April 12, 2008 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Are "fast zombies" really plausible?

I've watched a few "fast zombie" movies over the last few months -- 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, I Am Legend, etc. I also have a habit of reading up on movies I see afterwards, to find the trivia and background details that help flesh out the storylines. So it was interesting when, in the course of reading various interviews with the filmmakers, I found that they all had the same basic explanations for why their zombies were the way they were.

They're not supernatural or "undead" like in the old movies. They're just regular humans infected with a virus that makes them psychotic. These viruses were also said to leave the victim's adrenal glands open all the time, making them super-strong, ultra-fast, and impervious to pain.

I was also intrigued by this article from Cracked (an outstanding scientific resource, I know) which discussed this concept. At one point they assert, "you are just one brain chemical (serotonin) away from turning into a mindless killing machine" and link to a study showing the effects of serotonin depression in rats.

This all seemed a little fantastical to me, a doomsday scenario made to sound way too easy. It made me think of the ridiculous way radiation was used in comics a few decades back. In the Marvel Universe, gamma rays give you invisibility and the ability to fly. In the real world, it gives you leukemia. Surely the same must be true for the zombie thing. Of course, all the googling I did lead to a bunch of unrelated medical papers.

So I'm wondering: are these ideas plausible? What would be the effects of a constant adrenaline high on the human body? Would it really turn you into a hyperventilating superhuman, or just wreck your nervous system?

And what about that serotonin thing? Could the lack of one brain chemical really turn a person into a murderous psychopath? Or would it cause something much more mundane, like depression or schizophrenia or dissociation?

Lastly, what are the odds of any of these chemical changes being effected by a contagious virus (or a bacterium or injection, for that matter)? Could Rage or KV be created in the real world?
posted by Rhaomi to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Not a direct answer, but possibly of related interest: a BBC interview with George A. Romero (creator of Night of the Living Dead) where he firmly states his position on running zombies.

On one matter, however, [Romero] is prepared to take a stand - the vexed question on whether zombies can run... "Zombies don't run," he states firmly. "They can't! Their ankles would snap... What did they do - wake from the dead and immediately join a health club? I don't get it."
posted by WalterMitty at 2:58 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, PCP supposedly makes you stronger, but that's actually just the drug shutting off your brain's connections that make you feel pain. Your body has incredible potential inside of it, the Discovery Channel just did a piece on it (Your Amazing Body, maybe?) where they said you could lift several times what you bench, but it almost always permanently damages your muscles. So, in theory I suppose a chemical change could, like PCP, cut off your pain responses so you didn't realize you were damaging your muscles and could push them further. I guess, also hypothetically, you could rise your muscles' tolerances to well above what we normally stop at.
posted by InsanePenguin at 3:00 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bah, way off.

It's Inside the Human Body that I was talking about.
posted by InsanePenguin at 3:13 PM on April 12, 2008

And what about that serotonin thing? Could the lack of one brain chemical really turn a person into a murderous psychopath?

Our collective understanding of neurology isnt to the point where we can just point at one checmical and go "aha! his humors are low!" I think that's a simplified pop-sciency way to understand the human nervous system. You really have a very complex electric and chemical system working in ways that are very difficult to observe let alone properly theorize about.

Yes, chemical imbalances do alter behavior, but I would find a story that just pointed to one or two chemicals as being as silly as how you mentioned Marvel used radiation. Although, to be fair Marvel wrote for pre-teens, so that audience wouldnt find its silliness to be too unbelievable. That's ignoring even more complex things like cultural and personal psychology.

What would be the effects of a constant adrenaline high on the human body?

Well, look at bipolar people who go through manic stages. They certainly exhibit some super-human qualities, all of which are ultimantely self-destructive. Or people addicted to stimulants.

So the idea that introducing one chemical (or even serveral) could perform some kind of pre-planned outcome is not very plausible. Even if your outcome was to generate some kind of zombie induced chaos, chances are most of these people you just poisoned would die, collapse in tears, have a heart attack, do nothing, or simply attack or have sex each other. Not exactly the human vs. zombie war you wanted.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:46 PM on April 12, 2008

OK... Having spent weeks on the set of Dawn of the Dead being a zombie extra, having a son who's producing the next great zombie flick with Zack Snyder (the director of Dawn), and having beat the pants off Snyder in multiple games of ping pong (while he was supposed to be doing some editing on "300", so if that scene in the courtyard at Sparta wasn't quite right in terms of the lighting, it's my fault for keeping him distracted for an hour when he was supposed to be working) let me try and explain this.

