Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101

Analysing the Undead: The Basics

Zombies! From television shows to movies to video games, they’re everywhere in popular culture. But could they actually exist? The answer to that question depends on your definition of what a zombie is and how it’s created.

Most often the term ‘zombie’ is associated with a reanimated rotting corpse whose only goal is to consume the flesh of the living. This is often triggered by an unknown mutation or infection of the brain which is passed on through the bites of those who are already infected. And everybody knows that these zombies don’t really exist; they are simply the outcome of the evolutionary mix of science fiction and the supernatural. But as science and medicine advance, so do diseases…so what’s stopping a zombie apocalypse from one day becoming a reality?


Meat Grinder zombie [Source: Gage Skidmore]

In countries such as Haiti zombies have been a reality for decades, though they are known as zombis and are not what Western culture would generally imagine when confronted by the idea. A Haitian zombi is a slave whose corps cadavre (physical body) is separated from its ti-bon anj (agency, awareness, and memory) by a boko (sorcerer)².

Local interpretation is that either by poisoning or sorcery, a young person suddenly and inexplicably becomes ill, is subsequently recognised by their family as dead, placed in a tomb, stolen by a boko (sorcerer) in the next few days, and secretly returned to life and activity but not to full awareness and agency.

[Littlewood & Douyon 1997, p.1094]

This particular type of zombie, however, has more to do with spirituality and sorcery than physiology. Does this mean then that zombies seen on TV shows such as The Walking Dead (2010-) or movies like Dawn of the Dead (2004) are an impossibility? To even attempt to answer that question, first we’d have to consider what might cause an epidemic such as zombiism.

The vaguely mentioned ‘zombie virus’ is the most common cause of zombification in most fiction. Currently, the disease that presents symptoms closest to those portrayed by zombies is the deadly rabies virus. An article³ found in Emerging Infectious Diseases displays the following table showing just how similar the characteristics between rabies and the ‘zombie virus’ are:

Rabies Comparison

[Source: Nasiruddin et al. 2013, p. 8103]

The main difference between being infected with rabies and being infected by the ‘zombie virus’ is pretty obvious: people bitten by zombies don’t ‘die’ but rather become undead, doomed to roam the world eating the flesh of the living and spreading their contagion with every bite.

Succeeding blog posts will go into detail on whether or not an apocalypse of the flesh-devouring undead might actually one day be possible.


  1. Gage Skidmore, ‘Meat Grinder zombie’ image, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, published May 24 2012, accessed March 29 2016, <>.
  2. Littlewood, R & Douyon, C 1997, ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’, The Lancet, vol. 350, no. 9084, pp. 1094-1096, accessed March 29 2016, <>.
  3. Nasiruddin, M et al. 2013, ‘Zombies—a pop culture resource for public health awareness’, Emerging infectious diseases, vol. 19, no. 5, accessed March 29 2016, <>.



One comment on “Analysing the Undead: The Basics

  1. jkanjodeakin
    April 8, 2016

    Awesome blog post! Déjà vu, I think you’ve read my blog 😉

    I was especially intrigued by your comparison of literary Zombies and the real-life Rabies virus. It got me thinking: if the Rabies virus often leads to the death of its host, then it’s counter-evolutionary for the virus. If a “living thing” (quoted because this is sometimes debated regarding viruses) wants to survive, it shouldn’t destroy its habitat.

    It may be possible for the Rabies virus to evolve in such a way that the host doesn’t die, but continues to impart the symptoms already existing (delirium, anxiety, hallucinations, muscle spasms, convulsions etc.). The increased longevity of the host would likely lead to higher success of infection to other hosts, leading to a potential epidemic (of course it could be avoided through quarantine).

    In fact, some viruses have evolved to not endanger their host. For example, the Ascovirus (DpAV4a) is a symbiotic virus that markedly increases the fitness of its host: the “Diadromus puchellus” wasp. If this virus could evolve to protect its host from death, then its not unreasonable for the Rabies virus to do the same. Thus, the birth of “zombies”. [Bigot et al, 2009]

    In a twist of irony, this particular wasp survives by laying wasp eggs inside existing butterfly & moth cocoons, and the wasp larvae feeds on the transforming caterpillar/moth (and a parasitic insect hatches instead of a beautiful butterfly). So the virus helps its host kill its host. But that’s another story.
    Bigot, Y. et al., 2009. Symbiotic Virus at the Evolutionary Intersection of Three Types of Large DNA Viruses; Iridoviruses, Ascoviruses, and Ichnoviruses. PLoS ONE, 4(7), pp.1–9.


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This entry was posted on April 8, 2016 by in Geelong - Wednesday 3pm.

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