I don’t know when zombies became cool, but they sure took off some time in the last five years. They’re everywhere: on TV, in video games, in comics, in cell phone commercials, in corporate for-profit adventure/mud-running events. It kind of makes me wish zombies were a publicly traded stock option. I could have invested my savings years ago and made millions before the zombie bubble bursts.
One of the landmark works in the contemporary zombie zeitgeist (oh yeah, I totally just put all those words together into a sentence) is Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I haven’t read, because I suck. Also, because it doesn’t have pictures, and I like my “fun read” books to have pictures in them.
But according to Wikipedia, the World War Z novel is a multi-perspective story that documents the global battle against a zombie apocalypse. It’s supposed to be really good. I do plan on reading it someday.
So, a few years ago, when it was first rumoured that a live-action adaptation of World War Z was in pre-production, a lot of zombie nuts went nuts. And then, when the movie dropped, those zombie nuts went even more nuts because it was nothing like the World War Z book (which it’s not). The film strips away 90% of the storyline to focus on Brad Pitt’s character, and also loses the global voices of the actual, y’know, world war. Instead, the movie becomes (in the mind of critics) just another zombie movie where the hunky White guy saves the world. Which, on this point, it kind of is.
Except, I submit this controversial counter-argument for your consideration — and just in time for the movie’s blu-ray release — World War Z is also the best zombie movie ever.
Here’s the thing, I don’t think there was ever any hope that Max Brooks’ ground-breaking novel was ever going to translate well on-screen. The unique form of narrative story-telling in the book is too fragmented and too sophisticated to come across on-screen (a medium that is, at heart, linear). This was a problem that the film producers discovered mid-production, resulting in a complete script overhaul and a few other serious on-set blow-ups. So, the trick to World War Z is to treat it like it’s not World War Z. Instead, treat it like it’s its own film that just happens to share the super-cool name of the book, but not be saddled by the baggage of trying to be something it could never be.
Taken alone, World War Z (the film) is as ground-breaking for zombie movies as World War Z (the book) was for zombie books.
Unlike in historical zombie films, which have typically limited themselves to a single (usually American) city and left the viewer to imagine that the rest of the world is in similarly smoking ruin, World War Z depicts the truly global scope of the zombie apocalypse, and uniquely intertwines relevant issues of geopolitics into the storyline. Compared to other zombie movies which focus on a single individual or a small group’s battle against the zombie hoards, in World War Z you really get the sense that humanity — in all our nationalities and cultures — is in the same apocalyptic boat and absolutely must work together to survive. And although Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane, a UN investigator whose investigation we follow through the movie, is our protagonist, the film clearly communicates that he is less the sole hero and more the focal point upon which the world’s combined efforts have come together. Each locale visited by Lane on his journey contributes critically in piecing together the history of (and therefore the solution to) the zombie plague.
Consider also the protagonists of World War Z. Unique in the zombie genre is the character of Gerry Lane, who is neither the gun-toting commando nor the ethically-conflicted scientist (two tropes that are typical of most zombie movie fare). Gerry Lane is basically a detective; he’s neither particularly athletic nor does he have any training in the bio-sciences. When the virologist in his team is killed early in the film (oops, spoiler), there is an immediate sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach because you’re convinced that the Earth is doomed. Gerry Lane simply doesn’t have the skill-set that zombie movies typically require to produce a solution to the zombies. That’s what makes this film brilliant: in this movie, no singular gift of physical or mental prowess will win the day, just basic human perseverance and ingenuity.
Also novel is Gerry Lane’s eventual frontline “brother-in-arms” Segen (Daniella Kertesz), an Israeli soldier whose hand he is forced to amputate after she is bitten by one of the infected zombies. Unlike most zombie movies (or most action films in general), it is this diminutive woman — not Brad Pitt — who serves (despite her injury) as bodyguard and fighter.
I also want to give a quick shout-out to Mireille Enos who plays Gerry Lane’s wife. Although her character isn’t conceptually novel, Enos plays each scene she’s in remarkably poignantly. Few contemporary actresses have the gravitas to steal scenes from an actor with both the physical and personal presence as Brad Pitt, but Enos is definitely one of them.
Above all else, World War Z is groundbreaking because of its zombies, which are the coolest zombies you have ever seen. Gone are the dim-witted, lumbering, rotting corpses of zombie movies past. Each individual zombie sprints and darts, launching themselves with abandon (sometimes teeth first) at fresh meat. Their movements are so quick, inhuman and feral, so foreign from normal human movements, that the individual zombies of this film are alone among the scariest reimaginings of zombie monsters we’ve seen. Also, they make terrifying teeth-chattering noises that are used to great effect at the end of the movie, and that will haunt you in your dreams.
But, the zombie threat of World War Z is not the individual zombie, it is the zombie horde. The virus gives the zombies the appearance of coordinated behavior, resulting in each horde moving as if it has a singular mind, like a swarm of bees or a school of fish. And there’s something bone-chilling about the way the film depicts thousands of zombies banking and moving in unison. In a genre where the classic zombie has become common place and, to some degree, non-threatening (to wit, how easily they are dispatched in recent seasons of The Walking Dead), World War Z has successfully made the zombie scary again. And for that alone — no small feat to today’s jaded movie-going audience — it deserves kudos.
Of course, World War Z has its flaws, none of which I remember because I saw this movie in theatres like four months ago, when I loved the ever-lovin’ beejezus out of it. But, whatever its problems, they don’t outweigh the sheer awesomeness of this refreshing and welcome new take on the tired ‘ol zombie apocalypse.