Blastr: I Was A Zombie For Science

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2010 9:40 am

blastr_zombie_graphicI write a roughly monthly article about the science of science fiction for Blastr, SyFy Channel’s online portal for news and views. Just in time for Halloween, my new article is up: Scientist uses his brains to explain how to make zombies plausible. I’ve been thinking about zombies a bit lately — I’ve been eating up* books about them too — and thought it would make a fun topic for Blastr.

May I add? Coolest. Artwork. EVER! My kudos to the Blastr art department for the awesome and awesomely clever graphic to go with the text!

Related posts:

Blastr post: Why you’ll never meet an alien
Master of Blastr
Blastr post: 5 big-budget sci-fi films that actually got their science right
Big budget movies that got their science right

* Haha.

MORE ABOUT: Blastr, zombies

Comments (27)

  1. VA Classical Liberal

    Astonishing coincidence alert! I was listening to T-Bone Burnett’s Zombieland when your post hit my RSS reader. This close to Halloween? Scary.

    There is one thing about the NOLD/28 Days Later zombie that separates it from an average reanimated corpse ala Frankenstein’s Monster or Re-Animator.


    If Frankenstein’s monster bite you, you won’t become a “Frankenstein” yourself.

  2. Caterina

    Phil, you should check out “Feed” by Mira Grant. She has an interesting take on viral zombies.

  3. Mapnut

    Quote: “our sadly zombie-deficient real world ”

    Are you kidding? Speak for yourself! And don’t go giving anybody ideas!

  4. Christine P.

    I think you shouldn’t try too hard to come up with a scientific explanation for zombieness. The closest I’ve seen to a plausible mechanism is Max Brooks, as you mention in your column. He did a good job of creating drama while (mostly) maintaining logical consistency. “World War Z” was an AMAZING story; I can’t wait to see the movie.

    You can still have fun with the concept. For example, Robert Smith? and his mathematical modeling of who would win the human-zombie war. (Bad news for humans)

  5. Sajanas

    Being a biology geek, I remember that 28 days later really bugged me, since it is impossible for a virus that dependent on the host cell for its own reproduction, to take over a human brain so quickly. It takes time to infect a cell, and replicate whatever gene products are needed to take over the host, etc. Unless the blood of the infected was 100% adrenaline and other fun things. I suppose a bacteria might be able to work more quickly, but it still wouldn’t be that fast.
    However, I do like that it at least forced the survivors to practice good sterile zombie slaying technique. Its weird that in other zombie movies a bite will turn you into a zombie, but splattering bits of a zombie all over your eyes, nose and mouth is harmless. In its way, I think the biological zombie is even more frightening than a supernatural ‘undead’ one. Because all of those zombies you kill are essentially just sick people. The sort of remorse less, easy violence that people do in undead zombie movies is murder, especially if there is a cure developed later.

  6. I thought zombies were called “religious fundamentalists”? I mean, the lack of any sort of original or coherent neural activity is just too startling a coincidence to ignore! We have plenty of those all over (sadly).

  7. Great analysis of some things I’ve wondered myself over 25 years or more of zombie movie watching.

    In the end, though, I think *not* understanding the mechanism of it all adds to the creep and scare factor. You know it can’t be happening, but there they are, coming after you. I think if we (the viewers or the characters) really understood why and how it was all happening, they would too easily figure out how to make it all stop. Confronting the unknown and not knowing what to do is often a big part of the unsettling drama the characters are put in, and part of the experience for us too.

    I like my zombies slow, rotting, and in-articulate. Scientifically invalid? Probably, but they’re still coming, I’m running out of ammo, and those things just got Jimmy! OH GOD! JIMMY!

  8. RMcbride

    Zombies do exist. Check out any mall.

    BTW Phil do we consider fast moving “infectious” zombies to be zombies just like slow moving dead and animited?

  9. DennyMo

    And folks think theologians debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin are wasting time and energy…

  10. Bobcloclimar

    Zombieland had a fairly decent treatment of a zombie virus (was elucidated in the deleted scenes in the DVD) – essentially some variant of mad cow disease* that became orally transmitted. The subsequent inflammation (to the brain and other organs) resulted in the feral behavior exhibited by the zombies and their somewhat dilapidated state.

    *yes, this technically isn’t a virus. But I could see it standing on its own anyways.

