I’m so thrilled that Joe McKinney took some time out of his very busy schedule to write about zombies for me, considering he spends quite a bit of time writing about them for his Dead World series (Dead City, Apocalypse of the Dead, Flesh Eaters, Mutated, and more), plus, he’s a sergeant for the San Antonio Police Department. Oh, and did I mention that Flesh Eaters won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel in 2011?
Please give Joe a warm welcome!
Walking With Zombies: A Natural History of Dead World
By Joe McKinney
It may sound strange coming from a writer who has made a name for himself with his zombie fiction, but I’ve always found the idea of the dead rising up to eat the living a little ridiculous.
I mean, I love zombies. Don’t get me wrong. I love their rotten little hearts. I have read nearly every zombie book and graphic novel out there. I’ve watched most of the movies too. But for as much as I have enjoyed those forays into the land of the dead, I still have a hard time getting behind most of the explanations that are given for why a dead body would suddenly rise up and want to eat me. I understand that the cannibal dead has been a nearly universal concern for speculative writers, ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Bible to Freud to Max Brooks, but I’m still not convinced the dead would find me all that appetizing.
But putting aside that major closure on the road to credulity, if you want to convince me a zombie apocalypse is possible you still have some of the more mundane questions to answer. Like how come they don’t continue to rot and just fall apart? During my time as a homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department I saw a ton of dead bodies. Leave them out long enough and they start to get really gross. If the dead really did rise up and start coming after the living all you’d have to do is survive the first month of the apocalypse, because by that point most of the zombies would have rotted to the point they simply fell apart.
And what about carrion birds? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen turkey buzzards going after road kill, but believe me, the ones down here in Texas would have every zombie stupid enough to go outdoors picked clean down to the bone in about forty-five minutes.
And you always see zombies eating the people they kill, but where does all that consumed meat go? Let’s say a pack of zombies gets me. They open me up like a canoe and turn my guts into a buffet. I stand an even six feet tall and weigh in at a slightly paunchy two hundred pounds. I’m a big guy. Let’s say as many half a dozen zombies are eating me. That’s what, about 33 pounds of manmeat a zombie? Now I can do a lot of damage at a Chinese buffet, but there’s no way I’m eating 33 pounds of anything in a single sitting. Zombies don’t get up and tell their buddies they’re full, right? They’ll eat until there’s no more food to eat. That’s consistent with everything we’ve been told about them, right?
So where does it all go?
Do zombies have, uh, bowel movements?
We could go on with this for a long time, but I think the point is made. If you want to have a zombie apocalypse where your zombies are reanimated dead bodies, you have a lot of continuity questions to ask yourself. And if you want to expand your story across a multi-book series, as I did with my Dead World books, then you’re going to face the challenge of explaining how things work to your readers.
So that’s what I did.
I realized that if I was going to answer my own plausibility concerns I would have to do something different with zombies. Not too different, because I still wanted to write the creatures that I love so much, but different enough that I would be happy with, and challenged by, the world in which I was working.
The zombie as we know it in The Walking Dead and in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Max Brooks’ World War Z and a thousand other works is basically a dead body carrying around some kind of infection that enables it to kill and eat the living, in the process infecting them so that the victim in turn becomes a zombie. As I’ve said, I have a number of problems with that particular type of zombie. So what alternatives did I have? How could I write a zombie story that satisfied my continuity concerns and yet still satisfied my love of the shambling hordes that fill post-apocalyptic city streets like rivers of hands and teeth?
Well, the answer was pretty obvious…at least to me. I had to make my zombies living people infected with a disease. It sounds easy enough, but a quick survey of zombie fiction, TV shows and movies will show you that very few do it that way. Only 28 Days Later comes to mind, in fact. There may be others, but by my count only my series and the 28 Days Later franchise seem to take this tack.
In my Dead World books, the culprit behind the zombie apocalypse is the necrosis filovirus, which is closely related to the family of hemorrhagic fevers that includes Ebola, Marburg, Lassa and Crimean-Congo. Here’s how it works: the necrosis filovirus spreads through exposure to the bodily fluids of an infected zombie, and the usual vector is a bite, though any exchange of bodily fluids will do the trick. The virus causes the complete depersonalization of the infected person, essentially turning them into a zombie.
It does not kill them, however. That’s key to this discussion. The living, infected person exists as a mindless husk, intent solely on aggression. They can’t care for themselves in any meaningful way, and they have no sense of danger or the ability to avoid it. And in most cases, they are so badly injured by the contact that caused their initial infection that secondary infections are rampant. What this means in practical terms is that most of the infected die off very soon after getting infected, either from their initial injuries, injuries incurred while hunting for food, or from the food itself that they eat. Imagine a living person feeding on something that’s been dead in the middle of the road for a few days and you can see what I mean.
