That Really Rots Me….

Back from vacation and time to get back to the serious issues that face us as academics. Namely, the possibility (nay, probability!) of a zombie apocalypse. The recent Cracked.com article “7 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Outbreak Would Fail Quickly” has been circulating around the interweb turning the field of zombie apocalypse preparedness on its head and forming the basis of many heated debates. And by heated debates, I of course mean a misinformed friend writing nonsense on my facebook wall. My friend, let’s call him Dennis, writes of the Cracked.com article “This is SO flawed. First of all, they assume that zombies rot. The T-virus clearly inhibits this. Next, they assume zombies would be eaten (and if so, not turn the predators into zombies). That’s BS. And exploding from bloating or drying out? The T-virus would never allow that. Clearly the author hasn’t watched any zombie movies…”. While I agree with Dennis that many of the arguments in this article are indeed flawed, I simply can not agree with him on his main point. This brings us to the question that has been occupying my mind lately….would zombies rot?

The answer to that question is clear to me – “Of course!” – but Dennis’s facebook post shows that not everyone out there is as enlightened and highlighted the problem with much of the zombie misinformation out there these days. I first began to steer Dennis in the right direction by asking him; if zombies don’t rot then why are they covered in rotted oozy flesh? He informed me that apparently this is the tissue damage caused by initial T virus infection before the victims death and subsequent reanimation. Uh huh. Very good. That explains ONE example, but last time I checked only the zombies in Resident Evil were caused by the T virus. How do you explain the rotting flesh on the rest of them?? Perhaps the better way to consider the question is to ask; why wouldn’t they rot?

Since rotting is essentially a breakdown of the flesh by microbes if zombies don’t rot then it must be due to some sort of anti-microbial response. The first possibility is that the immune system of a zombie is still functioning. This is extremely unlikely (ok impossible) due to a number of reasons not the least of which is that an immune system requires a functioning circulatory system, something zombies are clearly lacking. Second, since zombies are by definition dead their cells must be dead too and thus there would be no way to turn on or produce immune cells when challenged by invading microbes. I think we can eliminate the possibility that a functioning immune system is protecting zombies from rot. The second possibility is that the causative agent of ‘zombie’ is itself emitting some kind of antimicrobial agent. While this is theoretically possible, my argument against this is simply that it is not mentioned in any zombie movies or literature and the obvious presence of rotting flesh argues against this possibility.

So. I agree with Cracked.com that zombies would indeed rot. I do however, take issue with some of their other claims surrounding this topic. For instance, the author claims that the rotting of a zombie would act as a hindrance to the spread of a zombie pandemic. I disagree. I just happened to be reading the September issue of Scientific American which is all about….THE END. Duhn, duhn, DUHNNNNN. This issue contains an article called “Dust to dust” that traces the four stages of decay. The first stage is the “fresh” stage, lasting from day 1-6. This is when rigor mortis sets in, peaking at 24 hours after death but then relaxing again as cells break down (does this means zombies should stop walking so stiffly past day 1???). From day 7-23 is the second stage during which microbial activity causes the body to bloat and the zombies would really start to stink (ASIDE: The article states “Trapped gases can eventually erupt from the rectum or even rip apart the abdominal wall”. So apparently zombies can still fart! HA!). The third stage is active decay. Ranging from day 24-50, this is when insects and carnivores remove the remaining bits of tissue. In the final ‘dry’ stage only a skeleton remains (which contrary to Army of Darkness would definitely mean the zombies were no longer ambulatory). According to this timeline, zombies could be walking around for at least a week with no problem. I think that’s plenty of time to bite a bunch of people and proliferate the infection!

Regarding the point that zombies would have many natural predators, I partially agree with Dennis. Cracked.com claims that wild animals would quickly take zombies down and eat them. I am not so sure that this is true. For instance, when I go walking through the woods I am not immediately taken upon by bears, cougars and rabid squirrels so why would such creatures bother a zombie? With regard to their infestation with insects, the authors are forgetting that zombies are motile. Why wouldn’t they swat away flies that may have started eating their eyes (though I don’t generally feel as though I am fighting a daily battle with flies trying to eat my eyes)? And as outlined above, it would take time for maggots to really infest a body. Some zombie literature has even suggested that the zombie contagion may cause the flesh of a zombie to become poisonous to predators (I think this was in World War Z) which may help keep animals away. The area in which I don’t agree with Dennis is when he implies that any predator to feast on a zombie would then become infected. Tsk, tsk Dennis. As a fellow microbiologist I would think you’d know that not all hosts are created equal! It is unlikely that the zombie contagion would be able to infect all the predators (though of course there are exceptions in which multiple species are infected, such as rabies and influenza), so this may actually slow down a zombie pandemic.

I’d be interested to hear where everyone else weighs in on this issue. Do zombies rot? Also, as a bit of a blog update, I’ve signed up for a seminar for “future faculty” that outlines types of academic positions and how to get them, what your first year will be like, how to manage a lab and find funding, classroom management and procuring tenure. Each week I’ll post a blog that recaps what the sessions covered. But don’t worry!!! For those of you who find these information-based entries boring, I’ll still be entertaining you with all my usual nonsense regularly!

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3 Responses to That Really Rots Me….

  1. "Dennis" says:

    I would like to retort with some brief commentary, in a quick fashion.

    Regarding rotting flesh. I would argue that the T-virus would have to repair some basic cellular structures as the zombie was rotting (if it really does) for their to be reanimation to begin with. Since we never really see skeleton zombies (there IS always some flesh, even rotten flesh, on the zombies) there is a case to be made about some sort of flesh preservation on zombies and some sort of maintenance for the rotten bits that would need to be some-what functional. At least on the most basic of levels.

    I imagine that any zombifying agent would AT LEAST need to slow the onset of rot, even if it didn’t eliminate it completely. I think an antimicrobial response is a good theory and can be introduced into the zombie literature if it is not currently out there.

    Regarding the multi-host hypothesis, I refer you to the Resident Evil movies where there were many different animals, including dogs and birds that could become zombies. I was simply extrapolating from here. I think that we could come up with a good mechanism for a quick cross-species spreading of a virus if we put our minds to it.

    This is all for now. More to come depending on time and retorts.

  2. "Dennis" says:

    Hmmm. Me-thinks I should have proof-read my retort.

  3. Julie says:

    Ummmm, I went on a zombie walk with you so I am the best!

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