Monday, 26 November 2012

The Walking Bred?

Good day to all you fine Zombiology Students,

I’m sure many of you are fans of the Walking Dead¸ whether in the medium of a comic book, novel, computer game or TV series – it’s truly impossible to avoid… and why would you want to? In any form it’s become one of my favourite Zombie worlds since George Romero gave birth to the modern version.

Who wants ice cream? Daddy's buying ice cream!
Being a scientist I’m interested in what Zombieism would be like in real life, and what elements we see in fiction would actually work in reality. The Walking Dead has thrown up a few brain teasing questions that I’m keen to answer. So in today’s ZomBlog I’m going to investigate their version of Zombieism, specifically trying to figure out these two puzzles…

How is the disease being transmitted?
Whether their claim that everyone has the disease, but not everyone has shown symptoms, is really possible?

Why won't you just love me?
Whether intentional or not, Walking Dead makes the clever decision of not explicitly telling us what is causing the disease, making it more fun to theorise on.

"Internally, we don't know where the zombie outbreak started, how to cure it, anything like that," – Glen Mazzara, Show Runner, Walking Dead (TV Series)

“...the rule is: WHATEVER it is that causes the zombies, is something everyone already has. If you stub your toe, get an infection and die ... you turn into a zombie." – Robert Kirkman, Creator, Walking Dead

In the TV series even a CDC disease specialist whose been studying the outbreak for months hasn’t been able to figure out the causative agent.

“It could be microbial, viral, parasitic, fungal…”                                                                                                                     – Dr. Edwin Jenner, Walking Dead, Season 1 Episode 6

Animal, vegetable, mineral ... wait ... what was the question? 
From observation we can make some assumptions about its transmission:

The disease seems to spread through saliva. People contract it after being bitten by infected people. This is much like Rabies. A Rabies infected animal has the virus in its nerves and saliva, and can transmit it to a human through biting. In rarer cases, the animal can spread the virus when its saliva comes in contact with a person's mucous membranes (moist skin surfaces, like the mouth or inner eyelids), or broken skin such as a cut, scratch, bruise or open wound.

In Walking Dead, no one appears to have been infected from indirect contact. For example, the survivors must spend a massive amount of time off camera cleaning up the biological debris left by each action scene. This would inevitably include a few litres of Walker drool. Yet never has a character turned after embarking upon a heavy session of mopping, when perhaps, in the rarest of cases they should. (Exciting idea for Season 4? No expensive make-up or effects, just a mop and 250ml of dirty drool!?!)

Rabies has never been found in blood, perhaps it’s the same with the Walking Dead Zombie disease. This would explain why, despite the characters flip-flopping between being careful to avoid contact with Zombie blood and getting splashed on like a kid at Sea World, they don’t get the illness. 

I told you, this episode we stay clean of Walker bits, next season we'll be like kids in a fountain. Visualise the fountain with me Rick. Visualise. 
Alongside the saliva based transmission we also get a shocking revelation from the only bona fide medical expert we meet in the TV series, shortly before killing himself, when he utters the terrifying line, “every survivor is infected.”

How can everyone be infected but not turn?

An interesting comparison is latent tuberculosis infection. Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Some people who are infected by it do not develop the active illness. It simply remains inactive and stays that way in the majority of cases – this is known as latent tuberculosis infection. For a small percentage of people it can eventually become active for a variety of reasons; if their immune system is damaged or compromised, if they become malnourished, or simply when they become older. So our Walking Dead characters may have latent Zombieism infection. A major biological event, such as a severe trauma, or being near death, may be what is activating it.

We've really got to stop letting the Daleks make these posters...
We’ve managed to answer both of our questions today. How is the Walking Dead Zombie disease being spread? It could be like Rabies, in the saliva of the infected Walkers. This would explain why getting covered in blood and guts doesn’t turn anyone. But realistically the characters should be equally afraid of being licked by a Walker as being bitten by one.

Finally, we discovered that it is possible for us humans to be infected by a disease that lies inactive, waiting for certain conditions to get it going. A terrifying thought, I’ll not sleep tonight! 

