“From a dramatic standpoint, there is no connection between the voodoo zombie and the modern zombies. From a factual anthropological, religious, or historic standpoint, there is no connection between the voodoo zombie and the modern zombie.”
So writes author Matt Mogk in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies. As a professional zombie expert—he’s president of the Zombie Research Society—Mogk has written the bible on zombies. If my task was to trace the connection between voodoo zombies and flesh-eating movie monsters, I figured this was the book to check out. And indeed, it answered my question: There is no connection.
But as Mogk’s book warns, “The scientific study of zombies is largely an exploration of all that is strange and disturbing in our natural world and often leads to more questions than answers.” The same could be said of his zombie bible: it answered one question and posed a hundred others.
Mogk’s book approaches zombie studies seriously. This is no goof-ball, tongue-in-cheek book written for campy fun (although Mogk does have a good sense of humor). This is an earnest attempt to ask scientific questions and seek scientifically plausible answers based on a single premise: If a zombie showed up at my door, what would it look like? How could it function? Why would it behave the way it does?
The premise requires a somewhat counterfactual approach, and it’s based largely on conjecture, which Mogk readily admits. “All zombie research is theoretical,” he writes. “No single theory will ever paint a complete picture of the modern zombie, and we’ll never know the full extent of the threat we face until the dead rise.”
One of the central premises of the book—and of the Zombie Research Society in general—is that an outbreak of zombie sickness is a matter of when, not if. While that may seem, on the surface, a little zany, it gives the research a degree of urgency and gravitas that makes it surprisingly thorough.
“When it comes to zombie research and survival, I’m not interested in wading through the rubble of mankind, scratching my head, and wondering what happened after the fact,” Mogk explains. “The time for wild speculation and heated debate is now, because once the dead come knocking, all bets are off.”
Mogk divides his book into four main parts: zombie basics, zombie science, zombie science, and zombies in popular culture.
Because zombies are explosively hot cultural commodities right now, starting with some zombie basics is crucial—including a proper definition: “The modern zombie is a relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse driven by biological infection.” The definition provides an important touchstone throughout the book as Mogk deconstructs various cultural evolutions of the zombie.
Mogk traces the origins of the modern zombie to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which in turn traces its origins—through inspiration if not adaptation—to Richard Matheson’s vampire classic I Am Legend. The movie evokes the book enough that when Matheson saw the movie on TV, he thought, “Wait a minute—did they make another version of I Am Legend they didn’t tell me about?” What makes Romero’s film “truly great,” Mogk says, “is Romero’s deliberate rejection of all aspects of the vampire myth in favor of a much scarier, much more realistic threat.”
That’s what Mogk finds so fascinating about zombies: they’re grounded in science, not the supernatural. They could be real.
Unlike werewolves and vampires, zombies aren’t interested in going to high school with you. [Werewolves and vampires] might be scary, but ultimately they’re trying to coexist in a society in which they have a stake. By contrast, zombies don’t know and don’t care…. Instead, they have the singular mission of killing and eating every last living human being on earth and will stop at nothing to accomplish their goal.
“That’s why,” he says, “when thinking about zombies, it’s impossible not to think also about the end of the world.”
The zombie science section of Mogk’s book is easily the most impressive. He brings in a diverse array of scientific theories as possible explanations for his queries. For instance, he wonders if zombies would freeze in the cold. “Several species of cold-blooded fish have a special substance in their blood called glycoprotein, which acts like anti-freeze to help them survive very cold water temperatures,” Mogk points out. “Glycoprotein depresses the freezing temperature of blood sufficiently to render the body immune to cold….
If the undead body is able to access the existing glycoprotein therein, it may then have a workable system that no longer needs to regulate the internal temperature in order to function. Though zombies would still likely move more slowly in extreme cold, their blood would never convert into a solid, continuing to flow and power the body.
Mogk wonders if zombies have to blink and, if not, what keeps their eyes moist enough to function. He wonders if zombies need to breathe and, if not, what sort of barrier would water really provide. Do zombies have a working circulatory system and, if not, why doesn’t gravity make their blood pool in their feet the way it would in any other upright cadaver?
Mogk not only turns to science, he also cites historical and sociological precedence. For instance , when discussing ethical matters, he asks, “What are the rights of the infected? What liberties should be granted to people who have contracted the zombie illness but are not yet dead or dying?” (This is an area ripe for further research by ethicists, by the way.) As a possible model, he turns to John Tayman’s The Colony, a book about lepers in Hawaii.
The survival section of Mogk’s book is about as long as the science section, and it provides a good overview of the basics. (A much more exhaustive book is Max Book’s The Zombie Survival Guide.)
The final section of the book, and the one of most interest to me, looks at zombies in pop culture. As ubiquitous as they seem to be today, zombies don’t have a long-standing literary tradition. “In fact, the last dozen years aside, zombies have almost no literary tradition at all,” Mogk says.
Unlike most other popular monsters, zombies don’t reflect the ancient superstitions of a bygone age. They’re not born of myth or legend. There is no romance in the living dead…. They are here and now. They are the painful reality of what we must suffer in this life. Simply put, they are the most compelling, relevant, and enduring monster of the last half century.
Mogk calls zombies “the embodiment of a constant awareness of the inevitability of death.”
The pop culture section of his book hits on a few influential zombie movies, it talks about zombies in video games and comic books, and it even explores the phenomenon of “zombie walks,” where groups of people dress as zombies and shamble around.
Because of their popularity, though, Mogk worries that zombies will get exploited. Slap the word “zombie” in the title of something and it’s bound to sell a mint, regardless of how crappy it is. “[N]ow that money is in the driver’s seat, there is a clear risk of losing sight of the love of the subgenre that led to so many impressive and inventive works in the first place,” he says.
I’d expected Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies to be entertaining and interesting, but it turned out to be surprisingly educational, too. Fanboys looking for a complete guide to gross-out zombie movies will be disappointed, but anyone interested in speculative science and pop culture will find much to think about in the book. The book was even sharp enough to earn a nomination this month as a finalist for the 2011 Bram Stoker Award for Nonfiction.
If I’m tracing zombie history, then it looks like I need to check out some George Romero as the next phase of my zombie explorations. But first, I’m going to call Matt Mogk. If I’m going to be spending so much time with zombies, it’d be best to be as prepared as possible, and who better to get advice from than the world’s leading authority.