We asked a scientist (and a comedian) how to survive a zombie outbreak
Shaun of the Dead

Ever wonder about the likelihood of an actual zombie outbreak and want to know what your survival plan would be? Literally every day? Yeah, us too.

Science Flicktion is a pop-up cinema event this May, which looks to provide scientific backing to some classic movies including Alien, Terminator 2 , Apollo 13 and Shaun Of The Dead . The screenings pair up a scientist, a comedian and a presenter who pick apart the films and attempt to give them some scientific weight. An idea that sounds great fun, actually.

We jumped on this opportunity to indulge our ‘legions of the undead paranoia’ and talk to Karl Byrne. Byrne is a Bachelor of Science in Virology from the University of Edinburgh. He curates science festivals, gives guest lectures and has worked as a scientific consultant on a number of zombie films

We also spoke to comedian Richard Sandling, winner of So You Think You’re Funny in 2007 and the host of the ‘Perfect Movie’ comedy night who will be providing the laughs for the screening of Shaun of the Dead on May 17.

We decided to ask the crucial questions about viral infections, blunt objects, safehouses and ‘the Z-word’. Get yourself a cup of tea, because things could get hairy.

Hi Karl. You’re a virologist and zombie expert. How does somebody become a zombie expert?

Karl Byrne (scientist): “A misspent youth watching too many B-movie horror films and a need to make movies make sense in my own head. I like stories to make internal sense, even if they aren’t ‘realistic’. That and a heated debate about whether 28 Days Later is a zombie film (It’s not, by the way!).

“I started off using zombies as a way of talking about the spread of viruses. Then I started looking into it a bit more and found that there are quite a few organisms that already cause other animals to think differently, act differently and in a lot of cases display zombie-like behaviour. There are viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi and wasps that can all change the way animals (and, in some cases, people) act. It’s all a little bit terrifying when you start looking into it.”

When you’re the consultant on zombie films – what’s the most common question people want an answer to?

KB: “The question I get a lot at the start is ‘could a zombie apocalypse really happen?’. When I begin to explain some of the things that actually occur in the real world, I tend to get ‘are you serious?!’ or ‘that doesn’t really happen, does it?'”

Hi Richard, how would you best describe your zombie knowledge?

Richard Sandling (comedian): “My knowledge of zombies comes from watching a large amount of zombie movies, even ones that aren’t technically zombie movies, because zombies are great bad guys to have in films.

“There is just something really iconic in their look that also speaks to our own primal fears of death and the unknown that makes most zombie films amazing. Plus you often get a lot of humour and brilliant deaths in zombie films. There simply aren’t enough chainsaw and lawnmower killings in films these days and I definitely think more films could benefit from fights with sharks.”

What’s the one question you want answered about a zombie outbreak from this screening?

RS: “Would it be possible to have zombie animals at the same time as zombie humans from the same patient zero, or is that just too ridiculous?”

I’ve been bitten by a zombie (hypothetically) – is that it for me or can I be saved?

KB: “If it’s a blood-borne infection, then unfortunately there’s very little that can be done. There’s no cure and so the best thing you can do for your loved ones is to get as far away from them as possible.

“If, on the other hand it’s a rabies-like virus, then you have a chance. These viruses physically crawl up your nerves, so if you get bitten on the arm for example, you actually have a couple of days before the infection reaches your brain. This gives you time to cut off the infected limb and you should be OK. If you get bitten on the neck or face though, you aren’t going to be so lucky and once again you need to get away from anyone you care about. Or heroically sacrifice yourself for the good of the survivors!”

If you could team up with one celebrity to survive the zombie viral outbreak, who would you choose?

RS: “If I was in a zombie film then Jason Statham, if it was an outbreak in real life then Jason Statham. I am convinced that there isn’t a single film or real life situation that couldn’t be improved by having Statham involved. I am completely serious.”

In Shaun of the Dead, when Philip (Bill Nighy) goes ‘full-zombie’ in the back of the car and Shaun explains to his mum that there’s ‘nothing left’ of the man she loves – why does he still switch off the cassette tape? Is a zombie really an empty vessel or does something about their former self still remain?

