When Zombies Enter the Debate

Columnists say new research on the walking dead suggests we may have a lot to learn about infectious disease

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In movie theaters across the country, a different kind of zombie movie is being promoted before the feature. In "Zombieland," the undead are hunted for sport and laughs, hardly the apocalypse bringers portrayed in so many similar films. It's a farcical spin, and one that's completely at odds with one of the latest blockbusters from the scientific community. Canadian researchers studying pandemics concluded that a fictional zombie plague would likely wipe out civilization.

Where to start? Some questioned how scientific the study really is, and seemed more amused than concerned. "Who's done this ground-breaking study?" NPR's Mark Memmott asks. "As the BBC reports, the researchers are from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. Among them is professor Robert Smith? (and like the BBC, we need to note that the question mark is not a typo -- it's part of the professor's name)." Others, though, are more troubled. They say the study suggests we might be wholly unprepared for the next real pandemic. How worried should we be?

  • Stay in Your Homes, writes Tim Cavanaugh in Reason Magazine. "Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think the experts are wrong. A zombie outbreak would result in a lopsided victory for the living, for purely tactical reasons." Cavanaugh explains. "1) Their initial recruiting pool -- the already dead -- is about as substandard as you can get, and thanks to cremation and other popular mortuary effects, it is not numerous enough for critical mass."
  • There Are Signs of Impending Doom Everywhere, says India Lenon at the Daily Telegraph. "The frequent showings of the ‘Thriller’ video amongst the Michael Jackson tributes of the last few weeks have ensured that zombies have received extensive air time, doubtless raising their confidence."
  • Then Again, writes Brian Merchant at TreeHugger, this may not be so funny after all. "So with SARS, so with swine flu—so with an incoming zombie attack." He says the study, "may sound humorous when you're picturing a squad of ragtag human survivors crouched in an abandoned warehouse readying themselves to battle lumbering zombies, but there are actually real-life insights on infectious diseases to be taken away from the findings."

Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner contemplates what zombies might mean for the world's politics. "To its credit," he writes, "the neoconservatives would recognize the zombie threat as an existential threat to the human way of life."

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