Zombie movies almost always work. Maybe because they are a perfect metaphor for our latent fear of civilization's disintegration. Or they're just good at playing up our repulsion of the icky-yicky that is the inside of our bodies.
Whatever the reason, we're fascinated with all-things-zombie. For example, the blog-o-nets were recently all abuzz with a real-life-creepy scientific paper regarding "zombie caterpillars." Specifically, the report detailed how a virus infects a gypsy moth caterpillar's brain and forces the insect to climb to the top of a tree and remain there (a healthy moth will only ascend at night). The virus then "melts" the poor creature into a drippy goop that litters the forest floor to infect more unfortunate victims.
It's part Body Snatchers, part Living Dead — and real.
But this oozing zombie moth is far from the only example from the annals of science that feature once-living creatures that still mange to lurk about. Here, we present some strange, but true examples that might only be described as the living dead. Or the dead living. Whatever — it's freaky real zombie stuff.
WARNING: If you are a squeamish person do NOT watch any videos linked or embedded in this post, but feel free to read on--words won't damage you. Too much.
1. Fungus-fueled Ant Zombies
As far as inter-kingdom feuds go, fungi and humans don't have too much beef. They provide us with penicillin and shiitake mushrooms, and in return we put up with the occasional bout of athlete's foot. But when it comes to tropical Carpenter ants and a fun little guy known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, it's all-out biological warfare being waged with some positively Romero-esque tactics.
When an ant's brain becomes infected with these specific spores, the parasitic fungus commandeers its host so all the ant's final lumbering actions are taken solely to serve the parasite's needs.
Once infected, the "zombie ant" becomes disoriented before climbing up from its natural habitat on the ground where it will perform one last action: biting down on the vein of a leaf, marking its final resting place. Scientists have referred to this act as a "death grip," as the ant's mandibles clamp down with an "abnormally strong" force, securing the insect in place as the fungus develops in the ant's body, ultimately ripping it apart from the inside. Eventually, a condiophore — a fungus' "fruiting" stalk — sprouts out from the ant's head and releases more spores into the forest.
The circle of life.
According to a study published in The American Naturalist, the fungus "drives" the ant's body with surprising accuracy towards ideal fungi-cultivating conditions. In one sampling from a Thai wildlife sanctuary, 98% of infected ants landed their final resting place on leaves that were 1) on the north side of the plant; 2) were 25 centimeters above the ground; 3) in an area with 94-95% humidity; and 4) in a location with a temperature between 20 and 30 degrees.
This form of parasitic "zombie" mind control is fairly common throughout the animal kingdom including caterpillars who come under control of wasp larvae implanted in their bodies; bacteria that live in feline guts and spreads to new tabbies by causing host rats to commit suicide-by-cat; and worms that take up residence inside snails and cause their host to climb up trees and present their infected tentacles for hungry birds to rip off and devour.
Image via Smithsonian Science
2. Reanimated Food
The above video features a dead octopus that appears to have retained the ability to bust a move from beyond the grave. This unworldly footage that made the rounds on the internets over the summer features a traditional Korean dish known as sannakji. Despite the fact that the octopus is quite dead, it still manages to crawl off of the plate all horror movie style. Almost as if it's walking. Almost as if it's trying to escape its delicious (we're told) and horrible fate!
If this macabre display isn't some form of black magic, then it's certainly an extreme form of animal cruelty. At least that's what People for the Ethical Rights of Animals (PETA) accused Korean restaurants of.
As with many seafood dishes, the meal-to-be is kept alive right up until it is ready to be prepared. Sannakji can either be served whole as seen above (the brain and other internal organs are removed before plating) or chopped into pieces. Often the animal is cut up while still alive — which certainly sounds like an awful way to go — but in any event, it is fully expired by the time it reaches the diner's chopsticks. When served — and despite the notable handicap of not having a brain — the octopus debris continues to writhe and wiggle, and on occasion, get right on up and walk. The dish is known to be a potential choking hazard as the still-functioning suction cups on the tentacles can grab onto parts of the mouth and throat on the way down.
So, is the still-moving sannakji just an amped-up version of the detached, still-writhing extremities of a Daddy Long Legs? (We were all 9-years-old once, yes?) In a word, yes, but there's more to it than that. The octopus is freshly killed, which allows for some residual electrical-muscle activity. But notice in the video (or just take our word for it), the cephalopod is largely unmoving until the server pours on the soy sauce — a condiment rich in sodium chloride (aka salt). The sodium ions penetrate the skin and kick-start the octopus' ghoulish gallop via chemical reactions in the still-intact nerves. When this electrical-chemical process is activated, the muscles contract and expand as when alive.
And there you have a walking, brainless zombie octopus.
Sannakji is not the only dish with postmortem shenanigans, but it is one of the most noticeable. This is likely because two thirds of an octopus' neural matter are stored in its tentacles which have been shown to exhibit limited functional autonomy from the brain center.
A similar dance of the dead can be found in freshly-killed and skinned frog legs when salt is added, as seen in this culinary video from the pits of hell (which is actually way freakier than the octopus video — seriously, you've been warned on this one).
3. The Real Frankenstein's Monster
Just after the turn of the 19th century an Italian physicist named Giovanni Aldini performed a sensational scientific experiment before a packed house at London's Royal College of Surgeons. Aldini had a specific interest in galvanism, the practice of stimulating muscles with electric currents.
In his most famous galvanistic endeavor, Aldini acquired the body of a recently hanged, confessed murder named George Foster. Aldini laid out Foster's corpse on the stage in the medical hall and caused ol' George to... reanimate. Through the use of the newly-developed invention of the zinc battery, Aldini showcased the role electricity plays in the nervous system, causing various appendages of the dead man to move as if he were alive.
Here is a newspaper account of the evening's affairs:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
According to the same account, the experiment had such an effect on the audience that "Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons' Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home."
The science is similar to the reanimated food, except that the neural activity is created by direct electrical jolts instead of a chemical process. It is said that Aldini's experiments, along with those of other galvanists of the day were directly inspirational for Mary Shelly's post-life gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.
Image via U.S. National Library of Medicine
So, as you can see, the zombie apocalypse is just thiiiiis close to beginning. Thankfully the authorities are taking this problem quite seriously. So get prepared and watch as many zombie movies as possible because if Hollywood has shown us anything — we're in for a hell of a fight.
Godspeed, human soldiers.