Why can’t anyone make a decent zombie movie?
The genre has already reached saturation proportions, is rivaled only by Game of Thrones in fanatical television fandom, and has been endlessly analyzed in both academia and among the Alternative Right. Despite this, most zombie movies are distinguished mostly by their kitsch, incompetence, infantile politics, and terrible production quality. Anyone even casually interested in film thinks they can make a “zombie movie” with a resulting glut of embarrassing efforts that have titles inevitably ending with “of the dead.”
Thus, horror aficionados had high hopes when Brad Pitt purchased the rights to Max Brooks’s World War Z, a startlingly leftist and Jewish supremacist work which nonetheless is worth appreciating as one of the few “zombie” products that can combine an entertaining narrative with a large scale view of the fictional world situation. The book World War Z works because it has something to say (even if it is wrong) and is an alternative to the usual model of following a few uninteresting guys around while ignoring the collapse of civilization. It deserves an ambitious, well-made, and relatively faithful film version to bring Brooks’s vision to the big screen – if only so Traditionalists can condemn it.
The film World War Z isn’t it. It’s a cynical disaster, a confusing mess that should have been condemned to eternal torment in development hell. Pitt’s vanity project manages to strip everything that made the book original, interesting, and intellectual, and turns it into another run of the mill B movie with a big budget.
Instead of a documentary set years after the conclusion of the “Z war” chronicling the slow buildup and the Great Panic, we start in the middle of the action. Pitt’s “Gerry Lane” is a former United Nations investigator given cursory character development – he has a wife, two daughters, and by all accounts an idyllic family life enabled by the sacrifice of his globe-trotting career. The family is caught on the ground when the outbreak suddenly hits Philadelphia, and Pitt manages to get them to an RV to escape. Unlike the “classic” walking zombies of Romero’s films and Brooks’s book, these are the animalistic running zombies prominent since 28 Days Later.
Already, we are in a world that has nothing to do with what Brooks has created, but it’s worth trying to take the film on its own terms. Though it makes no sense why the outbreak would suddenly hit every city in the world at once with apocalyptic violence, let’s accept that for the moment and look at the movie purely as an action film.
Gerry Lane, though bland, is at least competent and intelligent, allowing us to avoid the usual eye-rolling moments of zombie films when characters blunder into dangerous situations without even the pretense of preparation or caution. Lane at least thinks to build crude guards for vulnerable arms and shins before doing battle. When he gets blood in his mouth, he reacts instantly and runs to the edge of a roof, prepared to kill himself if he is infected and counting down how long the virus “took” another person he saw. It’s about time we saw a character in one of these films who isn’t a complete idiot.
The imagery is powerful, with sweeping panoramic views of cities in chaos, mobs rampaging through the streets, minor outbreaks of violence amidst the fleeing crowds. However, there’s no sense of tragedy or sadness at the death of millions – it’s just spectacle.
Still, the film hits a relevant note when the characters (idiotically) flee to Newark, NJ, to await a rescue chopper sent by Lane’s old boss at the United Nations. Newark is a scene of frantic looting – but interestingly, a white character pulls a gun on Lane only so he can ensure Lane is just taking medicine needed for his daughter. After an attempted rape (by whites of course), Pitt is approached by a black Newark police officer – who runs past him to join in the looting. The swift breakdown of civil order and the collapse of institutions is precisely what we saw during Hurricane Katrina, when the sole superpower instantly transformed into “Africa in our midst.”
Lane and his family are welcomed into temporary safety by a Spanish-speaking family in a Newark apartment.
(Done laughing? Good, we’ll continue.)
Lane tries to convince them to come with him on the chopper in the morning, but they are terrified and stay behind. Of course, a few seconds after Lane and his family leave, zombies (probably attracted by Lane’s exit) come knocking on the door. There is a thrilling chase as the family makes it to the roof while pursued by the living dead, but somehow the Hispanic family’s young son inexplicably dodges the zombies and joins the Lanes on the chopper. Just like Brad Pitt himself, Gerry Lane has his Third World adoptee, who seems remarkably unconcerned about the zombification of his parents.