I do hope you enjoyed this entry, and if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind Zombies, do send your questions to, post them in our Book of Faces ( or get in touch on our website

Stay Frosty,

Doctor Austin

Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

Zombies versus Vampires

Welcome back Zombiology Students,

It’s a busy time here at the Zombie Institute. We’ve just finished developing a brand new tutorial Worst Case Scenario that premiered at the London Horror Festival during Halloween. Right now our team are organising a UK tour so do keep your eyes peeled for that. This has meant I’ve had less time to write articles for the ZomBlog, but I’m making up for it now by finally completing this Zombies versus Vampires blog to which many of you contributed your thoughts.  

As you’re no doubt aware this year saw countless news stories appearing relating to cannibalistic attacks. These stories have inspired the term ‘Zombie Summer’ and are almost always cited as being indicative of Zombies, leading many to believe that a Zombie outbreak is in progress, or at the very least, building up steam. In a previous blog I discussed this, and to reiterate, they are not Zombie-like at all. However, whilst talking with my friends at the Zombie Shop, they made an interesting point, “...was there an influx of 'real' vampire attacks after the release of 'Interview with a [sic] Vampire'?”

Before we start, can I get you a drink? No. Wait. I meant something to eat. Damn it! It's the Murdoch interview all over again!
Has the prevalence of the Zombie genre (e.g. The Walking Dead, Zombie events, walks, etc) caused reporters to become obsessed, and see Zombies everywhere? If so, why hasn’t the Twilight series created a similar pattern for Vampires? Or as Zombie Shop point out, did Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire evoke such a response when it was published, or again when adapted as film?

It’s important to state here that I am not examining ‘real’ Vampire stories, those that pertain to describe the exploits of a mythical being who feeds on blood. I for one am not an expert in Vampirology. I am merely looking for news stories that attribute unusual assaults/murders to Vampires, or set these stories in that context.

Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976, and the later film adaption in 1994. During my research I couldn’t locate many reports of Vampire-like attacks following either of these periods.

This may be due to the lack of Internet, it was a simpler time, where not every news story was posted online and kept available until the end of the universe. However, in 1998, 22 year old Joshua Rudiger ran around the streets of San Francisco slashing homeless victim’s throats and drinking their blood. He claimed to be a 2,000 year old Vampire, and a Samurai.  

There are a wide range of such stories available in the 21st century, amazingly some very recent stories are far more extreme than that of the Miami Cannibal. Yet we haven’t seemed to have heard of them.

Take the case in Florida of Josephine Smith, a 22 year old woman. In September 2011 she viciously attacked an elderly homeless man, biting chunks of flesh from his face, lips, and arms. Her final words before beginning the assault were, “I am a vampire, I am going to eat you.” When arrested Smith claimed to have no recollection of the attack. This story is very similar to the recent Miami Cannibal case. The victim in both instances was a homeless person, both involved biting, and both attackers carried out the attack naked. Yet this story apparently failed to capture the public’s eye. Smith wasn’t even deemed worthy of her own nickname as the ‘Florida Vampire’ or even ‘Bitey Lady’.

And this is by no means the only one;

May, 2006: A 15 year old girl attacked three classmates in New York, slashing their throats, biting them, and attempting to drink their blood. The ‘vampire’ was charged with second degree assault as a minor and released. Read in full:

December, 2010: A 20 year old in Alabama attempted to burn a ‘V’ into a teenager’s forehead, the arresting Detective described him as, “a want-to-be vampire”. Read in full: 

August, 2011: An 18 year old man appeared in court accused of, amongst other things, cutting young woman, biting them, and telling them he was a vampire. Read in full:

August, 2011: A 19 year old Texas man, who claimed to be a 500 year old vampire (from Hell), broke into a woman’s apartment and bit her, then fled shouting that he, “didn’t want to have to feed on humans”. Read in full:

June, 2012: A San Diego man with ‘vampire teeth’ was arrested for attacking a 55 year old homeless man. Read in full:

I'm often mistaken for R-Patz
June, 2012: In Denver a woman was arrested after attacking two people in a convenience store, groping and biting one man, then biting the female cashier. Read in full:

A notable difference between these stories and their Zombie counterparts is tone. When reading the Vampire stories it’s obvious that they don’t paint the ‘Vampire’ as being real, but rather as an (often) disturbed person. Yet many of the Zombie articles cite the incidents as being clear proof that a Zombie is real and that a ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ is beginning.       

