So, I’m reading a novel about zombies at the moment (The Return Man by V.M. Zito – very good so far). I find that I have a bit of a problem in general with the shambling fellows. What are their motivations? They’re dead. Why do they have to eat brains? Unlike vampires, the eating of the brains does not have a rejuvenating effect, so… why? Being entirely unqualified to answer this myself, I decided I would seek some answers from around the speculative fiction community. Here’s what people were able to come up with. I’ll add more if and when people send them in.
[Feel free add your own thoughts in the comments.]
“Bastard” (Bastard Books):
The truth of the matter my friend, is that if the context of your question is, “Why do they need to eat brains to stay alive?”, then that’s purely a myth. There’s a complex reason as to why they eat brains and why this idea has been propagated as it has, but the main simple one is that it’s a craving. The same craving a chocolate lover has when passing by some fine home-baked brownies. That’s not to say that brains are not of great value to a zombie’s health, but they don’t need it to survive. The zombies’ main concern is the rotting flesh. They rot, they die. As simple as that. Once someone gets turned into a zombie, their system gets altered in such a way that the combination of neurons, blood, and brain matter has shown to decelerate the rot. In some cases, it has even shown to have some restorative effects, but only in rare occasions. By what means these phenomena occur, it is unknown to this date. So while beneficial to eat brains, it’s not essential to their survival. They just need to find alternate ways to keep from rotting, and there are plenty. I’ve heard of some creams that are just delightful.
Now to the complex answer, Master Zombies. The devious creatures known as the Master Zombies are rarely talked about, and most don’t even know they exist. And they’re highly intelligent. Their goal? Simple world domination. In order to accomplish that, they need to get rid of the humans, their biggest threat. So they have masterfully created this plan of using the monstrosity we’ve come to know as zombies to eradicate their enemies. How do they accomplish this? Well, by manipulation. The first thing we have to know about Master Zombies is that they have some psychic powers. Though they can’t control minds, they have powers of psychic suggestion to those who have been transformed into zombies. They’re dumb as it is, so easy to manipulate. Playing to the zombies’ cravings, combined with the health benefits, Master Zombies have strongly suggested that they need human brains to survive, so the zombies go around killing people and eating their brains. So that’s how Master Zombies are planning to take over the world, and the reason why we believe that zombies need to eat brains to survive. A simple propaganda started by Master Zombies to distract us from their nefarious mission.
From The Walking Dead comic, by Robert Kirkman
The idea that Zombies need to eat brains is a common misconception. I’ve watched the full Romero pantheon, not to mention 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, The Walking Dead, Zombieland, and a lot more besides. While I’ve certainly seen plenty of scenes of Zombies eating brains, I’ve never seen a narrative laydown that they actually prefer this part of the body to any other, or that they need it specifically to survive.
If someone else has got an example of a critical piece of the literature that I’m missing, I’m open to hearing about it. Otherwise, I’m going to rephrase the question to “Why do Zombies eat people?”
To which my answer is: “Duh.”
Justin (Staffer’s Musings):
Once there was a man and he enjoyed eating crumpets. He wasn’t British, which I’m sure comes as a surprise given his love of soft, porous, and spongy cakes (do you see where this is going?). Rather, he was Georgian. Not the Asian Georgia, because it’s more an enigma than a place, he was in fact from the state of Georgia, where he rode the midnight train.
I’m not one to name names, so I won’t, but this man was the first case of zombification which was a direct result of my intervention in his crumpet habit. It may seem impossible to those of breeding and refinement, but I often observed him consuming baked goods outside of the structure of afternoon tea. What first started as crumpets and syrup for breakfast, quickly descending into crumpet sandwiches, crumpet dumplings, and fried crumpets (I did say he was Southern).
It’s a little known fact among scientific circles but the yeast in crumpets is a breeding ground for bacteria. It was my thought that if my unnamed crumpetor were to eat an infected crumpet perhaps he would realize the nature of his obsession. I pursued this course of action with no thought of the consequences. It was successful, in so far as it broke this man’s dependence on the savory griddle cake. It was likewise perverted.
From that day forth he could not die, and replacing his passionate desire to consume the delectable crumpet was to its biological equivalent: Brains. And somehow that imperative has been passed through the bacterial infection that transmits with each drop of his tainted saliva.
A panel from KEY OF Z, by Chondra Echert & Claudio Sanchez
Well, accept first that every type of undead has a built-in motivation in their total unflinching obedience to a central desire. This is what makes them such popular characters in fiction: you don't actually have to create a character if you can just make them undead and have it built in. Vampires crave blood, werewolves crave flesh, mummies crave chasing Scooby Doo around a museum and zombies crave brains.
It’s only recently, though, that this concept of overwhelming desire has been fetishized. While the aforementioned cravings still exist, they are now irrevocably coupled with more base desires. To that end, every undead and horror wants sex. Vampires want blood and sex, werewolves want flesh and sex, Scooby Doo had probably better pick up the pace, you get where this is going. It was only recently that zombies remained relatively untouched by this stigma. Their inability to be sexy, charming, mysterious or to have the moonlight catch their perfect buttcheeks in such a way as to drive men and women alike wild has left them nearly immune to fetishization.
But, as all trends die, so must new trends be brought into replace them. And thus, as vampires become passé and werewolves lose their animal lustre, we will see a time in which zombies are made sexy. Then, in eerie prophecy, we will know we have gone too far.