(By the way, for those of you looking for a little biographical information to inform my decision to write about the infected living rather than the infected dead, I’ll tell you that my grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease. I watched the man go from a towering individual my father worshipped to a frail old man who used to scare me with his wild flights of mood and his inexplicable gaps in memory. When I thought of characters infected by the necrosis filovirus, those poor souls slowly losing their grip on their sense of self, I thought of my grandfather. If you detect a note of sympathy for the infected in my stories, that’s why.)
All of this was in my head while I wrote Dead City, the first book in my Dead World series, but Dead City takes place during the first few hours of the zombie apocalypse, and so I didn’t have an opportunity to show the progression of the necrosis filovirus until I got into books set years after the initial outbreak.
That chance came in Apocalypse of the Dead, which takes place about two years after the events in Dead City. In Apocalypse of the Dead, two characters get trapped on a rooftop. While looking over the side of the roof, they realize that the zombies below are using strategy to flush out prey.
But what those characters don’t realize, at least right away, is that the zombies are changing the longer they live. To be sure, the change is a gradual one. But it is happening.
The zombies Eddie Hudson (the main character in Dead City) and Eleanor Norton (the main character of Flesh Eaters) face are all Stage 1 zombies. These zombies are freshly infected and almost completely depersonalized. They are incapable of reason, and have no capacity to anticipate the actions of others. In some cases, they are so far gone that they can’t even recognize other zombies. Most of the time, these zombies are the traditional slow movers of the Romero movies. There are a few, however, who are capable of moving with great speed. Eddie Hudson calls these fast movers. The fast movers are infected persons who were in excellent physical condition at the time they were turned and were infected by injuries so minor that their ability to move around was not impaired. Luckily, they are few and far between.
But how does the disease progress? All diseases, after all, have an observable progression. In other words, they move from one stage to the next. This progression is rarely kind, and a full recovery is, unfortunately, far from an assured ending…especially when we’re dealing with infections as bad as the Ebola family of viruses.
Mortality rates are high, in other words.
But what I needed for my books was a victim that wandered around after infection. In other words, I needed a mobile vector, a victim that resembled all the traditional zombie tropes, while still holding on to the realm of possibility.
That’s where the necrosis filovirus comes in.
Get bit, or scratched, or otherwise contaminated by the bodily fluids of an infected victim on the necrosis filovirus, and you yourself become a victim.
In other words, you’re toast.
You get up and start infecting others, even if you don’t want to.
What that means in plain language is that you’ve just become a zombie. Even though you are still breathing, you have lost all sense of self. You don’t think, you don’t react, you don’t love. You are utterly stripped of everything that once made you human.
This complete de-personalization, by the way, is consistent with victims of all viral hemorrhagic fevers. Seriously, some pretty scary bugs cause these hemorrhagic fevers. In fact, researchers who study them have to wear spacesuits to handle them.
But let’s get back to disease progression for a minute.
Assuming a zombie survives his or her first eight months or so of undead life, they begin to change into Stage 2 zombies. These are the zombies that Ben Richardson and Michael Barnes (two of the main characters from my Dead World novel, Apocalypse of the Dead) face in the flooded ruins of Houston. They are capable of using simple strategies, such as cooperative hunting, to corner prey. In most cases, Stage 2 zombies are still slow moving.
It is extremely rare for a zombie to advance beyond Stage 2, but a few live long enough to manage it. Stage 3 zombies have regained a great deal of their fine motor skills and are even capable of approximating language through grunts and primitive gestures. Dr. Mark Kellogg (again, a major character from Apocalypse of the Dead) experiments with a few Stage 3 zombies. They are rather like trying to keep chimpanzees as pets, he realizes. Left alone for too long, they can, and will, break locks, feign injuries or sleep, and in some cases respond to their names and other verbal cues. They are, however, still aggressive to a fault, and unable to contain their impulses.
Which brings us to Ben Richardson, one of the major characters from Mutated, the fourth book in the Dead World series.
Ben survives the carnage at the end of Apocalypse of the Dead, and even survives the slow death that awaits the other survivors of that novel. Mutated picks up with Ben years later, as he wanders alone through a world largely emptied of people. There are few zombies left, and even fewer people.
But there are a few, and in one zombie in particular the necrosis filovirus has gone its full cycle. He is the Red Man, the villain of Mutated.
Before the Red Man (so named because of the rosacea that has turned him a burgundy red from head to foot) no one envisioned a stage 4 zombie. The idea of someone completely, or even mostly, regaining their sense of self after being infected seemed too implausible to be considered a threat. But that is exactly what the Red Man is, a stage 4 zombie. The Red Man has regained nearly all of his memories and his sense of self, but the necrosis filovirus has left him hopelessly insane. It has also given him the ability to communicate through normal speech with his human army, and through grunts, smells and moaning, with the zombie hordes he commands. He is the next step in evolution in this world made up of two different species of humanity.
It’ll be interesting to see what terrors lie out beyond the Red Man.
San Antonio, Texas
October 10, 2012