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You all know how this s**t works. You get a bite, you get any kind of wound from these things, something from them gets in you... and you f**king die.
~ Negan to The Saviors about the zombies in Issue 122.

Zombies, more commonly known as Walkers, are the central antagonists of The Walking Dead universe; serving as the primary catalyst throughout the events of the franchise. They served as the main antagonists in Season 1 of the TV series before appearing as a recurring antagonists for the rest of the series.

Overview

While not immortal, reanimated human beings will not "die" under typical conditions that would ordinarily cause the death of a living person. They do not appear to feel or respond to pain, can survive even the most brutal injuries, and despite their bottomless appetite for flesh, they do not need food, water, or sleep to survive. They show no other bodily function that relates to a human, showing no signs of self-healing or response to extreme temperatures. The brain maintains limited abilities of the body, allowing for movement of the limbs (provided that they are not decomposed to the point where the bones are not strong enough to bend without breaking), jaws, neck, and even the use of its sensory systems. While the walkers are notoriously weaker than humans, the only way to kill one is to destroy the brain. Despite severely weakened frames, they will continue to hunt for living animals to consume. Even when decapitated, the head will remain active, even though it would be practically harmless at such point.

Zombies of "The Walking Dead"

Just to get this on record once and for all... and it is complicated, I know... here's how zombification works. Whatever makes people come back as zombies after they die--it's inside them. It's inside everyone. No matter how anybody dies, as long as the brain is intact... they turn into a zombie. Well... bites, and direct to blood contact with zombie gunk, [...] causes death. It's a strong infection that leads to fever that kills someone. Then the "virus" or whatever is already in them... turns them into a zombie.
~ Robert Kirkman in Issue 147.
Zombies within The Walking Dead universe are Robert Kirkman's version of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead zombies. Zombies are relatively weak and unintelligent as individuals, but are dangerous in large numbers and in tight spaces. They are the main antagonists within the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead. The majority of known humanity has been wiped out by zombies, which have come to outnumber humans 5,000 to 1. As a species, Kirkman's zombies do not evolve and are permanently doomed to just deteriorate until there's nothing left but the skeleton.

Pathogen

Everyone in The Walking Dead universe somehow contracted the pathogen that, for reasons and through means unknown, brings the dead back to "life." It is unknown how the disease is spread, though its apparently total infection rate worldwide suggests it is either waterborne, airborne, or both. The exact taxonomy of the pathogen is unknown. The pathogen itself does not kill its hosts, but it seems to weaken their immune systems considerably, to the point where even minor illnesses are far more likely to be fatal than normal to humans.

Reanimation

The rule is WHATEVER it is that causes the zombies, is something everyone already has. If you stub your toe, get an infection and die, you turn into a zombie, UNLESS your brain is damaged. If someone shoots you in the head and you die, you're dead. A zombie bite kills you because of infection, or blood loss, not because of the zombie "virus".
~ Robert Kirkman
The dead corpse of anyone that dies for any reason will reanimate as a zombie, unless the brain of the individual is badly damaged or destroyed or the person was dead prior to the outbreak. When a person dies, the infection they carry reactivates critical areas of the brain that support necessary vital systems, resulting in reanimation. Because only a portion of the brain is reactivated, the reanimated person retains only a physical resemblance to their former self.
A dead body wouldn't become a walker until its body temperature had lowered enough that another walker wouldn't be tempted to bite it. It reaches a very dead corpse state before reanimation occurs.
~ Robert Kirkman

In the TV Series, it was stated that a corpse can reanimate between three minutes and eight hours after death, though the video game suggests that it could happen in seconds. The first cases of infection progressed through a state of fever, aches, and internal bleeding, and this illness ultimately was fatal. As seen on the MRI of Candace Jenner, the pathogen spreads into the brain like meningitis. It infects synapses, mostly concentrating on those in the brain stem. It eventually causes the adrenal glands to hemorrhage and the brain to shutdown, all brain activity would cease, followed by the major organs and the body would be clinically dead: no measurable brain activity, no reflexes, and no respiration or pulse. A variable time later, the pathogen, through some means, would revive synapses it infected and reactivate the brainstem and other parts of the cerebrum and cerebellum of the dead body.

