I’ve been making some notes toward a future post that will ask the question “how do you know when a genre reaches saturation point?” If I write it as I’m currently conceiving it, I will look specifically at vampires and zombies and their current glut in popular culture … mainly because that way I get to title the post “vampires vs. zombies!”, but also because, well, it’s hard to think of better examples of saturation. How do we know when we reach that point?
Well, to offer a preview on the zombie end of the equation: beyond simply seeing a new zombie film every week, you’re probably reaching critical mass when there are almost as many quasi-parodies relying on audiences’ familiarity with the principal tropes as there are straight-up examples (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland); the genre begins to acquire critical respectability by, say, migrating to prestige television (The Walking Dead); the figure of the monster becomes domesticated into a romantic hero (Warm Bodies).
Or … Brad Pitt produces and stars in a high-end zombie film. Yup. When the A-Listers get involved, we’ve reached some sort of tipping point.
Like many, many people, I have been waiting for the release of World War Z with both excitement and trepidation. I read Max Brooks’ novel about four years ago, and loved it. I was actually surprised at how good it was—completely serious and thoughtful, and also remarkably well-written. It is also—for reasons I’ll get into below—a significant revision of the standard zombie/walking dead narrative. It developed, very quickly and deservedly, a devoted following, and probably did more than any other text (including Max Brooks’ earlier book The Zombie Survival Guide) to spur discussion and argument in the multitudinous online zombie forums.
So when there was word that a film was in the works, that of course inspired all kinds of excitement … and then dread, as rumours of struggles with the scripts, with filming, and internecine studio fights accumulated. When the first trailer was aired, a large proportion of Z fans collectively lost their shit, predicting that the film would be absolutely nothing like the novel.
To which I said: well, obviously.
I went to see it this weekend, and though I doubt there are many among those fans who have not get gone themselves, I will say two things. First, if you’re hoping for an utterly faithful adaptation, do not go see this film. Second, if you’re hoping (or were hoping) for an utterly faithful adaptation, you’re delusional and probably need to seek help.
This review, such as it is, will be in three parts. In part one, I’ll be talking about the novel, and why there is no way under heaven a film adaptation could work. In part two, I’ll talk about the film … and, well, how it kinda works. (Yes, I was surprised too). And in part three, I will talk about my thoughts on how this all fits, thematically and otherwise, into the ongoing cultural phenomenon that is the zombie genre.
I didn’t mean for this post to get so long. So, anyone who has read the novel and/or doesn’t care about my thoughts on it might want to just read part two.
1. Zombies Go Global
As anyone even vaguely familiar with the zombie genre knows, the drama is almost invariably localized—by which I mean, the world of the embattled survivors shrinks down to their immediate environment fairly early on. There are often flashes of a broader crisis caught from sporadic television or radio broadcasts, but before long the wider world goes dark and the scope of the action is reduced to the island of illumination cast by the protagonists. Yet underneath it all is the almost-invariably-unanswered-question of is there anyone else, and if so, where? In many cases, part of the plot hinges on finding the way to safe haven; but even when haven (safe or not) is found, the plight of the broader world remains unknown.
World War Z is a deeply impressive novel for the simple reason that that Max Brooks sat down and—systematically and exhaustively—thought through the twinned questions how would a zombie apocalypse happen? and how would the world respond? What he then produced was a series of “testimonials” from around the globe. The conceit of the novel is that an investigator for the U.N., tasked with compiling an “after-action report” some ten years after the end of the zombie war, finds half of what he compiled deleted from the official document as being too influenced by the “human factor,” i.e. too personal and subjective. The “present book” is then a compilation of those deleted elements—personal stories from people around the world telling of their experiences of the zombie war.
As I say, the novel is impressive for its scope of extrapolation: proceeding from present-day political and technological realities and producing a fairly convincing portrait of how a zombie apocalypse might fall out. But it is doubly impressive for how well written it is, for Brooks commits himself to telling the stories of no fewer than forty stories—each with a distinct narrator. He doesn’t go all As I Lay Dying on us or anything (which is a blessing), but makes each testimonial subtly different in tone and narration—enough to distinguish between the characters, not so much as to distract from their stories. What emerges is a convincing patchwork of human survival stories, at the heart of which is the (mostly) common theme of community and civic responsibility.
