This article was written by Patrick Yeagle and featured in the Illinois Times on October 16, 2014. 

In a dusty, dimly-lit warehouse, a horde of zombies closes in two men with high-powered firearms trying in vain to escape through a stuck door. The men radio for help, and outside, an armored car that looks like something from a dystopian Mad Max film unloads hundreds of rounds into the zombies with a rotary machine gun.

It’s a scene from an advertising campaign by the Illinois Department of Transportation pushing seat belt use. The department spent $143,000 on the video, even hiring an actor from the popular TV show “The Walking Dead” about survivors of a zombie outbreak. IDOT’s series raises questions about the appropriate use of tax money, as well as the depiction of violence to further a public health agenda.

Running just short of eight minutes long, the elaborate video depicts zombies covered in blood and human characters shooting the zombies with a variety of firearms. To narrate and star in the video, an advertising agency hired by IDOT drafted actor Michael Rooker, an actor who plays a racist character in “The Walking Dead.” The video features a souped-up 1960s-era Ford Mustang with grated armor panels and a large machine gun mounted on the front, along with several customized high-powered rifle props and numerous actors in zombie makeup.

Rooker’s unnamed character in “Driving Dead” gives a vague soliloquy about life over a flashback of him and other characters escaping zombies. The seat belt message comes unexpectedly when the driver of the armored car insists that Rooker’s character in the flashback buckle his seat belt. Rooker’s character demurs, and the driver takes off, careening through a building and hitting several obstacles.

“Do you know how stupid it is not to wear your seat belt?” the driver says over the whine of the engine. “What did we talk about? You’ve got to be responsible.”

A scraggly character in the back seat chimes in with a line that sounds like it came straight from a brochure.

“Did you know you can reduce the risk of serious, crash-related injury by fifty percent, just by buckling up?” the unnamed character says.

Ann Strahle, an assistant professor teaching about film in the Communications Department at the University of Illinois Springfield, says the video is probably intended to reach male viewers in the upper teens to early 30s age group, but she’s not certain whether the message is effective.

“Frankly, I thought that the message was rather muddled and not clear until the very end,” Strahle said. “Plus, the question is whether their audience will stay with an eight-minute piece.”

Kathy Jamison, an associate professor teaching about film in the same department at UIS, says that while basing the public service announcement on a popular theme like zombies is a clever approach, the film is “quite extravagant for a mere message to buckle up.”

“The expense of producing this piece … to educate the public about buckling up seems a bit ridiculous,” Jamison said. “The attempt here is no doubt to bring something new to the buckle up campaign, since it is ‘old news,’ in essence. Remember, though, audiences today are so savvy and so onto anything you throw at them, that while the caliber of production is very good on this film PSA – and audiences would scoff and not pay attention to anything less – at the point that we get the message to buckle up, I believe the audience has to chuckle.”

Jamison says the money may have been better spent on educating the public about the dangers of texting while driving.

Although the video was funded with a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Nathaniel Hamilton, spokesman for the Illinois Policy Institute, points to a study from the same agency showing media campaigns like IDOT’s are less effective than simply enforcing the law. The 2008 study, titled “How States Achieve High Seat Belt Use Rates,” says states with low rates of seat belt use spent 40 percent more on seat belt media campaigns than did states with high rates of use. Meanwhile, high use states issued twice as many citations to drivers for not wearing seat belts as low use states.

“The statistical analyses suggest that the most important difference between the high and low belt use states is enforcement, not demographic characteristics or dollars spent on media,” the study said.

Hamilton concedes that IDOT’s Driving Dead video is well-made, but he says the money would have been better spent elsewhere.

“People should be asking whether the goal was to make an exciting video or to accomplish better road safety in Illinois,” Hamilton said. “The fact is that this is not the best use of taxpayer dollars. If the real purpose of this campaign is to encourage safe driving in the state, then campaigns to toughen seat belt laws and increase enforcement are the best ways to get results.”

IDOT spokeswoman Paris Ervin says the project was competitively bid, and its aim was to reach 21-34-year-old males, which she says is the largest group of people killed each year in accidents while not wearing seat belts.

“This new approach speaks directly to our audience where they spend most of their time: online and on social media,” Ervin said. “We believe that talking to this group in their preferred digital language, tailoring our content for mobile devices and sharing our message in a new way is exactly what is needed to reach our target demographic, keep Illinois motor vehicle fatalities on the decline and save lives.”

More than 700 people have died in auto accidents in 2014, according to Ervin, and 190 of those deaths were attributable to lack of or improper use of a restraint. The video has received more than 380,000 views on Youtube, and Ervin says the response has been positive.

“Our intent with this new approach is to reach a very specific, targeted demographic,” Ervin said. “Our main goal is to save lives.”

Read more and watch the video here.