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Non-Review Review: World War Z

World War Z is a lesson in compromise, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together out of necessity with the lines very clearly showing. It goes this way and then that way, never really sure where it wants to be in the next act, save that it’s a safe bet there might be zombies. World War Z isn’t as bad as it might have been, but the problem is that it feels like it’s trying so hard to find an ending that it never bothers to excel. It’s not that World War Z is bad, it’s a competently made thriller that works as well as it can with a script that spent most of production in triage. The problem is that it’s never bold enough to do anything genuinely exciting.

Pitting our best man against the zombie horde...

Pitting our best man against the zombie horde…

It’s unfair to attack Marc Foster’s film for failing to live up to its source material. Max Brooks’ World War Z remains one of the best pieces of zombie fiction ever produced, effectively a short story anthology set amid a zombie apocalypse with a global scale. Being a piece of prose, it had advantages that the big-screen zombie genre could only aspire to. Brooks wasn’t hampered by budget or  populism or by age ratings.

Most zombie films are, by their nature, niche horror films. Part of that is the subject matter. Zombies tend to eat flesh, and are portrayed as decaying forms. It’s very hard to package that for a family audience. In order for the monsters to be effective, they have to be disconcerting. There’s also the fact that most zombie films are horror films. They are produced for a relatively modest audience, and the budgets reflect that.

The zombies certainly got the drop on this crowd...

The zombies certainly got the drop on this crowd…

28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later were perhaps the largest-scale zombie films produced before World War Z. However, in focusing on one relatively small country (Britain), they seem almost intimate when compared to the globe-trotting adventures of Brad Pitt’s investigative reporter. World War Z takes us from New Jersey to South Korea to Israel and beyond. Its scale is impressive, and it helps set the film apart from most other zombie films almost immediately.

It’s very hard to do “global” on the budget of a typical zombie horror film, and so it’s no surprise that World War Z feels more like a big-budget summer disaster movie than an out-and-out horror. You don’t secure Brad Pitt and film around the world with massive visual effects if you’re making something as niche as a horror b-movie. And that means that compromises have to be made. After all, you can’t spend this much money on a film that will only appeal to a very select group.

A tough shoot for all involved...

A tough shoot for all involved…

So the film becomes fairly conventional. Max Brooks’ novel was effectively a short-story anthology, with the author posing as an investigative journalist exploring the aftermath of a massive world-wide zombie outbreak, travelling the world to invite others to share their stories. There was no real lead, as each section had its own central character and themes. There wasn’t really an over-arching story, as it was more like watching a catastrophe through a variety of viewpoints – blind men describing an elephant.

If you were to bring that sort of story to screen, it would look like Short Cuts by way of George A. Romero. I’d love that, but I can’t see it being mass-market friendly. So, with a budget to protect, the horde of writers working on World War Z put their collective brains together to make the story work as a conventional film. So our lead reporter isn’t just documenting history, he’s saving the world. He’s not some passive character serving as a sounding board for a variety of other characters, he’s Brad Pitt.

The survivors are going to need a strong constitution...

The survivors are going to need a strong constitution…

This is where the strain of compromise is obvious. Zombie movies are traditionally very nasty affairs. Everybody knows the rules: these things like to eat human flesh; people can be infected, and they turn; the only way to kill them is – to quote a classic – “by removing the head or destroying the brain.” However, that’s quite hard to get across with a PG-13 rating. Foster strains to convey the try apocalyptic horror of the flesh-eating monsters as the film restricts what he can actually show.

Of course, it’s simplistic to equate gore with horror. Just because there’s blood or violence doesn’t make anything scary. The scariest sequence in World War Z doesn’t feature any of those running and screaming zombies. It features a caged survivor of North Korea, explaining how exactly the country’s leadership had so efficiently de-fanged the zombie threat. The camera doesn’t linger on it, and it takes a second to register, but the audience soon realises that it’s been done to this gentleman as well. It’s understated and uncomfortable, and it’s the most effectively disconcerting scene in the film, all without a drop of blood or any gore.

All at sea...

All at sea…

However, the problem with World War Z is that it very clearly wants that gore and that violence. Zombies hurl themselves at machine-guns and rugby-tackle survivors. Those infected spasm and contort on the ground. However, as much as Foster might try to amp up the action, World War Z feels a little toothless. It makes like it’s going for the jugular, only to pull back at the last minute before things get too intense.

Whenever the horde strikes somebody, they are almost inevitably knocked off-screen where the unpleasantness can happen. What unpleasantness is left a bit ambiguous, as there aren’t too many half-eaten zombies walking around. Those disfigured have visible veins beneath cold grey skin, rather than torn flesh. At one point, our lead character performs a triage amputation. He’s a reporter not a medic, but – given the lack of blood loss – we’re fairly sure his patient will be okay.

