Penn State professor lends zombie expertise to film

mdawson@centredaily.comJune 26, 2013 

In a scene of the movie “ World War Z,” hundreds — maybe thousands — of virus-infected people swarm at the base of a wall in Jerusalem to find more humans to bite and infect. These zombies then form a human ladder to charge over the wall, which Israel’s government had put up in the hope of sparing the city the wrath of the creatures.

The movie’s protagonist, Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, wants to know how the Israelis got advance warning of the zombies, and he heads there to investigate.

A professor at Penn State had something to do with that part of the movie.

David Hughes, an assistant professor of entomology and biology, served as a scientific consultant on the film and gave producers and writers real-life examples of zombie behavior in the hope of amping up its believability.

“Audiences, when they look at something, they intuitively see if it makes sense or not,” said Hughes, whose consulting for the movie goes back two years. “By grounding the infected behavior in real-world examples, it’s being much more realistic, and people will buy it more.”

Hughes, who works in Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, was happy to help, he said, because he’s able to put science in front of as many people as possible.

Hughes researches how a certain species of tree-dwelling carpenter ants in the tropical rain forest canopy become zombies after a parasitic fungus infects them. Basically, the fungus takes control of the ants’ minds, the insects suffer convulsions, and fall to the ground and die. The dead ants sprout a stalk from their heads that releases the fungus’ spores to start the process all over again.

The wall scene in the movie, which was also used in trailers leading up to the film’s release, was from Hughes sharing his expertise on swarm intelligence, or how an infected group works together. Hughes said it’s based on the idea that if a group is highly related, the individuals should merge quickly.

Hughes also talked with the filmmakers about the science behind the behavior of a zombie, such as which human would be bitten next.

Hollywood hasn’t thought about that question scientifically, he said, instead representing the zombie’s next move as a “haphazard melee where humans are being chased.”

Hughes said the question over which humans are bitten becomes an important part of the plot of “World War Z.”

Hughes got to watch the final cut of the film awhile ago, but he said he probably would go to a showing locally with his students and research team.

He admits, however, that that magic has rubbed off a bit because of his intimate knowledge of the subject matter.

“I prefer to go see a movie that I know very little of,” said Hughes, who will appear in an interview of the special features section of the DVD when it’s released.

“World War Z” pulled in $66 million in North America on opening weekend.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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