Thinking Too Much

Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the...
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I’ve been thinking about a buddy of mine, and his love of zombie fiction.  I have another friend too, who wrote a nice piece of zombie fic.

So I started thinking about zombies.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is always trouble.

I started to think about zombies and their incessant eating.  Do they digest their food?  Metabolize the nutrients?  How does a reanimated corpse work, exactly?  Part of the creep factor for zombies is that they’re rotten, falling apart … if they have functional metabolisms, though, that’s a problem.  They would have replenishing cells, even if the ratio of replenishment to destruction is less than one to one; they’d age, but not fall apart.

Then I started thinking — if they’re not metabolizing, then what’s going all with all the flesh they eat?  Or brains, or whatever?  Let’s go with the more popular notion of just flesh consumption.  If they’re not metabolizing the food, their stomachs will get full.  When that happens, continued ingestion will lead to a burst stomach, which has all sorts of other problems associated with it.  In short, the acids in the zombie’s stomach will flood through the body cavity and do severe damage to other organs.  They’ll … well, die.  I guess.  So does this happen?  If a zombie’s left alone in a room full of meat does it self-destruct?

Lately, zombies aren’t the result of voodoo or witchcraft; they’re the result of a virus.  But the human host of said virus is dead and only the corpse remains.  Since there’s no “magic” involved with zombies anymore, there’s no room for the “it’s part of the magic” explanation for things.  I’m getting this right, aren’t I?  Any aficionados are welcome to correct here.

So the virus is reanimating the corpses.  And they’re eating a lot.  If the metabolisms aren’t working, we have an issue with undigested meat filling — and then destroying — their stomachs.  If they are metabolizing the food, then we have the matter of defecation to consider, don’t we?  I mean, they have to do something with the waste, right?  Even viruses aren’t going to be able to extract 100% utilization from human flesh; nothing can do that.  And viruses don’t tend to be colonial, setting up a “hive mind” or working in cooperation.  So … what happens?  When and where do zombies poop?

If zombies are corpses, and rotting, eventually dessication and dehydration (they never drink and there isn’t enough water in human flesh to keep a human body hydrated) are going to destroy the corpse so much the musculature won’t move the body anymore.  This is going to happen after about six days, when the body would normally dehydrate (if it were alive) and die.  Or enough cellular damage will happen through decomposition that the nerves and muscles can’t fire anymore.  Then what?  A twitching, quivering zombie in the middle of the floor?  What happens?

These aren’t smart-ass questions.  I’m not being a jerk or raining on anyone’s parade.  I’m trying to think this through.  Reason: I thought about writing a zombie short last night.  I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wondered how to do it.  I started thinking about zombies, their constant eating, metabolism, and here I am, over-thinking this as usual.  And yes, I have the same problems with all other fiction monsters — werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, etc.

So, who can clear this up?  Anyone?

Thanks for sounding off!


10 thoughts on “Thinking Too Much

  1. Hmmmm…Zombies, Vampires are the undead. As legend goes they feed on the living (Blood) not for nutrients but for revenge. Satan keeps them alive and moving to do his work. Werewolves are part human (Shapeshifters) so they have normal body functions. Frankenstein works off of electricity do that math on that one…glad I could clear this one up for you…but I have one more …What kind of bodily functions would Superman have…Zman sends

    Never heard the “revenge” thing, Zman. Thanks for that! If the supernatural’s involved here, we have no issues. And Superman … his biggest problem is getting those ridiculous trunks off AND his panty hose when he has diarrhea, I’m sure. 😉 God bless, hope you’re doing okay.

  2. This is another case of how science has ruined a perfectly good “because it’s magic, oooooh” explanation. There are some things science should just leave alone. Zombies being created by a virus is one. I can accept if the first zombie is created by magic but then some of that zombie’s tainted flesh is put into a test tube and genetically cloned or something on the back of a lab rat and distilled into the base zombie-flu what-have-you then put into a syringe and inflicted on the ignorant masses. That I’ll accept. But that first zombie has to be some sort of juju magic wreaked upon an unsuspecting corpse.

    I think it’s the only way to have this work right. You have to inject magic at some point. Have to.