KB: “It seems quite common for zombies to retain some aspect of their former selves, in one form or another. Even when fully zombified, the brain seems to be important – removing the head or destroying the brain are the only sure-fire ways of stopping a zombie (and the head may still be a bit… bitey on its own). Although nearly all higher brain functions seem have stopped, some zombies can still recognise faces or places and can end up carrying out repetitive actions that mimic what they did when alive.”

RS: “An interesting existential and philosophical question and one which you can agonise over for ages if you so inclined. Personally, I believe that as you become a zombie all remaining conscious links to yourself fade until you are merely walking meat. However, I also believe that there remains a kind of muscle memory that allows zombies to function and this is how they can walk (not run), mumble ‘brains’ and eat people.

“Though you’ll notice there’s very few scenes in films of zombies making love to other zombies, so I don’t really know if my theory holds up.”

Bill Nighy, Shaun of the Dead

In the case of a zombie viral outbreak – how effective is an old pub as a safe house? Where would you choose?

KB: “If Shaun teaches us anything, it’s that an old pub isn’t a particularly good safe house. If I had a choice, I think a big distribution warehouse for a supermarket would be a good choice – lots of food and water, usually not in the centre of a city (where the proximity and number of other people means the zombie plague can spread very easily), they usually have a good level of security and will contain other useful supplies. The main problem is getting inside in the first place and checking all the dark corners inside for stray zombies. And disposing of the perishable food when it starts to go off. It would be unfortunate if you survive the zombie apocalypse only to die of food poisoning.”

RS: “To be honest, ‘let’s go to the pub’ is my answer for everything – as long as it has interesting regional British real ales. Or a curry house. I’d happily hide out for days or weeks in a curry house. Maybe a boat would be a good shout if you could get supplies, preferably of real ale and curry.”

Both Shaun & Ed manage to avoid the signs of an upcoming zombie apocalypse because it’s 2004 and they’re not on Twitter all the time. Do you think you could miss the start of an outbreak trending hashtag in 2015? (#1DZombiefandom?)

KB: “Social media is a really good way of getting breaking news, although it can also spread false information very quickly. I’d suggest not running for the hills after seeing a single tweet about it. Better to wait a little while to make sure the zombies have actually risen. Just don’t wait too long.

“Social media can be really helpful in tracking diseases though – by analysing Twitter and Facebook it’s possible to cheaply and effectively chart disease spread though a population and perhaps even find out how likely you are to be infected days before any symptoms appear.”

RS: “I think if there was a zombie outbreak people on Twitter would be more worried at the start about what the unifying hashtag should be, rather than offering any practical advice or help. By the time the admin of Twitter is sorted, we’re all infected and stalking the living for their brains.”

If you had to choose one blunt object to defend yourself against the undead masses – what would you choose?

KB: “If you have to use a blunt weapon that means you’re within easy reach of a zombie bite – the main thing you want to do is get out of that situation as soon as you can! You want something not too heavy (especially if you have to make a speedy exit), strong and with a decent range, with that in mind I think I’d have to choose an aluminium baseball bat. Although, at a push a cricket bat could be used instead – although it’s a bit heavier, there’s probably more chance of coming across one in England!”

RS: “A brick tied to each fist like stone boxing gloves.”

Do you think a scientific knowledge of how a zombie outbreak could happen leads to you being crazy paranoid that you’re constantly seeing warning signs?

KB: “There are a lot of scary things. For a long time I would assess any building I went into for escape routes and if it could to be used as a haven from the undead.

“Although life after a full scale zombie apocalypse never looks particularly good fun, so maybe becoming a zombie early on is the way forward. Luckily, the chances of a zombie apocalypse are low. There are a lot scarier things out there though – killer plagues (of the non-zombie kind) and the possibility of the machines taking over and killing us all is currently top of my worry list. That’s the downside of reading and watching a lot of Sci-Fi, along with scientific knowledge and an over-active imagination!”

RS: “This is why now I always leave the house fully armed and ready to do what is necessary. So far, no trouble, but I want to be ready just in case. The zombie outbreak is coming, mark my words.”

Can dogs look up?

KB: “Well, Big Al says they can’t and who am I to argue with Big Al?”

RS: “Yes, obviously.”

Science Flicktion runs from May 15-17

17 May: ‘Shaun of the Dead w/ science commentary’, Chelsea Old Town Hall, London, SW3 5EE

More information on this and all Science Flicktion screenings can be found at: popupscreens.co.uk

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