Toxin from a puffer fish can turn you into a zombie. Ethnobotanist Wade Davis, recently interviewed by Science & Film about EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, wrote a book about the origins of zombies in Haiti. Studying the biology of Haitian “zombie powder” used by Voodoo priests he found that a neurotoxin, something which blocks a cell from firing, from the puffer fish immobilizes a person while maintaining their brain and heart functioning; they appear dead but can be resuscitated once the toxin wears off. Davis’s book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, is about a man kept in this zombie state for two years.

The CUNY TV show SCIENCE GOES TO THE MOVIES, co-hosted by neuroscientist Heather Berlin and journalist Faith Salie, explored zombies in film in a recent episode. The Serpent and the Rainbow was turned into a 1988 horror film directed by Wes Craven. This is one of about 350 feature films about zombies made since the first zombie film in 1932.

Berlin and Salie hosted expert Mark Siddall, curator at the American Museum of Natural History and President of the American Society of Parasitologists, on the show. He talked about a fungus which colonizes an ant’s brain, and other examples of bodies being overtaken. Berlin, Salie, and Sidall discuss films such as THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY which depicts someone with locked-in syndrome similar to the situation in Haiti, SNOW WHITE who had a similar problem, WORLD WAR Z in which a rabies virus turns people in zombies, and more.

The entire show is available to stream below:

SCIENCE GOES TO THE MOVIES is made possible by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Season 2 is underway and the first episode is about nanotechnology. Check back on Science & Film for more about this program.