    I’m just going to assume that zombies poop. But the writers and movie makers never bother to show it because it would take away some of the mystique of the zombie. I think it’s pretty obvious that some people find something interesting about zombies. But by delving into the behind the scenes life of a zombie might be like finding out the rabbit was always in the magician’s hat or that the dummy isn’t really talking, the ventriloquist can throw his voice.

    Well, yeah, there’s that. But this is how my brain works.

    As for the others. What’s your problem with the others?

    Well, think about it for a while. I’m sure you’ll reach the same issues I have.

    I just assume vampires need to consume blood the same way a vampire bat needs to consume blood. Just because Bram Stoker didn’t bother to write down when and where Count Dracula pissed, doesn’t mean he didn’t piss. The guy slept in a crate of dirt for crying out loud. He could have relieved himself in there. He also inhabited a castle. I’m not saying 15th century Romanian castles were the height of plumbing technology, but they had water closets of some sort. Or maybe, seeing as how vampires can fly, maybe they just crap midflight like the common pigeon.

    There’s a lot I could say about the involvement of religion in vampire lore, but that’s another post. This one’s about zombies. I like the pigeon idea, but vampires don’t really turn into bats anymore. They sort of just … fly. Well, maybe in Underworld, I don’t know. But LOTS of vampire lore is being done away with in favor of making vampires a sexy, cool thing instead of the hideous, God-cursed evil they were originally. And no, 15th century castles — Romanian or otherwise — did NOT have water closets, or even outhouses. They had, my boy, chamberpots. Yum.

    Frankenstein’s monster is just a bunch of body parts reanimated through electroshock therapy. Maybe Shelley’s book goes into more detail than I remember, but wouldn’t Dr. Frankenstein use some bowels and stomach that would get brought back to life as well?

    That’s fine; but same issue. The monster eats. We see it dine with a blind man in the book. It’s got to expel waste at some point. Right? You’re only making my arguments for me here.

    And werewolves, oh, werewolves crap, let me tell you, they crap. They’re just big, humanoid dogs. They’ll just lift a leg and let it go.

    So can they be fined for not scooping up? I mean, shouldn’t the human part of the werewolf be subject to having to clean up after itself? C’mon, PetSmart carries scoopers.

    And all this brings me back to a theme in my thoughts when it comes to monster fiction: the skeleton. No flesh what-so-ever, only bone. There is no way of scientifically explaining a skeleton. It’s all magic reanimation. The bones aren’t even being held together by a tangible substance. And I’ve never heard of a skeleton feasting on anything, so there’s nothing for them to crap out. Of course, there’s a shocking absence of skeleton fiction in the monster fiction department.

    It’s not just the bones, it’s the lack of nerves and a driving central processing unit too. So how do you kill it? Osteoporosis it to death?

    And also, due to 20th and 21st century censorship bodies, humans letting out waste is often not shown. Take a popular television show like Seinfeld for example. Of the four main characters, how often do we see them go to the bathroom? Several times we see George enter the room with the assumption he’s taking a dump, once we see Kramer try to go only to fail and get constipated. But it is all off screen. I don’t think we ever see Jerry or Elaine use a toilet for any of the toilet’s intended purposes. Peeing and pooing just isn’t something the public: a) can see; and b) really wants to see. It just doesn’t make for stimulating entertainment.

    Oh, really? Explain 2girls1cup then.

    • Are you saying that 2girls1cup was stimulating entertainment?

      No, not at all. You said it can’t be seen and no one WANTS to see it. 2girls1cup proves you wrong on that point.

  3. So you truly have been bitten!

    LOL, no bud — I was thinkin’ about you and this came up. 😉

    The essence of zombieism breaks down like a triangle so we’ll start at the top with the root cause. Magic, witchcraft or voodoo, and non-religious influence are the two root causes of zombieism. I address the non-religious influences first.


    When it comes to this type of zombieism many purists will argue that these aren’t true zombies but that is really up to the reader or viewer in the long run. The first known reference to zombieism (or form there of) being created by something other than religion was in ‘I am Legend’ by Richard Matheson. This point is highly argued though as the original novel portrayed the zombies as vampires and so did the first movie adaptation of the novel with Vincent Price, ‘The Last Man on Earth’. The novel was also remade as ‘Omega Man’ with Charlton Heston and ‘I am Legend’ with Will Smith but both of these moves portrayed the villains as zombie like creatures.

