World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is one of my favourite books ever. I have read it three times and it scared the crap out of me. Good job, World War Z. Unfortunately, Hollywood got its hands on it and stripped it of everything that made it unique and terrifying and profoundly human, because why have any of those things, when you can give Brad Pitt a gun and a vague UN job and throw him up against a big writhing pile of CGI zombies? Don’t worry though, we’re supposed to give a shit about his character because he has a Generic Family with two adorable little girls and he says things like “It’s going to be okay, honey!” and “Tell them I’m coming back!” a lot.
I am not exaggerating:
so the topic of why fast zombies are stupid – both in terms of plausibility and symbolic efficacy – has been well covered. No one puts it better than Simon Pegg:
I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can’t fly; zombies do not run. […]The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I’ll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It’s hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.
More significantly, the fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety.[…] [T]he zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.
However (and herein lies the sublime artfulness of the slow zombie), their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you’re careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them – much as we strive to outstrip death. Drink less, cut out red meat, exercise, practice safe sex; these are our shotguns, our cricket bats, our farmhouses, our shopping malls. However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares – the drunk driver, the cancer sleeping in the double helix, the legless ghoul dragging itself through the darkness towards our ankles.
Don’t get me wrong, the idea of crazy rabid people who want to tear you apart and eat you is pretty horrifying, especially when the infection seems to disproportionately effect world-class sprinters. BUT, as Red Lemonade points out, they are not zombies. This is not what zombie means. I’m not saying fast zombies don’t work and should never exist. I believe they have their place in the monster canon. But the slow zombie – the inevitable shuffling mass of death – that zombie is KEY to World War Z.
According to visual effects supervisor John Nelson, the reasoning behind having zombies who look like super-speedy heroin addicts is to make them more predatory because “everyone has seen everything in this genre.” Yes. Yes they have. Including fast zombies. If originality was really a concern here, a good place to start would be NOT making YET ANOTHER MOVIE about Kickass Government Operative Guy Saving The World. The book is not compelling because it has super-special original zombies. It is compelling because it is structured as an oral history that takes on the concept of zombies on an unprecedented scale.
1. It’s About Brad Pitt:
The whole entire POINT of the book is that it takes on a giant issue that most disaster movies avoid like the plague; it tackles the GLOBAL scale. It answers the question we have all asked while we’re watching Attractive Male Actor weep over his girlfriend and come to terms with the fact that only he can avert disaster: what is going in the rest of the world? How is this affecting China? Albania? Tanzania? New Zealand? Where are the normal people? What are they doing? What would I be doing? Would I be prepared? Where would my family be?
World War Z takes on those questions and succeeds magnificently. Max Brooks does an incredible job of providing contrast between the vast scale of zombie outbreak through the eyes of top-level government employees and the awful on-the-ground reality faced by the average civilian.
I am aware that movies are different from books. I am aware that the scope of Brooks’ novel could never possibly be encompassed in two hours of screen time. I am okay with that. However, boiling the entirety of World War Z down to the story of one (straight, white, American) guy is throwing out all of the babies with the bath water.
Would it have been completely impossible to have some of that interweaving plot stuff that people love so much?. How about six independent protagonists who all touch each other’s lives in a brief but significant way? Four? Three? We’ve all see Love Actually, we know it can be done!
IMDB tells us that Brad Pitt will be “racing against time and fate, as hetravels the world trying to stop the outbreak of a deadly Zombie pandemic.”
So you know, they are covering global aspect of it, I guess. But my Token Brown People Sense is tingling. I think there is going to be a lot of White American Saviour swooping in to rescue the exotic indigenous peoples. Because they don’t have helicopters and aircraft carriers in their underdeveloped countries so they couldn’t possibly be expected to help themselves! The book gives voice to a wide array of diverse characters and most races and demographics are well-represented… and yet, I have to wonder if it occurred to anyone at any point during the development process that the protagonist could be someone other than a white man.
2. Zombie Explosion!
In the book, the zombie outbreak happens exactly how you would expect something like this to play out on a global scale. There are some seemingly isolated incidents. There are rumours. There are further incidents. Governments begin to take notice. Some take drastic measures. Others are in denial. The disease begins to spread. Panic sets in, but normal people are slow to abandon the comfortable routine of their everyday lives. Some pack up and try to escape, soon realisie that there is nowhere to run. Some stick to their homes. Borders close, communication fails, systems start to break down, chaos ensues.
The zombies in World War Z do not just suddenly explode onto a crowded city street at rush hour with everyone going “OMG WHAT’S HAPPENING SO SCARY!? ZOMBIES, YOU SAY!? I AM SO SURPRISED AND ALSO BLINDLY TERRIFIED!!!”
The panic of World War Z is not a car crash or a plunge to your death. It’s the news that a loved one has a terminal illness. It’s watching your house burn down as you come to terms with the fact that your pajamas have just become your only worldly possession. It’s the dawning realisation that everything is changed forever and you can’t go back. A deep pit of dread in the depths of your stomach. The long aching shock of a new reality.
But why waste screen time establishing ANY of that, when we can have…
3. Guns! Guns! Explosions! MOAR EXPLOSIONS!
This trailer looks and feels exactly like every other big-scale disaster movie. It’s grey and gritty and bleak and it has aircrafts and tall buildings and things falling over and everyone shooting at everything while the things fall over.
This treatment would imply that that the book is somehow lacking in action. This is not the case. The huge scale means there is plenty of room for the epic battle scenes and explosions. But it also deals with the mundane. It deals with the fact that a lot people just starved to death because they had no idea how to take care of themselves in the wilderness. It deals with a high-powered executive who is suddenly on the bottom of the food chain because she has no practical skills. It deals with an internet-addicted Japanese teenager who spends days trying to climb out of his apartment complex. It is this juxtaposition that make the book great.
Of course, there is a chance that the trailer is deliberately leaving out all of that stuff. Maybe after the first twenty minutes, we meet an ensemble cast of well-rounded characters representing a global sample of nationalities. Maybe there will be gut-wrenchingly human moments as we watch the ordinary folk struggle to keep themselves and their loved ones alive. I don’t know why anyone would make a trailer that willfully misrepresents the movie, but I sincerely hope that is what is happening here.
Hollywood has, in recent years, demonstrated a total lack of faith in the intelligence and attention span of its audience. See: every single non-English language movie that has ever been remade shot-for-shot within a year because Americans couldn’t possibly be expected to sit through something with subtitles. That’s like READING, dude. No one goes to the cinema to READ.
This trailer demonstrates that Hollywood not only has no faith in its audience, but has no faith in the strength of the book it decided to adapt in the first place. World War Z spent four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The six hundred thousand people who bought it were not thinking, ”Hmm, this is good, but I’m getting kind of sick of this whole multiple point-of-views thing, I wish it was just focused on one key player and his experience of the crisis!”
I will probably go see this movie. But it will not be World War Z. It will not be diverse accounts of a plague that ripped the world apart. It will probably be a tolerably good action/disaster/apocalypse film where Meteor or Alien Invasion has been replaced with Zombies, with the World War Z title slapped on it to create more buzz.
This post originally ran on my old blog, deathofnewgods.tumblr.com, and has been backdated to reflect this.