This theme is at once subtle and strikingly at odds with the genre at large. More often than not, the post-apocalyptic scenarios depicted in zombie narratives present harsh ethical questions about survival and sacrifice: who is worthy of inclusion in the survivors’ group, what kind of behaviour becomes dangerous and threatening, what lengths are we willing to go as a societal microcosm to survive? These questions are familiar to anyone who watches The Walking Dead, and they are by no means absent from World War Z—a significant number of early testimonials outline measures taken by governments and agencies the world over to contain and isolate the threat, and then contain and isolate the survivors, including the sacrifice of entire populations and cold-eyed calculations about who is valuable and who is not.
(As an aside, I have little illusion about my own value to society, post-apocalyptically. It occurred to me a long time ago that those best suited to survive are the antithesis of liberal academic types—if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, those who make it through will likely be anti-government paramilitaries and end-timer fundamentalists who all have walled compounds in remote areas well-stocked with canned goods. Evolution weeps).
But while such cold calculations are present in World War Z, the novel tends to concern itself more with the massive reorientation of society and economy necessary to combat the undead threat. A few characters become central voices in this respect, key among them Arthur Sinclair, the director of the United States’ Department of Strategic Resources—formed specifically for this purpose. He says:
[“Tools and talent”] … A term my son had heard once in a movie. I found it described our reconstruction efforts rather well. “Talent” describes the potential workforce, its level of skilled labor, and how that labor could be utilized effectively. To be perfectly candid, our supply of talent was at a critical low. Ours was a postindustrial or service-based economy, so complex and highly specialized that each individual could only function within the confines of its narrow, compartmentalized structure. You should have seen some of the “careers” listed on our first employment census; everyone was some version of an “executive,” a “representative,” an “analyst,” or a “consultant,” all perfectly suited to the prewar world, but all totally inadequate for the present crisis. We needed carpenters, masons, machinists, gunsmiths. We had those people, to be sure, but not nearly as many as were necessary. The first labor survey clearly stated that over 65 percent of the present civilian workforce were classified F-6, possessing no valid vocation. We required a massive job retraining program. In short, we needed to get a lot of white collars dirty.
Sinclair, it is worth noting, is described as the son of an inveterate New Dealer; and though he had rejected his father’s lessons and run “as far away as Wall Street to shut them out,” he found himself using them to harvest “the right tools and talent.” (As an aside: it is beautifully serendipitous that, in the audiobook of World War Z, Arthur Sinclair is voiced by Alan Alda). Sinclair has a recurring voice in the novel, and is reflective of Brooks’ larger communitarian preoccupations.
This hopeful and indeed vaguely utopian dimension to the novel (spoiler: humanity wins) is effectively unique in the genre; while some narratives end on a note of hope (28 Days Later), in many such endings are deeply ambiguous (the original Dawn of the Dead) or at times ironic (Shaun of the Dead). World War Z is, in its very framework, an account of victory and lessons learned.
But it doesn’t get to that point without a significant number of harrowing and thrilling stories told alongside its entirely pragmatic and methodical formulae for fighting the undead hordes. There is a huge amount of dramatic fodder here … but the earliest misgivings about a prospective film echoed my own, specifically: how do you recreate the scale and scope of this global narrative in a two-hour movie?
Well, the bottom line is you can’t. Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but cinema is the wrong medium for anything resembling a faithful adaptation of this novel. The big screen doesn’t work, because everything is necessarily accelerated—the meditative, reflective quality of the novel, to say nothing of its reams of different stories, voices, and interlaced narratives. The better vehicle for Z—and I know you see where I’m going with this—would be television. Ideally, HBO or one of the other prestige cable stations … though I suppose a major network might not make too big a hash of it (theoretically). Brooks’ novel, given its shifting voices and narratives, would be much more amenable to episodic, long-form storytelling. One can easily imagine (or I can, anyway) a television series in which each episode features a different testimonial, intercut with the interviewer’s difficulties in traveling around a depleted, post-zombie world.