Physiology

Comic Series

In the comic book, the group commonly encounters two zombie types: wandering, noise attracted "roamers," and lethargic "lurkers". In the first volume, a lurker is seen eating a deer. It ignores Rick and Shane. In Volume 5, a lurker bites Allen as he carelessly passes it by. In Volume 10, Eugene studies a lurker that is too weak to move, suggesting that after time and lack of food, roamers become lurkers that become less alert and active as time passes. In a recent letter column, Kirkman promises more hints of zombie physiology, and in a recent column he confirmed that "...whatever is making them walk around is also keeping them from rotting to bones in a matter of weeks." A zombie "lifetime" varies, though it is known that a human will likely outlive a zombie through the course of many years/decades. The body of the corpses, very likely through the zombie pathogen, manages to avoid immediate decomposition like regular human corpses, being able to halt or at least slow down, decomposition for years, if not decades at a time.

Television Universe

In the show, it has been demonstrated that zombies don't require sustenance by eating, but have a strong desire to do so. This is despite the fact that they have no digestive or circulatory activity which makes them unable to digest whatever flesh they consume. Zombies do not need to breathe, evidenced by Pete Dolgen still trying to reach for humans while underwater. Zombies may very rarely "dodge" melee attacks by leaning out of the way slightly, and some have been observed holding up their arms to likewise block attacks. Milton Mamet once stated that zombies do starve, but "slower" than humans.

Both Universes

Zombies have the ability to detect scents and can differentiate between the living and the dead; they prefer to feed on living flesh. Covering one's self in the scent of decay can act as a camouflage. They can also use sight to distinguish the living from the dead, although they seem to have poor eyesight as their irises fade and decay over time. They make up for this with heightened senses of hearing and smell. Darkness seems to have little effect on zombies' senses at close range, and in areas devoid of light they can still find their way around as they would in the day. Individual zombie strength depends on the physical makeup of the individual and on how long they have been reanimated. When attacking, zombies often become more lively, exhibiting full-body effort, and can produce enough force to quickly overwhelm an adult human. Zombies have been shown to be able to rip open human and animal victims with ease, and they can even rip off human limbs with enough force. As zombies decay, however, their muscles, and consequently, their entire body, becomes slowly, but surely, weaker. Zombies feel no pain. Although slow and seemingly unintelligent when not active, they can react quickly to sufficient stimulation, and can rapidly overpower a victim they have taken by surprise. Though their bodies are no more or less durable than a non-decomposed human body, they can absorb all manner of physical damage, even when badly decomposed. Anything other than a head attack, spinal cord severing, or dismemberment leaves them seemingly unfazed. As long as their brain remains intact, everything that is attached to the brain can continue to function as normal, even if only the skull remains and is severed from the body. Other than a mostly intact brain, zombies don't appear to require any vital systems or organ functions to survive, although their ambulatory functions do decrease as their level of decomposition increases. Sufficient physical damage can slow them down, or render them incapacitated. Compared to humans, zombies have rather limited mobility. Unstimulated, zombies stand still, or shuffle around slowly. When in this state they are sometimes referred to as "lurkers", as they can quickly activate, attack and kill. Zombies can also be found lying on the ground or in piles of other bodies, and can appear to be dead until stimulated. If they are pursuing a possible victim, zombies can move somewhat more quickly, roughly equivalent to a very light jogging pace. They can also lunge very short distances to grab close prey. They are difficult to shake off if they do manage to grab their victims, often allowing their arm to be ripped off before they will begin to let go.

Behavior

A reanimated body responds to stimuli such as light, scent, and loud noises. Oddly, even if the head is separated from the body, as long as the brain is intact, the head will still attempt to eat anything within reach. The body of a zombie does appear to be truly dead, which means that it does not feel pain, has no reflexes, and wounds to it will not heal; its rate of decomposition slows drastically but does continue. There is anecdotal evidence that some retain vestigial elements of memory and personality and this is shown some repeating behavior such as clinging to possessions, attempting to open doors, and even using large rocks to break through windows and doors. Zombies though, are incredibly unintelligent and generally unable to use tools or understand the need for them. It has been hinted at that newly reanimated corpses retain some basic sense of intellect and perhaps memory, and can perform very basic tasks such as opening doors. They have no sense of self-preservation other than eating, and will not react at all to the deaths of other zombies or to potentially lethal dangers to themselves. Zombies instinctively bite whatever prey they come in contact with, but have also been observed clawing at, tearing, and even punching humans and animals in order to topple them.