    That’s interesting; but if Matheson’s monsters were vampiric and not zombies, can this really be counted as a work of zombie fiction? The movie from ’08, by the way, shows what Falcon called “zompires” — zombie/vampire hybrids.

    In my opinion the first movie to portray zombies created by something other than religion would be ‘Night of the Living Dead’ by George Romero. These zombies were cause by an object from outer space and was paid homage to in the movie ‘Shaun of the Dead.’

    Lots of zombuffs agree, since it was Venusian radiation and not voodoo or witchcraft. 🙂

    Other movies including the subsequent ‘… of the Dead’ movies, the ‘Resident Evil’ trilogy and the two ’28’ movies are all based on viruses causing the infection instead of being based in religion.

    In my opinion, I believe this type of zombieism was created for artistic license to free up authors to have their own concepts of how a zombie is created.

    Fair enough; I’d argue, however, that this ISN’T the case, since ALL zombies come about the same way now. Virus outbreaks, mutated, generally by human experimentation, which somehow escapes the lab or have unforeseen side effects (despite the seven year testing and trial period the FDA regulates). Bryce’s biological terrorism angle was a unique one, in terms of the outbreak cause.


    Voodoo and Witchcraft. Wow. This type I have found, from my readings, is the truest form, as the zombie is created not by accident but by curse or magic. This type of zombie is to serve a purpose of some sort for the conjurer or priest/priestess.

    The voodoo stories tend to stem from the slave trade through the Caribbean just as the religion itself does. It has been found over the years though that zombieism through voodoo actually stems from a chemical concoction based on the puffer fish. You can learn more about this by watching the movie ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ which is based on the true story of a researcher. In essence this is a neurological poison.

    I knew about the Afro-Caribbean roots of zombism, and I think that provides the most liberties in zombie fiction, personally. But wasn’t Wade Davis pretty much discredited in the late 80s/early 90s? Am I wrong there? And what’s with all these viral zombism stories? Doesn’t the FDA’s 7-year testing program pretty much ensure zombies aren’t mass produced by a drug or disease treatment utilizing mutated viruses? Just sayin’.

    Witchcraft. Well, I’ll tell ya what bud, use your imagination. That is really a blank canvas.

    Amen. I really should get back to Witch Hunt.

    Now we can delve into physiology.

    From the writing standpoint, this is up to you. There are no hard and fast rules to this and the truly unique methods used in the physiology is what makes a zombie novel standout. I read a short last night by zombiebunnies over on the horror mall where headshots did NO damage to the zombie. I enjoyed this even though it was different because how do you kill a zombie? Trauma to the brain.

    So if that’s eliminated, don’t you have an unstoppable force? Kinda takes out the suspense, doesn’t it? 😉

    Which leads me into the ‘accepted’ forms of physiology. There are NO living parts in a zombie other than the brain. The flesh desiccates and the body withers. It is only the brain and the basic need to feed. What is the most basic form of food in the human brain? Going back to primal instinct it is meat. Zombies created in the non-religious methods will typically be near humans. Living buffets.

    But once again this is entirely up to the author and how they want to portray it.

    So in conclusion, a zombie has no metabolism therefore the thought of a stomach, if it is whole and full, exploding it’s contents would be accurate. Zombie’s do stop after awhile. They can freeze (that’s why you head to the far north) and they will eventually fall to the ground and lay there just as if you had shot their legs off.

    Interesting. Zombies have an expiration date. Ha! Whoddathunk it?

    What it really boils down to is what YOU want to do. That’s what makes each story unique.

    Hope this helps!

    It does! Thanks, bud!

  4. Actually shooting them in the head is the only to ‘kill’ them but shooting their legs off would immobilize them pretty much.

    But you said you just read a story where a headshot does nothing. So now there’s no way to kill them at all, right? You have to turn them into hot dogs by shooting off their limbs? What about decapitation? Will that work? Or does the head stay alive?