Of course, such a format would not be amenable to Brad Pitt—not if he was determined to star in it, at any rate.
2. But if you must cram it all into two hours …
Warning: spoilers ahead.
All that being said, World War Z was surprisingly good. As I said above, it will almost certainly offend anyone who demands fidelity to the novel … but as far as it went, it did a remarkable job of splitting the difference.
How does it accomplish this feat? Well, as already mentioned, cinema tends to accelerate things—and a ticking clock is one of the best ways to ratchet up the tension. Rather than have Gerry Lane, Brad Pitt’s doughty and rugged U.N. inspector, travel the world when all has been won to collect stories, you have him racing against the pandemic to collect stories—in the hopes of finding “patient zero” and figuring out how all this began. All things being equal, it’s not that bad a device (and if I can be smug for a moment, I’d more or less figured that much out from the trailer). So chasing what few thin leads he has, he flies with a team of Navy Seals and a brilliant young virologist to South Korea, and then then Israel, and then … well, I won’t spoil everything. Not yet. Suffice to say he loses his team, including the virologist, by increments along the way.
We begin with the comfortingly domestic images of Gerry Lane’s suburban life. (The opening scene is actually a nice little nod to the beginning of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, with an eerily silent entrance into the parental bedroom—except that the children are obnoxiously energetic rather than undead). Traveling later in gridlocked downtown Philadelphia, the family is overtaken by the vanguard of the zombie apocalypse; but fortunately Gerry, only recently retired from the U.N.—and, as it turns out, wanted by them to seek out the origins of the infection—has connections enough to get extracted by a navy helicopter and brought to an aircraft carrier off the east coast.
From there begins his sort-of-global quest to seek out the grail of patient zero. Some of the novel’s flavour of international crisis is retained, though not much—after all, Lane only travels to South Korea, Israel, and finally Wales. The only true fidelity to the novel comes when he visits Israel and interviews a senior Mossad agent, who accounts for Israel’s seemingly-too-convenient zombie preparedness (among other things, completing their wall) by outlining a philosophy of intelligence-gathering I won’t bother to repeat. Indeed, Israel seems like an oasis of peace in the midst of a world gone mad—protected by a high wall, but allowing all uninfected in. The spectre of a common enemy would appear to have obviated hatreds, as we see Arabs and Muslims in significant numbers among the refugees, and one group is happy enough with their saviours to burst into song over a sound system while waving Israeli flags.
Alas, as Gerry Lane learned in South Korea, the undead are attracted by noise. (Lessons he has picked up by this point: the time between infection and zombification is about twelve seconds; infection is spread by bites but not, oddly, by transference of bodily fluids; and the best way to avoid the undead is by keeping quiet). As the grateful refugees’ song swells in volume, the undead swarm the other side of the wall, antlike, creating that ladder of bodies that we saw in the trailers, and which excited such harrumphing among devotees.
The breaching of the Israeli sanctum is at once utterly at odds with the novel, and the most remarkable sequence of the film. Anyone who is a firm advocate for Romero-esque “slow zombies” will probably want to give this film a pass. Not only do the undead sprint as fast or faster than the infected in 28 Days Later and the zombies in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, they are veritable acrobats, leaping through the air to take down fleeing humans and turning at times into literal tidal waves of undead. (This, too, is at odds with the novel: Max Brooks’ zombies are the classic shuffle-and-moan types).
So, purists may wince, but the Z-film zombies’ speed and tendency toward insectile swarming makes for some truly thrilling cinema. In the film’s third act we revert to a more standard zombie-evasion sequence; if World War Z contributes anything new to the genre, however, it is this imagery of antlike swarming that takes the concept of the “undead horde” to a new level. But I will speak more about that in my third section.
At this stage Gerry Lane has already lost his brilliant young virologist, but that proves to not really matter. For one thing, he discovers that the hunt for patient zero is pretty much a futile endeavour—things have progressed too far too discern the pandemic’s epicenter, and much of the world is, his Mossad contact informs him, “a black hole.” However, the virologist did not die in vain, for he managed to impart some wisdom about the nature of viruses in an elaborate metaphor about how Mother Nature is a serial killer who, “like all serial killers, wants to get caught.” Gerry Lane notices that the zombie hordes puzzlingly ignore some individuals, passing them by like rocks in a stream while attacking others. In a handful of rather overwrought flashbacks, he makes the intuitive leap that zombies will ignore diseased prey … so if people can be infected with dire but not fatal illnesses, they will be safe.
