As zombies get weaker, we get stronger
March 11, 2006 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Zombiefilter: How long would it take before a zombie's muscles were no longer functional?

In my ongoing preparations for the inevitable zombie takeover, it has occured to me that, while zombies seem to have somehow arrested their state of decay, their bodies no longer repair injuries. Knowing that every time we use a muscle it tears the muscle slightly, how long would it take before a zombie's legs were functionally useless? And, further, how much longer would it be before they could no longer drag themselves by their arms and can be eliminated with a simple coup de gras to the head?
posted by Astro Zombie to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
For a guy named Astro Zombie, you don't seem to know much about zombies. They are animated by a combination of evil and radioactive waste, you see. As such their muscles are not actually functioning when they move, their cells are not metabolizing, the proteins within them have long denatured. They continue to decay in fact even while they chew on your noodle. God, you think just because they're zombies they don't submit to the laws of thermodynamics? Nobody beats entropy.
posted by drpynchon at 7:32 PM on March 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Depends on the kind of zombie.

Would you care to participate in a research experiment, AZ?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:35 PM on March 11, 2006

I'm talking about your typical dead human who has been reanimated by some sort of solar event, such as you find in a George Romero film. They still must obey the laws of science, which means their muscles will eventually wear out. How long would that take?

FYI: Astro Zombies are solar powered, so we are able to repair ourselves.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:37 PM on March 11, 2006

in Day Of The Dead, the doctor referred to as "Frankenstein" severs every internal organ in a zombie he has strapped to a table and the bastard is still biting away, even when all his guts fall out. seems most zombies can sustain any type of injury as long at their head is ok. so i guess the zombie stops moving when its legs (or arms) fall off, or are hacked off/shot off/blown off/helicoptered off/etc etc...probably a while (months) without outside factors, and even then it'll kill you if you get close enough.
i love serious answers about zombies.
posted by fidgets at 7:51 PM on March 11, 2006

I didn't think the state of decay was actually arrested. With no blood pumping or other vital doodads going on, they'd decay just as rapidly as if they were still in the ground, right? Including insect activity accelerating the process as it usually would?

Also, it's "coup de grace." "Gras" means "fat," as in Mardi Gras.
posted by Gator at 7:53 PM on March 11, 2006

According to the Zombie Survival Guide, whatever has infected the zombies has slowed or stopped their state of decay, so we just have to wait until their muscles stop working. Max Brooks thinks this will take years, but I suspect it will be much faster. How fast do muscles wear out, anyway?

coup de grace
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:57 PM on March 11, 2006

In that case, what if a hypothetical zombificating virus infects and assumes absolute control of the cell and is able to form an ad-hoc supra-neuronal communication with other infected cells?

One method of "immortalizing" cells (making it so they can divide over and over and over again) is to infect them with certain viruses (for example one can immortalize a B cell [ie., creating a "cell line"] by infecting a bunch of B cells with Epstein-Barr virus then setting up single-cell cultures and see which one keeps dividing and growing, dividing and growing).

In such a situation, the virus may be able to keep cells "alive"/functioning and may be able to send signals for certain cells to undergo mitosis in order to repair damage, possibly resulting in the ad-hoc appearance of zombies.

Brains are rich in lipids and protein; the essential building blocks for creating more cells (the cell membrane is essentially fat - the lipid bilayer). The question would be where the zombie-virus-infected cell network derives energy (solar power? The virus expresses various chloroplast-associated proteins?)
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:02 PM on March 11, 2006

Knowing that every time we use a muscle it tears the muscle slightly, how long would it take before a zombie's legs were functionally useless?
Never. Zombie muscles work differently.

And, further, how much longer would it be before they could no longer drag themselves by their arms and can be eliminated with a simple coup de gras to the head?
If their muscles were to suffer trauma, they would continue to function submaximally until all connections between their muscle fibers were severed. Numerous case studies have demonstrated the tenacity of zombies in reaching their victim despite muscle damage significant enough to stop any human.

There muscles are not just different, they're tougher. I've sketched up some quick illustrations to demonstrate why.
1. Muscles are made up of fibers.
2. Each fiber is made up of smaller fibers.
3. There are two kinds of smaller fibers.
4. Contraction occurs when these two fibers interact.
5. Thin fibers are anchored at places called "Z-lines."
6. Human muscle Z-lines are weak.
7. Zombie muscle Z-lines are strong.
8. Zombies are awesome.
posted by herrdoktor at 8:08 PM on March 11, 2006 [33 favorites]

So, if I read you right, you're saying that zombies muscles would continue to work right up until the moment when the very last miniscule muscle fibre is damaged beyond repair?


But surely they would weaken to the point where they could no longer support the zombie.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:17 PM on March 11, 2006

herrdoktor: flagged as fantastic!
posted by ktrey at 8:17 PM on March 11, 2006

Thanks for asking this question. It is something which has bothered me for some time. I think it's dangerous that we don't have a definitive answer for this yet.
posted by Hildago at 8:25 PM on March 11, 2006

Rigor happens in human corpses because the cells are no longer producing ATP and so the myosin remains bound to the actin filaments. The energy released by hydrolysis of ATP is required to free the myosin head from the actin and so bring the muscle fibre into a relaxed state. Rigor dissipated after a period of time when decay products are released that digest the actin-myosin complex and enable the muscles to relax into flaccidity pending their dissolution.

