Zombies pose a unique threat in the horror genre: they break all the rules. Zombies don’t come out only at night, they don’t change on a full moon night, and they don’t lurk in the depths of the oceans. Unlike vampires or werewolves or sharks, zombies aren’t hunters.
They’re an epidemic. Their terror lies in how quickly they spread. A single zombie isn’t that scary, but millions of them – mindless hordes clambering over each other with the single aim of eating living human brains – yours, specifically – are a contagion that will spread, infect and consume. As a threat, the genre has more in common with Contagion, or even Hitchcock’s The Birds. With no method to their madness, they defy the Hollywood movie hero whose logic and tools can defeat any apocalyptic threat.
Except, you know, Brad Pitt.
World War Z, the adaptation of the book of the same name by Max Brooks, both fails and succeeds at its attempt to bring to screen the knotted geo-political strands that made up the book. Directed by Mark Forster, the movie begins with Pitt’s character, ex-United Nations employee Gerry Lane, facing a traffic gridlock in the streets of Philadelphia with his wife and kids in tow.
But this is no normal traffic jam. This one is caused by thousands of zombies crashing down upon the streets like a tsunami wave. Pitt grabs his family and turns from regular guy to a human Swiss knife which can transform itself into the right weapon for any crisis. He chops, shoots and sprints himself and his family into a waiting government chopper.
What follows is Hollywood's basic messiah set-up. Lane is pulled out of retirement when his family and he reach one of the “safe zones”. He’s the only one with the kind of experience in similarly volatile situations – Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Kosovo are his old stomping grounds – to figure out where the “zeeks” (the military term) came from, since their numbers are too large for killing them to be a strategy. Otherwise, he’s told, his family will be kicked out of the safe zone. The family man has no choice but to comply.
Lane then travels with a group of experts (which include a Harvard-educated 23-year-old who is hailed as “our last chance”; except he accidentally shoots himself in the head before he even gets off the plane) to South Korea, where the outbreak apparently originated. There, he’s directed to Jerusalem by a CIA double-agent. Israel has gone into complete lockdown, having erected towering walls around their country. Scenes that show zombies clambering over each other in order to scale a towering wall are where the movie nails the unstoppable nature of the beast.
It’s also here that Lane, with his rugged good looks and on-the-ground intuition, notices a detail that was apparently missed by the world’s best scientific minds. This detail spins off into the climax, which smartly dials down the mayhem into the sterile surroundings of a World Health Organisation building in the UK. Silence, medicines, confined spaces – if the rest of the movie didn’t hit your terror sweet spot, the end definitely will. The movie is genuinely scary without a lazy reliance on gore.
However, there are a few problems. Hollywood logic consistently saves us from genuine terror. Every time a movie brings you to the cusp of fear, we are saved by the thought – “He can’t die/be horrible/kill his mother, he’s the lead character!” Applying this rationale would be fine in any other summer blockbuster starring Will Smith. But World War Z is based on a book that abandoned the narrative device of happy endings. The book’s only deviation from harrowing realism is that it has zombies in it. Brooks has himself said that literally everything in the book – “technology, politics, economics, culture, military tactics,” – is based on thorough research. Reference books, experts and the US Army were used as resources for the author to make the breakdown of society and its repercussions seem as realistic as possible.
There are no lone messiahs allowed in such a messy world, even if they’ve aged as well as Pitt has. The book is merely an oral history of the carnage; there are no saviours because it is fundamentally too late for one. By bringing Lane in as the can-do saviour, Matthew Michael Carnahan, who adapted the screenplay, stumbled on the jump from good to ground-breaking. Lane is literally the only main character; others, such as a female Israeli soldier played by Daniella Kertesz and the wife played by Mireille Enos, only enjoy snatches of screen time.
The special effects are best enjoyed in wide shots, when the spectacle of swarms of zombies will distract you from the faces which can be best described as “slobbery”. The movie is scrubbed clean of ambiguity as well. The book featured all the immoral humanity that manifests itself during crisis – people marketed fake vaccines, irrational nuclear war broke out and denial took a long time to be rooted out. Here, zombies are bad, and humans are the best.
“The only thing similar is the title,” Brooks said pragmatically in an interview. And that’s true. The movie apparently went through “production hell”, with its budget ballooning and the ending being hastily rewritten and refilmed. Fans of the book will find almost none of the criticisms of government ineptitude and human near-sightedness that characterised the novel. Also missing is a reference to the zombie outbreak starting in China, apparently an attempt to appease the country’s important box office market. All these factors slow down an otherwise competent movie, and while World War Z isn’t as bad as it could be, it’s definitely not as good as it could have been either.