Dr. Leah Ceccarelli on Scientists in Zombie Movies

[Man 1] Welcome to a night of total terror (screech), a night of the living dead. The dead who live on living flesh. The dead whose haunted souls hunts the living.

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Well our opening dip was from Night of the Living Dead in 1968. It seems like today there are more zombies than ever, at least on TV and in the movies bringing with them their ravenous appetite for brains. But our guest today has a different kind of brains on the mind, the brains of scientists in these zombie movies. Dr. Leah Ceccarelli, a Professor of Communication at the University of Washington examines the way that scientists are portrayed in contemporary zombie blockbusters, what those representations tell us about how Americans currently perceive the role of the scientists of society, how that might conflict with the way that scientists like to portray themselves, how we might develop a healthier understanding of scientists’ role in society. Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. I want to thank Dr. Ceccarelli for sitting down with me as well as the UAH Humanity Center, which funded the visit that led to this conversation.

[Child] I’m scared.

[Woman] How do I know they’re coming?

[Man 2] They’re coming. Ready?

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Dr. Ceccarelli. I really was excited to talk with you about your recent article, which looks at the way scientists are portrayed in contemporary American zombie movies. Can you give us a few examples of these portrayals?

[Leah Ceccarelli] Sure. I outlined four types of scientists in my research, but I think those can really be divided further into just two: the fool and the hero. The scientist that’s fool is clumsy and na:ive, like the incompetent young virus hunter in World War Z, Dr. Fassbach, he shoots himself as soon as he encounters zombies and has no influence from his science. Also in that same movie, we have Dr. Spellman, who was ChiefVaccinologist at WHO compound who seeks a cure for the zombie infection, only to clumsily cut his hand on a piece of glass while working with a blood sample and thus contaminating himself, becoming a zombie, and killing eighty other people in his wing of the research facility. You would think that a respected vaccinologist you know working in a high containment facility like that would have better lab skills.

[Weber] Right follow more safety protocols probably.

[Ceccarelli] But not in this movie. So that’s one aspect or one characteristic of the fool. And the other is the scientist who is an immoral experimenter whose ambition is actually the cause of the pandemic. So for example in the movie 28 Days Later, the zombie apocalypse begins when chimpanzees infected with the rage virus are released by animal rights protestors and we get introduced to their to a lab technician or lab coated scientist who tries to justify the horrifying experiments he’s been conducting on these animals by saying that in order to cure you must first understand.

[Man 3] The chimps are infected. They’re-they’re highly contagious, they’ve been given an inhibitor.

[Man 4] Infected with what?

[Man 3] In order to cure you must first understand. Man 4: Infected with what?

(chimp screaming)

[Man 3] Rage.

[Ceccarelli] Now that’s completely ironic as it was his very efforts to understand that lead to his being infected. He’s promptly bitten by one of the enraged animals on which he experiments and turns into a zombie. And we see a very similar scientific fool in the 2007 movie I Am Legend. Dr. Krippin is introduced early in the movie, played by Emma Thompson, she discovers a cure for cancer, right? Faulting ambition, this wonderful cure for cancer, then it mutates into the Crimpon Virus that destroys ninety percent of humanity and turns most of the rest into cannibalistic monsters.

[Woman 2] So Dr. Crimpon, [unclear]

[Dr. Crimpon] The premise is quite simple. Take something designed by nature, reprogram it to make it work for the body rather than against it.

[Woman 2] You’re talking about a virus?

[Dr. Crimpon] Indeed yes, in this case the measles. A virus which has been engineered at a genetic level to be helpful rather than harmful. Another way to describe it is if you could imagine a way as a highway and you get to the virus, that’s a very fast car being driven by a very bad man, imagine the damage that car could cause. Then if you replace that man with a cop, the picture changes and that’s essentially what we’ve done.

[Ceccarelli] So that’s the fool, right? Whether innocent or ethically compromised, the scientist as fool, I think is a very common persona of the scientist in zombie movies. And then the second main character of the scientist seen in these modern zombie movies is the scientist is hero. We see that in I Am Legend. The other big scientist in that movie is the muscled survivor Robert Neville, who’s a scientist working tirelessly in his basement laboratory to find a cure for the Crimpon Virus and then the final cut of that movie, he sacrifices himself in order to save the vaccine that he’s created against the virus and thus becomes a legend.