A fellow Zombie researcher, Louise, had an interesting perspective:

Eating human flesh, particularly the face, in public places is a bit more terrifying than draining blood in public. Plus, those acting like 'zombies' seem unconscious of what they're doing, whereas the 'vampires' are probably very conscious of their actions ... which, to me, make it a little more scary.

Another student of mine, Mike, had this to say:

The main issue is the background of each of the two types of story, vampiric behaviour has always been seen as erotic, personal, and this is why people are attracted to the whole vampire thing due to books and movies. The vampire has lost its ‘darkness’ and is more acceptable now as such the media likes is shock value and that's why the ‘zombie’ stories still loom large in the media. There is nothing sexy about eating someone’s face.

However, fans of the film Zombie Strippers may disagree with the last sentence.  

Ultimately I haven’t determined a single reason as to why assault stories framed as ‘Zombie Attacks’ are more prominent and have a tendency to go wildly viral compared to those described as ‘Vampire Attacks’. But I do like the following idea from one of my top students, Flora, on how we can make the Zombie a more attractive story in the press:

Zombies lack the glamorous image the press likes to promote, but do get the 'shock, horror, yuk' response. Redress the balance by getting Gok to do a zombie make-over, thus making them appear more on-trend and ask Alistair Campbell to do some negative spin about the more gruesome vampire activity, showing them in their worst possible light in a Sunday newspaper expose. Suddenly zombies will be the ones to get the positive headlines and vampires will be so last year they won't get a mention, except in a short disparaging paragraph on page 10.

I'll leave you with this brain tickler from the enigmatic Philosoraptor...

If any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do send your questions to or post them in our Book of Faces (

The truth may well be out there,

Doctor Austin

Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

Monday, 9 July 2012

Zombie Cities

Welcome back Zombiologists,

I’m continuing to enjoy my summer break and having a lovely rest from Bunsen burners and overly emotional Janitors (sorry Davey). So with science firmly on the back Bunsen burner, today I’ll be reviewing the new Zombie graphic novel from Silver Fox Comics & Sorab Del Rio, Zombie Cities.   
Zombie Cities is a compilation of seven unique zombie tales set in cities across the world. It was written, directed and created by Sorab and visually brought to life by a small team of highly talented artists. The stories are excellent and regularly hilarious. For example, an Aussie Dad rescues his daughter from a Zombie horde, and then proceeds to endanger her by insisting she film him in action for the ‘You Tube’, a news reporter tries to be the first to interview a Zombie live on air, and the frequent use (or perhaps abuse) of George Clooney, all amused me greatly.

Zombie Cities makes clever use of world locations, and world figures. They have certainly taken advantage of their freedom from costly sets, and digital effects, that are obstacles for equivalent movies. Events are set against landmarks from Sydney to London, and all are very well drawn. I was most impressed with downtown London, where Big Ben stands behind a burning red bus and zombies are lumbering forward.
Many of the stories are self-contained, whilst others leave you wanting to know what happens next;

President Obama features in Yes We Can Kill Zombies struggling to come to terms with leading a Zombie infested nation. Here Mr. President is outclassed at shooting by his First Lady, a very nice touch. I won’t spoil it by revealing the end, but the title does say it all. If I Can Kill Em’ Here, I Can Kill Em’ Anywhere is a feel good story (something that in the Zombie genre is rather unique in itself) about Ronald Crump, a homeless man who makes good during the Zombie outbreak thanks to a very unusual law that’s put in place in New York City. In Horror at Harajuku we get a fascinating insight into Japanese teen culture as a group of girls head to fashion capital Harajuku for a day out. Only of course to encounter Zombies, and naturally, George Clooney.