    As for Wade Davis, when I was in Haiti in the early 90’s they were warning us to watch out for the people carrying purple pouches because that’s what they do. Voodoo zombies don’t feed unless told to and even then it’s not on human flesh. They really just become a mindless Renfield.

    I know the stuff they use is dangerous. I know also that in the late 80s/early 90s there were plenty of scientists who felt Davis’ work was both unethical and unscientific. I never followed the case, though. Interesting about being warned — who did the warning, out of curiosity?

    The key term you used in your argument was ‘now.’ Sure that’s how all the movies and books work ‘now’ but I have some truly classic literature about zombies dating back into the 1800’s that refers to them more as revenants than anything else. The point is that it’s up to the writer to decide how he wants to do it. What type of zombie is he trying to portray? I think voodoo zombies can be MUCH more suspenseful (like the OLD zombie movies with Karloff and others) instead of some virus whacked out zombie chasing me through a city.

    I wasn’t trying to argue. You know a LOT more about this than I do. I’m just noticing the trend. Every, and I mean without exception EVERY, zombie-related anything — movie, book, short story, video game, whatever — has a virus, generally a human-mutated one, at its premise. It’s old. Hackneyed. Seeing a return to magic-induced zombism would be awesome, actually. And a little easier to digest … no pun intended.

    I think zombies with purposes OTHER than eating human flesh would be an interesting concept. It makes me wonder: if you wrote a book about a zombie using the classic model of a zombie and DIDN’T use the word “zombie” would the audience recognize it? I don’t think so. Hm.

    In the long run it’s all fiction. You want to write a story it’s up to you to portray the zombie in the way that best fits the character.

    I get that, and this discussion’s been very eye-opening. I just tend to over-think this stuff, like I said. But I sure appreciate the time and attention you gave to trying to help, DZ, and I thank you from the bottom of cold, black, hardened heart. 🙂 You’re one o’ the good ones.

    In many ways it is different than vampire or werewolf stories. You don’t need to tell how they were made in that type of story however in zombie stories it is much more critical because the zombie comes about quickly and dies off quickly where as a vampire or werewolf could be centuries old.

    Does it really matter? I trust your opinion here because you’re so much more entrenched in the lore than I am (or likely ever will be). But it seems to be a story, well-written, doesn’t need an explanation of where the zombies come from, or what caused it, or any of that. Just like a werewolf or vampire, if the characters carry the day and the story’s good enough, the reader might be content to feel just like the MC(s), who may or may NOT ever find out the origin. Just a thought.

  5. Hmmm, so the question here is if zombie have peristalsis. If not, then nothing gets moved through their digestive system. But if they DO, then were do the nutrients go? Why do they rot and decay?

    Here’s my take on the whole thing…
    Zombies can in fact have peristalsis in the basest sense – it’s getting material from Point A (mouth) to Point B (well, um, you know). Zombie takes a chunk out of a human, chews, swallows, repeats. That stuff has to go somewhere or as you pointed out, its stomach will explode and it’s bad news for the zombie.

    The muscular contractions moving the stuff through the system would be inline with the muscular control they have to move. Different muscle fibers, but still muscle firing. The secretion of other systems wouldn’t necessarily be dependent on them, I guess, so that could work.

    My theory is that the overall process of digestion continues to occur except that the small and large intestines no longer perform their roles to take the nutrients out of the chyme and thus nourish the body. It’s kind of like a Zombie Olestra.

    So the food moves, but isn’t digested. There are certain medical conditions in which this occurs also, so it’s not unheard of.

    From there, the waste just sort of ‘leaves’ the zombie body as it shuffles after fresh meat. Zombies are well documented for their fetid odor – part rotting flesh, why not part bodily fluids?

    Dropping little, rotting zombie poop-pellets as they go and expelling urine? Well, probably not MUCH urine, since they don’t drink, but still. Not a bad explanation overall. And this would also explain the devastating and continuous hunger. They’re not getting ANY nutritional value from their food. If their secretion systems aren’t working they might not have any enzymes in their saliva, so even chewing provides nothing. They have to keep getting more food. I’d still think they could kill themselves by gorging — the muscle movement of the intestines is terribly slow — but DZ says they can eat themselves to death so that all fits. Nice.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for making me really use my brain this afternoon!

