Thursday, January 23

Screening Science: Exploring realism of zombies and bringing the genre back to life in ‘Cargo’

(Ludi Zhu/Daily Bruin)

Science is everywhere, especially in movies and TV shows, ranging from the chemistry in “Breaking Bad” to the physics in “Gravity.” But not all of the “science” is actually science. Each week, columnist Ethan Pak will explore scientific concepts in upcoming movies or shows and see how well they align with current academia and research.

Zombies have devoured current pop culture but not our brains … yet.

From George A. Romero’s classic “Dawn of the Dead” to Sang-ho Yeon’s “Train to Busan,” zombie films celebrate gore, the decrepit dead and the impending apocalypse. However, in the movie “Cargo,” which will be released May 18 on Netflix, the film instead focuses on father and zombie-to-be, Andy (Martin Freeman), fighting against time to ensure his baby daughter’s survival in a zombie-infested Australia. As the infection starts to spread, he has 48 hours to find a new guardian for his daughter before he too joins the ranks of the undead.

Despite being a zombie film, “Cargo” strays away from rambunctious guns and over-the-top fight scenes such as the ones featured in the “Resident Evil” series or “Zombieland.” Instead, it focuses on a father’s need to protect a loved one, offering a more realistic, emotional take on the zombie genre. But from a scientific perspective, how realistic can it get?

Many scientists have reached the consensus that zombies, portrayed in media such as “28 Days Later” and “Night of the Living Dead,” are scientifically unfeasible. However, research in neuroscience can effectively explain many physiological characteristics of zombies.

For example, movie zombies often adopt a slow, awkward gait, which is a symptom of a damaged cerebellum – the part of the brain responsible for movement and balance. The symptoms of the human disease spinocerebellar ataxia are most similar to the zombies’ shuffle, as patients progressively deteriorate in terms of balance, coordination and muscle movement. Films don’t often attribute their monsters’ actions to neurological damage, but the science can be used to account for humans who show similar traits.

Another stereotypical characteristic of zombies is their terrible attention span. Attention, along with spatial awareness and sensory processing, originates in the parietal lobe, and any damage in that part of the brain disrupts its normal functions. In the TV show “The Walking Dead,” Rick Grimes and his gang exploit the zombies’ poor attention span, successfully traversing across highways and towns by keeping quiet and remaining hesitant in firing their loud guns.

Balint’s syndrome offers a possible explanation for a similar behavior in humans, the symptoms of which include visual disorientation and ocular apraxia – the inability to shift attention away from an object of focus to one located in the peripheral vision.

Most media also highlights the aggressive nature of zombies, who are often unable to recognize former friends and family. Aggression in humans stems from the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for emotions and fear. Typically, in the functioning human brain, the frontal lobe suppresses inappropriate responses that the amygdala may have sparked, such as lashing out or yelling. However, in zombies, the suppression doesn’t exist, suggesting that the amygdala has fully taken over their behavior.

Zombies’ inability to recognize those they knew while alive traces back to the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for long-term memory. Any damage to the hippocampus can result in amnesia and other memory-related conditions, such as prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize familiar faces. For instance, in “Shaun of the Dead,” the character Pete could no longer recognize his former roommates Shaun and Ed the morning after turning into a zombie.

Though the problems with zombies can be linked to various brain conditions, the real-life “zombies” on our planet hardly interact with the brain at all. A fungus variety, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, often infects ants, rendering them zombie-like. Once the fungus’ spores enters the ant, it begins to rapidly multiply, eventually creating networks in the ant’s body. It never touches the insect’s brain itself but invades all of the muscles instead.

In doing so, the fungus releases certain chemicals that force the ant’s muscles to contract, thereby controlling the ant’s movement. Usually, the fungus will bring the ant to a leaf 25 centimeters off the ground, force the ant to perch and begin to make spores that sprout out of the ant’s head.

This species of fungus will most likely not make a star appearance in “Cargo,” but given the recent dearth of quality zombie films, I’m excited at the prospect of a new one. Whether or not the film actually shows more realistic zombies or strays away from fighting montages, I still anticipate a certain thrill factor in the protagonist putting everything on the line to save his daughter.

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