If the truth is stranger than fiction, then surely science truths must be stranger than science fiction?

In a cosy anteroom of Chelsea Old Town Hall we get a demonstration of this. Pop-Up Screens are treating us to a series of films with an analysis of their premise from a scientific perspective.

The event covers five films: Alien, Apollo 13, Terminator 2, Good Will Hunting and Shaun Of The Dead. All well known films, touching on various disciplines from materials science, mathematics, virology and others.It’s a bright, sunny London afternoon, so it’s obviously time for a bright, sunny London zombie film.

The format of the day comprises an introduction to the major scientific themes of the movie in the form of a discussion between interviewer Helen Arney, virologist Karl Byrne providing the squishy science, and comedian/youtuber Richard Sandling chipping in with a view from the world of funny. 

Wait a second….Zombification? Science? Aren’t those things mutually exclusive? Zombies are surely just made up stories?

Well yes…and no.

This is the nub of the matter. Whilst there are certainly arguments to say that the zombie mythos is just a recent hollywood creation, there are glimmers of older stories that the mythology draws from. 

Helen makes for an engagingly enthusiastic interviewer, clearly as fascinated by some of the revelations as the audience. She’s well prepared and the structure of the lecture pieces have been compartmentalized into themes which break down well across the movie.

Richard provides commentary on the imagery of the zombie culture in films and how that plays out in Shaun of the Dead and how this symbolism has changed with the times. This particular bit of the conversation has birthed what I believe to be a brand new word after his comments on 1950’s paranoia – “Zommunists”. I really hope that no-one else has got to that one first!.

Karl Byrne knows his stuff, he takes us through the roots of zombie mythology in Haitian tales of Pufferfish Tetrodotoxin concoctions and plant extract created to dope up slave workers. This particular plant is, apparently, the evil cousin of the potato! But don’t worry, potatoes only become evil when peeled, sliced and fried – as would anyone I suppose…

Good old human beings, they can always be trusted to be the most inventive things on the planet… Not even close.

For the true masters of controlling the will of others we get fungi, barnacles and parasitic wasps (over the course of this segment, it became glaring apparent that Karl does not like wasps). The few centuries that people have been experimenting with bending others to their will is strictly amateur hour when compared with the tricks that evolution has up its sleeve. The remote controlled cockroach is a particularly nasty example. Very clever, yes, but nasty.

It’s interesting, inventive and gruesome stuff. Mind you, it’s not anywhere near half as scary as what’s yet to come.We get a break from the science at this point for the first half an hour of the movie itself.

I haven’t seen this film for a few years and had forgotten just how good it is. There is so much to remember, with what would now be considered a huge number of notable cameos. It’s a wonderful compliment to the science. To be honest I could have watched either or and still be comfortable that I had been thoroughly entertained.

And just when you’re settling into the film, the pause button is pressed and we’re back to the facts.

This is the real deal now. What DO we need to be scared of. Cats come out particularly badly, what with the Toxoplasma Gondii and the rabies. And, don’t think just because you don’t have a cat you’re okay on that score, most of us have the cat virus, some get it really bad. You thought the crazy cat lady stuff was a coincidence? Just be glad you’re not a rat, aroused by the smell of cat pee, they go amorously scurrying to their doom…

The problem with having enthusiastic, engaging people disseminating these sort of facts is that, because they are quite reassuring about really horrifying stuff that is fairly mundane and widespread, you can sit there and say things like “wow” and “gosh” rather than, much more appropriately, running screaming from the room to bathe in disinfectant and never come out of your home again. The other problem is that we are also assured that it wouldn’t do you any good anyway and that “THE VIRUSES ARE COMING…..MWAH..HA..HAAAAAA!” and we are all eventually going to die of the flu.

We are then treated to an insight into the brain, specifically which bits you’d have to destroy in order to kill off a zombie and why. Hollywood, it appears, has been taking some liberties as normal. Why Zombies are bite-y, why teenagers are teenager-y and why the malfunction of certain parts of the brain would give those all important shuffling and shambling characteristics.

After we’ve been both terrified and educated in equal measure, it’s back to the film for the middle act. Yup, still good! 

The final part of the lecture discusses how quickly a zombie apocalypse would spread. How many infected humans would be the minimum amount to categorically ensure the extinction of the human species (think of a whole number between 0 and 2. I’ll give you a clue, you can’t have 0 or 2). The maths makes an appearance in the form of survival equations and existential flowcharts. This is not simple stuff and on its own may have had your brain shutting down and you drooling vacantly in a very undead manner.

With the lecture approaching a close, we are given a slight glimmer of hope. If we were all infected with the zombie plague, we STILL wouldn’t be top of the food chain. It’s very likely that the everyday bugs and microbes on our bodies would happily evolve into something that could feast on zombie a la carte in about three weeks. 

So, the safe advice would be to head out into the ocean (no ships cat!) at the first sign of brain eating undead rising from the grave, wait a month or two for the human race to be converted and the zombie race to be eaten by our microscopic friends and all will be fine…until the first person dies back on shore that is and the whole thing kicks off anew.

Resuming the film for the final act, we get all the good stuff as I remembered it: the pub, the rifle, pool cues, Queen, fire, etc. 

Between the science and the film, we have a fabulous afternoons’ entertainment, I’d love to do something this again. It was refreshing as well to see critique of a film that supported rather than picked it apart. The film is shown on its own merits and thoroughly enjoyed without snide or pedantic finger pointing at what it got wrong. 

Thankfully having a good laugh at the film is a good way to diffuse the creeping sensation that you’re not safe. 

Yeah, actually don’t think about creeping sensations, they could be the the virus creeping from your brain down your nerve endings.

Night, night, sleep tight and don’t let the Necrotizing Fasciitis that is apparently already all over your body eat you alive while you are having flu nightmares…

Keep an eye out on the Pop Up Screens website for details of future events.