[Woman 3] In 2009, a deadly virus burned through our civilization. Pushing human kind to the edge of extinction. Dr. Robert Neville dedicated his life to the discovery of a cure and the restoration of humanity. On September 9, 2012 at approximately 8:49 PM, he discovered that cure and at 8:52 PM, he gave his life to defend it. (bell ringing). This is his legacy. This is his legend

[Ceccarelli] But of course another version of that movie that is sold as the alternate theatrical version with controversial ending and in that version Neville is a hero too but this time his heroism comes not from his development of the vaccine but from his ability to recognize at the end that the experiment subjects on which he’s been working, these dark seekers that he’s caught and experimented on in the basement, are human beings with a right to refuse treatment. This is a self-awareness in that version of the movie that’s long and coming but when it comes, he’s horrified to discover that he’s a legend in a very different way, a not so positive legendary monster to those of this new race of human dark seekers.

[Dr. Robert Neville] I’m sorry. (screaming)

[Ceccarelli] And I think that version of Dr. Neville is actually more positive. It’s a more positive view of the scientist. The scientist as hero but as self-reflective, self-aware hero, as an ethical agent rather than as an unethical agent. Or that’s an agent in a way that recognizes the ethical complexities.

[Weber] Sure, sure. And so, speaking of you know this, these varying portrayals of scientists in film by filmmakers and actors and everything, how do these contrast or compare to the way that scientists often like to portray themselves?

[Ceccarelli] Yes well as you know my most recent book was about how scientist portray themselves in public discourse. In that book, On the Frontier of Science, I write about how scientists really like to portray themselves through that hero myth, as heroic frontiersmen, as inheritor of the frontier spirit, that’s so essential to the American ethos and I think that that version of scientists does get picked up as a-a type of official treatment of the persona of the scientist. In today’s newspaper I saw an article about Barack Obama giving a speech at the Annual Whitehouse Science Fair yesterday in which he tells the budding young scientists in the room, “You are sharing in this essential spirit of discovery that America is built on,” and that’s very much that frontier spirit and I think that’s great. It’s nice to see bright young scientists represented in the public as explorers who represent what’s so great about America rather than as foolish, clumsy objects of scorn right? It’s this is the dissent of the nerd in our modern time.

[Weber] Sure.

[Ceccarelli] That’s a good thing.

[Weber] Right.

[Ceccarelli] Especially for us intellectuals but I also wish that more scientists would also make that self­ reflexive move that Neville makes in the end of the alternate ending of that movie. To recognize that there’s always two sides to every historic story, right? On the American frontier, when we opened up all that land that was so, so called uninhabited. Well it was inhabited and we neglected the rights of Native Americans, who were already there and I think that in a similar way, I think a lot of scientist today forget that the subjects of their-their scientific inquiry, whether that subject be vanishing rainforests that they see as desperately in need of bioprospecting or genomic territory that’s rapidly being claimed and developed by biomedical researchers, that these metaphorical spaces are actually occupied or owned by people, who claim a right to them. To protect those metaphorical territories from scientific exploration, so I guess I-scientists like to see themselves as hero. I would like to see them see themselves also as ethically complex and thoughtful heroes.

[Weber] Great, so you want more portrayals in film like the alternate ending of I am Legend, where the scientist is doing more thinking along with the experimenting and heroism that we sometimes associate?

[Ceccarelli] Yes. I think I’d like to see us move beyond the hero fool dichotomy and come up with somewhere in between where the hero recognizes the ways in which he is being foolish, right? And then we can have a more thoughtful, scientist as citizen, right? Who connects with the rest of the public. Who isn’t just a figure of scorn or a figure of hero worship but it’s a more healthy vision of the scientist as human being.

[Weber] Right, right. It’s a three-dimensional character in these terms.

[Ceccarelli] Exactly, that’s exactly it.

[Weber] Well thanks for talking with us about this. This is really interesting.

[Ceccarelli] Thank you so much.

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Episode 23