Infection

As previously stated, the zombie pathogen itself is not lethal, and the zombie "infection" occurs due to pathogen weakening the host immune system. This makes bacteria found in zombies, especially in their mouths, that much more lethal than they normally would. Nevertheless, the pathogen has two separate but parallel modes of infection: latent and fluid contact/bites/scratches *Latent: In the Walking Dead universe, most, if not every, human being on the planet is believed to be infected, where the pathogen remains latent or dormant within them. Any time a human dies they will reanimate, bitten or not, unless their brain is destroyed or severely damaged. *Fluid Contact/Bites/Scratches: Though physical contact with a zombie's saliva or blood will not cause an individual fatal infection, any fluid contact with open wounds will lead to an irreversible contamination of the individual. Zombie bites are not necessarily fatal because of the zombie pathogen. One possible explanation is that, through bites, the pathogen induces a rapid immune system response that accelerates the onset and severity of symptoms caused by bacteria in the zombie's mouth. Scratches could cause similar infections for similar reasons, however, no one in the comics or TV-show has ever gotten the fever as a result of a scratch. While zombie scratches and clawing rarely cause fatal infections, the deep gouges left by zombie bites are almost always fatal; death can potentially be avoided if the bite is on an appendage, which must then be immediately amputated. However, this does not always work, and bites on the torso, or on veins or arteries are always fatal. Even if an amputation proves successful at removing the infection, blood loss is also extremely dangerous due to the generally unprofessional execution of the procedure.

Comic Series

In the comic series, getting zombie blood, bile, saliva, or any part of the body directly into the blood stream causes infection, fever, and death, as evidence by Negan's successful tactic to cover weapons in zombie flesh and guts for one-hit kills.

Television Universe

It is unclear in the TV series whether or not the rule of infection above from the comic series is applicable. Sasha accidentally cut Abraham's arm with her zombie-blood soaked knife, yet he survived, indicating that the rules in the television universe are different. This was referenced earlier in the Season 2 episode "18 Miles Out", where Shane cuts his own hand with a knife that was previously used to kill a walker, and later wipes his cut hand on a place which a walker has licked.

Symptoms of infection

Symptoms of the infection includes:

  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever/Delirium/Hallucinations
  • Chills
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Pale skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Soreness
  • Fluid discharge
  • Spontaneous aggression or anger
  • Fainting
  • Loss of hair and missing scalp pieces
  • Dehydration
  • Coughing up blood
  • Pale yellow sclera (shown in the videogame only)

Disposal

Because a zombie is derived from a human form, it is limited physically by many of the same constraints that a human has. But because a zombie is, by definition, dead, it slowly rots and decays like other dead organisms. Over time, flesh and muscles deteriorate, and it becomes less and less formidable. They are only truly killed by destroying the brain, a common theme in many zombie variations. A severed head will remain animated and aggressive until the brain is destroyed or eventually disintegrates from decomposition. Fire has little effect on zombies, other than possibly angering them further, and normally lethal things such as acid or electricity also do little to impede them. They can be paralyzed if their spinal cords are severed, though this does not kill them, even if their heads are severed from the bodies.

Intelligence

Though zombies retain a physical resemblance to the living, cognitive similarities are almost non-existent beyond low-level functions, though there are examples of behavior that suggest zombies may retain small fragments of memory of their past lives. Zombies have enough intelligence to walk upright, to use their bodies to break objects, and to climb around or over somewhat small obstacles such as chain-link fences. Zombies can ascend and descend staircases, albeit very clumsily and slowly. They cannot generally operate doors or gates and only attempt to do so when they are relatively "fresh"; they tend to bash through obstacles rather than traversing them. Mostly, zombies are void of any emotional expression and thought. When stimulated, whether by noise, sight of prey, or simply encountering a problem they cannot solve, such as being unable to open a locked door, they quickly descend into a state of murderous aggression. If they spot prey when stimulated, they can pursue them ceaselessly, showing ravenous hunger. They are not hunters, however, and take no concern in alerting their victims or trying to hunt them with intelligence, always seeming to roar, grunt, and growl whenever they are stimulated. Zombies seem to be drawn to noise (such as that of a gunshot), presumably because they attribute the source of the noise to be caused by potential victims. Zombies also tend to form groups and stick together, and mimic the actions of other zombies, giving them a mob mentality. This can lead to zombies forming "herds," large hordes of zombies are far more dangerous and aggressive than smaller groups. In "Guts," zombies retain a further animalistic trait within their "herds," appearing to "sniff out" or examine new-coming zombies before leaving them be, as they do to Rick and Glenn, which may indicate that zombies seem to be able to familiarize themselves with their own kind and be cautious of ones they do not recognize. Newer zombies may rarely use primitive tools, such as using a heavy brick to smash a window, but none have any high-level abilities to use items in their environment. They lack any remaining speech capabilities, and can only moan, grunt, or wheeze, as well as roar and scream when alerted. Zombies are not shown to be able to "communicate" with other zombies by any means, though they will frequently copy the actions they witness other zombies perform, such as bashing on a door or moving in a group, eventually forming a herd. Robert Kirkman wrote on Reddit: ...In the beginning of the show we saw walkers do things like using a rock to help bash the doors in or turning a door knob, is there a reason we've stopped seeing them do that? "Older zombies are less together and capable or doing things like that. Fresher zombies, which there were more of in season one, are able to do more than older, more rotted zombies..

