When I was just a kid learning the basics from my first chemistry sets, everything I thought I knew about zombies came from the movies. And most of it was wrong. That you caught a disease from a zombie’s bite. That you died. That you came back with an irresistible desire for brains.
OK, so the last part wasn’t entirely wrong, if only because they’re particularly tender and juicy. But I’ll get to that.
Point is, it took a lot of experimentation to figure out how it worked. And you can’t really blame me for my curiosity. No matter how badly it all backfired.
My dad was a scientist. He told me how, in his youth in the 80s, he’d done things like mix acid with sugar, which produces a black worm of carbon and a noxious smell. He was also a total nerd, into sci-fi monsters and old horror films. Shoot, no one who gets into chemistry or biology really wants to test cosmetics or hydrocarbons. We all really want to be Frankenstein.
So when on Christmas Day 2017 you give your kid a beginning gene-splicing kit and a copy of “Viral Sequencing for Dummies,” you’ve got to know he’s going to ignore the recommended experiments. He’s going to try to figure out how to run flesh electrochemically after respiration and circulation have stopped. He’s bound to reanimate a dead frog, and anything else his dog manages to bring in from the back yard.
Or maybe I’m projecting.
But you have to blame Lady as well as me, if you’re going to blame someone. Because everything I learned about zombies really started with my dog. Here are eight things my zombie pet taught me:
1. Zombification is not a disease
I know, that’s against most of what you learned from the old movies and shows. From George Romero back in the 1960s to “The Walking Dead.”
But there is no zombie germ or virus. No living bug can revive a dead corpse. Still, zombies are real; there are documented cases tied to voodoo and Santeria dating back decades.
Which kind of brings me to that frog, which my dog Lady, a beautiful greyhound – well, grey now, anyway — brought to me when I was just 12. She was two years older than me, a smelly outdoor hound.
Like I said, I was a scientist from day one, and a total nerd. Lady was about my only friend. She used to hang out with me in the garage where my chemistry and biology kits were set up next to my father’s more sophisticated stuff.
Now I don’t want you to think I was one of those weird kids who tortures animals and grows up to be a serial killer. But my father was a biology professor at a major university and a research scientist often dashing off to jungles in search of new medicines. I was just used to dead stuff.
I knew you could use electrical impulses to make muscles contract. And I’d been taking samples and playing with different mixtures to produce electrochemical reactions in dead bugs. That day, it all came together and with a zap from a car battery, the frog twitched into action. Hopped a couple of times. Flashed its eyes back and forth like it was scared, as if a frog could feel such things.
And maybe it could. Some of the stuff Lady brought in wasn’t quite dead.
Then it was over, but I had the key. The possibilities went beyond bad movies to positives, to reanimating dead limbs and ruined lungs. And it was not a disease. More like a witch doctor’s potion. Biochemistry.
2. Zombies aren’t really dead
Fast forward about 7 years. I was doing medical school at Tulane, specializing in respiratory and cardiac medicine. The stuff that keeps you traditionally alive.
I hadn’t wasted a lot of time in high school, which is how I ended up in my final classroom year at 19. I was dreading the next steps, internship and then residency. I was much more into the lab. Reanimated mice don’t talk back.
That experimentation was all kind of under the table, of course. But I’d found that mice and birds could be kept alive longer than reptiles and amphibians. Had something to do with the mammalian, warm-blooded systems. I hadn’t figured it all out yet.
Anyway, I got a call late one night from my dad; my mother had died three years before. He told me Lady wasn’t well, and could I come?
Of course, I could, but would she live until I could get there, say a few more days? I think so, he told me. Good. There was still hope.
3. Zombification is a chemical reaction
I was kind of glad to go back, and the school was happy to give me a leave. My age made them nervous anyway. I took a bag of stuff from my school lab and went back to the old garage in Southern California.
Dad had taken pity on Lady and let her go inside the house, but I moved her into the garage and crashed on a cot with her. It was well insulated, and we needed to be alone. Truth is I was closer to her than him.
And he wasn’t quite all there anymore. He’d retired early, and one of my few old friends — David was his name — had been stopping in to help regularly and emailing me about his decay.
But first came Lady. “I bought some medicine from a vet student,” I told dad. “Might be able to help her.”
But there was more to it.
See, the old voodoo legends had people being slipped some sort of potion and falling into a near-dead coma. So close they’d usually end up in a morgue or a grave, to be dug up in a zombified state and aimed at a target.
You say potion, I think chemistry. That’s why I’d picked a school in New Orleans. With dogged effort, I’d won the trust of a couple of voodoo practitioners. They’d shared with me a few recipes, and I’d made the potions and analyzed the chemistry. Inducing the near-death state was easy; in fact, once I’d induced it in a lab rat, I found that rat’s saliva could easily pass the chemical to another rat and start the reaction in it. The drug transformed cells into little factories making more of the drug.
Keeping cells from tipping over into death while they transformed was the hard part.
But by the time I gave Lady what I gave her, I had it mastered. She went peacefully to sleep, and I could almost hear the chemical reaction taking over, the drugs working cell by cell. Her lungs stopped, and then her heart. They weren’t necessary, so her body lost interest in breathing and beating.
She did seem to shrivel a bit, and clumps of hair came loose.
But she opened her eyes and looked up. They were gray and dazed, and the pupils were too wide. She growled a bit when I moved her. It was a while before she could move on her own.
Still, she was with me. The real true love of my life. My zombie pup.
4. Zombies need matched proteins, not brains
To the food thing.
What you must remember is that zombies don’t have working physical systems like the rest of us. No respiration. No circulation. No digestion, at least none to speak of.