My personal favourite has to be God Save the Queen. I must admit my bias here. As Zombiologist Royal to the Her Majesty the Queen I do have a love for all things Elizabeth II. It opens with a brilliant reference to Earl Grey Tea, one of my Top Ten Teas. I showed it to my friends at Tea Club last week and my how we all laughed. I realise the tea based reference isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, (ha!) but to tea lovers such as myself it was a nice addition. It truly is a great zombie tale. Prince’s Harry and William make a great shadowy duo as they command a ruthless Queen’s Guard. We’re left on a cliff-hanger, so here’s hoping we see more of the Queen and her Corgi’s in future editions. 
Overall Zombie Cities is an excellent series of contemporary zombie stories. It strikes a good balance between humour, emotion and horror, with enough new twists on the zombie genre to make it stand out against the horde. Zombie Fans should absolutely purchase this fine novel. My Tea Club gave it five biscuits out of five, but I didn’t think that measurement system was appropriate in this instance.

Please do visit the Zombie Cities Website and Book of Faces Site.

Remember, if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do send your questions in to or post them on our Book of Faces ( My wee break is almost up, so I’ll be back next time with a spectacularly scientific Zombie Science Blog.

Stay fresh and loose,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Remaining Days

Greetings Zombiologists,

It’s that marvellous time of year when our current students have all graduated and our new students are still to arrive. This allows me the benefit of ‘chillax-ing’ as they call it (I think) and take a break from my academic & scientific duties. So for the next two ZomBlogs’ I’ll be having a look at some of the more creative contributions to the Zombie World.  

Today I’ve been listening to the wonderful new album Remaining Days, from the immensely talented Aaron Stoquert. Aaron is a New York folk artist who specialises in his own unique brand of eerie melodies. All of which are based on the undead and the emotions they might feel. It is this inimitable quality that I believe makes Aaron’s contribution to the Zombie genre truly distinctive.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Aaron’s work. Some time ago I discussed his EP, Run for your Life, in this very blog. And fans will be pleased to hear that Aaron’s new album doesn’t disappoint.

We open with The Guests, a haunting piano melody crackling out amongst a blanket of gritty distortion. Whilst there are no vocal lyrics, it speaks volumes, setting an emotional scene that one can visualise playing out across a Zombie apocalyptic landscape.

But this unnerving peace is quickly shattered by Flesh and Bone, an almost threatening ballad where one feels overtly intimidated by an oncoming Zombie horde, “we're coming for you, say goodbye or hope to god, that days are spared you.”

Only one track, Last Day, returns from the original EP. But it does so in splendid form, sounding bigger and fuller than its predecessor.

A particular favourite song of mine is The Front Lines, a track that is the official theme of War Against the Walking Dead, a book by Sean T. Page. Sean is well known to us here in his role as Minister for Zombies (UK), and this track truly captures his writing. From the military beat of the drums, to the enduring melody, by listening you enter the mind of someone trapped and fighting for their life against the undead.

I’ll admit that I am by no means a musical connoisseur, nor expert, but I know what I like, and Remaining Days is one album I truly love. Aaron has really stepped up from his EP, bringing a bigger, more developed, sound and range to his new work, whilst not losing the individuality that I feel makes him a unique voice.

And do join me next time when I’ll be reviewing Zombie Cities, a new graphic novel from Sorab Del Rio and Silver Fox Comics.                 

Remember, if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do send your questions in to or post them on our Facebook page ( I might be relaxing for a little bit, but I’ll be back into science mode soon.

Best wishes,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now



Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Face Off

Good day Zombie Science Fans,

In the past few weeks the world has been buzzing with stories of potential zombie incidents. Only last week I was on US radio reassuring my American cousin’s that they are safe, and have had many requests to explain what’s going on via the old Book of Faces.