Obviously zombies do not suffer from rigor. I suspect they obtain new ATP using a novel metabolic pathway. I suspect they have mutated mitochondria that can produce massive quantities of ATP from glucose rich-sources. Hence their insatiable hunger for the brains of their victims. As well as their well-known sweet tooth for chocolate, of course.
posted by meehawl at 8:33 PM on March 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Zombies are sustained by evil magicks. So as far as I know, that covers everything. iana(necromancer) Also, your zombie mileage may vary.
posted by Azhruwi at 8:42 PM on March 11, 2006

Something that is easy to overlook - muscles of any type do not function without heat. Cold-blooded animals require an external heat source to move, while we create an internal heat source from metabolism.

So the answer to your question could simply be "wait until it's night time". Then a zombie has neither source of heat, and the muscles cannot function.

Bear in mind also that in a zombie movie, if someone in the middle of of a zombie epidemic consulted the internet for advice and then declared "apparently the safest time to leave our fortress is in the dead of night", the next time you see that guy, he's probably going to be in the middle of having his brains blown out as he mindlessly tries to bite the main character.

Just sayin'
posted by -harlequin- at 8:43 PM on March 11, 2006

herrdoktor, I weep tears of purest zombitrol for your clear description and sketches.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:45 PM on March 11, 2006

harlqeuin - I really hope that your nick is regarding court jesters and such, as opposed to harlequin babies...? please?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:48 PM on March 11, 2006

"In my ongoing preparations for the inevitable zombie takeover,"

I hope that includes at least 1 Ruger 10/22 and plenty of ammo. Or a Mini-14 and lotsa .223.

Unless you're in California, in which case you're limited to 10 round mags. Better buy lots. ;)
posted by drstein at 9:47 PM on March 11, 2006

herrdoktor, please scan those at high resolution and post them. Another flagged fantastic. If there was a way to flag it as, "Made my day," I would have. Pardon the interruption, Astro Zombie.
posted by sequential at 10:21 PM on March 11, 2006

Yes. Jesters and stage performers and such :-)

posted by -harlequin- at 11:06 PM on March 11, 2006

I can't scan these as I have no scanner. Just took pics with a digicam. Have to keep these sketches small, as this allows for easier ingestion in case the enemy shows up.

And yes, Astro Zombie: they'll keep working until every fiber is severed. This requires clean, whole cuts through zombie flesh. If you're able to get close enough, I'd recommend starting with both zombie calves. This will slow it down enough for you to be able to maneuver around it so that you could then cleave its zombie biceps. At that point, the zombie should only be able to get to you by flopping about with its stumps, or with its jaw. Either way, you'll have enough time to walk to the store and get some febreze and tonic water before you do the dirty deed and chop its head off.
posted by herrdoktor at 11:08 PM on March 11, 2006

Having examined my brother (a lower-case 'z' zombie) from a safe distance for many years, I'd say loss of muscle tone is directly related to intake quantities of beer, pizza and daytime television. This appears to take place at a moderately accelerated rate compared against normal human beings, as it has been years since the lazy bastard did anything worth mentioning. Of equal interest, intellectual and moral decay seems to have reached a critical level at some point several decades ago, as these capacities are now virtually non-existent in anything but a theoretical sense.
posted by planetthoughtful at 11:19 PM on March 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

I love zombies. At the age of 8, I plunged into I am Legend and never looked back. I have read every book involving zombies I could find, seen every film I can get my hands on, and - this may creep some of you out - even dreamed of what it would be like to live as a zombie.

That said, herrdoktor's sketches RULE. You are the new zombie master.
posted by bradth27 at 7:46 AM on March 12, 2006

I Am Legend is about vampires, not zombies. Carry on.
posted by goatdog at 11:25 AM on March 12, 2006

Well, a sort of unholy blend of vampires and zombies. And what are vampires but sexy, sentient zombies anyway?
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:01 PM on March 12, 2006

How long would it take before a zombie's muscles were no longer functional?

Your question is faulty, the zombies' muscles aren't functioning at all. The actual movement of the Zombies can't be related to physiological processes, because they are dead. Really all zombie movement must simply be puppet movement from an external source (think Weekend at Bernies, except instead of stoner 20 somethings, the meat-puppet is being animated by a poltergeist of some sort).

Zombies are just a special kind of poltergeist that need their original host in order to interact with the world of the living. When too much of the host is deteriorated, the spell is broken. How much of the corpse-host needs to be present, before the poltergeist is neutralized actually varies with the fiction. In some the head has to be there, but in many the flesh doesn't have to be there at all. In Army of Darkness and Jason and the Argonauts, for instance, the zombies are just skeletons.
posted by dgaicun at 12:46 PM on March 12, 2006

There (sic) muscles are not just different, they're tougher. I've sketched up some quick illustrations to demonstrate why.