Hitting a wall...

Hitting a wall…

One awkward rather than tense sequence sees our hero get a crowbar stuck in a zombie’s head as his friends approach. The reporter tries to pull it free, but it’s stuck. However, Foster has to shoot the scene so carefully – to avoid anything beyond implied gore – that it takes a moment to figure out what the hell our leading man is doing. Is his foot snagged? Is he trying to drag the body he just knocked down for some reason? It doesn’t work, and it undercuts the tension of what should be a suspense-filled moment.

There are other problems. Zombie horror films are traditionally read as social commentaries – fear of consumerism and the majority and mass market and of being consumed by groupthink. That isn’t really possible here. Even Brooks was able to make some interesting political points by exploring how various countries reacted to the threat, and there’s a sense that his remarks about how grossly unprepared America’s army was for this type of warfare were a little pointed.

Wow, there's a busload of them...

Wow, there’s a busload of them…

World War Z mostly tries to be completely apolitical and completely non-partisan. The closest we come to political commentary is the concession that maybe Israel is really good a building walls. Indeed, the plot switches keys rather suddenly in the middle. Our lead character has been looking for the source of the disease ravaging the planet. We’ve been told that the best way to find the vaccine is to look for the root cause. The opening credits connect it with SARS and avian flu.

There are a few early indications that the source is somewhere in Asian. Early outbreaks are localised in India and Korea. We’re told that these early cases of the disease took longer to manifest, implying that they were an earlier form of the virus. Just as our lead reporter seems to be making headway, the film drops it entirely. Instead of venturing into the heart of the disease and root of the plague, he winds up in Cardiff. It’s hard to think of a less politicised place on the planet.

Family's value...

Family’s value…

Watching the film, it’s hard not to get the sense that studio was nervous about the implication that zombie apocalypse might have originated in China, as it did in the source material. Trailers included the line “China is dark”, but it’s cut from the final version of the film – probably one of the edits made to help the film assure Chinese distribution. The first half of the film seems to hint towards retaining China as the origin of the virus, but then somebody tells our reporter to forget about, and inspiration strikes… and takes him to Wales.

The movie’s script went through a very troubled production cycle, and you can see that on the screen. The movie is really just a collection of set pieces appended with “… and then zombies attacked.” It’s handled relatively competently (although Foster’s fast-cutting style does not gel well with 3D), but you can feel the separate drafts of the screenplay being stitched together. Do our lead character’s family serve any purpose? Are they being positioned for some pay-off at the climax? Or are they just a dangling loose end.

Happy landings...

Happy landings…

Plot points get raised and dropped as Foster tries to smooth everything over into one fluid narrative. And he does a very good job. It’s not anywhere close to perfect, but you can imagine a version of the film that was much, much worse. There are some nice images here. A burnt out army holding pen in Korea, or “dormant” zombies strewn across barbed wire. World War Z never has as much fun with the undead as it might – Brooks’ “underwater zombies” or “frozen zombies” don’t make an appearance – but it’s a catchy visual.

I also like Foster’s version of Israel under siege, with the caged tunnels of access into the state, the security checkpoints managed professionally. It’s a beautifully eerie creation, and the film at least acknowledges the political situation in the Middle East with a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a Palestinian flag. That’s about as political as the movie dares to get, though.

Onwards and upwards...

Onwards and upwards…

It feels weird that World War Z avoids the religious or philosophical implications of the undead. “What belongs in hell stays in hell!” a snippet of radio assures us at the end, a twist on the infamous line from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Strangely, that’s the only mention the film seems to make of the religious connotations, even though we are assured by World Health Organisation specialists that these creatures are “dead” and not just suffering from rabies or something.

That said, the film throws the term “zombie” (and even “undead”) around quite a bit, as if trying to reassure the audience that they are watching a zombie film, and not just an end-of-the-world disaster movie. However, the film never reaches a satisfactory conclusion. The difficulties with the film’s third act are infamous at this stage, and that it works out at all seems like a miracle. That said, the resolution is less than convincing, and it feels like the film was more preoccupied with reaching a point where the credits could roll than it was with offering a sense of closure or a fitting conclusion.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

World War Z isn’t bad. It’s functional. It’s reasonably well put together. However, it’s also a very weird fit, a merge of two genres which couldn’t be further apart. It ends up hewing much closer to a summer blockbuster than a zombie film, and it suffers as a result. Any potential edge or risk is lost in the desire to keep the film relatively friendly. There’s a very clear sense the film-makers are trying to not to offend anyone, which ultimately means they’ll impress no one.

