Last night, at the Directors Guild, I went to one of the most fun and unusual movie nights I’ve had in a long time. The event was sponsored by The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a group that I had not been aware of previously. The organization, as stated on their website home page, is a program of the National Academy of Sciences to provide entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers, to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.
Or, as the evening’s host, Max Brook, author of the 2003 Zombie Survival Guide, put it, “the days are over when you can walk on theÂ moon in your underwear without an atmosphere.” “In this Google age, anyone can look up the science,” he said. He also pointed out that science education in the U.S. isn’t what we’d like it to be, which leads to embarrassingly unscientific plot points in all kinds of movies.
Are you a screenwriter in need of some science Cliff Notes? Never fear. As the site states: “the Exchange can find experts that will work with you to identify and effectively portray the science details that complement a storyline. We can help flesh out ideas that depend upon accurate details relating to insects, extraterrestrial life, unusual Earth-based life forms, or the mysteries of oceans. We can refine concepts relating to emerging science concepts in areas such as space travel, multiple dimensions, nanotechnology, computer technology, and engineering. We can find experts in environmental and ecological issues, health, medicine, and disease, and U.S. educational practices. We are also well positioned to work with you on public policy issues that relate to science such as stem cell research, global climate change, and teaching about evolution and the nature of science.”
Which brought us to the topic of the evening: the science of zombies. The audience was treated to a showing of Romero’s new movie–to be released at the American Film Market next month–The Survival of the Dead. The movie focuses on two feuding Irishmen who live on a small island off the coast of Delaware. The island is besieged by zombies and both men have a very different philosophy of how to deal with them. When a group of outsiders come to the island, the tension escalates–and the gore fest begins.
If you like Romero’s oeuvre, you’ll love this one. I jumped out of my seat a few times and, as Romero said to the audience before the screening, “I warn you there’s gore but there are also looney tune moments. It’s okay to laugh.”
What gave the evening its scientific twist was a tongue-in-cheek presentation by two scientists: Dr. Robert Smith of the Department of Mathematics and the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa,Â who ordinarily models the global spread of disease, used his expertise to model a zombie outbreak. Bad news: it would take a mere 4 days for zombies to take over the world. Good news: although treatment and quarantine wouldn’t work, the typical way for containing a global pandemic would. “We have to hit them hard, with increasing force to eradicate them,” he said. His presentation was rife with mathematical equations for the scientific minded among the crowd.
Next, Dr. Steven Schlozman, a Harvard psychiatrist, explained zombie neurobiology. He took everyone through the brain of a zombie, describing issues with the frontal lobe, amygdala and cerebellum. Read the details here.
Who knew science could be so entertaining? Though the event was far from serious, the message came across: consult the Exchange scientists if you’re treading on scientific turf. They’ll provide all the details for a realistic storyline and and, in the process, might provide inspiration for an even better plot.
What did Romero have to say about the scientific interpretation of zombies? “I don’t now if there’s a scientific discovery in this movie,” he said. “The zombies aren’t a metaphor, they’re a disaster. Psychologically, zombies aren’t troubled. And there are no scientists in this movie.”
“My characters just go with the flow,” Romero added. “”My movies are about other things, and the zombies are just an annoyance.”
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