Your zombie science is flawed, and cannot explain, for instance, the numerous instances of zombies who have no flesh or muscles whatever, that still move around just fine. Zombies are simply dead human bodies that are being moved around like puppets by ghosts. Some ghosts, called poltergeists, don't need bodies at all to throw chairs and shit, other ghosts, called zombies, need bodies in order to throw chairs and shit.
posted by dgaicun at 12:57 PM on March 12, 2006

Your zombie science is flawed, and cannot explain, for instance, the numerous instances of zombies who have no flesh or muscles whatever, that still move around just fine.

Those zombies have little eensy bits of muscles, perhaps even invisibly small bits, but because zombie muscles are AWESOME they're sufficient to do the zombie shuffle.

But you're right, in spirit. What actually happens is that the same process that causes zombification also creates telekinesis in the undead brain. The undead don't need to use all of the parts of the brain devoted to life-function regulation, and so those can be converted to a telekinesis engine. Likewise, some of the frontal cortex and language centers are usually converted depending on the zombific agent.

So as long as the zombie's brain isn't destroyed, it can move itself around by force of will. This also helps explain zombie limbs that move somewhat independently of the main body.

yours, GCU Send More Paramedics.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:09 PM on March 12, 2006

John Varley tries to address this somewhat scientifically in Demon when a god-like creature tries to create zombies. It creates special worms (deathworms) that thread through the zombies musculature and communicate with each other serving as surrogate muscles. The zombie only needs enough (completely nonfunctional) flesh to provide a matrix for the deathworms.
posted by zanni at 2:05 PM on March 12, 2006

Here's a helpful article on zombie metabolism.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:23 PM on March 12, 2006

I know the actor who said the "Parametics" line (Omaha actor John Durbin), and he does seem motiviated by some inhuman, demonic, telekinetic force.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:53 PM on March 12, 2006

Kudos to herrdoktor for brilliantly elucidating the particulars of zombie muscular structure! Bravo! I should note that his explanation only deals with one kind of zombie, however. That is, zombification due to viral infection.

The other major type of zombie, the voodoo zombie, is animated not by a virus, but by black hoodoo, as one might well imagine. The animation of such zombies is not dependent upon having intact muscles. Indeed, the muscle can be completely flayed off of such creatures and they are still able to perambulate, due to the infernal magick which has imbued them with undeath. This has been described above as "telekinesis", which is accurate enough a description for the purposes of this discussion thread.

If you want to know more about zombie locomotion, I've got a book around here somewhere that explains all about it...
posted by darkstar at 5:59 PM on March 12, 2006

I Am Legend is about vampires, not zombies. Carry on.

Maybe. In the foreward to the survival horror game All Flesh Must Be Eaten, the author makes the point that the George Romero-style zombie more closely resembles the vampires of folklore than actual zombies. To use your example, in the film treatments of I Am Legend (The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man), the behavior of the "lower class" vampires is indistinguishable from that of the flesh-eaters of Dawn of the Dead. Looking back further into Tolstoy's Russian vampire tales, it's clear that the tropes of the modern zombie (insatiable hunger, fear of contagion, "I can't shoot her; she's my Mom!") grow from the folk tales of vampires, rather than the mythology of the zombie. Indeed, we must ask ourselves why we call them "zombies" at all, when "vampire" is the more accurate description.
posted by SPrintF at 6:03 PM on March 12, 2006

All right, we're splitting hairs he, when we should be splitting zombie skulls.

Darkstar, you're citing the folklore of the Voodoo zombie, but the real story is much weirder. And real Voodoo zombies can be killed like anybody else can, as they are, in fact, simply brain damaged humans.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:20 PM on March 12, 2006

I Am Legend is about vampires, not zombies. Carry on.

True - but the book deals with a modern-day revisionist vampire that much resembles the modern zombie in today's book and film. Many Zombiologists reserve a special place for the book in their libraries.....
posted by bradth27 at 7:28 PM on March 12, 2006

Very interesting AZ!

Ah, here is the book I was looking for -- oh look, what is that out the window?

*points behind Astro Zombie; when he turns to look, injects him with puffer toxin...

posted by darkstar at 7:31 PM on March 12, 2006

posted by Astro Zombie at 8:57 PM on March 12, 2006

Oh, great.... NOW look what you've done.
posted by 40 Watt at 10:29 AM on March 13, 2006

I guess this cements the chainsaw as the anti-zombie weapon of choice.

(I am Dick Cheney, and this is my BOOMSTICK )
posted by djrock3k at 7:00 PM on March 13, 2006

Cement ruins chainsaws.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:03 AM on March 14, 2006

Strangely, the google search term "concrete zombie" actually returns 95 results.

/sad I did not invent the term.
posted by darkstar at 5:36 AM on March 14, 2006

Not to get all Dave Barry-ish, but "Concrete Zombie" WOULD be a great band name!
posted by byort at 12:49 PM on March 14, 2006

I'll just go ahead and take my zombie dumps here while the thread is still open.

New York Times: Market for Zombies? It's Undead (Aaahhh!)

Sufjan Stevens: They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhhh!
posted by dgaicun at 3:51 PM on March 25, 2006

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