The Husband does not like zombie movies. Neither is The Husband a fan of apocalypse movies, though he’s perfectly happy reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Which is, let me assure you, much less action-packed than even the worst zombie movie.
Unlike The Husband, I am a fan of zombies and their apocalypses. Although I can’t watch a CGI squirrel get run over without lingering trauma, people getting their innards torn out and devoured is not a problem. The end of humanity? I’m okay with that. Maybe it’s my misanthropy.
So, I went to see World War Z by myself.
Zombie narratives are, among other things, apocalypse narratives. Most “classic” zombie movies end with The End. Even if the characters aren’t all dead yet, there’s not much hope for humanity carrying on. Let’s face it, it’s hard to make sure you’ve nailed all the zombies, and it only takes one to end the world. It’s otherwise rare that movies end with the admission that we’re probably not going to survive. Even horror movies, as a genre, don’t usually go further than having the main characters beheaded, eviscerated, stabbed, bludgeoned, electrocuted, hanged, strangled, impaled, dismembering, squashed, trampled, drowned, run over, or what-have-you. The rest of humanity (the audience) is free to carry on, secretly delighting in the knowledge that only other people get murdered by serial killers, deranged backwoods Southerners, aliens, evil spirits, mind control, rabid dogs, mad scientists, mermen, mummies, crazy truckers, vicious moms, brutal stepfathers, sentient viruses, psychotic roommates, mutants of various kinds, including giant ants, genetic freakshows, and Frankenstein’s monster, sociopathic stockbrokers, and so on. Movie characters used to get killed by vampires, but blood-suckers don’t seem to go in for that much anymore.
But a zombie movie—that’s nihilism for you. Even Romero’s zombie films, in which there are always survivors, end on a note of hopelessness (with the notable exception of 2005’s Land of the Dead). Zombie comedies, like the fine Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009), are another exception, suggesting as they do that zombies and humans can, in fact, get along. Or at least stay of out of each other’s way. Classic zombie movies care about 1) scaring the shit out of you, 2) grossing you out, and 3) the way human beings interact with each other under the stress induced by the end of the world. This includes the problem of grief (it’s never safe to grieve in a zombie movie—that’s always the fastest way to get eaten), the challenges of altruism and compassion, of teamwork, of dwindling resources. Zombie movies have always been about what it means to be human, particularly under duress. How do you distinguish between the human and the zombie? What’s the difference between dead-eyed materialists who’ve been contaminated by predatory capitalism and an undead thing that senselessly, relentlessly consumes its own?
Of course, zombies are sturdy representatives of any plague, biological or metaphorical. They’re a handy species that way—wonderfully adaptive. For all their physical frailty, they endure. They are a metaphor for the evils of capitalism, of conformity, of viral outbreaks, of international politics, of human consciousness, of an ecosystem irreparably out of whack. But whatever the plague, the end of the world tends to produce the same set of philosophical questions.
The resurgence of zombies as the monster of our 21st-century moment is particularly interesting because of the ways we have fiddled with the zombie narrative to make it fit our obsessions. When Romero created the modern zombie in 1968, he didn’t need—or want—an explanation of their origin, so the “probe from Venus” rationale was shoehorned in. But no one really cares about space probes in The Night of the Living Dead. What’s important is that we somehow managed to create zombies. The brother and sister at the beginning of the film literally, if inadvertently, call forth the first zombie from the graveyard they’re visiting. The way the characters interact with each other only results in more zombies and more death. That World War Z opens in Philadelphia is a nod to Romero’s legacy.
In the sense that society has somehow produced these monsters, zombies aren’t that different now. But zombieism itself turned out to be a great carrier for the 21st-century fear of viral outbreaks, of contagion. Just as a virus only lives to replicate itself, a zombie does nothing but bite. And every time it bites someone, it creates another zombie. Since zombies can’t process anything they eat, no matter how hungry they seem, the biting seems to be solely for the purpose of passing the virus through contact with broken skin. The first notable version of zombies-as-virus was probably 28 Days Later (2002), which transformed the vacant, shambling undead to virally-infected rage monsters who were in a really big hurry to tear us apart. If World War Z is any indication, contagion has only become more central to the contemporary zombie, superseding questions of consciousness or humanity. (The brilliant AMC show “The Walking Dead” is a classic zombie narrative in that the question of what it means to be human remains central.)
So, World War Z. As Matt Zoller Seitz and Kenneth Turn both noted, it’s Contagion (2011) with zombies. Seitz is a fellow zombie fan. (We are legion.) And this seems to account for a lot of his lack of enthusiasm for the Brad Pitt-Marc Foster adaptation of Max Brooks’s “oral history” of the zombie war. It’s true that World War Z doesn’t operate by most zombie-movie rules. Most zombie films, for example, start small—the family member or neighbor who begins behaving strangely—and then widen to show the scope of the disaster. World War Z operates in reverse.
