Could zombies be real?
With the ongoing popularity of George Romero’s Day of the Living Dead movies, and more recently, AMC’s The Walking Dead, you can’t swing an undead zombie without hitting a true believer.
In fact, a 2018 survey released by the streaming service NOW TV, says that one-in-four British people “have a plan” to survive an actual zombie apocalypse.
The trend has led to scientific research to study the origins of zombies, with one study revealing an intriguing glimpse into why zombies can rise from the dead – at least in some people’s minds.
The study is from Yale University and was recently published in Nature. In it, researchers were able to re-animate pig brains to generate some cellular activity – after the creatures were already dead.
This from the 2019 study, and its lead authors Zvonimir Vrselja, Stefano G. Daniele, and John Silbereis:
“(In this study) we describe the restoration and maintenance of microcirculation and molecular and cellular functions of the intact pig brain under ex vivo normothermic conditions up to four hours post-mortem.
We have developed an extracorporeal pulsatile-perfusion system and a haemoglobin-based, acellular, non-coagulative, echogenic, and cytoprotective perfusate that promotes recovery from anoxia, reduces reperfusion injury, prevents oedema, and metabolically supports the energy requirements of the brain.
With this system, we observed preservation of cytoarchitecture; attenuation of cell death; and restoration of vascular dilatory and glial inflammatory responses, spontaneous synaptic activity, and active cerebral metabolism in the absence of global electrocorticographic activity.
These findings demonstrate that under appropriate conditions the isolated, intact large mammalian brain possesses an underappreciated capacity for restoration of microcirculation and molecular and cellular activity after a prolonged post-mortem interval.”
In plain language, the Yale research team is saying that brain cells, in pigs at least, could function after death (although not enough to regain consciousness).
That opened the academic and cultural flood gates, with people wondering out loud what it really means to be deceased and what it means to have brain function after death – you know, like your garden variety zombie.
Experts: Talking zombies gives people an outlet to talk about death
The truth is, more people are getting comfortable with the issue of death if they see the issue through a zombie-focused lens.
“At the root of the zombie culture and the ubiquity of zombies across all forms of entertainment right now — from movies to TV shows, novels, and video games — is the fact that the zombie is a very adaptable metaphor for so many cultural fears and pressure points,” says Barna Donovan, professor of communication and media studies at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey (Donovan teaches a course on the cultural appeal of horror films, with zombies a frequent subject). “When we look at how zombie films have been made as early as the 1930s, we can see zombies readily reflecting the most unnerving fears of American society at any given time.”
Others agree, noting that zombies give people who struggle with death a way to gradually see it in a more intriguing light.
“Since death appears to be the biggest hindrance to immortality, zombification might be thought of as a kind of permanent layover to whatever final destination awaits us all,” says Christopher J. Irving, an assistant professor of English and Humanities at Beacon College.
Hollywood has certainly played a role in getting people more comfortable with the notion of death, even if it might bring a zombie afterlife.
“Speaking for myself, growing up Catholic gave me a hands-on experience in the consumption of the body and other morbid tendencies,” Irving notes. “1980’s movies, television, and early ’90s game systems were blood-soaked with all things undead.”
Following a brief dormancy in the late ’90s, zombies resurrected with a vengeance in the early 2000s and have since saturated virtually every form of media with ghoulish delight ever since, but this is nothing new, Irving adds. “Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel of the modern Prometheus, Frankenstein, is often overlooked as the first real story of an undead corpse gaining sentience,” he says.
Irving notes he’s not sure people want to believe in zombies so much as that they accept that, to use the words of one of the late/great George Romero’s characters in 1985’s Day of the Dead, “they are us… they are the same creature, functioning less perfectly.”
A metaphor for real life
Beyond the complicated, multi-layered issue of death, zombies are a part of society’s supernatural family, other experts say. They’re entertaining to watch because they get viewers to feel strong emotions.
In that regard, zombies become more real – almost too real.
“Personally I always felt that in movies, zombies are used as social commentary on the brainwashed and largely impoverished masses who are quite crazed and aggressive because they’re in their survival mode,” says Len Sone, a self-empowerment teacher and the founder of web site Movie-Based Counseling, a counseling methodology platform. “In that symbolic sense, zombies indeed do exist in a mortality sense.”
Sone also believes that zombies are helping us deal with complex living issues, too.
“Zombies also represent the aging process and our common fear of growing old,” Sone says. “Through making and watching zombie/undead movies, we may be processing our own fears of dying and aging.”
Not staggering away
With the zombie culture embedded in the Americana landscape, and millions of younger movie fans plugging into it, the spotlight on zombies and how we view them, real or not, will only grow brighter.
And that’s really nothing new.
“If the last two hundred years since Frankenstein’s publication proves anything, it’s that zombie culture is nowhere near death’s door, nor is it a passing fad,” Irving says. “Instead, the zombie’s impact on 21st-century culture is moving from a shamble to a sprint.”