Of course, he has to test this theory, and so (using his U.N. connections) manages to convince his flight out of Jerusalem to change course and head for a World Health Organization lab in Cardiff. But nothing can be that easy—as anyone who has seen the trailer knows, at some point in the film Pitt is on a plane that becomes overrun by zombies, and which experiences explosive decompression when part of the fuselage blows out. Fortunately, the plane goes down close enough to Cardiff for Gerry Lane and a young female Israeli soldier he saved from infection by lopping off her hand (shades of The Walking Dead, but whatever), to walk from the plane crash to the nearby World Health Organization facility, in spite of his injuries and, y’know, her massive blood loss . They make it to the WHO facility, are treated for their injuries, and manage to make contact again with Gerry Lane’s U.N. overlords. Gerry convinces the resident doctors of the viability of his theory … and of course, being a WHO facility, they have tons of terribly infectious bacteria and viruses squirreled away in a secure lab.
It is here that the film takes its turn into zombie movie cliché … because of course, guess where the lab they need to get to is? If you guessed “in the bowels of a labyrinthine, zombie-infested wing of the facility,” you have just leveled up as a cinema nerd. Congratulations!
Yes, the “B” wing of the WHO facility, which has been cordoned off by the survivors, contains about eighty zombified medical personnel, all of whom are visible on the facility’s closed-circuit cameras. (It was at this point that watching The Walking Dead interfered with the movie experience. Eighty walkers? Send in Rick Grimes and Darryl. They’ll clear those dead sumbitches in a jiff). While I give credit to the film that the sequence that follows—in which Gerry Lane, his new Israeli friend, and one of the WHO doctors (heh) make their way as silently as possible into B wing—is pretty tense and scary, it highlights for me one of the main failings of trying to bring this novel to the big screen: namely, that the larger scope of the novel, its great complexity and nuance, is necessarily lost in the name of making the film, recognizably, a zombie film. Though the sequence is well done, it is not just reminiscent of every other zombie movie, but (perhaps more significantly) all of the video games that have invaded the genre as well. That it all comes down to the protagonist in a series of Resident Evil-esque antiseptic, institutional hallways evading the undead is unsurprising, but something of a letdown after the genuinely innovative Israel sequence.
A few last thoughts before I move on:
- Mireille Enos is criminally underused in this film. Criminally. Whatever your thoughts on the series The Killing, or on her damaged character therein, she’s a pretty remarkable actress. She really only gets to do anything interesting in the first act as she and Brad Pitt flee with their daughters. But after that, all she does in languish on a naval vessel, looking longingly at the satellite phone he gave her, waiting for it to ring (and at one point nearly killing him when she calls and his phone rings at a really, really bad time).
- Attention Lost fans: some of the film’s publicity mentions that Matthew Fox, aka Dr. Jack Shepherd, is in the film. Which he is. For all of about twenty seconds.
- Gerry Lane has almost superhuman powers of perception. Besides making the intuitive leap about the camouflaging qualities of disease, he also figures out the twelve-section infection rule when he watches someone get reanimated in the middle of the mayhem in Philadelphia.
- There is almost no blood in this film. Some zombie devotees have complained about this fact, but I frankly don’t miss it. Gore certainly has its place in this genre, but the most frightening parts of this film had less to do with the prospect of violent disemboweling than with the specter of the horde itself.
3. The Masses as Weapon of Destruction
I’ve been cultivating a theory about the zombie genre and its massive popularity for several years now … which is a little bit like saying I have an idea about why people like ice cream. Zombies are an infinitely adaptable movie monster, and a theory that asserts that the genre is popular because it depicts the nightmare of conformity is no more or less correct than one starting people love zombie films because they offer survivalist fantasies. So as long as we can agree that zombies can be anything to anyone (depending on the selection of texts), let me make my case.