The book emphasized the renewal of national pride and the different cultural approaches different peoples took to confronting the zombie threat. The film strengths the recent trend of a shadowy international elite calling the shots for the benefit of humanity, rather than any national government. The President is dead and the VP is missing. For some reason, Lane’s UN boss, one Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) is aboard a US Navy ship, and the Navy is putting their resources at his disposal, at least initially.
Lane is tasked to accompany a young virologist and a team of Navy SEALs on a mission to find out the source of the disease, with the first stop at an American military base in South Korea, the source of the first memo that mentioned “zombies.” For once, the Marines don’t seem to be doing anything but standing around on the ship, a rarity in a Hollywood movie. In any event, within about five minutes of arriving in South Korea, the virologist, who had real potential as a character, manages to accidentally shoot himself. Our heroic “war crimes” investigator will save the day and find the truth himself.
The joint memo from intelligence agents in the CIA and the Mossad was the warning which the world ignored to its cost in the novel. Here, it’s an email which for some reason no one read. Why Pitt needs to go to South Korea to get an email is not explained. Pitt finds a semi-insane CIA agent under lock and key for selling weapons to the North Koreans. The agent explains that North Korea beat the virus by removing all the teeth from their people, an idiotic B movie piece of dialogue far less horrifying than the sinister mystery behind the outright disappearance of the North Korean people in the book. He also reveals that Jurgen Warmbrunn, head of the Mossad, knows what the virus really is, and that Israel is winning. Lane heads to Jerusalem to get some answers.
In Jerusalem, we get an extended defense of the Jewish people’s paranoia, taken straight from the book. Because of the concentration camps, the Munich terrorist attack, and the Yom Kippur War, the Israelis always take every threat seriously, no matter how unlikely. In a matter of hours, they surround the country with a huge border security wall (amazing how a country can do that when powerful Jews decide it is in their interest) and ever so heroically let in foreign peoples for shelter. We also get some eye candy as the famous Israeli grrl power soldiers flaunt their weaponry.
Still, why couldn’t the Israelis couldn’t be bothered to send an email or make a phone call warning any other countries about what was coming? (It’s not like they would ever fail to warn an ally in the real world.) But even if the Israelis in this alternative universe decided to be pointlessly secretive, we see other characters using cell phones throughout the movie and even watching television. It doesn’t make sense why Lane had to physically go to Israel to see what he could have learned with a phone call.
Brooks’s overtly Jewish supremacist book at least confronts the real issues the Jewish state would face if it allowed mass immigration (even if it was to combat zombies). While Israel is relatively free of devastation caused by the undead, the country is ripped apart by a bloody civil war between government forces and religious Jews outraged at the government’s decision to allow Palestinians to return. The Israelis are forced with a tragic choice, and have to live with the consequences.
Here, the disaster comes when zombies, who for some reason ignore the millions of people living just on the other side of the wall, get excited when Palestinians and other non-Jewish refugees start chanting and singing for no reason (which, after all, Third Worlders are wont to do). The zombies then swarm over the wall, using their numbers to form a kind of human ladder, a giant singular organism in its own right. It’s impressive imagery, but also makes no sense. Apparently, none of the Israelis even bothered to notice the giant swarm climbing up their border security wall until it was too late, when it could have been stopped easily if so much as a single guard had looked. The cordon breached, the zombies run wild through the streets of Israel, as Lane and a female Israeli solider he saved make it out on a Belorussian (?) aircraft.
Why Belarus? Well, in the original film, the third act of the film was a bloody battle on the streets of Moscow, and presumably it originally took him there. In the original trailer, you can even see Lane asking Warmbrunn how to get into Russia, which the latter describes it as a “black hole.” In the book, Russia becomes a right-wing, theocratic “Holy Russian Empire,” which would have been interesting to see on film.
Instead, the film stopped production and remade an entirely new Third Act. Lane pulls a Samuel Jackson and fights “zombies on a plane” by throwing a grenade at them, with predictable results. Needless to say, both Lane and his Jewish warrior woman survive the plane crash, with everyone else killed. Luckily, though both are wounded, they easily walk to a World Health Organization building which is conveniently located near their location.