The body of Mr. Rudy (naked) and his victim Mr. Poppo.
It all began with a chap in Miami USA, who spent almost 20 minutes eating a homeless man’s face before being shot dead by police. From there the floodgates opened, not a day passed without someone eating someone’s something, and journalists attributing it all as evidence that the zombie apocalypse is nigh.

Now, no one more than I would welcome the arrival of zombies. Mostly because if they remain theoretical I will have wasted my entire scientific career. But also because it would make it easier for our Institute to acquire research funding.

So are these incidents indicative of Zombieism spreading amongst the population?


And here’s why.

Journalists regularly use the word zombie in their articles to sell more papers, zombie-banks, zombie-youth, zombie-countries, etc. In fact I’ve written about this in a previous blog. It amazes me, given what we know of the industry, that people still believe anything that’s written in a newspaper. But that’s away from the subject.

If we put zombie in the headline twice we'll sell double the amount. Throw in our integrity too. 
The three main ‘supposed zombie’ stories cited have been; Eugene Rudy AKA the Miami Cannibal, who ate up to 75% of the homeless Mr. Poppo’s face before police stopped him, the Baltimore student who murdered his housemate and ate parts of his brain and heart, and lastly, the Hackensack man who stabbed himself dozens of times and threw his protruding intestines, as well as pieces of skin, at the SWAT Team who arrived to help him.

Sack, right, not slash. My bad. Let me wipe those intestines off. Officer.
Now we can certainly understand where the zombie angle comes from for the first case, it maybe just works for the second, but certainly not the third.

In the Miami case the attacker showed no regard for wearing clothing, consumed his victim raw, did not respond when talked to, and did not demonstrate self-preservation (ignoring the officer’s request to desist or be shot). These are all behaviours a true zombie may have.

The second case is tenuous at best. The murder may or may not have been premeditated, but the keeping of the body parts most certainly was a conscious choice. Zombies do not have the mental capacity to plan or carry out such a scenario.

The third case is definitely disturbing, but hardly zombie like. A zombie would struggle to use a weapon, has little interest in self-harm, and doesn’t have the coordination to throw an object.

So if the cause isn’t Zombieism, what is it?

There are a variety of possibilities. The Miami Cannibal was thought to have been high on a designer drug called ‘bath salts’. The effects of this drug are consistent with his behaviour, high temperature (leading to removal of clothing), hallucinations, and violent behaviour. However this has not yet been corroborated by toxicology reports.

Man, I'm so high right now.
The second case was one of pure cannibalism. Cannibalism is in itself a mystery. We do not know what makes some people choose to eat other people. We have yet to identify anything in the brain, damage or otherwise, that can explain why it happens. You won’t find cannibalism in any psychiatric handbook or any instances of it being a defence for the behaviour in court.

Lastly, the third case was carried out by someone who had a history of mental problems.

In conclusion, none of these events provide us with any evidence to support the arrival of the Zombieism disease.

Many people are citing bath salts as being a drug that makes people into zombies. However there have been countless bath salt fuelled incidents reported; such as a man who broke into a random family’s house and put up their Christmas decorations, or, another man who was found wearing women’s lingerie, standing over the body of a dead goat. These tales just scratch the surface of ‘high on bath salts’ news stories. Yet it is only the ones that can be vaguely pinned on Zombieism that get the same attention as that of the Miami Cannibal.
So the next time you read something discussing a supposed incidence of Zombieism, check the source. If it has been written by a journalist and not a zombiologist and/or scientist, you may want to pass it directly to my colleague, Mr. Shredder (the appliance, not the Turtles baddie).

Ha ha Doctor Austin, I'm where all those manuscripts you send to Brian Cox end up!
If any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do send your questions in to or post them on our Facebook page (

The truth may well be out there,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.
For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now



Friday, 27 April 2012

Hypothetical Hunger

Welcome once again Zombiology Students,

I was contacted by Albert who asked me the following;

“Say there was a zombie apocalypse and all humans were eradicated.  What would the zombies do after they have eaten all the human brains and (as far as I know) depleted their only source of nutrients?  Is there any knowledge regarding this topic?  They wouldn't just starve themselves out, would they?”

