Disaster Response In The Movies: 'Shaun of the Dead,' 'I Am Legend'

(Editor's Note: Dorothy Lowry thinks about disasters for a living, but is a pretty well-rounded person with a love of pop culture. I met her at Dragon Con a year ago and have since picked her brain about how the world might actually fare if face with a movie-sized extinction event. She finally agreed to start writing it all down, and this is the first in a hopefully ongoing series.)

I have a cool gig. I get paid to save the world. OK, more accurately, I get paid to save small chunks of the world at a time. I specialize in disaster mitigation, disaster response and emergency management. Not wussy disasters either. I do the big ones.

I have to tell you, honestly, movies with Batman, Spider-Man, (or any movie with Will Smith – Will Smith saves the planet a LOT) make the whole world-saving thing look a lot more glamorous, and frankly easier, than it actually is.

Let’s see, dos the Caped Crusader have to compete for grant money to save Gotham City? Does Spider-Man sit on an All-Hazards planning committee drinking crap coffee, watching boring PowerPoint slides? I think not. And sometimes our movie heroes just jack it up. "Mars Attacks"? Do not get me started. Yeah, OK, sometimes we jack it up in the real world, too.

Disclaimer: I lived in the Middle East during Hurricane Katrina. Not my fault. Just trust me when I say it’s harder in the real world and I don’t have a utility belt.

My job requires me to do challenging things: think critically, assess intense, rapidly-evolving situations, eat slightly-stale popcorn ... and not go to the bathroom before the end of the movie because today my job is to take on disasters in the movies and think (then pontificate) about the emergency response (or lack thereof) in them.

Think of me like the FEMA/CDC version of Siskel and Ebert. First up, we have ...

The Omega Man (and I Am Legend), and Shaun of the Dead

I love zombies. I really do. CDC totally stole my idea to use them as a preparedness tool. True story.

Well, true story in my head. But I have been saying forever that if you’re prepared for the zombie apocalypse anything else is a cakewalk.

"The Omega Man" (1971), starring Charlton Heston and "I Am Legend" (2007) with Will Smith are both are based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel also called "I Am Legend." In each movie the human population is decimated by a man-made biological release. Red China and the Soviet Union mix it up in "The Omega Man." Their bio-weapons don’t understand they’re only supposed to infect Commies, not the entire world.

"I Am Legend"’s causative agent was an engineered measles virus originally intended to cure cancer. Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions isn’t it? The virus mutates a wee bit and then I’ll be danged if we’re not all blood-sucking Darkseekers.

In the real world we’ll be done in by a goober in some university cootie lab who doesn’t understand that those "Employees Must Wash Their Hands Before Returning To Work" signs are there for good reason. I’m guessing the goober shakes hands a few times on the way out the door, stops for a Big Mac on the way home, makes out with his or her significant other, and then before you know it, the rest of us poor schmoes are being eaten by zombies or drinking blood by moonlight.

So: Bad germs breaching their containment systems. This would never, ever happen in the real world.

Except for maybe that one time Dr. Bruce Ivins allegedly stole anthrax bacillus from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) to mail to congressmen. And yeah so, maybe there are some unaccounted-for vials of smallpox virus here and there in highly unstable countries. Come to think of it, the chuckleheads trying to weaponize Ebola probably aren’t working to OSHA standards.

But the important question here is not, "Could this happen?" it is, "should I loose sleep over it?"

You can if you want. But if you’re going to be a Nervous-Nelly about the end of the world, skip the cautionary tale and deal with this reality: Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug. This is why "Shaun of the Dead" is the much scarier movie.

That’s right. "Shaun of the Dead" should have you looking over your shoulder and stocking your root cellar with Twinkies (because I had to get "Zombieland" in here somehow). I’ve heard the counter-argument before: "Shaun of the Dead" is a comedy for petesakes. The freaks in "The Omega Man" LIKE being blood drinking albino ghouls. Those fast-moving "I Am Legend" zombies are a much trickier nemesis than a classic "Night of the Living Dead" Romero Shambler.

Why on earth am I talking crazy talk?

Because in movie cautionary tales like "The Omega Man" or "I Am Legend", folks kind of get what’s coming to them, just like teenagers making out in the woods when Jason’s around, the little idiots. But in "Shaun of the Dead," you start out almost immediately with “Oh crap, Zombies!” You don’t know why or how. There’s no rhyme or reason. You just know your naked roommate wants to eat your brains.

What scares me, real world? It’s not some known causative agent with reams of research data piled up behind it, a probable ground zero, a relatively obvious epidemiologic trail and some likely candidate drugs for cures. Weaponized germs are not sweetness and light, but they’re manageable. You want to weaponize anthrax? Whatever, you terrorist @#$@; I got a plan and a pill for that. Every county in the nation has a plan and a pill for that (true story).

What really makes me hug my kids and my hand sanitizer at night is the unknown disease that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t care that I’m a God-fearing American. It’s some arbitrary wild bacteria, virus or fungus doing the nasty with other exotic germs, mutating in some unimaginably hideous way and making killer mutant germ-babies. Those germ-babies hitch a ride on a bird, a pig, a mosquito, and finally some fat guy on an international flight with poor sneeze courtesy. I hate that.

You get a bad enough wild mutation and all humans could be sad-outta-luck, as my grandpa would say. Except he wouldn’t say "sad."  This is why zombies are such a great analogy for influenza. They infect without malice, but with deadly effect. Zombies spread rapidly (even the shamblers). They will bite you. They will bite your dog. Zombies don’t care if you’re rich, poor, black or white. They don’t care if you deserve it. Are you kidding me? A zombie would eat Mother Teresa.

You worry about Ebola if you want. I’m going to think about managing influenza, thanks. In a perfect world I’ll think about managing influenza after I pop down to the Winchester for a pint.