The medical reality is complex, but to keep it simple, the drug infused in the body helps create energy by burning cellular matter. Zombified subjects will wither away unless they get something else to burn. That’s why they need meat.
So, Lady Z, as I started calling her, just turned her nose up at dry dog food. The canned stuff was better, but she growled as she gulped it down and eventually threw most of it back up.
Luckily, the pet store near the house stocked raw foods, and that seemed to keep her happy for a couple of weeks. Oh, she wasn’t my loving pup; she kept her tail down and usually held herself tight, like a ball.
What’s the old song? Dead puppies aren’t much fun. When you call them, they don’t come.
But she was alive, in a way.
It was only about 10 days later when she got her first taste of live flesh. A mouse skittered across the floor and she jumped like her old self, though there might have been a yelp of pain when she landed.
Tore the thing to pieces and downed it all, smiled up at me through crooked teeth, and seemed happy and content through the night. Became a regular thing. They sell mice for snakes, after all.
5. Zombies aren’t very cuddly
Which brings up a related point. However much we may be fascinated by them, zombies just aren’t warm and fuzzy, even if they have fur.
After those 10 days, Lady only had about half her hair left, and what was left had turned darker and dirtier. Zombies don’t groom themselves.
After the mice, she did start jumping up to sleep with me on the twin bed in the garage. She’d slept with me throughout my childhood, but now I was the one guarding her.
In the heat of Southern California, it had often been a struggle to keep her on the foot of the bed. She she liked to get close, but she’d felt like a little furnace against my skin.
Those days, though, I had to keep extra covers on the bed. She wasn’t just cold to the touch. It was like she sapped heat from me. And she growled a lot. Never bit me, but I started wondering when she would.
6. Humans make the best zombies
The problem, I think, is that animals never quite get it. Left to her own, Lady would never have gone looking and tracked down fresh meat. Maybe if she’d been born wild, but she’d always been fed. So I had to buy and deliver. Once in front of her, she got it.
But about three weeks after Lady came back, I wandered into the house and found dad.
He’d had a heart attack, I guess, and he was on the ground. Might have been breathing, might not, hard to tell. I was sure if I called the doctor they’d either pronounce him or let him go. That would have been the right thing.
So, well, I have no excuse. But he was all I had.
Problem was, he got it. After a few rats, I found him outside the house chasing a neighbor’s cat. He was strong, too. Not quick strong like the fighter he’d bragged about being when he was a teenager, but determined strong. Latch a door, close a window, and he’s just press until he broke something and got through it.
- Had to call my old friend Dave, who had long accepted my weirdness. He had seen me zap frogs and make dead things move when we were kids. Kids can take those things in stride.
Dave was also a bit of a carpenter, and when I told him dad was suffering some Alzheimer’s and we needed better locks so he wouldn’t wander, Dave pitched in.
When Dave saw him, eyes skittering and flesh starting to sag, like the air had been let out — well, he accepted it like only a fellow horror fan would. “Man, you’re going to win a Nobel or something when you get this worked out.”
Is there a Nobel for zombification?
7. Zombies have a nasty disposition
The real problem started after another couple of weeks, when Dave came to visit.
“You need to get out, man,” he told me. I’d been holed up in the garage more of the time, playing with the chemicals that made up the drugs I’d given Lady and Dad. I’m not sure why. Giving them anything else was a risk I would only have taken as a last resort.
Dad was locked securely inside the house. Probably hungry, and I couldn’t stomach buying more cats.
Lady was curled up in a corner, growling to herself. Mostly bald now, her mouth half smiling and half bared teeth, eyes faded to gray with some yellow floaters.
“She freaks the shit out of me, man. And she’s not looking good.”
He stood up, walked over to her. He knew her well and she knew him. But I should have told him to be careful. The only real life she was showing by that point was when I tossed her a rat, or she caught a loose mouse and mutilated it.
He reached down to pet her and she snapped. OK, more than a snap. Left big wet teeth marks and drew blood.
I jumped up and pulled her loose, avoiding her claws and teeth. Had a muzzle we used when we took her to the vet, and somehow got her in that.
She settled into a sit in the corner, looking at us and flipping a bald tail. Like she was sorry, but also like she wondered why we were being mean. Dave felt bad about the bite, I think, like he caused it.
Or maybe he’d just started feeling the reaction.
8. Zombies multiply like rabbits
It was odd, because he hadn’t been sick when he visited me. But his wife called my cell with the news. Dave had been taken ill and passed quickly.
She thought it might have been something he’d picked up on a trip to see me the previous spring. In the swamps. There are millions of bugs we haven’t discovered yet, he’d told her, and lord knows what they can cause.
Grabbed my dad’s paper the next morning to check out the obit and the services. There was a story on the front page that caught my eye.
Four killed in spree at mortuary, the headline read.
Two bodies also mutilated. Three others missing.
Went in to see my dad in the big house, but I found the door ajar. There was blood in the living room, and something in his bed. I think it was a hand.
The attacks started making the town paper a few days later. Bloody and awful. Sometimes they were fatal, usually not quite. As the attacks multiplied, police worried about copycats.
Then the newspaper stopped. Pretty soon so did the mail, and the trash pickups.
I guess that was two months ago. I’ve been locked in the garage most of the time since. Lady is still with me, muzzled, mostly bone now, no doubt hungry. Smiling through the leather straps, as if to say, come on by. Do I have a chemical reaction for you.
They come pounding on the door every once and a while, and Lady whines. I figure I’ll wait it out. Zombies can’t live forever, can they? I should have tested for that.
When Lady goes, I’ll know about how long they last. These are eight things she taught me about zombies. That will be number nine.