World War Z: Not Like the Book, Still a Great Zombie Movie

12662aI 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 releaseWorld 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.

14 thoughts on “World War Z: Not Like the Book, Still a Great Zombie Movie

    1. @Mast, thank you for the comment and you’re right that I didn’t include the Zionist discussion (mostly since I focused this post as a general overview of the film). I thought the depiction of the Israeli wall was quite compelling because it is clearly done as a reference to Israel’s general approach to international affairs and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Where I think the trouble lies is in attempting to interpret the film as a condonment or an indictment of Israel.

      It’s clear that given Israel’s general approach to its own borders and the Palestinian population, I think it’s realistic to depict Israel as building a border/defense wall. I think it’s a stretch to say that the Palestinians are supposed to be represented by the zombies in WWZ, because the Palestinians are represented in the movie by Palestinians. Instead, I would argue it is a factual depiction of how Israel reacts to any perceived threat to its own security. I think it would be difficult to interpret the film as Zionist condonment, or indicting, Israeli policy based on its building of this wall, because the facts in the movie are that Israel builds the wall around its city that excludes the Palestinians, but also incorporates into that wall a gate and tunnels through which Palestinians (and all other humans) can enter. The Israeli official says “every one we invite in is one less we have to fight”; which can be interpreted as both a condonment and an indictment, depending on your own perspectives. One can laud the Israeli for letting in Palestinians and/or for building a wall, but one can also condemn the Israeli for having built a wall that excluded large populations of people outside their borders in the first place, leaving them to have to fight to enter. My point is that both interpretations are valid.

      Also, I liked how we spent time with watching the Israeli invite in people through the wall. This is IMO supposed to contrast against the N. Korean strategy of isolationism; here we see the Israeli take an ethically superior stance by letting in other survivors, but we also see the cost of those ethics — the falling of the wall. I think it is precisely the lack of a clear black-and-white value judgement on the part of the film when it comes to Israel’s vs N. Korea’s (vs America’s/UN’s) strategy in dealing with the zombie threat that is the take-home message. Everything is right and everything is wrong, because foreign policy is not black and white but shades of grey.

      1. As a Muslim who identifies as a nerd of color as well, I have been bothered by the way Islamophobic sentiments, depictions, and (in this case) policies have been dismissed on this site. Yes, there are complexities in the world, but apartheid is apartheid. Arguing that the Israeli apartheid wall, as seen in the film, can be “lauded” has really disturbing and offensive implications. When the film came out, a lot of my Muslim friends and colleagues were posting critiques of the way that wall was used in the film. Like them, I scoffed at the way the film showed Israelis inviting displaced Palestinians. When Israeli occupation of Palestine continues to commit daily oppressive acts of racial profiling, torture, and stealing land, are we really expected to believe that this would happen? Are we really expected to show sympathy or express gratitude for the oppressive state?

        Aliens are often used as metaphors for people of color in western science-fiction stories. Although Palestinians are represented in the film, that doesn’t mean one can’t see zombies also representing Palestinians. In fact, Israeli propaganda dehumanizes Palestinians all the time, so it isn’t difficult to draw that connection. Similarly, in District 9, there were strong parallels with racial apartheid in South Africa, even though it featured aliens, as well as black characters (and the depiction of black people was incredibly racist).

        Even centering on an Israeli soldier or the apartheid wall is nauseating. Why not center on Palestinian characters? Why not focus on a Palestinian instead of an Israeli soldier? Why not portray a Palestinian character in a heroic and positive light? It’s always annoying when Hollywood films try to get us to show sympathy for the oppressors, while marginalizing or silencing the voices of those who are directly impacted by oppressive policies on a daily basis.

        What bothers me is that when I bring up things like the vilification of Iranians in Argo, or the vilification of South Asian Muslim and Sikh names in “Star Trek,” or now with the apartheid wall in World War Z, there seems to be more attempts to dismiss these critiques rather than stand in solidarity with them. I think it would be great to have more Arab, Iranian, South Asian, and Muslim voices here.

  1. Mast, I completely disagree with your argument.

    I find the idea that zombies in World War Z represented Palestinians in certain scenes dehumanizing and repugnant. To liken reanimated necrotic flesh to actual living, breathing humans is an absurd reduction. Further, science fiction’s use of non-human creatures to represent real-world ethnicities and nationalities is well-known, but the argument that World War Z accomplished this with zombies as a stand-in for Palestinians fails as soon as the camera displays Arabs walking through checkpoints in the Israeli anti-zombie wall.