Eating Habits

Zombies prefer to eat anything dead or alive: animals and people. Zombies do not digest food. When their bodies are "full", the undigested meat will be forced out through the anus. As zombies are dead, their bodies will continue to rot even if they are well-fed. Zombies are never shown in any media to exhibit cannibalistic tendencies, even after going through long periods without food, and only show interest in animals and living humans. If the zombie loses the ability to feed, they evidently lose the desire to do so — a behavior observed in Michonne's pet Walkers. With their loss of desire for eating also comes with a loss of aggression and activity; unless present around other zombies, those who have lost the will to eat will remain quiet and lethargic, mindlessly walking in any given direction and paying no mind to humans. The presence of many zombies being partially consumed or missing limbs also indicates that zombies, though they seem perpetually hungry, do not always devour prey fully, meaning that, at least for a short period of time, can feel "full" and not want to eat.  In the TV series, the Walker that consumed Lori Grimes' body was lethargic, sated and full, and did not attack Rick when he arrived on the scene. Still, they can be driven to attack and consume live prey due to the sheer aggression the reanimated contagion seems to have given them.

Trivia

  • In the TV Series, walkers are shown mainly in "Guts" and "Bloodletting" to run at a very light jogger's pace, despite the fact that Kirkman has stated in the past that all zombies run at the same pace as those seen in the Romero films.
  • It is possible that the blood of a zombie being consumed directly or indirectly does not affect a human in any way. This is shown several times throughout the series.
  • In the season 5 finale of the show, Rick has to push his hands through a walker's throat, causing it to bleed out all over Rick's face. If one looks closely, one can see Rick appearing to swallow/consume the blood.
  • Another instance is in season 6, episode 3, when Rick comes across two walkers, one of which has a knife stuck in the shoulder. He takes that same knife and accidentally cuts himself with it with the walker's blood visible on it. To this day, Rick hasn't shown any signs of an infection.
  • More evidence comes from Fear The Walking Dead. During the midseason premiere of season 2, Nick watches from an abandoned bus as two dogs that recently attacked him get devoured by a swarm of walkers. After the herd slowly moves on, a very hungry and thirsty Nick crawls up to the dogs' mangled corpses and takes a chunk of the meat and proceeds to bite it. He never actually swallows it but the fact that the walkers were chewing on the flesh of the dogs and Nick not getting infected may indicate that consumption has no effect.
  • In season 1 of the TV series, the walkers' eyes were generally gray or yellow with a red limbal ring, but in the season 2 webisodes, "Cold Storage" and the later episodes of the TV Series, their eyes are generally gold. Older and more decayed walkers, however, have mostly or completely faded irises, leaving only dark pupils.
  • According to Robert Kirkman in episode 2 of Talking Dead, in the world of The Walking Dead, the works of Geroge A. Romero were never made, and thus zombies do not appear in fiction.
  • In the Webisodes, it is rumored that terrorists caused the "infection". This is most likely not true, as Kirkman himself never intended to explain the source of the outbreak and thus is just what is a rumor. *In the FtWD podcast Fear the Walking Dead: Radio Waves a conspiracy theorist claims to have found proof that the infection was caused by the government as a means of population control. How reliable this is is unknown,
  • Walkers are some of the many amputees in The Walking Dead.
  • Scott M. Gimple believes the walkers' decaying vision attracts them to fire. Fire represents two of the only things walker can still see: light and movement.
  • In "Guts", a walker is seen displaying intelligence by using a rock to break the glass of a department store in which a group is hiding. Zombies are also seen climbing fences. The writers of the AMC series say that they agreed on making the zombies of the first season "smart", but for every season since, it has been accepted that zombies are unintelligent beings. 

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