This isn't the fault of the victims. They're not necessarily trying to do any harm. The virus works, generally, by increasing fear. One of the telltale symptoms of rabies (and one of the few not mentioned in zombie movies) is hydrophobia. People become terribly afraid of water. This video is of a man undergoing treatment, who can barely stand to bring the glass of water to his lips.


The man in Mumbai began getting violent, because hospital staff were trying to hydrate him. The rest of the symptoms are more consistent with zombie traits. Patients become afraid of bright lights and moving air, so they try to hide in dark and confined places. They fall silent, in part because they become so afraid of the sound of their own voice, it's impossible for them to speak. Most notoriously, patients with "furious rabies" develop strange appetites. Animals with rabies, although they can barely swallow water, have been seen to eat sticks and rocks. They also seem to undergo a compulsive need to bite. Scientists think that this is the disease trying, evolutionarily speaking, to strike out and get transmitted to a new host. This is the crux of the zombie mythology. A bite means a death of the self — loss of speech, coherence, lucidity, and ability to control aggressive impulses — and a rebirth as a silent, unresting zombie, endlessly driven to look for new people to bite.

With animal vaccines and prompt treatment, rabies isn't a big problem in wealthier, more industrial societies, but worldwide it is still responsible for 60,000 deaths per year. Prompt shots will take care of the disease when it starts — but once people start showing severe symptoms, it means the disease has spread to the brain, and that's when the prognosis gets grim. On record, there is only one person who survived rabies without a timely shot: a teenager in Wisconsin who was put into a medically induced coma and given antiviral medicine.


While zombie movies take the concept of rabies — the silent, semi-lucid unending aggression — and push it to the extreme. They show a world in which most of the population becomes like a rabies victim in the most nightmarish, frightening state imaginable, and puts the audience in the shoes of the uninfected.

Sadly, though, a more realistic picture is contained within some zombie films, when a lone survivor gets bitten, and struggles against the encroaching infection. Suddenly, we're in the shoes of the person trying to hold on to his or her life. Although plenty of rabies victims do become hyperactive, irritable, or even violent, they all have periods of lucidity, when the symptoms slightly dissipate and they can communicate with people, knowing that even if they're treated, the symptoms will get worse and they'll soon lose lucidity again. Forget zombies chasing people. That's the real horror of this disease.


Rabies Image: CDC

Via Scientific American, Wadsworth, Mumbai Mirror, WHO, and NY Times.