    A fair argument you could propose is the movie’s blasé reinforcement of the idea that Palestinian health and agency is subject to Israeli national security concerns; the film spends zero time questioning those politics, because it’s not really concerned with that status quo. But to apply your own passions to the film with the assertion that the filmmakers engaged in a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that depicts the Palestinian people as bloodthirsty animalistic anarchists hell-bent on destroying Israeli paradise is just weird.

    The rest of us are under no mandate to view Israeli citizens or their government as oppressors. Solidarity does not exist. But I agree that this site would benefit from more voices in this space from the Muslim world. So write the change you wish to see here, and I’ll make sure our editor receives it.

    1. Hi James, I (obviously) agree with you on this, but disagree with perhaps the notion that it is weird for someone to apply their own passions to an interpretation of a film. I think we all apply our passions to things, and everyone views media through a biased lens. There is no objective interpretation.

      I personally think it is bizarre to conclude that the zombies in this movie are Palestinians, in part because I find that reduction racist and offensive. I think it is unfounded also because there is little else, other than the fact that the zombies are outside the wall, to draw any additional parallels between the zombies and the Palestinian cause.

      But I don’t think it is weird to be bring our personal passions to media, and to interpret them thusly. I think Mast’s passion is valid, although I also personally think the evidence is somewhat wanting.

  2. Hi Mast,

    I do apologize that you feel that Islamophobic sentiments are dismissed on this site, and appreciate your raising the issue. I would love to hear more about your opinion, and perhaps we could collaborate on a joint post that could go on out this site expressing your alternatve perspective regarding how Muslim issues are treated/mistreated in WWZ and Star Trek: Into Darkness. I do not mean to give off the impression that my interpretations are the correct interpretations, only that I would like to be convinced by the arguments, as to date I think the Islamophobic interpretation is one of several possible interpretations, and not one that I personally subscribe to. But, as with all forms of media critique, all interpretations are valid, and foremost, I want to emphasize that I *do* see where you are coming from.

    When it comes to WWZ, the bottom line is that I simply didn’t see the movie this way. I saw the movie — as a whole — as attempting to situate a zombie apocalypse in a contemporary geopolitical landscape, but (as I said above) as neither an indictment nor a condonment of those policies. It is an act of speculative fiction, one that amounts to saying “in the fantastic hypothetical of a zombie hoarde, this is the “fact” of what North Korea or the UN or Israel would do”; each of these countries serve as metaphors for different survival strategies, each with their clear merits and drawbacks.

    Taking this away from Israel for a second, David Morse’s character (the CIA prisoner in S. Korea) recounts how N. Korea walled off the country, retreated into itself, and in a matter of 24 (or 48? I forget) hours pulls the teeth of every one of its citizens. This scene is depicted graphically as Morse (in his own insanity) pulls his own remaining incisor. He comments that this is an incredible feat of logistics and efficiency, and that this is why N. Korea has otherwise been largely unscathed by the zombies and is standing despite the fall of other major cities like the UK or most of America. So, on the one hand, we are offered the suggestion that this isolationist and flagrantly insane tactic has actually worked to keep North Koreans alive and otherwise unaffected (compared to the millions who have died). On the other hand, we also grapple with the obvious fact that this approach is insane.

    Bringing this back to the depiction of Israel: what I’m trying to say is the same thing. If we situate a zombie threat to Israeli national security, the movie posits the theory that Israel (because of both its small size and generally hyper-militaristic, arguably paranoid national security philosophy) would build a wall around its borders to keep out the zombies. This is neither depicted as an indictment nor a condonment by the film, simply a statement of fact — which I agree with. Israel would absolutely actually do this; they have done it in the past.

    The question lies in whether or not the *film* makes a value judgement about Israel’s actions. I would argue that the film presents the scenario of what the Israeli are doing, and offers the consequences, and then allows the viewer to decide whether or not this was a successful strategy, just like with North Korea. On the one hand, Israel built a wall, and like the Koreans, survived the initial onslaught and was largely holding their borders; they also are depicted as having a less isolationist mindset than N. Korea, letting (implied) Palestinians through their border checkpoints. This point I want to emphasize — in this speculative scenario, Israel has for the time being ceded their differences with the Palestinians; despite contemporary depictions of Palestinians as dehumanized monsters in current Israeli propaganda, in WWZ, the Israeli have come to recognize the Palestinians as human — in fact defend their humanity to Pitt’s character — and have established a policy to save them.