But we haven't thought about food security, not one meeting.
Before I can answer it we must first establish some points about Zombieism. Regular visitors will be aware of our Institute’s current Zombieism research and can skip this section, but for those of you not familiar with it, read on. Here at the ZITS we believe that zombie’s will most likely be caused by a new type of prion disease, similar to vCJD AKA human mad cow disease. Unlike movie zombies, sufferers will not eat only human flesh or brains, but any food source they come across. In fact there is presently nothing that can occur in a human to make them only want to eat human flesh or brains. Genuine Zombieism is highly unlikely to make a person become clinically dead, then return to life, referred to in fiction as undead. They would in reality be a human who has contracted an illness with specific symptoms. They would not live indefinitely, but wither and die as the disease progressed. How long that would take very much depends on the causal agent.  Furthermore, prion disease is very rare in humans, to date there have been less than 200 cases of vCJD, so at the moment it is very unlikely we will reach a scenario whereby there were no humans left who were not infected.

Of course there is no guarantee that Zombieism will be the result of a prion disease, it might be a new strain of virus or a previously unseen parasite. So to answer Albert’s question we can widen our net to include these biological agents. The fact that you are alive and reading this means that there has not yet been a disease that has wiped out the human race, or left only infected humans, unless such a disease occurred a very long time ago to a different species of Homo genus.   

The Homo Simponus perhaps ...?
If we look at the most deadly disease pandemics that have occurred we can try and seek a comparison. The Spanish Flu may be the deadliest pandemic in history, with somewhere between 20 – 200 million people dying because of it. Then there is the infamous bubonic plague that throughout its history has claimed the lives of some 200 million victims. Now whilst these diseases have produced a tremendous loss of life it is worth bearing in mind that the human population is presently just over seven billion. So Zombieism would have to be particularly vicious to turn us all.

But let’s think hypothetically, say Zombieism did spread to the entire population of the world, how long would the food supply last? We produce around seven billion tons of food each year. If everyone in the world has succumbed to Zombieism, it is safe to say no one will be producing any more. It is very difficult to get exact figures to work with here. It is hard to know how much food is readily accessible to the zombies. Some may be in cans they cannot open, and as a zombie isn’t exactly a gourmet chef, they’re going to be going for raw food only. Zombies may also consume each other when they get desperate.

'We've had some times zombie-ing together Bill but I can't take your moaning one minute more'.
The average person/zombie needs between 2,000 – 3,000 calories a day. In 2003, the world produced 2,809 calories per person per day, but by the end of 2006 there was only enough of a reserve to last the world 57 days. I haven’t been able to source data more recent than that, but we could assume that we’re running a careful balance these days whereby we only just keep producing enough food to get by, without having large reserves. So by the time we reached a point where there were only zombies, and no one producing more food, these zombies would run out of food in probably a matter of weeks, maybe even days.

How long the zombies will ultimately survive from there depends on how long the disease takes to kill them, assuming they don’t die of starvation, or dehydration, first. With a prion disease we estimate a person surviving three to six months after full onset. A more aggressive biological agent, like a virus, may act even quicker.

So in conclusion, the answer to the question, ‘what would the zombies do after they have depleted their only source of nutrients’ is ... they would die. However it is unlikely we’d reach a scenario where everybody was infected by Zombieism in the first place, and if we do there’s no need to worry, because you’d soon be dead.

As always, if there is anything you want to know about the real science behind zombies, do get in touch. We’ll always do our best to answer your questions, no matter how difficult or strange. You can contact the Institute at

Best wishes,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A Fission of Zombies

Bottom of Form
Greetings Zombiology Students,

I got an email from Leigh who asked, “What would you think to be the least likely theory of zombies?”

Zombiology students out there will be aware that many natural and manmade factors are blamed for zombie outbreaks in fiction. Whether it’s a genetically modified virus, a minute nanobot, or a chemical found in a fish, Hollywood is always there to distort the scientific truth behind everything, to give us a plausible, or just fresh, reason for zombies taking over the Earth.
We're not running out of zombie film ideas ... honest
Regular readers will know my favourite zombie film is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (in black & white only). I watch it every day, and twice on a Saturday, for a wee treat. Whilst not stated explicitly, it is implied that Radiation is the cause of the zombie outbreak.

