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Scientists Share Insights on Zombies

Posted August. 08, 2008 06:26,   


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first zombie movie, “Night of the Living Dead.” After a long lull, zombie flicks are catching on again in the West, from “REC” and “28 Days Later” to “Resident Evil.”

To get a better understanding of zombie films, The Dong-A Ilbo surveyed psychologists and scientists.

○ Zombies with emotion and intelligence

On why zombie movies are popular, film critic Jang Geun-yeong, who is also a psychologist and researcher at the National Youth Policy Institute, said, “People harbor a vague fear over rapidly spreading unidentified epidemics.”

“In the 2000s, new epidemics such as SARS, anthrax and bird flu broke out. But we still don’t know the exact causes and have failed to come up with countermeasures to prevent the outbreak of such diseases. Zombie films capitalize on people’s fear that humans are unprepared for these possible epidemics.”

Those bitten by zombies turn into zombies and defenseless people are killed while running for their lives. Such scenes are common when epidemics spread. Unlike previous horror films, the new ones have people turn into zombies by contracting viruses humans have yet to conquer.

The “T” virus wreaks havoc in “Resident Evil,” while the “rage” virus destroys most of Britain in “28 Days Later.”

New flicks increase fear by defying the long-held perception that zombies are walking morons. Zombies can run in “28 Weeks Later” and “Resident Evil 3” shows zombies with emotion and intelligence. “When human superiority over zombies is gone, people suffer extreme fear,” Jang said.

○ Human zombie creator receives Nobel Prize

Can a virus turn a person into a zombie in real life? The notion that a corpse can rise from the grave is nonsensical, all the experts said. “If human history is any guide, there is no possibility that viruses can cause those gruesome diseases,” said Seong Yeong-cheol, a life science professor at Pohang University of Science and Technology.

V. Narry Kim, a life science professor at Seoul National University, said, “It’s impossible for a dead body to become alive. But films could give us a picture of when a virus attacks a dead body’s nervous system and destroys its brain, leading to unconscious movement.”

Has brain surgery or medicine turned a human into a zombie then? One scientist won a Nobel Prize for creating a zombie-like soulless human.

“Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz received the Nobel Prize in 1949 for performing successful prefrontal lobotomies on some 20,000 patients in the late 1940s,” said Kim Dae-soo, a life science professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

The prize was wrongly awarded, however, Kim said. Done on patients suffering from depression and schizophrenia, the surgery destroyed part of the frontal lobe with a mess being inserted under eyes.

Though the patients’ conditions improved after surgery, they became less active, creative and socialistic. Some of them even suffered personality changes.

The adverse effects were so severe, physicians stopped performing the surgery in the 1960s.

Kim said, “When the frontal lobe responsible for advanced mental activities is affected, loss of ego ensues. This can bring zombie-like behavior.”

○ Corpse-turned-zombie

Why do people buy the idea of a corpse-turned zombie? That’s because humans have evolved to have a dual sense of fear and awe at corpses, said Jeon Jung-hwan, an eco-science researcher at Ewha Womans University.

When a corpse remains unburied, it is swarmed with pests and creates an environment for the transmission of infection, thus endangering people nearby. Corpse-fearing humans have boosted their abilities to survive through funerals and burying dead bodies far away from their dwellings.

Though humans dread dead bodies, they cannot view their deceased parents and relatives as lifeless things.

“Mixed feelings about a corpse have produced the notion of a departed soul,” Jeon said. “Zombies also seem to be evolutionary by-products stemming from complicated feelings on corpses.”