One of the nice things about AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is that if you can accept the whole “zombie apocalypse” premise, the show is otherwise pretty consistent and accurate, medically speaking.
Amputations need to be cauterized; wounds need antibiotics; malnourished, immunocompromised survivors can fight off a hundred walkers only to be felled by the flu. Even a medical expert previously confirmed to MTV News that “The Walking Dead” has done an admirable job of realistically portraying its characters’ various illnesses and injuries.
There’s just one thing the show’s writers might have overlooked: The small problem of zombie stank.
One medical professional clued us in to this issue during a recent “Walking Dead”-related discussion, when he told an MTV News writer that he’d reached the limits of his suspension of disbelief back in the very first season, during the scene where Rick and Glenn coat themselves with zombie innards in order to blend in with the herd. The problem? No human being would be able to tolerate getting so up-close-and-personal with rotting human flesh, for indisputable scientific reasons.
Eager to know more, MTV News called up said medical professional — internist Dr. Joshua Rosenfield (a.k.a. my father) — as well as our go-to trauma specialist, Dr. Deborah Mogelof, to find out once and for all just how much of an issue the odor of the walking dead would be. (Interviews took place separately, and have been edited/condensed.)
The Walking, Stinking Dead
MTV News: Let’s just get right to the point: In a world populated by walking corpses, what would the aroma be like?
Dr. Rosenfield: If the dead are rotting, the smell would be quite overpowering.
Dr. Mogelof: Dead bodies kind of fill up with gases. It’s an awful, awful smell, completely overwhelming. I don’t know if you’ve ever — if you go into a house with a dead body, it’s completely overwhelming from the moment you walk in the door.
Dr. Rosenfield: Have you ever smelled rotting meat? Or roadkill? The chemical involved actually has a name — putrescine — it’s an amino acid.
Fun fact: Putrescine not only smells awful, but has been demonstrated to be toxic to lab rats when inhaled in large doses.
MTV News: Would it ever get better? Is there any point at which the dead would stop smelling so bad?
Dr. Mogelof: As long as there’s rotting flesh on the corpse, it’s going to smell.
Needless to say, this is bad news; the dead of The Walking Dead are plenty fleshy — as our heroes so often discover when they get up close and personal with one.
MTV News: So, just for instance, you couldn’t really wrestle with a walking, rotting corpse.
Dr. Mogelof: No. Absolutely not. No.
MTV News: What would happen if you tried? Would you be vomiting uncontrollably?
Dr. Mogelof: I would. I think most people would.
MTV News: And if you were trying to camouflage yourself as a zombie, so you could walk among them, by smearing guts all over you—(Dr. Mogelof: Ew.) — would it be possible to function?
Dr. Mogelof: Not really. I think you would have a hard time dealing with that, with that smell on you.
However, there’s hope for our heroes. Because not everyone has a working sense of smell.
MTV News: If your sense of smell were really compromised…
Dr. Mogelof: Yes, that would help. The gases might cause you to cough, but it’s the vulgarness of the smell that’s really going to get you.
MTV News: So who would have an advantage in a world full of rotting flesh?
Dr. Rosenfield: People who worked in an abbatoir might handle it better, or people with really strong stomachs.
MTV News: Is it typical for people who work with dead bodies to go nose-deaf?
Dr. Rosenfield: Not really. But if it were a matter of life and death, I suppose you could become inured to it.
Dr. Rosenfield: Zombies smell so bad — or rather, they would smell so bad, if they were real. That’s why it’s strange that it’s never addressed. They never show anybody noticing that there must be zombies around because they’re smelling something.
MTV News: So basically, nobody should ever be caught by surprise by a zombie, because they should always be able to smell if one is nearby?
Dr. Rosenfield: Yes. Unless of course the smell is so pervasive that they can’t sort out the smell of near zombies from the smell of far zombies.
In summary: The walking dead of “The Walking Dead” would stink so badly that you’d always be able to smell a herd coming — but the world of “The Walking Dead” would stink so badly, generally, that all the most effective zombie-slayers would be better off having no sense of smell at all.