We are introduced to Gerry (Pitt) and his happy family, but as the apocalypse begins around them, nobody in his family—nobody he knows—is turned. In fact, he and his family are quickly relocated to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean—pretty much the safest place on the planet. Really, Gerry’s family is superfluous. His character needs to have a family to provide tension—he doesn’t want to leave them, they don’t want him to leave, will he make it back to them, and so on—but otherwise, they don’t matter to this story. They are placeholders, not characters. It’s a shame, because as a several reviewers have pointed out, this leaves Mireille Enos, as his wife Karin, with nothing to do but look worried, on the few occasions she gets any screen time.
The film follows Gerry around the world as he tries first to figure out what happened, and then just figure out a way to survive. Gerry comes across groups of people who, in another zombie movie, would be the main characters: a group of US soldiers stationed in South Korea, holed up in a bunker; clumps of survivors in Jerusalem; the planeful of people later escaping the overrun Jerusalem. But Gerry is on his own.
Most zombie films have a climactic fight/escape scene somewhere in the last third. World War Z’s spectacle is closer to the halfway mark—the terrifying vision of an endless stream of zombies racing to climb over each other until there is a mountain of them, scaling the wall that keeps Jerusalem safe from the undead hordes. They spill, fall, leap over the side in a matter of minutes. It is not the individual zombie that threatens. It is the tide of zombies that will overwhelm us, no matter how many individual zombies we kill. IndieWire described the sequence as “less like a big summer movie set piece and more like a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch painting; the level of detail is staggering and utterly terrifying.” (The studio really should have left it out of the trailer. It would have made that moment in the film even more terrifying.) This is what the zombie threat really is—which is the point that Brooks makes in his novel, too. Zombie movies have always relied on the individual encounter to demonstrate the zombie menace and scare their audiences. But the real threat of a zombie apocalypse isn’t the individual zombie. It’s the swarm of zombies.
It is only in the final third of the film—the infamously rewritten and reshot ending—that Gerry comes face-to-face with A Zombie (Michael Jenn). Gerry ends up at the World Health Organization in Cardiff, Wales, (Wales?) where he and the surviving scientists try to figure out how to keep the zombies from killing us. This sequence returns us to the familiar territory of zombieland: trapped in a labyrinthine medical complex, the one roomful of supplies the characters need to access blocked by a handful of the infected wandering the sterile corridors. The scale of the film finally shrinks down to the individual. And really, it is one of the best sequences of the picture, including one of the only zombies who is allowed any length of screen time or character. Seitz’s description of that zombie’s “snicker-snack yellowish rat-teeth” is spot on. The person that zombie used to be is gone and the body has become a virus personified, sniffing out the best carriers for its DNA.
What the film doesn’t do is spend a lot of time on how human behavior alters once the world has started to fall apart. In fact, World War Z is perhaps unique among zombie films in that most of its characters are admirably generous. They may be foolish, misguided, or noble and brave—and mostly zombie fodder—but the individuals that Gerry encounters do not hesitate to share resources. The family Gerry and his family hole up with in a New Jersey apartment building is the first striking example. Practically before Gerry’s family is through the barricaded door, they are being offered food and drink. The most selfish “character” is what remains of the government and the military, made up of individuals whose job it is to make ethically unpleasant decisions. These people have always been in the business of facing circumstances in which there is no good answer. Their decisions are the result of deliberation and generally (in this film anyway) produce the civilized emotions of a guilty conscience. They are not the product of panic or terror.
Of course, the few mobs of the living in World War Z are no better than any other mob: people race to loot supermarkets for emergency supplies, shoving aside others gripped by the same panic. The living can also be deadly in large, unthinking groups. A cop dashes into the supermarket, but instead of rescuing Gerry’s wife from attackers, or punishing them, he frantically grabs baby food jars from the shelves and disappears. Meanwhile, amidst these panicked looters, Gerry looks for asthma medication for his daughter. A young man with a gun materializes. A freeloading druggie? A thug? Nope—the pharmacist, who hands Gerry the meds he needs. There are the inevitable figures who resort to violence, immediately taking up arms to “protect” themselves from the living. But these are the minority in the film. People want to survive, yes, but in Brad Pitt’s world, many of them are willing to try and help others survive, too. Gerry isn’t the only character willing to make sacrifices, even if he is the (totally self-effacing and not especially funny) John McClane of zombieland.
It is these detours from the usual that make World War Z an interesting zombie movie to me, as a fan, even if the PG-13 rating makes it a pretty sterile one. There are problems with the film, the most serious one being that Gerry Lane doesn’t get to have much of a character—he’s too “perfect,” to say nothing of overly sturdy—but the film works anyway. It does what it can do with a PG-13 rating, like the Jerusalem set piece, really well. And because Gerry is played by Brad Pitt, it’s much less of a problem than it might otherwise be that he doesn’t have much of a character; we still want to watch him. (Having Israeli soldier Segen [Daniella Kertesz] pair up with him in the last third helps.) The film is a rare combination of big action moments that successfully carry you along and small, dramatic scenes in which both work.