Once inside, though the doctors have no idea how to stop the plague, Lane remembers that he has seen the zombies avoiding people who may have been sick. He thus suggests that people be deliberately infected with deadly (but curable) diseases as a kind of camouflage. An absurd mission is launched into the “infected” wing of the hospital to obtain supplies, which predictably succeeds. A teeth-chattering zombie, whose comical antics provoked laughter in the theater rather than dread, sniffs at him but lets him pass. Other zombies also ignore him. The “camouflage” works and the world has its first weapon against the living dead.
Lane closes with an invocation for people to “help each other” and “fight.” But of course, it appears that the hard part is already over – it’s just a question of giving people the vaccines and calling it a day. “Our war is just beginning,” he intones. And though a sequel is already in the making – no, the fight is really not. It’s over, and we survivors are wondering what the hell we just watched.
There’s a small nod to some of Brooks’s themes near the beginning of the movie – serious news coverage interspersed with worthless celebrities and inane talk shows to show how people were distracted. There’s even a “blink and you miss it” mention of “Grover Carlson,” the evil conservative caricature Brooks lambastes in his book as responsible for the zombie invasion. However, most of the messaging has been utterly stripped from the film.
The question is why? Why do they insist on doing this? The book of World War Z offered something genuinely new, with the faux documentary setting giving any filmmakers almost unlimited freedom to pick and choose what they wanted to focus on. Instead, it’s just the same old empty spectacle – and not a very impressive one at that.
What remains are three consistently worrying messages that seem to popping up in movies repeatedly, even though they are only suggested rather than stated explicitly.
The first is the superiority of shadowy international elites in solving major crises. Brooks’s World War Z at least suggested a kind of retro World War II-style American patriotism – Pitt’s version dispenses with this altogether. The hero is essentially a professional UN do-gooder who “investigates” things like “war crimes in Chechnya” and his powerful supporter is an African UN Undersecretary of some kind.
Though there’s a small shot of documents like the Constitution and Declaration of Independence being secured aboard the naval ship, the American military doesn’t seem to be doing much or reporting to anyone. Just before Lane’s family is informed they are being shipped off to a refugee camp because Lane is presumed dead, there is a shot of the American flag flying above a smaller UN flag, as if to tell the audience that the reactionary militarists are in charge and aren’t listening to the wise people of color and international elites.
Secondly, there is the utter helplessness of Americans and people in general and their dependence on benevolent leaders to save them. While Brooks’s work critiqued survivalism, he at least admitted it was possible and that Americans were more likely to do it than anyone else. More than that, the book is filled with stories about ordinary people carving out areas of their own so they can survive. In the film, both zombies and humans are just cattle, either killing or being killed until the UN can tell them what to do.
Admittedly, part of this is a function of the story, as the zombies run in this version. Still, as in The Avengers, Man of Steel, the Batman movies, and many others, the only heroes either have extraordinary powers (with Batman himself a partial exception) or are government officials of some kind. Insofar as ordinary people have heroism, it is of the weak, self-sacrificial kind like the Hispanic family welcoming in the Lanes and later paying for it with their lives. As American elite opinion mobilizes against guns, self-government, and the republican ideal of self-sufficiency, we can expect further portrayals of Americans as nothing more than cattle. Of course, most Americans are – but that’s because cattle are bred that way by the people who control them.
Finally, there is the portrayal of the Chosen as uniquely wise and virtuous. Israel alone initially survives the outbreak and is only doomed because of the foolish behavior of Palestinians whooping it up and waving their flags. The Israelis are so enlightened that they even let in foreigners in order to protect them, but, once again, they suffer a tragic fate because of their innate goodness. The demise of Israel through the animalistic mob of foreigners pouring over the border fence is a powerful suggestive image. Ask yourself – could Pitt have made a movie where the American Border Patrol desperately guns down infected Mexicans swarming over a newly built protective fence?
With foxy IDF soldiers and enlightened political leadership, Israel comes off far better than any other country in the film. Who could have predicted that?
What a missed opportunity. What a disappointment. But what’s worse than the sub-par showing is the feeling of déjà vu, this increasing sense that all the “spectacle” summer movies are blending into one plot, with the same suggested themes over and over again. It’s almost like they are conditioning us. As you leave the theater, walk into the shopping mall, and stare at the vacant eyes of your countrymen, you realize that the zombies are already among us. The only difference is that most of the ones we see every day are too fat to run.