    Any time. 🙂

  6. There was yet another scene I had in mind that never made it into Oasis where a huge group of zombies gathers around a natural spring in the center of town. They dip their whole heads into the water to get a drink.

    Too bad you left it out, bud. That would’ve helped a lot of it go down, because in a place like the deserts of the southwestern US, I don’t know if someone not replenishing water will even last the full six days you’re supposed to be able to hold up.

    UPDATE: I’m sorry, Bryce, that came off snarky and I didn’t mean it that way AT ALL. What I mean is, it would have resolved THIS point for me at THIS juncture. But it in no way harmed your story, which was pure fun and excitement, and I enjoyed it, every line. Sorry ’bout that; I meant no offense at all.

  7. Isn’t the human body roughly 60 – 70% water? Couldn’t zombies get enough water to prevent severe hydration through eating human flesh alone?

    Just a thought… although if you follow my theory then zombies aren’t extracting any nutrients through digestion.

    Actually, I think it’s about 80% water, but so is most other carbon life on earth. And if you don’t drink water and just eat raw meat — human or otherwise — you will, in fact, die of dehydration. You gotta drink. ‘S how the Lord made us.

  8. The decapitation thing is interesting. In zombiebunnies story I would say the head would live. In Resident Evil it will not. Just depends on how the author sets the story.

    I think the first thing people need to do here is standardize the rules. It would help a lot. There should be a canon, even if it’s bastardized all to heck later … like vampire canon. *Sigh* Never mind.

    Zombie fiction also tends to all be about the ’cause’ of the infection. I’m running through my head right now of all the movies and books I’ve read and I can only think of a couple short stories that DON’T reveal the cause. In many ways vampires and werewolves (and most other monsters) are more ‘natural’ than a zombie. Something caused them to become zombies OR rise from the grave. What the hell caused it. In most things I’ve seen or read you know right in the beginning or at the end what caused the outbreak. Almost never in the middle do you find out and DAMN near never do you not find out.

    I guess that’s just part of zombie fiction — you gotta give a why. Although I’d question whether or not doing something different is due in a genre that’s becoming old hat. Not knowing, as I stated, might be nice. Keep the reader guessing or let them use their imagination; or better yet, set up a sequel.

    As to who warned us when we were in Haiti? Ask me next time we are on the phone. Not something I want to put in print on the ‘Net.

    Sorry; didn’t mean to pry, bud. Not an issue, I was only curious.

    Now regarding what my wife’s point was about muscle contraction. ‘Resident Evil’ actual describes the zombies as having the only the basics of motor functions, never any memory, and the basic of needs, the need to feed. So I don’t see why the stomach and digestive muscles couldn’t continue to work. Or maybe they just look like they are feeding and they are really getting to the bodily fluids through the meat?

    Okay, but I come back to not being able to get enough water for their OWN systems vicariously; at some point they have to drink. This need would be a stronger one than hunger, frankly. It’s more urgent, and immediately life-threatening. And what’s scary about a zombie walking around looking for bottles of spring water to devour? But yeah, I don’t have a problem with the digestive muscles operating. Isn’t part of that basic need, however, the digestion of food too? I think we end up in a Catch-22 with this one.

    You are correct though in saying that a new story about a zombie with purpose would be a great shift. And not caused by a virus or something else like that. I think a lot of mine and your discussion really do point to the fact that horror needs to return to it’s roots. Suspense and purpose as opposed to it just happened and here is how.

    Well, I think some aspects of horror certainly do. There’s plenty of room for everything, but after a while the same cliches become tiresome in their desperation to avoid standards and roots. Vampires being unaffected by anything faith-based is popular now (and has been for some time) but it makes no sense in light of the roots of the vampire legends. Enmity with God is a central part of that legend, being cursed by God and everything representing Him. And as far as I can tell, no one wants to believe in God anymore, so no one wants to return the vampire to its roots no matter HOW tired it gets. Sometimes deviation is good, and gives fresh new areas to explore. When those areas get tired and well-trod, routine, cliched — time to move forward again. At least I think so. So it will be interesting to see where guys like you, Bryce, Wellington, etc. take the zombie lore. For the moment it’s stalled and tired.

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