    Now the flip side: on the other hand, Israel’s decision to build a wall is, obviously, isolationist. You could use the word apartheid too (but this is complex, see below) and that would be valid. Their strategy is, at its core, no different from N. Korea — they plan to save themselves and their immediate neighbours, but the wall doesn’t deal with the long-term problem of the zombies. It’s a “wall off and hope” strategy. And, of course, the movie also shows that the wall does not hold, suggesting that any strategy that relies primarily on separation from “undesirables” is doomed to failure. Also, the movie’s acceptance of Palestinians leaves the Palestinians without political power in Jerusalem; they are/remain refugees. While I think this is an appropriate speculation given the current political context, I agree that it doesn’t achieve any form of positive uplift for the Palestinian and/or Muslim viewer. One could readily argue that while the Palestinians of WWZ survive, they have survived on Israel’s terms.

    There are those who see the Israeli zombie wall as a stand-in for Israel’s approach to Palestine. But, (as you’ve noted above) this interpretation relies on the assumption that the zombies are the Palestinians. I just flat-out reject that interpretation, because I actually find that interpretation so abhorrent, as to offend my sensibilities. And if we think this film is Zionist, it depends on acceptance that zombies could reasonably represent the Palestinian people. Instead, I argue that the Palestinians are offered in the movie as representatives of the Palestinians; thus, I think the zombies are zombies (a stand-in for a generic national security threat that affects us globally). Thus, because I see the movie as the zombies being zombies, I have a harder time with the term “apartheid wall”. Palestinians have political rights and do not deserve the oppressive treatment that they are facing at the hands of the Israeli government; a wall built to keep Palestinians out is apartheid. Zombies have no political rights and are dead reanimated corpses that want to eat our brains; a wall built to keep zombies out is akin to building a levy to stop a flood.

    (Again, I agree that if you accept that the film is actively trying to depict the zombies as any form of people with the same inalienable rights, than you could see the wall as an apartheid wall and see the film as a generally pro-Israeli position on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. I think the fault line is that I think that the details of the zombie threat differs so wildly from the political wants of the Palestinians in this conflict, that the parallel would make no sense if the filmmakers were trying to make a specific, pro-Israeli commentary. In a film that is otherwise fairly balanced when it comes to its depiction of the morality of foreign policy strategies, I simply disagree that It would deliberately try to cast the Palestinians as zombies, especially since in the same link you provided above, the film’s creative team reject that this is an intended interpretation of the film.)

    My interpretation of this film, in the end, is that it is trying to use zombies as a lens through which we can view current approaches to foreign policy, but a film that also leaves the viewer to make final decisions. To that end, it is an act of subtle speculative fiction, where the biggest stretch of reality is intended to be the zombies themselves. Everything else is intended to be a generally honest depiction of today’s world stage. Thus, if that is the goal, than a film wherein Palestinians wield the political and military power in the region is not (extremely unfortunately) realistic.

    I agree that media has, in general, failed to depict positive Palestinian (or Muslim in general) characters in a positive light. I agree that the Palestinians are given a far more superficial treatment than Israel in this film, and I agree that the filmmakers might have missed an opportunity to offer a Palestinian character who does more than sing a song and dance in the streets. However, I think the offense really lies in the fact that current Israeli/Palestinian relations leaves the Palestinian people oppressed; a reflection of that conflict is more a statement of fact of the current conflict (Israel wields militaristic might that it both uses and misuses; Palestinians are oppressed; it all sucks) than a condonment of Israel foreign policy over Palestinian interests. In other words, if we don’t like what we see in WWZ, it’s because we don’t like what’s going on in real life, not because WWZ agrees with what’s going on.

    Ultimately, I respect your distress that you have met (at least with me) someone who has challenged your interpretation of some of these films. I hope you understand that this is not a blanket dismissal; I am personally someone who prefers to be persuaded by the evidence. I am hoping to engage you for more information precisely because I am NOT dismissing your perspective offhand; I hope, on the flip side, you can acknowledge that it is possible to interpret these forms of media through more lens than that of the Muslim and/or Muslim-American community, and that my disagreement with you is not (and is not intended to be) a dismissal of you.

    I do agree with you that SFF has had pretty poor showings of Muslim characters, particularly in heroic lights. The same can be said of Asian American characters. The trick is, I think, to advocate balanced depictions, not to advocate for purely positive, heroic depictions. While I will speak out against a portrayal that I think is offensive (which you have reasonably down here against your community), I personally also am not sure that every depiction of an Asian American as not heroic requires me to rail against it; in the long run, I would ideally want SF/F and other forms of media serve to show the variety and diversity of opinions and perspectives associated with my community, and not just a one-sided take of Asian Americans, positive or negative.

