic of my memories) it takes oxygen and sugar (plus some other chemicals). We get oxygen to the muscles through red blood cells charged up in the alveoli of the lungs. The sugars come from our digesting stuff we eat. I think the liver is super involved too.

Well, we know that the zombies on the Walking Dead don't need oxygen. The hanged zombies are still kicking; so is the guy the Governor put in the lake, and his collection of heads in the fish tanks. Well, without oxygen, there goes the whole system of sugars in the mitochondria and there would be no need then for the zombies to seek out and eat food. Yet we know they continue to feed, almost exclusively on the living and not on each other. That doesn't make any sense. And if the whole system of keeping our cells alive and providing nourishment and oxygen to the muscles so that they can contract (so that the zombies can move) is gone and not working, how can the zombies move and see and hear and smell?

Well, the short answer is: "They can't, they're dead."

But in a pretty good episode in a near fantasy depiction of the CDC (which really exists in Atlanta on Clifton Road) the writers tried to explain things (be Science Fiction). The idea was that the zombie phenomenon was virus caused. A virus, which was introduce almost exclusively through the bite of an infected (a zombie), killed the brain and the bitten died, but the virus survived and "re-animated" the brain (at a much diminished rate) and the dead body gets up and looks for something alive to bite and eat. This is good science in one way--disease causing viruses and bacterial infections exist because they have effects on the infected which help the virus to spread to other hosts. The most basic examples are the rhinoviruses which are spread through sneezing and coughing, but there are others more complex. In one form of the bubonic plague, the disease causes part of the stomach of a flea to contract and no matter how much blood the flea eats from a host, it is always starving and it jumps off the perfectly good host to feed on another. The bacteria is spread.

Even better is the bug that causes rabies. After infection (by a bite, usually, but any contact with the saliva, etc. of the infected will do) eventually the infected goes mad and tries to bite everything around, before the infected dies. Variations on the rabies phenomenon are the bases for fast zombies in the 28 time units Later series and in the movie version of World War Z; and to a large degree it is the model for the Walking Dead method of zombification. But, tellingly, the fast zombies in 28 what ever Later don't eat and eventually starve to death. They only bite because the disease in their brain causes them to bite. In those movies they are not zombies, they merely suffer from a disease. So Danny Boyle et al. skirt the problem with animating the dead. The book WWZ didn't handle the problem of reanimating the dead, the movie, which was worse than the book, made the biters alive but infected.

But the zombies on Walking Dead are well and truly dead and rotting as they move. So how? I'm not buying that the disease process that reanimates part of the brain is providing some near magical juice that allows the nervous system to work (poorly and slowly) and the deceased to move. I'm also not buying that the partially functioning brain of the dead on the show becomes this incredibly delicate thing that ends forever with the slightest touch of a knife blade. That's just convenience for what passes for action on the show.

So the Walking Dead is fantasy/horror not science fiction.

Glad we nailed that down.


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