I wasn’t supposed to like World War Z. That book was one of my favorites from last summer, and after the disastrous production process for the film (reshoots, rewriting the ending after filming had wrapped, directors and writers leaving the project), I was sure the movie would be a fiasco that couldn’t overcome all those obstacles. Besides, I rarely like films based on books I loved.
But I liked this film.
Disclaimer: If you’re reading this, and you don’t understand our culture’s obsession with zombies, then let me try to explain as someone who both follows Jesus and is fascinated by popular culture’s portrayal of zombies. Current portrayals of zombies generally blame the outbreak (or the “zombie apocalypse”) on an incurable, fast-spreading virus. Zombie origins, however, are much more spiritual in nature: demon possession that re-animates a corpse. An argument can (and should) be made that these two ideas be separated. As a follower of Christ, I believe that good and evil are at battle on this earth, and stories of zombiis (particularly in voodoo culture) are a result of a fallen world and a rejection of Christ’s salvation. In popular culture, however, zombies have lost most of that spiritual aspect. Zombie stories, as a subgenre of dystopian literature, tend to arise in the midst of global chaos, and zombies become a way to mirror real-life societal problems. Max Brooks, in his book World War Z, definitely made this social commentary the focus of his story. Now: moving on…
[Note: spoilers to follow.]
In full disclosure, the music from the movie is from Muse’s album The 2nd Law. That album is dystopian from start to finish. I was completely overwhelmed when the movie began with the final track from Muse’s album, “The 2nd Law: Isolated System.” The song is melodic, powerful, and builds from simplicity to a flourish. The original album version of the song contains no lyrics, just voiceover discussing the law of entropy and headlines about global economic collapse. In the film, those voiceovers were replaced with news reports of the zombie outbreak. It’s perfect. I was shocked to hear Muse, first of all (how did I miss that one of my favorite bands would be featured?), and I was overcome–Muse frequently delivers an emotional gutpunch (in a good way, you know?). I was instantly riveted and emotionally involved in the story.
It’s entirely possible that just hearing Muse had me predisposed to like the movie. But let’s move beyond that because I, once again, have a lot to say.
First of all, there’s no way the movie could have followed the book. For a thorough adaptation, we would need at least a lengthy miniseries, if not a full-fledged TV show to follow all the subplots of the book, from patient 0 to the recovery efforts of the war. Instead, this film minimized the locations, the battle fronts, and the commentary for the sake of brevity. The result was a less complex vision of global catastrophe. We see a few examples of the chaos in America when the zombies overtake Philadelphia and Newark; a potential patient 0 at a military base in South Korea; the efforts in Israel to keep the plague out by constructing walls isolating the city; and a zombie outbreak on an airplane. I wish we could have seen how more of the world was affected. In the book, every culture, every band of survivors experiments with a different theory about how to defeat the zombies, and a feature-length film just cannot maintain that kind of complexity. (I think the movie Contagion tried that, and I felt that the film didn’t work as well as it should–there was quantity in showing the disease spread, but not enough quality to gain a full understanding of how it affected each society.)
One of the problems of the film is that it just couldn’t reveal all the social commentary portrayed in the book. However, the commentary is still there, just subtle and simpler.
The most obvious commentary that zombies reveal is the tension between isolation and community. Writers of zombie stories make the argument, generally, that community should win every time. Survivors should band together. Those who try to survive on their own are unable to fight off a zombie horde. This film makes that argument clear from the beginning. When Gerry (aka Brad Pitt) and his family fight their way into an apartment building in Newark, NJ, to await help, they meet a family who takes them in for the night. The next morning, Gerry is preparing his family to meet the coming helicopter, and he tries to convince the other family to come with them. Gerry rationalizes that his people (the UN) will be able to protect these civilians and that holing up in their home will result in tragedy. This immediately comes true: by the time Gerry, his wife, and kids have made it to the roof, they’re already fighting zombies, including the father of the family they had left moments before. The only survivor from the family is the young boy Thomas, who argued against his father that they should go and fight together. Surviving when his family turns so quickly seems to be Thomas’ reward for choosing community over isolation. He makes it all the way to the end of the movie.
Even the zombies know to choose community (in a loose sense of the word) over isolation. When Gerry arrives in Jerusalem, he examines the walls that have been built around the city. So far, the residents within the walls have remained safe while the zombie horde has been contained outside the walls. Gerry even marvels that the city is allowing survivors to come within the walls of the city (when so many other settlements have tried to keep people out, hoping to remain disease-free). Gerry is told that every person who comes within the walls is one less zombie to have to fight. Then, the unthinkable happens. As the people inside are celebrating their survival, the zombie horde grows more desperate, and they form massive piles to scale the walls of the city. The walls are breached, and within moments, the city is turned. One zombie alone will never cause widespread chaos; however, the evolutionary track of the zombies means they know how to work together to spread the disease to healthy hosts.
Moving beyond the commentary, this movie’s portrayal of zombies is interesting. For a PG-13 rating, the film cut back on the gore (which I sort of appreciated). These are not the slow-moving walkers from The Walking Dead, with bones protruding and skin dripping. These aren’t even necessarily the rage-filled, blood-spewing zombies from 28 Days Later. They are superfast, and their skin almost looks mummified. The big reveal is that the zombies overlook humans with terminal diseases in favor of healthy hosts. This, of course, becomes a way to survive: become terminally ill (but curable) as camouflage. It’s an interesting premise, somewhat similar to Glenn and Rick in The Walking Dead, who spread zombie guts on themselves to trick the zombies. Intelligence wins out over basic, primal instincts, right?
The ending of the film has gotten a lot of criticism, especially considering Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard were brought in after filming wrapped to re-write the ending. After the camouflage is discovered, Gerry knows his job is done; he can return to his family, who have been moved to a refugee camp in Nova Scotia. The film ends with his reunion with his wife and kids (and Thomas, who has apparently been adopted into the family) with a voiceover about how the war is far from over. This isn’t the end, he tell us; instead, battles are still raging worldwide, and no one is sure how long it will be until the world is safe again. But the film ends with hope: vaccines containing the camouflage are delivered, and they know now that there’s a way to survive. Hope over despair is usually a good ending for a post-apocalyptic story, even if the ending is a bit rushed and ambiguous.
Ultimately, I appreciated this movie. It was suspenseful in all the right places, horrifying without being gory and gross. The key, however, to liking the movie is in understanding that it is not the book, despite the identical titles. Whereas the book portrays a years-long global battle that reveals government incompetence and the dangers of isolation, the film shows a zombie outbreak that takes place over the course of a few days and focuses on small, simpler themes. If you’ve read the book, please don’t make the mistake of looking for a strict adaptation. Just appreciate the film as its own story.