Back during Dawn, when it got out that the zombies could run, the shinola hit the fan, and the fanboys... everybody complained, everyone had his/her opinion on this, including George R.! "Zombies can't run!", they all said, and they all came out with the philosophical, biological, zoological, religious, medical, and mathematical reasons why that was so...

When I asked Zack about that, his answer was simply... "In the REAL zombie world......." and never finished that sentence....

Therein lies your answer...
posted by HuronBob at 5:00 PM on April 12, 2008 [10 favorites]

Let's assume I gave you a wonder drug or wonder virus that shut off your pain receptors and turned everyone into a raving, murderous, super-crazed lunatic. You could throw a Buick over a house, but you'd tear every ligament and tendon in your body doing it.

A way to look at the answer to the question is ... would it matter?

Remember, you're crazy! You're a raving, murderous, super-crazed lunatic! You just don't care that you'll feel bad tomorrow (and in fact, you won't feel bad, because you can't feel pain), or that you're likely to cut yourself when you're ramming your forehead through a plate-glass window ("Why am I all bloody? What the hell is hap ... oh wait, now I remember! BRAAAAINS!"). And there's millions of crazies, so if many of them are hurting themselves, there's more where that came from...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:38 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Uh, I think "suspension of disbelief" should cover most of the questions in the OP.

Look, everything about a zombie movie is scientifically implausible anyway. What prevents zombies from further decomposing, to the extent that their muscles putrefy and they can no longer move? An immune system? Are there little mitochondria powerpacks that generate ATP for the muscles? Ridiculous questions, because there is, of course, no such thing as zombies. The only thing that matters is whether or not the logic works in the movie itself.

Romero has a point. An undead zombie shouldn't be able to run without losing body parts or snapping a decrepit ankle. But that logic works for *Romero's* zombie universe.

With 28 Days later, the "rage virus" turns people into raging ghouls. It appears they have to be able to eat - they're still living human beings who should be able to run. Once again, the logic generally works enough to enable suspension of disbelief.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:05 PM on April 12, 2008

HuronBob: "When I asked Zack about that, his answer was simply... "In the REAL zombie world......." and never finished that sentence....

Therein lies your answer...

I know what you're getting at, but the "zombies" I'm talking about are a different animal. They're not reanimated corpses, with all the established canon (and the ridiculous suspensions of disbelief) that idea carries. They're just normal people gone berserk, something much more within the realm of possibility than Romero's walking dead.

In the absence of anything else, I'll mark InsanePenguin's and damn dirty ape's answers as best. The "one chemical can make you a killing machine" is admittedly a little silly, as the brain is much more complex than that. But the PCP angle is interesting; I've heard a lot in the past about acts of violence committed by people on the drug. I wonder what it does to the brain to cause that...

Also, the thing about adrenaline pushing you beyond your limits is a great point, InsanePenguin. It definitely fits into what was in 28 Days Later. The infected completely ignored their survival instincts, eventually dying of starvation, so it's not hard to imagine them overexerting themselves physically as well.

It'd be great if anybody had more info on the effects of excess adrenaline, btw. I've read things about people getting lethal overdoses in a surgical setting, or having overactive glands (Cushing's syndrome, though that's more about excess cortisol). But I haven't seen anything indicating what would happen to a person that produced adrenaline at high levels all the time, like the movies portrayed. I'm just trying to figure out if the filmmakers based their zombies on sound medical science -- that someone on a constant adrenaline rush really would be consistently strong, fast, and aggressive -- or if it's just faulty pop-sci reasoning, and that such a person would in reality suffer weakness, high blood pressure, and a quick death.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:06 PM on April 12, 2008

You know, kuujjuarapik, that first response in your second link was so knowledgeable that it almost made me feel okay about marking something from Yahoo Answers as best.

Then I saw...

Da Pretty Wahine: wow some very good answers, especially from crouching doggie, tell me little doggie, can you have an adrenaline overdose when having sex? =P

Gone! Good feelings gone.

(Still a good set of links, though)
posted by Rhaomi at 8:58 PM on April 12, 2008

Obligatory link to The Zombie Survival Guide.
posted by phaded at 10:44 PM on April 12, 2008

Read up on toxoplasmosis - specifically the entry on behavioral changes. Parasites are known to cause zombiefication of their hosts.

"There are claims of toxoplasma causing antisocial attitudes in men and promiscuity (or even 'signs of higher intelligence') in women..." - WIKIPEDIA
posted by FidelDonson at 11:43 PM on April 12, 2008

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