Radiation is energy that travels across space in the form of waves or high-speed particles. A high enough blast of this energy can ionize atoms. Atoms are found in human cells, so this ionization can cause serious damage to them, potentially resulting in conditions like cancer.

The vast majority of background radiation we encounter occurs naturally. Cosmic rays reach us from space, gas is emitted from rocks in the ground … in fact radiation is pretty much everywhere you can think of.

We humans are of course working hard every year, building nuclear power stations, nuclear weapons, using X-rays … generally trying our dandiest to add to radiation levels. Sadly, despite our best efforts, man-made sources still only account for 15% of all the radiation we are exposed to. It mainly reaches us through medical X-rays and airport security checks.
Now, would you jump up and down for me, for security reasons.
Every day thousands of staff work in these environments, and whilst it may look like Heathrow’s Terminal Five is a scene choreographed by Mr Romero, airport staff don’t actually appear to be turning radioactive. Or into zombies. Yet.

In situations where much stronger doses of radiation are applied we can begin to get a measure of its effect. America used atomic bombs against the Japanese in World War II. Modified bomber planes dropped two bombs that were the equivalent of 20,000 tonnes of TNT onto the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The destruction they caused is difficult to imagine. Unless you’re Michael Bay.

I can imagine any explosion. Even with one arm tied behind my back, by another explosion.
Almost 2,000 feet above the city of Hiroshima, the bomb exploded. What was once a thriving city was now a burning crater. Thousands were killed instantly and thousands more slowly died of radiation sickness. The main causes of death during a nuclear blast are thermal burns, brought about as a result of infrared radiation, and fatal injuries caused by falling structures. Thermal burns are usually only visible on the side of the patient exposed to the blast itself. Patients might also exhibit beta and gamma burns after a radioactive attack.
Hollywood's idea of the effect of gamma radiation on humans. No Hollywood. Bad Hollywood.
Those who survive the initial blast may go on to develop radiation sickness. Its symptoms include: nausea, vomiting, hair loss, organ failure, weakness and death. The exact selection of symptoms you develop is heavily dependent on what level of radiation dose you have been subjected to.
A woman with radiation sickness.
Radiation, when used as a weapon, definitely paints the kind of apocalyptic picture we’d expect from a zombie film. The bombings of World War II did create burning wastelands where disfigured people stumbled around confused and uttering painful sounds. Yet this is not quite the scenario we seek in terms of a Zombieism outbreak. Aside from the aesthetic qualities left by the blast, radiation exposure and radiation sickness just don’t provide the symptoms we are searching for.

This is not, however, the only way radiation can mess with us humans. What occurred with the Simpsons’ three-eyed fish can also happen to us; we can become mutated. In reality mutation doesn’t occur in quite the same way as it is portrayed in the movies. Also, in real life mutations the effects are slower and much less outwardly noticeable. They are usually heredity, meaning they are passed on to the children of those affected.

The primary condition found in abundance after nuclear accidents or attacks is cancer. This field of research is under considerable debate at the time of writing and more about the long-term effects of radiation exposure is bound to develop over the next few years.

Ultimately radiation has failed to provide the required symptoms needed for Zombieism. This may be because its effects are often uncoordinated. All areas of the body can be hit in different ways by radiation, whereas we are seeking something with the precision skills to mainly go for the brain.

So to answer your question Leigh, I would say Radiation is the least likely factor to result in the creation of zombies.
Sorry Mr. Romero. Sir. God?
I hope you enjoyed your answer Leigh, and if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do send your questions in to or post them on our Facebook page (

Best wishes,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Getting a Zombie grip, and maybe a rip

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Good day Zombiology Students,

The recent exciting series of the Walking Dead has inspired my students to ask a lot of new zombie questions.
Andrew, an excellent student of mine, asked me this, ‘Are zombies able to tear into someone’s guts with their bare hands? We all know they like to use their teeth but can say Granny Z (that is a zombie with no teeth) uses its hands to tear us into swallow-able pieces? We have already seen zombies have no self-preservation instinct so assuming no atrophy or other degradation of the muscle mass should we not be conscious of the fact that zombies will bring a greater strength to bear as they will not care about injuring themselves? Something any human is capable of (imagine pre-zombie granny Z lifting a car off her grandchild) under particular circumstances’.

