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Pretty Dead is a documentary-style feature film that explores many facets of dealing with mental illness; from the perspective of a patient as well as their friends, loved ones, and professional caretakers.  The issues discussed in this film are complex and cannot be fully represented in perfect context, so we have provided several resources to assist in understanding the complicated medical concepts and jargon.

The Science of Pretty Dead

One of the major selling points of Pretty Dead is that we tried to make everything as medically/scientifically accurate as possible while still making a zombie movie.

The scientifically plausible zombie movie:

We took a fungus called cordyceps and used that as our catalyst for our main character’s, Regina Stevens, change in behavior and appetite.  Cordyceps infect a host organism (usually an insect) and cause it to anchor itself in the highest point possible.  At its most simple, the ant is compelled to move towards light, which is not an instinct it normally has.  The fungus manipulating the behavior of the ant ensures that the spores from the fruiting body that will emerge from the host’s head will be able to catch the most wind and infect the largest area, rather than just the host in the same location of infection.  These fungi can only infect a specific species of host, but have mutated to be able to infect a large number of species.  They are not known to be able to infect mammals of any kind and are even eaten inChina as a form of medicine.  They are fairly common and widespread.

In our movie, a cordyceps species has mutated in a way that makes it capable of infecting humans.  The means of transmission was through some tainted cocaine that was snorted at a party.  Our main character overdoses on the drug and is revived by her boyfriend.  Somewhere and somehow during the night, the cordyceps managed to take hold and start growing inside of her.  For our purposes, the CPR used to pump the blood through her system will have moved the spores passed the blood-brain barrier, allowing it to take hold.

While we know the ant is given the simple instruction of moving upwards toward light, we can’t be sure what the same reaction would be interpreted the same way by human brain.  This is how we justifyRegina’s change in behavior to that of a zombie.  Within a few days, she begins to have cravings that she can’t explain.  Raw pork seems to help her for a while, but then she starts craving human tissue exclusively.  Pork is used mainly because it’s considered to be what humans would taste closest to at least that’s a widely held notion due to a lot of movies and urban legends.  When the fungus really gets going, it will either feed on her body, or on the human flesh she ingests.  This is where we really begin to deviate from zombie lore and actual science, but other microbes/parasites have been known to symbiotically affect human behavior.

The gut and bacteria have shown a link this year, thanks to researchers atMcMasterUniversity, showing that external microbes can affect human behavior.  Rather than just have zombies wandering around mindlessly hungry for people or animals or whatever, we’ve tried to come up with a much slower progression into cannibalism that lets our characters think about what they’re doing.  While there’s no reasonable medical plausibility that a person with no pulse or blood pressure could retain animation and cognition as we’ve represented, we have integrated a secondary explanation of her condition via psychosis.

Finally, in order to make sure people understood that this is an actual zombie and that has been misdiagnosed, we have borrowed from stories such as S.G. Browne’s Breathers where zombies are capable of healing by recycling consumed human flesh.  This is totally fictional.

The psychologically plausible zombie movie:

Not wanting to be a one-trick pony, we’ve also included the possibility thatReginais actually going insane, affected with a disorder known as Cotard’s Syndrome.  This extremely rare disease, also known as Walking Corpse Syndrome, causes patients to believe that they are dead, putrefying, or otherwise don’t exist.  They attempt to prove that they are in fact deceased or in some way rotting and will actually cut pieces off of their bodies to show they don’t feel pain.  This is extremely rare, but is a real disease and the medical staff of our fictional hospital diagnose Regina with the condition.  It is often associated with other disorders such as schizophrenia.

In short, we’ve used a factual psychological diagnosis that is appropriate for the symptoms she is exhibiting.  We made sure that her behavior is textbook Cotard’s, so that anything that couldn’t be supported medically could be supported psychologically in the narrative.

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