The folks who run Drexel University's simulation lab - that's the place where nursing and other student health professionals grapple with emergencies before they actually happen - had already staged the most obvious disasters: a tanker truck crash on I-95 and a terrorist bombing of a busload of tourists at the Liberty Bell.
They were wondering what to simulate next when a zombie apocalypse turned up on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's web site.
"We said, 'Eureka!' this is perfect!" recalls Carol Okupniak, director of the Drexel lab that produced a 60-second video of the event, titled Zombie Uprising at Drexel: Are You Prepared for an Emergency?
Zombies, of course, are the ideal educational tool for preparedness. For one thing, they are unknown. "No one knows how to medically care for zombies," Okupniak says.
At the same time, everybody loves them. "Zombies are just huge in popular culture right now," says Maggie Silver, a health communications specialist at the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.
When the CDC tried out a zombie-preparedness theme with a blog post in May, the initial response crashed its server; page views topped three million. An outside firm that analyzed the response in all media - page views, Twitter messages, Facebook comments, print, radio, and television stories - came up with 3.4 billion impressions.
Seeing a potential treasure trove of publicity for a topic that few people pay attention to, the CDC assigned a Zombie Task Force to create posters ("Don't Be a Zombie: Be Prepared"), a graphic novella (Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic), buttons, badges, widgets, and e-cards.
It also announced a 60-second video challenge on an emergency preparedness theme. "Individuals, groups, and even zombies can enter the contest," the CDC said. "Participants are encouraged to use creative ways to prepare for an emergency."
The deadline is 11:59 p.m. Tuesday; winners will be announced in two weeks.
For Drexel, the contest was an afterthought; it was already taping the simulation, using eight video cameras, as a teaching tool. The challenge was keeping it secret.
Two dozen staffers from simulation labs around the country had signed up for a weeklong, $1,400 course at Drexel in August on how to manage their own centers. They were sitting through a lecture on the history of simulation when Okupniak, wearing scrubs, interrupted with news of an emergency.
The PowerPoint flipped to a "breaking news" report about supposedly infectious Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome. Participants were taken out in two groups - one to the emergency room and the other to a makeshift morgue, where they were given clipboards to record hair color, clothing, and any marks that could be used to identify the bagged corpses. All were trained health professionals.
"They are used to caring for people with accidents or injuries," says Okupniak. "They did not know how to treat the living dead. It was a huge challenge for them. They tried to get them to return to their body bags. That was just instinctive. These people came alive in front of their eyes."
The chaos is apparent in the video, which relies on quick shots and hand-held camera work.
"It really made my heart pump! I felt completely out of my comfort zone," says LeAnn Chisholm, a simulation lab coordinator at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, who was trying to dress an infant's wounds when a zombie started getting hungry for its brains. The point, she says, "was to show nursing faculty how it feels to be in a simulation, feel the adrenaline, and realize how students feel when we place them in the same situations. It also showed me the importance of preparing for the unexpected."
Because video is normally shot for this class, the production cost only about $100 more than usual (for costumes and makeup), says Okupniak, who heads the Center for Interdisciplinary Clinical Simulation and Practice.
The CDC, too, said its campaign had cost almost nothing: $87 in stock photos for the original blog post, which the outside analysis estimated created marketing worth $3.6 million.
"Zombies like all movie monsters essentially are metaphors for certain societal fears," explains Nick Mazzuca, a simulation specialist at Drexel who worked on the video and also plays a zombie in it.
"I love zombies."
Contact staff writer Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or email@example.com.