I hope the answer is no, but I have my doubts.
Let’s start with the first part, can a human being tear apart another human being bare handed? Well yes, yes they can. As recently as October 2011 a man in Italy tore out his own eyeballs during a Church sermon, and in 2006 a man in the USA lifted a 3,000 pound car to free an injured cyclist. With practice most of us could tear a phone book in half, even if I myself have never managed it.

Success! I can't wait to call my friends, what are there numbers? Oh.
But a person suffering from our proposed Zombieism Prion Disease would be very unsteady on their feet, and have poor control over their limbs. Also, because Zombieism would be a new form of prion disease, it may incorporate the symptoms and characteristics of other current prion diseases. For example Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), causes amongst other things, extreme weight loss. Although it affects animals at present CWD could develop into part of the new Zombieism Prion Disease. So there is a good chance Zombieism would reduce a person’s strength considerably.

With regard to self-preservation amongst zombies, we certainly see that symptom in the movies, with zombies happily walking through rotor blades on the off chance of getting a snack. In our studies we have concluded that real life zombies would feel pain. The condition congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), which prevents sufferers feeling the signal of pain, is something one is born with. It cannot be caught like a cold. This condition is the closest comparable one we’ve found to that fictional zombie symptom. CIP is very rare, with only around 100 cases in the USA, so we can bet a real zombie is very unlikely to have that symptom.

No stinkin' helicopter rotor is getting between me and my brunch.
However we know that Zombieism causes a lot of damage to the brain. One area of the brain, the amygdala, is responsible for our instincts. Shaped like an almond, and buried deep with the temporal lobes, it produces much of not only our instincts, but our base emotions as well. If Zombieism caused damage to this area, it may produce a zombie that was overcome with instinct, so much so it may show disregard for pain, even if it was feeling it.

Finally let’s go back to those events, like Andrew’s ‘Granny lifting a car idea’, where people show moments of almost super human strength. In a dangerous situation the human body goes through some interesting changes.

I'll either lift that car, or shoot it off. 
In the brain, the hypothalamus activates, sending a chemical signal adrenal glands. These glands produce adrenalin, which is to the human body, what spinach is to Popeye. When fuelled by adrenalin our muscles are able to contract more. This suddenly gives us the ability to perform actions, like lifting a car, actions we normally couldn’t have managed. Some believe that most of time we only use a small proportion of our strength. When under threat we simply gain the ability to expand on what we already have. But these fits of strength are short lived. Within a few minutes of happening the body begins to return to a more normal state.

It’s a lot like those friends of Captain America, the Six American Warriors, who were given a less refined version of the super solider serum. It gave them Cap’s powers but only for a short time. Inevitably these newly found super powers would give out during a pivotal moment in the plot. On the bright side they do always return during final battles.

The Six American Warriors, well, em, I can name one...
To conclude; zombies do have the potential to tear a human apart. Like humans, when faced with a dangerous situation they may also receive an adrenalin rush, giving them a short burst of enhanced strength. However the Zombieism disease would be badly affecting their ability to move both legs & arms, and may be causing wasting of the body. So they may lack comparable strength to a healthy human.

Ultimately zombies are like fingerprints, each one is different. And just like fingerprints they inevitably end up all over your glass door. No zombie would have the exact same presentation of the disease as another, so some may be more akin to human, and others more akin to demons.

I just washed these you inconsiderate fiends! 
Thank you Andrew for a great question, and if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do get in touch on

Best wishes,

Doctor Austin
Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.  

For even more Zombie Science pick up the official Zombie Science book on Amazon now