Editor’s note: We know it’s been a really, really long time since we posted here. Sorry about that. Site master Phil Hornshaw recently made a cross-country move from the suburbs of Detroit, Mich., to Los Angeles. Things have been a little hectic. Our apologies.
Recently, I was wandering the Internet trying to think of things to blog about here – my recent 2,500-mile move having left me without nearly any DVDs to speak of, including films of the undead variety – and I stumbled on a forum question in which someone was interested to learn exactly why it is that zombies seek out and devour the living.
Of course, I immediately thought, I can answer that!
But there are plenty of questions as to the inner workings of the zombie. Having read widely on the subject, I thought I might answer a few of the most common and most weird on the blog, one at a time. Feel free to leave comments about your own takes on these answers – most are derivative of my own experience and opinions – or to drop any pressing zombie questions to which the Wrath authors might know the answers.
Why do zombies eat the living?
It’s the quintessential mark of the reanimated undead: They unfailingly, and unendingly, look to murder their still-breathing counterparts. After all, what would be scary about zombies if they weren’t unstoppable eating machines that used to be our friends and loved ones?
There are a variety of answers, depending on your sources, and depending on the sort of zombie to which the question refers, as to why zombies eat the living.
Ghouls that go around moaning “Braaaiiins” were popularized more or less exclusively by “Return of the Living Dead,” a 1985 parody and unofficial sequel to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s the first movie to have zombies exclusively seeking brains, and those monsters were slightly different than the standard Romero-style zombie that many or most films seek to emulate.
Brain-eating zombies are different from standard zombies because they are generally still just people. Zombies in “Return” even have the ability to speak, at least in the early stages of their transformation. And as one zombifying character in “Return” puts it, eating brains alleviate the pain of being a zombie. There’s some chemical found exclusively in living brains that makes dying a little less sucky.
In “The Zombie Survival Guide,” author Max Brooks comes up with a pretty solid scientific explanation for the zombie: They’re infected with a disease called Solanum, which specifically attacks the brain. The virus destroys and replicates in the frontal lobe and then mutates the brain into the zombie version of the organ. That organ then has the ability to reanimate the rest of the dead body, but doesn’t rely on the body to keep it alive.
With the brain mostly destroyed, a zombie isn’t capable of much. Nor does it operate on a level that goes far beyond very basic instinct. Most zombies can’t handle speech, have limited to no memory, and make no efforts to ensure their own survival.
About the only thing a zombie knows how to do, as an organism, is eat. As is mentioned in “Resident Evil,” the awful film adaptation of the much better video game series, zombies only retain one need: the need to feed.
Even though a zombie’s body doesn’t actually require any sustenance – it’s just a rotting hunk of flesh that’s already dead, in most cases – what’s left of the brain is operating at diminished capacity. What does the brain know to do? It knows to eat. Since it’s not actually fulfilling a need, a zombie eats until it’s incapable of continuing to eat. And since dead things no longer hold the brain’s screwy ability to pay attention, zombies stumble forward toward finding new things to munch on.
The same explanation is usually true of zombies created as the result of irradiation. Damage to the brain renders the creature unable to do much of anything else but seek out things to eat.
A generally accepted theory as to why zombies don’t turn on one another has to do with the damage done to the flesh by the virus/radiation/other zombie cause. Basically, a zombie is no longer human. Zombies recognize humans as being food on a hunter-carnivore sort of level. The alteration of a zombie’s being extends, then, to what it sees as potentially edible. In Brooks’ conception, the Solanum virus recognizes itself as being non-food.
The zombies at the center of the Wrath stories, as well as those seemingly favored by Romero, have no explanation for their existence. There’s no science, pseudo- or otherwise, that explains how a dead thing can return to life. I refer to these zombies as being demonic because, especially in the Wrath texts, there’s no other explanation for them – they’re paranormal, and possibly a manifestation of some sort of Biblical onslaught.
For demonic zombies, since there’s no science behind how they exist, there’s no science in explaining why they do what they do. Their brains, just like the rest of them, are dead. Their stomachs don’t function. Their blood doesn’t flow. Their lungs don’t expand. They don’t utilize oxygen or food for energy. They don’t process what they ingest – in fact, it generally just passes through and falls out.
Since these zombies aren’t serving any needs, real, imaginary or vestigial, there’s only one explanation for why they seek out and eat living flesh, as opposed to other zombies: They’re evil.
They’re evil. They’re a manifestation of evil. Their purpose is to be evil. They’re brought to life by evil. Demonic zombies are an embodiment of hell on Earth, and they exist for no other reason than to spread suffering and death.
Our zombies eat people because it’s horrifying.
Zombies don’t eat other zombies because there’s no point – damage done. They’re meant to be a plague on humanity, a wave of utter destruction. The title Wrath of the Damned is indicative of this philosophy for us: It’s about hell, not about food.
But that’s a matter of the story. In other works, the answer to the question is more likely: “It’s anybody’s guess.” Often, an explanation for zombies is never achieved, and therefore, an explanation of why they work the way they do isn’t quite possible.