Simply put, zombies are a manifestation of our ambivalent and fraught relationship to mass culture itself.
While Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) bears only a passing resemblance to its source material, it does maintain one crucial element largely absent from the genre at large: boredom. In both versions, survivors of the zombie plague manage to barricade themselves in suburban shopping malls securely enough that they have the leisure to get bored. With all of the malls’ bounty available to them, they want for nothing, and indeed take advantage of it to indulge in Rabelaisian carnival. In both cases these interludes are bookended by crisis and terror, but are for that reason even more gratifying as depictions of unchecked consumption.
In Snyder’s version, after a gratuitous montage of the survivors at play in the mall, the boredom asserts itself as we watch them lounging on the roof, playing a game with the owner of a gun shop down the road. Too far apart for spoken communication, they trade messages via text scrawled on white boards. Having played chess in this manner, they now play a different game in which the mall survivors scan the undead horde milling about below with binoculars, seeking out celebrity lookalikes. Andy, the gun shop owner, then attempts to find the doppelganger and kill it with his rifle. After Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds have been dispatched in this manner, Ana (Sara Polley) admonishes the loathsome Steve (Ty Burrell):
ANA: You guys had really rough childhoods, didn’t you? A little bit rocky?
STEVE: Hey, sweetheart … let me tell you something. You have my permission, I ever turn into one of those things? Do me a favour. Blow my fuckin’ head off.
ANA: Oh yeah, you can count on that.
Of course, because of the immutable laws of dramatic narrative (the gun on the wall in the first act, as it were), we know that Steve will in fact turn into “one of those things,” and Ana will in fact be the one to blow his fucking head off. But there is a more serendipitous dimension to the sequence now: actor Ty Burrell, a relative unknown when he made Dawn, has since seen great success with the sitcom Modern Family, and has in fact been transformed—not into a zombie, but a celebrity.
While that observation may seem somewhat glib, the celebrity-shooting sequence is deeply suggestive in the context of zombie-saturation in pop culture. One way to read the sequence is as revenge against mass culture, a symbolic expression of the hatred and resentment of celebrity that is the flip side of our fascination with it. The rise of the internet and social media has created a culture of celebrity-shaming that the victims of tabloid rags even twenty years ago could not have imagined, an airing of the collective id that is as pernicious as it is pervasive. That one of the consistent tropes of zombie films is the necessary eschewal of contemporary connectivity and the technology that makes it possible is suggests this very hostility to it—but in a rather spectacular form of the return of the repressed, mass culture won’t stay dead, but mobs us and seeks to consume us anew.
This is why the true nightmare of zombie films is not the prospect of a lone ghoul lurking around the corner, but the critical mass of the dead surrounding and swarming the living. Dark corridors and blind corners are a necessary trope in zombie films (case in point, the third act of World War Z as discussed above), but in and of themselves a zombie or two has nothing to really distinguish them from any other movie monster lurking in the shadows ahead. Their threat, ever since George A. Romero transformed them from the golem-like automatons of voodoo legend into the flesh-eating hordes in Night of the Living Dead (1968), rests in their weight of numbers.
Which is why they share a symbolic lineage with other dystopic figurations of the masses, from Shakespeare’s Roman mobs to such philosophical warnings as found in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy or Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Granted, none of them were overly concerned with zombies per se, but all characterized the mob mentality as mindless, voracious, and dangerous. Again, it is thus not surprising that a consistent trope in the zombie genre is the common apocalyptic gesture of culling, the purging of society that leaves only a handful of survivors. Apocalyptic narratives provide the space for the spectacular individual to emerge, which is a big reason why (I would argue) so many people love to go on at length about how they would survive, what they would do, and share their plans with like-minded fantasists: everyone wants to imagine that he or she is just that person who would survive and kick some serious zombie ass in the process.
