Monday, May 31, 2010

They Want to Eat Your Brains: A Brief Study of the Zombie in Popular Media

Out of all of the terrors that roam in the horror books that I read, zombies have to be one of my favorites.  Nothing epitomizes ice old fear quite like an undead creature shambling toward you, hungering for your flesh.  What's worse, there's a good chance that monster nibbling on your noggin was once one of your friends or family members.

Zombies have been around for centuries, starting with the Afro-Caribbean belief in voodoo.  This dark magic could turn anyone into a mindless hulk that did whatever it was told to do.  After George A. Romero's movie Night of the Living Dead, zombies began to take their place in popular media.

One of the greatest things about zombies (like any other myth) is that with each new rendition, the monster is thought of in a new light.  It is very rare to see two depictions of zombies be exactly the same.  And so, in this short study of the zombie in popular media, I will attempt to sort out some of these differences.  That way, when the dead truly rise, you will have some idea of what you might be facing.

The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks (novel)
  •  Physical Appearance:  Brooks conforms most to the "zombie" ideal among the examples presented in this study.  His zombies are slow, ever hunting drones who only want to eat the flesh of the living.  The monster's body is dead, so it decomposes at a normal rate, leading to large wounds and destroyed limbs over time.  They shamble along at a slow rate.
  • Mental Ability:  The zombie is unable to process thoughts that go beyond their immediate hunt for food.  They are attracted to prey and use all of their senses (which vary in efficiency compared to those of the living) to spot morsels of brain.  However, reasoning and logic are beyond them.
  • Mode of Infection:  A living being that comes in contact with the Solanum virus (through bite wounds, scratches, blood-to-mucous membrane contact) quickly fades into a coma, dies, and is reanimated when the virus hijacks the brain cells.
  • Method of Disposal:  Anything that causes brain death will stop one of Brooks' zombies in its tracks.  This includes blunt trauma and decapitation.
Cell, by Stephen King (novel)
  • Physical Appearance:  Stephen King has always found a way of turning the genre on its head.  The zombies in Cell resemble their previous lives greatly, and even show some memory about who they were before.  They are fast and tend not to decompose as other zombies do.
  • Mental Ability:  These members of the walking dead are very smart, able to establish ambushes and pursue their prey.  They also have mental powers including telepathy, which makes them even more dangerous.  They also hunt in packs and show evidence of a strong hive mind.
  • Mode of Infection:  There is no infection between a zombie and a living person, which is a very distinct difference between King's novel and the rest.  Instead, one becomes a zombie by hearing a certain audio frequency (which is being broadcast over cell phone towers).This makes it hard for the infection to spread, but also cuts off one of our most important means of communication.
  • Method of Disposal:  The "phonies", as they are referred to in the book, are only active during the day.  Similar to vampires, they are banished to as near-comatose sleep during the night.  This makes it possible to destroy the zombies when they are sleeping and, because they often nest in large groups, methods can be employed to destroy large numbers of them all at once.
  • Physical Appearance:  In Zombieland,  nearly everyone has been transformed into a zombie.  They conform to the zombie standard (see The Zombie Survival Guide) in all but one way:  They are fast.  In fact, the first rule of Zombieland is Cardio.  How else are you going to outrun all of those brain-eaters?
  • Mental Ability:  The zombies in Zombieland don't show much intelligence.  They are driven by their hunger for food (much like a SFF blogger I know...), and they don't think about much else.
  • Mode of Infection:   A bite, scratch or contact with bodily fluids seems to do the job.
  • Method of Disposal:  Similar to other types of zombies, the Zombieland zombies can only be killed by brain death.  Also, please note the second rule of Zombieland:  The Double Tap.  If you think you've killed a zombie with a lethal headshot, it's best to make absolutely sure and do it again.
I Am Legend, by  Francis Lawrence (film)
  • Physical Appearance:  In the movie I Am Legend, there is only one living man against the masses of zombie-like monsters.  These zombies seem to be blessed with superhuman strength and speed, which sucks for Will Smith.  Luckily, they shun the light, only come out at night, and keep to the shadows.
  • Mental Ability:  These guys show remarkable intelligence.  They set up traps and ambushes, study their opponent's weaknesses, and compensate for their own.  If there ever was a zombie that retained the intelligence of his previous form, this would be it.
  • Mode of Infection:  The affliction was initially caused by a vaccine against cancer.  As the disease is similar to that of rabies, only contact between infected saliva and living blood (i.e., a bite wound)  will cause infection.
  • Method of Disposal:  It is very tricky to kill an I Am Legend zombie when he is awake and running at you.  Instead, it is best to wait until they are sleeping, or lure them into the light.
Feed, by Mira Grant (novel)
  • Physical Appearance:  Feed zombies start out looking like their previous (living) selves.  However, as the virus causing the affliction multiplies in their tissues, they begin to decay of their own accord.  This means that as their existence wears on, they become more and more like the stereotypical zombie.  But watch out for the fresh ones!
  • Mental Ability:  These zombies are usually only obsessed with feeding, and can be tricked and out maneuvered.  However, as more and more zombies enter the area, their intelligence scales exponentially.  This means that when a large horde comes together, they can reason and create ambushes and single monsters would be unable to do.
  • Mode of Infection:  Two viruses designed to kill cancer cells and the common cold were combined and produced a "super bug" that caused zombieism.  The standard modes of infection apply here, so don't forget to protect those mucous membranes!
  • Method of Disposal:  Brain death.
I hope this short study of the zombie in popular media will help prepare you for when the dead rise from their graves.  Good luck!


      1. Hey Nick, I've been following you for a little while now and am enjoying your posts! I wanted to pass along the Bodacious Blogging Book Reviews award to you. It's a little girly looking but it's the thought that counts, right! If you want to pick it up and participate head over to my blog: Have a great day!