The Walking Dead: How does the zombie virus spread?

Zombie Shane in The Walking Dead

So, the big question on everyone’s lips after this week’s Walking Dead: Was Shane more dangerous as a living being or as a dead-eyed zombie?

I’m kidding. The real big question is how does this zombie plague spread?

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I haven’t read the Walking Dead comics, so if the question has been answered there, I apologise. But nothing’s more fun than delving into what we already know and trying to work out the answers.

The original assumptions

Zombie Bite

Don’t try and pretend it’s a dog bite…

We first assumed that – according to zombie legend – you had to be bitten by, or had your skin broken by a zombie. Presumably the infection then spread to your body, you caught a fever and died. Shortly afterward you would be reborn as a zombie.

When the survivors visited the CDC in Season 1, they saw the process at work, as the brain gradually shut down and the body died, then a spark of life reignited in the brain, reanimating the corpse with a ravenous hunger for living flesh.

Non-bitten zombies

A few episodes back, Shane and Rick discovered a pair of zombie corpses – I think they were security guards or police officers – who had no marks or bites on them. The question was raised – briefly – how they had come to be infected in the first place.

If I recall correctly, another corpse showed up later without bite marks, but the story moved on too quickly for us to focus on the disturbing fact: our knowledge about this plague is still shockingly incomplete!

The confirmation came with Shane’s sudden conversion to zombie: From what we saw, he had no evidence of injury at the hands of a zombie, nor was he experiencing any fever or other symptoms. He was far more agitated than usual, but we put that down to him being put in his place by Rick and feeling ousted.

So what happened? Well, all we know is that Rick was forced to put Shane down. Shane was ready to shoot him, and Rick pulled a confidence trick, got Shane close and stabbed him in the gut, holding his former partner until he died. However, while Rick was dealing with Carl (who’d witnessed the whole thing), we saw Shane reanimated as a hungry zombie, lumbering toward his friend. A bullet from Carl ended Zombie Shane before he could even get tucked into a first course of Rick Sushi.

Let’s revise our theories:

Walking Dead - Carl and Rick

Carl and Rick ponder the zombie problem…

First up, it occurs that we’ve never seen a non-zombie incurred death on The Walking Dead so far. So we don’t really know what happens when someone dies of natural causes. Like being stabbed in the gut.

Clearly the virus isn’t airborne – if it were, it would have pretty much wiped out the human race on the first outbreak. Unless the virus itself remains dormant until either:

  1. The carrier dies, in which case the virus kicks in and reanimates them as a zombie. In which case, everyone is a potential carrier.
  2. A zombie breaks the person’s skin, presumably the virus starts a fever which kills the person and then kicks off what we’ll scientifically call the “Zombification” process.

Alternatively, it may well be that people who are in close proximity to zombies a lot of the time are at a higher risk of catching the virus. Shane killed more than his fair share of zombies. In fact, we saw him viciously hacking up several in the wake of Dale’s death. Surely this releases blood and other zombie detritus into the air that these guys are breathing in?

Summing up and your theories

Basically, we’re saying that we think the entire population of the planet are infected by a virus which remains dormant until after death. Whether it was spread by an airborne agent or through food supplies or even chemical warfare (hey, it’s a post 9/11 environment!), isn’t particularly clear. A zombie bite will accelerate your death, whether it’s because they contain a more aggressive strain of the virus or because they carry other fast-acting diseases. Either way, when you die, you’ll come back as a zombie. Unless you take a bullet to your brain.

We’d love to hear what your theories about the Zombie virus are.  Do you agree with what we’re saying, or is it something else? Our alien overlords returning to reclaim the planet? A government conspiracy to curb population growth? Over to you, loyal brainiacs!

by Gerard McGarry on March 14th, 2012

Gerard is the founder and editor of Unreality TV. He writes about TV dramas as well as reality TV talent shows and is obsessed by sci-fi and Doctor Who. Follow him on Twitter @gerrybot or Google+

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