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12 Responses

  1. Sure to be many close ups of Pitt

  2. Woo! Cardiff! Surprised anyone in Hollywood actually knows this place exists…
    What the hell makes him go here though??
    I dreaded this film from the moment I read the book. The book could have been a good source for a docu-drama type film, interviews intercut with footage from the ‘war’, maybe, and there are some powerful undertones in the book, too. And as you very nicely pointed out, some nice political points in how the different countries dealt with it. (I think that, in the book, it points out that a load of the Brits head to Wales because of the castles. Max Brooks know his stuff.) I can’t imagine any of it translating to a summer blockbuster that well.
    But, for my own curiosity, I will have to watch it at some point. Glad I’ve read this to give me a bit of a warning.

    • Thanks!

      I felt like I was mean to Cardiff there (I like Cardiff!), but the film has him go to South Korea and Israel beforehand, so it really seems like the producers were really just looking for the least controversial location possible. (I assume he was meant to go to China originally, given the hints in that direction and the book.)

      He goes there because he needs a World Health Organisation laboratory after he gets out of Israel, and apparently it’s the closest one. Which seems a bit… weird. It also represents a very clear shift in the movie’s approach to the zombies. I suspect that – due to the troubled production history – the whole Cardiff sequence was last minute, because it really seems like there are no zombies wandering in the wild in the United Kingdom, despite the crowds we saw in Israel and South Korea. The only zombies in Cardiff appear to be those inside the lab.

      • Ha. I didn’t think you were mean to Cardiff. Considering the whole world aspect of the book and, from the sounds of it, the film too, it doesn’t seem logical. Bet they would have had a lot of willing extras acting as zombies if they wanted to (if it was actually filmed here. Which wouldn’t surprise me considering the amount they’ve filmed here recently.)

        Still, if they come in August, from the sounds of it there are going to be zombies around (something called 2.8 Hours Later. Google it – I’m currently trying very hard to find someone to do it with me!)

      • Cardiff is probably cheaper to shoot in than China now. If they took it on location.

  3. I read about the script problems this movie had, so it’s not surprising that it feels cobbled together. It looks like a servicable summer blockbuster flick, but nothing terribly memorable.

  4. “Of course, it’s simplistic to equate gore with horror. Just because there’s blood or violence doesn’t make anything scary. The scariest sequence in World War Z doesn’t feature any of those running and screaming zombies. It features a caged survivor of North Korea, explaining how exactly the country’s leadership had so efficiently de-fanged the zombie threat. The camera doesn’t linger on it, and it takes a second to register, but the audience soon realises that it’s been done to this gentleman as well. It’s understated and uncomfortable, and it’s the most effectively disconcerting scene in the film, all without a drop of blood or any gore.”

    I’ve never read the entire book but have heard enough about it and flipped through it at the local bookstore and by understanding was one of the big mysteries in it was what happened to North Korea. Does the movie actually explain that and if so what? (I don’t care about spoilers, don’t even know if I’ll see this yet).

    • I recommend reading the entire book.

      The film’s approach to North Korea is different from that in the book.

      HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

      In the book, if I remember correctly, North Korea effectively barricades itself underground and waits it out. (Or they’re all dead. The book leaves the possibility open, as North Korea cuts itself off from the outside world and nobody wants to go poking around.) It’s one of the recurring suggestions in Brooks’ book that the… shall we say, less democratic countries handle this zombie invasion better than the Western liberal democracies. (South Africa uses apartheid plans, for example, and Israel is good at building walls.)

      However, in the film, it’s revealed that the State simply organised to have everybody in the country get their teeth removed to limit the spread. It’s an eerie idea – maybe not one that holds up too well when you consider that blood and other bodily fluids are infectious and that it’s possible to break skin with nails and stuff, but it works in the context of a scene. However, there’s a nice bit where, after David Morse has explained that, you notice that he has no teeth. The film doesn’t make a big deal of it. He doesn’t give a big gummy smile and it’s not a reveal. He’s just talking and you can seen he’s had his teeth removed. I thought that little detail was the most unsettling part of the entire film.

      • Yes, that is what I remembered reading – that they barricaded themselves underground and one of the big mysteries of the book was exactly what happened to them (did they all starve to death? Are they all zombified? Are they fine, but being kept imprisoned forever because their government finds it convenient?) I was wondering if the film solved the mystery. The “take out their teeth” solution is… innovative, to say the least.

  5. I’m getting ready for it. Glug glug.

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