Zombies in the Laboratory

Zombies in the Laboratory
Periodic Tabloid (part of a three-part series)
September 24, 2013

[Note: The blog where this series was originally published is no longer online. Below is the original text of the post.]

In contrast to my posts on earlier zombie movies, in which zombies emerge from imperialized colonies or from a damaged countryside, many newer zombies have their origin in a more modern institution: the laboratory.

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), for example, opens with a scene of animals in a medical research facility rattling their cages. The animals are infected with a virus that can only be described as rage. While it is not immediately clear whether or not the infection was deliberately induced, its effects are disastrous regardless. Predictably, the rage virus escapes the lab and begins infecting humans.

This summer’s blockbuster zombie movie, World War Z, takes many of its cues from 28 Days Later. In contrast to many earlier films, these zombies are fast, violently aggressive, and can turn a living person into an infected monster almost immediately. Zombiism functions like a communicable disease; at the individual level it is transmitted through intimate contact (particularly via bodily fluids), and at the societal level it is distributed through modern transportation.

In both films people respond to the zombie outbreak like they would to any other virus, by creating a space for scientific investigation. Both movies have scenes in which a lone infected monster is held captive and observed as a research animal, ostensibly to discover the mechanisms behind the virus and, eventually, how to cure it. And in World War Z, a laboratory provides the solution for mankind’s survival; past the zombies swaying listlessly near supply closets and lab benches, a stash of deadly viruses held in cold storage become a sort of inoculation against zombie infection.

In addition to these and the many other films in which zombies are the result of medical experimentation, biological research, or chemical weapons gone wrong, there is also a new kind of zombie emerging out of a new kind of laboratory. The house in Joss Whedons short-lived television show Dollhouse is part medical research lab and part computer lab; the “actives” (in contrast to the “infected”) are living humans who have had their personalities removed and their brains reprogrammed with a series of new identities created for the specific needs of clients. The woman in charge of the dollhouse describes the actives to a prospective client as, “Robots . . . zombie slaves . . . mostly people think they’re just very good liars. They are, of course, just the opposite. An active is the truest soul among us.” Their programmer, when chastised for describing the actives as a herd of bison rather than as people, replies, “They’re a little bit bison.”

Twenty-first-century zombies are yet another kind of victim. No longer slaves to imperial factory owners, or the victims of atomic-era overreach and experimentation, 21st-century zombies are new souls created in used (but not yet dead) bodies. Whether these new souls are aggressively sick or merely programmed, they do have agency, desire, and even personality. The infected both rest and travel in communities, react idiosyncratically to the events around them, and make choices about what to do (and who to follow). Actives also form communities, even in their supposedly blank/unprogrammed state, and develop individual identities and memories that supersede their imprinted selves.

The tragedy of the modern zombie, then, is that they keep being pushed down by the very science that created them. Quarantine zones are created. Vaccines are developed. Brains are wiped, and re-wiped. Zombie stories often end with a reaffirmation of the lab’s power, with scientifically minded rigor and technological prowess saving humanity. But where does that leave this new creature, who didn’t choose to be sick or to start over in a new body? They may be zombies made in a lab, but does that mean they don’t deserve to live?

This question comes up again and again as new developments in science, technology, and medicine lead to new configurations of humanity: what makes a new form of life valuable enough to be protected? New practices like in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, animal cloning, tissue sampling and storage, and organ harvesting and donation have each in their own way contributed to this debate.

In a world in which resources are limited, we must make real choices about which forms of life to save and which to destroy. Keeping blood, tissue samples, and embryos in cold storage is costly; organ donation is fraught with logistical limitations and moral judgments. So far, we have attempted to answer these questions using the logic of the laboratory, with dispassion and precise definitions. We use bioethics to weigh relative interests against each other and to create just solutions. But 21st-century zombies defy these attempts, creating new selves that may have legitimate claims while possibly threatening our own lives. For example, if we repatriated HeLa cells (or never collected them in the first place), lives would probably be lost due to  research that could never be conducted. In so doing, these cells force us to think about where we fall on the spectrum between life and death, and how we might continue to make space on that spectrum for others.