How World War Z ruined the zombie apocalypse.
- By Daniel W. Drezner
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. Prior to Fletcher, he taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drezner has received fellowships from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard University. He has previously held positions with Civic Education Project, the RAND Corporation, and the Treasury Department.
I had my concerns about the film version of World War Z from the first trailer. As the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, and a fan of Max Brooks’s spellbinding novel, I’ve got some flesh in the game, as it were. I hoped to see a film version that at least nodded to the geopolitical complexities of the novel, which suggested that zombies would potentially exacerbate pre-existing interstate conflicts — and star/producer Brad Pitt did as well. The pre-release buzz on the film did not make me any more sanguine. So, by the time I sat down for the New York premiere of the film, I tried to throw away any unrealistic hopes or expectations that this was going to be the zombie Citizen Kane. Besides, trailers can deceive, bad buzz has preceded good films, and this is a friggin’ summer popcorn flick. Surely, the equation must hold: Brad Pitt + $150 million > Fast and Furious 6. Right?
To judge World War Z fairly, one has to consider its myriad possible purposes. So let’s go from hardest to easiest in grading this film:
As a faithful adaptation of Brooks’s novel, director Marc Forster’s film fails, and fails spectacularly. In looking over my notes after the lights came up, here are the parts of the plot that I was able to determine appeared in both the film and the book:
a) There are zombies;
b) They’ve gone global;
c) Israel’s security bureaucracies are competent.
That’s it. Everything else has been changed. And I mean everything, including altering the zombies from slow, lumbering, George Romero-type Night of the Living Dead ghouls to fast, Danny Boyle-type 28 Days Later rage-filled monsters. One of the pleasures of Brooks’s novel was his believable take on how countries like North Korea and Israel would respond to a global zombie pandemic. The film version of these national reactions, on the other hand, is literally incredible.
Now, to be fair, Brooks’s novel was a Studs Terkel-like oral history with at least a dozen different tales interwoven together. Without a protagonist, it would have been an extremely difficult movie adaptation if done faithfully — and I doubt anyone would pay multiplex prices to see 32 Short Films about the Comparative Politics of Zombies. So it’s completely unfair to judge this film based solely on this criteria.
However, even if you’re looking to see a zombie flick where you don’t have to think much, the movie is a bit brain-dead. The zombie genre has its own conventions, and World War Z follows some of them. Ten minutes in, for example, society has pretty much broken down. The decision to make the zombies manic sprinters does lead to some decent panicked mob scenes in Philadelphia and Jerusalem, and will make any viewer a bit more squeamish about plane travel.
The thing is, zombie movies have to be at least a little bit interested in, you know, the living dead — and World War Z is deeply uninterested in its MacGuffin. The film fails to offer a consistent logic of how the undead infection spreads. No major character turns into a flesh-eating ghoul. Indeed, these zombies don’t seem all that interested in eating people. Mostly, they cock their heads violently, emit odd noises, and try to break through glass windows. In other words, they act and sound like angry birds — and not the fun, addictive kind either.
Of course, what’s really interesting about zombie films is how humans react to the living dead. Usually, the misanthropic answer is "not well." Early on, World War Z has a looting scene that touches on these issues, with people brandishing guns to secure supplies and attacking other humans — but that passes quickly. After that, practically every character with a speaking part acts in a noble, forthright, and earnest manner. There’s very little in the way of humans displaying greed, malevolence, or stupidity in World War Z, which is what makes the zombie genre so misanthropic. Liberal internationalists who value the United Nations or World Health Organization (WHO) will find the movie uplifting — especially when you see the U.N. and U.S. flags flying next to each other in the "U.N. Atlantic Fleet," according to the film. Unfortunately, such a heavy dose of do-gooding leeches the narrative of any compelling conflict. As the film progressed, the only drama I felt was whether Mireille Enos could get through a scene without pursing her lips in a disapproving manner.
As a film about the apocalypse, World War Z does find something of a groove. Indeed, the film has far more in common with 2012 than Night of the Living Dead. Government authority disappears in most of the places World War Z visits, except for military bases and WHO installations. Lines like, "What do you mean, we lost Boston?!" and "Mother Nature is a serial killer" litter the script. Watching the undead overrun a major city or a passenger plane has its voyeuristic charms.
The problem is that, as an apocalyptic end-of-the-world fable, World War Z needs to get in line — the world is drowning in end-of-the-planet films right now. This year alone, there’s already been Warm Bodies, Oblivion, and After Earth. Pacific Rim is still on the horizon this summer. Fortunately for World War Z, some of those recent films have been so poorly reviewed that it can only look good by comparison. And apparently Brad Pitt > Tom Cruise + Will Smith. However, with the release of This Is The End and the forthcoming The World’s End, it’s becoming clear that apocalypse films have become so over-the-top that they’ve become ripe for satire.
Finally, as a popcorn summer flick designed to appeal to a global audience, we arrive to a realm where World War Z will probably find its greatest success. It stars Brad Pitt as the world’s most family-friendly ex-U.N. employee ever — not that we learn anything about the U.N. The film hopscotches the globe to film mayhem happening in
tax-friendly places exotic locales. There’s a lot of big, dumb action sequences that teenage boys of any country can appreciate. And the ending sets up the possibility of a sequel, though for the life of me it would make no logical sense.
Also, the filmmakers also have changed key plot details from the book to avoid offending large markets — except perhaps devout Jews and Muslims, who unintentionally create some mayhem in the film’s middle act. In the novel World War Z, Max Brooks, inspired by the outbreak of the SARS virus, had zombies originate in the People’s Republic of China. In the film, it’s not quite clear — vague references are made to Taiwan, South Korea, and India — but the zombies definitely did not originate from China. A climactic action sequence in Russia was shot and then deleted, though that may have been for artistic rather than market-based reasons. To be honest, the plot of Fast and Furious 6 makes more sense.
If World War Z does well, however, everyone in the business of writing about the living dead does well. So I’ll be rooting for it to succeed. Still, once the lights come back on, I expect those people who attend ZomBcons or Comic-Cons will get up and mutter to themselves, "It used to be about the zombies, man."