In the middle of the movie as they make their escape from the city, the protagonists see what appears to be a decapitated zombie. It approaches, and they are unable to immediately destroy it because the only vulnerable target is missing.

Soon though, it becomes apparent that the head is still attached by a narrow piece of what seems to be skin tissue, and was non-visible because it was hanging down behind the zombie's back.

The spinal column is unambiguously 100% severed (someone correct me if they believe I'm wrong in that regard). What are the implications for how zombies work (within the Romero canon)? This seems to imply zombies that are supernatural in nature, and not the result of some phenomenon that is scientifically explicable. Do any of these implications contradict other events within Romero canon?

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    I'd always seen that as 'everything but the spine was severed', not a severed spine. Without all the musculature to hold the head up, it does tend to fall (see any newborn baby for reference). The bigger question, to me, is "How did a zombie know enough physics to attack that way?"
    – Jeff
    Jan 7, 2014 at 19:52
  • @Jeff The movie was slightly campy, but even if it hadn't been then the premise was still about zombies becoming more clever than the survivors had been used to.
    – John O
    Jan 7, 2014 at 21:32
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    Related case: In the season two finale of The Walking Dead, Shane kills Randall by breaking his neck. A few hours later, Glenn and Daryl find zombie-Randall up and about, despite the fact that he should have become a paralyzed zombie.
    – Wad Cheber
    Aug 7, 2015 at 20:19
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    I have always assumed Romero's zombies are supernatural. 'When there is no more room in hell' etc. Oct 28, 2015 at 11:32

2 Answers 2


I'm going to answer my own question this once.

This is slightly speculative, but well within the guidelines for this SE. At least within the Romero subset of zombie stories, it seems clear that we must accept that whatever is controlling a zombie body and causing it to shamble along, it is not utilizing the central nervous system to do so.

Furthermore, while decapitated heads remain animate (assuming no brain damage occurs), the lower body becomes inanimate and non-dangerous. Clearly the heads (brains?) contain the source of the phenomenon. Signals to cause a leg or an arm to move are not traveling along the nerves, but are communicated to the body assuming that it maintains some integrity (though this is pretty minimal).

This does not necessarily imply a supernatural phenomenon, but we have to dig pretty deep into science fiction to explain it: we're looking at something that resembles telekinesis. This also goes a long way towards explaining how zombies continue to move despite the noted absence of anything like a metabolism.

We can also extrapolate that the brain isn't really performing any cognitive or autonomic functions. If nerves aren't required for behavior that typically requires them, why should we assume any neuron needs to function?

This circumstance doesn't totally invalidate a science fiction explanation, but it certainly strongly corroborates a supernatural explanation.

  • The theory is interesting, but I think Occam's Razor would suggest that the spinal cord was still intact.
    – Wad Cheber
    Aug 7, 2015 at 20:20
  • @WadCheber The spinal cord is like jelly even in a living specimen, evolution grew bony armor around it to protect it. It's impossible for the bones to be so destroyed that the zombie could look like that but still have an intact spinal cord.
    – John O
    Aug 7, 2015 at 20:40
  • It's also impossible for dead people to walk around attacking everyone, but you think the consistency of the spinal cord is a bigger problem? :)
    – Wad Cheber
    Aug 7, 2015 at 22:14

As far as we know, zombies don't have a fully functionnal brain, only limited move abilities and only basic instincts. These things are controlled not by the entire brain but only by a little part near the spinal cord : the brain stem. Maybe the brainstem was not destroyed by the decapitation and so the zombie can still move...

There is a real (and documented) case where a chicken has lived 18 month after being decapited, so it could be possible https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_the_Headless_Chicken

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