    At the moment, I think the problem is similar with the Muslim community — we need more, and more varied, depictions of Muslim people in media. Some of those should absolutely be heroic and positive. To that end, a Palestinian soldier who acts heroically in this movie would have been reasonable; but, I don’t know that I am convinced that the writers’ decision not to include this hypothetical character is as racist/Islamophobic as it is simply not where the story took them. In other words, I don’t know that the absence of this character is a deliberate slight against the Palestinians, but would like to hear more as to why you think it might be.

    Sorry that this comment ended up being so long — I hope that my perspective on this issue has come across despite how verbose I’ve been. I want to emphasize that above all I’m sorry you feel like your concerns have been dismissed by NOC, and invite you to write for the site if you would like to express a different interpretation or perspective. You can work with me and/or our editor Keith to get something published; please let me know and I’ll send you my contact info.

    1. Finally caught WWZ yesterday, and Jenn I strongly agree with your comment above regarding Israel. Films are often full of symbolism, but that doesn’t mean that everything is symbolic. And much of the symbolism lies in our own minds and how we interpret what we see.

      It’s easy to see how the Israel scenes can be interpreted as anti-Muslim and pro-Zionist. But equally, you could take a different perspective and see that when push came to shove, the Israeli state responds to the zombie threat by embracing those it has marginalised, recognising that Arabs and Muslims are brothers facing a common enemy.

      A strong recurring theme in zombie and apocalypse movies is that isolationist and paranoid behaviour, which seems barbaric or weird in today’s real world, becomes relevant again as the world descends into a more uncivilized state. From Zombieland to The Walking Dead or the Mad Max trilogy, people who are marginalised by respectable society because of their isolating behaviour suddenly come into their own once the shit hits the fan. North Korea and Israel seem like two examples of that in country form.

      Overall, I also thought it was a decent movie, although I thought the constant focus on a single protagonist did detract from it. It was still very US-centric, but I thought the African dude (UN vice secretary general or whatever) was a nice touch, as was the Brown British virologist guy, except that they basically killed him straight away.

  3. Regarding solidarity, this comment truly confuses me, Mast. Solidarity refers to a related but distinct community standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the struggle of another community because while they acknowledge it does not affect them in the same way, they believe in the principles of the struggle. So, for example, straight couples who stand in solidarity with the struggle for gay marriage, or White people who stand in solidarity with the fight for civil rights. It is principally a social movements concept used to allow (often privileged) people to participate in while staying distinct from a community’s political struggle. It is misapplied as a notion when it comes to academic discourse.

    Solidarity has always referred to a group that has been swayed by the arguments and the cause of another group to -politically engage- with a social movement, not as encouragement to -intellectually defer- to another group. It has never to my knowledge referred to -blind support- of the other community and their struggle based simply on their respective identities. In other words, straight allies stand in solidarity with gay rights because they have been convinced by the argument in favour of gay rights, not simply because they are unwilling to speak out against what gay people think. Nor is there a monolithic consensus among gay people — no more so is there a monolithic singular Muslim interpretation of WWZ or Star Trek or Argo.

    Why is there an assumption that I should not criticize your interpretation, and more importantly that my questions violates my solidarity cred (for lack of a better way to express this)? Unfortunately, I interpret your invocation of solidarity as “my views on this point regarding the movie is more correct because I am Muslim and you are not.” I think this is an abuse of the notion of solidarity.

    Solidarity should be about convincing people to your side of the argument with the strength of your argument, not on the colour of your skin. I stand in solidarity with a variety of minority communities, including incidentally Palestinians in general, when I am swayed by the argument. I dislike the notion that solidarity is being invoked to silence debate, or to browbeat others into agreeing with a singular interpretation of media.

  4. Also, not to beat a dead horse, but the comments even within the al Jazeera stream you linked in your first comment include a lot of people with very different interpretations of the film, most pointing out that the film doesn’t make a value judgement on the wall, simply shows it being built and then falling. These disparate opinions seem to be coming from folks of all walks of life. Even the body of the Al Jazeera article provides multiple perspectives including those who are less convinced than others, or Tweets that even might be interpreted as mocking or acknowleding the controversy rather than subscribing to it.

    I think the take-home message is that there is more than way to interpret this film, and that it would be dangerous to assert that the movie is unequivocally Zionist in nature.

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