This article first appeared in Issue 6 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.
Allow us to set the scene: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been on the radio (TV is lost to you now), a body-invading pathogen has given rise to a deadly pandemic that causes humans to become bloodthirsty savages. The living dead have arrived, and they WANT YOU to let them feed on your life force. The only downside to their evil plan? They’re dead, and dead things don’t last forever.
If we were to suspend disbelief and ignore all the science that tells us zombies aren’t real (that is, if you ignore the near-dead insects being marched around by body-snatching fungi), what does it have to say about how long the living dead could realistically last in the elements? If we brave survivors really did just go to The Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for it all to blow over, how long can we expect that lock-in to last?
We wanted to know, so we got on the phone to the lovely folks over at the Institute of Human Anatomy in Salt Lake City, US to find out.
28 Days Later showed us a breed of zombie that’s quick on its feet. What do they need to be running around like that?
Justin Cottle: If we’re talking bare minimum, first you need joints that are capable of movement. Then two, you need muscles that are capable of producing that movement. And then three, you need an operating nervous system that can send the proper signals to the muscles to produce that movement.
Jonathan Bennion: And this is all assuming that no decay occurred in the muscle tissue because after somebody dies, one of the first things that happen is some of the contractile proteins within the muscle tissue start to degrade.
We take it for granted how amazing it is just to contract and coordinate skeletal muscles. We’ve got to get a signal from our motor cortex to initiate a movement. It's got to go down our spinal cord and out to the various nerves. If you're talking about running, multiple nerves go to the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the posterior calf muscles, the anterior calf muscles, and all the stabilizers in the ankle. Assuming it’s still intact, all of that would have to occur for a zombie to actually be sprinting down the road after you to get your brain.
If you were somewhere hot and humid, how long is going to take for all that to fall apart?
JC: Here, details matter. Are we at 100 percent humidity, or are we at 80 percent? And humidity is not just an issue because of water content, but also because where there’s humidity there tend to be a lot of life forms. There are going to be more microbes. Depending on the humidity, I would say a zombie is lasting hours to maybe two days, at most, in a hot place.
JB: Then there’s the other extreme. We’ve seen bodies that have been preserved in ice. It really depends, but I think in those two extremes… as far as freezing cold where the body gets frozen, that would definitely slow the decay process.
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If a zombie apocalypse was declared tomorrow, where are you going?
JC: I’m rewatching Game Of Thrones and it’s funny to me that everyone is trying to run from the White Walkers. They’re coming from the North, so if it were me, I would like to sneak around them, get behind them so I could be in the cold place. I would want to go colder, because if it’s colder, those joints and muscles are going to be tight and not working well. I will happily put on an extra coat or two – which, by the way, is a good buffer for scratching and biting – in order to combat the zombie hordes.
JB: Some sort of northern cold fortress, if I could find one.
What’s your favorite zombie variety?
JC: If we're talking about things I find intellectually interesting, versus what would I rather be in? I think I would probably choose George A. Romero-type zombies. Like back in the ‘70s, before they're just full-on sprinting. I don't want World War Z, that seems terrifying. I don't want I Am Legend, that's just horrifying on a huge level. I want my zombies slow, and very, very cognitively incapable. But I think the zombies from The Last of Us are by far the coolest.
JB: That's funny. I was actually going to say World War Z. I love that idea of using some sort of science or pathogen that makes you invisible to the zombies, so they don’t want you. They are pretty aggressive, though. So if you haven’t figured out how to inoculate yourself with a virus that doesn’t kill you then you’re dealing with very aggressive and fast zombies.