  11. 4. Christine P. Says: “You can still have fun with the concept. For example, Robert Smith? and his mathematical modeling of who would win the human-zombie war. (Bad news for humans)”

    So are you reading “The Calculus Diaries” too?

    – Jack

  12. “Coolest. Artwork. EVER! My kudos to the Blastr art department for the awesome and awesomely clever graphic to go with the text!”

    Except that the X-ray is too short. It needs to be moved downward and stretched some. That girl’s lungs are not in her throat, and I can see the top of her liver and other organs right about where her heart would be.

    – Jack

  13. jasonB

    @Larian LeQuella

    C’mon really not another left/right, atheist/believer argument. Especially in a post that should unify all humanity. Zombies!!

    The only argument should be fast/slow zombies.

    Actually there is NO argument. They are dead. They will be SLOW.

  14. MichaelF

    Phil, you can do first-hand research on zombies just down the road in Denver: at least 7300 zombies gathered on the 16th Street Mall on Sat 23 Oct. See or any of the numerous “Denver Zombie Crawl” videos on YouTube. Consider a research trip to next year’s Crawl.

  15. In the last book of Jeff Carlson’s Plague War books, Plague Zone, he suggests


    a mind plague creating a zombie like state with a nanotechnology plague. He tackles the question of killing the infected and whether or not a cure can be made available to the infected. Having said that the series is not about zombies it is an excellent series about the accidental release of a nano virus that kills everything below 10000 feet and the inevitable war for control of the earth’s high ground, the Rockies, Himalayas, Andes etc, fought using everything including an arms race in nanotechnology.

  16. @jasonB, please not that I specifically said FUNDAMENTALISTS and didn’t state which religion. ūüėČ

    And of course slow. With obesity such a problem, I would think that it would be very difficult to move all that lard. ūüėõ

  17. Anyone familiar with the “zombies” game :

    One of my favorites, and really got me into zombieland :)

  18. Mindless zombies staggering around in packs is no longer a fictional concept. Have you heard of the Tea Party?

  19. Shade


  20. Ray

    I would note that even the Federal government takes zombies seriously. We should too. They are out there.

    Link to it in my name.

  21. Curt

    For your amusement… a friend of mine posted on flickr a self-portrait… zombie style.

  22. mike burkhart

    I think everyone needs to read The Zombie Survival Guide . It will tell you all you need to know to perpare for Night of the Liviing Dead .Pick up a copy at your local Wallmart (if you don’t beleve in Zombies like me read it anyway it’s funny)

  23. Brian Too

    @4. Christine P.,

    I second the recommendation for World War Z. Not everything in the book stands up to logical scrutiny, but that doesn’t really matter. The whole package works and it’s a fun story (well, if you consider the ‘pocyclypse fun!). I could hardly put it down.

  24. tussock

    Surely a Slow Zombie is working fine on anaerobic processes, albeit with a badly damaged brain as a result (they’re rather less clever than large insects). When it comes to punching time, they can burn any damaged tissue directly to power themselves. Assume the lymph system slowly transports viable energy stores down to remaining hot spots, and delivers waste products to the skin, where they produce a rot-like appearance. All clotted, gassy, and slow-but-BANG.

    Fresh brains consumed are the only method they have to keep the connections within what remains of their own brain intact. Probably lacking nearly all sensory functions beyond the ability to find more brains.

    Fast Zombies (aka Ghouls), while highly impervious to injury due to improved clotting agents and non-existent pain receptors, will often die a day or two after suffering serious wounds, and can be disabled comparatively easily. Shame you’re a Ghoul too now.

    Jumping Zombies (aka Vampires), are magic. Not there in photos and such, but quite capable of mass-hysterically giving y’all a nasty psycho-somatic neck wound.

  25. Chris Winter

    Jack Hagerty wrote: “Except that the X-ray is too short. It needs to be moved downward and stretched some. That girl‚Äôs lungs are not in her throat, and I can see the top of her liver and other organs right about where her heart would be.”

    Sort of an anti-tosis?

    The first x-rays of the human torso showed the organs lower than the physicians of the time thought correct. They assumed a disease or defect was responsible, and called it “tosis.”

    The reason, of course, was that all the anatomical drawings were based on cadavers lying horizontally on slabs. Tosis ’twas naught but gravity.


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