ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

The Walking Dead is certainly becoming more and more gruesome with each season - and that's not just because the writers have figured out more inventive ways of dispatching the undead.

The walkers themselves have also been taking an aesthetic turn for the worse, with each new season showing off new, more advanced levels of decomposition. However, how accurate are these depictions, and how long would it take, theoretically, for a walker to decompose to a completely non-dangerous state?

How Long Would It Take for a Body to Decompose?

Above ground, and with no kind of embalming, a body doesn't take long to decompose. In fact, the process almost starts the second the heart stops beating.

The human body goes through a series of increasingly gruesome changes after it dies, with the corpse becoming nothing but a skeleton in around one to two months. Let's go through the main stages, taken from the 26 Stages of Death:

At the Moment of Death

  • The heart stops
  • The skin gets tight and grey in color
  • All the muscles relax
  • The bladder and bowels empty
  • The body's temperature will typically drop 1.5 degrees F per hour unless outside environment is a factor.

After 30 Minutes

  • The skin gets purple and waxy
  • The lips, finger- and toe nails fade to a pale color or turn white as the blood leaves.
  • Blood pools at the lowest parts of the body leaving a dark purple-black stain called lividity
  • The hands and feet turn blue {because of lack of oxygenation to the tissues}
  • The eyes start to sink into the skull.

After 4 Hours

  • Rigor mortis starts to set in
  • The purpling of the skin and pooling of blood continue
  • Rigor Mortis begins to tighten the muscles for about another 24 hours, then will reverse and the body will return to a limp state.

After 12 Hours

  • The body is in full rigor mortis.

After 24 Hours

  • The body is now the temperature of the surrounding environment
  • In males, the spermatozoa die
  • The head and neck are now a greenish-blue color
  • The greenish-blue color continues to spread to the rest of the body
  • There is the strong smell of rotting meat {unless the corpse is in an extremely frigid environment}
  • The face of the person is essentially no longer recognizable

After 3 Days

  • The gases in the body tissues form large blisters on the skin
  • The whole body begins to bloat and swell grotesquely. This process is speeded up if victim is in a hot environment, or in water
  • Fluids leak from the mouth, nose, eyes, ears and rectum and urinary opening

After 3 Weeks

  • The skin, hair, and nails are so loose they can be easily pulled off the corpse
  • The skin cracks and bursts open in many places because of the pressure of Internal gases and the breakdown of the skin itself
  • Decomposition will continue until body is nothing but skeletal remains, which can take as little as a month in hot climates and two months in cold climates. The teeth are often the only thing left, years and centuries later, because tooth enamel is the strongest substance in the body. The jawbone is the densest, so that usually will also remain

So, if we use this real world science as the basis, most walkers realistically only have a 'life-span' of around one to two months at the maximum.

It's hard to be certain, but it can be presumed that Rick and his gang are now around 500 days into the zombie apocalypse, as they've been through at least one winter, while Lori also went through an entire pregnancy.

Therefore, many of the original walkers should have decomposed into nothingness long ago, with the number of walkers steadily getting lower as the human population also declines and pre-existing walkers decompose.

So, realistically speaking, if no more humans were bitten (and those which turn through normal death are dealt with), the entire walker apocalypse should be over in a matter of weeks.

Is The Walker Virus Embalming The Undead?

However, clearly, this isn't the case in The Walking Dead. Although the walkers are steadily getting worse, they are still recognizable as former humans, while most still have their flesh, hair, eyes and presumably brains. Furthermore, there seem to be more walkers than ever before, with entire hordes wandering around.

So, this leads us to two conclusions: 1) Either a lot of humans are still being turned into walkers, or 2) walkers do not necessarily decompose at the same rate as corpses usually do.

Why is this? Well, one possible solution could be that the walker virus actually acts to partially embalm the walker. Deliberate embalming by humans can greatly reduce the speed of decomposition, making corpses last tens, if not hundreds, of years (in carefully maintained conditions). Embalmers generally use a cocktail of chemicals to repel insects and slow down putrefaction by stopping the action of cellular proteins - preventing them from acting as nutrients for bacteria. Perhaps the walker virus has a similar effect on the body?

Where are these guys when you need them?
Where are these guys when you need them?

Furthermore, a human corpse above ground very quickly becomes a hive for insects such as flies, beetles, ants and wasps. Maggots too are incredibly prevalent, with an exposed corpse expecting to be home to 150,000 of the little guys. It is these kind of critters which help break down corpses so quickly above ground. However, as far as I can recall, The Walking Dead walkers have never shown any signs of insect infestation, which would also explain why they decompose so slowly.

In fact, a corpse buried 6 feet underground (out of the reach of most insects/animals) actually takes somewhere within the realms of eight to twelve years to fully decompose. A body buried underground in a casket (even further reducing the intrusion of insects) can potentially take tens of years to become a skeleton. If the walker virus similarly repels the organisms responsible for decomposition, perhaps this gives us a more reliable walker 'life-span'?

If this is true, simply 'waiting out' the virus in a safe-zone probably isn't the best solution, as this might not be something which blows over in a matter of months, or even years.

Source:, AnomoliesUnlimited


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