At the heart of the zombie genre is an individualist ethos, one that plays out in tension with the necessity of living within an ad hoc community of survivors—who, if they are in fact to survive, tend to need to keep to themselves. There is little to be gained in the zombie genre by actually finding one’s way to the remnants of military or civic authority—in 28 Days Later it proved disastrous; in The Walking Dead, everyone nearly died when they found safe haven at a CDC facility at the end of season one, and the most recent season pitted the ragged Grimes band against “the Governor,” whose facade of civic peace in the community of Woodbury proved to be a despot’s kindly mask; an encounter with the police in the British series Dead Set ended badly (for the police, fortunately). Wondering whether there is actually a zombie film out there in which encounters with military or political authority doesn’t end badly, I posed the question to friends on Facebook (hey, I don’t use research shortcuts for this blog), and (1) apparently, I must immediately watch Cemetery Man and Carnival of Souls; (2) the other three suggestions were Shaun of the Dead and I Am Legend—the first of which is a fair point, as the army shows up at the end to save the day (oops, spoiler); and the second of which has a more ambivalent relationship to the structures of official power, but does end with some of the survivors making it to safe haven (um, spoiler again)—and World War Z itself.
Which brings me back to the ostensible subject of this post. What set World War Z apart to start with, and what it does manage to retain to a small degree in the film, is the rejection of the overtly individualist ethos pervading the genre. The novel is all about a certain global collectivity. Tellingly, at one point Max Brooks has one of his characters allude to his book The Zombie Survival Guide as useful, but too focused on American contexts. And as he makes clear, while sacrifices are made in the name of saving civilization, the point is that civilization is saved. And perhaps more importantly, civilization is shown as being worth saving.
I will defend the film against those who say (to quote one random commenter I read just today), that the film “shits all over the source material.” Is it faithful? Of course not. How can it be? But it does a pretty good job of keeping the key themes in place. That being said, the most disturbing aspect of the film is the one I’ve already said is the best—the breaching of the Israeli perimeter. It is in this sequence that, as the title of this post suggests, I found a spectacular vindication of my zombie thesis. In the film’s opening credits, we see a montage of television clips, some from news programs and some from what look like nature shows. Again, I find an echo of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, which manages to give a glimpse of the global crisis before everything goes dark and the perspective is limited to survivors:
Present in the World War Z opening credits are images of swarming ants, which obviously become significant later in the film. (Does anyone else remember that short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants”?) The undead swarm, and become an unstoppable horde; but what is pernicious is the consonance of these scenes with other such films in which well-equipped, technologically advanced soldiers find themselves fending off the mindless masses of an undifferentiated mob. The Israel scenes in World War Z, effectively, are visually of a piece with films like Black Hawk Down, Aliens, and Zulu.
The Middle Eastern setting visually cues the (white, North American) viewer to the stereotypes of third world cityscapes, and the sequence—consciously or not—cites images of embattled first world warriors fending off (in this case literally) a rabid horde. As Raymond Williams astutely observed way back when he first published Culture and Society (1958), once people started to mass in urban spaces, “mass” very quickly became synonymous with “mob” and the best way to dehumanize people in the modern world was to associate them indelibly with the masses. In the novel, the Israeli solution is a victory for humanity; in the film, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out, the Israeli largess is repaid with what we assume is annihilation—“The scrambling West Bank zombies just keep coming,” he says, and “we are left to infer that everything probably would have still been O.K. if only the gates had been kept shut.”
The political overtones of this sequence aside, the swarming hordes of the undead comprise the other side of the mass culture coin. If Dawn of the Dead revenges itself on celebrity culture, that revenge is short-lived, as the survivors don’t actually, you know, survive (oops, spoiler). And if the horde of zombies present in Dawn, or Shaun of the Dead, or 28 Days Later, or Zombieland all represent the stultified lives of first world consumers, the swarm in World War Z is of a piece with the denizens of Mogandishu in Black Hawk Down—an undifferentiated mass of racial, geographical, and cultural others.
So if I may begin to conclude what is certainly the longest blog post I have ever written … the film adaptation of World War Z retains some key elements of the novel to the point where it does not in fact “shit all over the source text” … but it loses much of Brooks’ innovation. His novel is not quite sui generis—Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” trilogy (Feed, Deadline, and Blackout) depicts a (more or less) function post-zombie society—but it remains, as far as I have read and watched thus far, the sole zombie narrative that does not devolve into anti-establishment, absolute individualism. And while the film tries very hard, it does slip unfortunately into zombie cliché.